Okay, just kidding

Gentle readers, lest you worry about me after my last sad entry, I will share the good news that after I left Bogota, I spent a beautiful two days in Medellin that refreshed my spirits and I am now back at a comfortable hostel enjoying the city once again. I have another sad entry to write, but I can assure you that I am writing it while relaxing in a sundress and lounging in a hammock, so don’t worry if it seems like everything is starting badly on this trip. Medellin is lovely and I’m generally in much better spirits. I’ve just had a small hiccup, which I will describe here:


Something I’ve come to learn about myself is that I’m tenacious, sometimes to a fault. I don’t admit defeat easily, and I love challenges; and it’s brought me great success at work and in my hobbies. However, I know that I sometimes take it too far – the same tenacity that allowed me to take on a managerial position and excel at it, even though it’s not my natural skill set – that same tenacity has also led me to stay in relationships longer than I should, and to continue work on projects that don’t matter long after I’ve lost interest – among other things.

So I hope you’ll understand, people of the Internet, when I say that I’m proud of myself for leaving a farm in Santa Elena less than 24 hours after I arrived, despite my intentions of volunteering there for a week or more.

I felt great about the placement when I first arrived and met my host – the pace was slow, and we had ideas to share for how I could help with the online marketing campaign he’s running. He told me he would teach me some VERY important words in spanish – I got out my notebook, expecting to write things like “please” “yes sir” “cow” “worms” “the chickens are loose” etc. Instead he taught me trueque – exchange; amañada – happy; parce – friend; bacando – cool. Good signs.

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However, I felt a little stress as we began the farm work – I’m not really made for hard labor, and I also don’t have technical expertise in construction or farming (perhaps things I should have considered before traveling to a farm), so I began to feel useless, needing to wait around for my host to tell me what to do or how to help. I hate feeling like an idiot who needs hand holding, but it comes with the territory when you’re learning a new skill, so I sucked it up for the evening – I was there to work, after all. Colombian people are gentle and kind, almost as a rule, and my host was no exception – very patient.

Over dinner I listened to the Spanish around me, feeling happy to recognize conversation fragments (I am still a beginner, but I understand a little more each day). The people I met were truly warm. Smiles had etched laugh lines in their faces, they bellowed with laughter, they cracked jokes with me and with each other. I felt – and am still sure – that this is a loving family.

Eventually, it was casually mentioned to me by my English-speaking host that I would be cooking for everyone tomorrow. Great, I thought, this is perfect – I know a lot more about cooking than I do about farming; maybe I can really contribute something here. Which meal? Oh – all of them. And how many people at each meal? Eight??

…okay, now I’m a little stressed.

It wasn’t part of my prior agreement with my host that I would cook, but it’s not an unreasonable request – the couple who owned the farm wanted me to earn my keep, and I respect that. Three meals on my first day is kind of a lot, but I assumed that they’d take it easy on me if things weren’t perfect. At some point in the evening I was also told that I would be giving the lady who owns the house an English lesson – which I was also happy to do to earn my keep. However, at that point I was beginning to wonder who I was actually working for and what their expectations were.

Before I went to bed, I was told to have coffee ready in the morning for everyone. What time? Oh, six or seven or so. And could they show me around the kitchen, since I hadn’t seen it, nor did I knew where anything (for example, coffee) was kept or what food I had to work with for the massive meals I needed to make the next day? Tomorrow, we’ll show you tomorrow.

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I was up at 6am sharp to make coffee, since I figure nobody wants to wait for their caffeine – but I found Hector, the man who runs the farm, already brewing coffee on the stove. This must have been my first big mistake – I didn’t know enough Spanish words to remind him that it was my job that morning, and my english-speaking host wasn’t awake yet, so I let it slide. I should have said something, or asked him if I had been expected to be up earlier.

Over coffee I tried not to be impatient while everyone woke up, but I was really anxious to learn the kitchen so I could start breakfast. Three of the men at the farm were constructing an additional house in exchange for their room and board (I think) and I wanted to make them a good breakfast. When I asked, the answer was “we’ll eat breakfast later”. I went upstairs starving to wait for “later”, not sure how long I was supposed to wait or if they intended to eat at all. After a time I saw the farm owners coming out with plates – they had cooked the meal for me. At this point I really, definitely should have said something. My English-speaking host was nowhere in sight and I wanted to begin preparing for lunch. I sat on the balcony sketching the chickens and trying not to panic. I still hadn’t been shown anything in the kitchen, and I didn’t know if the farm owners were covering for me somehow, or if they hadn’t really meant for me to cook anything. I also didn’t know where anyone from the farm was, and had no one to ask if there was farm work or other housework I could help with. I began to berate myself for not being savvy enough to pick up on the social cues I must obviously have missed, and for being too timid to ask questions, and cursed myself in general for thinking I could have been useful on a farm.

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It was at this point that I decided I would leave the next day – I felt so useless at farm work, and I was only going to need more hand-holding, and no one seemed to be interested in taking responsibility for teaching me. This was also my fault for not taking charge of my own farm education – but I was unsure of myself and couldn’t communicate with most of the workers, so I wasn’t sure if I was allowed or expected to interrupt them so they could tell me what to do. It was clear to me that this was not the community I had pictured, with many international travelers coming and going – my host was staying with another family, who were not primarily interested in international travelers. I reflected that I needed to improve either my Spanish, my gardening skills, or both before I came to work on another farm that was obviously not geared toward beginners. I also observed that I am tenacious, sometimes without good reason, and that maybe I didn’t need to cause myself so much stress to learn a completely new discipline. It hasn’t always been easy for me to recognize the value of the things I can do well, but I know that I do have valuable skills, even if they don’t involve farming. Maybe next time I volunteer I’ll look for a placement that involves my existing skills. My tenacity held for the day – I vowed to make a fantastic lunch and dinner for everyone before leaving the next day.

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When my host came back mid-morning I asked when they wanted lunch. “Oh, you know, one, two, three, whenever”. And what should I make? “Anything!” I didn’t recognize all of the vegetables lying in piles on the kitchen floor, but I do enjoy a challenge, and I know I could make something tasty. Could I help with anything until lunch? Oh, you know, just stuff around the house.

I stayed at the house and looked for stuff that might need my help.

When I came downstairs at 11:30, planning to start a meal that I would serve at 1:00, the farm owners were already halfway done cooking a soup and giving me disappointed looks. I didn’t know how to ask them what I was missing, so I decided to think positive – maybe they were cooking a meal for just themselves. My host arrived around 11:45 and suggested we make fried potatoes, and then disappeared. Perfect – fried potatoes are easy – I tried to continue not panicking as I looked for a way to light the gas stove, which I had still not been shown how to use (I eventually found the lighter on a high shelf). 15 minutes later the workers sat down in the dining room waiting for their meal. What happened to “oh, we’ll eat at one, or two, or three…”? Did I miss a joke? It was only 12 and they looked at me expectantly. The farm owners served them the soup they had cooked. My host returned and we salvaged the fried potatoes, which apparently I was supposed to have cooked in a deep fryer that no one told me about.

We made plates for the farm owners who had gone somewhere, and had sat down to eat when Graciela, the woman who owns the house, appeared in the doorway and treated me to 10 minutes of uninterrupted and very disappointed Spanish. I didn’t understand most of it – she speaks with a strange cadence and never stopped to see if I’d understood her – and once I realized she was angry I actively stopped mentally translating, to keep from becoming upset.

But I did catch that she was angry about the miscommunication, and that she had spent a lot of money on groceries which she felt I had wasted (she did not appreciate my fried potatoes or the salad I whipped up at the last minute). I get the feeling that she wanted me to cook the kinds of food that family normally eats. I don’t know what that would have been, having been there less than a day.

I never found out exactly what she said to, or about me. I finally realized that there had been a general misunderstanding between her and Hector, who own the farm, and my host, who was using their land to stage his project – a misunderstanding about my role and what work I would do. The laid-back answers my host gave me about times and responsibilities weren’t consistent with their expectations, and it was their expectations I was to be meeting.

At some point during her speech I decided I would leave once the lunch dishes were clean.

They were all lovely, warm people – even Graciela, who chewed me out. But it was clear that the arrangement on the farm was not what I expected – certainly wasn’t what was advertised when I signed up – and that I would probably be working for the Spanish-speaking farm owners, not my english-speaking host.

This was the key moment. If you’re reading this, you’re probably thinking the situation isn’t unsalvageable – just a misunderstanding, still a lot of potential to be great. I hate giving up, and I realized that I hadn’t given the situation much chance to improve. I was thinking all of that. But I was also thinking about my decision before, not to spend energy and stress learning a new discipline when I have good skills already. I was remembering how much stress I felt at not being able to communicate – especially when my host would lapse into Spanish giving me directions and not wait for me to let him know I understood. I was shaken from the talking-to I’d been given, and indignant because it wasn’t really my fault. I was afraid of all the other ways I would surely offend the farm owners – I was bound to make mistakes if I stayed there a full five days, and I was already on their bad side.

So I did it, dear readers – I threw in the towel on this situation without giving it my usual tenacious college try. I feel guilty at disappointing my host, who could have used help with things i really could do – like writing emails in English, and painting signs. But I made a rare choice in favor of my own selfish comfort, here at the beginning of my trip when I’m already outside my comfort zone.

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(Minus the sundress and hammock, which are definitely within my comfort zone).

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Impressions from week one

Today is my fifth morning in South America. I’m leaving Bogota to travel to Medellin, and then onward to the northern coast, so I’ll take this opportunity to write some scenes from my first week. That’s what the first week is for me currently – a collection of scenes:

– The rooster starts to crow at around 5 in the morning. Who keeps a rooster in an apartment complex in a heavily populated neighborhood of a major metropolitan city? “Cock-a-doodle-doo” is too cheerful an onomatopoeia for any sound at such an indecent hour. I meant to ask Javier for the spanish word, hoping it would be more appropriate.

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– I eat well. Eggs, tomatoes, arepas (little cakes made of cornstarch or flour with cheese) for breakfast (thanks Javier); ajiaco (soup); stir fry and chicken at home; and exotic fruits I’ve never seen or heard of before. I especially like the pitaya, which is small, yellow, and spiky on the outside, mild and sweet on the inside.

– At the museo Botero, Javier tells me that Botero painted fat people (and fat fruits, and fat violins…) because he wanted a way of making his subjects significant, as though through their enormous size they would acquire a kind of grandeur and permanence. The fat Mona Lisa is my favorite.

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– Everyone makes me feel welcome. My Couchsurfing host Javier has a guest bedroom for me and threatens to kick me out when I try to help with the dishes. I meet other couchsurfers for dinner and drinks. Everyone is patient, friendly, welcoming.

– We walk through the historic neighborhood La Candelaria – historically significant and also historically unsafe. A security guard rests an enormous machine gun against her hip while she answers a text message on her iphone.

– Despite stern warnings from travel websites and Javier, I find the hike up Monserrate to be well-guarded and heavily traveled, mostly by high school girls. I’m delighted by brilliant flowers lining the path and increasingly impressive views of the city. I make the 2500 meter climb in about an hour, which is great considering the altitude (bogota is already 3000 meters above sea level). I’m told some people run up the trail in 30 minutes or less! At Monserrate I visit the little chapel and watch blue and green hummingbirds among the vivid blooms of plants I’ve never seen before.

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———
It was a strange week. I was comfortable and well taken-care of, yet I didn’t feel like myself – truthfully, I wasn’t very happy. Transitions aren’t easy, even if you’re transitioning to something you’re excited about – maybe I was homesick, maybe depressed.

They’re not pleasant feelings, and I try not to let myself feel guilty for being unhappy (one of the awful things about depression – the depression makes you sad for no reason, and then you feel guilty for feeling sad with no reason, and then you’re depressed again). However, I welcome these feelings, unpleasant though they are. I’m grateful for the opportunity to explore my moods and their meanings. I try not to make decisions based only on my mood, but instead to use my emotions as one of many tools I can use to make choices.

As I write this my mood is shifting. I’m settling in to travel mode, feeling more comfortable and confident. I’ll write again from my next stop with more thoughts.

The Packing List

I wasn’t planning to post a packing list, because I’m sure in a few months the contents of my backpack will have changed, and the packing list of someone who’s been on the road for a few months is a lot more helpful to a new traveler than that of a novice.

But I’ve been thinking a lot about packing as I prepare to leave on Tuesday, and I thought it would be interesting to post my list for posterity. It’s a benchmark of where I’m starting, a point from which I can measure the way my mobile life evolves in the coming months.

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I hope I’m not forgetting something

For a backpack, I’m taking the

Rei Gemini 50L Backpack

It’s different from many other trekking packs in that it’s composed of two bags that clip together – a main bag that’s essentially a giant flash bag (I estimate 30 or 35L) with a stiff internal frame and waist strap; and a smaller (probably 15 or 20L) day bag that’s more like a conventional hiking backpack. I love this system, because I can detach the daybag for use as a hiking backpack on day trips (or even to wear around town, if I’m not concerned about blending in) and not have to lug my entire massive backpack around with me.  At least, I love it now – maybe I’ll hate it in a few months.  I’ll keep you posted.

Day Bag – top portion

  • “duck’s back” backpack rain cover
  • tiny umbrella
  • foldable shopping bag
  • moleskine notebook, modded with a duct-tape penholder; zebra ballpoint pen
  • antibacterial hand wipes
  • safety whistle/compass
  • passport
  • yellow fever vaccine certification
  • “travel wallet” (cash and backup ID with a rubber band around them – sophisticated, I know)
  • chapstick

Main Portion

  • 3L water reservoir and drinking tube

Electronics

  • iphone
  • headphones
  • kindle
  • iphone charger
  • kindle charger
  • universal plug adapter
  • Headlamp

Misc (some in day bag, some in main bag)

  • paracord (50 ft)
  • vegetable peeler
  • combination lock and cable lock
  • moneybelt
  • small scissors
  • 2 sharpies
  • extra ballpoint pen (I’m in love with Zebra brand)
  • duct tape (wrapped around an old credit card to conserve space)
  • plastic utensils
  • tampons
  • mini sewing kit
  • thank you cards for couchsurfing hosts
  • postcards of Roanoke for couchsurfing hosts/friends
  • small thank-you Roanoke souvenirs
  • extra hand wipes
  • deck of playing cards
  • passport-sized photos
  • Credit and Debit cards
  • ID

Clothing (main bag)

  • 1 pair of quick-drying olive green pants (can be rolled up to convert to shorts)
  • 1 wrap-around skirt (can convert to a dress)
  • 1 pair thermal leggings (can and probably will be worn as “pants”)
  • money-hiding belt (looks like a normal belt but contains a hidden zipper that can conceal bills)
  • 1 camisole/undershirt
  • 1 basic black tee
  • 1 dressy sleeveless top
  • 1 casual blouse
  • bra
  • bathing suit
  • 6 pr underwear
  • 4 pr socks
  • head warmer/earmuffs running underarmour thing
  • scarf
  • light jacket
  • ultralight down jacket
  • waterproof shell
  • misc jewelry
  • chucks
  • teva sandals

Toiletries

  • dr bronner’s magic soap
  • toothbrush
  • travel-size conditioner
  • travel-sized deodorant
  • small comb
  • tazorac (prescription acne cream)
  • nail clippers
  • tweezers
  • dental floss
  • earplugs
  • Concealer
  • Eyeliner
  • glasses case & backup glasses
  • Clip-on sunglasses
  • sunscreen

Medicine

  • doxycyline (anti-malarial, also an acne treatment)
  • ciproflaxin antibiotic (in case of a brief illness)
  • 30 iodine/water purification tablets
  • 5 packets oral rehydration salts
  • geigerrig water filter (clips onto the hose attachment for the hiking water bladder) – filters up to 150 L
  • tylenol
  • sudifed
  • benadryl
  • lactaid (lactose-intolerance medicine)
  • immodium
  • pepto-bismal tablets
  • triple antibiotic ointment
  • hydrocortizone
  • band-aids
  • Bug spray

Other

  • Quick-drying microfiber towel
  • Extra zip-lock bags
  • travel-sized tissues (aka emergency toilet paper)

Total weight is 17.4 lbs and feels manageable. The weight will definitely go up if I throw in a tent and sleeping bag.  For the first month, I’m planning to travel without the camping supplies as a trial.  If I end up with a lot of camping opportunities I wish I could have taken, I’ll have the tent and sleeping bag mailed to me, and that will bring the backpack up to around 24 lbs.

All this, to carry on my back for the next 6 months (maybe longer).  It’s a little scary to plan to live on so little, but also immensely freeing.  My hope is that limiting my possessions will encourage me to think creatively about solving problems with what I have (rather than just buying more things), that I will feel more free to spend my time exploring new places, interacting with and serving those that I meet, and working toward other goals I have set for myself (my reading list is up to 50 new titles and I intend to learn Spanish on this trip – to name two).

Fellow travelers, what has your experience been with the things you’ve brought with you?

Sore Feet

I’ve experienced multiple physiological changes since quitting my job two months ago; most of them positive, and most of them expected. I’m less stressed, better rested, fitter, and generally happier (everything you might expect from someone who’s been on vacation for two months).

However, a little change I didn’t expect to feel after quitting my job has been not in my head or my heart but in my feet.

Every morning when I put my feet on the ground, and sometimes during the day after a long period of sitting, I notice an ache at the tops of my arches and the pads of my feet.  At first, I assumed it was my foot muscles getting used to the new work of grabbing on to flip-flops, which I began to wear constantly and enthusiastically at the start of summer.  Then, once I quit my job and started long weeks of road tripping and multiple 10-mile hikes every week, I assumed that my feet were just tired from all the extra walking.  But for the last three weeks or so, I’ve been bumming around at home, less active than when I was touring the national parks, doing plenty of sitting, lounging, lying around, and generally being lazy; yet I still feel my feet grumble for a few seconds after I get up.

I could be wrong about this, but I wonder if it’s my feet getting used to actually being walked on again.

This is the first time in six years that I haven’t spent most of my days sitting for 9-10 hours every day. I loved my last job (that’s part of what made it so hard to decide to go), but the best way for me to be productive and effective was to glue my butt to my office chair for as many hours at a time as I could manage.  Maybe the reason my feet complain now is that they forgot what it feels like to be walked on at regular intervals – even if it’s just a trip to the grocery store, or walking up the stairs at the library, or moving across the patio as the sunlight shifts.  Could it be that even the small amount of walking required to be an unemployed bum is more activity than I was getting as an office worker?

I don’t want to be too dramatic here.  Maybe my feet are sore because I sold out to The Man (okay, my last employer was not The Man, but rather a well-run and compassionate organization – but you get my point) and now I’m breaking free of the system and my feet are learning how to walk again; or maybe I should just have invested in better-quality flip-flops.

Either way, the pain in my feet has made me think about the changes that have taken place in my life over the past two months. Noticing the benefits to my physical and mental well-being, including my hardening feet, has made me question whether working at a standard 9-5 company job (something neither of my parents do) was the right fit for me in the first place.  I’m enjoying more positive changes than I thought I would, and many that I didn’t expect to feel nor realized were missing from my previous life.  Now I’m questioning whether I would like to go back to that lifestyle with its upper-middle-class benefits (cushy salary, job security, amazing healthcare, 401k, flexible hours). Would I be happier in a job that might keep me in a lower tax bracket, but would ultimately prove healthier for my body and mind, involve more meaningful and creatively challenging work, and give me the opportunity to live out a less conventional lifestyle?

In short: were all the benefits of a cushy job worth forgetting how to walk? And what other things would I have eventually forgotten how to do, without realizing I was giving them up?


NB: I realize that this post, my feelings about leaving my job, and my decision to quit my job in general kind of put me in the Entitled Millenial 20-something camp.  I welcome comments, criticism, and discussion on the motivations of the millenial generation, of which I guess I am one.