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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.***

Goooooooooooooooooooooooooal

World Cup fever was high in Colombia, with a notable commitment to sporting the yellow jersey…nearly everyone, every day. They even had jerseys specifically made for pregnant women, which there seemed to be a lot of. <Related tangent, they also make mannequins with bigger butts to accommodate for the extra ‘sexy’ gene the women seem to have received in Colombia.>

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Everyone who knows me well knows I have a World Cup “thing”. Celebrating my 30th birthday at the World Cup in South Africa eventually led to the dream I am pursuing/living right now. The party was amazing yes, but the overall experience of planning something for so long and making it happen, the singing and dancing and celebration, the people we met who will forever be in our lives…well, it changed my world. It was after the larger-than-life displays of passion that I knew I needed to go find my passions and I knew I could. (the infamous picture of us on tv below (terrible!) I can’t help but include it. I still love hearing the stories of people seeing us! Shout out to my incredible, passionate partners-in-crime: Katie and Jonathan!!)

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Here I was four years later, with the World Cup in none other than BRAZIL!!!, my next door neighbor, promising to be epic in all its fútbol madness glory…and I had tickets. Of course I had tickets. I swore I’d never miss a World Cup again. It was also a milestone marker for me, which I was reminded of when I received many a message asking me 1. if I was in Brazil and 2. did that mean I’d be coming home from South America afterwards. That had been the original plan.

Well, the original plan had changed and I guess I didn’t even realize it. How do you know when things are not working because what you’re pursuing is not right for you versus because you need to keep trying if you really want it? I could easily write a chapter if not a book on this, but I’ll try to keep my rationale short.

My wise friend Christen posed a question to me… “what if there were no wrong decisions?” Another wise friend Henrik tells me that “if you really really want to do something, you can almost always find a way to do it.” I agree completely and I did want to go to the World Cup in Brazil. The truth is that I could have gone and also that it wouldn’t have been a wrong decision. It was when I looked at the things that were making it difficult to go and what was making it feel like it might not be the best thing for me that I realized I had been making decisions towards a different, higher priority.

I had a goal to finish my book and create a life around my passions. I had a choice. Just as when I wrote a check for a loss when I sold my house, once again I was telling myself that the most important thing is this journey of self-discovery and transformation. If the World Cup was truly the most important goal, I would have made more decisions towards that than towards my life goal. Not to be dramatic, but how we spend our time, money and energy is an indication of our needs and our dreams. And in the spirit of that, “we are always doing exactly what we want to be doing, as part of a greater whole”…coming from another wise friend, Jose. At least we have choices to make, albeit not always easy ones.

The difficult outcome was that I would be watching the World Cup from afar, although I did get to take in the champions league final with some local Colombians as a fun consolation prize. The good news is that I know my current journey is the right one and so that is the journey that will work out if I put everything into it…thank you very much ‘law of attraction’. And really how fortunate am I that my choices are either going to Brazil for the World Cup or living in the Caribbean to write my book. “Gooooooooooooooooooooooooooooool!”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Continue reading Holy Mangos!

Passion for Passion Fruit

When I left Argentina, I had a gut feeling that I would be back soon. I still had quite a bit of pesos that would be useless to me once I left and I hung onto them anyway specifically because of this feeling. I spent the night at the Lima airport leaving a sign leaning up against me saying something to the effect of, “My flight leaves at 8:00am. If you see me still asleep here at 7:00am, please wake me up. Many thanks.” When the flight landed in Bogotá people cheered and they turned on some loud bumping salsa music to escort us off the plane. I traded my neck cramps for a smile.

My plan was to stay in Bogotá for a week and then head straight to the coast to find a writing haven, lest I be tempted to start exploring the entire country. Bogotá took me by surprise. It was chilly and overcast, modern and hip…none of which I expected although I’m not sure I knew what to expect.

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The first thing to catch my attention and my heart (via my taste buds) was all of the fresh fruit carts everywhere. Coconut (fresh or candied), mango (2 types), watermelon, pineapple, plums, mora, guanabana, guayaba, papaya, avocado, the tart passion fruit and its sweet sister granadilla, those tiny sweet bananas, cantelope, “tomato tree” fruit as directly translated…not coincidentally, this would eventually become my weekly shopping list. It is one of the best and cruelest parts about traveling, to experience something so completely amazing and eventually have to leave it behind when you move on. And so I dove fully into the “completely amazing” part of this tropical phenomenon and had fresh fruit juice and fresh fruit several times a day. I would love to fly my sister to meet me in Colombia and we would just sit on a curb in front of bright and wild graffiti putting the ‘passion’ in passion fruit, eating it until our tongues are puckered as puckered can be and can’t handle a single bite more. Tart, crunchy, tropical vacation in edible form, and I am biased towards its name…passion fruit (maracuya) is a truly wonderful fruit.

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I am happy to report that even the Colombians seem to draw the line at frying their fruit, because I promise you they seem to fry just about everything else. They have restaurants where you get plastic gloves given to you at the table to help manage the grease.

At least they just own it… “We fry things, take your gloves, buen provecho.”

Corn empanadas…fried, arepas: basically corn dough patty filled with eggs, sausage, meat and such…fried, papa rellenos: mashed potato balls filled with meat and egg…fried. Deep fried and exactly what you want out of street food, yum. Much of our time in Bogotá was spent wandering and eating, trying to catch the sunlight at that magical, golden hour when the colorful buildings of La Candelaria district would glow.

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We bought a box of wine (I wish I could tell you it was the last time we did that; “Toto, we’re not in Argentina anymore” – Dorothy) and leaned up against a wall of a small plaza to people watch. Hipsters came through with their skateboards, students gathered around the platform where a storyteller was engaging the crowds, and in front of us sat a couple of guys with guitars. As the sun set, the police came to shoe everyone out and we naturally followed the stragglers who were following the guitars. We ended up in another little plaza, sitting in a circle on the grass, grinning at the jam session we were now a part of. More and more people showed up and they started singing. A couple of bikers joined in, using their helmets as drums. And then two guys who could just as easily have been crashing a wedding, pedaled up on bikes wearing suits, with a saxophone and melodica (thank you Wikipedia) in tow. At this point I thought to myself, if I do not join in I will forever believe this is just a dream. I found a pouch in my purse I use for make up and loaded it with keys and coins and jingled my heart out.

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Since I arrived in Colombia, I had had nightmares about being robbed and my body had been a mess, perhaps because of the fried food, but I feared something much worse…I had made a mistake in leaving Argentina. I realized that I had been like a young lover comparing this new love to an old one, Colombia vs. Argentina. This moment naturally put me in touch with part of my process for going through a change…create something. It was exactly the kind of experience that I needed to let the melody carry away my fears and put me in the present moment with that warm and fuzzy feeling of a special, serendipitous adventure.