Place of Dreams

Within five minutes of being in the Defender, Ronnie pipes up to tell me that the truck is running on oil from all those fried milanesas that are near and dear to the tastebuds of Argentinos. A local restaurant serving minutas (fast food) would serve as our “gas” station and we made a small detour to get a barrel of the used oil.

He hands me a rock as he jumps out of the car. Upon returning he tells me that it is from a meteor that hit the earth in Moldova and that it changed his fortune over night when he came in contact with it. I close my fingers around it, smiling at the idea and thinking, “Porqué no? why not? …could work just as much as anything” and I hope for fortune to melt out of it into my palm.

By the time we’re bumping along the road and flying through the turns around Lago Gutierrez, we are trading stories about the healthy and healing powers of plants. He pulls over to the side of the road to pick a tiny, bitter branch for me to taste, supposedly it helps with digestion or something.

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The final few miles took us down a gritty side road and into Nahuel Huapi National Park. We drove through the wooden gate, through a corridor of trees and into a panoramic view of my new home. Horses wandered around freely, chased by the border collies. A wall of mountains with a skirt of trees that sprouted a waterfall stood guard over the glacial lake.

No explanation was needed for how this place got its name, Peuma Hue (pey-oo-mah, wey), Mapuche for Place of Dreams.

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Having looked through the webpages of this high end, rustic resort before coming, I had been hypnotized by the views, the luxurious log cabins, the descriptions of the healthy organic food and the focus on yoga, mindfulness and magic that immersion in nature brings.

For the guests, yes, the reality is this fairytale. But for me, this would be different. I was coming here as a cultural exchange…swapping work in the gardens and kitchen in return for food and a shared room in the staff house.

As I was introduced to the reality of what this would be like, the perfect panorama I had driven into began to unravel. Anxiety and fear stirred inside of me. My chest tightened and the heat of the emotions boiled up through my body, rising to my face and creating a frenzy of activity in my rattled brain.

I worried about my health, which is always a struggle for me. Would they give us healthy food? Argentina and vegetables…especially of the green variety…don’t always tango together.

What would the other people be like? Nine of us in a tiny house? How would I balance myself among being social, the expected workload and writing my book?

Would I be able to write my book? Would I have the time and space to do that?

What if it didn’t work out? What were my other options? I didn’t have time or money to look for something new.

The uneasy feelings churned inside me as I realized how far we were from town and the nearest place to buy a bottle of wine, which I was wanting right about then. I then took a deep breath and walked in on myself having this reaction. I knew I needed to get some time alone outside in nature to wander, write and work through this.

I spent the afternoon exploring, walking along the rocky shores of the immaculate lake and through the gardens that were still asleep for the winter. I gazed up at the mountains, adorned with snow and stood there admiring their rugged beauty. I walked along the gravel path that wound through the property around the log cabins, crossing the fallen tree bridge over the creek and to the stone temple on the hill.

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I had been independent for a year and a half, answering to no one but the call to adventure. I would now be at the mercy of my new circumstances, losing my autonomy. I would be accountable to someone else’s dream and expectations. I would now have to write in between my work shifts, hoping inspiration and energy would meet me on demand.

I hadn’t thought about this and felt blindsided by it. It was like watching the movie of a book you have read and loved, only to find out that they had gotten it all wrong when translating it for the screen.

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I sat on the steps of the temple and journaled…about what I was feeling, about what I wanted for my time there. I realized that this was a familiar reaction to being thrown into unknowns, fear that it won’t work out. I’ve learned that the best thing to do is to notice what you can control and take positive action towards that, let go of expectations, seek to learn and be surprised. I listed my intentions and started a list of ideas for falling deeply into my life there and committed myself to doing just that.

The negativity and fear wilted away. My heart was now exploding with gratitude for having this opportunity arise for me, allowing me to continue my journey. I felt full of peace, grace, awe and devotion for the wilderness around me, as if these mountains had been calling me and I had finally found them.

This is the serendipity that I had hoped for when setting out to show up in the world and see what happens. I was living in the mountains for the first time and would be there for six months.

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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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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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

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