Last year, you posted about rekindling your relationship to music, tired of the playlist algorithms, and disenchanted. I’m curious, how did your experiment go?
Your post came to mind as I sit here on a bus on a Sunday evening, stuck in traffic on my way back to Panama city after a couple of days away for Easter. What should have been a 4 hour journey will probably turn out to be an 11 hour one; a combination of my lack of foresight and the infamous Panamanian traffic. The bus is moving at snail pace. Earlier it was a sweltering 34 degrees, and the AC absolutely battled (now luckily it has cooled down). Cumbia has been playing for a solid 6 hours, people are watching videos on their phones without using headphones, kids are whiney. It’s hectic, to say the least.
Luckily I have a charged phone and some headphones, and have spent the past few hours trawling through spotify, rediscovering some forgotten gems. My meanders took me to The Killers, and I decided to listen to Hot Fuss, the full album. Do you know how long it’s been since I sat and listened to an album? I have no clue. I have a feeling this is one of the things you said you missed. Sitting and listening to an album seems like it’s from another era.
From the first notes of ‘Jenny was a Friend of Mine’, I’m back in early 2005.
It’s February, a couple of weeks after my birthday, pitch black outside, and biting cold. I get home from school and there’s a package waiting for me, adorned with your distinct handwriting and stickers. I close my bedroom door, turn on my pink and purple ambiance lamps around my desk and sit on the little rattan chair under my bunk bed.
Inside the package is a birthday card, a letter, and two presents. The first is a multi-coloured wooden bead necklace from H&M kids. I’ve been wearing a lot of all-black these days, and a lot of black eyeliner. You assure me that wearing jewellery from the kids section is cool, in an ironic sort of way. I put it round my neck as a choker, and reapply some more eyeliner, just to make sure the irony is emphasised.
The second present is a copy of a new album, in one of those thin cases that came with the packs of 20 blank CDs. You’ve made a cover for it, including a couple of pictures of Orlando Bloom (of course), a mini vintage Star Wars poster, and a mini picture of the album cover, all lovingly collaged together, most likely on Paint.
‘It’s a new band called The Killers, I think you’ll like them. Happy 14th birthday!’
There on that cold winter night in early 2005, I listened to Hot Fuss for the first time, back-to-back. I spent most of the time thinking about my first real crush, and what I was going to say to him the next day at theatre rehearsals. Maybe something about this new band. Maybe I’d wear the new necklace. There was an excitement in my stomach that you can only ever really get from hearing music that you instantly love for the first time, from your first crush, from being 14, from that magic of early teenage-hood when you just can’t wait for something magic to ‘finally happen’ to your life.
14 years later, I’m on a bus traveling through Panama, trying to escape the cacophony around me. That brown paper package you sent me all those years ago is still providing instant transportation.
When my friend Lotta emailed me two weeks before Easter to remind me that she would be travelling through Guatemala, Carlos and I jumped at the chance to join her in Antigua (a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the central highlands of Guatemala).
We flew to Guatemala City on Palm Sunday, and went straight to Antigua. Our driver explained to us that the city was host to one of the biggest Easter processions in Latin America, and that dropping us off right in front of our hostel may be problematic; sure enough, as we arrived, the procession was actually going right past the door of our hostel, so we tried and failed to look inconspicuous with our backpacks as we made our way through the crowds.
The processions took place at least three times a day throughout the week, with some starting at three in the morning. Most of the processions started with men carrying incense, followed by lines of men dressed in purple robes. Groups of up to eighty men then carried huge wooden platforms with scenes of the Holy Week (such as Christ carrying the cross or the crucifixion), followed by a marching horn and flute band playing funeral marches. A similar procession would follow with groups of women dressed in white and black, carrying scenes of the Virgin Mary. It was obvious from the faces of those carrying the platforms that they were extremely heavy, and that the walk was a momentous spiritual experience. Despite the hundreds of people watching, the streets were often silent, save from solemn and slow drumming.
On Easter Friday, everyone in the procession was dressed in black, and the floats got larger and even more impressive.
Throughout the week, Antiguans lined the streets with carpets made from coloured sawdust, flower petals, pine needles and tropical fruits, as a symbol of the streets of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Each carpet was often the result of weeks of preparation in designing and creating large stencils and then hours of work on the spot. These carpets would exist for a few hours, often created in the wee hours of the morning, and then the processions would walk over them and reduce them to a messy mix of sawdust over the streets.
Besides the processions, Antigua is a beautiful colonial city, surrounded by volcanos and endless blue skies. Over Easter it was full of tourists (mainly Central Americans and US/European backpackers), but it’s no wonder why: there is an incredible amount of local handicraft for sale, and churches and streets to explore, the restaurants are excellent, and people are extremely friendly and open for a chat.
We spent the week mostly eating small tortillas filled with guacamole, cabbage, meat or fish, beans and chilli, walking around, buying beautiful handicrafts, exploring abandoned churches destroyed by earthquakes, and drinking hot chocolate sprinkled with chilli.
Three volcanos surround the city: the Volcán de Agua, the Volcán de Fuego and Acatenango. We decided to climb the Acatenango with an organised tour, and camp at the summit overnight. The Tropicana tour was extremely well organised, with incredible and serious guides, good food and equipment.
We knew that it would be a difficult climb and to prepare for almost freezing conditions at the top, but I definitely underestimated just how difficult and steep the hike would be, and most of all how affected I would be by the altitude. At times it was so heavy going that I would take five steps and stop to catch my breath. As we walked up, hundreds of Guatemalan families ran and practically skipped down the mountain, on their way down from Holy Monday mass at the summit.
By the time I had reached the campsite at about 3700 metres, I’d made all sorts of drastic promises to myself (to never climb above 3000 metres again, to never run a marathon, to never claim to like hiking ever again) and I collapsed into the tent, only to come out to throw up during the night. Tips for future Acatenango hikers: pack rehydration salts!
The descent the next day however was an entirely different experience. In a matter of a few hundred metres I started to feel more human, to notice the incredible eruptions of the Fuego volcano and the lava dribbling down the sides of the mountain. I stopped to observe the mountain flowers and even spotted a high altitude hummingbird. I was able to appreciate the different types of forest from the pine trees at the top to the dewy cloud forests and then agricultural lands. The descent almost made up for the trauma of the day before, and as usually is the case with this type of experience…it was worth it in the end.
All in all it was a beautiful week with friends and a great opportunity to explore a small corner of Guatemala. We hope to be back soon!
Oh those first six weeks of a relationship. Constant surprise, a lightness of heart, tinted vision. Those weeks when any small gesture will inevitably etch itself to the walls of one’s heart, as the indelible marks of our own personal romance.
Take that time we were driving through farmland in the south, looking for the infamous ‘La Frutera’ fruit truck. The forty minute detour was worth it, not just for the smoothie, but for almost eight minutes of absolute joy, Hector Lavoe’s ‘Vamos a Reír un Poco’, on the radio. Percussion against the dashboard, stars in my eyes.
Or the sight of a whale, out past La Perla, and two days later, seven dolphins jumping over each other on their way out of the San Juan Bay.
My hued glasses on, I secretly love your clichés: the way you can hear ‘Dura‘ blasting from at least one car driving by every day, and catch every word, even when the car windows are fully wound up. Dancing to Plan B in a dirty dark alleyway was one of the highlights of my weekend, but I also laughed at the poster in a bar that said ‘No reggaeton, no trap, no Despacito, no Marc Anthony’. And though the postcard palm trees have taken a hit recently, lop-sided and barren on one side, they remain resilient and lush on the other. A metaphor for life after a hurricane, perhaps.
Sometimes you make me feel like a second character in a magical realism novel. Take that Airbnb with the dock between the mangroves, and the view onto the rusty abandoned sugar mill. As we drove up, a half-naked, fully-tattooed, sinister-looking neighbour observed us. I felt slightly on edge, until he whistled, and a troupe of goats trotted down the road and into his gate. Or when I peeked through the window of a house in Old San Juan to try and find the source of some wonderful piano music, and I saw a woman standing by the piano, under a chandelier, dressed to the nines, with a white cockatoo on her shoulder.
I married one of your compatriots so it’s no surprise I’m attracted to your collective humour, but the open cheekiness still sometimes catches me out. On an sunset run through a suburban area, I crossed an elderly lady walking her small dog. I looked out of place and I expected her to stare me down, as she would have done back ‘home’. Instead, she gave me the cheekiest wink I’ve ever seen. Or when I went to buy soap from a shop down the road, and my mother-in-law introduced me to the lady at the counter ‘we used to go to middle school together’. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘I used to check out the boys in her class!’.
I love the raging relentless wind over the old city: the wind of schooners and pirates, the rattles and whistles through the Spanish courtyards, the 17th century A.C. When I lie awake at night listening to the wind filing down the walls and the torrential rain appear from nowhere, I think about the previous inhabitants of these streets. Corsairs, scoundrels, hideaways, slaves, passersby. I think about the women who lived in these houses. Inevitably you get me thinking about my freedom and my existence, as any good lover should do.
There’s a leitmotif in my exchanges with family, acquaintances and friends, a response to any uncertainty, future plans or change: ‘Lo más importante, es que te guste‘ (the most important thing, is that you like it), I’ve heard, again and again. It’s so blatantly obvious, yet it’s never been repeated to me so blatantly explicitly. I’m still trying to understand the implications this little phrase could have on my life, my immediate and distant future. Now that its crept in, I’m not sure it can leave.
New loves teach you about old loves, old loves teach you about new loves, and love teaches you about yourself. These six weeks of uncertainty have most likely changed me more than a year of four seasons ever would. And for that, I’m eternally grateful for this time spent here, with the opportunity to drop everything, contemplate and investigate. Like a summer romance, we both know this will end eventually. Yet know, dear Borinquen, that a small part of me will forever be walking down the rainbow streets of Old San Juan, dodging drains and peeking into houses. Or running across the grass of the El Morro fort at sunset, trying not to get blown away. Peering into bromeliads to find a coquí. Playing dominos and drinking rum with guanábana juice.
We used to have a regular routine; I would interrupt her from staring out into space and ask her what she was thinking about, and she would brush me off with an inane yet precise comment about the sound of the door handles or the complexity of the coffee pot. It was one of those simple mechanics of our relationship, repetitive and rusty, with me clumsily trying to pull her in closer whenever she felt distant. Of course, it is only looking back that I realise her answers always left little clues to a detached puzzlement towards her current form, and she always looked slightly relieved after sharing, as if I’d reeled her in from a deep abyss.
That day, speeding through the water back from Gilligan’s Island in the small motorboat, I was too busy looking out for dolphins in the open sea to notice her mind wandering. We were all tired: lulled by the saltwater, cold beers drunk at the beach, and the day’s sun. Our journey took us from the small island where we had spent the day, back to our holiday cabin in the bay, past shorelines of whispy half-moon sand strips and sprawling emerald green forests.
Some of us gently closed our eyes behind our sunglasses, embracing the last of the day’s sun. The rest of us faced the horizon, silently hoping we would be the first to spot a spurt or a jump from the water. I’ve recreated that day so often that at times it’s hard to distinguish the real memories from the added details from my imagination, but I know that she was sat on the other side of the boat, following the shore with her eyes. I glanced over at her at one point; her long caramel hair was flicking in the wind, topaz earrings reflecting the sun, her long tanned limbs poised and alert, her hand clasping the side of the boat. Spray danced up the sides of the boat, forming perfect white pearls that caught the light before falling back into the ocean. She looked completely normal, yet also, again in retrospect, to be travelling in a completely different direction to the rest of us. I resumed my scanning of the open sea. The next time I turned my head, she was gone.
The official report was a tragic drowning of a young female tourist, and unofficial explanations were in the dozens. I remained adamant that she was too strong a swimmer to drown in calm waters, and the divers never found a single trace of her. While my grief at her loss was overpowering, the qualification of tragic never sat right with me (although I never voiced this, mainly for fear of reinforcing some of the more sinister unofficial explanations of her disappearance). In the years that followed, I returned regularly to search for her: snorkelling over every square meter of the shoreline, pestering the same locals over and over, combing through old wives tales for clues.
It wasn’t until I widened my search to start hiking through the forests on the shore that I felt any closer to finding her. Even then I found little of consequence, but it was an almost constant sensation of being watched that kept me believing she was somehow just around the corner. I’d spot a dazzling blue earring, only to reach out to a small lizard tail flicking and disappearing into the undergrowth. I’d reach a gap in the canopy, and stare up at the turkey vultures hovering, so static that they reminded me of the blank look on her face when she stared out to space. I’d hear my name whistle through the trees, reverberating in the final notes of a frog call.
But it was the occasional lone iguana that stopped me in my tracks, and brought me a steady, grounding comfort. A stripe of caramel spikes down its back, its long fingers curled around a branch, and a pensive, unwavering gaze. I imagined her that day, travelling in a different direction, propelled by the ripples of a long tail, creating streams of silver bubbles in her wake, and then pulling herself on to the shore. These silent exchanges with iguanas gradually led me to decipher those blank stares and mundane answers of our past together: the symptoms of a being in captivity.
I started out 2017 by setting an intention for the year, embodied in a mantra. Instead of resolutions, which are often brought on by guilt and rarely kept, defining a mantra is a way of keeping a ‘fil rouge’ or gentle guidance throughout the year. When the clarity of the new year starts to fade in months long past January, it’s useful to have a small chant, or inner wisdom to defer to.
Last year, whilst basking in the sunshine on the Andaman coast, I set ‘strong core’ as my words for 2017. It came from a yoga session (as these things tend to do), when Adriene was talking about how having a strong core enables you to do what you want to be able to do: climb mountains, carry your neighbour’s shopping bags, stand tall. But ‘strong core’ was nothing to do with flat abs (although they would also be nice). Strong core was about working, concentrating and succeeding at a few core things: love, work and studies. I knew that 2017 would be a crazy busy year for me: it was my final year of my MA degree, my career was taking off, work trips were on the table. At home, Carlos was due to finish his PhD and we were planning for this to be our final year in Switzerland. I needed to be prepared for a lot of hard work and a lot of change. And I knew I could only succeed if I leave other things, those not core to the mission, to the side. That doesn’t mean that these were the only things I could do, it was more a question of where I could focus my energy.
Yet I find mantras often only reveal why they were chosen until after they have been used. Looking back on 2017 is like looking back at a storm, or even a wild, powerful, all consuming hurricane. There were small respites in the storm, but the next mushrooming and heavy cloud was always on the horizon. ‘Strong core’ was about being the solid tree trunk, and not being uprooted. Many beautiful and successful things were a result of the storm, and my strong core was just as much supported by myself as by loved ones. But there was no doubt that it was an intense year with moments of fierce stress. My friend Trish often signs off texts with ‘Hang in there!’. Strong core was very much about hanging in there, and maintaining a sense that at some point the storm would be die down, and that work could later start on sorting, regenerating and growing.
The beginning of this year has involved a lot of sorting out the mess from after the storm. As we prepare to leave the country, we are downsizing accumulated possessions (shedding debris in a sense), dealing with paperwork, ending contracts, closing chapters. My new year is not a perfectly instagrammable picture of fresh white snow, or a blank new page. Instead, I’m living through a transition phase, not quite autumn, not quite winter, not quite spring, nor summer. White snow covered in pine needles, leaves, and storm debris.
Yesterday, a week into 2018, my mantra for the year came to me (doing yoga, again, as these things often happen): ‘honour your inner teacher’. I don’t know exactly why this is the right mantra for 2018, but it seems to fit. The year ahead is uncertain, it is about change, adventure and growth. It seems natural that I need to make space to hear and listen to whatever is to be learnt from the experiences ahead.
A melodramatic title, I’ll admit. But three weeks ago, I handed in my MA thesis, took a week off work for a much needed break, and went on the perfect holiday at a yoga retreat in Portugal. After so many months of intense work, it really did feel like freedom. Just looking back at these pictures transports me to such a happy place and gives me an unforgettable sense of peace.
I flew very very early from Geneva to Faro the day before the retreat started. By 9am I was sat in a sunny roadside café drinking coffee, eating natas and reading a novel. I had a wander around the town, and sat on top of the cathedral reading and enjoying the light sea breeze. I then went to a great little restaurant for lunch, and another for dinner, and ate garlic prawns, sea bass, monk fish and some local wine at a table-for-one. Travelling solo can be so so nice.
On Saturday, I took the train to Lagos, where a large taxi picked up six of the retreat guests. We drove through windy country lanes, and then off-road down a dusty rocky path through a national park and towards the sea. The retreat was held in a house in the middle of park, a five minute walk to the beach. It was perfectly secluded, with only the noise of the waves, the birds, and the crickets as company. The power came from solar panels, filtered water from a well, wifi was limited to one small corner of the house, and there was absolutely no light pollution so the stars were incredible. The scenery was wild and absolutely magic.
The leader of the retreat and yoga teacher, Shaini, made us all feel welcome and at ease with her humour and friendliness. Each day involved two hours of yoga in the morning, and two in the late afternoon. Some of us took surf lessons, others took cooking lessons and had massages. I did all three (albeit, taking it easy on the surfing, but that’s a story for another day) and also went on a couple of early morning walks and runs. Shivani, the cook, made the most incredible vegetarian food. It was so delicious that our group gained the reputation of being a ‘wolf-pack’. We all joked that this was possibly the only retreat where you could spend four or more hours a day doing exercise and eating healthy vegetarian food, and actually gain weight.
The whole experience was perfect: from the yoga, to the setting, to the peace, to the food and sunshine. Best of all, we bonded as a group and spent evening after evening laughing until we cried and our abs hurt.
Here is a picture of me, embracing 2017, in the warm Andaman sea. A very welcome, special holiday, to celebrate a marriage (a late honeymoon), and a huge year.
The second half of 2016 felt like the fast lane. Working full time and studying part-time, my brain felt pushed, electrified, frazzled. I got to the end of the year, guilty about how many times I had dropped the ball with friends, about how many invitations I had turned out. Guilty about how I couldn’t manage to maintain a conversation about anything too far beyond the boundaries of the humanitarian sector. And guilty about procrastinating in my little time off, for lack of creativity or energy. No time for blogging, no mental space for creation.
The final days of 2016 were slow, sweet and quiet. I rolled out my dusty yoga mat and started to reconnect with the untended corners of my self and work through the kinks of stress. I’ve done the occasional yoga class for years, but never often enough to notice any change, or to reap more than small moments of calm. Every time I did it though, I heard a voice in my head ‘you should do this more often, you should do this more often‘.
So, I thought, as the New Year grew closer, what if I did do this more often? What if I did it every day? For 31 days? For 100 days? For a year? What would happen if I could turn down the constant whirring of my mind, shut off the demands of the day, and carve out some quiet, every, single, day?
I didn’t want to make a resolution, as resolutions inevitably fail. But I signed up to Yoga with Adriene’s January challenge, with 31 days of yoga videos. Each video, complete with a theme, emotional or inspirational, arrived in my inbox every morning. As I packed to leave on my holiday, I fitted my mat into my suitcase, along with some extra t-shirts and leggings. And suddenly I was off, and I was practicing yoga every day.
I practiced in my hotel room at 11pm after 24 hours of flying, when all I wanted to do was shower and sleep. I practiced on a balcony overlooking the Andaman sea. I practiced in the torrential tropical rain, under a giant wooden roof, in a class taught by a fierce Thai teacher. I practiced in the corner of a treetop hut, between the bed and the door, in one of the oldest rainforests in the world. I practiced on the 24th floor in my hotel room, over-looking the sun setting on Bangkok. And then I came home, and I kept going. Before work, between essay writing, last thing before bed.
Some days, all I could manage was 15 minutes of a slow, relaxed practice. Other days, 40/50 minutes of something stronger. Most days, somewhere in between. Some curious things started to happen. Instead of hearing the voice in my head ‘you should do this more often, you should do this more often‘, the voice became quieter, with less to say. I began to see change, a little more strength, better posture. I felt the millennial plague of needing to reach for my phone lessen. It became easier to listen. Easier to remember who I am, who I want to be.
Now it’s February the 14th, which means I’m 45 days in. This weekend, I went to the mountains with friends, and a few of us practiced together. My friend Tamara even took pictures of me: pictures that reveal postures to improve, feet turned slightly wrong, shoulders to relax.
I intend to keep going, both with Adriene, and with some classes. Hopefully, this will help me glide through 2017, with a little more rhythm, a little more peace, and a lot more deep breaths.