Aug ’16 Update
Wow – it has been an exciting few months since my last email update! In many ways, it has been a selfish few months; in short, they were a celebration of the end of my undergraduate career, as well as a preparation for the next two years of my life in Nicaragua.
On June 4th, I officially graduated from the University of Denver with a Bachelors degree in International Studies (concentrated in International Political Economy) and minors in Sustainability and Business Administration. It was an amazing feeling to walk across the stage at commencement, and on a personal level recognize the hard work and dedication I had poured into my academic studies the past four years. While the ceremony and formalities were nice, the opportunity to spend time and connect with family afterwards was exceptional, especially given my upcoming departure to Nicaragua.
While I anticipate returning to school following my tenure with the Peace Corps, having my undergraduate degree completed is a very liberating experience. Having grown up with a very privileged background, it was always expected that I would go to college – in effect, it felt like the first 22 years of my life were largely planned out by social expectations. Now that I have graduated, for the first time it really feels like all doors are open, and that I am fully in the drivers seat. I could not be more excited for the adventure and personal development to come.
Two days after graduation, on June 6th, I took the LSAT (Law School Admissions Test). The score lasts 5 years, and given my current aspirations to attend Law School following my work with the Peace Corps and the fact that I will need to apply to Law School while living in Nicaragua (if I want to enroll in the fall of 2019), the June 6th exam was my best option. Unfortunately, no dimension of an aspiring law student’s application is weighted more heavily than their score on the LSAT, so doing well on the exam had become a top priority for me.
I passed much of the morning of June 6th in silent meditation, and left my house feeling confident and prepared. While one can always prepare more, I had dedicated at least two hours a day since April 1st towards studying for the exam, and felt like I was in a good place going into the exam. Unfortunately, a block from my house I got in a bike crash trying to avoid a turning car on my way to the light rail station, and broke my dominant arm. Ack!
After hitchhiking to the light rail station (being unable to ride with my arm), I made it to the exam just in time. The next five hours of the exam were brutal. Bubbling the answers was exceptionally painful, and led me to use my left arm to move the answer sheet around as I held the pencil with my right arm. The essay section was the most difficult and painful, though after the first few sentences I was able to find a rhythm and finish the essay in time. The fact that my penmanship was still better with a broken right arm than my left arm was a powerful wake up call for my need to find greater balance in my life – I had been planning on practicing the completion of daily tasks with my left arm since late last year, and never made the transition, consequently making my lack of preparation partially to blame for the broken arm’s deleterious impacts on my test taking.
I finished the exam sweaty, nauseous, and relieved that the grueling task was finished, regardless of its outcome. After the exam, I went to the Emergency Room to have my arm X-Rayed, where they confirmed what I had already known deep down (but had refused to admit to myself) – that I had fractured my radius. While I am admittedly disappointed with the outcome of the exam (it is unfortunately insufficient for me to gain admission to the law schools I aspire to attend), I am proud of myself for persevering, and learned much more from the experience than I otherwise would have.
In retrospect, I believe my experience at the Vipassana Mediation retreat was largely to thank for my ability to take the exam. It gave me the self knowledge and mental tools I needed to be successful. After finishing each page of the exam, I would take a moment to close my eyes, breathe deeply, and acknowledge the pain without identifying with it. I would repeat – “Yes, my arm hurts, but I am not my arm, nor my body. My true Self is here, healthy, and fine” – the ritual would bring a smile to my face, and enabled me to focus on completing the rigorous exam, rather than my arm.
A week later, I flew to Peru with my parents. We spent a few days in Lima and Cusco before beginning our 9 day trek to Machu Picchu along a lightly traveled trail snaking through the Andes. The trip came as a graduation present from my parents, as well as an opportunity to spend invaluable time with them before leaving to Nicaragua for 27 months. My parents are my best friends, and I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to spend so much intentional, mindful, and undistracted time with them.
Each day we would walk for roughly 8-10 hours through the Andes, seeing abandoned Incan ruins the entire way. Despite it being tourist season, we would generally only see one or two other groups a day, giving the whole trip a very intimate and personal feel. The trail brought us through Choquequirao, an ancient Incan city that, similar to Machu Picchu, was never discovered by the Spanish. It is estimated to rival the size and splendor of Machu Picchu, though only 30-40% of it has been excavated thus far. They are still discovering new dimensions of the ruin on a monthly basis, and many expect it to eclipse the popularity and preeminence of Machu Picchu in the years to come. It was surreal to stand on the site alone with my parents and our guide, imagining what the ruin will look like in years to come.
The last day of our trek, we arrived to Machu Picchu. The magnitude and energy of the ruin was breathtaking, humbling, and beyond words. As with all Incan ruins, I was struck by how connected they were with the natural world. The entire layout and engineering of the city was based around astronomical phenomenon, and the city seemed to live symbiotically within, rather than parasitically in place of, nature.
I particularly enjoyed learning more about the spiritual orientation and practices of the Incan people; I find their perspective of the world and their devotion to Mother Earth and all her gifts and wonders so beautiful. As a vegan and an individual immensely concerned about combatting the oppression of non-human animals, perhaps it is not a surprise that I found their use of animal sacrifices disagreeable. However, I have a deeper appreciation for the the Incan’s use of animal sacrifices than the 21st century’s use of animals for sensory (taste) pleasure. Whereas the act of sacrifice is inherently a selfless and humbling act taken for the greater good, the act of eating meat (in most circumstances) can only be understood as an act of self serving pleasure. I am, of course, by no means advocating for the use of animal sacrifices in today’s society – I simply think many are too quick to label pre-columbian societies as barbarians due to their spiritual practices, while ignoring the fact that our society ‘sacrifices’ upwards of 150 billion animal lives annually for human consumption.
In the early hours of June 27th, I bid farewell to my parents to begin the last 5 weeks of my summer travel alone. That day I travelled to Pucallpa, Peru, en route to a medicinal plant retreat in the Amazon Jungle. From Pucallpa there was a 2.5 hour truck ride along dirt roads into the Amazon, followed by a 20 minute boat ride up a river, and finishing with a 45 minute walk into the retreat center called Santuario Huistin. The location was incredible – the isolated area of the jungle was bursting with life and energy; the surreal space was positioned on the banks of a ‘boiling river’ which at some stretches runs 98 degrees centigrade – hot!
I spent the mornings and afternoons in silent meditation, yoga practice, jungle walks, and deep discussions with the diverse array of individuals seeking spiritual truth through the medicinal plants offered at Santuario. At night, after the setting of the sun, we would attend ceremonies in the Maloka pictured below with the Shaman (who has over 40 years experience working with the medicinal plants), drinking sacred plant medicine cultivated in the forest. In preparation for the final ceremony, I initiated a two day fast with a tobacco tea purge (the beverage makes you throw up vigorously – after drinking the concoction, I was instructed to consume 8 liters of water, throwing it all back up, to facilitate the purging of my digestive system). Surprisingly, it was perhaps the most comfortable and peaceful fast I have completed – the fast helped me to go deeper into my personal introspection and opened up space for the medicinal plants to have a deeper impact within my body.
Overall, it was a remarkable, insightful, and tremendously humbling experience. I learned an immense amount from the ceremonies, and am so grateful to have had the isolated week to dedicate to my spiritual development. My time at Santuario Huistin was just what my soul needed, and I left feeling refreshed, rejuvenated, and reinvigorated.
Following my three weeks of travel in Peru, I spent the next two weeks in Ecuador to study Spanish and Ecuadorian culture.
I passed the first week with a host family in Quito, the country’s capital and second largest city. Quito is a beautiful city of over 2.6 million situated in the mountains at 2,850 meters (9,350 feet). I spent each morning in four hours of Spanish classes, and the afternoons with a Spanish professor walking around the city to observe various cultural/touristic sites and discuss them in Spanish. When I wasn’t in classes, I was able to connect with the other students of the school (who were visiting from a multitude of countries across the world). On Thursday night, I attended an EXCITING fútbol match – Quito’s team Independiente del Valle was playing a home match against the Argentine team of Atlético Boca Juniors in the semi-final match of the Copa Libertadores de America, one of the most prestigious fútbol tournaments in the world involving all of the major club teams in South America and Mexico; it was in many ways an analogous situation to attending a home game for the semi-final of the Super Bowl, except the competition was international. It was a good game, and Independiente del Valle ended up winning 2-1 (an outcome that caused us all to leave the game soaked in beer from the fans throwing their drinks in the air in celebration after both goals)!
On the weekend, I joined a group of 5 other students to visit the iconic and eco-tourist city of Mindo – it was beautiful! Very tranquil and GREEN! That night, I slept in the coolest hotel room I have ever seen. I was given the cheapest room in the hostal ($9), which ended up being a tiny room on the second floor with barley enough room for the twin bed tucked under the overhang of the roof, and lacking a fourth wall looking out. My bed was level with the canopy of the cloud forest meters away, and felt like I was sleeping in a tree house without walls. The next day, we spent the morning zip lining through the canopy’s of the forest, and the afternoon on a hike through the jungle to visit and enjoy the refreshing waters of 5 different and stunning waterfalls.
I spent my last day in Quito hitting the final spots on my todo list. In the afternoon I visited the Guayasamín Foundation, which ended up being my favorite activity in Quito. Guayasamín was a master painter and sculptor from Ecuador with indigenous roots who focused his works around issues of social (in)justice. Leading up to his death, he decided to donate all of his work, and his extensive collection, to the people of Ecuador, converting his house into an incredible art museum and building an immense structure below his house titled La Capilla Del Hombre (The Chapel of Man) which he created to house some of his largest and most striking critiques of both man’s cruelty to (wo)man but also the potential for greatness within hu(wo)manity. I was humbled and moved by his works, and spent a lot of time in front of them thinking about the systemic tragedies of the human condition. Pictured below is an example of his work.
I spent the following week in Puerto Lopez, a small town on the coast nine hours by bus from Quito, living in a quaint hostal situated meters from the beach. I greeted each morning with my Yoga practice on the beach, beginning before day break and concluding my hour long practice seeing only a handful of others enjoying the morning air, swimming (and showering) in the ocean, and eating a hefty portion of fruit in the hammock outside my bungalow. Then, like Quito, I would spend the mornings in four hours of Spanish classes, and the afternoons with a boy my age (pictured below) checking out some of most popular beaches and other sites around the city and practicing my conversational Spanish with him. The final day, I had the opportunity to go whale watching – every June, whales migrate to the warm waters of Ecuador to mate, and they were out in abundance! We saw three different pods, and followed one family for quite some time. I was worried about the impact of us tourists on the whales, but was quite impressed with the respect the tour guides gave the pod. Every few minutes, the baby whale (only a few weeks old, but bigger than a car) would jump from the water, spin, and splash! We were fortunate enough to see the mother, massive and overwhelmingly beautiful, also majestically jump from the waters. Seeing these magnificent creatures in their natural space was incredibly humbling and awe-inspiring, and yet also gave me tremendous guilt to a member of a species systemically exterminating such a beautiful and majestic species (as well as countless others of less megafaunic species). I hope that tours such as this that afford humans with the opportunity to see and experience whales first hand will inspire an ethic amongst humans of deeper compassion and reverence for all sentient creatures that will in time come to be reflected by the dietary and consumer decisions of our society.
I spent my final day in Ecuador in Guayaquil, the largest city of Ecuador with 2.7 million people. The city was like any big city: busy, bustling, and corporatized. I spent the afternoon walking along the Malecon 2000, a beautiful stretch of riverside covered with artwork, beautiful gardens, and merchants, as well as other notable tourist attractions nearby. During my stroll, I ran into a group of Hare Krishnas, a religious tradition rooted in the Vedic teachings of Indian spirituality, who invited me to join them for dinner. I gladly did so, and spent the night singing and socializing with the devotees in the their temple.
I spent the final two weeks of my trip in Columbia studying Spanish and exploring the cities of Bogotá and Cartagena.
Bogotá, the Capitol of Columbia, is located in the heart of Columbia at 2,640 meters (8,660 feet), with a population of 9.8 million. I loved the city, finding it to be one of the favorite cities I have ever visited and undoubtedly my favorite in Latin America to date. The people were incredibly open, friendly, and sociable, the culture refreshing, and the landscapes breathtaking. Bogotá is becoming a leader in bicycle travel, and shuts down many of their largest streets every Sunday for bikers and runners to enjoy. (The abundance of vegan restaurants, levels of magnitude greater than can be found in Denver, didn’t hurt either!). I stayed with a wonderful host family, the first host family of my travels to date in South America and India that has really felt open, warm, and welcome.
I spent the mornings in four hours of Spanish classes, and the afternoons exploring the city and surrounding areas, two of which stand out in particular: The first was the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá, a Roman Catholic church built within the tunnels of a salt mine 200 meters underground, and considered one of the most notable achievements of Columbian architecture (pictured below). I had never seen anything like it, making it undoubtedly the most unique church I have ever visited. I also thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Cascada La Chorrera, the tallest waterfall in Columbia stretching 590 meters. It was a breathtaking hike, and a truly awesome natural wonder.
I also had the good fortune to be in Bogotá for the Columbia’s Independence Day festival, an event that resulted in the closing of our language school and most businesses in Bogotá. I spent the morning at the national parade (pictured below), which turned out to largely be a show of military might for hours on end. Given my abhorrence of war and those who perpetuate them, I did not enjoy the theme of the parade, but was grateful for the experience and the opportunity it conferred to engage with so many Colombians in such a unique manner.
I spent my final week of the trip in Cartagena, a port side city of 1.2 million on Columbia’s northern Atlantic coast. During the Spanish oppression of much of South America, Cartagena became perhaps their most important port, serving as the location from which the vast majority of precious metals extracted throughout northern South America left for Spain. The rich colonial history of the city could be seen throughout the city’s historic center, where my Spanish school was located. The hot and humid weather, while at times quite stifling, was a welcome change from the cooler temperatures in Bogotá, and my skin thoroughly enjoyed the humidity. Similar to Bogotá, I was blessed to have a loving host family who welcomed me with open arms, included me in activities like attending their church, and prepared hefty vegan meals – yum!
Following the pattern of the past 3 weeks, I had four hours of Spanish classes every morning, though shook it up with Salsa lessons in the afternoon! Learning the basics of Salsa was a ton of fun; my teacher was incredible, and I left each class sweaty, sore, and enthusiastic! I used my afternoons after Salsa to explore the city, visiting the site of the Spanish Inquisition (one of three in the Americas – Lima and Mexico were the other two), churches, plazas, and an amazing castle. However, I particularly enjoyed the days I spent at the beach in Cartagena, and a beach I slept at my second to last night (pictured below). Spending hours with my thoughts reflecting on the past two months as I walked the beach was a wonderful way to bring the past seven weeks of travel to a close and prepare myself for the next adventure to come.
I arrived back in my hometown of Grand Junction, CO, today, and will be spending the next week connecting with my family and preparing for my next 27 months in Nicaragua. More specifically, my flight leaves on August 8th, and I couldn’t be more excited for the next chapter of my life.
I’ve decided to not keep a blog during my time in Nicaragua, instead electing to maintain my personal daily journal and continuing to send out these email updates on a quarterly basis. I reason that many of you are too busy to follow my blog on a more regular basis, and feel that finding an email summary from me in your inbox once every 3-4 months is a more efficient and effective way to maintain communication. That being said, I will plan on sending out my next update in 3-4 months, following the (hopefully) successful completion of my pre-service training (which lasts 3 months) and after I have relocated to the community I will spend the following 2 years with.
As always, I would love to hear from you! Please don’t be intimidated by the length or thoroughness of these updates – I recognize how busy each of you are, and would enjoy reading even a few sentences from you to help me appreciate and realize what is new on your end.
All of my love,