Cómo se dice “cancer” en español?

IMG_3018

The words in the email stared back at me silently as I wrapped my mind around their meaning. They were delivered with no emotion, offering no reaction to my receipt. They were just words, serving their purpose, delivering their message.

“Please let us know that you received this. Also please note that this is a skin cancer that will need treatment.”

The house was quiet, still dark as the sun was just making its way over the mountains to finally spill into the valley. Ale had already left for work, and I was alone. I opened the path report that was attached, sent from my dermatologist in the States, read the diagnosis, and sat back pondering what I should do next.

I guess I wasn’t really surprised, when I had originally noticed the pinkish spot that didn’t go away, I knew what it could be; and when I saw the dermatologist during a quick visit to the USA, he seemed pretty concerned. However, in all my years traveling and living abroad, I never had to face a medical issue in a foreign country. I never had to imagine the possibility of working with doctors and hospitals who didn’t speak my native language before I was fluent in theirs. I didn’t really know where to begin, sitting at home alone with no doctor in front of me to answer my questions; so I began with Google. And what was my first question?

“Cómo se dice cancer en español”.

As I typed the question into the Google search, I felt about as helpless as a lost child all alone in a new city. And finding out it was simply “cáncer” somehow made it worse. It was kind of a bizarre moment that sums up the essence of leaving the comforts of your home country. Being self-reliant, confident and independent have been attributes I’ve always celebrated about myself; but in that moment, my independence and self-reliance felt so insignificant.

IMG_3848

Learning to communicate in Spanish and have general conversations is one thing, but being able to find and talk about cancer treatment here in Chile is an entirely different kind of beast. However, as I learned more about my diagnosis and options, I actually found myself continuously reassured by gratitude, rather than fear.

First, my diagnosis was Basal Cell Carcinoma– a very common form of skin cancer (in fact, the most common form of all cancers), and one of the easiest to cure. As I learned more about this type of cancer and the available treatments, it was reassuring to know that the risks associated with it were not life threatening, and that treatment should be pretty straightforward.

Second, I have with me my incredibly handsome, intelligent and reassuring husband who also happens to speak Spanish as a first language. Although I have always managed my medical issues for myself, being able to lean on my husband now to help me find the right clinic, get the right doctors, ask and translate the questions and answers has saved me so much stress and confusion. It is humbling to really need someone when you are in a vulnerable position, but it is also empowering when you see your individual strengths and weaknesses collectively supporting one another.

Third, I am living in a country with a great medical system and have easy access to excellent doctors- even in our tiny little town in southern Chile (much to my surprise). To top that off, I have friends here who were quick to offer recommendations of trusted clinics and contacts of doctors who had treated other friends. It is a gift to live somewhere with access to great healthcare that is also extremely affordable. This fact is not lost to me when I think of so many loved ones in the USA who are buried under medical expenses associated with any type of cancer diagnosis. Part of me also cringes at the fact that this will now be in my medical history and if I do move back to the USA someday, I’ll have to contend with the discrimination of insurance companies there.

IMG_3757

The helplessness that I originally felt when I received the diagnosis shifted entirely when I began my treatment. My experience working with the doctors and hospitals here in Chile was so incredibly different compared to every experience I’ve had with hospitals and insurance companies in the USA- even with the language barrier. The feeling that was embracing me all along the way was one of sincere kindness. And that simple kindness really did make the whole process of having a piece of me cut out that much easier. The abundance of gratitude, just kept flowing.

IMG_3737

Throughout this process, one thing has really struck me- and it is something I hadn’t really expected. From the time I received the diagnosis, to the process of learning more about this type of cancer and discussing it with my doctor, all along the way I realized that somehow cancer has become kind of a “normal” thing in my generation. I remember this being different when I was a kid, when losing someone to cancer was a rare shock.

However, at the age of 31, I wasn’t entirely shocked that it happened to me. I have friends my own age and younger who have fought battles with many different types and stages of cancer. I know of young families who have had to deal with the devastation of a child being diagnosed with cancer. I have lost friends and family members to cancer. Without necessary rhyme or reason, these days cancer affects nearly everyone I know in some way or another.

Although some cancers have specific and direct causes, many are still hard to pin down. Personally, I believe that the environments we have constructed in our maddening pursuit of a consumer-driven, industrialized society are huge contributors. We are of this Earth; and in our time on this Earth, humans have radically altered the environment in which we exist. Much of this alteration has been done with blatant disregard for the impacts on our Earth, directly threatening our own ability to continue thriving on this planet, of which we come from. We cannot damage this Earth without directly damaging ourselves. We must be stewards, not pillagers. It is our own health and the health of our children that we rob when we damage the ecosystems we live within.

IMG_3979

As I’ve been healing, I’ve spent a lot of time retreating to the wild places that surround my home in southern Chile. I’ve spent quiet time sitting atop mossy fallen trees that lie strewn beside waterfalls. I’ve climbed mountains that toyed with stealing my breath as I struggled up their steep inclines, only to have that breath taken away entirely when reaching to top and standing in awe of the view before me. I’ve sat quietly inside the trunk of a living Coigue tree, feeling as though I was sitting in the warm embrace of a womb. I have felt every single cell in my body rejoice as a warm breeze, the first sign of the coming spring, twisted my hair, and the smell of rain falling in a dense forest filled my nostrils. IMG_3929

So what can be done? How can we as individuals slow the progress of this degrading industrialized system? We can begin by demanding transparent information about the contents of the things we buy, and the manner in which they are produced. From the food we eat to the products we wear and use to adorn our homes, information is power, and the more we know about what chemicals and toxins are involved in producing the goods we consume, the more control we have when it comes to limiting our exposure. And, perhaps more importantly, this allows us to begin the conversation with the companies manufacturing these goods. It is up to us to hold them accountable- it is up to us to demand this information, this level of transparency, and to demand products that do not inflict harm on this Earth and our own bodies. If we do not require it, the things we buy will continue to be made with a focus only on higher profits and lower costs- at the expense of our health, our environment, and the health and vibrance of the people and communities who make the things we buy.

The Environmental Working Group has been publishing reports on chemical and toxin transparency for years- and their reports are hugely helpful to any consumer trying to navigate the barrage of “natural” and “eco” labels out there today. The latest Cancer Prevention Edition landed in my inbox the morning after I had surgery to remove my skin cancer. The irony of it is not lost to me, which is why I felt so motivated to share my little story, and take some time to speak up in the hope that others consider doing so as well. You can also join the conversation by checking out the Just Label It campaign working to demand greater transparency in the USA food supply. Together, we can find a better way.

IMG_0756

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.

IMG_3666

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.

IMG_3580

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.

IMG_3650

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.

IMG_3693

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.

So, what do you do?

IMG_3565

Me posing with Volcan Villarica after an invigorating climb on a crisp, beautiful July day.

“Oh you live in Chile? Wow, so, what do you do there?”

“Well, mostly I climb mountains and surf.” I say with a smile and a little laugh. I laugh because this response inevitably always draws a quizzical look and a flurry of follow up questions. I smile because this simple little statement is a true reflection of how I’ve been spending most of my time lately, which was my intention when I closed the last chapter and began writing this one.

By now when someone hears that I live in Chile, they typically first assume that I am here for my job. That is why I stopped telling people what I do for a living when they ask me what I do in Chile. I didn’t come here for my work, I came here for my life. Their next assumption is usually that we moved here for family- also not accurate since neither my husband or I have any family here. I get it, I’m in my thirties, most people don’t just up and move to a remote part of the world for reasons other than work and family, but I also kind of love the fact that we did.

I remember the pangs of fear that crept in when I initially decided to quit my job and move to Chile, fear about answering that question, “what do you do,” as so much of my identity had felt tied to my work. I remember thinking about how I should update my Linkedin profile, how I could validate my credibility as a capable and successful professional without the title that went with my role. Even with those questions and doubts causing concern, the greater concern for me was that I would spend the majority of my life in an office, in front of a computer screen, finding time to do the things that brought me the most joy only around the edges of my life, not within the focus. I didn’t only want to experience joy in the edges, I wanted it to be flowing constantly.

IMG_3566

Pre-surf yoga always helps me clear my mind and connect with my intention before heading into the waves.

It’s funny how we subscribe to society’s definition of success, and learn to build our goals and dreams about achieving it through that lens, rather than the lens of our own souls. It is a practice to refrain from pursuing success in this manner, it is a practice to go within, to listen, to understand what ignites joy within you, what makes that feeling of love and gratitude just overflow to the point of uncontrollable giggling and mile-wide smiles. I don’t think this is a struggle, but I do think it is a practice. But when we engage in this practice, oh wow. Wow what unbelievable beauty can unfold!

In the past month, I have hiked through the backcountry of the incredible and ancient snow-dusted araucaria forests of southern Chile, climbed to summits where I had 360 degree views of wild landscapes filled with volcanos, waterfalls, lakes and a huge variety of forests. I have explored the southern coast in search of clean surf breaks, perfect for a cold but sunny winter surf session. I have spent days meandering down dirt roads, deep into unknown territory with my favorite person on the planet, laughing and finding magic places that only we know about, where we can someday bring our loved ones to share. I have put skis on and skinned up a smoking volcano, overlooking massive jewel-toned lakes with craggy mountains on the horizon, then turned around and skied down, back home in time to make a fire, do laundry and cook up a feast. I have also put in a good bit of time working on some exciting consulting projects, logged the necessary hours on my computer, all the while feeling creatively energized. As much as I love the work that I do, I still relish in the fact that I can step out my back door and huff and puff my way up a mountain that will totally have me giggling with childlike glee when I reach the top. This is my bliss, and now that I have it within arm’s reach, I try to embrace it daily, on some level.

IMG_3559

With this as your backyard, it is hard to justify spending a day inside in front of a computer screen 😉

So, when someone asks me what I do, my gut reaction is no longer to tell them about my work. Although I love my work deeply, it no longer feels as though it is the most important part of my identity. Instead, I want to share what I actually do, what makes my heart sing, what invigorates me and reminds me that THIS is living, and I should be doing what makes me feel most alive as much as possible while I am able to.

How would you answer the question “what do you do,” if you were referring to how you spend the majority of your time? Does your answer excite you? Does it make you smile and laugh? If not, what would it take for you to pull joy from the edges of your life to the focus?

I Am a Little Bit of Many Thing

1538784_10100262915891423_192471775_n

The air is crisp this morning as I am shuffled forth into the sunlight. I yawn my way open, stretching widely and feeling myself settle in the morning light. The ocean sits quietly on the horizon, dropping beneath the edge of the cliff where I am perched. Just to my left, the sun breaks forth, a bright orange ball bursting from the coastline, as though it is suddenly released from the embrace of the mountains.

To my right, high in the sky, the moon sits peacefully, still residing over the ocean and the land, remaining bright in the moody dawn light, still untouched by the sun’s rays. Her evening watch is nearly done and she will soon retire; but for now, she remains with her waves and her breeze, with her meadows and her trees.

I did not know where this particular journey would take me. Yesterday I was picked up, carried off through the traffic of the city, cruising north beneath the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge. Quiet anticipation traveled with me as I wondered about the destination, about the sights I might see, about the tales I might tell. Now I sit and recount those tales, beneath the light of a setting moon and a rising sun. Lovely little moments lived are captured for future moments of reflection. My tale is also captured in these pages, but just one chapter of it- there is really so much more to tell.

I was born in several different countries spread across this world. Before I was what I am today, I was a little bit of many things. My pages are compiled from trees gathered from a forest in northern Oregon. My cover is a strong leather made from the hide of a calf born in the countryside of China. My binding is linen thread made from flax fibers grown in India. And these days my pages are tattooed with ink that is made up of carbon black, drawn from the deepest depths of this planet, either coal or oil, depending upon which of various pens were used. I now exist as many different parts of this Earth, all combined as one.

As a tree I stood tall, breathing deeply every day and night. When it rained, I drank the raindrops through my leaves and my roots. Animals and bugs ran along my thick bark, birds sang from my long arms, I danced with the wind and I stretched for the sun. Eventually, I was cut down, lifted with chains into a very long truck and hauled to a factory for processing. The air in this factory was different, and I no longer used my leaves to breathe. My bark was removed and I was cut into chips. These chips of me were then mixed with chips of others, and then with water and cooked into a paste. Afterwards bleach was poured on me along with chemicals- caustic soda, sodium sulfide and melamine- to give me the desired texture and a different kind of strength than the one I had that allowed me to stand so tall as a tree. After this process I was flattened, and all of the liquid was squeezed out of me. I spent hours drying until finally I was considered finished and was cut into individual pages.

After my brief life in this factory, I was transported to another where my pages were stacked upon one another and I was sewn into my cover, the leather embracing my outer pages. I came to learn my cover had traveled an even greater distance than my pages, first being born as a calf in the fields of mainland China. I had a brown coat and a rattly voice. I spent most of my time grazing and eating corn, I had strong hooves and enjoyed sunbathing on hot sunny days. I think other cows may have thought this odd about me, as they lounged about in the shade, chewing their cud with suspicion.

Eventually I was loaded up with many other calves, and taken to a facility where my life as a calf was ended, and my life as a cover began. The air in this factory was also different, and I no longer used my lungs to breathe. Once the skin was removed, I was coated with salt and sent to a leather tannery, where I was covered with chemicals to remove the grease and hair. After my chemical treatment, I was handled by many workers as they moved me back and forth between various processes. They breathed in the chemicals, and as it soaked into my skin it also soaked into theirs. Finally I was inspected for quality and deemed appropriate to live the life as a journal cover. I was stacked with many other hides, placed in a box and began my very long journey by truck and shipping container destined for the USA, where I would meet my pages and begin this next form of existence as a little bit of many things.

From the factory line where I was bound, I was stacked with others, wrapped in a thin plastic film and placed in a box. This box was lifted onto yet another truck which drove me to this next new home. The next chapter of my life would be lived in a side alley shop in San Francisco. Upon arrival, my plastic was removed and I took my place quietly sitting on a wooden shelf, stacked tightly between others who resembled me. I had a lot of time to reflect on the places I had been, on the pieces of this Earth that had been combined to bring me into this new existence. Little did I know my travels had just begun.

Eventually, my companion lifted me from the wooden shelf, holding me lightly, flipping through my empty, crisp pages. After so many seconds and minutes and hours and days I finally felt the warmth of the sunshine again as we stepped outside of the shop together. I smiled with delight, the sunbathing joys of my youth momentarily relived. As we sat together at the cafe, my pages breathed deep the warm breeze, flapping softly as my branches once had.

As destiny would have it, I would travel all around the world with my companion- we climbed mountains in the Trinity Alps, we paddled rivers and traversed glaciers in Alaska, we visited strawberry harvesters in the fields of Morocco and Mexico, we even spent time walking the floors of factories in China, factories similar to those where parts of me had been created. I’ve flown across the oceans more times than I can count. I’ve opened my pages to capture and share memories on ferries, subways, monorails, cars and airplanes. I hold all of these details within the warm embrace of my soft outer cover, they have become another part of me. 

This cover has been worn soft from such constant travel, and a few of my pages have begun to pull loose. Heavy ink is now scrawled across all of my pages, and I spend most of my time on that windowsill, sitting in the sun. My life as a traveling companion has evolved into the role of an old friend to reminisce with, to share laughter and learning. 

I am no longer the tree, or the cow, or the coal or flax that I once was. I am, however, still here. I am, after all, a little bit of many things. I cannot determine how my life continues. I cannot determine how my shape and form may change if I am discarded, retired to a landfill somewhere no one will again open my binding and spread my pages. Perhaps I will be recycled, my pages pulled from my cover, and again melted to mix with others in chemicals and water, these stories washed from my folds, bleach replacing the ink, a brief chapter of my life washed away. Who knows, I cannot tell the future. I can only embrace this moment to bask in the sunshine, and each time my cover is parted, my pages breathe deep the wild air, and I will continue to hold tight the stories of this life.

1043859_10100139817456673_694371976_n

Ever since I first stepped foot on a factory floor and witnessed the thousands of workers hand painting the simple packaging of a plastic toy we were manufacturing, I realized what an incredibly complex system we had created to make the things that we consume. I was taken aback by the realization that every single thing has encountered a remarkable journey to come into existence- from the fields, mines or forests where the raw materials were drawn, to the factory floors in countries all around the world. All for the sole purpose of their arrival to us, the become our possessions. Some of them are tools, some are used to bring pleasure, some we hold onto for years, others only for moments. Regardless of the purpose they ultimately serve, our things share this world with us, and their existence, our demand for their existence, has a direct impact on the state of our planet.

Personally, I’ve gone through all the phases of emotions when it comes to my “stuff”- the guilt of knowing the negative impact the production of that thing likely had on this Earth; the helplessness in my own ability to change the bigger picture, and have any measurable impact beyond my own buying decisions; the ultimate justification for buying things I want but might not need. I don’t believe that feelings of guilt and helplessness inspire change in behavior or a better understanding of practical solutions. I believe curiosity does. I believe that seeking knowledge about the lives of the things we own can inspire a whole knew vision of the world, our place in it and how we choose to interact with it.

I’ve written other pieces about conscious consumerism, about how my own perspective on buying things changed as I learned more and more about the actual cost to our planet and the communities making them. Now I am exploring another perspective, one I hope you might find interesting, a perspective that might ignite a curiosity within you as well. This story is a glimpse into the life of one of my things. It is bottled up in about 1500 words, hardly enough to do the life of this beloved journal justice, but it is meant to only be a glimpse. Just going through the act of writing this has me curious about many of my other things, and the secret lives they’ve lived before coming into my possession.

What kind of stories do the things you hold dearest to your heart carry with them? What kind of a life have you given them? What do you know about where they originally came from, what parts of this Earth were combined to create that one special thing? Who had a hand in bringing your thing into existence? Where will it go once you are finished with it?

Are you curious?

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.

1924195_538004108473_1108_n

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.

1924195_538008853963_9400_n

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.”

burn

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

215846_1023952248765_1281_n

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

229698_721078071783_5369761_n

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 😉

25630_600346987843_2288203_n

Documenting my adventures while living and working in China