Wander, Seek, & Find

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Double Rainbow on Christmas Eve

Every morning the last few weeks, I’ve eaten cornflakes for breakfast. And suddenly the world seems less troublesome…

People often travel to find themselves, though why or how they lose themselves remained a mystery to me until recently. Instead I imagine bodiless souls ordained by some holy ascetic to wander the countryside, Will-o’-the-wisps gliding down a path in order to recommune with their weak, dependent bodies.

And it’s hard to argue with that logic; check any Instagram travel account and you’ll doubtless find a quote about how travel is the only thing you shell out dough for that will make you richer, or how travel changes you, broadening your mind and transforming you into Wander Woman, complete with money belt rather than Lasso of Truth. Then why are so many of us so incredibly lost while everyone else seems to find their way?

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My Jamaican Home

I have thought, read, and written about the concept of home and travel so much, you would think I have all these answers. Yet even after shirking work to travel for a year, I have no more answers than a three-year-old eating his own boogers.

So how did I lose myself when Peace Corps is supposed to be all about finding yourself? How did I become so mired in purposelessness, apathy, and despair when there are people whom I can help literally at my doorstep?

While pondering these puzzles, I realized a couple of things:

  1. People like to learn more about themselves, and then share that with the world. Case in point- While reading Eat, Pray, Love, I came across a section where a medicine man, Ketut, describes children born on Thursdays.

The official tree of children born on Thursday is the banyan. The official bird is the peacock. A person born on Thursday is always talking first, interrupting everyone else, can be a little aggressive, tends to be handsome (“a playboy or playgirl,” in Ketut’s words”) but has a decent overall character, with an excellent memory and a desire to help other people.

The point is, I was born on a Thursday.* And this quote is basically my Tinder bio. Which brings me to Point

  1. There’s nothing like a lived experience to teach you about yourself, and you cannot avoid them while traveling. After cussing out a taxi driver in Cambodia for not opening his trunk so I could get my backpack, I realized where my patience ends. After ten days of Burmese food, I learned it does nor pair well with extra cheesy pizza and margaritas.

Like Shrek said, life is like an onion, a layered, stinky, brings-tears-to-the-eyes affair that, when cooked correctly, is quite satisfying. And traveling is the most visceral, immediate way of learning about the life and self you’ve become.

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Moss Filtered Light on the Hike Up Blue Mountain Peak

In short, we find ourselves everywhere we go, between the pages of our favorite book, in the scent of a blossoming flower, or in the touch of a lover. There is no life experience that doesn’t imprint on us in some way, whether or not we acknowledge it. And perhaps this is why the kookier of us careen down life searching, grabbing at every passing token that offers us an explanation of life’s greatest mystery: ourselves. Travel is just the medium I choose to unlock these mysteries, a slow ex-pat odyssey as full of questions as answers, and often not the ones you were seeking.

So maybe it doesn’t matter why I felt so purposeless, in need of finding me. Perhaps what matters more is that I know how to find me, to read in another’s pages feelings I heard as my own, to drift from whence I came in order to come back fuller, wiser, to  tell cheese puns no one wants to hear.**

Returning home from weeks on the road, I saw a box of cornflakes on the table. They were the same brand I had purchased during my trip and I smiled as I recognized the label, the same my host mom always buys. I might travel endeavoring to find myself, but when I crossed the threshold, that box reminded me I had been there the whole time. Sometimes it just takes a trip to notice a box of cornflakes.

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Cornflakes ton UP

*My favorite tree is the banyan tree. I don’t have a favorite bird, but it might as well be the peacock, because that is, in essence, what I am: a loud, gregarious, bawdy young woman that likes to dress in finest feathers, but wants to help people too. As for the playgirl, you’ll have to ask my boyfriends…

**Did you hear about the cheese factory explosion in France? There was deBrie everywhere 😀

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Loneliness Unplugged

I want us to have a kind of existence where we can pause, look each other in the eye, touch one another, and inquire together: Here is how my heart is doing?

Loneliness eats away at the tissue of your heart, isolating you quickly, fully, suffocatingly. When you’re at the bottom of the well, despair shuts out the light creeping in from the top, so that the darkness blinds you to the sun’s rays reaching down to warm you.

And when you’re at that point, where is the catalyst to shake you awake, to remind you that your friends and family have been there the whole time, hard as it might be to see them through the lens of an increasingly lonely iWorld?

Peace Corps work is hard work, as is any that demands not just your mind, but your heart, self-worth, and every last nerve. When you reach your breaking point, you want to shut down and build walls to hide behind. That’s when the loneliness wins, when it settles in your bones, crippling you from the inside out.

I’ve felt that way, escaping into a world of Netflix and pretend that all your problems don’t matter. In a world where we shut off when we tune in, loneliness is cheap and ubiquitous. It’s as inescapable as afternoon rain in the tropics, but colder, subtler, and more insidious.

I try to always have an answer, to see the world as a child would, with the curious eyes of one that hasn’t been jaded by politics or hate, but answers to problems like loneliness must be felt. This is a wall that cannot be climbed except by standing on the shoulders of loved ones.

In that way, the answer is obvious. Unplug, reflect, tune in to each other, and ignore the vibrating notifications that don’t notify you how your soul is. Remember that we are meant to be outside, to get dirt underneath our fingernails, to hold hands with one another while walking side by side.

After a Netflix binge that lasted too long, I got up one day and walked outside, talked to my neighbors, got rained on, goosebumps forming in the fog of a raincloud enveloping me, followed by a hot walk up a steep hill, sweat beading down my back. And it was so good. The answer to my loneliness had been waiting for me just outside my door. I just needed to turn the knob.

Scuba Sense

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Port Antonio Pier by Night

Driving along Jamaica’s North Coast, I squinted across the cerulean seas of the Atlantic, daydreams of a nearby Cuba playing through my mind. Interrupting my tobacco scented reverie, a hawker approached our sardine-packed coaster bus* yelling, “Sweetie mangoes! Sweetie mangoes!” I didn’t buy any, assuming the small mangoes would be nowhere near as flavorful as my favorite variety: East Indian.

Pulling into the marina of Port Antonio, known locally as Portie, I smiled. The sea whipped up a breeze that cooled the sweat on the back of my neck as I picked up my mask and fins, hauling them to the dock for the first of my Advanced Certification dives.

A year and half had passed since my last dive, and though I remembered the freedom and ease life beneath the waves promised, I needed a few reminders on how to get there. For instance, when diving, it is necessary to put the regulator- the thing that helps you breathe- into your mouth. Who’da thunk? These minor hiccups aside, I quite literally jumped back in, finding my groove once more.

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Snorkel Face is the New Duck Face 😛

The color and size of objects appear differently underwater (because science); a fish looks smaller and brighter on land. Swimming above a few damselfish, I couldn’t help wondering how perfect everything down here seemed to be, how unfettered by human touch and thought. A yellowtail damselfish is a small, solitary fish that lives close to shore, with diamond-like stars glimmering against their midnight sky coloring. I paused, fins slowly pedaling to stop me from drifting on, in awe of the tiny dots of blue splashed across their dorsal fin, as light as a brilliant summer day, and more promising. They reminded me of Swarovski crystals, of women in gowns dancing with the rest of their glitterati, of Christmas trees twinkling in snow-flecked towns whose light, caught by the numerous icicles and snowdrifts glimmered and shone like a million minuscule diamonds. But here I was, dozens of feet and meters down, looking at the fin of a fish not much bigger than my hand.

Flipping my fins away from my sparkly friend, I came across eight spiny lobster. Sitting fairly still, their long whiskery antennae floating feebly in the current, I imagined a lobster vending machine, though these weren’t animals I intended to eat.

Under the sea, time seems to stand still. Pirouetting, swimming upside down, sideways, all ways, I felt freed of the gravitational chains that bind me on land. Looking to my left, right, up, down, a complete 360° view that eclipses you on Earth, I felt that anything was possible. In a world where breathing in water is left to those with gills and flying to those with wings, scuba offers an escape, an exception to God’s rules. Below, I can fly, I can breathe, and with ease, with a mindfulness I unthinkingly eschew as I plod the concrete jungle we call home. Perhaps that is what truly draws me below: the chance to live against the rules, like a child out of Peter Pan, knowing without a doubt that one day, no matter the obstacles, I can fly!

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Folly Lighthouse, Port Antonio

The chance to break free from the limits our nature imposes on us is a rare feeling, one I can only experience conscientiously. Like a child learning to walk, the world unfolds in ways previously unthought-of. To the crawling toddler, stairs are the Pyramids at Giza, but when foot connects to ground, a plethora of possibilities awaits. Though I cannot take the reality of an underwater world with me, I strive to imagine our earthly reality as a limitless plane, opportunities stretching out as far as the mind can fathom. With that scuba sense of wonder, what isn’t possible?

*How can a bus that bounces, thumps, and thuds be called a coaster?! It does everything but coast…

Tiek Taim (Take Time)

“They had fallen into the habit of considering their universe to be boring—and their universe had duly fallen into line with their expectations.” The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton

Upon arrival in Jamaica, a fellow Peace Corps volunteer told us to “take time”, what I would soon treasure as Jamaica’s unofficial motto. For a flighty person like myself, this is both easy and hard- easy to be flexible because life is not a straight line, and hard to stay committed to never ending projects that require constant care. Even unwrapping the concept of taking time has taken time; I had to live through a summer as slow as molasses only to jump into a spring of activity once school (and a flurry of Peace Corps conferences, and the hurricane season) began.

I packed these lessons up in my head, reminding myself not to get too upset after the 20th phone call to the man who could replace our lightning struck router. “Soon come” in Jamaica might not mean soon in a North American context, but whatever it is will happen at some point. Fittingly, each time I put finger to keyboard to write about time taking, I paused, unsure what to tap out.

 

This view is great!! No kidding :P

This view is great!! No kidding 😛

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​Sharing Stories

“I exist in two places, here and where you are”. – Margaret Atwood

So much of our life seems to happen in moments of waiting: sweating while a bus fills with passengers, nervously going over what you want to say before your big presentation, looking out the window as the raindrops fall, knowing your plans will be canceled before they even occur. But in these moments of waiting, we reflect, strengthening our self-awareness so that we can go out into the world and share our story with others. Reflection makes possible connection.

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Relaxing at “hilltop” above my house. This is not a promotional Peace Corps picture (but maybe it should be) 😛

On the ride to church, I quietly look out upon the open vista of clouds playing tag with the mountains below. I put up my hair and lean my face towards the window to catch a breeze as I sit on the hot, gray fabric. I wait to arrive at church, to sing, to pray, to listen, and to have my thoughts wander lazily like a desultory conversation among old friends. On the ride back, however, I talk to my family, joke, and discuss the sermon or songs sung. As I play with my hair, I listen as my family kisses their teeth* or tells me, “Yu nah easy” which I generally take to mean that I’m willful. Continue reading

beauty is dirt caked fingernails

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

“Beauty is fleeting.”

Red lips pouting at me from the mirror, highlighter catching the fluorescent light and making my cheekbones shimmer subtly, a highly arched eyebrow raised in scrutiny, I gave myself the once-over, attempting to leave no detail unnoticed.

Growing up in a world where beauty is often touted as the ultimate achievement, especially for women, I find it difficult not to care about what I look like, at least to a certain point.

Fortunately, there’s a different narrative.

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Red-ripe Tomatoes…Guess who’s makin’ pizza Friday?!

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Falling into Rhythm

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Running pon di road

Each time my foot pushes into the ground, propelling me further down the road, my breath comes a little bit quicker, heavier, wilder. Afterwards, I wonder how it is that I managed to bounce around the potholes, fly down the hills and trod back up them; I’m not a runner so finding my pace takes time.

When I imagined myself in the Peace Corps, I pictured an integrated me, hungry after working all day in the field with local farmers, wiping sweat from my forehead as I rubbed my clothes clean watching as other women did the same, teaching a class how to improve their crop yield with biodynamic farming. This image, one of hard work and success, ignored a necessary step: figuring out how to fit in. Continue reading

Each Day, One Difference, One Person: My Manifesto

When I woke up this morning, stretching and daydreaming of the pancakes I would later make, I thought to myself, “This day is for me. I’m going to do what I want.”

About an hour later, a good friend and fellow Peace Corps Volunteer called me crying. As a Floridian, she was worried about her friends, especially those she couldn’t reach. No one expects such carnage to happen in her backyard; this shock mingles with a helplessness that makes you wish you could be there to do something, to help in some way, while the other half of your brain tells you there’s no difference you could possibly make.

While washing dishes, I thought about my own responses to these tragedies. Terror, anger, and despair rush through my veins in waves of intense emotion, muddying my thoughts as I try to make sense of them. The problem is that there is no sense in actions of deep-seated hate, such as in the attacks in Orlando. So how should I respond? What should I do? What can I do, if anything? Continue reading

Pon di Oustop

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The Eastern View, Blue Mountains

Around dusk at my new home, I climb pon di oustop* to see Kingston turn on her lights as the dimming sun shoots pink, purple, and peach across the sky. Kingston begins to sparkle like a diamond that catches the sun’s rays and refracts them to all eyes watching, reminding me of colder nights spent crick-necked with crêpe in hand as I stared up at the Eiffel Tower glittering in the City of Lights.

It’s a funny thing, to be reminded of the past by a shimmer, a passing breeze, or a scent. But what is a human if not an amalgamation of senses, emotions, and reflections? Continue reading

Jamaican Lessons I

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Sunset in Portland

People say you learn something new every day, but I imagine I learn much more during this great experiment of life. My dad always says, “I’ve forgotten more than you’ll ever know,” to which I always reply, “Guess it doesn’t really matter then, does it?” What I do remember from what I’ve learned pon dis rok, though, I’d like to share; I find it stunning how differently we humans live our lives, yet all still smile at a pink streaked sunset, laugh when our 86 year old Grandma farts, and cry in the security lane of an airport’s Departures terminal, glancing back to see our Mom crying too.

And so begins my first installment of Jamaican Lessons… Continue reading