Scenes from Argentina and Chile

 

Throw your dreams into space like a kite, and you do not know what it will bring back,

a new life, a new friend, a new love, a new country.

 Anais Nin

          From Buenos Aires and Mendoza to Valparaiso and Santiago, here are a few of my favorite scenes from a memorable trip across the southern part of America del Sur. Highlights included history lessons from friendly taxi drivers, all the Argentinian empanadas we could eat, a reunion with old friends, a twelve hour bus ride across the Andes, and a few sunny spring afternoons in Pablo Neruda’s Chile. I am grateful for the kind Argentinos y Chilenos we met along the way who shared a taste of their cultures with us, and for the chance to celebrate seven magical years with my love on a trip we’ve dreamed of since the beginning.

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30 Days Without Alcohol: An Experiment


Last month, I decided to take a break from drinking. After a bad run of migraines this summer, when even a single sip of an alcoholic beverage seemed to leave my head throbbing, I knew it was time to try something different. Though eliminating dietary staples that I once craved on the daily (including chocolate, red wine, aged cheese, sweets, and pretty much all processed food) has become a diligent routine for me and my “migraine brain,” I always resisted giving up alcohol. I didn’t drink that much anyway, I reasoned, and honestly, what would I do at social gatherings if I couldn’t submerge my awkwardness in a few glasses of wine?

But a sweltering summer of traveling, imbibing, moving and transitioning to a new vocation didn’t care how tongue-tied I might be at parties. Altogether it screamed too much, and it was at the end of this year’s most jam-packed season that I declared I would welcome the quiet of fall with water, tea and lots of jugo.

I’m sure there are plenty of people out there thinking, one month? That’s nothing! I have a number of friends who don’t need or care to drink and appear to be perfectly content with that choice in just about any situation. I envy them, because for me, alcohol has always been a security blanket. As a lifelong sufferer of social anxiety, I was overjoyed to discover this magical elixir in college, a concoction that killed the swarm of butterflies in my stomach and left me tingling with ebullience and charm. Sure, the hangovers were absurd and the recount of humiliating situations was often enough to make me swear I would never drink again. But year after year, the next weekend would arrive with a promised event and my youthful body would resiliently hum, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.

It was wicked fun to be 18, and 21, and 25, but there’s a reason why our bodies don’t stay invincible forever. I’m about to be 30, and these days my heart is more for staying still than going hard. So I remained resolute in my 30 day “cleanse” as friends were calling it, despite a growing apprehension at being the sober sister at friendly gatherings. By day two of the trial, I found myself preparing to host a dinner party amidst a mental freak out. I imagined our guests flowing through green pastures of wine and conversation while I ran about the kitchen parched and frazzled. This was gonna suck.

And then a funny thing happened. Half of the people who showed up to dinner didn’t want to drink. And those that did leisurely had a few beers and seemed oblivious to my state of anxiety. They enjoyed the food that Billy and I had prepared and after an hour or so, I found myself feeling surprisingly happy and peaceful.

As I moved cautiously through the end of August and into September, this situation was replicated across several dinners and get-togethers. People were curious as to why I wasn’t drinking, but there was no pressure to consume and a few friends even admitted that they were hoping to cut back, too. My headaches, raging like an uncontrollable summer wildfire at the beginning of the 30 days slowly waned, and I relished the feeling of waking up and actually doing things on Saturday morning.

Last weekend, after 35 days sin tomando, I broke my drought by indulging in some Colombian rum during a night out in Manizales. It felt good to treat myself for a few hours, and then it felt good to stop before the clock struck 10. I realize that I am but a tiny, middling blip on the spectrum of alcohol consumption, and that there many people for whom this elimination would be a much more extreme battle. I’m not here to tell anyone how to live his or her life, but I would love to help someone pause before reflexively reaching for that next beer. Why do we drink? Has society succeeded in convincing us that we truly need alcohol (or any psychoactive substance, for that matter) to relax and have fun? Is it an escape? A cover-up? What might we discover about ourselves if there were nothing to hide behind?

Having now inflamed everyone with these rhetorical questions, I’ll admit that I don’t intend to give up alcohol forever. Even if I did, I don’t think my migraines would disappear. There are so many other factors at work in this migraine puzzle that I doubt I will ever be completely free of its disease. Yet I feel liberated in knowing that I can abstain when it feels right for my body. And confident that my heart, less panicky with each day that I prove I can be faithful to its requests, will be okay, too.

Why I Quit My Teaching Job

 

As I begin this part of my journey on the Gran Via, it seems important to take a look at where I’ve come from and why I’m here.  Four months ago, I gave notice that I would be leaving my position as a middle school English teacher. This decision came after seven years of working and studying in the field of education, and many days of trying to convince myself that I really was a teacher. I came to this career with a love of helping kids, and idealistically hoped that my fears of standing in front of crowds would fade as I gained experience in the classroom. Truthfully, though, I never thought I would be a teacher for life. Throughout my college years, I tried on different professions, as everyone does, jumping from counseling to writing to publishing but abandoning each idea as the world seemed to tell me that it would be too difficult to find a job in any of these areas. I found solace in my Friday afternoon tutoring gig, where I worked with students from West Philly who were desperate for love and attention, and seemed to need me more than any essay or internship ever had.

And so, I became a teacher, repressing my doubts with the busy-ness of school days and sporadic moments of excitement in the classroom. I wanted to love teaching so badly, as my husband and so many of my friends seemed to, to care enough to work for hours after school perfecting a lesson plan. Coworkers and administrators kept telling me it was possible if I worked hard enough. So I put my head down, tried to be patient, endlessly analyzed my missteps, cried behind closed doors and then rose again the next day, thinking that if I just tweaked this one thing, then maybe, maybe, it would get better…

I kept reading, kept experimenting, kept trying, but wrangling 25 adolescents to attention simply did not seem compatible with my personality. Then again, I wasn’t sure I really believed in what I was doing. As I watched my rambunctious thirteen-year-old students move restlessly through six hours of classes each day, I wondered how much information they could possibly be retaining, and whether my lesson on similes and metaphors had had any lasting impact on them. I felt like I was on a merry-go-round, pretending to be happy but desperate to get off and ride away on my own. Then, one day, someone planted a seed:

What if you quit?

Quit? Now? I can’t do that.

Why not?

I was certain I could not leave my teaching job here in Manizales, yet as I considered my reasons why, I realized they were all for other people. I didn’t want to upset anyone. I didn’t want to let anyone down. I didn’t want to make more work for someone else.

But what about you. What do you want?

I knew the answer was there in my heart. I wanted to be free. To get off the amusement park ride and maybe, perhaps, possibly have a chance at finding the road less traveled. It was a terrifying but captivating idea, and once it was planted I couldn’t help but let it grow.

Sharing this story now, I am acutely aware of how lucky I am to be able to take this chance. Thanks to the amazing Billy, I have a place to live, food to eat, internet on which to post this blog, and most importantly, an unflappable and loving cheerleader. However, I hear of many others – both at home and abroad – who feel trapped, as I did, but can’t fathom a way out. I hear people speak of burnout, of boredom, or of lack of meaning in their work, and though they usually have fair reasons for maintaining the status quo, it seems that many wonder about the road not (yet) taken.

I don’t have the answers. Reality pushes and prods at us everyday, demanding that we pay bills and take care of family members and above all, advance. I know, because I still have big bills to pay and counting Colombian quarters has become my own daily reality. But I am becoming daring enough to ask questions and perhaps plant a few seeds of my own.

What do you want?

Is it possible?

Why not?

Questions for the Road Less Traveled

Photo by Bill Knous Photo by Bill Knous

         When I first began to envision what this project would look like a few months ago, lines from Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” kept floating through my head. Even if you haven’t gotten cozy with Frost, one of America’s most beloved pastoral poets, I bet you’ve heard these lines before:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Sound familiar? This iconic ending has been found in book titles, car commercials, summer programs for teenagers, and many blogs about travel, just to name a few examples. Its position at the forefront of my mind was probably the result of years of subliminal conditioning that the road less traveled is THE road to travel. To me, it seemed to be the road of adventure, pioneers, discovery, and independence; the veritable crux of our American culture. As someone who loves to explore and, yes, tends to get carried away by metaphors, I felt this poem could be the foundation of my own story about the unconventional life.

Of course, the English major in me had to step back momentarily and agonize over the poem in its entirety. I wanted it to be as pure as it sounded, so it would fit within the bounds of my blog and make my newfound creative life that much easier. I headed to poetryfoundation.org (a great poetry resource, by the way) to see what the other 17 lines had to say.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

 

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

 

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

 

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Something was amiss. Why does Frost call the second road “just as fair” as the first in the second stanza? And write that “as for that the passing there, had worn them really about the same.” Huh? Are they the same or different? I left my reading disappointed yet intrigued by his words. What was he trying to say?

I decided to do a little more research to disentangle the seemingly incongruous messages. Observing that my curiosity for this poem was now bubbling over into a healthy obsession, my extremely literate husband, Billy, pointed me in the direction of a recent Diane Rehm show honoring the poem’s 100th anniversary (https://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2015-08-20/the-100th-anniversary-of-robert-frosts-poem-the-road-not-taken). It’s a lengthy listen (about an hour and 40 minutes) but, in my opinion, worth it to hear the insights of a few notable poetry scholars on Frost and his place within the context of American history and culture.

To those looking for a quick answer, there isn’t one, except maybe this:

My poems—I should suppose everybody’s poems—are all set to trip the reader head         foremost into the boundless. Ever since infancy I have had the habit of leaving my blocks carts chairs and such like ordinaries where people would be pretty sure to fall                           forward over them in the dark. Forward, you understand, and in the dark.
— Frost to Leonidas W. Payne Jr., November 1, 1927 (poets.org)

It seems that Frost never intended to give us the inspirational message that we have selectively plucked from his work, time and time again. He meant to tease us with a puzzle, to make us think and perhaps look a bit more cautiously in the mirror. “I shall be telling this with a sigh, Somewhere ages and ages hence,” he writes. According to the experts, the narrator appears to “sigh” because he knows that, at least for him, there never was a “road less traveled by.” The narrator is human, and as we humans tend to do, he embellishes the past to make it sound more exciting. Rehm’s guests also note that the poem is not titled “The Road Less Traveled,” but “The Road Not Taken,” leaving readers to contemplate not only the choice between the two roads, but the heavy consequences of that choice.

For those of us who have been living our lives thinking that we were on the same road as the great Frost (pan to, yep, me), this analysis can be discouraging bordering on depressing. What I thought was an encouraging clue on the Gran Via to enlightenment is actually a duplicitous joke meant to send us catapulting through darkness.

Thankfully, darkness doesn’t necessarily mean death. After all, we need darkness to appreciate light. And we need questions to uncover truth. Reading “The Road Not Taken” now, I ask myself whether I truly am on a less traveled path, and if the answer is yes, why? Perhaps the wise Frost would advise me to abstain from all labels – traveled and less traveled – and instead simply live a life that is true. And if it really is just a big, beautiful joke, to laugh.

Sources:

Frost, Robert. “The Road Not Taken.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. 23 August 2015.

Orr, David. (2015, August 19). The Road Not Taken: The Poem Everyone Loves and Everyone                   Gets Wrong. Poets.org. Retrieved from http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/road-not-taken-               poem-everyone-loves-and-everyone-gets-wrong

Rehm, Diane. (2015, August 20). The 100th Anniversary of Robert Frost’s Poem, “The Road Not               Taken.” The Diane Rehm Show. Retrieved from https://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2015-             08-20/the-100th-anniversary-of-robert-frosts-poem-the-road-not-taken

La Gran Via

 

            Seven years ago, I met my husband while crossing the street in Granada, Spain. The street was called Gran Vía de Colón, one of Spain’s many tributes to Christopher Columbus and his great path across the Atlantic Ocean. We know now that not everything this once-renowned explorer did was so great, and his brutal treatment of the native people of the Caribbean leaves many questions about his legacy across the Americas. Still, the fact remains that Columbus sailed across an ocean before there was a map to tell what was on the other side. He charted a path through the unknown, with little more than the trade winds to guide his way.

Centuries later, I traveled across the Atlantic in the opposite direction to begin my own Gran Via. At the time, I thought living abroad would be a neatly contained portion of my life: I would live in a foreign country for a year or two, expose myself to all of its exotic wonders, and return, infinitely wiser, to the comfort and safety of the U.S.A. It seemed like the perfect plan, and even now, years later, my ultimate goal remains the same. But the Gran Via is called the Gran Via for a reason, and somewhere along the way the universe decided that my path would be anything but neat and contained.

Instead, life has given me three continents, many plane rides, and most recently, the enchanting country of Colombia. It has given me teaching, searing migraines, personal crises, and a propensity to try and make sense of it all through writing. It’s been an exhilarating but often challenging path, and along the way I’ve come to realize that the Gran Via isn’t just a street in Spain or an alias for transatlantic travel. The Gran Via is a way of life.

Make no mistake; it’s the harder way. For me, now, it means living far from home, but that certainly isn’t a requisite. La Gran Via is a life of asking questions that may not have tangible answers, whether you are a hometown homebody or have traveled to more countries than you can count. It eschews the traditional path in favor of something inherently messier but perhaps more true. You might begin on this path by getting to know a stranger from a different neighborhood, or maybe it’s as simple as opening a book of poetry for the first time. Any person, place or thing that gives you a divergent perspective from which to view the world is a precious teacher.

Here, I will attempt to share some of the lessons of those teachers and create a space to talk about alternatives to the conventional ways of life. I have ideas about education, health, spirituality, work, and play and I bet you do, too. It can be a lonely path through the unknown, but perhaps there are more Gran Viajeros out there than we think.

Mil gracias. Namaste. And welcome.

Start Again

jersey shore

 

It’s been nearly a year since I last wrote. So much has happened since last December, and there have been many reasons to put off writing that next post. I can’t go into all those reasons here, but I will say that there are some stories better suited for the journal at my bedside than this blog and Facebook. Such is the writing life.

I can tell you this reason, though – Billy and I got married! And for all the beauty and wonder that was our wedding day, it took a hell of a lot of planning, pinteresting and not-writing to come to fruition. In spite of the fact that we don’t even live in the country where we got married, our lives were consumed for months with preparing for this one October day at the Jersey Shore.

During our wedding weekend, a love song came to my attention, courtesy of Billy’s sister, Andie. Andie made us a beautiful video to the tune of “Come to Me,” by the Goo Goo Dolls. I had never heard the song before but was immediately touched by its sweet lyrics.

Today’s the day I make you mine

So get me to the church on time

Take my hand in this empty room

You’re my girl and I’m your groom

Come to me my sweetest friend

This is where we start again

Start again. The words hit me like waves far out at sea as I listened to the song. Start again? Of course it’s typical at weddings to talk about the bride and groom “beginning their new life together,” but Billy and I had been together for six years. We’d lived together for four of those years, worked together for two, and lived away from our families for quite some time. Could you really say that we were “starting again?”

And yet, something had definitively ended. I felt my life shift when I woke up that next morning, and as I looked around at friends and family, I realized that they may have felt it, too. Throughout the weekend, I heard people talking about situations that they wanted to change, needed to change. It was a job, it was a relationship, it was a place – and it was powerful. A bubble of love and joy had burst, leaving us all exhausted but utterly content. What better time to start something again, than in its seemingly magical afterglow?

So, here I am, trying to put words down on paper again, trying to regain the balance that I lost in months of restless planning, and looking ahead to a new path with my extraordinary husband. It feels a little bit like low tide on an empty October beach, but I know the waters will rise again.

 

 

A Pilgrimage to Peru and the Sacred Valley

That moment when you first see Machu Picchu through the mists...priceless.

Here are some of my favorite moments from our recent trip to Peru. Perhaps I will get around to summarizing all that this trip meant to me at a later date…until then, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Traveling to Machu Picchu: a story of planes, trains and collectivos.

Traveling to Machu Picchu: a story of planes, trains and collectivos.

Luckily, the company was fantastic. Here are my trusty travel compatriots, Katie, Ashley, Billy and Zach.

Luckily, the company was fantastic. Here are my trusty travel compatriots, Katie, Ashley, Billy and Zach.

Riding on the train through the Sacred Valley.

Is there a better way to travel than by train?

Some of the views from the train while riding through the Valley.

They market the whole thing as a"Mystical Experience" and I ATE IT UP.

They market the whole thing as a”Mystical Experience” and I ATE IT UP.

Stuck in the clouds during the morning on Machu Picchu.

Those Inca stairs are STEEP!

Inca stairs: built to last (thousands of years).

Llamas in the house!

Llamas in the house!

The Urubamba River winds its way around the Machu Picchu site.

The Urubamba River winds its way around the Machu Picchu site.

Strike a pose, llama.

Strike a pose, llama.

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If we had actually hired a tour guide I might be able to tell you what this this...or we could just admire the colors here.

The Incas apparently shaped this rock to be a miniature Machu Picchu.

The Incas apparently shaped this rock to be a miniature Machu Picchu.

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I love the old couple resting from the rain here.

I love the old couple resting from the rain here.

The Inca heart! As discovered by Katie :)

The Inca heart! As discovered by Katie 🙂

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Our bike ride around Ollaytantambo, during which we descended nearly 5,000 feet in altitude.

Our bike ride around Ollantaytambo, during which we descended nearly 5,000 feet in altitude. Biking downhill is totally the way to go!

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Time for a jumpy pic!

Time for a jumpy pic!

Billy posing with our terrific bike guide, Yuri.

Billy posing with our terrific bike guide, Yuri.

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Ruins overlooking the market in the town of Ollantaytambo.

Ruins overlooking the market in the town of Ollantaytambo.

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Posing with our powers - earth, wind, water, fire, heart!

Posing with our powers – earth, wind, water, fire, heart!

Welcome to Cusco - the navel of the world.

Welcome to Cusco – the navel of the world.

Imagine my excitement when I discovered a litter of kittens hanging out in the garden at our hotel!

Imagine my excitement when I discovered a litter of kittens hanging out in the garden at our hotel!

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The San Pedro market in Cusco.

The San Pedro market in Cusco.

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Gettin' snuggley after a long day of exploring.

Gettin’ snuggley after a long day of exploring.