A Nearly Full Moon, A Sky Full of Stars, And an Erupting Volcano

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The trail winding through the lava tunnel

 

I paused, leaned down and placed my hand softly atop the dry magma covered trail. I could feel the heat of the earth beneath my hand, a stark contrast to the cold wind that blew my hair back and motivated me to zip up my vest. I scooped up Cabu, our newest adventure partner, inspecting his paws before placing him on my shoulder. He wrapped himself around my neck, leaning slightly into the top of my backpack. I turned into the wind and continued up the trail.

As I reached the closing of the lava tunnel we had been hiking along, I followed the dusty path up to the top of the ridge, heading straight into the strong wind waiting at the top. Cabu meowed in my ear, his kitten cries making me smile as he ducked back down into the backpack to escape the wind. He was already proving to be a great adventure companion. We hiked along for another mile or so, drinking deeply the incredibly vast views of the mountain valleys filled with forests, lakes and volcanoes of southern Chile. I noticed that some of the leaves on certain trees were beginning to change color already, and although the heat of the previous day felt as though we were still in the full embrace of summer, today had many hues of fall.

We continued along the trail, wrapping around the mountainside until Volcan Villarica sat directly in front of us, its top hidden beneath the thick cloud cover above. The volcano had recently increased in activity, a bubbling lava pool forming at the top of the crater only a week or so before. Being so close to it now I could feel a different kind of energy. Every few minutes a distinct booming sound came from the direction of the volcano. It was exciting, but also a bit unsettling; like hearing an avalanche canon and knowing you are in a place wild enough to warrant the use of that canon, but also the reality of how dangerous an avalanche could be. This piece of earth was alive. It was breathing, hiccuping, gurgling…and all we could do was guess what it was really up to.

I put Cabu on the ground and he trotted along beside me, happy to be able to inspect the ants and wild blueberry bushes lining the otherwise dry, bare trail. Suddenly the wind shifted and a dark set of clouds began to blow toward us. It seemed like a good time as any to turn back, so we looped around and picked up the pace a bit, the wind now at our backs, pushing us forward, away from the dark clouds above, away from the grumbling volcano behind.

The following day we hear stories from those in town who saw lava spurting from the top of the volcano the evening before. Neighbors enjoying the light show from afar, friends of friends planning to hike into El Cerduo that night and climb to get the perfect photograph. The activity was increasing each day, and the alert had been raised from yellow to orange. That booming I had heard up in the mountains, that was the volcano after all. It all seemed a bit surreal, this little town at the base of a volcano, people going about their normal daily activities, meanwhile the massive 9000 Ft. volcano towering above us is speaking up. It’s Monday, and we’re all just going about our lives as usual. But this was not just another usual Monday for our volcano.

We decide that tonight we will see the lava bubbling and jumping from the top of the volcano. Once it’s dark, we’ll drive up the back road behind the house that wraps around the mountain ridge just on the flanks of the volcano. We’ll be far enough away to watch from a safe distance, but close enough to get a killer show. The clouds are heavy as we drive home from work, our chances of seeing anything seem slim to none; but still, we hope.

Darkness settles in and we pile into the car, bundled up against the cool air, a bottle of wine thrown in to keep us warm up top. Cabu meows at first but quickly settles in as the bumpy ride ensues. The drive up is rough and we carefully navigate the deep ditches and drop offs where the road has washed away. The wind has blown most of the clouds away and the nearly full moon shines brightly above us. Stars begin to light every corner of the space above, like fireflies waking up on an early July evening. We park our trusty Super Burro when the road begins looking more like a drainage ditch than a manageable path. It’s time to hike. The night is quiet, we marvel at the stars, the brightness of the moon, and the distinct booming we again hear in the distance.

Up we go, finally arriving at a clearing where we sit down on massive fallen Coihue tree trunks, pass the bottle of wine and watch the clouds atop the volcano glow various hues of red. The sight is wild, unlike anything I have ever witnessed. We let out small cheers when we see bits of lava spurt up above the clouds, burning a bright red orange.

The volcano has a pulse. The red glow disappears, fades fully into the clouds as though it was never there, and then suddenly returns with a crescendo of lava bursting out. It is all quite calm though, the soft moon watching over us, the warm light of the lava filling in the color of the clouds. We laugh and tell stories, marvel at the fact that none of us ever expected to experience something like this in our lives. And yet here we all were, seeing this incredible, rare sight. We finish our wine and turn as the volcano seems to go quiet. It was a lovely show and we were pleased with our little front row seats.

As we walk down to Super Burro we meet Don Jose, one of our neighbors whose house overlooks the volcano. He greets us warmly and tells us how the volcano has been acting up even more around 1am or so. Ale asks if he has a car to escape if he needs to, he says no. He stands tall, wearing a hardhat. They exchange phone numbers, in case anything happens on this mountain we share. We say goodnight and wave goodbye. He stands by his gate, the outline of his hardhat is black against the bright moonlight backdrop.

A roaring noise outside wakes me abruptly from my dream. Ale’s phone begins to ring and he doesn’t even have to answer it, we just know the volcano is erupting. Don Jose is calling, I can hear his voice through the line- it is happening, it is really going now! It is dangerous up where he is now. As Ale asks if he is okay and if he needs anything, I make my way out to the deck to listen closer to the roaring noise in the sky.

The sound is overwhelming; it is as though we are standing beside a waterfall, yet the tone is somehow more hollow than falling water, like a blowtorch and a fire hose firing together. I struggle to describe it, but it vibrates with energy, with mass, with vastness beyond anything a human has the ability to grasp. As I look around the side of the house I see a huge tower of red glowing behind the trees, reaching far up into the sky and exploding into a massive plume of dark black smoke and ash that seems to have a life of its own.

It’s 3am. I run outside and wake up Christina and Pete in the cabin. From the tent cabin in the woods Ellie calls out “what’s happening Greta”? “The volcano is erupting!” We all hike up the driveway together and just a few feet from the house we can see the lava shooting high into the sky, a powerful column of red reaching more than 3000 feet above the top of the volcano. We all gasp. The plume of smoke above it is absolutely massive, swirling like the genie in Aladin, dark black against the now clear, deep blue night sky. It looks ominous. The calmness of our earlier viewing is gone, the energy is entirely different, the power is beyond measure. As we walk up the road a little further, we are startled to see the black cloud light up with lightening. It is incredible. I am absolutely awestruck by the hugeness of it all, by the colors the sounds, the feeling of the energy in the air and the shapes of the natural wonder happening before us.

We watch as the tower of lava drops back into the volcano, spilling over the sides, oozing down the cone of the crater, creating long lines of red veins that grasp hold of the volcano’s surface, deforming its face, changing its character, molding its shape and reforming its skin. Eventually, the roaring noise softens slightly and the huge plume of smoke floats above, disconnected from the lava tower and slowly blends back into the sky, taking with it the lightening strikes and blackness that was darker than the night itself.

It is nearly 5am when my head falls back onto the pillow. Around 5:30am I am awoken again by the roaring sound in the sky. As I open my eyes I realize I was dreaming of a huge wave of black flowing lava was coming straight at us, just short of reaching the house before I grasped reality again. We were on a mountain that sat across a deep valley, and although perhaps 8 KM from the volcano, the possibility of lava coming anywhere near us was pretty slim. Yet the mind will do what it wants with what we are exposed to. Mine chose to toy with the scenario of a black magma escape.

As sunlight poured into the bedroom, Tuesday morning arrived seeming like any old Tuesday. It of course wasn’t any old Tuesday, the volcano had erupted only hours earlier. I brewed coffee and Ellie and I hiked up the road to see if Villarica was still acting up. As we rounded the curve of the driveway and the view opened up the volcano sat quietly in front of us, silent and stark, not even a whisper of smoke coming from its center. The sky was a clear bright blue. The sun shone warmly. Birds flittered about among the trees, chirping happily. The roaring sky, the ominous black cloud, the towering column of flying lava, the chaotic energy of the air, it was all gone; it could have all been a dream. The only clue that anything had occurred under the cover of darkness was the marked difference in the shape and look of the volcano. Somehow the top looked different, and where once was snow was now blackened with soot and long lines of hardened charred lava. We drank our coffee. We marveled at the experience, at the sheer wildness of the eruption, and the stark normalcy of life that ensued after it. Nature had taken its course, and moved on. Life goes on. It seemed to be just another Tuesday for our volcano.

It wasn’t just another Tuesday for the rest of us here in Pucon. Thousands of people were evacuated last night as a precaution, roads were closed, military was brought in. The president of Chile walked our streets and shook our hands. Businesses remained closed and although some people returned home, others have taken the time only to gather what they need and get out. In the daylight the volcano sits quietly. But we are told that its not finished yet. When the lava tower collapsed last night it apparently dropped back into the crater, forming a clot of sorts. A temporary clot. The pressure is building, so precautions must continue.

As the sun sinks lower, as the afternoon melts into evening, we now wait to see if Villarica has more to say. If we have yet to see all its might, if we will again bear witness to the remarkable eruption of the inside of our earth spewing out onto its surface. We have gallons of water we’ve bottled and set aside, we have batteries, we have food, we have masks. Electronics are charged and animals are fed. We have the company of one another, stories to be told and laughter to let loose. So here we are in southern Chile, having one of those remarkable experiences in life that cannot be planned, that cannot be orchestrated, that unfolds exactly as nature intends, regardless of what we think we can control. With all that said, with all these words, we’ll see you on the other side of another night with a nearly full moon, a sky full of stars, and an erupting volcano.

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Villarica sits quietly behind the property where we live, resting in the evening light.

 

Arms Wide Open, But Far Too Full

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Weeks before the new year arrived I stood on mountain summits in Patagonia ready to embrace all that came along. At the time I had no idea just how full my arms would be in a few short weeks.

The wind forcefully whipped my hair back, pulling it straight out behind me as I leaned back and tried to slow my runaway horse. The heavy clapping sound of his hooves pounding into the packed earth set the rhythm of our gallop. Tears were tugged from my eyes, even as I let out short breath of laughter.  The excitement of the gallop tickled my heart, distracting me from the fact that I was bareback on an ex-racehorse galloping with no bridle or real method of control. Still, I tried to coax him to slow, pulling hard on the lead line that was attached to his halter. Without a bit in his mouth my efforts only seemed to encourage him, his speed picked up and he charged ahead. I gripped Doc’s bare belly with my knees, grabbing fistfuls of his mane, my heart suddenly in my throat as I looked forward and saw the outline of the high-tensil fence.  I yelled to him to slow down, pulling again, my words taken away on the wind and thrown behind me. As I realized there was no stopping him I leaned in, close to his neck, I could hear his heart pounding as loudly as my own, my knees came up, clutching his withers as I prepared for him to soar above the five foot fence.  I committed to the jump, smiling quietly and now urging him on. Suddenly, there was only darkness.

Life has a funny way of picking up speed when we are caught up in the moment, things begin coming fast, almost as though by domino effect, and as they do we embrace, we lean in, and we think we are ready for everything all at once. But who is ever ready for everything at once? How on earth can you be? We are, after all, only human.

As I ushered in 2015 the momentum of things here in Chile was palpable- the swiftness with which opportunities arose, took shape and became things was almost surreal. It was a swift transition from traveling around a foreign country to getting down to business and actually living in one. And yet through it there was that little feeling in the pit of my stomach saying wait. Slow down. That small tug on the lead line as I was blasting full speed ahead was easily ignored as so much that was happening felt as though it was just falling into place as it should.

The rapid pace of the past four weeks reminds me of this memory galloping my ex-racehorse Docerty’s Legend through that field one late evening. The feeling of excitement to be moving at such speed, was comparable to the speed at which I had found a work opportunity in Pucon, and with it a work contract in Chile and temporary residency. With my work in Pucon I was suddenly fully immersed in Spanish, speaking, reading and writing daily, feeling energized by the prospect that this was going to push me and my Spanish to the fluency I had hoped for. Yes! It went hand in hand with the exhilaration I felt when I was contacted to do some outside consulting work- work that I had missed during all these months of travel. So of course I said yes.  Then came the inspiration to establish my brand as an independent consultant as I began doing work with a start-up company that was bringing exciting and fresh perspective to an industry I am so passionate about. Yes, yes yes! Bring on the opportunities! I kept embracing, but my arms were full.

I hadn’t written a word for this blog since my last post just before the New Year. I was working in Pucon 6 days a week, getting to bed around midnight each evening. By the end of the day I was mentally exhausted from the constant translation to cope with Spanish; meanwhile my brain felt as though it was doing somersaults as I learned the ropes of this new company, tried to contribute to the broader corporate strategy, taking on the stress that is tied to the success of any company I join. I skipped meals without thinking, trying to keep pace with my new work schedule and find time to climb, do yoga or get in hikes. I dug into any creative energy I had left to build a website for my personal consulting projects, and wrap up the consulting work I had picked up on the side. Even as I felt I had my mind in too many places, I was thirsty for the inspiration that was coming from my conversations with the start-up in the States, and I pushed for that to continue. Somewhere in between I was trying to be a supportive wife, and struggling with the still temporary living situation we had pulled together shortly after landing local jobs.

I just kept telling myself I could power through the first few months and things would settle down. Feeling as though I was doing a whole lot of everything without clarity of where any of it was going, the speed just kept picking up and rather than bailing or simply saying no, I tucked up my knees, grabbed the mane and leaned in, until I was once again surrounded by darkness.

When I hit the ground I couldn’t breathe and was disoriented. I pushed myself into an upright position, spitting the dirt from my mouth, looking back just in time to see my beloved horse on his back, his legs flailing in the air, his moans filling my ears as the power of the fence not only stopped him but sling shot him backwards. I had landed on the other side, flying straight over his neck, clearing the fence and landing in a manner that somehow managed to spare me any broken bones or injury. As I raced over to Doc I found he was not so lucky, struggling to his feet he hung his head low and shook it softly. I approached him with a soothing voice, picked up his lead line and surveyed his bloody legs. Oh my poor beautiful friend, what had you done to yourself? Slowly we walked back to the barn together, to get bandaged up and recuperate.

The darkness that overtook me here in Chile was in the form of pain. Pain that stopped me in my tracks entirely, just as that high-tensil fence had halted Doc’s advance so abruptly. It silenced the emails, deleted the texts, drained the batteries of all my devices. I didn’t hit a fence, I didn’t crash or have a major accident. But I did experience an attack on my nervous system that has been one of the most painful things I’ve ever dealt with. With its assault it brought a clear acknowledgement that my immune system was depleted and I had not been managing the stressors that I had convinced myself were smaller than they were. The stressors I had justified because the opportunities seemed too good to say no to.

Why is it so hard to say no sometimes?  I have an incredibly difficult time saying no, especially when I think I can help, or I think I should help. Especially when I think I can handle everything all at once, as long as I am making time to get out a hike, or climb, or do some yoga. The problem is, when you say yes to everyone else, you stop listening to yourself. You only hear the needs of others, and it can overwhelm, consume, and overtake.  The clarity of mind that can be found from time spent within can be overcome by the busyness of everyone else’s demands.

I am still in the midst of the physical pain, but as I emerge, I do so with a much clearer mind. Sometimes it is essential to say no, it is the thing that can keep our head above water. One of the dangers to being open to all opportunities that come from all angles is that you can easily lose focus and exhaust your energy trying to keep up with seeing everything through. Your mind can keep saying yes even when your body is screaming no. Sometimes, most times, that is simply too much.  Personally, I have to begin by saying no to some things, and setting boundaries for others. I have to draw my focus back to the intentions I set before I moved down here, the intentions for this big beautiful life I am so blessed to live, and those things that are not helping me on a path toward those intentions, they have got to go.

We only have so much space in our arm’s embrace- so it is essential we always leave a little space in there for our own retreat. And when all cylinders are firing at once, when the sound of galloping hooves racing across the dirt can distract with the excitement they invoke, don’t forget to pause and see if there is a tug on the line, if there is a voice in the wind asking you to slow down, just a bit, for your own good.

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Slowing thigns down and getting back to the intentions I originally set when I moved to Chile

The More You Know, The Less You Need

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Stuff…so much stuff

“The more you know, the less you need.” These eight words stared back at me as I chewed tirelessly on them, sitting on my couch in my 400 square foot apartment in Hong Kong after a long day visiting factories in China. In my lap sat Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard’s “Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant BusinessmanI leaned back in the uncomfortable couch, taking my eyes from the page to stare out the window, almost in a daze.

The more you know, the less you need. Oh how true those words suddenly rang in my ears, how heavily the tugged at my heart. The more you know. Let’s start there. The experiences of the past year had been beyond any limits my mind may have constructed in terms of what I thought I would know by now; as well as all I thought I knew. The “education” I received that first year out of college working in Asia had challenged every ounce of my fortitude, my agility, my comforts. It had rocked my pre-conceived perceptions of how the world worked that had been constructed mostly by society and the consumer-driven mentality of my country. It exposed me to the way things were, rather than the way marketing agencies and departments had portrayed them.

Stuff. It is actually a heavy word, “stuff”, taking on the feeling of something unloved, not wanted enough to be cared for or properly named. Images of little things tossed in drawers and junk closets, ending up in the garbage or boxes at the thrift store. I intimately became aware of the weight of “stuff” at this time, spending countless hours in factories churning out millions of components and products that would eventually end up in the grouping of “stuff” when referred to by their owners. Promotional products, toys, mugs, pens, too many items to list, but items all the same that were made with no real purpose.

The point was, the more I knew, the more I realized no one really needed this shit. We were here, negotiating to the half a penny, pushing suppliers for unrealistic timelines and cost points that would encourage outsourcing, overtime, poor wages and bribery, in order to make more “stuff”. And we were just “doing business as usual” in comparison to the many other random companies purchasing products from China.

At the end of the day, the products coming off those production lines would be wrapped in plastic, shipped thousands of miles and eventually find their way onto a store shelf or product promotion bag. Once purchased, the owner might find delight for a brief moment, or perhaps the item would just be something given along with some marketing brochure in a product promotion; either way, the life of this thing would be fairly short without much love. The toxic chemicals used in the manufacturing process, breathed by the workers and dumped in the nearby river…those chemicals would actually sustain a much longer life.

The more I knew. I continued with this work for another year, justifying that the work experience was too unique, too priceless to let go of. What other 22 year old did I know who was based out of Hong Kong working by herself to establish a sourcing devision for a US based company?  What other 22 year old did I know who had access to realities only otherwise hidden behind closed doors, who could learn first hand the ropes of doing business in China?

None. I knew that I had a team in the USA that was trying to sell products to our clients and needed factories to do so. I knew I had a team in China who was trying to place production in factories so that we had product available to sell. But I also knew the beginning of the life of these products, I knew the challenges of tracing where the raw materials had come from, I knew the working conditions in which they were made, I knew the lax enforcement by the local government of environmental and labor laws. I knew we could do better. But I also knew that we were making things that I didn’t want or need. The more you know, the less you need.

The less I need. Aside from the full-speed-ahead consumerism that threatened to suffocate me, I also began to know more about the simple lives that those around me were living. The tiny living quarters of the workers, cramped dorm rooms where several workers lived, their small pile of belongings neatly stacked in the corners of each bed. One bathroom with two sinks available for the 100+ workers living in the dormitory, all of whom were expected to arrive to work on the production floor at precisely 8am- and would wait over an hour each morning to reach that bathroom. Simple meals consisting primarily of rice with the occasional vegetable, prepared on the floor of the bedroom or around a small fire on the street.

I began buying less things. As I would stroll through the countless markets in Chinese cities, I would find myself retracting inward, find myself pulling back, leaving empty handed. There were many moments when the volume of stuff that surrounded me would be absolutely overwhelming. The neat, far-extending production lines filled with countless workers, heads down, hands quickly and precisely moving were one thing. But the markets, the malls, the shops and stores, the trade shows, all simply overflowing with stuff. The result of our collective efforts. Meanwhile I strolled down streets choked with pollution, crossing bridges over rivers that smelled so putrid I held my breath as I passed.

I began to look more closely at my own belongings, the items I had collected over the years, some gifted, many bought. At the time I was living quite light as I traveled all the time and only had my small apartment in Hong Kong; but I still considered how much “stuff” I had acquired over the years. I thought about my car, sitting in the USA, awaiting my eventual return. I thought about the boxes of items I had moved back to Pennsylvania after I graduated college and put almost immediately into storage. I went through my wardrobe and my books, through my household items and my memory boxes. I looked at my bank account, at my credit card debt, at my loans and my income. I evaluated what I needed, why I needed it and what purpose every single thing was serving. It wasn’t an easy task, it wasn’t a comfortable process, confronting all of my stuff, confronting my motivations in acquiring that stuff, my methods of acquiring it. Yet I had to acknowledge it, I had to confront it, in order to truly understand what it was that I needed, now that I knew what I knew.

A year and a half after I read Yvonne’s words, I found myself in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, traversing the Presidential range around the fourth of July, a little over a month into our five month long Thru-Hike. On my back I carried my little bear, as I referred to my Gregory backpack, containing literally everything that I needed.

I wore boots that protected my feet from the rocky trail, and dry during the rainy days. I had gators to keep the sticker bushes from scraping my bare ankles and to keep the dirt from tumbling into my socks. I had shorts that were made from quick drying material and could be converted into pants. I had a t-shirt and long sleeved shirt that offered UV protection and a hat to shield my face from the strong sun. In my pack I carried my rain jacket, a fleece, a shirt and pants to sleep in, 3 pairs of socks and 3 pairs of underwear, a warm hat and gloves, a water pump, my camelback bladder filled with water I had taken from the stream, 6 days of food,  sunscreen, toilet paper, biodegradable soap, a spork, a rain cover for my pack, a pocket knife, headlamp and a plastic baggie I used as my “wallet” containing my license, cash, and debit card. A pair of crocs hung outside my pack by a single carabiner. Oh, and of course my journal and a pen. Ale’s pack had similar contents but also held our hammock that we slept in and a lightweight tarp for the rainy nights. That was it. Well, that and countless moments of laughter shared with people I loved, surrounded by the incredible beauty and magic of the wilderness. I knew that I had exactly what I needed, and it was way less than anything I could have ever imagined.

As the years have passed, the simple act of knowing how little I actually need has made it so much easier to pursue opportunities to make memories rather than acquire things. It has motivated me to invest in myself and my life experience rather than investing in stuff. It has inspired me to take big risks and let go of things that I might have loved once, but have moved on from. I may not know entirely what inspired Mr. Chouinard to write those words, but I sure as hell know that I can relate, that they ring true to me and the way I choose to live my life, and that I continue to hold them close as I consider what I really need these days. As my work in the industry continues, and I have gained more knowledge about issues in countries far beyond China, and about the impact of products across many industries, I continue to take comfort in my steadfast understanding of how little I actually need, and how liberating it can be to be free of too much stuff.

It’s easy to be saddled with stuff, even if you are trying to be conscious of your consumption- and especially around the holidays! If you do want to confront those drawers, those closets, those accounts and the motivations behind all that has gathered there, I encourage you to do so. It isn’t always fun, or comfortable, and it takes consistent effort, but it can be incredibly liberating and enlightening.  You might actually feel lighter once you begin letting go.

If each of us starts here, if we each begin to examine what we have, why we have it and take a stance to limit the consumption of stuff we don’t need (or really even want), then maybe, just maybe, we can begin to influence these companies placing production orders to start making things that matter. It takes more than not buying things, it takes action, it takes communication, raising your voice, telling your friends and family what you believe and telling the companies you buy from the same. You might feel insignificant in this effort, but you are not. You are essential. And now you know. So, what do you think, when you look at your life that you’ve lived, and you look at the future you hope to live, what do you really need? Do you see a lot of stuff in that picture?

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Living light in the White Mountains along the Appalachian Trail, wearing or carrying every single thing that I needed 🙂

 

The Choice That Changes Everything

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A shot we captured westward bound on the open road.

I sat in the front seat of the U-Haul watching the sun set on the cold Kansas plains. I longed for the darkness to swallow up the road, as the desolate, flat landscape had been toying with our sanity for hours.  We were ready to get through this state, cross the border into Colorado where we would be greeted by friends, family and a nice cold beer.  Our dog Check sat beside me, looking back and forth between Ale and I, she was also ready to get out of the car and play.  We had been on the road for two days, just beginning our week long journey across these United States.  We carried with us all of our belongings as we left the east coast in our rearview mirror, ready for a new adventure beginning with a San Francisco address. Although, what address that would be was still completely unknown, as we were arriving with no jobs, no apartment and one friend who would be moving back to Venezuela at the end of the week.  But we had our U-Haul, for 13 days, so at the very least we could claim this as our home for the time being.

To say we were in transition seemed an understatement at this point. It had been a long, wild journey getting us to this place in time, and a year ago I could never have imagined I would find myself battling boredom across Kansas with all of my belongings in tow. Thirteen months earlier I was running between the China/Hong Kong border; nine months earlier we were stepping onto the Appalachian Trail with everything we needed strapped to our backs; four months earlier we were stepping off the trail, onto a plane and into the streets and mountains of Venezuela; one month earlier we couch crashed our way up and down the entire east coast collecting all belongings stored with loved ones. I was ready for a home.  I was ready to unpack my bags, to find my treasures that had been boxed up for safe keeping, to rest my head on a pillow in a room I could call my own.

Just before the darkness fell heavy we caught a glimpse of the “Welcome to Colorful Colorado” sign and let out a yelp of excitement and loud cheers.  Whew, we were finally out of Kansas and the horizon changed almost immediately with the promise of mountains. I felt a tickle in my heart, by the prospect of seeing my sister and friends from college who had transplanted themselves here in Colorado, but also by the realization that we were here, we were doing this. Once we had decided to move to California somehow, against all odds, everything had aligned to make this possible.

By nature, I am one of those people who is used making things happen.  When I was a little kid, I learned the value of hard work, and the reward as well.  I always believed I could accomplish anything if I was willing to work hard, not complain, stay focused and committed and get the job done.  I appreciated my own self-sufficiency, my ability to take care of myself no matter what happened.  I valued my own independence, and considered it to be one of my greatest assets.

However, these past nine months of constant travel and a good dose of vulnerability had opened my eyes to the power of letting things happen as well.  Sometimes when you are so heavily focused on making things happen, you close yourself off to the countless other twists and turns that are available for you, some of which may be the path of least resistance, or the path less traveled, or basically a hell of a good time. When making things happen, you have to rely on what you know already, what you have learned over time and what others around you have mapped out already.  But when you are letting things happen, literally anything is possible.  You are in uncharted territory, and essentially open to see every little angle that may present itself in unexpected ways. 

This realization was pretty massive to me, and it was essentially what made it possible for me to approach this move to San Francisco in such an easygoing, trusting way.  I avoided my knee-jerk reaction to first heavily research the neighborhoods of the new city and send off my resume to countless companies; to spend hours of my life stressing over an apartment and job search from 3,111 miles away. Instead I was embracing the present, ready to take on the tasks at hand as they came up, but ultimately knowing that all that we needed would be made available to us upon our arrival.  We had decided to go to California, and that was enough. For now, we should focus on the present and soak up all of the life immediately in front of us.  Tomorrow, we would be snowboarding in Colorado.  The following day, cruising to visit my sister and climbing up mountains for some backcountry powder. From there, we would continue west and embrace all that awaited in San Francisco, whatever that may be.

With our decision to move to Chile this year, a dear friend of mine recently shared a quote with me that I think truly encapsulates the essence of this balance between making things happen and letting them happen. The beauty and truth of these words resonates so deeply, as I have lived their truth each time I have stepped off that ledge, made the first big move and then sat back and watched as the unexpected supports were thrust forth, and I reached out to embrace them:

“Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”– William Hutchinson Murray

By no means did this shift in perspective mean that I was no longer ready to roll up my sleeves and put in the time and effort to make things happen.  Actually, quite the contrary.  It is much more of an acknowledgement of the need to balance these two- to be able to get clear on what you want, to understand your why, to commit to making it happen and be ready to show up when called to do so.  At the same time though one must be willing to be open, to accept that we don’t have all the answers and that is okay, and in fact that we don’t need to know how something will work out before we decide to do it.  There is huge power in jumping into something before you have figured it all out, that is where the magic happens, that is where the creativity ignites, and we see things through a different lens.

The point is, we need to show up, we need to make the choice that changes everything, but then we need to remain open to the flood of opportunities that will unravel as a result of this choice. Every single time I have taken a leap of faith with a bold move or a risky decision it has worked out in a way that I never could have expected.  That’s not to say it has always been easy, but looking back, incredible things happened as a result of those moves. 

When we arrived in San Francisco five days later, we spent the first day driving around the city looking at studio apartments found via Craigslist, which mostly consisted of converted dingy basements, just as we had expected. Our one friend in the city who I mentioned was moving back to Venezuela offered for us take over the last two weeks of his lease since he was moving mid-month, this bought us a little time.  Little did we know that we would become fast friends with his roommates, all decide to get a big house together, shortly thereafter find and move into a sweet three bedroom with views of the Golden Gate bridge in the lovely Inner Sunset and suddenly find ourselves in a place that felt like home, as though we were always meant to be there. 

Over the course of the next few months I would find my rhythm in the beats of the city.  I would wander the streets and the parks that surrounded. I would continue to balance the urge to settle for any job rather than wait for the right one, to feel as though I was putting in enough effort to “make things happen” while still remaining patient and open enough to “let things happen.”  And you know what? It was a struggle, that in between, being so ready to take action yet not entirely knowing the best course to do so.  And yet, it truly worked out exactly as it should.

It took some time, the work stuff, it didn’t happen overnight like our little home did. I had built up a very unique skill set while working as a manufacturing manager in China, but I had also come to realize that there were many aspects of that work that I couldn’t bring myself to do again.  I spent a lot of time understanding what my priorities were for my career, how I wanted to spend my time during work (the large bulk of my life) and imagined what the right company and career might look like.  It was an interesting moment because I knew very clearly what I didn’t want to do, but I couldn’t exactly see what the next “right” job looked like for me.  I knew I had a lot to bring to the table in terms of experience, but I didn’t exactly fit into the tidy job descriptions and titles posted on websites.

I had to get incredibly creative, which was actually quite fun. I began to reengineer my work experience through volunteer work and engaging with various industry groups and networks. I got out and I met people, never entirely sure how the connections would shape up, but talking about the work I wanted to do and seeing what could be borne of it. But I also did everything I thought I should do. I spent countless hours combing job websites and researching companies, I prepped cover letters and resumes, but didn’t send them off. There was just something inside telling me to wait.

When I look back now though I realize it was all a matter of timing. Right place right time. When I saw the job posting, something clicked. I researched the company and felt something else click. The job and company had not even been on my radar in my initial search, nor in my network of contacts I had been building, but it felt right. Within two days I had the job and I spent the next five years of my life pouring my heart into work that I absolutely loved growing a company that I deeply appreciated.  It had taken me four months of patience, four months of questioning my approach, of feeling a bit guilty when I was out exploring rather than on my computer searching for jobs. I realize now that I found this work regardless all of my “job hunt” efforts, instead I had found it by digging in and really understanding what it was I wanted to do.  So in the end, it was a matter of letting the right thing come to me, believing it would and remaining steadfast until it did. When it did come, I knew without a doubt this was what I had been waiting for. 

Sitting in that U-Haul driving into the setting sun with the mountains on the horizon and an open road before us…it was both exhilarating and frightening. I knew we would ultimately be okay, but didn’t exactly know how. I looked over at Ale and smiled, thankful to have him by my side, and gave Check a pat as she lay down in my lap.  Tonight we would celebrate with friends, we would catch up and tell stories, relishing in the brief moment we had to hug and enjoy one another’s company in person. Ultimately it all came back to that decision to move to San Francisco.  Many of the things that fell into place afterward were often beyond our control and for our benefit. We had made this happen though, we had set all of this in motion with that single decision to go for it, even when the “how” seemed so unclear; and for that I am forever grateful.

Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now. These words are incredibly powerful, and great ones to carry with you through every twist and turn of life.  What are you waiting to begin?  What have you always dreamed of doing but never tried simply because you didn’t know how it could possibly happen?  What is that one choice that could change everything?

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Ale and I soaking in all the beauty that awaited us in San Francisco

All We Need is the Air That We Breathe…

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I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony of this advertisement plastered to the walls of the MTR station in Hong Kong as I wore my own face mask preparing to battle the pollution lurking in the streets above.

I suddenly awoke from a fretful sleep, sitting upright quickly, trying to breathe deeply in between aggressive coughs.  I simply couldn’t catch my breath, with each inhale the irritation in my lungs grew and my coughing multiplied.  My mind raced to the PSA about Tuberculosis I had seen countless times on the television in Hong Kong and my heart skipped a beat.  What if I had caught it?  What if they had to quarantine me and I would be stuck in a hospital in Asia with some contagious disease? 

I thought back to the machines scanning people’s temperature each time we crossed the border from Hong Kong to China, feeling uneasy with the prospect of being pulled aside and carted off to be further isolated.  I ached to breathe deeply but such a task was impossible.  It was 3am, I laid back down and focused on drawing air in slowly.  I had another two weeks in China before I was scheduled to return to the USA, I would see how I felt in the morning and make the call from there.

As fate would have it, I would not see those additional two weeks in China; the following day I could hardly control my coughing fits as I dialed the office and told them I would be flying back that day.  We rebooked my flight, I packed up my little home away from home and stepped outside the Cosmopolitan hotel to catch a cab. 

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Almost immediately my hand flew to cover my mouth as another fit of coughing overwhelmed me. As I breathed in I felt as though I was sucking on the back of an exhaust pipe.  The air was hazy today, heavy with pollution, but similar to many I had experienced while living here, I simply assumed I had caught some sort of cold or something and needed to rest; or I had TB. 

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Upon arrival back in the States I went straight to my doctor and was told that I had an infection and should take antibiotics.  Three weeks later, the cough had not retreated, so I was again prescribed more antibiotics.  After six weeks, fearing my white blood cell count was taking an incredible hit, I stopped taking the antibiotics and called a lung specialist in Philadelphia.  While the violent coughing fits I had experienced in Hong Kong were more subdued, I was still struggling with a loose cough in my chest revisiting me every evening; something didn’t feel right.

After a series of tests, I was informed that I had developed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease as a result of the poor air quality and extensive pollution exposure.  From now on, whenever I was exposed to heavy pollution or smoke, my lungs would become highly sensitive and agitated.  There was no way to reverse the damage, but the doctor told me I could limit the discomfort and further damage by reducing my travels in heavily polluted areas and any direct exposure to smoke. 

I was prescribed an inhaler to use before I went outside in polluted areas and advised that I should wear masks from now on.  It was literally as though the pollution of China had entered my lungs and taken up residency…and there was no way to evict.

After confirming the diagnosis I continued to travel to Asia for work, pretty extensively. I wasn’t living there full time anymore so I could limit my exposure to some extent, and the inhaler and masks did help.  Interestingly enough my role in my career transitioned from one of manufacturing management, to consulting on the human rights conditions of the workers in those factories. I had grown a personal awareness of the intensity of toxic fumes each time I stepped on a factory floor.

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When I began to wear my masks every visit, I was not looked at as an outsider, in fact I blended right in (well, as much as a blondish/burnet western white girl can blend in Asia).  Cruising the streets of Hong Kong and various cities throughout China, it’s not uncommon to see people wearing masks, actually it’s quite normal, which is strange when you consider it in a broader context.

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It’s estimated that in 2010, outdoor air pollution of China contributed to more than 1.2 million premature deaths in the country. I developed my condition in 2007; since then the citizens of countless Chinese cities have had to endure days of smog that were so dangerous schools and businesses were closed and people were advised to stay in their homes.

As we continue to grow more aware of this critical issue, we dabble with the risky option of simply adapting to the self-inflicted degradation of our environment. I recently came across the latest fashionable “smog masks” that braced the runways at Fashion Week both in Paris and China. Seriously, check out the article in this link.

Personally, I found this concept to be a bit grotesque… as it seems like a failure of my species to push the dial in the right direction.  It felt to me like adaptation, like frogs sitting in a pot of water with the temperature set to boil, and no awareness of their impending doom.  The presence of the masks at the runway show was interestingly timed, apparently being inspired by the Chinese marathoners who had recently donned pollution masks due to air quality concerns while completing the Beijing Marathon in October.

Perhaps it was a political statement, but it was equally a statement of an up and coming commercial trend. Campaigns such as the one launched by Max Factor in which they sponsored a selfie photo contest for consumers to post selfies wearing pollution masks paired with their Sino Weibo makeup line lends itself only to distract rather than educate. We are walking a fine line here…

It’s a bit strange that when I think back on my time living in Hong Kong, I don’t think immediately of the pollution, I don’t recall the taste of the hot, thick air, or remember what a hard transition it was for me to get used to. Like everything in life, we adapt, we become numb (like those boiling frogs) to the harmful things around us when we are constantly bombarded with them. But when I read back on my journals documenting my life there, I find the signs were everywhere, I see the struggle that I bore to adapt, my methods of coping, and the path that inevitably led me to my condition:

April 2007: “Just up the road from my apartment is the entrance to a beautiful hike- about 3.5K to Pok Fu Lam, and another 7.5K to the Peak.  I love that it is so close- it is such an important escape for me.  I am slowly adapting to the pollution, but it is difficult.  When I am immersed in the mountains and can breathe deep, I realize how thirsty my lungs are for fresh air.  It is so beautiful, breathtaking views, the clean smell of trees and dirt, rich green tropical foliage- it is amazing.

It is a startling thing, to suddenly feel the impact of pollution, and to be immediately and aggressively affected by it. I can literally feel my lungs resist the air when I am in a smoggy city, or standing near people smoking cigarettes.  This awareness has made me even more conscious of our impact on the environment, and how that directly impacts our own ability to continue living within it.

If you’ve been wandering with me for a while (particularly via Instagram), you probably realize how much I love wild places.  I adore trees. I feel my most alive when I am in nature, climbing trees or mountains, snowboarding down steep lines in fresh powder, sitting on a surfboard in the ocean watching a pod of dolphins surf the waves around me.  Being outside, in the elements, ignites an awareness of living that I have never been able to experience when I have hit the streets of any man-made place. It is almost indescribable. The woods were my sanctuary when I lived in Hong Kong, they were my escape, my place to find relief for my exhausted lungs, a place to retreat and drink deeply the air that had been given back to me, refreshed with the breath of the trees.  Having this condition has made me all the more aware of how essential wild places are when it comes to the quality of the air that we breathe in the long term.

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Thanks to all of them, I can breathe

I’m not a fan of wearing masks when I travel.  As you might have read in my previous post– I love to smile, and love the places that a simple smile has taken me.  Behind a mask, it is much more difficult to connect with new people in a new place.  You can’t help but feel incredibly separate from both the people and environment surrounding you.  You are much more self conscious (particularly in those countries where masks are not yet “the norm”) and feel isolated.

Recently I spent a week in Santiago, Chile.  The first few days I was okay, as it had recently rained, and I avoided wearing masks simply because I wanted to blend in and try to get a sense of the place from a more local perspective. But by the third day I had to find masks, fast. Ale and I spent a good part of the day running around the city from Pharmacia to Pharmacia trying to find N95 or N100 masks rather than the standard painters masks that all were offering.  At the end of the day we finally found a box of N95 and much to the shock of the shop keeper bought the whole box (instead of the single one they were used to selling). Here in Chile it is still not the norm, despite the poor air quality in many of the cities.

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For me though, it is too late for this to simply be a choice.  As I experienced during a recent trip to several European cities that had me coughing for weeks, my condition is only going to be heightened as time goes on, so masks must become a constant companion each time I visit a developed or developing place.

I know plenty of people who have spent years in these places and do not (noticeably) suffer from my condition.  I share this story, these thoughts, simply because I want us all to take pause and think about what we are doing to ourselves, to one another, to the generations that will follow us (the generations born from us).

When I lived in the smog, I adapted; at the time I was not motivated to push for change, to advocate for an alternative way of living. Those around me had accepted it as the “norm” and I simply learned to live with it. My perspective now, looking back, is quite different.  If I could do things differently in this case, man I would have. I would have done everything in my power to keep my precious lungs protected as I ventured off to build my career.  Had I only known.

Personally, I do not see the development of better, more functional and fashionable masks as progress, even though those things will benefit me as I continue to run around cities of the world.  I see progress when I see forests saved and placed into conservation; I see progress in restoring deforested areas, when I find living walls and alternative production methods being used that emit zero air emissions.  I see progress when I see effort to change what we know to be broken.

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I’m still finding my way, trying to understand my role in being a part of this change, leading an effort or supporting one that is far greater than myself.  But I know I am meant to take this course, I know this is a cause worth raising my voice for, I know there is so much opportunity for us to turn our creative minds toward solutions that stop the damage rather than simply covering it up with another trendy product.

For now, I’ve got a box of masks in my bag, no matter the destination airport. But when I escape to the wilderness, I am leaving those babies at home.

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If you would like to learn more about the air pollution issues in China and the health impacts of smog exposure, please watch the incredibly powerful and personal documentary recently released by Chai Jing entitled Under the Dome.

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This is not a fashion statement. This is me, running between meetings during my last work trip to Hong Kong/China. My masks are a constant travel must and have been for the past 8 years, as you can see the smog was pretty bad when I snapped this shot.

A Tale of Two Oxen, The Kindness of Strangers and a Road Less Traveled

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Sometimes the road less traveled leads you to sticky situations, but it is usually always a story worth telling

My heart is pounding rapidly and feels as though it has been pushed up into my throat.  I look down and realize I am gripping the sides of my seat, my entire body tense.  I look to my left and see a wide grin across Ale’s face.  Suddenly I acknowledge what I am doing, the fear and worry of the future having pulled me from this present moment and instead distracted me with awful “what-ifs”.  I decide to let go of those what-ifs and simply enjoy the ride, I let out a laugh with Ale and encouraged our trusty little Subaru we endearingly refer to as Super Burro forward through the thick mud and rocky uneven road.  What’s the worst that can happen?  Well I don’t want to spend to much more time imagining that, so instead I begin thinking, what’s the best that can happen, even if something bad happens?  “You can do this Super Burro!” I yell and laugh.  Just as suddenly as my attitude changes so does our progress- suddenly it becomes quiet as the car drops down and we are no longer powering forward and instead sit hopelessly stuck somewhere along the back roads of Chile.  Ale and I look at each other as he again presses on the gas and we only feel the wheels spin- “Oh no…” we both say with wide eyes.

This could be a moment to again entertain those “what’s the worst that can happen” scenarios, we are, after all, in a pretty dire situation.  We are miles from the nearest paved road and similarly miles from any other route that has anything remotely related to “traffic”.  I step out of the car and my foot sinks up to my ankle in mud.  Immediately I fear the entire car may be swallowed up within the hour.  We don’t have any cell phone service, but even if we did who would we call?  We are in the middle of nowhere surrounded by fields, mud and tropical sounding birds.  The road we are on, like many we have traversed since arriving in Chile, bears no name, and any description would not likely bring help.  What would we say, “Yes, so you turn left off the main road onto a dirt road, the dirt road takes you back through the fields and rapidly deteriorates, eventually bringing you down steep rocky hills and when the dirt turns quickly into mud before you even realize it, yes that is where you will find us.”? Not likely to garner a rescue.

Ale tries tirelessly to place boards beneath the tires and better position us so that we have some sort of traction.  After hours of effort and little progress, we decide it is best for him to go look for help.  Perhaps we’ll find a tractor in the field, or a friend along the road who can call another friend with a truck.  I stay with the car and smile, thinking well, we certainly will have a story coming from this one…hopefully it’s a good one.

Those “worst that can happen” scenarios fall quiet.  I sit, I write, I listen to the sounds of the forest surrounding me.  The sun is incredibly warm and I am so very thankful it is not pouring down rain on us.  I find a log that makes a great seat, away from the wet mud, and listen to the birds, their exotic calls taking me to tropical escapes.  I imagine the luck Ale will have in finding help, in somehow managing to get us out of this mess.  I wander further down the road a bit, trying to see if I can hear or see any sign of life without straying too far from our stranded steed. I try not to look at the road ahead, the deep pool of water and mud menacingly embracing the front end of our car.  Deep breath, we are going to get out of this, and it’s going to be a good story, not a bad one.

A few hours later I hear the sound of a harness and clinking of a chain.  I can hear Ale’s voice, and the constant prodding of heavy feet in the mud.  I run up to the edge of the hill to find three dogs, Ale, an old man who must be close to 90 years old and two oxen.  Oh boy I think….here comes that story I was hoping for. Don Fernando has arrived, a local farmer who lives far down the road we had traveled.  Ale had found him out with his oxen and asked if they might be able to pull us free from the mud.  I can’t imagine how this is actually going to work, and I notice the oxen are staring at Super Burro with wide eyes, it seems as though they are thinking the same thing.

We hitch the oxen to the back end of the car with the heavy chain attached to the yoke.  Ale gets in the car, turns it on and puts it in reverse, hoping to help these massive beasts as they pull.  I stand in awe and watch as the oxen pull, encouraged by Don Fernando’s feeble yelps and the barking of the dogs.  My heart is again in my throat as I watch the wheels spin hopelessly and the mud is churned deeper. We try again, and still the weight and strength of the oxen is simply not enough to release Super Burro from the muddy depths of the road.  Nervous butterflies tickle my stomach as I wonder again how we’re ever getting out of this.  Eventually Don Fernando takes his trusty oxen home, he is old and very tired and the car simply seems too stuck.  Perhaps a tractor will be better, he suggests, although he says that none of his neighbors have cars, so we must find a way to get to the nearest town.  With a kiss Ale is again off, taking on the miles needed to meet the paved road in the hopes that he can hitch a ride into town and convince someone to get back here with a tractor.  I am again alone in the woods with the sun and the birds.  Again alone with my thoughts and imagination.  The sun is dropping as the afternoon wears on.

Hours pass before I hear voices in the distance and the sound of a motor.  Gleefully I jump up and run to see who our rescuer is now.  Ale is coming down the mountain, his gators caked in mud. Behind him I see a large red 4×4 pickup truck parked at the top of the hill.  A man is standing on top of a rock peering down nervously.  He is wearing a large brimmed leather hat, a button down plaid shirt, a pair of khaki pants and white socks with leather sandals.  I can hear the uncertainty in his voice as he yells rapid fire Spanish to Ale.  This is Don Luis.

Eventually Don Luis decides it is in fact possible for him to bring his truck down into the gully where we had managed to get stuck, although by doing so he seems to create a zig zagging slip and slide of muddy ditches that I can hardly imagine our little Subaru being able to clear.  My heart is again in my throat…

As he hooks his truck up to the back end of our car, Don Luis alternates between an attitude of unwillingness to that of overzealous belief in his ability to get us out.  He yells loudly for Ale to step on the gas as he slams on his, the truck jerking forward before being jolted to the sides, sliding back and forth in the mud.  We try, try again, and for a moment we see the small light of progress as the front end slightly emerges from the deep mud.  Suddenly Don Luis and Ale are speaking fast in Spanish, the words jumble in my ears as I work strenuously to decipher what is happening.  He doesn’t pull forward any longer, instead he gets out of his truck and nervously looks at his phone, trying to find a signal.  He steps delicately around the blocks of mud, careful not to get his white socks browned, hiking up the hill and leaving us with both cars.  I look at Ale questioningly, “He’s stuck,” Ale informs me matter-of-factly.

At this point I can’t help but laugh.  Oh boy! What are we going to do!?  I seriously cannot imagine a possible solution, as I look up the road, back the way we came, where Don Luis has now churned the thick mud into deep, cavernous ruts. I look at the two cars, back to back, both stuck in the deep mud, well beyond our capacity to remove them in our current state.  The sun has dropped and I can feel the temperature cooling.  I grab a sweater from the car and realize it is 6:30.  An hour and a half of daylight left, it looks as though we might be sleeping here.

Eventually Don Luis returns.  He has called his friend who has a pair of oxen, they will come to pull us out.  I look doubtfully at Ale, remembering the lack of progress we had with Don Fernando’s team, wondering how they will actually be able to pull out this massive truck now as well.  But I am advised that this is a younger team and a younger farmer, so they will be stronger. This is how it works here, I am told, you need the oxen, a truck or tractor will never work.

We spend the next hour or so speaking with Don Luis, learning his story, hearing about his family, his farm, his parcels of land and simple little store where Ale had collected him.  He speaks no English, and gets a kick out of the fact that I am American, and that I have been here sitting with the car all day.  He asks if I was afraid to be out here alone, of strangers that could come around with ill intentions.  I make a joke which Ale translates, something to the extent of being more afraid of strangers in cities than those I encounter out in the woods.  He looks at the sky and says we should leave the woods though before it gets dark, since the pumas will arrive then.  He seems only half joking now.

Soon enough we again hear the clinking of chains hanging against the yoke of another pair of oxen.  I look up the path hopefully and see a younger looking farmer with work boots and thick clothes, carrying a long pole and clicking to his team of oxen.  This is Don Pepe.  I don’t want to believe it but the pair of oxen he has brought are significantly smaller than those of Don Fernando… oh how on earth are we going to get out of this!?

He first hooks the oxen up to the front end of the truck.  The oxen bow their heads, ready to pull, Don Pepe lets out a shrill “Owwyeeeee!” and the oxen power forward.  In the same moment Don Luis hits the gas and his truck miraculously lurches forward.  He is free!!! The oxen had done it! They continue to pull him further up the muddy hill, as he zig zags and weaves he again forms new ruts in the soft earth, but I don’t care now, I believe that this can be done, and these two oxen can do it!

Once Don Luis is back up the hill he parks the truck and runs down to us.  We have hooked up the oxen to our car and Ale sits ready on the gas.  With rapid clicking, numerous yelps of “Owwyeeeee!” the oxen pull, but again the wheels only spin, mud kicking up and splattering the edges but no lurches of freedom can be realized.  We all look at one another, the evening darkness rapidly approaching.  It is quickly decided we must leave the car for the night and come back in the morning with a winch that will make the power of the oxen stronger.  With that, Don Pepe believes we will be able to move the car.  Don Luis invites us to his home for the evening, also inviting Don Pepe to come by for a drink once he has returned his oxen to their field.  I smile as I quickly stuff overnight clothes in a backpack, wondering where this little twist of fate is taking us, and who these characters are whose lives have intertwined with ours.

We spend the night in the very simple and gracious home of Don Luis and his wife, telling stories and laughing well passed midnight.  A dinner of bread and cheese is presented, and Don Luis excitedly remarks to his wife to “mira la niña en la cocina” after I take up his offer to cook some eggs gathered from the chickens out back. We share rum and beer and my broken Spanish mixes with their low-toned Chilean Spanish, Ale often lending an ear to try to translate, although even for him there are words used in Chile that are foreign.  By the end of the night they are referring to me as “hija”, or daughter, and making us promise, with tears in their eyes, that every time we drive this way we stop by and stay, because we are family now.  Oh what a moment, oh what a time, and oh how significant it felt that our paths had crossed in the moment and manner in which they did.

The next morning Don Pepe arrives bright and early, as promised.  We rush through breakfast, grab our bag and run outside to jump in his truck, finding the truck bed full of men from the small village.  Don Pepe’s father sits in the front of the truck, his grey hair neatly tucked under a clean blond hat, his presence stately compared to the rag-tag team in the back.  We proceeded to drive down a few dirt side streets, collecting two more men along the way. It literally felt as though we were bringing half the village to get us out.

Driving through pastures, we eventually come to the field where the oxen sit grazing.  What peculiar site we must have been, walking down that dirt road, 7 men from the town, the old father of Don Pepe walking with his cane, Ale chatting with Don Pepe alongside the trusty oxen and me, the only woman among us.

As we arrive to the hill, we look down and see Super Burro still sitting where we left it the night before.  A little part of me seriously believed it would be swallowed up in the sinking mud, so I let out a quiet breath of relief.  We again connect the oxen to the back of the car with the same chain, but this time also connect it to a winch that the men tie to the tree. Ale revs the gas and the oxen begin to pull as Don Pepe lets out another shrill “Owwyeeeee”! My heart is racing now, the anticipation and hope that this works feels simply palpable.

Nothing.  The car does not budge.  My heart feels as though it drops down to my stomach…now what?

The men have gathered around the car, all of them bracing the front and the sides. They are all yelling to one another as Don Pepe readies the oxen once more.  Ale steps on the gas, a loud “Owwyeeeee!” mixes with the calls of the pushing men and with a sudden jolt Super Burro is free from the muddy pit and is being pulled backwards with great force.

Everyone stops and cheers.  The winch is removed and the oxen pull Super Burro up the hill, easily towing the car across the deep ruts made by Don Luis the day before.  It is truly an incredible site…the sheer strength of the animals is simply shocking and their power is obvious.  Finally our little steed is free.  At the top of the hill Ale is able to back up and turn the car around.  He slowly drives forward as the rest of us walk behind, ensuring there are no future problems with some of the ruts further on.  There is a relieved energy that resonates among all of us.

Once we are beyond the deep mud and back on solid stones, we say farewell to the men and the oxen.  There is no request for money, there is no demand of anything, only well wishes on our journey and some laughter with advice to stick to actual “roads” in the future. I give everyone a hug, my heart fit to burst with gratitude for their time and energy and selfless willingness to help us in our moment of need.  We stop by Don Fernando’s house on the way out to show him our liberated Super Burro, he smiles a wide toothless smile and nods and laughs, hugging me as we bid farewell.

What a funny way to embrace a disaster.  At the end of the day, it was a grand adventure. Although getting the car stuck was one of my original “worst that can happen” scenarios, the people, the stories, the heartfelt gratitude and laughter were all elements of my “best that can happen” scenarios.  And that acknowledgement made all the difference. Oh what fun these little twists of fate can be when we simply decide to smile and laugh no matter what!

Have you ever been on the brink of disaster and chosen instead to imagine the positive that could come from being in a bad spot?  I bet the chance will arise at any moment….so don’t forget, worrying about the negative possibilities only takes you away from experiencing the present moment, and if you lean into that moment, even when bad things happen there is always opportunity for beauty and laughter to grow out of it.  And maybe, if you’re lucky, you will find the kindness of strangers ready to embrace you, no matter how hopeless your state may seem.

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Don Fernando and his oxen, our first attempt at getting Super Burro free was not so successful

 

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Don Pepe’s oxen successfully pulling out the truck of Don Luis

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Super Burro is finally free thanks to our new friends, a winch and some incredibly powerful oxen!

 

 

The Open Road, An Untouched Roadmap, And A Smile

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Taking a moment to smile, appreciate and document some of our adventures in the backcountry of Chile.

What a day!!  After several days in County Cork bouncing between hotels, pubs and business meetings, I found myself in Ireland with one day entirely to myself before I would catch my next flight on to Hong Kong. I woke up early, grabbing my carry-on bag, the keys to my rental car and a road map of Ireland. Once checked out of my hotel, I sat at a crossroads and considered consulting my map; instead, I decided randomly to turn left.  What was left? I had no idea, but I knew I had one day and I wanted to spend it getting lost in one of my favorite places in the world.

I managed to meander my way to the coast simply by choosing random lefts and rights along the way, my roadmap sitting untouched on the floor of the passenger side of the car.  Oh the coast of Ireland, how this place makes my heart ache!  It had first stolen my heart two years prior when I had been studying abroad there.  Ireland was the first country I had ever visited outside of the USA, and my what a place to introduce me to the beauty that awaited on the other end of an overseas flight.  Now as I sat again on the cliff’s edge, breathing deeply the crisp sea air, I marveled that I had managed to get back to this place that I loved so dearly without even trying.  How funny that one of my biggest clients would be based in County Cork, and that it would be a business trip that would return me to this place I held so closely in my heart.  The thought of all the random twists and turns of the past two years that brought me back here, similar to those random twists and turns that brought me to the very place I sat that day, triggered an uncontrollable grin.

Eager to see what else could be discovered, I jumped back in my car, invigorated by the jewels I was finding simply by wandering aimlessly across the country. I completely disregarded my roadmap once again and instead drove north along the coast, now in search of some Irish fish and chips. I found my way back to the lovely Galway, one of my favorite cities in Ireland, and dug into by far the most delicious fish in chips I’d ever eaten as I sat at the edge of town beside the water’s edge. From Galway I hit the road again, heading a bit further north up the coast before deciding to wander inland a bit and cruise the country roads of middle Ireland, heading in the general southern direction so as to end up somewhere semi-close to Shannon airport from where my early morning flight would depart.

The smile on my face just could not be undone, as I passed countless stone farm homes, pastures of sheep and horses, the only traffic to bother were the occasional herds crossing the road.  As the sun began to set and evening descended, I decided it was time to finally consult that map and see where the nearest city or village was.  Luckily I wasn’t too far from Ennis so I decided that would be my final destination where I would find a room for the night at a local pub. Considering I hadn’t intended to arrive here, I was delighted to find such a lovely little town overflowing with charm and an age that took one back to medieval times.

As I sat at the bar in the pub enjoying a hot beef stew with mashed potatoes washed down with an incredibly delicious Guinness, I jotted down some favorite moments in my journal, smiling to myself with each little memory.  I was approached by three very jovial flight attendants- Sara, Chris and Tony, from the USA who happened to be staying in Ennis as well before flying back to their Detroit base in the morning.  We swapped stories of world travels, laughed a lot, and probably managed to sample all of the pubs in Ennis until the wee hours of the morning.  As we parted ways and I gave everyone farewell hugs, Tony looked me straight in the eye and said, “Never stop smiling, your smile brings more light to others than you could ever imagine.”  I smiled again, saying thanks and that I would always try to keep that in mind.

The next morning I awoke with a start, frantically grabbing for my phone to check the time.  Oh no!! It was 8:30!! My flight departed at 9:15…how on Earth was I going to make my flight?  I shook my head as I quickly pulled all of my clothes into my bag and dashed down to reception to check out.  Into the little rental I raced, stepping on the gas and willing my trusty car to get me to the airport in a mere 20 minutes rather than the 35 the innkeeper had estimated.  Oh I couldn’t miss this flight!  I had meetings lined up already in China, and was on a three week travel stint and oh how irresponsible of me if I screwed this up!!

My heart was racing as I quickly tossed the keys of the rental car to the attendant and ran for security.  I smiled at the security personnel, looking wildly disheveled, explaining that my flight left in 10 minutes and I had to run.  The guard let me pass through the separate line for flight attendants- I smiled to myself remembering the fun I had with the crew last night and threw my bag on the conveyor. “Beep beep beep”…the security guard asked me to open my bag. Oh no I don’t have time! I thought nervously, quickly unzipping my carry on and finding that I had forgotten to separate my liquids and they were messily strewn about with my clothes.  I hear my name being called over the loud speaker as a final departure call for my flight. I looked desperately at the guard and smiled, she simply said in a thick Irish accent, “Don’t worry love, RUN!” and smiled broadly.  I grabbed my bag, zipping it as I ran, raced down the terminal to my gate where I found the door just being closed.  “WAIT!!!” I desperately called ahead.  The gate attendant looked at me, oh what a ridiculous sight I must have been, she smiled and picked up the phone, hanging up and opening the door to the jetway.  Oh my God I had made it.  I breathlessly thanked her a thousand times and ran onto the plane, apologizing for my lateness and quickly finding my seat.

I was sweaty, my hair was a mess, uncombed and flying every which way thanks to the lovely wet Ireland air.  My face had no makeup, and I think it’s very possible I was still wearing my pajamas.  But I had made it.  Oh wow had I made it.  I sat there wondering at the day I had just experienced, all those little moments that had drawn a smile to my face, and the lovely little reminder that a perfect stranger had given me about the power of that smile. I leaned back deep into my chair and once again was overcome with an uncontrollable grin.  The passenger beside me looked over and said, “Well it appears you’ve had quite an adventure, what have you been getting into over here in Ireland?”

In all my travels, my smile has been a constant companion.  And as I’ve gotten older, even more so.  Not only does it physically make you happier when you smile, it is actually contagious, and inspires those around you to smile as well.  My smile has brought some pretty wonderful people into my life, people who may not have approached me had I not been wearing it.  It has also been a wonderful way for me to become more present and conscious of the experiences I am having.

The past few weeks I have been exploring Chile with my husband.  We began our travels heading to the coast, in a similar manner to the way in which I chose to meander through Ireland so many years ago.  We have our wetsuits, surfboards, yoga mat, rock climbing gear and backpacking gear ready for whatever Chile had in store. As we arrived in Matanzas, a tiny little town along the coast that reminded me warmly of the California Coast and had been recommended by a local for the surf, I ask “How long will we stay?”, to which Ale responded, “what do you think, as long as we want?”

“Sounds good to me. And then where to?”

He smiled and said, “Further South I suppose, and when our arms need a rest from all this paddling, let’s begin driving East to the Andes for some trekking and climbing, give the legs a workout.”

I smiled and nodded, “sounds good to me.”

I think over the course of these past few weeks I have probably smiled hundreds of thousands of times….hopefully I’m getting closer to millions.  I am constantly in awe by the beauty we discover at every turn, constantly in a state of gratitude for this journey I am blessed to be traveling, for all of the twists and turns in my life that have brought me to the very place I sit, and for the prospect of so much unknown opportunity awaiting on the horizon.  I smile now as I relive that brief but hilarious moment in Ireland, and cherish the words that Tony left with me. I am sharing this smile all across Chile, and just as this country is inspiring light within me, I hope that my smile inspires light within others.  We should all smile more, it’s good for ourselves and great for one another. If you don’t believe me, just listen to this fantastic gem about The Hidden Power of Smiling by Ron Gutman.

Here are a few of the places that our random little journey has brought us here in Chile and that keep invoking this ever-present smile:

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