Finding Words

IMG_3214Since September, since moving to a new place, since summoning the courage to begin again another life within this one lifetime I’ve been given, I’ve written a lot of blogs.  I kept searching for words to describe…things, but as you may have noticed, none of them made it onto the wires.

Sometimes we live life in big pieces, one day similar to the next, a week blending to month, like taffied blocks of time.  It may be that these are reprieves from the fractured times, when life is the flyaway candied threads, each pull another change, when we are so tussled by growth that it’s too swift for us to take note, assign meaning, and write down.

That’s how life has been for me.  My new city (Norfolk) has more to offer than I could have imagined.  I’m linked into an active writer’s center and making friends.  I’m deep in love.  I’ve had the recent luxury of quality time with dear family and friends.  I’m having fresh insights while enjoying a new view from a different balcony but feeling the same sense of blessed that I can again live in a place that blurs the boundaries between indoor and out.

But as I’ve tried to write this, I’ve realized how hesitant we’ve become to say life is good.

My grandpa is turning 92 soon.  I’ve been having him speak his life into a handheld recorder.  About his days of living in a 24X24 building that he constructed himself, with its self-installed 55 gallon drum septic system, he says, “We lived good.  We had plenty to eat, plenty of work.”  And then he talks about Smelt fishing, catching little sardine-like fish from which you could just “strip the entails and have some good eatin’.”

It’s true that it’s hard to watch this iron man who built his life by working first the railroads, then the skyscrapers struggle to rise from his chair and catch his balance on standing with the help of a cane.  Yet he has his health, his mind, his independence, his memories.  He’s almost 92.  If only if we can all live that good.

Which is why we can’t get tricked into all we think we need to have to live good now.  It’s not like I’ve given up wanting to do better.  I have ever present dreams of expanding as a human, of abundance, of magic powers.  I’m not blind to the suffering that’s apparent in my world, the world at large.  But I don’t want to let those dreams or hardships crowd out now’s accomplishments.  I don’t want to let them steal today’s joy.  I want to immerse in the sense of possibility and hope I feel when I wake to the morning sun.

So today I refuse to convince myself that I don’t have enough to say if all I have to say is that life is going good.  My heart is true when I say that’s all I hope for each of you so I’m publishing this imperfect blog to say so!

Once in a Blue Moon

Astrologists say it’s truly a month of transitions.  Not only is tonight a blue moon, its energies are said to be magnified because Venus (the planet of love) went retrograde last week along with six other planets.  A blue moon is defined as any time there is a second full moon during a calendar month, and it only happens every several years or so and retrograde motion is an apparent change in the movement of the planet through the sky when it appears to move backwards because of the relative position of the planet and Earth and how they are moving around the Sun.  So astrologists consider today an unprecedented event–a true “once in a blue moon” experience.

I don’t know much about astrology and am not necessarily inclined to the premise that there is a relationship between astronomical phenomena and events in the human world, but as much as anyone, I’m awed by the night sky.  I’ve often found myself humbled and expanded by time spent star gazing.  One time, under a full moon, I had an existential experience of fearlessness, something I’d like to experience in every moment.  My love and I even recently bought a telescope to further explore our fascination.

So I thought…why not?  I don’t have to have a belief system formed around something to know its power.  Seemed like the perfect time to give the UnTourist a whole new look.  I hope you enjoy it!

Love Wins

In the past few days I’ve seen this phrase, a lot.  And each time it makes me smile.  I’m struck by feelings of joy on many levels:  for my friends and family that have been afforded new rights, for a society that is able to shift its thinking, for a government that takes a stand for love and equality even amidst great controversy, for the very idea that love can win.

Because imagine that world: where every single instance of hate, every moment of fear…was met and overcome by love.

Aren’t we all struggling to love?  Ourselves, our partners, our children, our mothers.

Yet we throw love away all the time.  When someone says something we don’t like, when they disagree with us, when they have a belief we don’t understand, when they cut us off in traffic.

We throw love away in bigger ways.  We put ourselves down, we lie, we don’t keep our commitments, we get jealous.

And we do it for a very simple reason: protection.  Michael Singer explains this eloquently in his book The Untethered Soul.

During eons of evolution, from the simplest of living forms to the most complex, there has always been the day-to-day struggle to protect oneself. In our highly evolved cooperative social structures, this survival instinct has gone through evolutionary changes. Many of us no longer lack food, water, clothing, or shelter; nor do we regularly face life-threatening physical danger. As a result, the protective energies have adapted toward defending the individual psychologically, rather than physiologically. We now experience the daily need to defend our self-concepts rather than our bodies. Our major struggles end up being with our own inner fears, insecurities, and destructive behavior patterns, and not with outside forces.

Yesterday’s Supreme Court Decision represented giving up the false notion of protection.  Your idea of marriage cannot be destroyed by another’s notion of it.  There is nothing to fear.  The decision represents the letting go of an outdated model to accommodate a more expansive one.  This is also our task.  That archaic protection mechanism built into us centuries ago is no longer useful.  It has us being stingy with something that is free, the very something that is an ultimate solution.

Love is all around us, it really is, but more than that…it’s in us.  I know that the news doesn’t feature it; I know that typical bar stool conversation doesn’t acknowledge it.  But think about it.  For every high profile act of hate, how many millions of people lived that same day in love?  How many people kissed their children good night, called their father, held the hand of their lover?  Take count.  How much did you love today?  How much did you fear?  How many times did you open your heart?  How many times did you close it tight when it really wasn’t necessary to survive?  Did you love more than you hated today?

It’s true that I’m in love.  The mad, deep, curl your toes, close your eyes, change your world kind that can happen between one person and another (or maybe sometimes a few) and when you’re lucky involves all of life’s pleasures like moonlit walks and flares of passion, like new understandings about life and conversations that keep you into the night and start right back again when you both open your eyes, like fresh songs, unfamiliar foods, new places and hope…mostly hope.

But that’s not the only kind of love that wins.  I loved a hitchhiker wanting to head North (sorry Dad) that I picked up in Milton, Florida and dropped off four exits later because a cop had been hassling him at his last set-up.  I loved a woman at the nail parlor, with 67 years, whom while having her first ever pedicure could simply not stop laughing.  “Are you ticklish?”  I asked her.  “Lord, honey, no,” she said, the words Southern on her tongue.  “These crusty things couldn’t feel a thing.  But I’m tickled pink!”  She couldn’t believe that she, of all people, was sitting having her “feet worked on.”  And I couldn’t believe how wide open someone can open your heart in a matter of minutes.

I visited Ken recently (a best friend of mine) and around a low lit table topped with Mediterranean dishes I looked from him, to his girlfriend, to the super sweet waiter and I felt full of it: love.  I asked my sister to borrow some money and didn’t even finish my explanation of why I needed it before she’d transferred it to my account.  Annie Maier and I figured out our whole lives in a three hour phone call.  There are so many kinds.

Like when I spent a few weeks with my four and ½ year old niece and one bedtime when our pre-sleep conversations stretched from why water falls…to if babies can choose not to come out…to why we have toenails…she decided to make up a song that went like this:

When the night comes out
and the light bulbs are low girlsun
and the world is expressed 
I want you to stay.

When the sun is bright
and you’re eyes are glittering 
your lips get rainbowed.

Have you ever felt so much love that it’s hard to stay inside your skin?

Let’s not hold it in anymore.  Let’s expose ourselves.  Let’s be brave enough to put our love on our outsides, and give it away with abandon.  Not only will we “survive”…we might just start living.

There are far too many people that have said it better than I.  Here are a few of them.

Philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell says, “Of all forms of caution, caution in love is perhaps the most fatal to true happiness.”

Honoré de Balzac, in Physiologie Du Mariage:  “The more one judges, the less one loves.”

And Kurt Vonnegut himself said “A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”

A Different Kind of Love Affair

The sun is coming up but I’m still not leaving the shore.  Since I moved here it’s consumed me: my love affair with the sea.  I can’t count the hours I’ve spent sitting afront it, diving into it, floating among its waves.  Both in the dark and light.1

A Midwestern childhood made the ocean something mystical.  A place we saved a year to go, endured endless car rides to get to, but so easily was the sacrifice made worth it with a dip of toes.  Sand grains under bare feet a form of amnesia.

People often ask me why I moved to Puerto Rico.  Sunshine, I say, the warmth of the weather…and the people, the laid back culture, and of course, the sea.

But I think I also came here to heal.  The sea can do that.  The tide, the ever-flowing waves, the undertow; One just has to spend enough time letting it wash over them and it will take all that was heavy.  Burdens, disappointments, heartache, despair.  The sea will absorb it all and leave only a sparkle of salt upon the sand-sloughed skin of those it has made buoyant enough to rise from its shallows.

The best thing about healing in the sea is one doesn’t have to try all that hard.  Whether one sits, floats, swims, or sinks, they cannot escape awareness of how insignificant they are against the sea’s power.

The ceaseless miracle of the next wave,

then the next,

and then the next,

expose human concern as illusion.

Waking up every morning and looking out across the sea helps me remember how small and how grand life is.  It encourages me to live in new ways, to open myself to new depths of love, to write words I didn’t know were living inside of me.  It’s going to be hard to leave it for a while. But it is for the life of those words that I’m going to do so.

I’ve come to realize that writing in isolation is not all I need to flourish in my writing life.  I need community, literary events, support, conferences, encouragement, retreats, accountability…In other words, I need to immerse myself in a literary sea.

So this nomad is once again taking up the road.  My routes, of course, aren’t clear, but if I have my way they will involve lower Alabama, upper Florida, Connecticut, Ohio, Michigan, Moldova, maybe Syracuse even, to hopefully temporarily land in my writing home of Charlotte.  I usually name my purpose “to write”.  This time, it’s bigger than the act of writing itself; I’ve done a lot of that!  It is launching my novels to live in the world.  It is giving the dedication and energy it will take for that to happen.

If you ask me if I’m sure, I’ll say I am.  I’ll say I’m sure the words that flow through me can flourish.  I’m sure many great blessings will come and many unforeseen paths will open.  I’m sure this adventure will expand love…for me and for those I love.  And I’m sure the routes, no matter how squiggly, will lead me back to this island, to the family I’ve built here, to my beloved sea.

6

Brain Stems and Plant Parts

Every day I sweep up plant parts.  That’s not true.  Some days I let them lie there, scattered and blowing across my wide-tiled floor. Little grains of seed settle into the grouted rows that criss-cross my home.  I feel them on the bottom of my bare feet when I pace, searching the air for words.

Sometimes when a whole petal is intact, I touch it with my toes, hoping, but it has lost the velvet feel the live ones have. Retrieving the broom makes me sad: sweeping floral debris a small funeral, dumping dustpan into trash an unceremonious burial.

But, to feel love instead of loss, I only need look up to the vibrant bunches of blooms still hanging in front of my open sliding doors, the branches a frame for the sea.  It’s easy to forget the staggering abundance of the opportunity to look at this…or that.

In literally our every moment we decide (aka interpret) what to see.  Our brains, developed over some six million years, have three main parts.  Take a look:

Picture1

It is often our reptilian (old/survival) brain and/or ego doing the deciding/interpreting, which means we waste a lot of energy busying our new thinking brain to justify and defend what we think we “see”.  Let me explain.

I was just on vacation with friends I’ve known for years, friends I love.  I made a careless comment, a friend called me on it, and we all quickly entangled in debate.  Before I knew it, I was coming off as judgmental and maybe even a bit cruel and our feelings got hurt.  Ughh.

It’s times like those that being human feels exhausting and loving being one seems impossible.  If I could have “seen” a differing opinion or maybe even constructive feedback instead of an attack, I could have built love instead of loss.

It was a “small” event, we moved on, and there are certainly worse tragedies–except that what was at the root of that minor conflict is the root of all conflict, no matter how large.  When we “see” attack our old brain literally kicks our thinking brain out of the driver’s seat.  We are reduced to ancient patterns of instinct coded for two very limited choices:  fight or flight. This is a very helpful response when there is a tiger coming at you!  The problem is, our old brain doesn’t really discern levels of threat.  So a comment from a disagreeing friend is interpreted as “You’re going to die, defend yourself or run!”

And this is not only ridiculous, it’s actually amusing and key to transforming ourselves.  I believe that “who we are” is really “who we are being” moment after moment.  I try not to say “I am” and instead say “I am committed to being”.  The very best we humans can do is look at those moments in which our actions don’t line up to our commitments…and grow from them. So that maybe next time we can hold on to our capacity to think and choose from our commitments rather than from our archaic programming.

For me, a bit of comic relief is the perfect tool.  Next time, when my friend makes a comment maybe I’ll remember I’m not going to DIE (maybe even laugh at the concept of it) and choose a next action based in love.  Because the only way I’m committed to being is loving.  And just imagine a world if we stopped defending and started loving.

Anyone can slay a dragon.  Try waking up every morning and loving the world all over again.  That’s what takes a real hero.   –Brian Andreas

Tonight, I close my eyes against another late island night with forgiveness.  For my race, for my friend, for myself.  I’ll not waste this precious life in regret.  I take comfort knowing they’ll soon be morning sun on my face.  I’ll rise with it and use its brilliant light to see my world with love.

Climate and Happiness

In July, I wrote about the importance of sometimes setting philosophy aside just to live. I’ve written before that Untourism, beyond physical movement, can be a way a being present which alters one’s relation to time. Immersing in moments, especially varied and exploratory ones, seems to turn hours into days, days into weeks, weeks into months. In August, I tried to bring you into some such lived moments. And the last months, I’ve been so immersed I haven’t even taken the time to blog them!

But an unexamined life leaves us reactive to the whim of emotion or on auto pilot which usually results in steady discontentment: the kind that has us, in the quiet of the day, yearning, even if for what we aren’t sure. So rather than attempt the impossible task of recapping my what-and-whereabouts, let’s talk!

I recently reached a new appreciation of my tropical climate by leaving it for a few weeks for the mainland’s frozen tundra. After an extended holiday, returning to the island was a physical relief. In the minutes it took to hail a cab I was already shedding layers and memories of other cold weather inevitabilities: numb fingers, the squeeze of thermal underclothes, the extra time needed to put on tights, socks, boots, sweater, coat, scarf, hat, gloves…I could go on!

All that prep time just to leave the house got me thinking about climate, need and human development; about the degree to which innovation is driven by environment. If I live on an island, where food, water and building supplies are plentiful year round, how motivated am I to cultivate crops or domesticate animals? If I need protection only from the sun and rain am I likely to build more than a broad leafed-thatched roof?

There are extensive philosophies and controversial theories on this matter so I won’t expand past the conclusion relevant to me: life in Puerto Rico, for me, is inherently simple. It’s easy to throw on shorts and flip flops to scoot out to the grocery store. It’s nice that a furnace isn’t necessary and the natural breeze often serves as sufficient coolant. It’s absolutely soothing to my soul to step into the sun or linger among ocean waves.

Notice I said “for me”. It’s pretty much common knowledge, and common sense, that external conditions (beyond your basic survival needs being fulfilled) do not create happiness. There are people living on this same island in misery. And so I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BC) was onto something. After studying Plato and Aristotle in Athens, Epicurus created his own school known as The Garden. His theories espoused three requirements for happiness: friends, freedom, and an analyzed life.

He thought by indulging in philosophical conversations with friends (people with whom you share love), having the freedom to pursue simple pleasures (without constraints based on societal/religious standards) and avoiding unnecessary desires (like status, luxury or even heavy drinking) we can reach inner tranquility that he called ataraxia (a lucid state of robust tranquility, characterized by ongoing freedom from distress and worry). He and his friends lived a sustainable, simple “communal” existence on the temperate island of Samos.

And you know what? That sounds alright to me!

Ask Again

That he has followed me, out of the cafe and into the night, should maybe concern me more.  But past danger I recognize in him—need—to which I stop to listen.  He can sense in me, he explains, a truth, a depth.  By heritage he is a Shaman, of sorts, I believe is what he explains in broken English.  So he knows about things such as me having gypsy blood.  This I understand clearly.  Eerily.  Because it is the second time I’ve been told so this evening.  Two strangers intuiting Roma from the whitewashed history I know to be mine.  To the first man’s inquiry, I’d insisted German, and English, the latter traced centuries back by my diligent grandfather.  He’d shaken his head, a movement of gentle certainty.  Ask again, was all he’d said.

So that now, on a rain darkened street cobbled with ancient pavers, staring at the sure face of a second man, I am not able to ignore the suspicion.  I suddenly imagine paperwork the first seeds of enslavement upon my gypsy soul, forged nationalities designed to protect my ancestors from…what?  Banishment? Sterilization? A black triangular patch signifying “asocial” status in Auschwitz?

An unfortunate, overwhelming consistency of human history is persecution of the “other” and Roma, the largest ethnic minority in Eastern Europe, are no exception.  Since their migration from India approximately six hundred years ago, Roma have suffered economic, political and cultural discrimination at the hands of communist, capitalist, democratic and totalitarian societies.  The post-1989 transition in Eastern Europe has created a huge ethnic underclass consisting of over 5 million Roma who by every statistical indicator have the lowest status of any ethnic group in Eastern Europe.

Still, despite huge obstacles and stereotypes abound, Roma have resisted assimilation and managed to maintain a strong identity.  Roma are a unique people in Europe in that they are a diaspora people with no claimed homeland. They do not adhere to a notion of homeland, nor do they wish to establish an independent state. This has caused them to be viewed as outsiders lacking stability and permanence, the quintessential “other.”[1]

Two paragraphs or two hundred pages would be insufficient to explore the complexities of the history or current politicization of “gypsy” ethnicity.  And before you cringe, don’t think for a second I intend a comparison between a white girl with first world problems and subjugated cultures.  The only parallel I highlight here was handed to me in the synchronicity of two strangers calling me gypsy which led me to looking at all the ways humans insist on “otherizing” even when it isn’t in a suppressive form.

Because sometimes I feel it.  A single woman, without children.  Choosing a lifestyle simple enough to support by a limited amount of work…even though there is more money to be made.  Travelling alone.  Choosing home rather adhering to a notion of homeland.  People’s reactions to these choices vary, but whether it be disdain or admiration, they are the same in the automatic recognition of “different” which somehow compels comment, as if difference equals license to judge.

And I’m not complaining, it’s not even a bad feeling when it happens, I’m just observing.  Wondering about this human tendency to categorize, majorize, and then regard differently the rest, the outliers.  How a single propensity of a species can have subtle and virtually harmless effects…or catastrophic, genocidal ones.

Especially when underneath all the particulars, beneath politics or the manner in which we structure our lives, when you sit down and connect human to human it is apparent that we all, for the most part, share a common set of aspirations.

Which is in part why I’m off to Merida, Mexico to initiate a service project aimed at sustainable development.  To explore the resiliency and creativity of people who have so little materially but still build lives from love.  To bask in the amazing company of my most magnificent sister and mother.  To seek perspective in hopes of strengthening my ability to build connections to replace the human illusion of separateness.  To immerse in gratefulness and allow my gypsy soul its joy!

 

[1] The paragraphs 3 and 4 were directly quoted from: https://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/albania/persecution-and-politicization-roma-gypsies-eastern

 

The (Sort-of) Settling of a Nomad

Even if it still feels a bit surreal, I have set-up a—if permanent is not the right word—then lasting existence in Puerto Rico.  Time ever sneaks by.  I will surely create more occasions for nomading in my future, but in the meantime, my endlessly supportive sister posed a motivational challenge to increase the production of the UnTourist to two issues a month.  This presented an opportunity to rethink and broaden the notion of UnTourism.

The result?  I’ve hit the Puerto Rican road (and nooks and crannies), in search of, or more accurately, in willingness to collide with UnTourist experiences.  After all, there can be no shortage right here on the Isla del Encanto, right?

Stop 1:  Culebra

I know!  I’m quite certain Culebra makes every tourism list, book, website, and word-of-mouth endorsement.  It is a tourist “must do”.  More than that, it appears it is a Puerto Rican must do, as every friend, acquaintance, taxi driver and store clerk with whom I’ve conversed about it mimic the same answer, “You have to go”.   When in Rome, right?  However, that just means that Culebra becomes a challenge to do the touristy thing in not-so-touristy style.

So I present to you… The UnTourist’s Guide to Culebra.

  1. Find a fellow gypsy to accompany you.
  2. Pack a duffel, a backpack, and a guitar. Tent optional, throw blanket mandatory.  A few cans of Chef Boyardee and packs of crackers are going to come in real handy.
  3. Arrange blanket across hot cement in the ferry ticket waiting area. Fetch a few cervezas from the guy selling them from a cooler on the corner.
  4. Commence sweating, singing and swooning for the next 2 hours (well, 2.5 hours…it’s Puerto Rico) until without announcement it appears someone is now in the ticket booth and passage can be obtained for $3.
  5. Aboard the ferry, try for the top deck views, but when you find the section roped off without explanation; settle instead for an empty row of plastic chairs in the ship’s belly.
  6. Use duffel as pillow, blanket as protection from the blasting air conditioner, and capitalize on the wavy opportunity to nap.
  7. Arrive and flag down the first mini-van that will haul you to the beachside campground for a few dollars’ fee.
  8. Befriend Henry, the campground supervisor, and with luck he will only charge you half the “permit” price.
  9. Set-up the tent if you’d like. It’s a convenient place to store your few belongings.
  10. Flamenco Beach is fun. There’s people, music, food vendors, skimpy bikinis.  Fun is in the air and the surroundings cannot be more picturesque.  There is a usually a choice to be made in terms of natural beauty: mountains or sea.  Luxuriate in both.  You can be an UnTourist tomorrow…
  11. Or tonight. Walk to the more remote outdoor showers so you can strip down and rinse away the day’s salt, sand, and grime.  Bathe by moonlight.
  12. The campground is muggy and full of mosquitoes which might carry one of the two weird sicknesses that have been going around lately (your boxing coach’s joints are still so sore he can’t finish his lifting workouts). Opt instead for the beach.
  13. You might be an UnTourist, but that doesn’t mean you want to sleep among sand fleas and scurrying crabs. Besides the sand is slightly damp and a bit chilly despite the air’s heat.
  14. Hike down to the far end of the beach. “Borrow” a beach chair from the fancy guest house there.  In tandem (worker ant style) walk the chair back to the lifeguard station you’ve claimed.
  15. Crack open the pop-top cans of spaghetti and meatballs, scoop out dinner with your wheat crackers, share wisely the one bottle of water you managed to snag from a kiosk as it was closing for the evening.
  16. Sit back. Reflect on how little you actually need.  Allow happiness to flicker in your gut, spread in tingles throughout your limbs, race off your body and along the air.  Hope it reaches and fills someone else.
  17. Float your voices atop the strong ocean breeze until you sing yourselves to sleep.
  18. Allow the first hints of sunrise to wake you. Watch the sun’s reach stir the earth into another day.
  19. Greet Henry as he ambles by. Smile at his surprise to find you there.  Revel in his expression that says “you crazy kids”, linger in the nostalgia it contains so you can use it, later, as a reminder that getting older doesn’t have to mean being old.
  20. Be the first to greet the Domincan propieter of a kiosk promising warm desayuno and savor the breakfast flavors: cheese melted over ham on french bread, warm coconut cake, freshly brewed coffee sprinkled with nutmeg because that’s how she makes it at home.
  21. And now, finally, it is time to leave humanity behind.
  22. Do not be scared by the stretch of rock at which the beach seems to end. Begin climbing, scrambling, scurrying, angling.  Keep going.
  23. You’re reward will be this: privacy; a crystal stretch of white sand; impossibly blue waters, shallow ones that expose a coral world so intricate it’s as if it was built by your imagination and placed in this spot on this day for your pleasure alone.

culebra (Photo credit:  http://discoveremg.com)

Stop 2:  Guavate

Guavate is about an hour and another world inland of San Juan.  We head there on a Sunday afternoon, clear civilization, and begin winding through mountainous scenery.  Tucked alongside several U-curves, the “town” emerges from the thickly forested roadside, a sudden eruption of bare-midriffed women, spit-turned pigs, cheap-speakered salsa beats, and colors, of course color:  orange shock of Flamboyan tree blooms against lush canopy, neon streaks of glossy lipstick against brown tones of skin, polished chrome flashes of passing motorcycles, ATVs, low riders, sports cars…it’s a bit much to take in.

From the angled, hilltop space we managed to squeeze the car into, I step out and take a moment to try to do so, before being swept into the swarms of people converting this particular stretch of highway into sidewalk.  We drink, we eat roasted pig, morcilla (blood sausage), and pasteles. 

And all at once I remember everything I love about being an UnTourist.  How a moment can transport you to another world, how living those individual moments can stretch time into lengthier divisions.  How in a single bite of a foreign taste is a rich history and hours of preparation.

Because I later learned that in Puerto Rico, pasteles are a cherished culinary recipe. The masa typically consists of grated green banana, green plantain, taro (yautía), potato, and tropical pumpkins known as calabazas.  It is seasoned with liquid from the meat mixture, milk, and annatto oil.  The meat is prepared as a stew and usually contains any combination of boston butt, ham, bacon, raisins, chickpeas, olives, and/or capers, and is commonly seasoned with bay leaves, recaito, tomato sauce, adobo seco, and annatto oil.  The meat can be anything from pork shoulder, chicken, turkey, crab, duck, fish, etc.  Because they are so labor-intensive, Puerto Rican families often make anywhere from 50–200 or more at a time, especially around the holiday season.  And here I was in Guavate, on a random Sunday, tasting one for the first time, for less than a dollar.

And then…a snake encounter.  Some guys wear thick-chained gold about their necks, others don boas…and not the feather kind.  When we spotted them, I of course wanted a meet and greet, which my up-for-anything friends immediately arranged.  The snake liked me back, not hesitating to slide around my arm and curl his head up to mine.  As he massaged my bicep and flicked his tongue at my cheek there was no other way to feel but in love.

snake

Stop 3:  Johnny Walker Private Tasting

In my rethinking, I’ve decided UnTourism is not synonymous with bohemianism.  Off the map luxury is still off the map.  So when my friend extends an invitation to join the “blue bloods” of Puerto Rico in a private tasting event, I reach into my closet for the dress most likely to pass as proper cocktail attire and prepare to hobnob.  The restaurant parking lot has an automated security gate.  We enter a wine shop section of sorts, walk among barrels of assorted blends in a set-up that is oh so very European.  We are greeted by a senior VP something or other.  We are shown to a sparkling table and given samples of whiskey from bottles that cost more than my rent.  Our table mates speak of investment opportunities and charity causes and when I finish my evening with my toes in the sea, I am all again reminded of how many worlds there are and in how few of them I’ve lived (as I say in my essay What Luck).

Johnny Walker

Stop 4:  Segundo Congreso de Áreas Naturales Protegidas

I’ll admit UnTourist potential of business-related contexts had somewhat escaped me, until my brilliant and talented friend Kasey invited me to volunteer at the 2nd Protected Areas Congress in Puerto Rico.  About as real life as it gets, including an excruciatingly cold set of the air conditioner*, I served as the timer to warn presenters that their 15 minute slot was dwindling down as they discussed bioluminescence levels at Bahia Fosforescente, effects of hurricane disturbance and feral goat herbivory on the structure of a Caribbean Dry Forest, and citizen science as a cost-effective tool for resource management.  It was a fascinating reminder that there are all of these people doing all of these things and human curiosity is forever churning.  In true PR style, the whole event was capped off with Sangria, a live salsa band, and a chance to relax under the sun setting along the lagoon.

*Check out Kasey’s hilarious rant on this subject in her blog:   “Frozen Phalanges on a Tropical Island” at http://raekapuertorico.blogspot.com/.

salsa

Stop 5:  Cochinillo Fest

If you are like me, you are a bit disgusted by the site of this baby pig laid out on a platter…but trust me, you had to be there.  Let’s just say my good friend Jorge, a.k.a. happiness service provider, knows how to throw a party.  He invites a group, including two Spaniards for whom chochinillo is a hometown, holiday treat.  When the roasted animal arrives, my turning stomach is quelled by the delight on our companion’s face.  It goes beyond salivation for a preferred taste, beyond excitement at the extravagance.  In her expression you can see all the nostalgia of what home means in the face of someone who has been away for too long.  The tone has been set and it carries us through hours of conversation and nibbling, through three bottles of wine, through a course of desert.  It carries us to the local bar next door where we join a private birthday party for karaoke and salsa, for goading some shy locals into using their limited English, for throwing our heads back and singing tribute ballads to the birthday girl turning 65.  It carries us to La Placita to swim among throngs of patrons in the open square and then to La Jirafa Verde, the newest night club addition to my neighborhood where I can lose my mind on the dance floor because the mostly gay clientele doesn’t really care what a single white girl is doing.  So that in the end, when every delight has finally been exhausted, it is but an understatement to label Cochinillo Fest an UnTourist success!

pig

 

Tranquila

And then there are the days you wake without pondering.  You rise naturally, not too early nor too late.  You drift to your corner of balcony and look across building tops to a blue sea.  Your eyes linger among windows—hundreds of them—sprinkled up high rises, carved into squat, stucco houses.  Today you are not perplexed by the multitudes of lives they must contain.  Just simply, pleasantly curious.

For breakfast you slice a fresh-grown mango that a cherished friend delivered earlier in the week, the same night in which new words, good and true ones, came out of your pencil and the pencils of others.  Those words assemble themselves in your mind now but you resist them a bit longer to linger in the fresh sun on your face.

Because you recognize it, already, as one of those days you’ll float among good feelings.  You’ll remember last weekend’s fiesta, when after all the daylight hours passed, you realized you hadn’t once caught yourself feeling like an outsider.   Not taking things in, observing, but part of them.

You’ll remember your recent trip to the family farm in Ohio, and still be able to conjure that palpable feeling of love, the kind only people who have loved you all your life can make.  The smell of your father’s beautiful flowers will still be in your nose and you won’t feel guilty or sad or yearning like you did when it was time to leave and your niece’s depthless eyes held all of the confusion we call modern life.  Instead you’ll be grateful for experiencing the moment she conquered her fear and jumped from the same boulder upon which you played as a child.

You’ll wander down Calle Loiza that teems with Latin life (flora, fauna, folks) all the way to the sea and lie there upon the sand.  The palm tree above you will wave it’s greenery against the sun.  A slight smile will crest your lips in anticipation of tonight’s festivities, jazz on the waterfront, more good times with good friends.  But yours now—of life, of love, of freedom—is a private celebration.

 

7

Believing

I’m making music today, which is making words harder to come by.  I’m thinking about the strange ability a beautiful day has to produce guilt.  See, though they still come, “bad” days are hard to justify in the tropics.  Your emotions might be askew,  your contentment level low, but when your grief-grogged eyes creak open against a brilliant sky…it is hard to sustain belief in your melancholy.  I said “belief in it” for a problematic reason:

  • Not believing in something doesn’t necessarily render it non-existent…

YET and/or UNLESS

  • Belief is all that ultimately ever sustains anything.

What I mean is this.  If you are sad, but don’t believe in it, this doesn’t mean the sadness isn’t real.  Or does it?  Because if you don’t invest energy in it (aka wallow in it) then that emotion doesn’t dictate who you are being.  It might be easier to explain it through diagram.

Picture1which means 

Picture2

Which means it’s not the tropics, really, that make it hard to justify a “bad” day.  You could, after all, reclose your eyes against the sun, hide beneath a pillow even, and ride your mind’s sadness instead of the ocean’s waves.  There are days I so foolishly do!

Rather, it’s awareness that a “good” day is one in which you remember.  Remember that just as easily as pupils constrict to accommodate brightness, state of mind, if not pulled upon, will naturally drift toward the sun. 2014-05-06_10-05-23_134