Celebrating Life in Paradise

I left Taganga. Eventually when we had locals escort us to the police to tell them about being robbed, they said they had no way of knowing if it actually happened. Uh huh. So that’s how it is.

I moved on 6 hours via bus up the coast to the colorful Cartagena that looks like it inspired many a fairytale with its charming facades and flowering trees framing the thresholds of shops and guesthouses. It is an old, colonial city on the sea and it still has its stone wall wrapped around it that now serves less for defense and more for history and holding its gem of a town the way a child holds the glow of a lightening bug in her hands at dusk. It could be a quite inspiring place to write if the words hadn’t been scared so far out of me when my life was threatened in Taganga. I ached for my camera like a missing limb.

IMG_0755 IMG_0969 IMG_0977

I was physically safe and knew I’d be able to get through the emotional trauma after my highly sensitive self had time to process it. I was walking around feeling bitter that this awful thing had happened to us and begrudging the happy people smiling and laughing and loving on Colombia in the streets. Didn’t they know what I had just been through? I know this is unrealistic. I was just in a bad place.

I had a ticket home to the USA in a month’s time and decided that I wanted to be even more remote until then.

It was time to celebrate life. One way to do that…go to tropical island you’ve never heard of, breathe in the salty air, bury your feet in the perfect white sand, play in the turquoise waters, chill out with the sunsets and have a birthday.

I hopped a plane to San Andres, which technically is still Colombia, but closer to Nicaragua with a distinct Caribbean feel. I cannot even tell you what language they speak…some sort of mix mon, of Spanish, English, and Creole, ya mon, ya ya yaaaaaa, sometimes even in the same sentence. (My written accent is clearly as bad as my spoken accent mimicry.)

IMG_0753 P1000175

But I wanted to be even more remote and there was another island nearby.

I tell you who is most likely not celebrating life…the poor guy on the catamaran that goes to Isla Providencia, whose job it is to collect puke bags and mop up after seasick passengers for the 3 hour passage. It felt more like an extended mechanical bull ride than a fluid journey over water. Insert headphones, blast music, stare at horizon and try not to count the minutes.

You have to earn this trip to paradise. I was one of the few survivors.

This was one of the more untouched places I have been…and by that I mean no gringo/expat businesses. This made for some interesting interactions. When disembarking, there were two guys writing details from your passport by hand, getting half of the information wrong. I can’t imagine where they are storing the paperwork. Need a ride? Just flag down a passing truck or hop on back of a moto.

Complete contradictions were often given during a single conversation…all with the intention of being agreeable and the path to least resistance. There’s probably a mathematical equation to compare the relationship of the heat of the sun to the laziness of the people, but math isn’t exactly the strong suit here…while sitting in a plastic chair in the sun is much more so.

A group of us from the hostel took a boat ride around the island doing a snorkel version of a drift dive and stopping at an archipelago national park. We headed to the national park early to avoid paying fees, we were told. It wasn’t early enough and we were told it would be an additional 12,000 pesos each. We calmly communicated that we didn’t have money as we had not been told about the fee when negotiating the price of the trip. Some more conversation occurred as we waited and time ticked away. Finally I was told we could pay 12,000 total. Perfect. Someone pulled out a 10,000 peso bill and I presented this to them, emphasizing this was all we had. I was told to wait while they got me 2,000 pesos in change. I love math in the Caribbean!

The snorkeling was wonderful and worth the 12,000…er, 8,000 pesos. I saw a sting ray seconds after diving into the water, then a turtle and a beautiful shark. Then I saw the most interesting fish I’ve ever seen diving. It looked like a thin flag fluttering in the wind, but in slow motion and more fluid as its edges rippled with the water. It had tentacles coming out the back that I didn’t notice until it gave a little flutter kick. Cool!! I thought it was a squid, but was later told it was a cuttlefish. I was mesmerized and followed it along and as it moved from the white sand to swim over some seaweed it changed colors before my eyes. Seriously cool, I shrieked through my snorkel and snorted a bit of salt water. Then I realized I had been following the baby and there was a whole school of them. I could’ve stayed for hours.

PENT2518 PENT2514 P1000228

Luckily I didn’t though because there was a party to be had and Roland was having it. Roland is a strung out, rasta man hippy, who, when not hungover, is very enthusiastic about driving his truck around the island and bringing people to his place. His place, creatively named Roland’s Beach Bar, is everything you want a Caribbean beach bar to be. It’s right on the water, with a rope swing into the sea if you care to take a late night dip. There are some hammocks, in fact the bar tender chills in one when not serving you. Thatched roof huts cover tables, other tables are built in beached, wooden sail boats, the perfect chilled out sound track plays, the gorgeous Colombian women who can move their bodies in ways that I can’t even do in my dreams and a fire pit crackles away in the center of it all.

P1000323

Paradise turned out to be quite the dose of dreamy. It was wonderful and yet made it quite cruel to board a flight back to the United States, parting ways with my dear friend who was a part of the better portion of my experiences and head home…well, to one of my homes. That word has become quite confusing. And that is how I felt…drained and confused.

P1000308 P1000271 P1000259

It’s a Great Day to be Alive

I like to explore a town by running through the streets and checking out places that way, but as much as I’ve described my writer’s haven as an ideal respite, not all was paradise in paradise. Taganga itself wasn’t the loveliest place I’ve been outside of my sweet writing villa.

It’s quite hilly and the “streets” are bumpy dirt roads, but not in a charming, untouched way…rather in a the-street-is-our-garbage-can sort of way. They also run out of water frequently. Stare at the ocean as long as you like while contemplating that one, the town is just out of water. The majority of our experiences were such that people seemed very eager to take our money and very irritated when they had to do something in order to make that happen. (That is not meant to be a stereotype, but was my true experience). There’s a strip with some restaurants and shops and you can walk along a trail over the ridge to get to another bay with another little beach. That’s about it.

There’s a trail you shouldn’t walk however, and I found that out the hard way…

You could see from town that it went up to the ridge at the top of the mountains overlooking the bay. A friend and I picked our way through the small town to take a break from writing and go for an afternoon hike. It was pretty rocky and steep, not necessarily beautiful, but a challenge. Some locals must have been more used to it then we were because they practically sprinted past us. I moved to the side to let them go and they stopped around us waiting for their chubby friend to bring up the rear, asking us where we were going. “Up to the top!” we said honestly and innocently.

I then felt a jerk from behind as my friend yanked me backwards in response to the guy to my right stepping towards me. Startled, I looked up to see that knives had been drawn. I took my camera strap from around my neck and gently handed it over, submitting to what was out of my control before it would be handled with force.

My friend was calmly talking to them while taking off his backpack. They weren’t too pleased with making conversation and hit him at the base of his neck. They yanked his shoes off, nearly knocking him to the ground before they forced him to the ground at knifepoint anyway. I took my shoes off and was told to get on the ground next to him. We lay there as they went through our stuff.

“Where are your cell phones?”

“Where is the rest of your money?”

“Don’t talk or we’ll kill you.”

“Don’t open your eyes or we’ll kill you.”

“Don’t go to the police or we’ll kill you.”

“Lay here for 15 minutes after we leave or we’ll kill you.”

I almost wish I hadn’t understood Spanish at that point.

We did as we were told, not wishing to call their bluff. I checked out and tried to visualize being back in a safe place as I felt hands at the back of my neck taking off my necklace and then digging in my pockets. (My necklace had the “Om” symbol on it. I can’t imagine it’s the best karma to steal that.) I trusted that all they wanted was our stuff and if we cooperated, we’d be safe.

This did turn out to be the case. My biggest fear was that they would hurt us, that they would take advantage of me or that my friend would get hurt or killed trying to protect me. After helping themselves to our cameras, shoes, cash, my watch and necklace, they took off and every breath after that felt like a gift.

After 15 or 20 minutes we started our descent down the rocky, thorny path in our socks. We saw another man approaching. I was terrified it was one of them coming back for us. As we came closer, we saw it was an older man with a machete. What could we do? We had nothing.

He said through his rotting teeth, “You shouldn’t be up here. It is dangerous.” “Um yeah, look at us. That would’ve been excellent information 45 minutes ago.”

So there are no pictures to go with this blog. That luxury was robbed from me, along with a sense of peace and happiness. Likely and sadly, I will be able to replace my camera before they will change their ways and earn money in honest ways.

It’s been a long process of fear and anger and discernment and forgiveness since then. I will not stereotype an entire country as unsafe. I would even like to return to Colombia some day.

As for the walk itself…in beautiful hindsight it still isn’t 100% clear if we should have taken it or not. Especially as a woman traveling alone, I take extra precaution to keep myself safe, although sometimes it really pisses me off when I want to do something and feel I can’t because of this. My best experiences have come from taking risks and understanding when the advice giver (Don’t go there! Don’t do that!) is being paranoid or if there is a genuine danger…often the former.

It is unfortunate this happened and it did change my course. I am still responding to what showed up that day. My hope is that some day, the sooner the better, the guys who did this will realize that it was wrong and seek to make their lives right. It is so sad to me that people feel so desperate and are so misguided and unsupported in their lives that they resort to violence and a lack of respect for human life. I am grateful for the life I was born into, my family, my morals, my circumstances and I hope to do a whole lot of good with the blessings in that.

I’m grateful that I was not alone in this particular experience and it did bring my friend and I closer together. It really does give you laser focus as to who and what you care about in life.

***Many thanks to those of you who have been following me with this journey. I’ll speed up the posts a bit to get caught up to present time. This event took place at the very end of May. It did change some things for me, but all is good.

If you like what you are reading here, please consider backing my kickstarter.com called: Let’s Go on an Adventure! and please share too. The campaign is focused on writing and publishing a book about my transformative adventure from Corporate America to a life designed around passions and also includes an interactive guidebook to help those wishing to make their own personal changes.

I have 3 days left in my campaign, all or nothing!

You can read more about my story at erinkmac.com and continue to receive this blogs by clicking the ‘follow’ button.

Thank so very much for coming along on this adventure.***

Little Fatty and a Homemade Grill

A perfect little Colombian outing, I took a break from writing to meander down into town for some lunch, no plan, just looking for something simple to take care of my late afternoon hunger. I stop at a restaurant on the side of a dirt road that was offering, of course, a menu casero o menu del dia. This is so typical in Colombia and many countries in South America…you can order from the menu or you can just have “The menu”, which is a basic fixed price meal that often includes a sugary drink, a first course of soup (or perhaps ceviche if you’re in Peru), and a main course of your choice of meat, chicken, or fish accompanied by a side of rice, papas fritas, and maybe a few forkfuls of salad: iceberg lettuce, a tomato slice, maybe onion or carrots. A simple tradition and full stomach for about $4-5.

IMG_0615

So I’m sitting there at a wooden table in front, shoeing some flies away, sweating in the intense sun. Not far away there’s a local man with his t-shirt rolled up and resting on his belly like a shelf, airing out in the sweltering heat, as is so common and yet so unattractive. It’s not quite evening, but he’s already sipping on aguardiente, the cheapest way to get drunk here. It is tastes like anis, is so potent that it almost seems to vaporize in your mouth before you swallow and is often shared around in tiny plastic shot glasses that resemble the cups used for cough syrup.

A rather large woman sits at a table nearby using her teeth to tear chicken from a bone that she’s picked out of her soup. She comments to my friend after trying 3 or 4 times to get his attention…

Continue reading Little Fatty and a Homemade Grill

Write Till You’re Wrong

When I followed him up the stairs and onto the terrace, I knew I had I found the perfect Caribbean writer’s haven before he even opened the door. It was up a hill with a balcony overlooking a tiny bay with mountains that held the blue sea in a sweet little embrace. It was dry season, so the hills were a rusty, brambly tangle of bare branches and tall cacti…not the tropical green I was expecting. From my vantage point, the tree tops hid the shabby town below and hosted big iguanas that would sometimes climb to the top branches. The place was small, open air with a beautiful view, and it was my retreat. It was so wonderfully situated that the sun set over the sea even when I imagined we were facing east. Magic! This is where I would write my book, in Taganga, Colombia.

IMG_2914

IMG_0590

IMG_0614 

Continue reading Write Till You’re Wrong

Holy Mangos!

I had the brilliant idea of waiting until Good Friday to do the pilgrimage up to the little church on top of Montserrate, the backdrop mountain of Bogotá. And it was a brilliant idea if you like to participate in what the entire city is doing at once. It was holy week and people were eager to be holy. If they weren’t there, they were spilling out of the churches into the plazas or visiting the salt cathedral, which is 180m underneath the ground. I still feel holy from having been in Bogotá for holy week. I even scheduled my bus just on time to catch a procession going past my hostel with drums and incense, men and children in dark purple, silk robes, carrying huge statues of the stations of the cross. I watched them walk past by candlelight, saying prayers, and made it to the station just on time for a trip to the coast.

IMG_2846  IMG_2756  IMG_2886IMG_2850

IMG_2795

I was headed for Palomino, a beach town on the Caribbean Sea near Venezuela that was written up in the book as a chilled out, long, dreamy stretch of beach with a strong current that backs up to the jungle. The current actually ended up being just the right strength for me to swim against, perfect for a daily workout if I didn’t mind the occasional salty wave in the face. “Town” was one street with casual, local restaurants, fruit shacks, and pool halls lining each side and a sandy road that leads you to the beach in fifteen minutes.

IMG_5358

IMG_5455

Continue reading Holy Mangos!

2013 Last Hurrah – Uruguay

What a lucky girl I am to have two friends come down the the southern hemisphere for a visit. My dear friend Melissa came over Thanksgiving and met me in Mendoza. More than once we ran into friends in a plaza or restaurant and it elevated that feeling of Mendoza being my home right now, which felt pretty darn good. Icing on the cake…I finally had someone to go take a tango lesson with me! We ventured on the Buenos Aires subte to a very bohemian Moulin Rouge-ish venue and giggled our way through some suave moves. …now accepting Spanish teacher/tango teacher applications, por favor!

IMG_8047

IMG_8448

Fast forward 10 days and I was off to Uruguay by ferry to meet up with another good friend, Michael, who I had met while we were both in South Africa for the World Cup. We headed straight for Punto del Diablo, a chilled out beach town close to Brazil. A rainy day meant we were able to catch up while taste testing some Uruguayan wine. I wish I could tell you the tasting notes unique to Argentina reds vs. Uruguay, but perhaps a wine class is in order for 2014 when I return to Mendoza.

The real highlight though came from a note I had scribbled in my little moleskin notebook, my favorite accessory a la Hemingway. Much earlier in the year I had been told to visit Cabo Polonia for a ‘hippie village meets remote beach’ experience. My philosophy with travel is to write down all suggestions and advice just in case, but to get a feel for whether the ‘Recommender’ has a taste for similar adventure and vibe that me, ‘Recommendee’ has. I also run recommendations by others I trust and do a bit of my own research. I’ve had people tell me hot springs were terrible to then go there and have the most glorious day basking in therapeutic mineral waters held by a gorgeous canyon, aka, heaven. And then I’ve had people tell me to turn right at the dirt road just before the entrance to the national park, go over the hanging bridge, and you’ll find a great swimming spot where you can picnic and hang out with locals. This recommendation was of the latter sort…such a gem.

IMG_8599IMG_8666

Cabo Polonia is a national park with the unique twist of a ride over sand dunes and down the beach in a massive 4×4 to get to the desired destination. We were on the upper deck which gave us a panoramic view for miles and a mechanical bull-esque experience to boot. Read: it was as bumpy as picturesque. From there we hiked down the beach to the casita where we would be staying. There are no cars or roads and minimal electricity, the simplicity of it all really lending to an experience of raw beauty. We spent a day hiking out to the lighthouse and entertained ourselves with imagining the dialogue that was going on amongst the hundreds of seals on the rocks below. We spent another day hiking out to a point along the beach, climbing up sand dunes and running and skipping down them like little kids.

IMG_8807IMG_8867

We had a beautiful, almost full moon lighting our walk to dinner each night. Sadly the brightness meant that we missed out on noctilucas, the bioluminescence that turns the water into a green, sparkling work of art with a new moon. I never mind an excuse to return to a place though, and now I have one. We had other wildlife visitors to entertain us. While walking along the beach to dinner, we saw shadows in the distance along the water. As we got closer it became clear that it was a herd of cows out for a moonlight stroll. We ran into them again the next day further up the beach. We also stumbled onto a little penguin, traveling solo who had just cruised up onto the beach and was looking around curious, if not a little confused. As were we; a penguin on a beach in Uruguay?

IMG_8723IMG_8748

My Uruguay adventure ended in La Paloma, meeting up with another friend I had met in Mendoza. We were lucky to see sunsets from this western coast, but even luckier to have a fire on the beach under the stars with a side of wine. I’ve always wanted to have a fire on the beach. It felt like the perfect end to a year of new beginnings and adventures. So dreamy!

IMG_88881467444_593230514064488_808787280_n

A Month in Paradise

Early May found me flying to Honduras to meet my family for my Mom’s 60th Birthday. I had a layover in Houston where I was able to meet up with an old friend from grade school for dinner and some luck and coincidence meant that Meghan, David, and Bodhi had a layover there too. All of the English and US culture in the 18 hours of that layover were quite jarring, but to be with my family compensates in the millions.

Image

I do not mean to sound like a spoiled brat when I say this, given my year of adventure, but this felt like vacation. The smell of the salt water, the copious amount of sweating, bright sun, palm trees and that quintessential tiny, laid back beach town feel. It was so exciting for us all to meet here to celebrate my Mom. We had an amazing week of exploring the life of the town and spent almost as much time exploring life underwater too. We put together a series of events we called the Jo-lympics for my Mom, which had us making bizarre cocktails with local ingredients, patiently battling over laser joust, laughing our way through charades, and running through the town on a scavenger hunt searching for local artists, turtles, horses, and someone willing to hug a palm tree with us…among other things. We ate fresh seafood, went diving, and spent a ton of time snorkeling in the bay 60 seconds from our front door. Even Bodhi (3 years old!!!) snorkeled for the first time and loved it. Ask him; he’ll tell you all about the angler fish and barracudas. I love him to pieces!! I am forever grateful for the health, adventure, and love I share with my family…it’s out of this world.

Image

Image

Image

It was a bit of a trek for me to get up there and I decided to take advantage of that by waiting out some of the Argentinian winter in Roatan. I moved down the street to a little shared, wooden cabin a bit off the street in the jungle. It was like my own private jungle safari. I had a wooden deck with a table and chairs and a couple of hammocks. In the morning I’d listen to the roosters crowing and watch them waddle around with their little chicks; hummingbirds would be all a-flutter around the purple flowers in my “front yard”. I could hear the occasional cashew fruit or mango fall from the neighboring tree. Things became super interesting at night…typical nocturnal activities: there were lizards galore scurrying around. I saw a huge, long, thin, black and white striped beetle of sorts strut slowly across the wall, teasing the lizards. They didn’t take the bait, but BAM out jumps a frog from the shadows and snatches it, ninja style. It promptly spits it back out, but now I’m distracted because the thing can fly and a swooping bat comes out of no where as the next attempted predator.

I also loved all the crabs scooting around, looking like grumpy old men or gangstas. There were some resident parrots at the place I was staying, and without fail I’d walk down the stone steps every day and hear “Hello!” or “Hola!” and in the middle of responding, realize that I was talking to a bird. I only saw one snake and it was in a tree teasing a cat below. The rest of the wildlife I found underwater…

…I had decided that I’d invest the time to get my advanced diving certificate. Not a huge deal…some studying and five dives including:

  • a “deep dive”, must be over 90 ft I believe, for me this was a wreck dive too!
  • a drift dive, “go with the flow” of the current
  • a night dive, saw an octopus and conquered a fear (water at night), YES!!
  • a navigation dive, where’s your true north?
  • and a peak buoyancy dive, like meditation – breath and awareness

Basically finishing this allows you to go to the recreational dive limit of 120 feet of depth and probably some other things that I highlighted in my course book, but most of all for me it meant more experience with different types of dives and a “certificate” (one of my goals of the year was to get certified or take courses in things I am interested in when and where it feels right).

Image

Image

Image

There were many challenges of staying in Roatan…my cockroach roommates, the extreme heat, the sandflies and mosquitos that had no fear or respect of deet whatsoever, a terrible sinus infection that kept me from diving for 10 days, the fact that I can’t drink beer!! (tropical weather = hot wine = ew!). I was in a pretty small town, which is nice because everyone knows you and bad because everyone knows you. Though, it does make it easy to meet people and it felt great to have friends and a more steady social life than I’ve had while traveling. I really loved the dive culture…loved my dive shop (shout out to Reef Gliders!!) and met a lot of cool people there. My friends Ken and Emily are both there doing their Dive Masters training. We would all chill out and get excited about diving over a coffee or cocktail at the attached café tucked away from the street. It is neat for me to see people so passionate about something that it consumes them and then to hear stories about that very thing.

Ken the Kiwi and I had a lot of adventures together. We did some evening swims out to the play boat (this boat that a guy turned into a massive rope swing that sits in the bay for anyone to enjoy). One night in particular we watched a gorgeous lightening storm moving in, nature’s fireworks. In the dark water below the boat we could see the green flashes of bio-luminescents. It was magic! We watched another lightening storm approach while eating fresh mahi mahi caught that day and talking with a community elder who’s been barefoot for more years than I’ve been alive. On one of my last days, Ken bought a motor bike and we took it for a trip around the island. It started with a search for the required helmets…tough task for a Sunday. Eventually we had two locals driving around, guiding us to a super market that was armed with a guy and his shot gun. I love when things like that happen in places like this, it becomes a community project to find the two gringos some helmets. We stumbled upon local soccer games and cuisine, cows, horses and friendly locals all day while bouncing around the dirt roads on this motor bike.

I fell in love with diving on this trip. I love the world that opens up for you under water. It reminds me of going to see a concert of a favorite band…all of this build up and excitement, what will they play?! What surprises will there be?! Either way, I’ll be dancing!! There are beautiful fish darting everywhere, all shapes and sizes and colors. Some more common than others yes, but there’s always a special moment or two or ten on a dive…I saw an octopus on my night dive that was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. It changed colors and kind of oozed its way around, sometimes pretending to be coral and other times splaying out its tentacles and gracefully tickling the sand as it landed. We saw many turtles, but one in particular we came upon while it was eating and it was just massive and peaceful. We saw a giant, moray eel swim out of its cave and beside a giant grouper, hunting together. We saw grouper bigger than me, many of the fierce barracuda, schools of HUNDREDS of colorful fish, too many of the dangerous lion fish, sting rays, turtles of all sizes, tiny blue shrimp that will give you a manicure, drum fish (my favorite) and a crab the size of a pea. We swam along walls, over coral, to 120 feet of depth, around a ship wreck and through many cave-like swim throughs. It’s so cool to be able to witness this sort of thing; to be able to breathe underwater, feel the waves move you, to watch all of the life and coral and the sun dancing around.

Image

At one point I did feel a bit lost with what to do with my time in Honduras. This felt strange to have this feeling while in such a paradise. I realized that my goals for my time abroad were, foremost, to live in Argentina, learn Spanish, and to write a book among many other things. I also realized that I like to explore a place for a specific purpose. For Honduras, that was diving. While I’d LOVE to dive more, I was able to do a fair amount and my current focus and purpose is Spanish and the art of living, in Argentina. There is a surprising amount of English spoken on Roatan, or maybe this was just a noticeable difference from Argentina and I’ve felt like I’m on vacation. I did incorporate yoga, spanish lessons, cooking, and writing into my island routine, but eventually I felt called to go “home”. I had made some friends who I was able to explore the island with and that was hard to leave. I’m so grateful for the “vacation” and I would love to return some day. In fact, right now it feels like I am just away for a short while. But I have indeed returned to Argentina, and it feels good. I am ready for some local experiences here and bring on the Spanish, che! Image

Image

Image