An Education in San Benito

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Village of San Benito, Nicaragua
(photo credit: Brittany Policastro)

San Benito is a community of 88 beautiful families (350 people) located in the Department of Matagalpa, Nicaragua. There are 94 energetic, curious students enrolled in primary school in San Benito. They currently study with two teachers in a private house. Since the house is only comprised of one room, the children attend school in two groups: Kindergarten through third grade in the morning and fourth through sixth grades in the afternoon.

Jerry Samuel, age 11 (photo credit: Mary Kate Ruffing)

Jerry Samuel, age 11
(photo credit: Mary Kate Ruffing)

In Nicaragua, the school year runs from February to November (based around the harvest season), and elementary education is free and compulsory. Although it is still customary for children to work for their parents from a young age, especially in farming communities like San Benitio, this village has made the commitment to their children to make education a priority, and to give their children a choice when it comes to creating their future.

Jerry Samuel, pictured above, was my favorite kid I met in San Benito. I know you’re not supposed to do that. Pick favorites. But if you had met this kid, you’d understand. Jerry followed our group around during our week’s stay in the village; not like a lost puppy, but a benevolent mayor. He smiled with his lips only slightly parted, but laughed in a way that made you feel like your jokes (or at least your broken Spanish words) were funny. I played Jenga with Jerry after dinner most nights, and gave him half of a leather shoelace the day we departed from the village. I kept the other half and tied it around my wrist. Jerry tied his to a plastic bottle and swung it in circles on the ground, like a Nicaraguan village version of SkipIt. I’ll never forget him.

Pato, pato... ganso! (Photo credit: Ella Cuda)

Pato, pato… ganso!
(Photo credit: Ella Cuda)

A San Benito community member, Sandra Miranda, said: “Education is the biggest need in our community. We would like to have a nice and comfortable building where our kids will receive the bread of knowledge. We want to see future doctors and teachers. I would also like to learn to read and write because I did not have the opportunity when I was a kid.”

"If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children." - Gandhi

“If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children.” -Gandhi
(photo credit: Charly Simpson)

Worldwide, there are 57 million children of primary school age without access to a classroom. Nearly one in six people around the world cannot read or write. No country has ever achieved continuous and rapid economic growth without first having at least 40% of its adults literate.

The above photo is of a student in the neighboring village of Los 40. He carries his desk to school because there aren’t any in the classroom. Through our project with buildOn, each new school is supplied with necessary supplies, including desks.

Mi familia - Perla y Arsineo

(L to R) Julie, Perla, Mary Kate and Arsenio – Our Host family / Our new friends

The people of San Benito are farmers, are their staple crops are coffee, cacao, corn and beans. In Nicaragua today, coffee supports the 45,000 families that own and operate small farms. Though the farmers are extremely proud of their land and product, they are also vulnerable. People’s vulnerability to the fluctuating coffee prices depends upon their location in the coffee commodity chain and their access to assets such as land, credit, diversified income sources and social networks.

One night, sitting outside on white plastic chairs under the blanket of stars, I asked our host dad, Arsenio, if he was happy with the price he receives for the coffee he grows and sells. I was told that Arsenio grew a unique variety of bean, one unlike his peers, and it was very special. Still, Arsenio shook his head no. The coffee farmers we spoke with receive $.50 to $1.00 for one large paint bucket full of beans. It’s unjust, because the labor it takes to grow and harvest coffee, as you can imagine, is quite extensive.

However, from my understanding, farmers like Arensio are less vulnerable to losing their livelihood, and that of their family, if coffee prices were to plummet below the already low selling price. This is because San Benito is aided by another nonprofit organization who has helped the village thrive in self-sufficiency: Agros International provided the resources for the San Benito families to set up shop in this growing village – namely land for homes, gardens, and cash-crops.

Dina, age 6

Dina, age 6

“When you educate a man you educate one person, when you educate a women you educate an entire family.” – African Proverb

When women and girls have the chance to advance their lives through education, the entire community reaps the benefits. At buildOn, the partner organization with whom we built the school, gender equality is the cornerstone of their methodology.

On the job site, men and women worked side-by-side performing the physical labor to build the school. Women are encouraged to step outside traditional gender norms and try different tasks, such as laying bricks, digging the foundation and mixing concrete. Indeed, the women of San Benito plunged their shovels deeply and fervently into the earth, literally breaking ground on their children’s’ futures.

As a condition of partnering with buildOn, each village makes a promise to send their daughters to school in equal numbers with their sons. Dina, pictured above, will certainly hold her own among the boys. She is feisty and fun, sassy and smart. I can’t wait to for the world to meet her.

Home

Home

We stayed with host families in San Benito, sleeping on cots, and living as they did: simply and purposefully. We generated no waste; there is no trash pick up in San Benito. Meals consisted primarily of rice and beans, though we also ate yucca and eggs from chickens kept in the back yard. We fell asleep to the sounds of roosters crowing, dogs barking, and monkeys howling.

Three meals daily were cooked over an open fire by the woman of the house, an idea that sounds quaint, but is truly terrible for their lungs. I hated hearing our host mom, Perla, coughing at night because of her work to cook our meals. This detail of her life is one of things I want to be different for her and her peers. I researched this issue upon my return home, and discovered that open-fire cooking is a major health issue in developing countries: exposure to cooking over an open fire causes over two million deaths from chronic lung diseases every year. To me, someone who has studied and celebrated the beauty of food, I felt like I had discovered another dark underbelly of its life. It was unsettling, to say the least. The good news is that there are people working on this issue – namely The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, to whom the U.S. government has committed up to $105 million for research and debt financing for large-scale cookware businesses.

Perla had the most beautiful garden in the village. She spoke lovingly of her three-year-old daughter, Anna, who was staying with her mother in town for the week on holiday. Her daughter, she told us, would learn English. In fact, Perla traveled to the city of Matagalpa once-a-month or so to take English classes. My friend (and roommate) Mary Kate discovered Perla’s interest in English by finding a page torn from an English work book lying in the compost pile. Indeed Perla was shy about her English at first, shy about a lot of things in the beginning. But by the end of the week, we were exchanging words in both of our mother languages. Mary Kate and I were brought to tears during the closing ceremony when Perla got up in front of the whole village to speak, to say her thanks, and her goodbye; she was the first woman in the village to do this, followed only by two others, and it must have taken a lot of courage and conviction to make the decision to speak up and out in public.

Though our Spanish was lacking, or probably because of it, Mary Kate and I formed a quick and solid bond with Perla and Arsenio. The day we left, Arsenio told us that we would live with him forever – “en el corazon” (in his heart).

buildOn teams build schools with villages that have historically had no adequate school structure – where students are squeezed into dark and crumbling mud huts, or are taught under trees when the weather permits, or have to walk multiple miles to a neighboring village, or can’t attend school at all.

buildOn teams build schools with villages that have historically had no adequate school structure – where students are squeezed into dark and crumbling mud huts, or are taught under trees when the weather permits, or have to walk multiple miles to a neighboring village, or can’t attend school at all.

Our group raised $50,000 to build this school in San Benito and to travel there to be a part of its construction. We worked every day from 7am to 11pm, alongside men and women who live in the village and will directly benefit from the construction of the school. Barriers between our two groups were quickly disassembled. Working side by side, for a common purpose, blurred the lines between an “us” and a “them”, and it was clear that we were all there for the same reason: for the education of the 94 children of San Benito.

Stones, age 5

Stones, age 5

Leaving San Benito was emotional. Since our goodbye and subsequent return to Philadelphia, I’ve come to the conclusion that sincere, deep, and lasting connections are formed in environments saturated by vulnerability. Not vulnerability as in a place of imminent danger or doom, but vulnerability as a state of uncertainty, awkwardness, discomfort – or a farmer’s perpetual uncertainty of his crop – because in the attempt to soften these blows you reach out your hand to the person next to you. And because that person may be a perfect stranger, or just someone you don’t typically sleep next to, you expand – you have to crack open or you’ll crack up. You let yourself be vulnerable by falling back into a night of Nicaraguan stars deep enough that you’re destined to swim up with a discovery, or at least a shoelace, in your pocket.

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The school as it stands today! Almost complete!

Hey, thanks.  Love, Jerry and Julie

Hey, thanks. Love, Jerry and Julie

To there – from here – with help

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“For one month follow the yes and don’t fight with no. Give more cooperation to the yes – that is from where you will be united. No never helps to attain unity. It is always yes that helps, because yes is acceptance, yes is trust, yes is prayer.”    – Osho

savasana

This morning, I posed a question to a friend:

“If today you had a strong desire to jump on a plane and go to another country for a week, if that place was calling you, would you do it?” Like many of you, I suspect, his answer was “no”. His reasons are probably yours, too: (lack of) money, plans and time.

I recognize my proposition as a tad nonsensical, but not far off from the space where I believe you should take flight if you’re called. Where do you want to go? And how are you going to get there?

When I was invited to move to Italy for a year, I was riding a wave of semi-irrational momentum that only brought me pause the night I sat at my kitchen table in Philadelphia, hunched over a glowing Excel spreadsheet with a phone pressed to my ear, my very rational mother on the other end.

“I can’t gooooo,” I wailed. I was staring at the screen of numbers – big numbers with dollar signs. My mother is extremely talented at managing, saving and moving dollars, an all-around rock star at her relationship with money, and she replied: “You’re right. You can’t.”

I could have folded at this point. Given up on this expensive dream. Cursed the lack of a trust fund. Instead, I called my sister. Though she didn’t give me money, she did tell me how much she had taken out in student loans for graduate school.

Then I sold my car and cashed in my vacation days. I left my job and I moved to Italy.

italy road

It wasn’t exactly waking up one day and putting a plane ticket on a credit card, but figuring out the numbers did feel satisfying, like scratching a hard-to-reach itch. When you want something bad enough, you get fueled to find and finish ways to make it happen. If you get too scared, or if there is a bigger plan in store for you, momentum usually dies and your Excel sheet wins.

Now, two years later, I’m planning my travels to Nicaragua with a group of yoga teacher trainees to build a school in a village there. You might think that getting to a hot country lacking in luxury would be easier than getting to the lush vineyards of northern Italy, but the legwork involved in coming up with the money to get to Nicaragua has proven to be more complex, challenging and uncomfortable by far.

While getting to Italy necessitated signing papers and promissory notes, getting to Nicaragua involves me asking other people to pay for it. Think that sounds weird? So do I. To participate in the school build project, each trainee has to raise $5,000 to fund a portion of the school building materials and their room and board with a host family in the village. While I could, hypothetically, pay my own way, this would be cheating the type of journey this is supposed to be (and is kind of against the rules of my training). So I’m challenging myself to do something uncomfortable. I’m challenging myself to be comfortable with asking for help.

Partnering with local mayor’s offices and a number of local NGOs, buildOn has constructed 94 schools throughout the regions of León, Chinandega, Nueva Segovia, Esteli, Matagalpa, and Madriz. These schools have built a new generation of readers and writers with limitless opportunities.

Partnering with local mayor’s offices and a number of local NGOs, buildOn has constructed 94 schools throughout the regions of León, Chinandega, Nueva Segovia, Esteli, Matagalpa, and Madriz. These schools have built a new generation of readers and writers with limitless opportunities.

Help given freely and without prompting – like when someone takes half of the six grocery bags you’re carrying out of your hand so that you can get your keys out of your pocket, or cleans the dishes after dinner because you did the cooking – feels pretty loving and fair.

But asking for help? Hard. Asking for money? Even worse. Asking for help makes me feel vulnerable, guilty, needy and annoying. Why should you help me? Help yourself! You work hard for your money! Go buy that plane ticket to Nepal and get yourself a nice cup of tea.

fold gratitude

Through this process of trying to get myself to Nicaragua by fundraising, I realized that a “You find your way and I’ll find mine” attitude is my default mode of operation, and it’s hindering. Yet it’s not surprising. I come from a lineage of strong, capable women and men – nurses and steel workers and breadwinners; the caretakers, not the ones being taken care of.

I wonder if the Nicaraguan men and women with whom we will build the school felt – and may feel when we get there – uncomfortable asking for help. There is no way that they could afford the materials for this new building without the assistance of buildOn, the non-profit facilitating the project, or the fundraising efforts of our Beyond Asana yoga teacher training group. It’s a lot of money. It’s taking a lot of time. It can feel like a burden. And yet I’m happy to do it.

Lajero School Volunteers, Nicaragua

Lajero School Volunteers, Nicaragua

But first –

To help others, I want to allow myself to experience what it feels like to be helped. To ask for support and to receive it. To live up to the responsibility I’m offering to accept. To let myself feel real, heavy gratitude toward another person for making something happen, and not just proud of myself for balancing my Excel sheet.

Asking isn’t easy and receiving isn’t a given. But I’m learning that when you let others help you, you give them the chance to be powerful and bright. When you let others help you, you relinquish control. You believe that you’re worthy of care and attention. When you let others help you, momentum and grace is gathered into a force infused with the energy of thousands and that vastly surpasses what could come from just one pair of hands.

Being on the receiving end of help allows you to learn what gratitude truly is, to say thank you… and mean it.

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Thank you to everyone who has made an individual donation on my buildOn page. At the halfway mark of my yoga teacher training, I am, fittingly halfway toward my fundraising goal. Thank you to the organizations whose foundational and generous support is helping to raise fuller funds faster:

“The drawing shows me at a glance what would be spread over ten pages in a book.” Australian artist Helena Rosebery sketched gorgeous "Veggie Asana" notecards for donor incentive gifts. View her work & imaginative design services at  http://www.facebook.com/bobiro.graphics

“The drawing shows me at a glance what would be spread over ten pages in a book.” Australian artist Helena Rosebery sketched gorgeous “Veggie Asana” notecards for donor incentive gifts. View her work & imaginative design services at http://www.facebook.com/bobiro.graphics

Meghan Nunes, Arbonne Independent Consultant & colleagues are donating a portion of summer sales to the Nicaragua school build project, having already contributed $250. Visit Meghan's page to buy fresh Arbonne skin care and health products at http://www.facebook.com/MeghanNunesArbonneI

Meghan Nunes, Arbonne Independent Consultant & colleagues are donating a portion of summer sales to the Nicaragua school build project, having already contributed $250. Visit Meghan’s page to buy fresh Arbonne skin care and health products at https://www.facebook.com/MeghanNunesArbonneIC

The fun guys over at Jackie Party Tops are donating each tank sale ($25) bought with the online promo code YOGA to the project. Head over to www.jackiepartytops.com to purchase (Women & Men's sizes)

The fun guys over at Jackie Party Tops are donating each tank sale ($25) bought with the online promo code YOGA to the project. Head over to http://www.jackiepartytops.com to purchase colorful tanks for women & men

Nicole Smith, owner of Pacific Yoga, Philadelphia's newest yoga studio in Fishtown, is hosting once-a-month First Friday pay-what-you-can donation classes from 6:00-7:30. All proceeds go to the project. www.pacificyogaphilly.com

Nicole Smith, owner of Pacific Yoga, Philadelphia’s newest yoga studio in Fishtown, is hosting once-a-month First Friday pay-what-you-can donation classes from 6:00-7:30 through November. All proceeds go to the project. http://www.pacificyogaphilly.com

Thank you to my teachers and my teachers’ teachers. To the leaders of the Beyond Asana yoga teacher training, Brittany Policastro and Maura Manzo. And to buildOn for their vision and organization.

Beyond Asana founded by Brittany Policastro Philadelphia, PA www.beyondasana.org

Founded by Brittany Policastro Philadelphia, PA http://www.beyondasana.org

Next Stop: Nicaragua

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“It’s no accident that when you look closely into the eyes of another, the very first thing you see is yourself. That when you hold their hand, you can feel your own warmth.  And that when you give of yourself, you give to yourself. Because, quite simply, both you and they are the same.” – TUT

The road more or less traveled, Nicaragua

The road more or less traveled, Nicaragua

“You used to dance,” she said to me from the front of the room. I gazed up at her from my crossed-legged position on the floor and nodded my head. “I used to dance, ballet mostly,” I confirmed.

“I see you dancing,” she continued, doing an awkward waltz to strengthen her point, then laughed, apologized for her lack of coordination.  “You’re in the middle of a circle of children patting them on the head,” she continued, “You’re protecting them. Why did you turn this opportunity down?”

Flustered, I racked my brain for what this stranger could possibly be referring to. “I don’t know?” I offered.

“You’re going to build schools. Like Oprah,” she said definitively, snapping closed the book on the prediction for the next chapter in my life before moving on to the next person in the crowd.

Some people carefully make plans, weighing the pros and cons of the risks and benefits on their decision chart, researching and reading and editing until they have the most logical answer. I consider the advice of psychics.

I let the prediction go, but realized a few weeks later what she was talking about. In January, I had been discussing work with a yoga teacher and traveling with a group of yoga teacher trainees to Nicaragua to build a school for children. But, in January, I had plans to move to California, and I backed out of working with the teacher and the training. I turned the offer down.

I used to dance. Sometimes I still do. In my room. Big, brazen dances with strong arms and elongated legs. That creative energy is contained within my four walls, even though I often yearn to break it out and bring the wild dance to the streets.

As January fell into February which turned into March, I started to be pulled in a direction that could allow me to use more of this creativity. To write, to generate ideas, and to share what I know. I chose not to move to California. I wanted to jump into something else.  A project. Anything. I wrote to the yoga teacher and asked if I could have a do-over. I wanted in.

49% of students in buildOn schools are female.

49% of students in buildOn schools are female.

As of today, I’m at the 40 hour mark in the 200 hours I need to be a certified yoga teacher, though explaining what we’re doing in those terms minimizes the growth and openness that this training is provoking in me and in 11 other women – and one calm, anchoring man.

As a group, we’re raising over $100,000 with buildOn to build two schools for children in two villages in Nicaragua; the schools will double as hurricane shelters. The kiddos we will build for are currently taking classes, but they don’t have a proper building in which to learn. As of now, their school looks something like this:

Old School

Old School

No one is saying that what happens inside of this school is any less important than in any other school, but the village wants a new, bigger, sturdier school so that even more kids can learn and read and play in a safe space.  And the kids deserve it. The new school will look something like this:

New School

New School

We will be in the village for a week in February 2014. During that time will get to know the people who live there. (I’m practicing my Spanish.) We will eat together and play together and build the school together. I predict we might even dance together. I hope we do.

My portion of the school fundraising efforts is $5,000. For more information about the Beyond Asana buildOn Project in Nicaragua and to donate, please visit my fundraising page.

The Sweet Friend Tour

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“Friendship is the purest love. It is the highest form of Love where nothing is asked for, no condition, where one simply enjoys giving.”

– Osho

“When it’s over, I want to say all my life/I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms. When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder/if I have made of my life something particular, and real. I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened/or full of argument. I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”

– Mary Oliver

Brunch at Whisker Jacks

Clockwise from left: Maria brunching at our classmate’s pop-up cafe, Whisker Jacks; Jack’s bread; Maria’s apricot marmalade; Helena blows out 25 candles on Steph the baker’s cake; Esther’s citrus strips

On a Tuesday afternoon in mid-November, I stood in my apartment in Bra, where I had lived for the past 12 months, looking at two suitcases and a box. The night before, I had spent hours looking at and touching the details of my home abroad: the brass door handles shaped like fish tails, the huge kitchen window with the thick wooden frame and no screen and the potted pink Julianas that decorated my small balcony. I had hoped to tattoo these items in my memory. Several times that day — moving day — I had said: “I don’t want to leave Italy.” Be careful what you wish for.

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Clockwise from left: Raw oysters with lemon juice at Abergaveny Food Festival in Wales; Vegetable pie with the works — mashed peas, potatoes, fried shallots and gravy; Lorenzo pouring suds at Bristol Beer Factory’s Factoberfest; “Pirates” dancing by the River Avon; Totterdown alleyway; Counting pounds; Helena and Lorenzo at Saint Nicholas farmers market

I had returned to Italy after living for six weeks in Bristol, United Kingdom, where I interned at Sustainable Food Trust, and worked to survive the cloudy disposition of both the weather and the city’s inhabitants. Had it not been for my friends Helena and Lorenzo, who were also interning in Bristol (Helena for Square Food Foundation and Lorenzo for Bristol Beer Factory), I might have jumped shipped. Yet together we filled our weeks venturing to Wales for a food festival and to London for the scene. We watched women in leopard suits perform The Lion King, stuffed ourselves with Chelsea Buns from Mark’s Bread and listened to many nights of live music on Stokes Croft.

But a weight lifted off my shoulders when I returned to Milan. That day, the sun was shining on the walls of the massive stone train station, and men and women were taking coffee outside at curly brass tables; they were talking loudly and laughing. Italy felt so good.

That evening, I sat on my bed with a glass of Barbera d’Alba and a bar of Swiss chocolate. I watched the sun set behind the Alps. A massive and profound appreciation saturated my body and continued through the next day when I rode to my favorite park to have a picnic of ricotta, spinach and bread. The warm sun nudged me into a nap. I hadn’t realized how influential this globe was to my happiness before I left it for a while, nor had I fully realized Italy’s charm until then, my last few weeks in Bra.

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Our bright kitchen window on Via Principi di Piemonte

It is very possible that I would become jaded with Italy’s intricacies if I was staying indefinitely, but I didn’t because I wasn’t. My visa stated that I would no longer be a resident after November 16th, 2012 and so, for the next few weeks, I went right on appreciating the quality of life that made me so happy, the novelty that constantly stimulated me, the food that unabashedly brought me pleasure, the people that sang to me with their language, and the parks and architecture and statues and churches and cobblestones that set the stage of one of the most growth-provoking years of my life. I was certainly on a high. How else could I have felt a genuine appreciation for door knobs?

My mind was focused so intently on how much I would miss bella Italia that after I finally dragged myself to the airport on departure day, I missed my flight. It was the first time all year that I made a major travel mistake, but it bought (or cost, depending how you look at it) me one more night sipping red wine in Italy. The next morning, I finally felt like I could say goodbye, the memories were tattooed.

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Graduation Day: FC7 Masters in Food Culture and Communication – 27 students from 13 countries

The thought of returning home to Pennsylvania felt simultaneously comforting and impossible. Going back to something familiar seemed ridiculous after living among the unfamiliar for so long. Knowing that I could survive, and even thrive, in a new environment is the biggest lesson I learned this year. As Maura’s theme for 2012 was “optimism”, mine was “transformation”. Right on, 2012.

With the gut rejection of returning to the familiar, I began the “Sweet Friend Tour”, graciously and enthusiastically visiting the homes of Esther in Amsterdam, Danielle in Los Angeles  and Colleen in Seattle. Jobless but happy world traveler was a rolling stone…

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Esther the Amsterdamer

My friend Colleen and I used to joke that the reason we couldn’t be world travelers was because we wouldn’t have health insurance. The fact that I was currently not a card-carrying member of any emergency medical insurance was in the front of my mind as I rode side-saddle on the back of Esther’s boyfriend Wouter’s bike through the streets of Amsterdam one chilly Friday night in November. After a few beers. And a café.

To get on the bike, I had followed Esther’s instructions and trotted beside it, in red wedge boots, putting out my hands and pulling them back as I squealed in resistance to hopping on the back of what is usually my favorite form of transportation, but now looked like a very bad idea.

“This can’t be safe!” I yelled over my shoulder to Esther as she rode behind me, laughing so hard that tears were coming down her cheeks. “Everyone does it!” she assured me. The bike only gave an incremental wobble as Wouter received my weight and dutifully peddled me through the brightly lit city and over the calm canals.

Amsterdam's center is home to 240 bridges

Amsterdam’s center is home to 240 bridges

Indeed, Amsterdam’s bike culture was one of my favorite things about the city, and I was delighted to see vehicles with two wheels outnumber those with four.  Bike lanes had a prominent place next to motor lanes. Esther lent me my own bike one day, and we rode over the quick, smooth, arched bridges, past exposed boat houses and Renaissance architecture — narrow but tall (often six stories!) houses that arm themselves with attic window hooks. The roofs looked like beautiful white layer cakes. Amsterdam is a delicate city. I felt like a human in a doll house when we had a lunch of nettle soup and sour dough bread in a pretty cafe.

Raw herring with onions and pickles

Wouter and Esther in Volendam

Wouter and Esther in Volendam

One afternoon, Esther and Wouter took me to the fishing villages of Marken and Volendam, where we walked along the frigid water eating raw herring and pickles with toothpicks. We stopped in a fish shop where Esther bought the ugliest looking seafood I’ve ever seen — smoked eel (which ended up tasting delicious). Wouter shared his fried cod, which had crisped in the bubbly deep fryer in the back while money was exchanged for the ugly eel. The hot, salty, soft fish will forever be on my tongue, it was so delicious. We stood eating it in the middle of the fish shop as a song that will always remind me of Philadelphia played on the radio.

Like the Amsterdam canals, things like hearing a familiar song in a foreign country connected pieces of my old and new life together and made me feel like I was never far from home. Now, back in the US, three weeks after leaving Amsterdam, it’s funny to think that I’m using those bridges to go back the other way. A song, a photo, or even a train ticket stub can catapult me back to moments like dancing in Greece with with my classmates or laying on the beach  in southern France with my friend Yahli. The blue pleather seats of the Italian trains are etched it my brain. Life has little tricks to make sure that once things and people are connected, they remain connected.

D and me on Catalina Island in southern California

D and me on Catalina Island in southern California

Proof of these long-term connections were displayed when I reunited with one of my college roomates, Danielle, whom I met almost ten years ago. She had since moved to southern California, and I visited her after returning from Amsterdam. D introduced me to the people and scenery that created the happiness she wore like a flattering dress. She lives in Newport Beach, the quintessential SoCal beach town, home to busy streets speckled with taquerías and gas stations, the ocean in the background serving as a steady clock. Her apartment is about 100 steps from the sea, in the middle of beach houses that were glowing with primary-colored Christmas bulbs. We ate fish and avocados all week and went on the hike I’ve been waiting for: Catalina Island with a 360 view of the Pacific Ocean. The mild weather only required long-sleeved shirts.

As far as transportation is concerned (actually, as far as many things are concerned), Los Angeles is a stark contrast to Amsterdam. No bikes in LA. Everyone drives. Without a car, I braved public transportation, primed by vexing train navigation from Bra to anywhere, and concluded that it isn’t all that bad. I enjoyed the diversity that LA provided, and listened to Mandarin, Spanish and the low, drawn out SoCal accents on the bus ride past tall, toothpick-thin palm trees and annoyed drivers.

California cactus on Catalina Island

California cactus on Catalina Island

Another link proved connected when I met Maria, one of my classmates and dearest friends in Italy, and her boyfriend (and LA native), Graham, in Chinatown for Sunday dim sum.  “This is the first time we’re hanging out in America!” we realized, smiling and knowing that it wouldn’t be the last. The couple drove me through the ill-famed Downtown LA and the green, jungle-like streets of the Silver Lake neighborhood. Maria’s knack for knowing where to get the perfect food or beverage led us to Intelligencia, where I was schooled on “the slow drip” — water painstakingly finding its way through coffee grounds and a brown filter to make a pure cup of joe that is worth the 15 minute wait.

A faster coffee — frappuccino with Maria and Whisker Jack in Greece

When I asked Maria and Graham why so many people move to LA, Maria paused and gave me the kind of thoughtful answer that only Maria can: “I think people feel a lot of hope here,” she said. Indeed, people come to LA to “make it” in show biz or otherwise, and there is a feeling of confidence and pride that is palpable to visitors. I also think the full-time sun doesn’t hurt…

It’s interesting that Maura and I both ended up in California. It’s one place in America that is seemingly most different from Philadelphia.  Loving what “different” can evoke, that’s appealing.

Magic Seattle balls

Magic Seattle balls

Tucked away in the northwestern corner of the United States, Seattle prides itself on being different. Looking at a map, the city looks like it might jump into the Pacific, or be pushed in and forgotten. Yet journeying here pays you back in novelty and a defunct kind of friendliness. My dear friend Colleen, a children’s hospital colleague, moved here over a year ago to attend UW’s clinical psychology doctoral program. Seattle was the last place she ever thought she would end up, but the city’s insulation from fast food chains and malls, replaced with an inundation of flea markets and coffee shops (that moonlight as wine bars) are a good fit for my beautiful friend who has always decorated her life in vintage floral prints.

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Seattle may be one of the few places that still has “Soul Night”, as Havana did one Thursday. The bar was packed with young people who knew how to shake it to Otis Redding and James Brown while clutching their whiskey sours. Seattle knows what’s good.

Colleen eating Paseo's cajun scallop sandwich (SO good) outside Seattle's Google offices

Colleen eating Paseo’s cajun scallop sandwich (SO good) outside Seattle’s Google offices

Now that I’ve completed a sampler platter of cities and lifestyles, I recognize that I truly could be comfortable just about anywhere. I started to realize at the beginning of this year’s journey, but now stand very strong in the conviction, that it’s not things that bring happiness. What brought me happiness  this year were the experiences that shook me with their newness; the new friends who matched pieces of me that no one ever had before; and the old friends and family who welcomed me home as soon as  I was ready. This year gave me a confidence that I will try to hold onto in order to seek out and face even more of the unknown.

Like Maura, I recognize the circularity of time. Life’s joys and challenges often repeat themselves disguised in different clothes. But sometimes, a new experience emerges, breaking the pattern and widening the circle. That’s growth; sometimes provoked by experiences and at other times people. Yet you’re always the one allowing (or not allowing) it in. I learned that from a few sweet friends.

Welcome Home

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“Sleep don’t visit, so I choke on sun. And the days blur into one. And the backs of my eyes hum with things I’ve never done. … But we’ve made the most. Welcome home. … Heal the scars from off my back. I don’t need them anymore. … I’ve come home.” ~Radical Face

Part II

But true to my traveling tradition, havoc awaited me at the airport.

Once again, I was flying standby. Unfortunately, so were 25 other hopeful travelers.

In Philadelphia, I had awaited my fate at the flight’s gate. But the woman at the check-in counter in Buenos Aires informed me that there were so many standbys and so few open seats that none of us was allowed to even check in. She told us all to come back an hour before the flight. I eyed the line growing outside security on the floor above us with skepticism about the tight timing, then wandered off to wait.

Helado

Helado

If there was no room on the flight, I’d have to fork over another $50 to cab it back to the city. To access my belongings, I’d have to slash the neon green Saran wrap I’d comissioned outside the airport to secure my luggage. And then redo and undo the process for however many days it took to seize an open seat.

My only consolation would be a final quarter-kilo of helado. Without my apartment key or a cell phone, I’d established a meeting spot with Jess to come collect me in case I didn’t score a seat. Naturally, we chose an heladería.

As the minutes ticked down, the standbys slowly amassed before the check-in desk. Luckily, “The Hunger Games” movie and a subsequent nightmare starring me running around a field with a machete had recently sharpened my survival instincts. I sized up my fellow tributes: Short family of four? I owned their future children. The captain’s perky blond wife? She’d require a booby trap.

Katniss

Channeling my inner Katniss

I was evaluating a pair of short, stocky standbys when I spotted a secret list on an iPad that they kept dashing to an airport WiFi zone to update. Two flight attendants on vacation in Buenos Aires, the neurotic men informed me that it ranked each standby by priority compared with the number of available seats. I slowly dropped my bow and arrow as I learned that it wouldn’t be up to me to oust my competition.

I joined their hyperventilating, as if the faster I breathed the more information I could gulp in about this underground airline intel. They informed me that I was on the cusp for snagging a seat: lower than them because they were flight attendants ­– but for an affiliate, so higher than their non-flight attendant “buddies” traveling with them because I was the “buddy” of an attendant for the airline. My head started to spin.

But what was screwing over everyone was the “HKs,” the panickier one informed me. “The what?” I gasped, unfamiliar with the lingo. An uncharacteristically high number of “revenue” customers were switching to our flight at the last minute. Because they were customers paying full price, they got seats before us, the “nonrevenues.” The HKs became the new enemies, and we NRs, formerly foes, banded together. It was a fascinating exercise in the abitrariness of “us” versus “them,” despite the havoc it’s long wreaked on our world.

Finally, the check-in woman emerged with a stack of tickets. Like the players in “A League of Their Own” when Tom Hanks walks down the bench of nervous players with a telegram announcing the death of one of their husbands, I held my breath, wondering whom she was going to stop in front of. Except in this case, everyone wanted a golden ticket.

Luckily, there were more than five. When she handed me one, I felt like Charlie Bucket:

But then the ticketmaster continued:

“This doesn’t mean you have a seat. But you’re high enough on the list that we’re going to send you through security.”

Chaos ensued as I took my best shot at getting on that plane. I frantically heaved my bags onto the conveyor belt and made a mad dash to discern how to advance to level two of our new airport videogame. But finding the escalator was impossible, and the flight was not going to wait for NRs. I needed to form an alliance with a native speaker.

I quickly identified an Argentine girl about by age who was also flying standby, and our predicament forged an instant friendship. She led the way to the stairs, then pled with the security guard that our flight was leaving in 30 minutes. He let us jump the entire line, and I jumped and clicked my heels together like Grandpa Joe as we entered the next room holding the security scanners.

As more of the chosen NRs discovered this cheat code and joined us in level three, our group of allies grew. A friend of the flight attendant duo straggled through toward the end. He had clinched the final standby ticket – but at the downfall of his brother, the fourth member of their group. With only one ticket left and of equal priority, they had had to decide between them who would go and who would get left behind. The deciding factor had been who spoke better Spanish and could therefore fend for himself better alone in Buenos Aires. Suddenly, my “Hunger Games” analogy didn’t seem so ridiculous.

As if the spectators were watching from the Capitol, the Gamemakers apparently decided to make the competition more interesting. All the security scanners suddenly stopped working. Classic Argentina. For a solid 10 minutes, not one person went through. The anxiety was all-consuming, as our flight was leaving in 15 minutes.

A Buenos Aires protest

A Buenos Aires protest

Miraculously, the scanners started working and people passing through. But the obstacle in level four was waiting just around the corner at Immigration, which was a mob scene.

After several minutes of mayhem, an employee from our flight located us and said that she couldn’t give us permission to jump the line, but we could ask each individual person in line if they’d let us get in front of them. Seriously, lady? There was no way that would work!

So my Argentine ally and I decided to take some creative license with the employee’s advice. Instead of politely asking “permiso” of each person in front of us, we started screaming it while charging forward like a grade-school game of Red Rover. The shouting startled person after person just long enough for us to scoot by before they realized we had duped them and ignited in indignation.

The rest of the standbys followed, and we left a riotous line of passengers behind us. Bringing another aspect of my adventure full circle, we provoked a protest in Buenos Aires, where I’d learned during an inaugural tour of the city that one occurs about every day of the year.

I still have no idea why the Immigration officials let us proceed instead of detaining us, but suddenly we found ourselves at the front of the line. My new Argentine BFF and I agreed to wait for each other to clear Immigration and then sprint for the gate. In slow motion, we passed through at the same time, locked eyes and took off.

Rat Race

“Rat Race”

Level five involved traversing the mall that, naturally, separated Immigration and our gate. We dodged women selling perfume and racks of duty-free items. As usual, I had a zillion carry-on bags, which I frantically tried not to drop or knock over something expensive with. Stationed in the middle of the mall was an airline employee circling her arm to wave us all on as if in a NASCAR race. It was absolutely absurd, like an episode of “Global Guts” or a scene from “Rat Race.” I took my chances and did not buy a squirrel.

We made it to the gate, where the captain stood at the desk with his hands on his hips and worry in his eyes that scanned the mall exit for his wife. My flight attendant allies ran through next. We all bent over, panting.

Once we regained our breath, we looked at each other and simultaneously acknowledged our need for a drink. I could almost taste the welcome champagne in business class, where the open seats likely would be because of their exorbitant cost.

Then, the phone rang at the desk. A young man in a crisp airline uniform picked up and recorded the message from the ticketmaster downstairs. He read out two names from his notepad and asked the people to identify themselves.

Primrose was a couple embracing to his right.

“I’m sorry,” the employee said to them. “There is a seat for only one of you. The other will get left behind tonight.”

They froze in terror. But unlike Katniss, I stayed silent. It was survival of the fittest. Better them than me. They chose to stay together and exited level six near tears.

Aeropuerto Kart 64

Aeropuerto Kart 64

After five excruciating minutes, the employee received the official flight list. We had all been cleared. I would have given anything to be anywhere on that plane. But it felt like the celebration that follows winning a cup in Mario Kart 64 to stumble at last into business class, where a NR reunion ensued.

A ton of us had managed to get on the flight, making the drama of the previous four hours seem even more unnecessary and outlandish. But it also made the reward that much more gratifying. We savored the welcome glass of champagne as we quieted our thumping hearts.

Carol Burnham

Carolyn Burnham

But my celebration was premature. Apprently, the videogame was not over. A final surprise nemesis lurched into our path like the Trunchbull from “Matilda.” The meanest flight attendant ever, she was the doppelgänger of Carolyn Burnham in “American Beauty” – face, mannerisms, tone and all.

Continuing the circles, one of the other NRs was a kid I’d met at a toga party in Buenos Aires. We had switched seats because he gets claustrophobic by the window, and I glue myself to the glass like the puppies I’d likely tried to sell him. The flight attendant railed into us that we should know better as buddies of the airline than to switch seats – especially as the person in THIS seat – pointing at my original one – might not be in it in a few minutes if another HK boarded.

My heart dropped. I had already drunk the champagne, yet this troll could rip my full-sized pillow away from me? Like a scolded child, I sat in silence, praying that no one show up to bump me from the flight.

“Close the doors and take off!” I repeated in silent prayer.

The flight attendant finally returned and announced that someone wanted my seat. Her words knocked the wind out of my stomach. I had made it all the way to level seven, and now I was being shoved down the longest chute on the gameboard. I pictured myself sleeping on the conveyor belt at the check-in counter like my depressing departure from Rome in 2008.

But it was just another NR with higher priority – the captain’s wife – who wanted to switch seats with me, not kick me off. At last, I could relax. I was going home.

“And I slept on the ocean last night. … And I could see the airplanes dance behind your eyes. And I was glad I found the time.” ~Radical Face

I’d been self-flatteringly hoping for the same welcome home from abroad I’d received in 2008, when my mom, younger siblings and two best friends had thoughtfully surprised me at the airport. I tussled my locks – which of course had grown long again just in time to leave Buenos Aires – and adjusted my custom-made Argentine leather jacket as I descended the escalator to baggage claim, trying to look cool for my grand return. But no one was waiting.

Waiting at the airport with Sánchez de Bustamante

Waiting at the airport with Sánchez de Bustamante

At least, my bags were. I’d been worried about where they’d end up since I’d fled from the check-in counter before the ticketmaster tagged them for Philly. I sat outside the airport with my luggage, happy that at least my jacket was serving one purpose – warmth – as I weathered the biting Philly wind with Sánchez de Bustamante, the one puppy I took home. Bartolomé Mitre I’d left on Jess’ pillow. As my psychic had predicted, she stayed a lot longer than two months.

After borrowing a dozen people’s phones to contact my mom, she finally answered. We had apparently had a miscommunication about whether I was still coming home that day. Two hours after my arrival, she pulled up to the airport. After traveling for 20 hours and being away for seven months, I was not amused by an “urgent” stop at the fabric store. But another hour later, I finally made it home.

Reconnecting with my family and friends was amazing. Holding onto my Argentine priorities and holding off on getting a cell phone, I spent most of my time with my family and the friends with whom I was close enough to know their numbers by heart. I also didn’t stray far from home because – after the hype about shots I had to get to avoid picking up anything in Argentina – I contracted a monthlong case of salmonella within days of returning to the United States.

In addition to prioritizing people, I appreciated the Philly area anew. After living in a massive city like Buenos Aires, everything seemed so green, like living in one big park. My endless summer continued: part III on the East Coast, followed by part IV on the West Coast with a lovely surprise known as Indian summer:

Walk to work

Commuting

For the most part, I have been able to keep my clock on Argentime. I’m living more slowly and deliberately, remaining detached from my phone, being present to enjoy where I am and whom I’m with, prioritizing the people closest to me, maintaining my independence and hanging onto my Spanish surprisingly well. I even got compliments at Zumba for my new dance skills.

I still falter. I worked more than I should have during my months home and never once outside in my bathing suit as I had from my rooftop office in Buenos Aires. But our new office in San Francisco has given me a work-life balance and has breathtaking views of the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. So my gratitude continues to overflow – as does the maté.

Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires

San Francisco and Buenos Aires also have a surprising number of similarities:

  • Reliance on leaves, though marijuana is the new maté
  • Reliance on buses, and the drivers are just as terrible
  • People who perform circus tricks in the park, and even post ads to live together in “circus houses” on craigslist

    San Francisco

    San Francisco

  • A spate of cell-phone swiping in public
  • A subpopulation that collects recyclables for money
  • Political activism
  • Amazing cuisine
  • Beautiful parks, complete with Japanese gardens
  • Palm trees
  • An edgy style
  • Quasi-legal drinking in public
  • Friendly people
  • Laidback pace of life

The vibrant city lilts with an innovative energy, yet lolls with a high quality of life. I can feel myself striking a happy balance between my structured East Coast roots and airy abroad adventures here in my sixth home in six years. My “500 Days of Summer” has ended, but according to a trusted numerologist in Argentina and the trusty DailyHoroscope app, my “personal summer” is arriving.

Golden Gate Triangle

Golden Gate Triangle

Completing one final circle, I found a paper a few nights ago tucked into the back of my yoga journal. I’d begun the journal when I’d begun this journey in 2011, using it as a sort of therapy to heal myself in order to move away and move on. The paper was from several months before that, back during that dark period in which I had felt stuck. I had been unemployed and unhappy, and Britney Spears having an acting career somehow had seemed more realistic than me moving across the country. So I scribbled all my dreams on a paper in blue marker and tucked it away. Two years later, I rediscovered it last week in San Francisco. I was shocked to realize that I am currently living half of the dreams on my list:

“I want to … be a journalist who travels the world … create meaningful work that helps women and children … practice yoga daily … be fluent in Spanish … live near a beach … teach people … learn every day … be happy …”

Ocean Beach

Ocean Beach

Tears came to my eyes as I laid in awe of the power of dreaming, a word that had kept me afloat before I found my job and my purpose in 2011. Gratitude permeated every cell of my body, and according to Celia Thaxter,

“There shall be eternal summer in the grateful heart.”

Crossing the GGB

Crossing the GGB

I spent our official day of gratitude, Thanksgiving, this year up in Napa Valley at the home of my wonderful boss and her partner, who have largely helped my dreams happen. It made me realize that my reading from my psychic from a year and a half earlier was also coming true. She had said there was “a man and a woman [who] really like me” associated with the company I work for, a “true magical space [that] blooms and blossoms” in San Francisco, which “comes about in my life with a big influence professionally” after Argentina. I’d also go to Nepal, which I did in July.

It feels as if I’m living the magic realism that first interested me in Latin America, especially as I just learned that Isabel Allende resides in the Bay Area. On the bus back to San Francisco after Thanksgiving, a familiar song embraced me through my headphones as we approached the Golden Gate Bridge to return to the city: “Welcome Home.”

I was unhappy with whatever song came on next. But moving to Argentina had taught me that I always hold the key to my life. I’d even made a necklace from two antique Argentine keys to remind me. Exercising this agency, I turned off the radio and opened my music. With the San Francisco Bay to my left, the Pacific Ocean to my right, the Golden Gate Bridge beneath me and the sun illuminating it all from above, I selected:

“What a day to be alive. What a day to realize I’m not dead. What a way to say goodbye. What a day to start again. … What a day for San Francisco. What a day to get in the air and go. … And what a day … to begin breathing.” ~Greg Laswell

Down in the Valley

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“I know there’s California … and all of the places I ain’t ever been to. But down in the valley … these are the places you will find me hiding. These are the places I will always go. I am on my way. I am on my way. I am on my way back to where I started.” ~The Head and the Heart

Part I

In true Argentine form – on my own leisurely time – this final pair of posts is seven months late. But I think the interim has enabled me to complete the circle I wanted to close with.

One year after setting off for an amazing adventure in Argentina, I recently turned up again at the Philadelphia International Airport with several suitcases and little idea of what was to come. Instead of diving south, though, I was moving west.

Getting detained at security for my Argentina and Nepal souvenirs

Airport security mistaking my souvenirs for weapons

Relocating to San Francisco for my job, I now had six suitcases instead of two. But this time, I passed the trip without a wrinkle. I breezed up to the lineless Virgin America check-in counter, and the woman handled my six suitcases in 60 seconds while singing along to a catchy cover of “Tale as Old as Time.” Whereas Bulent had been a Beast, she radiated Beauty.

Two years earlier, two high school friends and I had plotted about moving to California during a period in which we all had felt stuck. But it had always seemed more like the plot in “Crossroads” than a plan we’d ever execute.

Now, though, moving across the country did not feel daunting after moving to a different hemisphere. I had discovered in my Argentine adventure the agency I had to change my life. To unstick myself. To expand my world. To stretch my capability. Unlike when I showed up in Buenos Aires, I not only had the complete address of my apartment when I arrived in San Francisco, but also the keys. The key to my apartment was small and brass. The key to my life, was me.

San Francisco Bay, first weekend in town

First weekend exploring SF

My first night was a lot lonelier without a compañera like Jess. But moving solo has forced me to hone my agency further. I’m growing comfortable with doing things alone and putting myself out there as I build a new network here. I’m also learning how to do “real-people” tasks, like read a map and dodge scammers and sex offenders on craiglist to find an apartment down in the valley with amazing roommates. More book than street smart, I had always relied on others to navigate new places: Jess in Argentina, my friend Behnaz in Spain, my sister Kelly in Europe, etc. Now, I needed to figure things out on my own, and unraveling wasn’t an option.

Well, my belated blogging has given me the chance to prove to myself that I could. My guru, Peter, and I recently celebrated that I’m tackling these challenges, using the optimism we learned in 2011 and the happiness we chose in 2012. And I credit this newfound resilience to our six hard months of self-reflection, followed by my seven months on Argentime.

Hills in SF

SF hills

In my previous post, I made the mistake of thinking too linearly – beginning, middle and end. But what I realized during my final weeks in Argentina and now in San Francisco is that life is actually circular:

In September 2012, “California Girls” came on while I was struggling to run up a San Francisco hill. It ripped me back to September 2011, when I’d seen Katy Perry perform live on my first night in Buenos Aires. Coming full circle, I now found myself trying out life as a California girl.

The concert venue had bordered Rosedal, a massive park that Jess, Angie and I had stumbled upon by accident on one of our first outings in Buenos Aires during an attempt to find somewhere else. I rounded out my last few Saturdays there as well. Ironically, it had become my favorite place in the city – a valuable lesson on how the best things in life usually do find us, especially when we feel lost or are busy looking for something else.

Rosedal

Rosedal

Or have closed ourselves off to them. Last December, I was barely on speaking terms with my dad, but he randomly emailed me an aria, “Vissi d’arte,” performed by Angela Gheorghiu. Luckily, I gave it a listen – dozens of listens – because I then recognized the soprano’s name on the schedule of Teatro Colón, my other favorite place in Buenos Aires. During my last month in the city, I got to see her perform there, one of the top opera houses in the world.

Angela Gheorghiu

Angela Gheorghiu at Teatro Colón

Continuing these circles, Jess and I spent my last night in Buenos Aires in the first neighborhood where we had lived.

On my first day, Lorena, our energetic building porter, became our fairy godmother when she helped me figure out which unit I was living in and let me inside. So it only seemed fit that Jess and I spend my final evening at Lorena’s apartment with her beautiful family. Whereas we’d spent my first night at the Katy Perry concert, we spent my last night watching Lorena’s sassy first-grade daughter nail every word of “Teenage Dream,” astounding for not actually knowing English. I saw how my priorities had shifted during my seven months in Argentina, where people prioritize their families, as the latter “concert” by Lorena’s daughter remains the more meaningful memory.

After Lorena’s, Jess and I headed to a bar a few blocks away to meet some friends. One of them had recommended it while giving me a tour during my first weekend as his favorite bar in the city. But despite living a few blocks from it at our first apartment, we had never gone. So it felt fitting to finally resolve that.

Farewell drinks

Farewell drinks

It also felt full-circle because he was hosting a friend from home, who coincidentally had gone to college with Jess and me – and was in the Latin American studies class where she and I had first met and became interested in traveling to South America together. Another friend who came to say goodbye was also from the United States and, we’d realized within five minutes of meeting each other several months earlier, knew my sister.

The links reminded me of an elderly Uruguayan woman whom Jess and I had met in Colonia. After stopping to ask her for directions, we realized she had spent time in my mom’s hometown, a tiny town in New Jersey.

“The world is very big,” she had commented in Spanish. “But it’s also very small.”

She had been sitting on her stoop with her daughter drinking maté.

Mateando en the park

Mateando in the park

Maté. Back in July 2011, I had edited the first article from my work’s lone reporter in Argentina at the time. Her reference to people sharing maté in a circle from a communal straw had baffled me.

“‘Mate’ is like a tea that people drink together in a round,” she tried to explain to me. “It’s important to name it because it gives the scene a sense of community. It’s much common to drink mate between friends.”

Eight months later, it was a strikingly beautiful circle when she and I planned a training for new reporters in Buenos Aires, and maté now topped my list of supplies we’d need.

As did a parrilla for steak for my final dinner. Yep, it turned out to be true what a friend had warned me had happened to another vegetarian friend while living in Argentina: The steak seduced me. We had a lovely final dinner with our lovely Canadian amigas, collecting some final “research” for our dream to start a travel food blog, an activity I first tried thanks to Julie and Erin inviting me onto this one.

Parrilla

Parrilla

I’m never organized enough to plan going away parties, so it had meant a lot when two high school friends had insisted on coming to say goodbye to me the night before I left for Argentina. This was a circle I never expected to complete in Buenos Aires. But then one night at a bar at 4 a.m., Angie and I decided to stay for one last drink despite having hung up the night as a failure. We ended up befriending a hospitable group of strangers, who later introduced Jess and I to our best Argentine girlfriend. The night before I left for home, she made a point to travel across town to say goodbye.

The way our realities expand with bright people, beautiful places, balancing practices and brilliant moments when we leave our comfort zones awes me. It also piques my curiosity about all the potential other dimensions just waiting to grace our consciousness and enrich our quality of life.

Upon arriving in Argentina, I had been struggling to slow down, which emerged as the main theme of my posts. By the end of my stay, though, I sometimes caught myself out-Argentining the Argentines. One friend called me out for eating too slowly. Others called it a night at the boliche early while Jess and I stayed to close down the dance floor. Restaurants rushed us out the door at what we thought was an appropriate dinner hour. And I apparently think it’s timely to post a blog from May in December.

Boliche

Amigas at the boliche

Sometimes, things did pass too slowly, like the line at the grocery store and the cycle on Maria’s washing machine. And other times, things did go too fast, like the helmetless motorcycle ride home I accepted from a pizza delivery boy after I got off at the wrong stop before I understood the bus system. Or like the entire seven months. I felt as if I had had such a rich experience, yet at the same time had hardly scratched the surface.

After far too much wine on my last night in town, Jess and I fell asleep crying in each other’s arms in one of Maria’s pathetic twin-sized beds. (And we wondered why one of our new friends had mistaken us for a lesbian couple.) As I sat in the back of a cab en route to the airport the next day, the driver rattled off a list of his favorite local spots in disbelief that I hadn’t visited them. Apparently, I’d missed the best pizza in the city and neglected to purchase a tango CD – tragic news for an aspiring food blogger and tango star.

As if to make up for it – and make his hospitable culture proud – he popped in a tango CD to send me off in true Argentine style. We sped along the highway in silence as the sharp, teasing notes filled the cab and the late-afternoon sun bid me farewell through the window.

Tea, Sugar, Dreams – Istanbul, Turkey

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The voice of the man we would never see entered the window of our second floor room in the hostel on Bogazkesen street. It echoed in our ears while we were half asleep. We tried to ignore the words we didn’t understand by pressing our faces into our pillows. It was only sunrise after all.

Though we would never meet the muezzin whose call to prayer marked the days, we grew accustomed to witnessing his significance throughout Istanbul. The closest we came to seeing this man was in the New Mosque next to the famous Spice Bazaar. We sat cross-legged on the carpet of the mosque’s tourist canal, scarves that we bought especially for this occasion draped awkwardly over our heads.

The seeming inappropriateness of us being in this reverent heaven was balanced by the respectful awe apparent in our eyes. My friends, Cara and Erica, and I darted them from the men bowing and listening, kissing and wanting in the front to the more aptly-scarfed women behind gates in the back. I saw Erica tilt her face to the ceiling where surely the great divine that sent shivers up our arms was granting each prayer as it came through the devotion.

I had never been in a city were religion was so palpable, so laced in the culture. Even the strong-willed opinions and Western clothes of what looked to be Brooklyn hipsters in Cihangir couldn’t erase the presence of the reverence.

Each morning we stopped in front of a handsome man using a chunky steel juice press to turn oranges and grapefruits into our breakfast. Teşekkür ederim we whispered shyly testing one of the few Turkish words we learned.

The manager of our hostel had sat with me on the couch the night I arrived, poured me a cup of tea, took the sweet cakes I had set on the table in front of us and told me that you pronounce thank you like tea-sugar-a-dream.  I noted it was five syllables longer than thanks. We had the time.

We easily familiarized ourselves with our neighborhood for the week, Taksim, and hiked up steep streets whose body could surely only fit one car, but pushed us up against houses as two squeezed by. Many prayers in the mosques must be devoted to driving in Istanbul, as the evasion of accidents defies all laws of gravity and space.

Ironically, the streets where no cars are allowed to drive are the ones that could fit them. People flock to these larger spaces and fill them with the movement of raised arms holding snapping fingers, shoulders slightly hunched, eyes looking at the ground. Guitars are strummed on these streets. Demonstration pamphlets are distributed. These too are prayers.

On a sunny Thursday afternoon we scrambled to the edge of the Sea of Marmara to catch a ferry to the “Big Island” of Büyükada, part of the Princes Islands. We were warned to take the one hour ride, not the two, and we navigated several well-dressed, wing-tipped men to obtain three tickets on the right boat. I only got half-way through saying thanks in Turkish before Cara pulled me in the direction of the sea. As we pushed away from the dock, I admired the intricacies of the Istanbul skyline, cutouts piling on top of each other against the blue sky to get a good view of our departure.

As promised, one hour later we stepped off of the ferry and stepped onto what looked like an antiquated beach town. Men in sweaters sold the yellow flowers of blooming mimosa trees and women in flowing peasant skirts stood by racks of flowered crowns.

We walked slowly by ice cream shops displaying chocolate and pistachio-crusted cones before spotting a small, doorless store front with a red metal oven housing three drawers filled with baked potatoes. We practically ran to the glass case displaying toppings, and ticked off the items with which we wanted to crown our potatoes. We started with butter and salt. I added everything but the pepperoni: purple cabbage, carrots, couscous, beets, pickles, cheese, black olives, peas, cole slaw, hot sauce. Before you say ‘ew’, I want to tell you that I finished it all.

Besides eating three pounds of potatoes, we had a very specific mission on Büyükada: we were going to make some wishes.

With a heart full of belief and comfortable shoes we started walking up the road lined with white washed houses whose back yards were the sea. Bikers and horse-drawn carriages breezed past us as we took in the details of the thick trees and multi-colored stray cats.

I thought about my wish and the description Erica had read to us out loud from the tourist book she carried in her tan purse: “Although the church building itself is unexceptional with nothing really fascinating, the backyard of the church offers some very beautiful sights of the other islands and the sea. On April 23rd every year, which is considered as St George’s holy day, a crowd of seemingly tens of thousands attend the church to make wishes. Wish making rituals that day range from the usual burning a candle to climbing the cobbled path on bare feet to untying wool balls all along the path.”

Erica, Cara and I are pretty faithful girls. We believe in dancing emphatically to our favorite songs at 700 Club; in a long yoga class at the end of a long day; in the necessity of humor; and the power of travel to new places to open your mind and make you feel free.

Though we weren’t at Saint George’s on the official saint’s day, we each took a pen, a small square of white paper and wrote down a wish we wanted to come true. A wish sounds more magical than a prayer.

Hearing the echo of the man we would never see, I folded my piece of paper and dropped it into the clear glass box on the east wall of the church. Making wishes in that church, with Istanbul across the sea, weaving and waning its prayers, I think we had it all on our side.