Coming to Colombia

If you’re following along at home, we’re now in Colombia.  After a pretty bittersweet realization that we were sick of not having a home of our own (as we were driving somewhere in Iowa, having a pained discussion over travel logistics), we decided to truncate our plans for traveling more extensively in South American and the Caribbean and determined that a month in Colombia would suffice to scratch our travel itch.

On the way out, we spent a fun night in Chicago with some of Rick’s friends before boarding a plane bound for Cartagena, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia.  With an overnight layover in Panama City, Panama, it was the cheapest ticket we could find and it didn’t require us to fly through Bogota.  However, it did require a stop in Panama – something I would normally be excited about except that my passport expires at the end of March, making me just a few days short of the three month validity needed to enter the country. Definitely a potential issue.  But, we thought to ourselves, “Hey, the most they’ll do is keep us in the airport.”  So, though I was pretty apprehensive about trying it, once we landed, we made our way to immigration to head into Panama City.  We waited in line for almost an hour, and when we approached our agent he was all smiles.  That is until I saw him whip out his counting fingers and determine that I was a few days short of the required minimum.  He let out an agonized whiney sound, apparently exasperated at the fact that we were so close, yet so far from being legal, then told us to wait a minute.  I nodded, and mentioned our connecting flight to Cartagena the next morning.  About 10 minutes later he came back and asked us to follow him.

We walked to a small office where another couple was waiting, and watched our agent plead our case to a small, mean-looking woman inside.  He returned to us with his head hung low and looked me in the eye,  “You will need to take the next flight back to Chicago.  He can come with you or stay.”  I looked at him and decided to play the stupid card, “I don’t understand!  Can I speak to someone else?” He repeated again that I would need to fly back on the next flight to Chicago, leaving in a few hours.  In absolute disbelief,  I looked at Rick, looked at my agent, and said , “We could stay in the airport!  If I had never come through immigration, you wouldn’t have even known.  Please, we won’t leave! We have tickets to Cartagena in the morning!”  He looked at me, sighed and agreed that, yes, they would never have known the difference. Then he turned back towards the office to plead my case again.  I glanced at Rick, my eyes saying clearly, “Why the hell did we attempt to leave the airport!?”

Moments later, the little mean-looking woman came out and barked, “digame!” at me.  I explained, over mounting tears, that we had tickets for Cartagena in the morning and that we only wanted to stay in the airport.  We didn’t need to leave.  She looked at my tickets, thought about it for about a minute, which felt more like ten, and then agreed that if we didn’t leave the airport we could go on to Cartagena. We turned, mounted the stairs back into the airport and settled in for the night.

So, with an awkward overnight in the Panama City airport, so began our travels.

Now, after a bus ride so bad it’s actually funny (I sat next to a piece of cardboard which replaced a broken window, there was glass all over the floor, the video player was broken and repeatedly played one accordion note about every two minutes, and then the bus broke down and we had to switch in Barranquilla), Rick and I are back in Cartagena for week two of spanish classes.  We’re having a great time so far – loving all the AMAZING food, welcoming and friendly people, and warmth – and mostly just trying to find a balance between work and play.  I have to remind myself that traveling in South America isn’t all fun and games – or that maybe I have passed the point where what used to seem fun now just seems irritating.  There is a lot of garbage, a lot of bad and overpriced hostels, and a lot of really loud, young Israeli, Argentine, American, and Aussie tourists.  Having been young, loud, and a tourist once before around here, I now see with a newfound maturity, how obnoxious it can be.  Though, I shouldn’t blame the tourists exclusively.  As we travel, Rick and I are realizing that our lifestyle of waking up at six for a workout and going to bed by eleven, just doesn’t compute with the standard Colombian schedule.  So, it goes, and we adapt. And by adapt, I mean, we lose workouts and occasionally some sleep.

But, hey, we’re having fun!

Up north

My parent's cabin

It’s been a year and a half since I last visited my parent’s cabin in the north woods of Wisconsin.  Then, it was summer and I’d rallied a crew to join me from various parts of the country.  We drank wine, swam in the lake, and enjoyed sunsets to melt your heart.

Now, it’s -16 degrees.  Snow drifts around the house, and the lake is buried under ice and criss-crossed with snowmobile and cross-country ski tracks.  The sound of the woods is silence, broken by the creaking of frozen trees in the wind. The winter sun sets about 40 degrees south on the horizon from its summer roost.

I love the seasons here: the falls with their pungency, their color, their sense of tangible resignation to the slow descent to winter.  The springs with turtles rambling about laying eggs, the smell of pine and mud permeating the air.

I have spent many of my most enjoyable New Year’s Eves here, with many other close families, skiing all day, cooking chili by night, all of us trudging through the ice and snow of the lake to celebrate the new year with a toast of champagne under a cold, star-filled sky on a frozen island.  This place holds so many of my dearest, most wild and fun, and some of my most painful memories.  Its fabric is woven into me – the time my dog drowned in the lake and I had to pull her lifeless body out and bury her in the darkening evening as my sisters and I cried and got eaten by mosquitos; the time my boyfriend came to watch me run my first marathon and held me later that night in my exhausted soreness telling me how impressed and proud he was; the time I brought college friends here to hide away before finals and we baked blueberry pies and drank homemade wine after studying all day by the fireside; the summer days when my sisters and I would build forts in the woods and catch crawdads and snakes.

I love this place with my whole self.  It’s an incredible homecoming to be here after our months of self-imposed homelessness.  It reminds me of what matters to me and what I want for my own future.  It is such a great way to recall my memories of family and friends, and tare the scales of my life with my priorities.  Rick is not with me, he is celebrating the new year with his family before we leave to head abroad.  I think for him too, this bizarre exercise we’ve been performing of criss-crossing the country in search of a home, then coming home, then heading abroad, and hoping the pieces fall into place for us, it’s all very confusing, but I think the time back home serves us well to establish a base of where we come from and what we want going forward.

You can’t go home again

More than anything, I think this road trip is a showcase of how a cross-section of our friends in their late 20’s and early 30’s actually live their lives. It’s fascinating and it’s affirming. Wonderful, even.

This morning I awoke in Salt Lake City on a mattress on the floor of my sister’s house. Her place is amazing.  She has a massive backyard with gardens, a tree house, and fruit trees.  She has the entire upstairs of the house to herself, with walk-in closets, a huge log frame bed, and a jacuzzi.  Right now I am writing this blog while cuddled up with my pj’s on in front of the wood stove with tea and lebkuchen.  Life in Salt Lake is good (current inversion notwithstanding). Yet again, my severe case of “home-envy” (as Rick and I are calling it) has kicked in.

We spent yesterday and the day before in Jackson, Wyoming.  It had been more than ten years since I last visited Jackson, and things definitely were different.  But, I think Rick and I both ranked it high on our lists of places to live.  We visited a friend there and caught up over coffee.  Between hearing about her backcountry skiing, trail running, the amazing gluten-free cafe she likes, and her yoga studio, we were pretty smitten.

The downside to Jackson, and several other places we have explored, is the difficulty of getting home to our families.  Even Salt Lake City or Portland don’t allow us to travel home without a connecting flight, making a trip into a full day of travel.  So, with this in mind I have been examining my attachment to the idea that I can travel home easily.  I have struggled with guilt and a sense of irresponsibility living far from home and from my family.  I don’t particularly want to live in Wisconsin, or Chicago, or the Midwest – but I want to be there for my family.

Over the course of our trip the phrase “you can’t go home” has come up several times. The first was in “Travels with Charley” the Steinbeck book about a cross-country road trip that Rick and I listened to during the first half of our trip. In the book, he travels back to his boyhood home in California and realizes that what he associates as home has changed around him. Home exists only in his memory.  Revisiting the place only serves to deconstruct the idea.

The second was in reference to a seedy bar in Denver called the Rock Bar.  Many of our friends from our time in Denver are now spattered across the country; New York, Chicago, Portland, Salt Lake, Seattle.  So this trip has been revisiting “Denver” in the sense that it’s the last place we all shared together.  As we have traveled, we’ve spent lots of time reminiscing about our lives while in Denver – surely it was kind of a magical time for all of us.  We were young, in transition, unburdened by much responsibility, with good jobs, and altogether very free.  We skied and hiked and went out to the bars.  It was a FUN place to live.  But, we all recognize that the joy of Denver was mostly a product of the coalescence of many factors of our lives there in a specific place and time.  Were we to go back to Denver now, it would prove to be a different place.  This hit home in Portland as we reminisced about our hazy memories in a little place called the Rock Bar.  It closed down a couple years ago – thus concluding a chapter in many of our lives.

You can’t go home again.  I keep reminding myself of this. In both a light-hearted way and a serious way, life as I knew it can’t be recreated.  This is a new chapter and we have to choose what home will be going forward.

Portland redux and thoughts

I’m trying to blog a bit more than usual while we are on this road trip.  I often find that my entries, though they may mean little to me or anyone else in the moment, serve me well down the road to trigger memories and recall times and places that have been meaningful in my life.

Rick and I are back on the road, tonight we sleep in Boise.  We left Portland early this afternoon after a tasty meal at Jam on Hawthorne.  We really enjoyed our time in Portland.   I’m a bit unsure if the good times are a product of Portland itself or the fact that we have lots of friends there who make our visits to the city feel fun, and who introduce us to all their favorite spots and activities.  While at Jam I had a great conversation with a guy who touched on exactly what my main issue with Portland is, however:  its ego.  I’ll fully admit the city is fun, has great food, and has a neat alternative vibe.  I just think many Portland residents sort of think the city is in a class of its own and I’m just not sure that I agree. There are some glaring things that Portland lacks – diversity, easy access to other cities, and sunshine. This morning on our run Rick and I were weighing the positives and negatives and I just don’t think Portland pulls definitively ahead of any other city we have looked at, except that we have friends there who would make it an easy place to settle into.

But, no time to dwell on that.  There is much more to see.

Sadly, my phone took a bit of a swim yesterday while I was attempting to rescue an egg-laden dungeness crab from death by seagull consumption while on the coast clamming. Many of the great photos I took while there  are locked away in a bag of rice until further notice. Perhaps it is good though – now I’ll be forced to use my camera more. We travel to Jackson Hole, Salt Lake City, and Colorado in the next few days so there will surely be some good sights to see ahead.

As I sit here in our quiet hotel room after seven hours on the road, it strikes me just how strange this trip is.  Rick and I are more or less without a home.  We are roaming the country as fairly well-equipped gypsies; sleeping on couches and in guest rooms.  I feel entirely discombobulated, off my schedule, and generally out of balance in some ways.  Long hours in a car are not ideal, and I’m  getting to the point of just wanting to know what home will eventually be, rather than feeling enthusiastic about a search that seems increasingly to complicate our decision.  This drive has brought me to some wonderful places, but also places that tear at my heartstrings for various reasons.  I miss the friends we had in Denver and my sisters and my best friends, and people I wish I could see more of, all scattered around the country.  I just want the people I love to be in one place, and to make my home there among them.  It’s naive, but it’s true.  And sometimes the feeling of being torn between all the people I love makes me so frustrated I just want to cry.

Rick and I amazingly have taken the ups and downs of this trip – the endless hours together on the road and with friends – in stride.  I think if ever there was an opportunity for uncertainty and lack of direction for the future to come between us it would be now, but we seem to be riding the waves pretty well together. He has been incredibly supportive of my job search and together we have parsed out where we have commonalities in what we seek, and where we differ. Rick thinks the food in Portland is overrated, and I love it.  I think I might feel isolated in a small town, and Rick thinks it would suit him. Together I guess we need to figure out what balance will work best for both of us – where we might want to have a home, a family, and a life.  These are not small matters.  I hope that in the end, we come away with some clarity and a more clearly articulated vision for our future.

Honeymoon Part II – The Grand Canyon

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I have to admit it’s a bit funny to still be writing about my honeymoon.  I can’t keep up with myself.  In the last 10 days I have been in 8 states, on the road, traveling by foot, train, plane and anything in between.  My honeymoon was weeks ago, but I still haven’t written about the BEST part of it – our trip to the Grand Canyon.

After two years in Australia with Aussies constantly asking us questions about the U.S. like, “Are you afraid you’re going to get shot all the time?”, and referencing our general fatness, it was hard not to get a little bit of a chip on our American shoulders.  We decided to make our honeymoon a bit of a tour of discovery (mostly for me) of America’s proud landscapes.  Obviously the Grand Canyon was the first thing on the list!

So, the Grand Canyon!  We drove there early in the morning from a weird little town in Southern Utah called Kanab.   Kanab was apparently a mecca for making old western movies back in the day.  Now it appears to host a number of tourists running the gamut between Zion and Grand Canyon – and little else, with the exception of two subpar steakhouses.

We left Kanab, and drove for about two hours before we stopped for breakfast at a charming little diner called the Lees Ferry Lodge, on the edge of the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument.  We sat waiting for our breakfast with another couple and before long we got to chatting about why we were there.  Turns out they were celebrating their 50th anniversary, and there we were about 10 days into our marriage.  They shared a few words of wisdom with us before we went on our way.  It was a special moment, alone in a desert diner, sharing a common love of wild places and the people with whom we explore them.

When we made it to the south rim, we still had much to do before we could embark on our trip.  First we stopped at the visitors center to check out some information, then on to the backcountry office to grab our permits to camp at Bright Angel campground in the canyon’s bottom (secured four months in advance!), then back to our car to gather our backpacks, change our clothes, and then on to a shuttle bus to the South Kaibab trailhead.

The South Kaibab trail is the newer and more rugged tail to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. It’s a bit exposed, and a little gravelly, which makes it a bit hard on the legs for 7 miles of downhill.  I was worried we wouldn’t make it down until dark so we practically ran down,  making it in about two and a half hours with lots of daylight left.  (Note:  There is a severe overabundance of caution from rangers at the Grand Canyon to the extent that their advice is barely even applicable to young, fit, ambitious hikers and should be taken with a large grain of salt.  Had we listened to them, we never should have left the rim! )

I really wasn’t sure what to expect from the hike.  I was actually underwhelmed by the view from the south rim.  It’s too difficult to really understand the canyon’s depth and expansiveness from there, where nothing can be put into perspective.  But, thankfully as one hikes down into the canyon, the depth, color, and topography begin to expose themselves.

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The canyon is absolutely breathtaking, and it becomes more so the deeper one ventures in.  By the time we were within view of the suspension bridge across the river, I was smitten – both with the place and with Rick for bringing me to it.  We made our way down, through the dark, narrow tunnel of rock, and out on to the bridge.  It was an incredible journey.  To stand above the powerful Colorado, watching it course below us, and look up at the fading light in the canyon was pure magic.  I was so entranced by the colors, the warmth, and the welcoming air of this little oasis amidst the starkness of the desert.  It’s incredible.

We wasted no time trotting into Bright Angel campground and setting up a camp next to Bright Angel Creek.  For the next two nights it kept a constant bubbling soundtrack to our adventure.  The noise of water, the sound of deer grazing, and the lushness of the area surrounding this confluence of the Bright Angel Creek (named because it was one of the few sources of palatable water in the canyon) and the Colorado, gave the place a romantic, peaceful aura.  We loved it.

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The next day we hiked twelve miles round trip to Ribbon Falls, a side canyon on the way up to the North Rim.  The hike is beautiful and culminates in a falls that come cascading over the canyon rim above, splattering onto a green, algae covered dome of rock that has been hollowed out by erosion over time.  Though it was cold, I couldn’t resist tearing off most of my clothes and going for a dip, which included ducking into the rock cave behind the falls and exploring.  Nearly hypothermic afterwards, I laid out on the sun-baked rocks until Rick almost lost it worrying about me getting sunburned.  So, off we went.

We decided midway down that a steak dinner sounded preferable to our meal of quinoa, so we swung by Phantom Ranch on our way down, and asked to join the guests for dinner.  Apparently it can be difficult to get a reservation, but when it’s your honeymoon things fall into place a bit more easily. 🙂

We made ourselves comfortable and put away several beers, justifying our growing buzz by telling ourselves the mules that carried down the beer would appreciate our efforts to lighten their load. Then we had a great steak, went to a late evening ranger talk, and toddled off to snuggle up in bed and listen to the creek gurgling beside us.

Bright and early the next morning, Rick and I headed out and up the Bright Angel trail.  This route is the more traditional way down the canyon, originally used by the Havasupai tribe, and then later used as the standard route until the South Kaibab was constructed.  It is a steady climb of about 10% grade for 10 miles.  So, though we made it up relatively quickly, we were pretty tired when we reached the top several hours later.  By that time, we felt fully justified in craving pizza and beer.  We made our way to Flagstaff and found just that.

Flagstaff is an adorable and artsy little college town.  I’m not sure how it never made it on to my radar, but after our time there I would never pass up an opportunity to visit again.  Though we had originally planned to spend the night meditating in vortexes in Sedona, we were easily lured into staying in Flagstaff for the night and traipsing from one outdoor shop to the next with warm drinks in hand.  We decided to spend the night in an old hotel called the Weatherford.  Unbeknownst to us, it did double time as a VERY popular bar. By the time we were heading to bed (8 pm ) the bar was just getting going.  Our “European style” bathrooms were an amusing sight as I waited in line in my PJ’s to use the toilet, surrounded by girls dressed for a Friday night out.  But, even with the noise and the ridiculousness of sharing our hotel floor with a bar, we still had a great time.

The Grand Canyon and Flagstaff were the highlights of the trip to me.  It’s hard not to become reflective when the sandstone walls constantly remind you of your smallness and impermanence. There is something romantic about being in love and happy in the face of such confronting evidence of your own insignificance. With eternity echoing in the stillness all you can do is hold your lover, best friend, and life partner and savor the glory of being alive and vital in the wild, unblinking world.

Full of gratitude.  🙂

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Vietnam Pho Life!

Halong Bay sunset

Halong Bay sunset

You better believe I came up with that catchy title myself!

Anyway, I’m sitting here over a hot bowl of pho.  It’s not the first time I’ve done this since returning from Vietnam, and it surely won’t be the last.  The food in Vietnam is a never-ending gastronomic adventure that I’m doing my best to replicate at home. I wish I could tell you about all the things I ate, but the truth is that I didn’t even know what they were most of the time.  Regardless, they tasted amazing.  Even weasel coffee, made from coffee beans specially processed through the gut of a weasel!  Can’t wait to send that home to the fam!

I know I should go into detail about my travels in Vietnam, and I would love to, but I hardly think I did the country justice in my short visit.  As I always seem to do, I underestimated both the size of the country, and my desire to see all of it.  As I’ve said many times over, travel is such a refreshment for the soul – it awakens your mind and body, and reminds you of the breadth and depth of humanity.  There never seems to be enough time for travel.

Flower market by morning

Flower market by morning

Rather than go into detail about what I did and saw in the country, I’m just going to share some vignettes and observations from my time there.  I didn’t travel with a detailed enough itinerary or plan to be of use to anyone else in planning, and I didn’t take notes on what I did.  But, I can tell you my thoughts because I have plenty of those.

One of the most surprising things about Vietnam to me, was not the motorbikes, or the crush of people, or the smells of food and streets and exhaust, as many people described to me.  My mind was more fixated on the layers of culture that permeate the Vietnamese world.  As you walk the streets you see pate, french breads, and other foods whose stay has long outlasted the French rule.  You see colonial architecture next to soviet-style, socialist government buildings.  You see countless reminders of the “War of American Aggression”  or the Vietnam War, whether in museums, or in the form of someone wheeling themselves down the sidewalk in a cart because they have deformed legs due to the toxic chemicals sprayed across swaths of Vietnam during the war. You see women carrying their wares, or other goods on carrying poles and wearing the traditional Non la hats, next to teenagers on their iphones.   It’s a wild array of contrasts.

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Motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh City

Most of all, I was struck by the persistent thrum of Vietnamese society despite all the occupations, wars, and turmoil.  I was stuck by the grassroots victory of capitalism in a country that fought so hard for socialism, and intrigued by the tangible sense of economic acceleration that I felt both in the cities and in the outlying areas.

I think part of the reason I so enjoyed the country was the company I kept, and the timing.  Having just gotten engaged a week before, my brain was full of emotions and my heart felt like it was on overdrive. It felt odd to leave on a vacation without Rick during this time, but the plans were made months earlier. So, I picked up in the throes of giddy wedding planning (and more importantly, life planning) and spent a week with one of my ex’s best friends.  It felt a bit ass-backwards and it freaked me out.  In fact, I took so long saying goodbye to Rick that I nearly missed my plane!

Morning in Hanoi

Morning in Hanoi

That nervousness proved unfounded, because Eliot and I have always gotten along like two peas in a pod.  He read the maps, I perused the internet on his cell phone.  He suggested ideas, and I said yes or no to them. He shared his mangoes, and I shared my antacids.  He paid for my custom suit, all my flights, and a few hotels, and I paid for the 6-hour bus ride where he nearly got motion sick and an overnight boat where he narrowly avoided singing karaoke.   You can see how we work together well.

I kid.  There was much more than that.  I also let Eliot wear my scarves in cold air conditioning.

But, seriously, Eliot made me feel like someone was watching out for me while we  traveled, and was a great companion for the week.  We talked and talked and talked some more, and we drank coffee, picked out baby gifts, tried on clothes, ate incessantly, rode bikes, dodged motorbikes, and generally had a great time.  Traveling with him is sort of what I imagine it would be like traveling with a brother; comfortable, engaging, flexible.  We could do what we wanted; at times we split up, or one of us went to bed, but there was never any drama.   It was a perfect fit.  And though travelling with Eliot reminded me of the past, it also brought back a lot of wonderful memories and made me smile.  As soon as I was on the plane to Kuala Lumpur by myself, I missed having Eliot sitting next to me reading magazines and acting impatient.  The kid is just wonderful.

Eliot overlooking the Halong Bay sunset

Eliot overlooking the Halong Bay sunset

It was definitely a bit odd taking off to travel with Eliot, given the myriad associations that I attach to him, and the timing of my trip just a week after Rick and I got engaged.  But, oddly, traveling with Eliot gave me a lot of mental space to recall who I was in college and who I am now, and reconcile the differences. I relish my time with him because I have never had such a close guy friend in my life.  I have no brothers, or close male family members near to my age. I have been surrounded by women my whole life, so I’ve had few chances to share a close friendship with a guy that didn’t suffer from sexual tension and miscommunications.   I just soak it in with Eliot.   He is the only guy I have even felt so uninhibited around that I wasn’t dating.

As such, he was party to all my ramblings about all the stuff tumbling through my head, and he listened and gave advice as someone who has known me well for a long time. Whether  it was life advice, or determining which fabric to use for my suit, he was on it – it wasn’t his first rodeo, in that sense.  It was so nice to talk with him, hear his thoughts, and remember how much I like Eliot.  He doesn’t begrudge my ridiculousness, and I never feel like I have to put on airs around him.  He even was sweet enough to tell me I’d be a pretty bride when I showed him a picture of a white dress I’d tried on while I was wandering around the city on my own.  It was a joy traveling with him.

The trip to Vietnam, for all these reasons, was incredible.  All the things about the trip that initially made me nervous like leaving Rick when we were so happy, seeing Eliot and dealing with the related associations, etc., were EXACTLY what I needed at that moment in time.  It really felt like the pieces all fell into place for a reason.  Being away from Rick reminded me of how much I care about him, how much I miss him when we’re apart, and how I enjoy being with him.   Being around Eliot helped me process some unresolved things from the past few tumultuous years, and reminded me of the road I’ve traveled to this point today.  It was an amazing trip and I’m so grateful that all the pieces fell into place to make it what it was.  Vietnam is an incredible country and I hope to return.

Trackside in Hanoi

Trackside in Hanoi