Traveling with Kindness

“This is absolutely ridiculous! I don’t know how you people can do this and keep a clean conscience, it is disgraceful. It’s the holidays, don’t you care at all what you are doing to families? We have spent hundreds of dollars on this trip!”

“I’m very sorry mam, if you will just take a seat we will do our best to resolve this issue. We understand this is an inconvenience for your and your family and I do apologize for this situation.”

The woman in front of me stormed off, huffing and puffing, pulling along her overstuffed carry on and looking ready to burst with frustration. As I stepped forward, the airline associate behind the desk smiled at me timidly, as though she were bracing for another barrage of scolding words.

Instead, I offered her a broad smile and uttered eight words that made her visibly joyful. “I would like to give up my seat.”

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At first she seemed almost stunned, and I can’t really blame her. It was New Years Day and the airport was overflowing with bustling travelers. Every flight in the airport seemed to have been oversold; and not just oversold by a seat or two, on my flight alone they had oversold 8 seats.

Eight. That’s crazy. Eight people had paid for a ticket and were now sitting in total dismay at not having a seat on the flight they paid for. Although these people had every right to be frustrated and angry with the airline companies for this injustice, at the end of the day these airline associates were wallowing in their misery with them, not rejoicing at their power and ability to deceive them. They hadn’t hand selected who would have a seat and who would not with devilish grins and mean-spirited chuckles. But here they were, the scapegoat for the computer algorithm that counted on so many people missing this flight. The airlines should really give their employees armor for the abuse they receive on the holidays. Or better yet, they should be accountable for giving people the service they’ve actually paid for and not overselling flights in the first place.

Luckily for me, it was a Saturday. I was traveling alone and didn’t have any need to get back to San Francisco until 9:00 am Monday morning, for all I cared they could lily-pad jump me across the entire United States. It was 7:30 am, feeling like the perfect time to make someone else’s day. It was the holiday season after all, right?

“Okay, so I am going to book you on a flight to North Carolina, from there you will get a flight to Atlanta, and then another to Las Vegas. You will need to spend the night in Las Vegas, but I’ll set you up in a hotel and you will be booked on the first flight out to San Francisco Sunday morning,” the flight attendant looked up at me as she described the complicated itinerary. Again I could sense she was expecting some sort of confrontation or pushback.

“That’s just fine, whatever works for you guys, I have plenty of time and have everything with me, so it’s easy for me to travel all day.” At this point, after watching the abuse this woman had taken for the past twenty minutes, I sincerely just wanted to make her feel good about some aspect of her job, and I also felt as though someone who really needed to be somewhere this day should take my seat. I had the luxury of an open schedule.

“Well, you will also receive a $500 flight voucher for giving up your seat on this flight, and the flight I have booked you on to go to North Carolina might be oversold as well, so if you decide to give up your seat on that flight then you could actually make out pretty well,” she said with a smile.

I smiled back, “Sounds like a day well spent if you ask me, making it possible for others to get to their destination while also collecting flight vouchers, can’t beat that can I?” I laughed out loud, and the airline associate also let out a giggle. “No, sounds pretty good to me” she said with a smile.

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And so began my day of intentional selflessness that ended up being one of the most self-indulgent days I can remember.

How could this day possibly be self indulgent? Well, with my sole intention being to give up my seat on every flight I was assigned to, I managed to rack up $2000 worth of flight vouchers. I also received heartfelt thanks from 4 individual passengers and a family of five who were able to fly together thanks to my seat becoming available. I received 3 hugs from perfect strangers, and an overwhelming embrace of gratitude from seven airline employees who were struggling through one of the toughest days of the year for them.

When I did manage to land a flight that was not oversold, the airline associate upgraded me to first class, twice. And when I got to Vegas, I didn’t even have to cash in my hotel voucher; instead, the airline associates there managed to get me on a flight and I arrived in San Francisco at 5:00 pm, only 30 minutes after my original arrival time.

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I can’t help but smile when I remember this day. My intention was not to collect flight vouchers (which would end up paying for 4 future flights). My intention was to make as many people smile amidst a constant stream of negativity. To travel with kindness. With the simple decision that I would flow with all that unfolded in a spirit of generosity and kindness, I ended up feeling as though I received the greatest gift of all.

It’s easy to get caught up in the streams of negativity that flow around us. Their currents are swift and they sometimes sneak up on us, sucking us into their depths before we even realize it. Each moment we live and breathe is an opportunity to choose how we participate in the world around us- how we choose to travel through it. Carrying kindness along as a companion is like carrying a life vest to keep your head above water when that stream of negativity threatens to overwhelm you and everyone around you. Kindness is often gentle and subtle, and powerful all at once.

Let us not forget how powerful it is to be kind to one another, to be kind to ourselves. Not because we have to, but because we get to; because it’s a privilege to cross paths with one another, to touch the life of another in a way that lifts us all up. When we pay attention to the opportunities that present themselves, when we lead with a generous heart, we often receive far more than we give- and in curiously delightful ways.

As Rumi so eloquently put it:

“Your acts of kindness are iridescent wings of divine love, which linger and continue to uplift others long after your sharing.”

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Beyond the Boundaries of Imagination

My heart beat rapidly as I looked upward and stared at the belly of the massive condor flying directly above us, diving and swooping and soaring up and over the edges of the surrounding peaks of Patagonia. It was a magnificent creature, looking prehistoric. Although I’d seen condors in other parts of Chile, I had never been so close and the sheer size of it was overwhelming, and we were overcome with a distinct sense that this was his territory, we were in his kingdom now.

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As we continued climbing Alejandro snapped photos in quick succession and I kept a wary eye on Curi Cuyen, who I imagined must look like a delicious morsel to the large dinosaur-like birds circling above us. The wind picked up, tugging at the flaps of my hat and drying the sweat forming on my brow. I pulled out my vest as the air cooled the higher we climbed. 360 degree views of jagged snow-covered peaks and numerous hanging glaciers surrounded us. Jewel-toned lakes dotted the valleys below. The blue sky was crisply dotted with fast moving puffy white clouds. A wide smile spread across my face, this place, like this trip, was so beyond my imagination.

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Majestic Patagonia

Our dreams are born from our imagination. They are carefully nurtured within the boundaries of our minds- the have edges and lines, distinct colors and shapes. These boundaries and lines are necessary for the dream to be constructed, they are necessary for us to fully grasp the idea of the dream, and the possibilities it could lead to. However, there comes a time when we must deconstruct the dream, we must erase some of those edges and lines to let the universe in.

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When this dream of riding horses across Patagonia was born, it began very simply- a basic image- us sitting on the backs of our horses, staring at the jagged snowy mountain ranges of Patagonia. The grass of the meadow where we sat reached our knees and was tinted golden in the warm sunlight. A soft breeze blew across the valley, invoking the sound of a million tiny whispers as the grasses bowed in it’s presence. Exactly where we were, or how we would get there was not yet exposed- there was only this image, and this feeling of weightlessness.

When we decided we were actually going to make this happen, we began the process of constructing the boundaries of the dream. How would we pay for it? Where would we buy the horses? What would we do with them after the ride? What would we share about our journey, was there a larger purpose? How would we set our route? Where would we buy the equipment for our horses? How would we travel to southern Patagonia in a very remote region with our dogs?

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We didn’t originally plan to hitchhike the Carretera Austral, but by doing so we opened ourselves entirely to the kindness of strangers- and they showed up without delay

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The unfolding of this adventure has felt a bit like this hike up Volcán Chaitén (our first adventure in Patagonia just before we began hitchhiking south)- stunning moments of beauty awaited each immediate step. And even though we couldn’t see exactly where the path was leading, we knew we were heading in the right direction. 

Our imagination began to construct possible ideas and solutions to answer all of those questions. At the same time we prioritized what questions actually needed immediate answers and what could wait until we were in a more appropriate place to find (or simply receive) the answers. Here and there we erased lines and boundaries, we left questions unanswered and options wide open. In a delicate manner we focused our energy on preparing for anything, rather than preparing for everything.

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One of those “pinch me” moments hiking along the Carretera Austral with our pups

What began as an image of a guy and a girl sitting on the backs of their horses staring at the snowy mountain ranges of Patagonia has evolved into these life experiences that keep defying the boundaries of my imagination. Never in my life have I imagined I would hitchhike 1200 kilometers across Patagonia with our dogs. I couldn’t have written into this script unfolding in my mind the countless characters we’ve encountered already who are continuously connecting us to our next destinations. Heading over to the local radio station in a tiny remote town in southern Patagonia to announce that we wanted to buy three horses and two saddles…nope can’t say I planned that. Nor could I have fathomed I would eat one of the best sandwiches I’ve tasted here in Chile on the porch of this bus as the sun lit up the breathtaking Cerro Castillo for our viewing pleasure.

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Just stopping for a quick bite mid-hitch on the Carretera…no big deal

So here I am- writing this post from the southern tip of the Carretera Austral, in the tiny town of Villa O’Higgins where we’ve set up base camp in search for our horses. We’ve been traveling across Patagonia for nearly a month, and the answers to all those hows and all those questions are still unfolding. We’re not rushing though, we’re not trying to manage this with a forceful hand. If we’ve learned anything down here in Patagonia it’s that everything will unfold in the time that it’s meant to; in the meantime patience and enjoyment of the present moment trumps all. That is, after all, how we managed to get here in the first place.

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Check, Curi and I overlooking Villa O’Higgins, our temporary base camp while we find our horses for the ride north

We’re spending the next two and a half months riding our horses 1800 kilometers across Patagonia. We’re not following a set route or a strict path; rather we’re weaving our way through the backcountry and trails that aren’t marked on maps but are instead held in the minds and hearts of the people and communities who’ve lived throughout this region before any roads existed. Once again, just as we did in order to get to our first destination (Villa O’Higgins), we’re opening ourselves up to the kindness of strangers and intentionally seeking their participation in this journey. We’re leaving edges and lines undrawn so that they can contribute and weave their stories into our own.

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When we finally arrived in Villa O’Higgins and found this statue in the town square, I knew we’d chosen the right place to find our horses and begin this adventure!

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Don’t let your dreams be dreams. 

The last little bit of this dream, kind of a dream within a dream, is tying my work into this adventure. When we left San Francisco, I always had the intention of finding a way to tie together my passion for wild places and outdoor adventure with my passion for sustainability and ethical supply chains. In many ways this dream is still in motion, still in transition from idea to reality, but it’s already begun to evolve and I’ve decided to bring it into this ride in order to give it a path forward. Again it’s a bit like that climb up Volcán Chaitén, I can’t quite see where the trail is leading, but the beauty of the path forward is continuously unfolding with each step I take, and I know I’m heading in the right direction.

When I first began working as a manufacturing manager overseeing production in factories across China, I had no idea where that work would lead me. At that moment in time it was so beyond my imagination that those experiences would ever connect with my other life passions, or even inspire them, and yet here I am, redefining the work I can’t not do.

In addition to sharing stories about our adventures on the trail, I’ll be writing stories about the things we carry with us, and the life that we give these things. Through creative storytelling, I hope to inspire curiosity about product life cycles, invoke reflection on the life we give the things we own, and motivate creative thinking about how the life of these things can continue beyond a landfill. I’ve got some ideas about how I’ll continue this work after the ride, but I’ve erased some lines and boundaries here as well, so that something can evolve that truly exceeds the boundaries of my imagination.

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I would love for you to follow along on our adventures across Patagonia, and my husband and I created a website to document our travels. I’ll continue to post stories of our adventures on this blog, but you can find more stories on our other site that will carry three main themes- adventure (sharing adventure stories as they unfold), simplicity (celebrating the simple things that inspire gratitude) and curiosity (stories of the things we carry with us, the lives they lead and the role they play in our life on the trail). Here’s a link to our website: www.abriendocamino.net – here you can find our blog, photos, profiles, and a bunch of resources to help inspire curious consumerism (check them out here!).

We’ve got a Facebook page where we are sharing great articles on solutions to move toward zero-waste economies and conservation and will also post trail updates, blog posts and photos.

Lastly, this is an adventure through one of the most stunning places in the world. All the photos in this post were shot on our way south- you can see more of this beautiful corner of the world by following our Instagram @abriendo.caminos

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For me, watching this all unfold as it has, it’s a beautiful reminder that we can’t let our dreams live only within the boundaries of our minds, we can’t delay bringing them into our reality until they are “perfect” and all the hows have been answered; instead we must let them grow wings on their own, we must let them evolve in ways that defy the constructs of our reality and instead let the universe influence their growth and development as well. If you have any doubts, let them go; if you need any reassurance that the world is waiting for you to step off the ledge, the world is waiting to celebrate your boldness, believe me it is.

Welcome Home

Home

My many “homes” in the last 18 months- San Francisco apartments, tiny tents, two person+1 dog hammocks, and Pucon properties owned by others (just to name a few)

The customs agent looked down at my passport, turning the pages until he reached the last one. After a year of constant travel and daily border crossings from Hong Kong to China, I had effectively filled my entire passport with stamps and needed to add pages while I was in the States for the next three weeks. I looked up at him, somewhat disheveled from the 13 hour flight and the jet lag that was my constant travel companion. He smiled at me, stamped my passport and handed it back to me.

“Welcome home.”

Home. There have been a few chapters in my life where the concept of home seemed to be an elusive idea, playing hide and seek with me as I bounced around the world living out of a backpack or a suitcase. Chapters spent literally flying around the world every three weeks, living in hotels, airports and temporary bases- finding homes wherever I happened to be. Chapters spent climbing mountains and crossing rivers for five months, living out of a backpack, carrying my home on my back. Chapters spent in that in-between travel mode that was a mix of couch surfing, country-hopping, friend and family visits and constant movement for weeks on end. And chapters like this last year, spent living on the road, on the trails, and care-taking the homes of others here in Chile. It has been a chapter where home was not a destination, but instead a creative venture- one of pure flexibility and freedom, and one that constantly challenged the traditional idea of the word.

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Finding myself at home in the air, on the road, or on the trail!

Personally, I don’t consider myself a nomad, even though I probably travel more than the average person. I have never thought of myself as one of those people who can constantly be on the road and on the go. I like home-making sometimes. I LOVE to cook, and I love to host and celebrate friends and family in our home. I love to have the things that give me comfort available. And I am one of those weird people who actually enjoys cleaning and organizing, so I adore those cold rainy days that motivate me to sweep up the house, light some candles and pick some fresh rain-soaked flowers for the kitchen- ideally from my own garden. I love sharing in the abundance that having a home allows.

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Cooking in my house kitchen and cooking in my road/trail kitchen- I’m happy as long as I’m cooking 🙂

On the other side of the coin, there is an invigorating freedom that comes with releasing yourself from the responsibility of home and taking to the “road” (or sky, or trail) and living light for a while. I equate this way of life to something that one of my favorite poets, David Whyte, discusses when he talks about how essential it is to “go hungry” at least once a day, to say no to everything that is not a yes, so that when you finally dig in, when you finally say yes, it is such an incredible experience you are overwhelmed with gratitude for it. Regardless of its simplicity or complexity, the experience is, in and of itself, a reminder of what it is to live.

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Backyards with sweeping city views are sweet, but so is having remote tiny towns or endless wilderness out the back door (or tent door).

There are two key things I always look forward to when giving up my home to explore and adventure into the unknown.

First- the discomfort that comes when you let go of the comforts of your home. It is in this space of discomfort that I experience so much growth, it is here that I face my fears so fiercely, as if my life depends on it, becomes it often does. Letting go of the trappings of your home makes you seriously appreciate the bare necessity. To this day, I cannot tell you how deeply I appreciate every single time I stand in a shower and feel hot water come out of the faucet. Before I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, where I had to endure cold splash baths in icy ponds and otherwise go without showering for a whole week at a time, I never gave that hot water a second thought. Now, even seven years after my hike, the appreciation for this simple thing is still so intense.

When I start to crave this discomfort, that is usually when I realize it is time for a shift, it is time to let go of something in order to make space for something else. And often I need to let go of something big, in order to allow for something bigger to arrive.

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The comforts of home can take many shapes and forms

Second- the physical act of letting go of what I do not need in order to be comfortably mobile for any extended period of time. I like to refer to it as “living lean”. You cut away the excess, you purge your closets and your cabinets, minimize your belongings to the bare essentials and the things you love so deeply you would run into a burning building to save them. The rest you let go of. And afterward, you actually feel physically lighter. It’s like this invisible weight that you were never aware of is taken away- and it feels amazing.

As thru-hikers, we called this “pairing down”- and it was an essential lesson during our hike. When we first started, Ale and my packs were so incredibly heavy. We quickly learned the lighter your pack, the less physical pain and suffering. It’s funny how this lesson can be applied to the way we choose to fill our homes with “stuff” we may not need or have the money to pay for- the less of that we have, the less credit card debt we have, and therefore the less stress (i.e. pain and suffering) we have to manage. There is a higher level of consciousness of the physical things we consume, and with that comes a confrontation of why we consume them, and if we really need to in the first place.

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Ale and I cut the weight of our packs in half while thru-hiking. The photo top left is Ale’s pack at the start of the trail, the one on the right top is midway through after serious pairing down. We also paired down heavily when we moved to Chile. The Uhaul on the left was filled with all of our belongings when we moved to San Francisco 6 years ago. The photo on the right, is us driving our 1998 Subaru Forester here in Chile, with all of our belongings packed in the back (we moved to Chile with 6 bags total).

I am not suggesting that everyone out there must abandon their home, sell their belongings and hit the road in order to really appreciate life. That isn’t the point. The point, is that there is humility, beauty and strength awaiting us all when we actively participate in some form of letting go of what makes us comfortable in order to embrace what makes us uncomfortable. Whether that is choosing to do one thing each day that scares you, making more space in your home by giving away or selling the things you no longer need or love, or simply giving yourself time away from the clutter of your daily existence.

Today, I write this post from my kitchen table. After 18 months on the road, having roughly 27 different places that could be described as “temporary homes” in six different countries, we once again have a home in the traditional sense. On this day one year ago, Ale and I got on a plane and flew to Chile with hearts and minds wide open, and the idea of home a distant intention. The focus at that moment was embracing the discomfort and pairing down to travel with ease.

Mission accomplished. Our focus and intentions shift as we once again retreat to the comforts and responsibilities of this home. Although I don’t have any intention to start filling this place with more stuff, it sure feels good to take all of my belongings out of their weary and worn packs and finally have a place of belonging. It feels good to have a consistent space for creative ritual, to have a place to do yoga each morning that overlooks the mountains and trees filled with hummingbirds. I am filled with gratitude to retreat to a mattress each night after a tough day of climbing mountains, instead of my thin Thermarest. Oh, and how I adore having a kitchen again, where I can cook up lovely things to share with my husband and visitors. Best of all, we have space to host friends and family comfortably, something I longed for while living in our tiny one bedroom in SF, and couldn’t even imagine as we lived on the road these past 18 months.

The culmination of all our experiences here, all our travels, and now having a place of our own once again, all of it has been instrumental in building this feeling of home here in Chile. And it feels good to be home.

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So, on that note, who’s coming to visit?

When Minutes Melt into Miles, and Miles Melt into Smiles

The sun beat down upon my shoulders and the humid air wrapped itself around me like a hot, wet blanket. In true southern hospitality, the heat of July in Georgia was giving me an overwhelming embrace as I stepped out of the airport. The heat was a shock to my body, which had grown accustomed to the onset of winter in the southern hemisphere. My head spun for a moment, a mix of the temperature change, humidity, and a lack of sleep in the past 48 hours. As I finished my last sip of coffee, I looked to my left to see a beaming smile from an outside attendant. “Which way to Marta?” I asked groggily.

“Well now darlin’ you just head right down this sidewalk here to that last shuttle and you’ll be on your way. You keep smilin’ now you hear?” he responded with a thick, cheerful southern drawl.

Only 48 hours and 5,122 miles earlier I had been home in southern Chile. The house was still dark when I awoke, and would remain so until around 8:45 when the lazy winter sun finally pulled itself above our mountains. After an hour of predawn yoga in front of a crackling fire and our watchful Australian Shepherd, Check, the business of the day set in and I collected every last little detail I would need to take care of before leaving the country for this brief trip.

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Running into a little traffic around town in southern Chile

Darkness settled back into town before I even departed, and as I queued up to get on the bus I silently crossed my fingers that the exhaustion of the busy day would help me quickly fall asleep on the bus. At 8:30pm my bus was loaded and ready to hit the road north for Santiago. I smiled as I waved to Alejandro out the window, already missing him but excited to be making this trip. I pulled off my shoes, stretched out to the extent possible in my semi-cama and pulled out my sleep mask for good measure. The minutes melted into miles as the night bus cruised the Ruta 5 north.

Ten hours later I heard the window curtain above my head being pulled aside. I took off my sleep mask and groggily stared out the window. Despite my efforts to ensure a restful sleep, numbness in my legs and arms due to nerve damage in my lower back had me tossing and turning most of the night. I kind of hate to say this, but the days when I used to be able to curl into a ball on a bus or plane and sleep soundly for hours may only be a memory of my past now- as sign of age, I suppose.

The lush green mountains and glistening lakes I had left behind in the night had been replaced by cement, plywood and tin-roofed suburbs as far as the eye could see. Even in the dawn darkness I could see the pollution hovering like a grayish brown cloak over the city. I stretched, pulled on my boots and jacket and exchanged my sleep mask for my pollution mask. Eleven hours and 480 miles done, it was now time to hit the streets of Santiago before my evening flight.

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The smog in Santiago is particularly awful in the winter, and with each visit I have to be careful to bring my masks to protect my lungs.

The minutes of the day passed quickly, a mix of moments in transit, random conversations with cab drivers and subway riders, lunch with a great friend and a final repack before the long flight. Before I knew it I was in another cab bound for the airport, swapping stories with the driver about life in Chile, smiling at his surprise that I was living in Pucon, thankful for his patience with my Spanish as he continuously encouraged more conversation and I explained how and why we had moved here. We laughed together as he smiled and shook his head, saying, “Greta, la gringa loca!!”

Finally I was on the plane settling into my economy seat. I again pulled off my boots and jacket, exchanged my pollution mask for my sleep mask, and hoped for better luck sleeping on this second redeye. Nearly ten hours, about 20 minutes of sleep and some 4,635 miles later, we touched down in Atlanta, GA in the good old USA. Sunshine poured into the window even though it was only 5:30am, as stark contrast to my dark morning start only the day before.

From the airport shuttle I made my way to the Marta station in the domestic terminal, grabbed a Breeze pass (slightly amazed at how efficient I could be without having to first translate everything in my brain) and found a seat on the train. I looked out the window at the lush green landscape as we pulled further from the city out into the suburbs. Finally, after 38 hours in transit via bus, Santiago metro, taxi, airplane, shuttle and Atlanta metro, I stepped out of the train station and into the arms of my wonderful friend Kate, who I had not seen in three years.

The collective minutes, hours, miles and temporary moments of discomfort that it took me to get to this very place, at this very moment, all just melted away. All I could do was smile and ask her a hundred questions as we excitedly caught up on life and details of her wedding taking place in two days. The following four days were a flurry of activities, laughter and love- hundreds of little moments that I will forever look back on and smile with gratitude that I was there to witness, and participate.

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To be in the presence of such love fills our own cells up with love as well. We are made whole by one another, but we must choose to participate.

Life constantly presents us with opportunities to pursue moments like this, and it is so easy to let them pass us by if the road we have to take to get there seems a little too rough. A little over a year ago, when Kate told me where and when her wedding would take place, I felt a pang of fear that I wouldn’t be able to be there. I had just quit my job, and was in the midst of the final strokes of planning our move to South America. So much ahead of us was unknown, and although I didn’t want to entertain the idea of not going, all I knew for sure was that I would be living at the other end of the world by then.

Moments like these, although they are easy to let pass, are so fulfilling when embraced instead. They fill up every cell of our beings with joy. We are all connected, in one way or another, and when we find the people that we are meant to love, and who love us just as deeply, the world is not so big anymore. The buses and plane rides are not so long. But those moments, those brief beautiful moments we stretch ourselves so far in order to reach, those last a lifetime, even if only in our hearts.

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On the road back to Pucon after my brief, beautiful journey to the USA, a broad smile on my face and a heart overflowing with gratitude.

The Warm Embrace of the Universe

The sudden searing pain shooting up my left leg knocked the air out of me. I stood quickly and took off sprinting into the darkness. Without a headlamp, I had only the light of the moon to guide me as I raced down the trail to our hammock. I dropped to the ground sobbing, shrieking as I pulled down my thermals and sat in the darkness bellowing. The pain was so thick it kept me gasping for air between involuntary whimpers and sobs. I was afraid to look down. Stupid stupid stupid, why had I done that? Why hadn’t I been more careful?

It was one of those things that was totally avoidable, something that, as it is happening, you realize how easily you could have avoided it, and if you could go back in time, you would do that one little thing differently.

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Taking in the beautiful rolling mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina on this brisk fall day

We had just pushed out a 27 mile day, zigzagging our way between Tennessee and North Carolina as we continued south during our Thru-Hike of the Appalachian Trail. We had hiked into the night, getting to camp late and hurriedly throwing up our hammock and swapping our sweaty hiking clothes for our thick warm thermals as the temperature dropped. As always, I was ravenous.

When you are thru-hiking, eating is not a ritual, it is a task that is tackled with high efficiency and rapid pace. You usually spend 8-12 hours hiking every day and during those 8-12 hours all you do is think about food. It torments you. You daydream about cheeseburgers and ice cream, pizza, french fries and steak. Food becomes an obsession, and meals are often taken in silence as everyone shovels their respective rice or pasta into their mouths; conversation can wait.

When Ale and I first started the trail, we had civilized things like bowls and pots; and we even used them a few times. But if there is one thing you obsess about more than food, well maybe it is second to food, it is the weight you are carrying on your back. Weight in your pack has a huge impact on your comfort and soreness levels. So after a few weeks on the trail, we realized we didn’t really need those pots and bowls if we could find food that came in packaging that we could eat directly from. This cut down on our need to carry more stuff in our packs and also saved us from having to wash dishes after a meal- win win.

After setting up the hammock and chucking our packs underneath it, I grabbed the Jet Boil and a bag of Lipton noodles, my water bottle and a spork. I couldn’t find my headlamp but didn’t want to put any more time between me and those noodles, so I trotted off in the darkness after Ale, Santana, Spoon and Cubby. When we got to the picnic table a few other hikers were there already. I slid onto the bench, attached the Jet Boil to the fuel canister, poured water in and let the flame burst forth, rubbing my hands together to ward off the cold air. Several minutes later the sweet sound of boiling water filled the air, I grabbed my Lipton, pulled the tab, opened the bag and disconnected the Jet Boil, ready to pour. Then it all went so terribly wrong.

As the boiling water began pouring, the lip of the bag tilted inward, causing the water to instead pour directly down onto my leg. Because I didn’t have a headlamp I didn’t even realize it was happening until quite a bit of boiling water had scalded me. The Patagonia thermal pants I was wearing had an intense insulating affect and essentially held the heat of the boiling water on my leg as it was pouring. Cue the screaming and running.

My first aid kit at this point on the trail essentially consisted of a few Band aids and Duct tape. Even if I had a more robust kit, I didn’t know how to deal with the wound. I was a 14 mile hike from the nearest road, it was late and I was exhausted. Any hope of treating my leg properly would have to wait until tomorrow. That night I lay in my sleeping bag beneath the hammock, the searing pain making it impossible to lie in a confined place.

As sunlight spilled into the woods the next morning, warming my face, I rolled my sleeping bag back to finally survey the damage on my leg. The skin around the burn was a greyish black color, and a large blister has raised itself off of my thigh, a smaller one forming just to the right of it. It ached; oh how it ached. Luckily a few miles into our hike we met some day hikers out for the weekend, they had a full first aid kit and came to the rescue with a roll of gauze that helped protect the blister a bit.

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After 14 painful miles we arrived at the road and hitchhiked into Hot Springs. Hot Springs is a tiny little mountain town, without many facilities, and upon arrival I was torn about what to do next. I didn’t have any health insurance and really did’t want to go to the emergency room. My biggest concern at this point is infection. I had to be realistic about the fact that I was living outside, hiking everyday and often going a week without a proper shower- keeping the burn clean and dry might be a difficult task. More than that, I didn’t know if I should break the blister or if the blister was protecting the wound and therefore better left alone. I decided to try my luck at the local pharmacy, hoping they could offer some advice.

The pharmacist wore large round glasses that sat low on her long pointy nose, secured by a chain that wrapped around her neck. She was nice enough, but she didn’t really know what to do either. Do I put the burn powder on it? Or the cream? Or is it better not to put anything on it and let it heal on its own? Do I wrap it or do I leave it open? How should I clean it? She stated that she didn’t actually know what the best options were for this kind of burn, and simply suggested I get off the trail, thinking it too risky that it would get infected out in the elements.

I left without buying anything, feeling more shaken about how I was going to make it through the last two weeks on the trail. I had been walking for 138 days straight. My feet had carried me from Maine, through 13 states to get to very spot in the mountains of North Carolina. I had fourteen days before I reached the southern terminus at Springer Mountain in Georgia. Getting off the trail was not an option.

I walked back to the motel where we were staying for the night. As I approached I saw Ale speaking with a guy who was also dressed in hiking clothes. I caught the tail end of their conversation and found out he was out for the weekend section hiking this part of the Appalachian Trail. Over the past four years he had dedicated countless weekends and vacation time to completing a different section of the AT- hoping to one day complete it all. Although he dreamed of doing the whole trail in one shot like us, he loved his job and couldn’t get the time off. We swapped a few trail stories, and then he asked me why my leg was wrapped in gauze. He nodded as I described the accident and asked me, “Would you mind if I take a look at it? I am an ER Burn Medic.”

Of course he was.

My jaw dropped slightly and tears welled up in my eyes as I was overwhelmed with relief. I unwrapped my leg and he examined the burn, advising that it was a second degree burn and I would need to break the blister because of its size, and scrub it hard to be sure that no dirt had gotten in. It was going to be incredibly painful, but he thought I would be able to continue with my thru-hike as long as I treated it three times a day and kept it wrapped. I must have turned slightly white when he mentioned breaking the blister because he next offered to prep it for me. I was taken aback by his kindness.

The next morning there was a knock on the door, as we opened it we found my ER Burn Medic Trail Angel standing there, he passes me a bottle of prescription burn cream he had gotten filled that morning and the instructions to care for my leg. I tried to offer him money for the cream, to which he refused, saying simply- “Finish the trail. All I ask is that you email me some stories and let me know when you guys get to Springer. Meeting people like you inspires me to keep going with my goal.”

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Thanks to my Trail Angel in Hot Springs, I was able to continue with my Thru-Hike

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Two weeks after scalding my leg I reached the end of the Appalachian Trail. Upon completion I sent that email off to my Trail Angel letting him know we had made it, and thanks to him I had done it in good health.

Sometimes life catches you unprepared. Actually, much of the time life catches you unprepared. Sometimes it is in a bigger way than others. Often times it is frightening and overwhelming. In the same manner in which something scary might unfold, sometimes the thing you need the most is also revealed to you in a similarly unexpected way. And it is almost impossible to describe what that moment feels like. It inspires the feeling of being embraced by the universe, of being cradled by something bigger than yourself, greater than your feeble capacity to “problem solve” your way out of any challenging situation. I will never forget this chance meeting with a beautiful stranger, who was there when I needed him most. Even to this day, I draw gratitude from his selfless act, his gentle kindness and encouragement, and that feeling of the warm embrace of the universe.

Laughter, Beer and Business at 23

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I’ve simply got to get the details of this day on paper, this day was just too much! At the moment I am sitting on a bus, I’ve just passed through China customs and I am waiting to pull out, drive around the building, get out and go through Hong Kong customs, then finally make my way home to Aberdeen. Just another day at the office! Oh this crazy place. 

I met Jimmy at Kowloon Tong this morning where we grabbed the KCR into Shenzhen and met Kiefer and Peter. From there we battled the Shenzhen traffic to the candy factory where I would be performing a pre-production inspection. The management team eyed me warily upon arrival, and barely said a word to me as we strolled through the factory. After a morning full of meetings and a factory inspection, we headed off to lunch, arriving at a fancy Chinese restaurant where we were taken into a private room on the fifth floor. In our “dining room” sat a typical large, round table with a glass center piece that spun, a bathroom, a few couches, a TV and a view overlooking 40′ shipping containers stacked so high I couldn’t see past them.

So there I sat at a table of five Chinese men- Kiefer to my right, Peter to my left, beside him sat our factory guide who spoke no English, then Mr. Fune who spoke what I call “selective English,” and then Jimmy. Jimmy and Mr. Fune sat together with their heads down, giggling quietly when suddenly Jimmy looked at me directly and asked, “Greta, how old are you?”

I immediately recalled my conversation with Enmin about how Chinese businessmen typically discriminate against age even more than race or gender. This was important.

I could tell the men were evaluating the level of respect they were going to give me, and somewhat justifiably considering I am quite young to be out here doing business on my own. I smiled a bit and tilted my head responding, “A woman never tells,” winking. They all laughed loudly and conceded- Jimmy saying, “Yes of course you can’t be expected to divulge, he just thinks you look young.” To which I responded,”Thanks for the compliment, but let’s just say I’m old enough.” Peter joked that they had asked because they wanted to know if I was old enough to drink beer. After inspiring a round of laughter at Peter’s joke, they all got excited and pulled the waitress aside. Although they were speaking Chinese I heard “beer” several times.

As the food was brought out and placed on the glass centerpiece Mr. Fune pointed all of it toward me and gestured that I be served first. We began with lanyou(likely spelling that wrong), a fruit that has a grape-like consistency but a skin that must be peeled first. They grow on trees and taste similar to a combination of grape, plum and melon. Different. I move on to the tofu smothered in some type of gravy.

Then comes the beer. Everyone chuckles as James says, “He wants you to have beer so you give us your age.”

To which I reply, “Well they better have a lot of beer!”

All of them roar with laughter, holding their stomachs and rocking back and forth. We all toast, standing slightly and clinking glasses. A few bites into lunch, Mr. Fune asks with an uptick in his voice, “Twenty?”

He is clearly not letting this go. Everyone laughs as I dramatically gesture “up” with my finger. James and Mr. Fune point down. The next toast is to my age. I thank them graciously saying I must be doing something right if I can manage to appear so young.

We continue to eat, the contents of my plate constantly being replenished as they bring forth a seemingly endless array of food. They insist I try everything, and I do, for the most part. I avoid the things I have tested before (or should I say detested…), chicken feet were never a favorite of mine, nor pig knuckles. Chinese food can be quite messy for the novice and is still nearly impossible for me to eat gracefully as many dishes are very slimy, greasy or too big to eat in one bite (a challenge when using only chopsticks). Even though my chopsticks skills are much improved, I still feel clumsy eating in front of Chinese people.

We continue to toast and as drink levels get low Mr. Fune signals for more beer, pointing at me saying, “Ladies first.”

Despite my small size, I’ve always managed to hold my own when it comes to putting back beer. I keep my composure and graciously accept more beer as they top off my glass. I know they were judging, evaluating me the entire meal and I wanted to remain professional, but also relaxed and witty, comfortable dealing with them and not intimidated. I was, after all, a very young professional woman all alone in the depths of China just learning the ropes of the way things worked doing business out here. I had no mentor at this point, no act to follow, I was learning the dance right there at the ball.

After all the food had been brought out and I took a big gulp of beer, our factory guide suddenly said “Yum sing!” He slammed his half-filled glass down on the table and stood up ready to cheers- everyone followed suite, touching their glass to the center and raising it upward. We clinked a final time and I drank, watching Mr. Fune and our guide finish off their beer. I had never hear “yum sing” before, and although I assumed what it meant, I didn’t want to mistakenly chug my beer. Instead, I took a big gulp and looked at them questioningly.

“Oh, you don’t know.” Jimmy said and gestured to finish it. I smiled and said, “Oh, down the hatch!”, raise my glass and finished my the rest of my beer in one gulp- they all clapped and cheered.

As we sat around the table nibbling on the fruit platter I see Mr. Fune gesture toward me, look at James, smile and give an approving thumbs up. I have no idea what it really meant, but I had passed exceeded some expectation, passed some test, and came out with camaraderie on my side. I am still buzzing from this day as I jot this story down, oh what an experience every day is over here!!

I pulled this tale from one of my journals I kept through 2006-2007, as my early education of business abroad was reaching new heights. I went on to continue working with this factory for several months, and my engagement with factory management was starkly different after this lunch. The selective English of Mr. Fune suddenly became more conversational English, and we ended up working closely together to solve problems and figure out solutions that came up when we hit production barriers. I never did end up divulging my age to him, which at the time was a nice young 23. He never again asked.

Through all of the years I’ve spent in so many different working environments across various countries and cultures, maintaining a genuine sense of humor has always managed to defy the boundaries of cultural stereotypes and judgement. Simple interactions involving joy and laughter go an incredibly long way when we embrace and engage cultures and people different from those we already know, as well as embracing new situations and challenging circumstances. What a beautiful gift we all have within us, the capacity to laugh with one another. It also doesn’t hurt to be able to hold your own when the beer comes out 😉

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Documenting my adventures while living and working in China