Monday, October 3, 2016

Are You Out of Your Mind?!

I’ll be honest, maybe there was a part of me that was just a bit out of my mind when I made the decision to travel solo to South America. 

It’s been over two months since coming home from my Peru and Ecuador adventures, but the memories are still very fresh and remarkable! To friends, family and acquaintances alike that shook their head at my recklessness, and others who scratched their head out of curiosity in my somewhat impulsive decision to become a vagabond for the summer: I attempt to shed light on my reasons why. 

To begin, I should preface the fact that I love to travel, and it’s something I did a fair amount of in my 20's. The travel bug first bit me in my early college years after studying aboard in Rome, Italy back in 2006. That turning point inspired me to make the decision to transfer colleges after my completion at Fullerton Community College, up to San Francisco State University. I moved from the Orange County that I knew from birth, to a very different urban setting filled with cable cars and hipsters. Then, after graduating with my bachelor’s degree from San Francisco State University I made the decision to pack up and move again; only this time I moved clear across the country to the east coast! I found myself teaching in the “Fresh Prince” territory of West Philadelphia! Through the Sisters of Saint Joseph I served as a year-long volunteer teacher through their mission corps program, where I taught various classes of lively junior high school students at a Catholic school. And after my year term was up, I signed a contract with the same school for another year before moving back to Southern California. Needless to say I have an itch to travel and explore!

Now, I can say firsthand the positive impact traveling and exploring has had on me – but that is for another post.  Yet, it was shortly after the New Year (this year), as I stood in the shadow of a recent tragedy. A college friend had passed away very suddenly, and his death marked the 5th death of someone close to me in a five year time span.  Let me reiterate that: in the span of five years (while in the latter half of my 20's) five people close to me passed away.  Definitely not something anyone anticipates in their 20's - maybe in their 60's or 70's - but defiantly not their 20's! 

Knowing the patterns of grief all too well, and feeling its grip slowing clenching on me again, I kept thinking I needed to do something drastic, yet something that was somewhat familiar. Travel was familiar, yet as a lone ranger to foreign country; now that was drastic! In other words I had to “get the hell outta dodge!”

After contacting my academic advisor through LMU about travel opportunities for graduate students, I without question or hesitancy applied to their 10 day accelerated summer session course in Ecuador. It was a quick and confident decision to book a flight to Peru, and scheduling my arrival to Peru three weeks before I would land in Ecuador for my studies. As excited as I was, I definitely was not excited to break the news to my mother. Needless to say the conversation didn’t go well! I’ll let your imaginations paint that picture of a conversation yourself! 

My mother and plenty of others alike had their slew of questions and discouraging statements for me.  
“It’s dangerous down there!” 
“You don’t know enough Spanish!” 
“You’re a women, traveling alone!” 
“Do you have a plan?” 
"Do you know anyone down there?” 
“What if you get murdered or raped?” 
“Why don’t you travel with someone?”  
“What are you looking for or hoping to find?”
These and plenty of other questions and discouraging statements came my way. And my answer to what I was hoping to find? Nothing! Nothing was my answer; and not that I literally was expecting nothing. Rather I didn’t place any sort of expectations or preconceived notions of what my travels would be like. For lack of better terms, I was truly flying by the seat of my pants. Because traveling alone wasn’t crazy enough – right? But to have no plan or itinerary of my day to day travels – just a general idea – seemed even more impossible to explain to people. Believe me when I say, I had a bucket list of sights to hit up, and a general order of how I would make my way to each spot, but a detailed itinerary wasn’t something I planned for or made! After being questioned by a friend about specific plans and sharing with her I had my flights, lodging in Lima and Machu Picchu hike booked (and nothing else) her head cocked back and her eyes grew to the size of golf balls as her reaction told me just how crazy I knew she thought I was. Trust me, when I say, I was almost as surprised in myself as she was in me.

To all of this: I knew it was coming. Yet there was a drive to go that weighed heavier than the reasons why I shouldn’t. The cliché phrase that is often hashtaged “you only live once,” rained hard and true!

...Because, when you’re 29 and have to bury your college friend, who suddenly dropped dead while exercising; you might understand my need to hop on a plane to the southern hemisphere to search for meaning behind a death that makes no sense. 
...When you’re 27 and lose a parent; you might grasp my desire to search and wonder the streets of foreign cities and meet locals and fellow travelers for new wisdom!   
...When you witness the effects of cancer and chemotherapy, and watch it destroy your father over a year’s time, before the disease finally claimed him; you might begin to comprehend my necessity to explore churches, catacombs and holy grounds for spiritual enlightenment.  
...When you’re 28, and your aunt dies from the same disease that stole your father; you maybe can grasp my itch to explore and slide down the sand dunes of Huacachina, as a means to rejuvenate my heavy soul!  
...When you’re 25 and get a call at 5 in the morning in Philadelphia that your uncle dropped dead from a massive heart attack while on the phone with his daughter (my cousin), and you drive 13 hours from Philly to his funeral in Bowling Green, Indiana; you might appreciate my yearning to venture to the floating islands of Lake Titicaca and mingle with locals who speak the indigenous language of Quechua in search for the serenity they gracefully exude!  
...When you’re 24 and your grandmother passes away just two months after you move to the east coast; and you take that flight to Kansas for the funeral; and you watch your father get emotional over his mother for the first time (a father that was emotionally stoic); you possibly could recognize my impulse to wonder the streets of the capitol of the ancient Inca empire in search for a sign that might grant me continued reason and comfort for his emotional detachment growing up and how his mother had much to do with it.  
...When all this happens in the latter half of your 20's, when really, your biggest stress should be heartache from breakups or career goal struggles; yet instead you find yourself writing the words of your father's eulogy, as you struggle to sleep at night, as the image of your father’s dead body haunts your mind and dreams for months; you probably can fathom my need to explore the ancient ruins of the Incas all the way to the ancient city of Machu Picchu  as a dose of cough syrup to my father’s death. 

Because how does it make sense that I would lose a loved one (on average) once a year?! Because nobody should get a phone call clear across the country as your father utters the words “I have 12 months to live,” before your legs give out and you collapse in sobbing tears before packing up your life in Philly!! Because how is it fair that I watch my father struggle with chemotherapy – powerless to stop it - only to have him taken from me at 27 years old?! And why should my cousin have to remember the sound of her father collapsing over the phone as a massive heart attack instantly claimed him?!  And why is it right that I would have to take a phone call at work from a friend telling me our mutual friend died on a run; and have to walk the halls of my work just as I did in the wake of my father’s death just two years before?! I can't tell you how many flashbacks I had from the wake of my father's death, as I walked those school halls after receiving the news of my friend's death; and how much it took me to not collapse in tears! It was an ominous parallel of events!  In those years I can’t express how much I struggled with my faith, and my faith in God!  

The anger I felt towards God was violent and toxic! Anytime talk of God’s love for us came up in Mass, my blood would boil! And as I sat in the church pew, there were a handful of times it took so much of my willpower to NOT get up, walk out, and leave. Yet luckily for us, God’s grace is patient, gentle and everlasting. It took plenty of sessions in therapy, and many more tears in spiritual direction before the serenity began to heal my soul and renew my sense of hope, as Grace began to piece my shattered heart back together. 

All my ranting boils down to this: I had to make my life make sense and repaint the colors of my world; a world that was quickly turning grey after my fifth causality – not including my grandfather who died a month before I went to Peru! Could anyone really understand my need to be a vagabond and go so far out of my comfort zone; to be stripped of anything familiar; probably not! Yet, again after wrestling with the death of my father, the depression that came with it, then taking hit after hit as another loved one bit the dust, I found myself beside myself! What the hell God?! Cut me some slack and give me a break! I was feeling hopeful again, and You knock me back down?    

If I’m being completely honest, as I prepared for this month long trip, I wasn’t even sure what exactly I was searching for, or hoping to find on the road, or in the streets of Peru. Nevertheless, as clueless as I was in the vague search for meaning in the midst of my life, as I struggled to make sense of death and loss, I did find some meaning and a bit more moments of grace! 

The grace came when the woman I sat next to from LAX to Lima crossed paths with me days later in a church in Lima. The grace came when I realized I made it to the top of Machu Picchu on my grandfather’s birthday (who had passed just  month prior to my departure).  The grace came when on the day I hiked to Rainbow Mountain, I met someone that looked like my deceased friend’s twin, and after talking to him, it was as if I was literally talking to my friend Justin. The grace came when I dodged danger and a frightful night with the help of my grandfather’s rosary ring and some strength from above.  

And meaning came in moments of pure joy! The joy came after one too many drinks and a fun night out in Cusco with other travelers! The joy came when my Lima host went above and beyond to make my stay comfortable, safe and eventful! The joy came on a night out in Lima as my host, his old school mate and I sang way too loud – windows down and all – at 2 in the morning as we cruised down their version of PCH. The joy came when I shoved myself in a cab with another Orange County family as we exchanged stories and commonalities on our way to a tourist spot! The joy came as I met other travelers from around the world. The joy came as I fed and met live llamas and alpacas. And the joy came when I would just sit in a town square, taking in the sights, taking in the people as I wrote it all down in my journal to crystallize the memories of their faces, voices and my healing heart!

Maybe I was crazy for traveling to Peru on my own, but considering the steady loss that kept coming my way, and the weight of despair that might have prevailed, I can honestly say I would have been crazier NOT to go!    

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