Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Journey Continues...

"The world is round and the place that may seem like the end may also be only the beginning." - Ivy Baker Priest

I read this quote yesterday and couldn't think of a better way to start this much contemplated post. 

This time last year I was planning my last month of teaching as well as considering that chances were high that it would be my last month of teaching for the foreseeable future or longer.  I was quite open in proclaiming an 80% chance that I would not be returning to teaching. But, somehow, that 20% window of returning made packing up my classroom and saying goodbye to Eagle Valley High School much easier. 

I'm not a bettin' woman but I should have gone to Vegas with those odds.  

My plans for the next year began to take shape a few weeks after landing in Peru. The landmark events took place, more or less, like this...

I was beginning to realize how much I was enjoying my lifestyle...traveling and the culture created by fellow travelers, living simply (with just a backpack), free from stuff and embracing the unknown.  I began to think about how many have encouraged me in this year by saying "Do it while you can."  I have done it. And I began to consider that I still could. More and more I was considering extending my travels but I decided that the litmus test for further consideration would be to check in with Elise and Sean, the AWESOME couple renting my condo. (They are actually the subject of my very first blog post I wrote at the end of May last year.  If you haven't read about that story, you shoiuld check it out.)  I had decided that if they didn't have any interest in extended their lease for another year, I had no interest in attempting to find renters that could live up to the high bar they had set. (I'm pretty sure their only question all year was where to dispose of the Christmas tree.) So, sometime in February, I sent them an email to inquire about their plans for the future and if they might have any potential interest in staying longer, as in maybe a year longer. I was shocked when Elise emailed me back an hour later to say that they had already talked about that possibility. I maybe gulped a little bit too as in a "this just got real" kind of gulp.     Over the next couple weeks, emails went back and forth on some clarifying details and on March 31st, they gave me a positive response, that they would love to stay for another year, with one caveat being that they have to come visit wherever I end up. ;)

And so now I began to consider what would come next. I was also very aware that the bank account indicates that the work-free sabbatical travel year will soon be over, or maybe should have been over a month ago. This would also mean that I would re-inhabit my childhood bedroom for much of the coming summer while I regroup and try to replenish the funds some.  (Thanks, padres, for letting me come home!) 

So, for now, this is what I envision the near future looking like:

May 13: Arrive back to Peoria, Illinois and begin the festivities for my little brother's wedding!!

May 24: Luke and Rachel get hitched!

June 6-8: Head to Franklin, Tennessee for my cousin Olivia and Brian's wedding! 

June 16-ish: Make my way to the mountains!  Spend a month or so catching up with friends and enjoying summer in Colorado! (And thus begins my request for couches to sleep on. After this year, I'm really not picky.  Normally I would offer to take you our for dinner but any gracious hosts might have to settle for my cooking instead. Pick your menu, I'll make it!  Any takers?)

July 14-ish: Head back to Peoria for the remainder of the summer and/or until I have the funds to set out on the journey again. (And now a shameless plug to offer my services for monetary gain.  Right now I'm in a data-entry frame of mind. Have a pile of CD's or photos you've been meaning to digitize but now realize you will never actually get around to it? I'm the girl for the job!  Or need your kitchen re-organized? I can send references from multiple friends and family about successful home organization sessions. But, as my mom can attest after a week long entire home organziation fest, it's not for the faint of heart. And after living a year without much stuff, I can promise you I'll happily encourage you to throw away or donate a lot of your own stuff!  Or painting. I like to paint!  Or anything you might be willing to pay an educated, organized, self-proclaimed tech-dork, to do that you are not willing to so yourself. Anyone in the Peoria area, hit me up!

August/September-ish: The Journey continues back in South America. I'm thinking Argentina and Chile. One thing has been consistent this year and that is beginning to explore the world of hospitality as a new career. And so my plan is to find an inn, B&B or hostel in various areas of interest and work in exchange for a place to live, or cash if possible. I'm thinking I'll spend a month or two (max) in a town before moving on to the next. I've discovered that two months seems to be the maximum amount of time to spend in a place without collecting more stuff.  And that will give me an opportunity to see how things are done at different inns as well. 

Or maybe I'll go to South East Asia and do the same thing.  

As you can see, I'm open to whatever opportunities present themselves. I look forward to seeing how The Lord will direct me.  (And a final request for any contacts you may have in aforementioned locations. Gracias!)

But in the meantime, plans for "Invite the World to Dinner" are on hold. So for the 8 of you who made your reservations, can we postpone until July of 2015?  Thanks for understanding!!

In other news...

Utila, Honduras was awesome!  I'm not sure I've ever experienced so many new activities in one week: scuba diving, snorkeling, swimming with a whale shark,  stand-up paddle boarding, and sailing on a sea kayak. Unfortunately I don't have many pics to document as none of these activities are very iPhone friendly.  My friends, Claire and Tim have had Casa Colorado for 3 years and I've heard the stories of Skid Row and the fun people of Utila. But I finally got to experience it for myself. They were right when they say Utila is an island like no other!  I loved my time catching up with Claire and Tim and living the island lifestyle. They were amazing hosts, Claire always putting to use her southern hospitality and Tim always up for whatever we suggested. When I planned this trip, I knew I wanted to be with friends for my birthday, and Claire knows how to do it up right!  Thanks, Lipmans, for loving me, taking care of me and for sharing your little slice of island paradise. I look forward to returning again some day!

First morning appreciating the island

 Celebrating my birthday with my first-ever scuba dive, with Instructor Ernesto and Dive Master Dave!

SUP! Thanks, Aura from Yoga Utila, for letting us use the boards!

And I'll end this post with thankfulness of the beginning of whatever is next.  As I was telling my mom today, I've never been ship wrecked, imprisoned or beaten like Paul, but one thing this year has taught me has been to learn to be content whatever the circumstances. I have a ways to go, but I'm embracing the experience for whatever it is... like sitting in the San Pedro Sula airport for 8 hours and then sleeping in a corner of the cantina of the Guatemala City airport tonight. No pasa nada.  I really don't mind.  I'm not particularly excited about this night of sleep, but I can deal.  But most importantly, I'm grateful to the one who paid my debt on Calvary so that I might live a life of contentment knowing that I am loved with an everlasting love, a love that I hope to share with others. I know I could do better, but this is my aim. 

The end.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

A Moment Shared

I hit "publish" on yesterday's blog post.

I had two hours in the Miami Airport. I was craving good 'ole American food. Lucky for me, the first restaurant I came to served burgers, and only burgers. And sweet potato fries on the side.  It was no e-town, but it would do. 

I bellied up to the bar, ordered my burger and read the subtitles on the two tv screens staring at me.  News of school violence and the missing Malaysian flight were featured on one TV. A reality show featuring a dance class called the "Dancing Dolls" made me want to not return to "reality."  The Dancing Dolls had just bowed their heads to pray for their upcoming booty shaking performance when the guy sitting next to me snickered. I couldn't blame him. In fact, I joined him. And this is how I met Jonathan.  

Jonathan asked where I was coming from.  When I told him Peru, he lit up and asked if I knew who Thor Heyerdahl was. I asked "Thor Heyerdahl"?  He said "Never mind."  I told him I had been in Cusco. He asked if I was in a balsa wood forest. I hadn't heard anyone mention anything about balsa wood. He went on to explain that it was an ocean-worthy material and that a guy set sail in a raft made from balsa wood from Peru to French Polynesia. This was beginning to sound familiar. I said, "The Kon-Tiki"?  He said, "Yes! Thor Heyerdahl was the guy who made the balsa wood raft called the Kon-Tiki and sailed it across the Pacific. He was my grandfather's uncle!" 

"No kidding!" 

Jonathan was flying from St. Croix (the island) to New York.  He moved to St. Croix four years ago. He and his wife Amy had split time there for the last ten years, once Amy got Jonathan hooked on diving.  Jonathan is now a diving instructor. Amy passed away from cancer last year. He asked if I wanted to see a picture of her. How could I say "no"?  

He scrolled through 8 photos in an album on his iPhone titled "Amy". He beamed as he showed me a picture of Amy at age 47 in a bikini and dreads half way down her back. In the next picture, Amy had no hair. And then he showed me pictures of Amy with no hair but ink on her newly bald head. She had decided to go with a Cleopatra crown design.  The subsequent pictures showed a steadily shrinking Amy. When he got to the last picture, he let out a sigh and said "I was a lucky man to spend ten years with her."  

My eyes welled up with tears. So did his. I wiped mine away. He let his fall.  We blankly stared at the latest drama ensuing with the Dancing Dolls. 

"How did you meet her?"

"I was interviewing for a job where she worked. When I met the boss, he said, 'Wait till Amy meets you.  You are just her type.'  He paraded me by her and as I walked away, she texted the boss to ask who I was.  I got the job and I moved in with her a month later." 

You may have a picture of Jonathan in your head. When he sat down next to me, I had the thought, "This could be an interesting conversation."  When Jonathan got up to leave, the bartender mentioned something about me probably being relieved that that guy was gone.  Actually, no. I wasn't relieved. I was thankful.  Thankful that a guy like Jonathan walked into my life, shared his story, and left me pondering how amazing humanity can be... from wild Dancing Dolls to widowed dive instructors.  

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

"Do-overs", Machu Picchu and other Goodness

If there is one moment I could "do-over" in life, it was the moment that my older brother, Zack, informed me that he and Carolyn were getting married.  

The scene played out something like this...

Our family was in Florida for our annual Thanksgiving gathering.  I was in the living room as Zack, Carolyn and Mom were in the kitchen.  Mom just updated Z & C on a recent date I had been on. This prompted Zack to yell from the other room: "Well, let me know if you want me to put an 'and guest' on the invitation to our wedding on May 23 (2009)." 

Whoa whoa whoa...  This was a lot of significat information given to me in one sentence. Prior to this moment, I had spent a few hours with Carolyn at a rather chaotic event in which the POTUS made a visit to my grandparent's farm. And now she was marrying my brother. I had no idea it was this serious. And how did this date come up I had been on?  (I can't even remember the guy now...) But the thing that was registering more than anything else was that I was supposed to be in Peru during the last two weeks of May. And it was a free trip!  Well... A free trip with strings attached. I was supposed to help my friend, Gretchen, chaperone 15 kids on a trip throughout Peru... including a visit to Machu Picchu... a destination at the top of my "Places to Travel Before I Die" list.  I would only be able to attend one of these events, and it was quite clear which one it would be. 

After blinking back tears that had formed at the realization I wouldn't be going to Peru, I pulled myself together, went into the kitchen and congratulated my brother and future-sister-in-law with what could have been a much more enthusiastic congratulations. 

I realize how selfish this exchange sounds. And I realized it 4 years ago as well. I have since aplogized to Zack and Carolyn and have explained I wish I could "do-over" that moment and express true happiness for them at this significant moment in their lives. I think they have forgiven me.  And I'm so thankful they have found each other. 

Just as I'm thankful my younger brother, Luke has found Rachel. But I made sure to make this year's travel plans known to Luke before things got too serious. (Yes... selfish again, I know).  

The scene played out something like this...

Luke and Rachel had been together for a month and it was now Valentine's Day.  I asked Luke how he celebrated with his new Valentine. He shared his plans to which I jokingly responded "Well, just don't plan any 'major events' (like a wedding) until May of 2014."  Luke says, "Why don't you tell Rachel that."  I had never spoken to Rachel before and thought this would be a rather awkward "first exchange". Luke passed the phone to Rachel and we exchanged pleasant greetings but I insisted that Luke could tell Rachel what I had just said... which he preceded to do.  So, I'm not sure how it all worked out, but Luke and Rachel will be getting married 10 days after I get home... in a little over a month!  I can't wait to celebrate with them!  (If you missed the story of their engagement, check out "Living the Dream" from August 4th)

And so, this is a little of the story of how I came to visit Machu Picchu when I did. As Annette and I made plans on how to spend this year away from teaching, my first plan was to spend 6 months living in Cusco. As you can see, I didn't make it to Cusco until 7 months into my travels and I only stayed for 2 weeks. (Other places somehow weaseled their way into the itinerary.)  And it has all worked out just as it should. 

I was also blessed to share my experiences in Cusco and aroud the Sacred Valley with my friend Ann Colbert. Ann and I knew of each other shortly after she moved to Vail in 2007, but we have decided that we officially met in the hallway of an office building as we "camped out" to secure a good number for choosing condo units in a newly planned construction project in Edwards, Colorado. Yes... Affordable housing is so hard to come by in the Vail Valley that people spent the night in an office building.  But then the market crashed, the development never happened, Ann married Travis Colbert, moved to Leadville to start a burgeoning coffee business with Travis called City on a Hill Coffee and Espresso, I bought a condo in Miller Ranch, and planned to travel the world for a year. I guess you could say life happened. But the night before I left the Valley last summer, I had the chance to meet up with Ann for dinner. We seemed to have a pattern of having one long, heart-to-heart conversation a year to catch one another up on the latest. And this was our annual event.  As I had thrown out to many friends, I told Ann that she and Travis were welcome to meet up anywhere on the itinerary.  She expressed genuine interest in the Peru leg of the trip and we agreed to keep each other up-to-date on potential plans.   So, in February, I sent her an email to see what her spring was looking like and to see if joining me for the trek to Machu Picchu was an option. Amazingly, she said she could come!  

And so, Ann and I met in the reception of the EcoPackers Hostel in Cusco on Friday, March 28th at 8 in the morning. She flew in for a whirlwind 10-day trip, including a 5-day trek to Machu Picchu on the Salcantay trek, a more affordable, more scenic, less stony alternative to the Inca Trail.  We spent the first day touring around Cusco, including a delicious stop at the Choco Museum and some quality lattes (hard to come by) at Jack's Cafe.  I also had my 3rd meal in 3 days at Los Perros as Ann got to meet fellow travelers Dan (from Huaraz times) and his new travel buddy, Jeremy from Aix-en-Provence, France. 

That night we made plans to explore La Valle Sagrado (Sacred Valley) outside of Cusco.  First stop was exploring ruins in Pisaq. It was here that I started to talk to the crew about some new ideas for my Bed and Breakfast dreams. They were good sounding boards. 

We made our way to Ollantaytambo, a super cool town that is built on original Incan foundations using the same street layout that the Incas had created. My traveling companions had to listen to me express how much I liked this town about 10 times too many. But I really liked it!

The next day, we explored the ruins around Ollanta before having our second delicious meal at La Esquina on the Plaza Mayor. We then made our way back towards Cusco with a stop in Salinas (where they mine (?) salt). 

I stuck my finger in this little salt rivulet to taste the salt at the same time as I asked Ann if she thought it was safe to try. I realized my stupid mistake in time to spit out the salty water, hopefully, before any harmful bacteria could make its way through my system. So far so good...

Then we headed to Moray... a supposed Incan agricultural experiment in determining proper elevations for farming certain crops.  I'm more inclined to think it had spiritual significance, but regardless, it was a cool stop. 

And then it was back to Cusco to gear up for our early morning departure for Salcantay. Ann, Dan and I joined a group of 10 others and guide Miguel for this adventure in the Andes.  We had great company, 

amazing food (Really! For camping at least!), 

a fun guide 

and incredible views along the way. 

And on Day 4 we rolled into Aguascalientes!

It was great to get cleaned up and find a latte. And in the process, run into Paul... fellow-camper-outer for the West End development who was in Peru with friend and Battle Mountain classmate, Brady, now a teacher at the Denver Center for International Studies. They were traveling with students and happened to be walking down the street when both Paul and I did a double take with a "how do I know you?" look.  Small World!

The next day we had an early morning to get to Machu Picchu. It began to seem that "Machu Picchu" and "Get there early" were phrases as closely related as "peanut butter" and "jelly" or "Beaver Creek" and "Not Exactly roughing it".  Regardless, we heeded the advice of fellow travelers and left our hostel at 4:30 am to secure "first in line" status for when the gate opened at 6am. Our plan worked.  Dan arrived first in line, with Ann close behind... And me about 10 people back. Let's just say that there is nothing to wake you up quite like a heart-pounding 2,000 some stairs to the entrance to Machu Picchu. And that was just by 6 am. Over the next 8 hours we hiked to the top of Wayna Picchu, to the bottom and back across Machu Picchu and finished our visit to one of the New Seven Wonders of the World at the Sun Gate, the top entrance to Machu Picchu off of the Inca Trail. 

Machu Picchu was incredible. I was amazed as I considered the way of life for about a thousand people who had made their home there some 200 years ago. I also recalled learning about the Inca civilization in Mrs. Guariglia's 6th grade Social Studies class and being fascinated by the ruins that had been found. But to imagine that it was possible to visit such a place didn't even register. And now, here I was. It's crazy the path life takes. And again, it has all worked out just as it should. 

Upon our return to Cusco, I had booked a few nights at the Niños Hotel, a place Annette had stayed during her visit in 2012. I decided to splurge here by spending twice as much each night than I was paying at EcoPackers, at a whopping $25 a night. But after our trek, I thought upgraded accommodations would be appreciated. And, the money goes to a good cause. The woman who started the hotel was a Dutch tourist some twenty years ago. She ended up taking care of about a dozen boys who were living on the streets of Cusco and found a way to support them by opening this hotel.  Today there are two Niños Hotels in Cusco as well as a restaurant for children that serves some 600 kids each week. When I checked out the hotel before booking, there were two young boys dressed in their school uniforms knocking on the door. They were greeted by the woman in the reception area with a piece of bread for each of them. After i had booked a room and was leaving the hotel, I noticed a large basket of bread hanging just inside the entrance.  Kids know that this is a place that cares about them and their needs. Hospitality and serving the underserved merge at Niños Hotel. I think this is my heart. I stood outside the door and fought back tears as I took notes on my phone for ideas for my future B&B. 

Our stay at Niños was wonderful. Ann and I shared some amazing conversation over breakfast the last two mornings as we both considered our next steps in our careers. We talked about strengths and interests. She validated me in what I perceived mine to be and encouraged me to continue to pursue the path I seem to be on. We also spent time sharing our "life stories" and how The Lord has worked in each of our lives and continues to grow us.  I was so blessed to share this part of my trip with Ann. She has an adventurous spirit, a generous heart and caring soul.  We both agreed that we can't wait to have coffee again in five years and see what path our lives take. 

And I have faith that it will all work out... just as it should. 

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good,for those who are called according to his purpose.  - Romans 8:28