The Truth About Colombia

What enthralls me most about Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s writing is his characters’ penchant for boldly diving headfirst into love. It’s a contagious idea, to dismiss fear entirely for the sake of the heart, and it’s hard not to take on that fearlessness while engrossed in one of his novels.

Attempts to echo that intrepidness in real life reminds us about the genre Márquez created – magical realism – and his Nobel-winning ability to indistinguishably blend fantasy with reality. His skill is in convincing readers that a man could reasonably be trailed by a constant cloud of yellow butterflies, as we witness in 100 Years Of Solitude, thus it follows that the nature of love as described by the author would play by the same rules. We all know butterflies don’t flock that way, and that love isn’t so simple, but reading the Colombian writer’s books suspends disbelief long enough for magic to seep into actual reality. That’s what makes him such a legendary writer.

You have to wonder how a person develops the ability to communicate ideas and imagery in such a way that readers are brought to tears heavy with suffering, to uncontrollable bouts of wistful nostalgia, or to elation beyond comprehension. Some might say innate talent, others dumb luck, while Márquez himself is quoted as referencing the storytelling style of his grandparents as inspiration.

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Cartagena, Colombia

For me, it took visiting Colombia twice within three months to begin to grasp his perspective. I had wanted to see the city of Cartagena ever since I discovered it was the supposed setting for Love In The Time Of Cholera, which I devoured as a young teenager, plagued with the affliction of persistently falling in love.

Years later brings us to 2016, when that dream has come to life. The opportunity to visit the country became available on what was supposed to be a Pan-American wildlife-searching expedition, kicking off in Guatemala and terminating in Colombia. I made it as far as Belize, which took hold of my wild heart. Only once it was broken did I move on to finish my trip, with time left solely for my final stop. Colombia.

Colombia, Colombia, Colombia. I didn’t really know what to expect. The news says so many negative things, things that rile up my dad’s typical anxiety when I travel to places that are beyond 15 miles of my hometown. Cocaine, kingpins, violence, murder, kidnappings…stuff dads don’t like. These things may exist in Colombia, but let’s be honest: they exist everywhere.

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The monkey grasshopper, one of many examples of Colombia’s natural colorfulness

Even so, the news never mentions the people. It doesn’t talk about their glowing warmth, their love of bright colors, their genuine kindness. Nowhere in the news does it mention that Colombians will treat you like family, feeding you and caring for you no matter how thrown-together your Spanish is. They will go out of their way to ensure your comfort. This simply hasn’t been part of the international narrative about Colombia, which means a lot of people are missing out.

Fortunately that narrative is changing, and not just because of the recent ceasefire and a peace deal in the works. Colombia is speaking for itself. The biodiversity (the best in the world), the food, the colors (both fabricated and in nature), and the environments ranging from Amazon jungle to Caribbean sea to Andes mountains. There’s a deep commitment to conserving that verdant, Garden of Eden green teeming with every type of beast. This is Colombia.

The culture is passionate, fueled by a fire that leads to salsa dancing, and a dedication towards preserving that which makes Colombia, Colombia. Like the quality of the coffee, which is what has brought me back so quickly on the tails of my first visit. Strangers talk to each other. They help each other. They love each other. There’s a tremendous amount of love, with no attempt to hide it.

When you’re in Colombia, you can feel poetry tracing its fingers along your skin. Your heart opens and so do your ears. Whether you’re chasing the scent of gardenias in Cartagena or soaking your weary skin in the thermal pools near Pereira, Colombia will inject color and love into your life, one way or another.

And so you begin to see the magic Gabriel Garcia Márquez writes about, and come to find out that the truth is, it’s more real than you could have ever imagined.

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View from the upcoming San Carlos Lodge in Pereira, Colombia

Paradise by the airplane light

This time will be different, I promise myself emphatically, squeezing my fingers around the airplane armrests so my body is as stable as my word. How could it not be? I’ve spent the last three weeks exploring the literal paradise that is Belize, criss crossing every inch of its unique landscape while bonding with locals and like-minded travelers.

I am stoic with the refusal to go home and return to the slavery of my technological devices. I cast out the routine that has recently characterized me, the schedule which includes me never leaving the house and never meeting new people as are the joys of self-employment. I can and will be this wonderful new relaxed Caribbean version of myself (who apparently likes reggae) that I’ve cultivated over the last few days, and this is how things will be from now on.

Okay, great, so it’s settled. Tropical Me is going to stop wearing makeup, quit committing to everyone else’s deadlines just because that’s How Things Are Done where I live, and just generally chill the fuck out. I’ll wander the streets of San Francisco in flip flops quietly cursing the fog I’ve always loved, demanding the world accept my most recent whimsy.

Yeah, right. 

These are similar to promises I’ve made plenty of times before, and never really kept. As a 14-year-old returning from Europe I declared everyone would henceforth be greeted with cheek kisses, and that lasted maybe a week. I couldn’t even keep an Argentinean accent going for long after coming back from a summer in the Córdoban countryside, much to the relief of my Spanish teachers.

However, none of that changes that unique blend of nostalgia, relief, and panic that accompanies many overly self-aware travelers (like me) on the plane back home. You think of the complicated life ahead of you, choosing to ignore that while yes you were in the slower-paced Belize, you were also on vacation, which is inherently less peppered with responsibility. Either way, you keep a cold grip on the new facets of you that have come to light while abroad, hoping that maybe this time you can take a few of the fragments back home with you.

You know from experience that the way these experiences have shaped you have the potential to slip away quickly as you return to the you-shaped rut on your couch.

There’s the lack of time spent online and how much it didn’t matter. The rooster-based early wake ups that allowed you to experience the entire day. The genuine way people treated each other – can you imagine, people actually acknowledging their neighbors, and treating them with respect no matter their vocation? The unprocessed food was pretty good too, even though it gave you giardia.

But you can’t have live poultry in your 400 square foot apartment in the city, you can’t force everyone around you suddenly eager to talk to strangers, and hating on living in a developed nation is beyond cliche. In fact, many of these desires make you border on becoming a Humanitarian of Tinder, and we can’t have that.

Ultimately it’s not so much about the sunshine or the flip flops or the face kissing, it’s about you, and how easily you return to a routine that you don’t find especially fulfilling. Abroad you thrived in discomfort, opened up your heart just enough to fall in love a little bit, and for a brief handful of days escaped the bubble of anxieties and insecurities that everyone back home seems to find completely normal. You haven’t seen this you for a while.

You’re scared you’ve left behind the more authentic version of yourself that you thought was lost years ago, the person eager to explore and adventure, even though you were certain your wanderlust had long since been extinguished.

That’s what all the armrest squeezing on the plane ride back home is about. You earnestly believed that the fire had long since gone out, so every mile home feels like you’re sucking the life out of the ember you’ve only just discovered still exists.

The good news is nothing is ever as dramatic as I make it out to be, even though my goal in life is to live with as much intensity as a Meat Loaf song. Sure, I might go back to walking quickly and wearing makeup as needed, but ultimately my fulfillment is up to me, so if I want to talk to the neighbors, then I should talk to the neighbors, be they in San Francisco or anywhere else. 

And maybe if I squeeze hard enough, I’ll continue being the version of me who takes things a little less seriously.

Or, I can just go back to Belize.

Honeymoon Breakdown

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 10.40.30 PM.jpgLast night I had a panic attack. A bad one. It was so bad, I wanted to kill myself.

It’s not the first time this has happened, and while I hope more than anything that it was the last, I know it won’t be. I was diagnosed with panic disorder a few years ago, which fit nicely alongside my PTSD, sleep disorder, depression, and anxiety, all of which I’ve struggled with for years. Basically this most recent diagnosis means that every so often, for reasons known and unknown, I will enter into a state of panic and if it’s intense enough, be unable to calm down without medical intervention. Think trapped mountain lion, but with less claws and more existential crisis.

Even most people close to me don’t know I suffer from these illnesses. I would describe them as “mental illnesses” but that would be like casually referring to a cough as a “lung illness” and nobody does that, so I don’t see why screwed up brains should be an exception. Either way the point is, I’m sick.

And last night, I was really sick. I don’t typically become suicidal when I panic, but for whatever reason, last night was so dark that I ended up reaching out to five people for help. Fortunately one person (who happens to be a mental health professional) responded in time to assist me, and eventually they were able to help me return to a safe mindset.

While calming down, my panic was immediately replaced with guilt. It’s humiliating to be in that situation, to disturb someone’s night because I can’t control my own emotions. I knew instinctually that asking for help was better than the alternative, but that couldn’t soothe the shame of making my problems someone else’s. I feel unimaginably weak being so low, to be unable to do what literally every other human is capable of doing every day – living.

And after all, what do I have to be so upset about? I’ve just married my high school sweetheart, I’m spending three whole weeks vacationing in postcard-perfect Belize on someone else’s dime, and I’ll eventually return home to my life of leisure where I’m free to live out my dream of writing full time. My life, from all objective standpoints, is perfect.

But like that girl who recently shared her before and after photos of having an anxiety attack, what everyone sees of my life on social media is a piss-poor representation of my actual existence. The photos are picked apart, edited, and re-edited to be visually compelling. The stories and captions are selected due to their positivity, and while everything I post is 100% true, most of what goes on in my life is left out, certainly all the negative stuff.

The shaking fear as I sit down to my keyboard, unable to write the novel that I quit my job to pursue. The crushing disappointment in myself as another day goes by without exercising, cleaning my bedroom, or addressing any of the other quickly-fading items on my to do list. The stoic numbness I force myself to inhabit, lest vulnerability lead me down the path of pain. The knee-jerk terror that arises every time I feel the slightest bit of nausea, left over from a teenage misdiagnosis of a gastric disorder as a psychological one.

I know I’m not alone in suffering from panic disorders – I read that 40 million Americans freak out with me, but it’s incredibly lonesome to be trapped inside your own mind when your mind is trying to do you in.

Nobody shares these kinds of things on social media, and this is by no means a suggestion to start doing so. My point in sharing this very personal side of myself is not to garner any sympathy, pity, or attention. I even know that some people will be disappointed in this admission. But this is a way for me to sort through what happened last night, and maybe for someone reading this, a reminder that they’re not alone in fighting an unseen battle.

There’s no revelation here. This is nothing I didn’t know before yesterday, and nothing you haven’t read already. But I felt compelled to share my experience anyway, because it’s mine, and it’s real.

For anyone else struggling, please reach out for help: Suicide prevention lifeline // 1-800-273-8255

Luggage and loss in Sicily

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Buddha and I take it all in stride during sunset in Siracusa, Sicily.

It’s noon on New Year’s Eve, and I’m washing the only pair of underwear I have in the marble bathroom sink of my hotel room in Sicily. Everything is made of marble here: the floor, the walls, the marbles. I suspect even the genial owner of this charming waterfront hotel might be partly marble, but you can’t just ask someone that.

The excess of marble (or in my interpretation, cold floors) is the reason why I packed the fancy soled slippers that Michael got me for Christmas, a real indulgence that I would not normally bring with me, as I’m a very practical packer. An exception was made in an attempt to treat myself on this eve of the new year – I’ve earned comfy feet, haven’t I? Of course, in the spirit of Murphy’s Law, my luggage never made it to Sicily with me, so here I am with frosty toes, scrubbing soggy underwear in the sink.

It’s a cruel irony, and perhaps an unintentional lesson in materialism, that I broke my own travel rules and packed items that I would rather not live without only to experience my first ever loss of luggage.

Gone are my faithful running shoes and new workout clothes (a gift from my mother), the never-been-worn leather Aquatalia shoes that were a Christmas present from my grandmother (which even she knew was too generous a gift), and the hip black jacket with lace sleeves which I had just lost enough weight to finally wear again. Perhaps the most upsetting loss is the pomade Michael uses to keep his hair coiffed to Italian perfection – how will he fit in with his people now? I haven’t reminded him that his coveted straight razor is in the abyss as well.

Screen Shot 2015-12-31 at 2.12.47 PM.pngGame theory enters the situation – how long do we wait before buying new clothes? I am proudly self-employed as of two weeks ago, and as such I no longer have an income, meaning every penny must be pinched. I’m hesitant to drop money on fine Italian clothing (which is the only kind available here) only to have the luggage suddenly appear in our midst.

The very unhelpful website that is supposedly tracking our goods advises us to indefinitely “check back later,” though this message has yet to change, so  I’m currently cultivating a conspiracy that they are hoarding my underwear for nefarious purposes.

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Despite the inflexibility, and frankly the unsympathetic attitude of Vueling Airlines, who are responsible for our lost luggage, it’s hard to be too upset. Sicily is stunning: its people are abundantly friendly, each of their words spoken as if read from a poem, and the food, in both both quality and price, make one want to gesticulate wildly in affirmation. Not to mention the reason we are here is due to generosity alone, and we can’t let a few lost items of clothing spoil that.

8d39756a-15cc-4627-9b16-c4b80044dd33We are relaxing in this city of antiquity, surrounded by places deeply integral to the course of human history. Tonight we will dine in a restaurant from the 1400s, and later on ring in the new year with a musical celebration in the Piazza Duomo, which is bordered by a church of both Greek and Italian heritage. Over the next few days we will explore the town of Siracusa, namesake of my future husband, and possibly to me should I decide to go that route.

Until then I will be here, practicing detaching myself from material goods while trying to make underwear out of marble.

 

The land of fire and ice

The first day traveling to and then being in Iceland was a great experiment in letting go. Over the years I’ve felt a greater need to control my surroundings, resulting in needless anxiety and as a result, added difficulty when traveling. This is a far cry from when I used to be a traveling pro as a teenager. So with a month long trip to Iceland in my midst, I vowed to return to the adventurer I once was, and try to let go of my expectations.

Michael and I arrived at SFO to find that the first flight of our journey would be delayed for so long that we would miss our second flight. Instead of freaking out, I decided to immediately ask the Delta Air help desk for, well, help. All of their flights in and out of JFK were delayed due to weather, but luckily they were able to put us on another flight that was supposed to have left already, but was delayed long enough for us to board. And board we did!

Once we landed at JFK it was a lengthy taxi until we reached the gate. I checked my watch (so old school, I know) and observed the minutes ticking away, reducing the time we had to get from where we were to the international terminal. Instead of convincing myself that in switching terminals we would have to go through a time-consuming security process again, I let go of those assumptions. Of course we arrived to the next gate with plenty of time, no extra security needed.

The second flight was a breeze, and we arrived in Iceland on time – with all of our stuff to boot! In choosing to not be a victim of anxious thoughts, I was able to relax and enjoy the journey, none of which I could control anyway, rather than get caught up in what ifs. And in relaxing, I was able to act on solutions to the problems that did arise rather than be overcome by them.

We celebrated our happy and safe arrival with an immediate stop at Iceland’s famous Blue Lagoon, a hot spring resort that lies between the airport and the capitol city, Reykjavík. Swimming in the resort’s hot mineral water was the perfect way to relax after all that travel.

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Later that evening I looked forward to eating a meal I had here last time: soup in a bread bowl. We showed up at Svarta Kaffi to discover that they had run out of bread! Oh no! So we went to the 2nd choice option, an awesome burger restaurant in the back of a bar. But they were closed! Oh no!

The dreaded things-outside-of-my-control had reared its ugly head, but instead of becoming upset at the changes, I went along with it. Before I knew it some random guy in the bar got up and walked us to a restaurant around the corner where we could get an even better burger, and he was totally on point. Even though I fell asleep during my meal (it was 11pm by that point), it was one of the best burgers I’ve ever had.