Sunday, April 20, 2014

Things I Know About the World

1. Compassion is a universal language. 

2. Some things are meant to be let into our minds; others are meant to be let into our hearts.

3. Exercise and sweat can cure any mental ailment. 

4. Everyone should watch the sun rise every now and then.

5. Play is for all ages. 

6. Role models can't do anything more or better than us. Rather, they motivate us to find the better within ourselves. 

7. Family doesn't mean you've known them your whole life. Sometimes family means that you all need a place to go on Thanksgiving. But that doesn't diminish its worth. 

8. Sometimes crying makes you feel better. Sometimes it just makes you want to cry more. 

9. Sometimes we feel really alone. And we are. But that's not a bad thing at all. 

10. Sunsets are always beautiful, regardless of where in the world we witness them from. 

11. The desire to care for others is an important part of the human condition. Even more important is the ability to direct this same urge towards ourselves. 

12. Home is where we feel safe. It changes, sometimes too quickly for our own comfort. 

13. If it warms the heart, it can be called a friend. 

14. The most beautiful things can be found on the driest, most deserted roads. 

15. I have never regretted telling someone I love them. 

16. We find more fulfillment when we live to learn, rather than living to teach. 

16. Taking risks is really fucking fun. 

17. Hard work doesn't always equal happiness. Some of my happiest moments have been while doing nothing at all. 

18. If we never look back, we might never see the beauty we missed at first glance. 

19. Other people make our lives worth living. Which means that we make their lives worth living, too. 

20. There's a lot that I have yet to learn. Which makes me feel very, very lucky. 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Ingredients of a healthy soul, as told by random woman on shuttle

On Saturday, March 1st, after thirteen hours of air travel, I arrived in Guatemala City. I then caught a shuttle to Panajachel. After the driver tied my backpack to the roof of the van, I hopped into a seat by the window. There were about four inches between my seat and the seat in front of me, and the back of the seat was almost as tall as my shoulders. There would be no sleeping during this five hour drive.

The last person to get on the shuttle was a woman with dyed blonde hair. She peeked her head in the van, then declared in loud and rapid Spanish that she would be far more comfortable riding shotgun. Once seated, she turned around and smiled at me. I gave her a thumbs up and smiled back. This half sarcastic move would be the beginning of a loud and exhausting five-hour friendship.

She spoke to me in English, and I responded in Spanish. Both of us would claim that we were just practicing, but in reality we just wanted to prove how bilingual and cultured we were. So it tends to go. She told me that she was a biologist, and she was currently heading to the lake to visit her daughter, who was an actress and always seemed to be a little annoyed that her mom spent so much time in rainforests.

She asked what I did, and I told her that I worked for a nonprofit that focuses on women's empowerment. Her eyes started to tear up. Then she was sobbing. After about five minutes, she turned around and looked at me again. "Thank you," she barely managed.

That was two hours into the drive - we didn't talk for the other three. When we finally arrived in Pana, I was the first stop. I climbed out of the van and waited for the driver to get my backpack down from the roof. He handed it to me, got back into the car, and started to drive.

When the van was about twenty feet away from me, it stopped. The woman got out of the front seat and ran back towards me. "I just wanted to give you this," she said. "It's the ingredients of a healthy soul. I learned it in a yoga class once." She handed me the envelope from an internet bill that had handwriting on it. Then she ran back to the shuttle and it drove away for good.

Here is what was written on the envelope:

I read it over, then put it in my backpack. It was a nice gesture, but I felt like I had read those very words in every self-improvement article I had ever read. Yeah, peace and love. It's what makes the world go 'round.

I rediscovered the envelope at the bottom of my backpack yesterday. I read it again.

1) "Divine love = compassion for all." Love is not what another can do for us. It is what we give to each person we come in contact with.

2) "Divine light = discern between right and wrong doing." That knowing the difference between what is right and wrong--not even acting on it yet--is such a difficult and pertinent task in itself that it is divine. So often I have found myself thinking that I always know what's right and wrong, and the hard part is choosing which to act on. But I'm realizing more and more that this isn't always the case.

3) "Divine power = the willpower to act correctly." The greatest power we have is power over ourselves. And our actions are solely up to our own willpower - no external forces involved. I like this one because of the tremendous (and deserved) credit it gives to personal accountability.

Maybe you've already learned all of this from your own yoga teacher. Maybe none of this speaks to you the way it spoke to me. But that random woman I knew for five hours on a shuttle cried when I told her that I work for a nonprofit. She stopped the van and chased after me to deliver a message scrawled on an envelope. And then she left, and both of us knew that we wouldn't meet again.

Why the urgency to share such a message with a stranger? Why did learning that yet another do-gooder had made her way to Guatemala take such an emotional toll? I don't know.

But if someday I have a message so important to share with someone that I jump out of a moving car, and if someday someone says something so simple and meaningful to me that it brings me to tears, I will be very, very lucky.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Home is where you park your bicycle.

Two weeks ago, I boarded a plane and flew to Colorado because home was calling me. Not for good, of course - I still have many travels ahead of me this year. But I thought it couldn't hurt to visit my family for a bit, enjoy the winter, and touch base with some friends. Maybe it would be good for the soul. So I came "home."

That I came "home" literally means that I flew into DIA and drove to Carbondale, to where, in June of 2013, I had moved my clothes, my books, my 3rd grade self portraits, and my bed. It is where my parents are now employed and my brother is enrolled in high school. My bike is parked in the garage, and my graduation picture sits on the mantel in the living room. It's where I sleep. But I can count the number of nights I've slept in this house. And I did - it comes out to about 34 nights total. Almost 5 weeks. A quarter of the number of nights I spent in Guatemala. Half of the number of nights I spend as a counselor at a sleep-away camp every summer. And that got me thinking. About all the different "homes" I've had, about what home means to me. And, consequently, when I get to thinking about something, I write about here for all of you to enjoy. So, home. Let's talk about it.

Last week I saw Abbie in Denver. Abbie and I grew up five blocks away from each other in Congress Park neighborhood right in the heart of Denver. On snow days we'd each walk 2.5 blocks to meet in the middle, then build a massive snow fort/cave/dreamland on the side of the road. She moved to Fort Collins when we were ten, and eight years later I moved to the mountains. On Friday we ate dinner at Tommy's Thai (if you haven't been there, please go, it's delicious) and realized that we were just around the corner from her house.

So we drove by and parked in front of her old driveway, in between the two "No Parking" signs on either side of the driveway that her dad had petitioned the city for because he kept getting blocked in. The notes he had us, eight years old at the time, write and put on the windshields of the perpetrators' cars just weren't enough. The light was on in Abbie's old bedroom. I asked her if she remembered when we had drawn with sharpies all over her bed sheets and the wall behind her bed when we were four years old. Of course she did - they had finally painted over it just before they moved out six years later. We noticed that the new residents had gotten a new mailbox. But the old basketball hoop was still there.

Next we parked in front of my old house on 11th and Clayton. The one that, almost exactly six months ago, still had my clothes and books and 3rd grade self portraits and my bike parked in the garage. No lights were on. The bushes by the front steps had been cut back, and the address block was moved upward. The wooden playground that my dad, Nicholas Bollen, and I had built when I was in 5th grade was still there, but the monkey bars were now growing vines and there was a hammock where the swings used to be. Abbie asked me if I remembered when I tried to do a backflip off the monkey bars and instead just fell straight on my head. Of course I didn't. But I remembered regaining consciousness and her standing over me yelling "That was awesome!" The old wooden bars probably weren't strong enough to support a daredevil child anymore.

And then there's all the trouble we got into that our parents still don't know about.

I told Abbie about my house in Guatemala. My dog, Kinak, whom a former volunteer had found in a trash can and adopted as her own. Kinak was passed down from one volunteer to the next, along with the house. My two roommates, Kayla and Patrick, who I could get into trouble with like I was ten years old again (no drawing on the walls, of course). How I could see the stars out my window when I was lying in bed. And how my clothes never dried because it was either rainy season, so it would begin to pour before I had time to take them off the line, or windy season, meaning that five minutes after I hung them up they would blow off again. There were always butter wrappers littering the backyard that Kinak had dug out of the trash can, and many of our pans were taco-shaped. We had to hold them on the stove so they didn't topple over.

When I think of homes that I've had, these three come to mind: Abbie's house on 13th and Adams, my house on 11th and Clayton, and Casa Bourbón in Residenciales. And of course there is my home that's not a house but a collection of cabins and dirty bathrooms where 6-15 year-olds pass their summers (talking about the JCC Ranch Camp, where I voluntarily spent ten of my summers and will return to this summer for my third year as a counselor). So what is a home to me? That's easy.

Home is where you eat food out of the fridge without needing to ask anyone. It's where you get into trouble with your friends. Where you can watch four episodes in a row of Grey's Anatomy. At the end of a long day at school or work, it's the reason you're excited to leave. Home is where you know all the secret tricks - like don't open the door too wide or else Kinak will bolt, and where Abbie's mom keeps the chocolate hidden. "Home is the place where," in the wise words of Robert Frost, "when you have to go there, they have to take you in."

Here's to more adventures this spring. And many more homes.

Eliza and Abbie, age 3, pick their noses and watch four episodes
in a row of Grey's Anatomy.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Times I said the F-word while hiking the Inka Trail

In my head, out loud, in frustration, in awe - I bring you a complete compilation.
1. When I registered that I would be spending the next 96 hours straight eating and sleeping and hiking and living with my family (what can I say, I'm 18).
2. When I maintained a 45 minute conversation in Spanish with our guide about the history of the Inkas - and then he complimented my grammar.
3. Halfway up the first hill at an altitude of 3000 meters (9800 feet)
4. At 1:10pm on the first day when we feasted on vegetable soup, chicken with aji, rice, fresh bread, and coca tea.
5. When we started hiking again after the feast.
6. Lying down for a two hour nap after arriving at our campsite.
7. Returning to the tent after going to the bathroom and my brother had taken off his hiking boots.
8. The first sip of hot tea at 5:30 in the morning.
9. Two hours into one of the steepest uphill hikes I've done, and the guide saying we're almost halfway up.
10. When we arrived at the top of the pass (13,800 ft) and I swore I could see the entire Andes mountain range.
11. When my knees shook the whole way down the pass.
12. Arriving at our campsite at noon.
13. When I lost Presidents, the card game, after being president 6 rounds straight. And my whole family cheered.
14. Standing on top of the ruins of Phuyupatamarka, a fortress pressed into the mountainside with hidden stairways, ceremonial baths, and watchtowers, without another tourist in sight.
15. When someone shook our tent at 3:00am to tell us it was time to wake up - and it was pouring rain.
16. Descending hundreds of Inka-made stone steps under the light of a headlamp. Still in the pouring rain.
17. Shining my flashlight upward to find ruins towering eerily and magnificently above me.
18. Arriving at Sun Gate after 4 hours of hiking and catching my first glimpse of Machu Picchu.
19. Knowing that I was finally done hiking.
20. When my mom reminded us that we had passes to hike Waynapicchu, another hour-long hike straight up to the top of the small mountain overlooking Machu Picchu.
21. When we beasted it to the top in 25 minutes, and for a moment were on top of the world.
22. When I got on the train back to Cusco and slept the whole way.
23. When I looked back through the pictures I had taken and realized what I had just experienced.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Lost: mind

Today my mind left my body. Seriously. And it was weird.

I was in San Marcos La Laguna, the spiritual capital of Central America, participating in my fifth ever yoga class. My yoga teacher, who had been in Guatemala for two months practicing Tai Chi, was an expert. The class was supposedly for beginners. I was definitely a beginner. Maybe my teacher got confused. Or maybe I'm just that inflexible and uncoordinated. But during my 9am yoga class for beginners, I don't think my mind just drifted out of my body. I'm fairly certain that it ran full speed straight the hell out of that place, giving my muscles the finger in a "See ya later, suckers!" sort of jerk move.

It's funny how every bone in your body can be shaking for an hour and a half straight, your lungs gasping between ribs twisted around each other, your hips pressing into tissues that you didn't know were there, and yet you can be so at peace. Maybe this is the effect of the mind having hopped on the next train to California. The empty body that doesn't register pain as pain or loss of breath as an emergency. A mosaic of organs that simply exists through the seconds and minutes and hours, that breaths the air and listens to the wind but doesn't feel the cold as it licks at the skin. A body that collapses on the mat after 90 minutes have passed, a body that has finished its job and would rather just stay right here and not get up for the rest of eternity, thank you very much.

My mind didn't return until my yoga teacher asked me to retrieve it. It took some seconds of searching and then some seconds of getting it to stick back on. Maybe this was how Peter Pan felt as he chased his shadow. But Wendy wasn't here to sew me up and send me on my way. Finally, I felt that my mind had attached itself to where it belonged. To this heavy and awkward, food-consuming, air-sucking body. For a second, I was completely conscious of myself. I said to my mind (or my mind said to me), let's leave! Let's leave this piece of cargo behind and fly to the Bahamas! Or we can just float across the ocean forever and watch the seagulls dive--oh, what a life we have ahead of us! And I said yes, let's go! And I prepared to follow my spirit to the edge of the world and back again.

As my mind took its first step, my foot tensed. When it turned its head, my neck flexed. Now my fingers were wiggling and I was crinkling my nose and ruffling my forehead and wondering what was happening. And then I felt a rush of understanding.

I wasn't going anywhere without this piece of cargo. I wasn't going to fly above oceans and leave my body resting on the yoga mat in San Marcos. Instead, I lifted my hand and put it on my chest. I felt my body's weight against the ground as Earth's gravity heald me in one piece. A network of roots held me firm against the ground, made stable each step, cradled my resting head. I was ready to follow my spirit to the edge of the world and back again. And I had feet to do it.

I'm glad it's back--my mind. I need it, and I'm beginning to think that it needs me too. But I encourage each of you, if ever you're presented with a similar opportunity to push your body and mind to its limits, do it. And see where each ends up.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

This is what I do.

When I began my first day of work three months ago, my only goal was survival. I arrived at 8am and survived until 5pm. Everyone around me spoke Spanish. They knew exactly what they were supposed to do at any given moment. They knew how the hot water machine worked, and they knew which computers sometimes crashed unexpectedly.

I didn't.

It was sink or swim, and every correct Spanish phrase that I spoke propelled me toward the surface. Everything I wanted to say, every "Can I use this desk?" and "Should I be at that meeting?" and "Who is Olga Mendoza?" that got lodged in my throat and couldn't escape past my petrified tongue - these tied themselves to my ankles and pulled me deeper underwater. 

Today is the day that I look back on my time with Starfish and am able to say the words, "Three months ago..." Today, when I mix up my words or need to act out ideas during coordinator meetings, my colleagues smile and encourage me as they shout out guesses to my charades. When I come into the office, I can sit down and have a meaningful conversation with Marilena about her weekend. Norma, the in-country director and I, lovingly poke fun at each other in between hugs. I'm not treading water today. I'm held on the surface by the raft created by my new family: the staff at Starfish One by One. Today, I see the work that I do every day as my work. Work that is meaningful, and work that wouldn't be done if I wasn't doing it. I come into the office with goals other than survival.

My mom came to work with me yesterday. At the end of the day, she told me that she finally understood what I was doing every day. It was then that I realized that no one who's known me for more than 12 weeks really knows what I do from 8:00-5:00. So here it is.

Some days I sit at a desk for 4 hours in the morning and 4 hours in the afternoon. I send emails and make reservations for visitors. 

Some days I take a speed boat across Lake Atitlán to Santiago to interview students or ask a question to a mentor who hasn't responded to my emails. When I conduct interviews, I have the privilege of sitting one-on-one with a young woman (sometimes as old as I am) and hearing her story. And then I get to write about it so that others can hear it, too.

Some days I take a chicken bus to Sololá and observe a mentor group. We play games with balloons and dancing, and do vocal empowerment exercises that involve yelling and doing the wave. I take pictures and put them on Facebook with captions that don't do justice to the empowerment I've witnessed.

Some days I sit at a desk for 4 hours in the morning and write a blog post, and then send emails for 4 hours in the afternoon. The blog post is one of the most beautiful things I've written because it allows people far away to experience the magic that I experience every day.

Some days I go to Antigua to meet groups of donors, then bring them back to Panajachel. I go out to dinner with them and other Starfish staff, and translate riveting conversations.

Some days I have to facilitate the conversations, too, when visitors aren't as excited as I hoped they'd be to meet the men and women who are breaking the cycle of poverty in Guatemala.

Some days I translate meetings between important people who are making important changes to the organization. Some days I'm able to share my ideas too, and some days they are used.

Some days I take groups of visitors on the same speed boat across the lake to Santiago. We observe a mentor group and do silly games with balloons and dancing and act silly as we practice our vocal empowerment. I translate question and answer sessions as donors begin to uncover more about the young women they are supporting, and as these young women learn more about the people who gave their time to come visit them.

These same days, I take the group of visitors in the back of a pick-up truck to visit the home of one of the girls in the program. We stand in a circle with the family and say our names and how we're feeling (and we're not allowed to just say "bien"). We play more silly games. We learn how to make tortillas, and we share a meal with the family. I've gotten pretty good at making tortillas, so sometimes the girls let me flip them on the stove. I translate a question and answer session at the end. I've gotten better at understanding people when they're talking through tears.

Some days I see a group of Starfish's Girl Pioneers on the bus, and we hug each other and greet each other by name. They ask me when I'm coming back up to Sololá, and I don't tell them that this is my last week working for Starfish.

Today is my last day in the office. Tomorrow I'll take the boat to Santiago one last time to meet up with the rest of the staff at the staff retreat. It'll make it easier for us when I tell people that I'm definitely coming back soon. Because that's what people do. When they find what they're meant to be doing in life, they come back and they do it.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Wanderer's Thanksgiving Table

On the last Thursday of every November, families all across the U.S. come together to share their love and gratefulness for each other. Children play in the autumn leaves and, if snowfall is generous that year, are finally able to drag their sleds out of storage. Aunts and uncles and grandparents share cutting boards to save counter space; six different oven timers are set for seven different times, and A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving plays at low volume in the living room. At 4pm the turkey comes out of the oven, and all sit down to a feast. The evening progresses with reminisces, wine, sugar coated passive-aggressive comments about the upcoming election and a sibling's career choice, children sneaking finger dips into the whipped cream, and a dog fight or two over food dropped under the table. At nightfall, family members struggle to swallow their last bite of pie before succumbing to the food coma on the couch and peacefully drifting off to sleep, as another Thanksgiving has come to a nearly vomit-free close.

Meanwhile, all across the world, travelers and expats awake on Thanksgiving day to no festive music on the radio. They go to work, where there is no holiday for which to give a day off. No giant inflatable turkeys are displayed in windows. People on the street go about their normal business.

But on my walk to work on November 28th, a fellow gringo who I have hardly just met shouts "Happy Thanksgiving!" to me from across the street. A gust of wind throws over a few umbrellas and leaves are ripped off of the trees, cutting my face as they fall and filling my body with the warmth of reminiscing of Colorado's autumn leaves. On the way home, I walk by a sign, written in English, advertising turkey that my traveler's budget can't afford. I pass the sign and head towards the market, where I buy two chickens instead.

Elizabeth says, "Show all your Facebook friends how gross
the inside of this raw chicken is!"
My roommate Kayla and I start cooking around 4:00, having left work "early" to prepare for our Thanksgiving feast. Celine and Cecile, Chilean and French travelers whom my roommates met in Mexico, help us whip the egg whites until stiff (which, without an automatic whisk, takes three people switching off). Elizabeth, my fellow Starfish volunteer, arrives a little after 5:00 with our new friend Angus and his coworker, Erin. They arrange a cheese platter and pour glasses of Chilean wine (real cheese is a monthly treat). Patrick, my second roommate, comes home at 5:30 and we begin to prepare the chickens. Angus whips up a mind-blowing stuffing from baguette scraps, some cooked veggies, garlic, and chicken soup powder. The chicken goes in the oven at 6:30, just as Allison, another volunteer, and Leif, a world traveler spending some time in Guatemala, walk in the door.
Candles and one-eyed turkeys provide
our Thanksgiving ambiance.

We set the table for 11. This involves combining our dining room table with one of our desks, bringing in the plastic chairs from the backyard, and interspersing four barstools (where we would make the shorter people sit). We are able to scavenge six candles from around the house. Elizabeth and I have made turkeys out of toilet paper rolls and construction paper at a Thanksgiving craft party for 3-6 year olds; they now act as center pieces.

At 8:00 p.m., the chickens come out of the oven. Angus elegantly carves them onto a cutting board (which he is sharing with Patrick to save counter space). Cranberry sauce, stuffing, vegetables, mashed potatoes, and guacamole (a Celine and Cecile specialty) line the table. And we take our seats - one big, strange, international, and jolly family - in our chairs of varying heights, as Prince Royce plays at low volume in the living room.

Clockwise, starting from far left: Angus (pretend adult), Patrick (snowboarder with a degree in international economics), Eliza (fake-it-till-I-make-it travel expert), Elizabeth (tour guide who went to art school), Erin (real grownup), Celine (Chilean slowly heading home), Cecile (French with no known destination), Leif (run-away travel blogger), Allison (designer with great Vietnamese accent). Photographer: Kayla (professional short-term employee)