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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Lean Forward and Just Let Go

“How are you feeling Greta, are you scared?”  I grin widely and shake my head no.  “What’s your social security number? Just kidding, I better see that smile when we get to the bottom.”  My skydiving instructor laughed lightly at his own joke, I felt a tickle in my chest and laughed as well as the small biplane banked slightly.  It was almost time to jump; I was ready.  I glanced across the plane where my brother sat, he too had a wide grin on his face.  I gave him a thumbs up as I was strapped onto my instructor for my first tandem skydive, here we go.

As I leaned out over the edge, I had no instinct to hold on any longer, no desire to pull myself back into the safety of the plane, I quite simply just leaned forward and let go.  As we were free falling my eyes raced to see as far as I could see, to witness as much of this Earth that I could fit into view as I fell back down to it.  I wanted to absorb every detail, to etch it into memory.  The wind pulled at my cheeks, broadening my smile even further.  With an abrupt tug, we were safely floating by parachute, enjoying the gorgeous day, reveling in the quietness that was so contrast with the roaring wind from a moment before.  I let out a giggle, overflowing with glee, that was simply too much fun.

I was 22 the first time I jumped out of a perfectly good plane.  It was probably the riskiest thing I had ever done at that point in my life.  Taking that leap of faith would come to be somewhat of a trend in other areas of my life, moments when I would realize the opportunity at hand, ultimately trusting that I was meant to land on my feet.  In every instance it has been worth the flutter of the heart as I leapt into the unknown.

Risk is a funny thing, it both inspires innovation and spurs imagination, while also confronting vulnerability and discomfort.  Risk pushes us to perform beyond the best of our ability, it takes us out of our comfort zones where real growth is tangible.  That risk I took jumping out of the plane had very real consequences, positive and negative consequences that ran parallel and a mix of luck, fate and preparation helped determine my experience of these consequences.

Over the years I’ve tried to make a habit of embracing risk with the same zest that I do when I jump out of planes; to maintain that thirst for experience, that desire to soak in every ounce of living from the moment I have left the ledge, stepped away from the safety zone, let go of the security and comforts of that which I am used to and acquainted with.

At this very moment, the sound of seagulls fills my ears.  The sun is warm, gently kissing my face as it slowly wakes up the rest of Valparaiso.  I sit from a balcony, overlooking the colorful city, homes of every shade of pastel you can imagine, ships sitting out in the harbor, the Pacific resting calmly to my left as I look out over the rolling hills.  It is quiet, the sounds of morning dominated by birds, with faint ship engines motoring off in the distance.  I have been exploring, and this place has filled me with imagination and wonder.  The cobblestone streets, the homes painted so many various hues of color delight at every turn.  Risk brought me to this little city by the sea built up into the the hills, whose charm is intoxicating alongside its grit.  A leap of faith brought me to this very moment that is filling me with so much joy and wonder. 

I believe that each and every one of us feels a tug to do something every once in a while that others may consider crazy.  Every single one of us has ideas that seem perhaps too risky, that we may be too easily talked out of.  Yet, there is greatness in taking bold action, there is so much growth awaiting us in the discomfort of the unknown.  To defy the fears of others, and perhaps the fears of yourself, by listening to the desires within and taking that leap of faith- this is truly living.  I recently walked away from a lot of very obvious opportunity for perhaps the less obvious ones.  Making that bold move, to write a chapter where I would be drawing on every ounce of strength I could muster, where I would again be searching every landscape to etch in memory the beauty it beheld, that has pushed me beyond what I believed capable, this is my latest leap of faith, and the journey has just begun.

A week ago I was rock climbing gorgeous granite deep in the Andes, discovering waterfalls and meeting the sunrise as it spilled through deep valleys.  Two days ago I was galloping horses up a mountain outside of the gorgeous organic vineyard where we’ve been learning about biodynamic viticulture. Today I am walking the streets of Valparaiso, ready to further discover this place, ready to soak in as much as I can with eyes of wonder.  Tomorrow, well, who knows where tomorrow will lead, but I will be sure to take a moment to acknowledge with gratitude the decision to take this leap, to embrace this risk, to lean forward and just let go.  Today, I let out a giggle of glee, this is simply too much fun. 

So, what is that thing that makes your heart skip a beat?  What is that leap of faith you have only imagined taking, but haven’t given it serious thought, yet?  Think about it, imagine it taking shape, and believe that you really are strong enough to lean forward and just let go.

The view from where I sit, writing this post. Valparaiso is a gem of beauty and grit, a lovely place to meander, to explore and to imagine.

Wishing Away the Present

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Freshly cut hay, always invokes many memories of my youth.

“Soon, this will all be over.” I was 11 years old, standing on the back of a bumpy hay wagon, reaching with a hay hook for the bales as they were being pushed off the bailer. It was 97 degrees, but it felt like 110 with the humidity. The air was heavy with heat, and my bare arms were aching, itching from the sweat pouring into the scrapes made by each bale. I was exhausted, this was the third and final wagon of the day and the sun bore down on us as the hot summer day wore on.  “Soon this will all be over.” I repeated the mantra in my mind as I reached for another bale and carried it to the back of the wagon to stack.  We pulled around the corner, the final row of freshly cut meadow grass racked into the bailer and deposited once more into neat, rectangular bales.  I took a long drink from my water bottle, the water was hot by now but I didn’t care, I swallowed quickly, dropping down on the nearest hay bale. I breathed deeply, enjoying the soft breeze that now kissed my face as the tractor changed gears, speeding toward the barn. Once at the barn I hoped off the wagon, unhitched the bailer and connected the tractor directly to the wagon.  Back up on the wagon, we slowly pulled the teetering tower of freshly cut hay into the bank barn, the floorboards creaking heavily as the weight of all that hay we had just lifted by hand settled in. Silence rested upon my ears as the tractor engine was cut.  I let out one last sigh, lifted the last hay bale I had just stacked neatly in the wagon and heaved it up into the balcony to be stored.  Time to unload…I begin my mantra again as I bend, lift, toss, bend, lift, toss, bend, lift toss.  “Soon this will all be over.”

Growing up on the farm was an incredible period of my life, we experienced moments of hardship, but also so many countless moments of joy and beauty.  I did so much discovering in that place, discovery of the world, discovery of myself.  One of the greatest things I learned was to cope with temporary discomfort when I knew that it was contributing toward a reality that was worth it.  When I was working for something that I loved, it was all worth it, no matter what momentary hardships might present themselves.

Although bailing hay was incredibly hard work, especially when I was so young, I accepted it as my responsibility, my “cost” for being privileged enough to grow up with horses. The privilege, to wake up before the sun, walk quietly out to the barn in a heavy sweater, and thick boots, pull back the barn door and be greeted by the warm smell of horses and the soft sound of their welcoming nickers.  To grab a bridle, pull open the stall door and lead my horse out into the pre-dawn night.  To pull myself onto her back, her thick fur immediately warming my legs, her ears forward looking into the night.  To lie close to her neck, trusting that her eyesight at night is better than mine, and to lean into a smooth gallop with her, darkness enveloping my vision, the crisp air catching my breath, the stars shining softly as they fade into dawn.  To lie flat on her back as she grazes, staring up at the sky, dreaming up ideas and futures, listening to the world wake up as the sun pulls itself slowly above the horizon.  To sit, and embrace the warm golden rays as the sunshine spills into the field.  This was all a gift, and every ounce of sweat was worth it.  Without question.

Later on in life I would reach back into the memories of those hot summer days spent bailing, and I would retrieve that Mantra “Soon this will all be over.”  The long drives on I-95 from Pennsylvania to North Carolina when I would be traveling between the home of my childhood and my new home of young adulthood.  The late nights working as a bartender, having that one incredibly inappropriate come on that made me cringe and just want to dissolve into the wall.  The commute across the Chinese/Hong Kong border with the roughly 300,000 other people every day after hours spent inside toxic factories.  The hours spent walking in the pouring rain, rain that had been pouring for six days straight, and had taken up residence in every article of clothing that I had.  The moments between homes, spent living out of suitcases on couches, with little privacy or feeling of independence. The end of the month that the numbers just don’t add up, and bills must be paid by credit card.  The breaths taken behind a mask as I walk the streets of countless polluted cities, my lungs forever tarnished from exposure in China those many years before.  “Soon this will all be over.”

Beyond all of those little moments of hardship, those brief memories of pain or discomfort, every single one of those moments was building toward something greater.  Each was contributing to my growth as a person, to my development of self and my fearlessness and courage.  Each of these moments that I once wished away, I continue to learn from with each reflection.  I have realized over time the weight that these six simple words carry, and that they are not to be used lightly, as they go beyond the immediate moment, they go to the core of our own existence.  Soon this really will all be over, and there will no longer be future moments in our life to cope with.  In the end, we actually live our lives very quickly, the good and the bad.

I catch myself now, when I am wishing away my present, and rather than uttering that Mantra, I try to look for small opportunities to acknowledge and appreciate beauty within the present.  Today I spent the day pruning vines on an organic vineyard.  The task itself is not overtly laborious, it is not overly taxing but it can be somewhat monotonous and the mind tends to wander.  After hours in the hot sun snipping and plucking, walking row after row, my mind was tempted to reach again for that Mantra.  But no, not this time.  This time I took a moment to acknowledge and appreciate. Looking at the horizon I am surrounded by mountains, all with dynamic shapes, sizes, colors and reliefs- snow caps straight ahead, to my right cacti blanket the mountainside, to my left steep thick green ridges.  I smile, standing in awe of the rawness of their beauty.  I look down at the vine I am trimming back, feeling love for the beautiful little buds that I am encouraging the vine to channel sap to.  I imagine the small role I play in the life of this plant, the grapes that will be born from it, their journey to grow, be bottled and eventually end up in a glass poured in celebration and cheers- suddenly I am a vessel of fate for these grapes.  My smile gets bigger. A soft breeze plays with my hair, I relish in the feeling of being outside all day, dirt on my hands, the sun on my back, surrounded by trees and birds, breathing in the clean, fresh air. I begin imagining how I will take the knowledge I am gaining from this project and build something from it.  Gratitude overwhelms me.  It is a lovely day, and I hope that this is not over too soon; I continue onto the next row.

Have you ever caught yourself wishing away your present moments, rather than digging in and pulling out every last drop of life you have in the present?  What have you done about it?  It takes practice, for me anyway, and a level of consciousness, but I have found there is so much beauty around us, it can always be found, should we only choose to seek it. Our perspective of challenges can be shifted dramatically when we find moments to appreciate within the midst of them, before it’s all over.

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Loving every single moment while I have it in this magical place