Friday, December 17, 2010

Autopilot


Painting made by moi at Squam by the Sea--October 2010. Note the writing in the upper left-hand corner; the choice of image for this post wasn't totally random.

The human autopilot switch is a funny thing. Not funny-ha-ha. Just, well...funny. In my most recent post, I mention that I had been scared and resistant about stepping into the next chapter, but that once I was on the move, autopilot took over and my hesitation dissipated. Writing this triggered a realization of sorts about those instinctive, programmed responses I have to given situations: they make me temporarily fearless.

One particular event during my recent work trip to Brazil comes to mind. It was one of those days where the sun and the heat had drained me of any lingering energy and turned my brain to mush, rendering me a fairly useless translator. The photographer was desperately trying to make something out of an extremely boring and nearly vacant event while I stood propped against a building, wishing that he would soon give up on the fruitless situation so I could go back to the hotel and nap.

Serendipity sided with the photographer and suddenly waves of people came running up the street, yelling warnings that there would soon be gunfire. A moment later, a group of some 50 police officers in full combat armor, guns and shields in hand, formed out of nowhere and began marching towards the commotion down the block. I knew this was the end of my fantasy about leaving any time soon. Within seconds, the photographer burst into a full sprint in the direction of the chaos, all but knocking over the civilians fleeing in the opposite direction.

I wanted none of it. Having lived in Rio for a few years and having worked in the favelas far before Police Pacification Units existed, I knew that the presence of Brazil's gun-happy and notoriously corrupt police force would only heighten the tension of the situation. The reaction of everyone around me-- to move AWAY from the epicenter of potential danger-- only validated my instincts. I hung back, dreading the inevitable call which came only a few minutes later-- the photographer, telling me to get down into the middle of the riot with him because he needed names and information from the individuals he was photographing.

"It's totally calm," he assured me. "The police are just standing guard to intimidate the protesters."

Bullshit, I thought. I KNOW how crazy the cops are here. More than once did I get stuck for hours inside the shantytown schoolhouse, waiting for the police to stop shooting aimlessly and leave the community. You have no idea how quickly this can turn ugly.

I wanted to cry. I wanted to kick and scream and run in the opposite direction and abandon any ideas of being a journalist. No part of me felt drawn to go interview people in the middle of it. But it was part of the job I had fought for and accepted willingly. So there I went, heart in the throat, waves of nausea making my knees buckle with every few steps, bracing for who knows what.

I elbowed my way through the panicky crowd and found my way to the photographer. He was clearly calm, which helped to diminish my fears only slightly. He pointed out two of the cops he had been photographing and then disappeared back into the group of protesters.

Deep breaths. Get centered. And move your feet. And I did. I stepped towards the first police officer and suddenly something clicked inside me. The words started pouring out on their own: "Com licença. Estou aqui com aquele fotógrafo da National Geographic..."

There it was. Autopilot. The nerves vanished and I became calm and confident as I scribbled answers to the routine series of questions in my pocket-sized red notebook. Of course I only became aware of this shift in state after I had finished interviewing the police officers and rioters eager to publicize their cause. In the moment, my actions were entirely automated.

I find it fascinating that the mind works this way. It's not quite an adrenaline rush, with the I-can-conquer-the-world strength during and huge energy crash afterward, but it does numb the fear that would otherwise impede me from doing any number of things. I'd love to learn to harness this mechanism in order to have more control over when and where it kicks in. I hate when it happens in those early morning hours, leaving me questioning whether or not I locked the door...

Just to clarify, in the end there was no gunfire--just a bunch of people demanding their rights and cops standing around looking tough to deter any further violence or looting. And no, Mom, had there been gunfire, I wouldn't have gone anywhere near the protest. I may be brave and I may put myself in situations that inspire excessive worry and candle burning on your part, but I'm not totally crazy.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Shifting gears

Brazil feels like the distant past already. It's been nearly two weeks since I boarded the plane in São Paulo, exhausted and relieved to be returning to a place where things work properly. I've said it before: I've never been much of a patriot, but the more I travel the world-Europe included-the more I'm grateful to carry a US passport and have access to things like online bill pay and Target. Not that I want or need them all the time- but I'm thankful for the simplicity and ease of it all when I'm State-side.

I can't report that São Paulo was any more productive or any less frustrating than our other stops in Brazil. Nevertheless, I did have some of the most intense, enlightening experiences of my life. Here are a few highlights:

Amazing vegetarian buffet:


Cheesy love:


More amazing vegetarian buffet. We had to repeat:



And the best pizza in the world, found at Braz. The ultimate "happy ender" to the trip:



That's right. We went to São Paulo and ate. And ate and ate. And holy shit was the food good. I'm salivating just thinking about it. For all you foodies, add São Paulo to your list of destination pig-outs. The city isn't what I would describe as 'visually appealing', but it doesn't matter-- spend all of your time restaurant-hopping. Besides, in the time it takes you to travel via cab from one restaurant to another, you'll have fully digested your meal and be ready for the next.

I flew straight to Minnesota to visit my parents and be a vegetable for a few days. I arrived to massive snowstorms and temperatures much below freezing. It was perfect. I spent far more time in my pijamas than in 'real clothing' and soaked up the sounds, smells, and loving energy that can only be described as home. And for the first time in years, I had a very hard time leaving. I felt compelled to extend my visit and hide from the world. I longed for more cozy days filled with nothing but my dad's Southern New Mexico cooking (or alternatively, spicy hummus and micro-brewed beer at Barley John's) and endless episodes of The Office on Netflix. (I'm noting that this post brings up food quite a bit. It's nowhere near lunchtime...) The morning my alarm went off at 3AM, marking the end of my visit to the Arctic Tundra, I felt a dead weight in my heart begging me to stay put as I reluctantly showered and headed to the airport.

Perhaps it was that I really needed a few more days of rest (and for someone who loves to laze in bed, waking up at that early hour is absolutely torturous), but I think in truth I was apprehensive about the next chapter. What lay ahead was a leap of faith onto a new career path and into a new life with my partner. While I've been able to let go of many fears in the last few months, my controlling nature still fights to survive in moments like these that require the utmost trust in the process and acceptance that others are capable and don't need to be micromanaged.

When I passed through security and began the time-juggle to put on my boots and sweater, store my laptop and threatening liquids in the appropriate bags and throw my yoga mat on my back, and to do all of these things gracefully and before the next impatient passenger started to breath heavily in annoyance, I felt the subtle shift. I went on autopilot and felt suddenly calm about the journey ahead. It had been a matter of taking the first step forward. After that, things become far less scary.

Now in Cali, Colombia, my mind and body are adjusting to the tropical weather and the perpetual sound of salsa music in the background. The familiar chaos of Latin America is present but somehow more enjoyable than in Brazil. Maybe it's that the Colombians are such a happy and well-read people. Maybe it's that they make plans and follow through with them. And maybe it's that I'm finally dedicating my work and play hours entirely to what I want to do and that as a result, I'm failing to notice things around me that would otherwise make me crazy. What I'm certain of, however, is that the empanadas, arepas and pandebono make the experience quite enjoyable. That, and that after weeks of binging, I'll need to go on a mega-cleanse when I return to the States in January.

Ok, enough talk, more action. I'm going to buy a snack.

Too-good-to-be-true food photos courtesy of John Stanmeyer.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Brazilian adventures


First off: Yes. I'm still alive. I've been lost in the craziness of Brazil for nearly three weeks, so if you only have a few minutes, I recommend book-marking this and coming back to it later. It's a little long.

I knew this month-long trip would be a test of progress, as the assignment is a big departure from the direction in which I've been headed since September. I'm here as the translator and fixer (i.e. producer/assistant/project manager/etc.) for a great photographer from National Geographic. The job pays well and is loads of fun but can be equally stressful and consuming (as evidenced by the fact that it's taken me this long to post something). By day three I was becoming anxious and disappointed that I had fallen back into old habits. I was struggling to set boundaries and make time to nurture myself, and I still haven't quite mastered it. Nevertheless, while I've been unable to attend to all my needs here, I recognize that I have indeed made significant internal progress. I'm calm. I'm excited about my projects and I'm aching to write. I'm confident about my relationship and my goals and the life awaiting me. I feel like I'm finally on track, yet I'm no longer desperate to know where it's all leading. I've reached a space of trust and tranquility and flat out excitement about the unknown that lies ahead. For that, I'm both thrilled and relieved.

It's probably best I didn't post anything until now. Brazil, this far, has tested and stretched my patience to the max. I breezed through Phase One of the adjustment stages to life in Brazil, or what I call “Becoming Part of the Problem”, and quickly moved into Phase Two. (For those of you unfamiliar with the stages, Phase One consists of frustration and an inability to comprehend why things are so unbelievably complicated here. Phase Two involves resignation to the fact that nothing ever goes as planned or works properly, resulting in depression.) Now, at the end of week three, I'm deep into the acceptance phase and eagerly laugh about the absurdity of it all. There is, after all, nothing else I can do.

So, what's happened so far? (This question can also be read as “what's gone wrong?”.) Well, here is where this might start to resemble the death post...

I arrived in Rio on November 6th very nervous about the following month, despite the intense prep work I'd done throughout the week prior to traveling. Getting anything to happen in Brazil, especially in Rio, is deceivingly complicated. Multiple follow-up phone calls and incessant nagging are necessary because nobody returns emails and phone calls and more often than not people say “Sure!” to please you and then do nothing. As a good fixer is supposed to do, by the time I arrived in Rio I'd made a slew of contacts and scheduled various meetings; nevertheless, as I understand well how things operate here, I knew that the calls and scheduling were practically meaningless. Thus, I arrived feeling like I'm responsible to accomplish the impossible. And that feeling has yet to change.

Months before this trip I had contacted several soap opera stars and socialites I know in Rio requesting access to Projac, the Globo soap opera filming studios, for inclusion in the story. (In Brazil, Projac is the equivalent to Hollywood and soap stars are more famous than movie stars. That's right folks. I'm in with the Brazilian VIP crowd.) I received multiple replies with open invitations for myself and the photographer and absurdly believed it would be as simple as that. I should have known better. Three days before the trip an actress friend wrote to me because she suddenly realized that we “might have trouble photographing”. Apparently everyone that enters Projac-- actors, directors, visitors, God-- must sign a contract stating that they will not take any photos in the facility or surrounding area. You'd think someone might have warned me about this detail earlier. Soon after, the Globo press nazis got wind of my contact with my various sources and we were forced to engage in a bureaucratic process worse than those I'd encountered during my days at the State Department. To no avail. It's easier to gain access to the Pope than it is to cross the Globo threshold.

To keep this post relatively short, I only list a few highlights from the two-plus weeks in Rio:

-The photographer I'm working with is anti-fancy hotels and thus I'd found us a small hotel that I'd heard from others to be simple, clean and affordable. I'd confirmed via phone that all rooms had wifi. Not the case. Right away I had to buy a 3G modum to use the internet. I was asked to change rooms four times. Over a holiday weekend, we were forced to leave the hotel because all the rooms were booked. (Again, something I should have been warned about in advance.) And one day there was no running water for almost 24 hours. I'd be happy to recommend this hotel to anyone interested...

-One contact had suggested to meet in a well-known bookstore. I'd confirmed time and place with her minutes before leaving the hotel. We arrived at the bookstore on time and waited for nearly 45 minutes, at which point I received a message from her asking where we were. She'd been waiting for us at her apartment.

-We had an appointment to photograph a female police officer on patrol. It took an hour to get to the station, and upon arrival we were told that she had to leave almost immediately to go to her driving lesson. She re-scheduled and then canceled the second meeting. Third time's a charm. We arrived at the police station and asked one of the officers to let her know we were there. The guy nodded and sauntered out of the room. An hour later she emerged, surprised to see us, and asked why we hadn't let her know we were there. She took us on patrol for roughly 17 minutes and then asked us to wait outside briefly while she spoke with another police officer. We waited for two hours and she never came back out.

-We were invited by one of my rich socialite contacts to attend a cannot-miss fashion bazaar where everyone who's anyone goes to be seen. Turns out this classy event took place in an all-you-can-eat chain pizza restaurant.

-We had authorization to photograph at a construction site, but when we arrived we were told that nobody knew about the photo shoot. Then we were told that the project manager had changed her mind. While waiting for it all to be resolved (it never was), six giant cement trucks backed onto the construction grounds on six different occasions, each time to fill up a single, average-sized wheel barrel with cement. The cement was subsequently tested for consistency and then dumped out. I have no words.

We left Rio on Tuesday, luckily just missing the chaos induced by the latest explosion of police-gang wars of the last few days. We flew to Recife, a historic coastal city in the Northeast of the country, to document events surrounding November 25th, the UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. During the flight, I was shocked to see the bright glow of fire scattered across the land below. Not a few fires. Hundreds, in every direction. And we were far, far from the Amazon. Absolutely disheartening.

In spite of the fact that the surrounding residents are destroying our planet, I immediately liked Recife. It seems much cleaner and calmer than Rio and feels more like a mix of Córdoba, Argentina and Cartagena, Colombia. What I can't understand, however, is why Recife is one hour behind Rio when it is significantly further east. The sun rises at 3:30AM. It's really weird, and yet makes total sense in a Brazilian non-nonsensical way.

On Wednesday, our first full day in Recife, we took a cab 40 minutes outside the city to the alleged meeting place of a major women's rights event. I'd been told that other important events in Recife proper had been rescheduled because of this event. Indeed. There were maybe 20 people there, myself and the photographer included, sitting in a circle in plastic chairs in the hot classroom of a tiny church. After two hours of listening to strange discussions and skits invoking every racial and sexist slur imaginable, we invented an afternoon meeting and excused ourselves, unable to tolerate any more. Before leaving, the event coordinators tried to give us a huge banner to take back to the US to promote their work. We explained that we had no room in our suitcases and they nodded, adding that since it's written in Portuguese it wouldn't be of much use there. As compensation, they handed me a packet stuffed with pamphlets and informational materials about their work-- also in Portuguese. Because in fine print it must make sense to English speakers... Then, a final treat. I got a close look at the cartoon illustration on the front of the packet, which is also the event logo posted on banners across the tiny town. Here it is:


(Translation: Seminar on Communication to Confront Gender and Race-based Violence)

Look closely at the four caricatures: a black girl, a retarded kid, an old woman and an Asian. A powerful image to help eradicate prejudice, I'm sure.

Thursday was equally strange, in it's own way. In the morning we went to the Mayor's office for a public signing related to women's rights issues. I was expecting a hassle at the door about who we are and what we're doing, but I didn't even have to take my ID out of my purse. So government buildings yes, soap operas no. I think I'm getting the hang of this. Had I been a terrorist, the Prefeitura do Recife would now be dust. A protest downtown theoretically followed the signing, and we had been told that hundreds of women would be there. And hundreds of people were there--about 30 women were actually there to protest, in addition to the passersby on their way to and from work and the crazies that live in that particular square. An impromptu street riot made for an abrupt end to the event and nice finale to my Recife visit.

I'm now in São Paulo, the last leg of this trip. I flew in this afternoon and I've already had amazing pizza and a cab driver that totally screwed me over. We'll see how it goes from here. For now, I'm happy to be in a clean hotel room with my own bathroom and running water. And like I said at the beginning of this rant-- all I can do now is sit back and laugh. That is, unless Phase Four overpowers me and I become one of them...

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Água de coco


There are a few things that I desperately miss about living in Rio. Fresh coconut water + beach combo is at the top of the list.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Grounding

I've been wanting to write about this for days but somehow time has escaped me as I prepare for my month-long, whirlwind tour of Brazil. I warn that this may be the last serene post in a while; at least in my experience, Brazil is not synonymous with Zen. That said, I am looking forward to the trip, and I'm eager to measure my inner progress against the version of myself who left Brazil frazzled and rather disheartened back in June. More on this in the weeks to come. For now, nature:


On Sunday I walked Noland Trail barefoot. I have done so shoeless in the past, but this was the first time I'd walked it alone. It was a date with myself, a chance to get grounded and connect with earth energy.

The trail itself is a spectacular five-mile dirt and gravel loop through the woods, circling a large lake. The wooden footbridges needed to traverse sections of the lake are the only interruption of the canopy of incredibly tall trees hugging the path. Yes, the place looks and feels like something out of a fairytale.

And the weather--oh the weather. The temperature was warm with that hint of fall crispness that I find nearly erotic. The sky was blue and the sun bounced off the lake, reflecting perfectly the red and golden leaves on the trees. Absolutely heavenly.


As I walked I did my best to turn off my mind and with that, ignore the strange looks from other people on the path. I focused on the smell of the pine and the sounds of the squirrels preparing frantically for winter and the leaves crunching softly under my feet.

I managed to sustain a walking meditation for roughly a mile, at which point I became bored with myself (as evidenced by the fact that I had indeed begun to look for mile markers). I found myself thinking that time would pass by more quickly if I had a walking buddy, and then the internal struggle commenced: "Why am I wishing for company if 20 minutes ago I was seeking time by myself? Why can't I fully embrace this time alone that I deserve and need? Because I'm not used to taking it and therefore have trouble enjoying it when I do. Well, then all the more reason to stop counting miles and take in the surroundings. But first I need to stop thinking about this. Oh crap, here comes another couple staring at me for being barefoot. Why do I care what they think? I'm doing this for ME. And I'm tough; they probably couldn't take it. Stop it, Mira. Get back to nature. I can stay out of my head and focused on that. Oh, only 3.5 miles to go..."


So it continued for a while. Eventually, however, my mind did tire and I let myself get lost in the experience. And when I did, I became Snow White. There were suddenly animals everywhere. Squirrels by the dozens seemed to keep pace with me. The birds chirped and the turtles in the lake surfaced to greet me. Several bunnies hopped across my past, and when I turned to look for the animal creating the rustling in the trees only a few feet away, I saw a buck. I've seen loads of deer in my life, but never a full-grown, fully-horned buck. As it bounded away I stood dumbstruck. I wasn't sure if I should be grateful for my luck or the deep connection to nature that I was generating. Either way, I knew that this moment was special.

I finished the loop feeling calm and confident. Through the connection with the ground, I had channeled out everything that wasn't serving me and had taken in that loving energy that sustains us. In the process, I'd bonded with a zoo-full of animals. I'm eager to discover what the next date with myself will bring. A chow chow, perhaps? I can only hope.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Halloween follow-up

After hitting "publish" on my post yesterday afternoon, I headed home and found this awaiting me on the doorstep.



Apparently my boyfriend had felt quite inspired by my own artful (read: child-like) carving job and felt compelled to do his own--freehand.

It figures.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Pumpkin Tales


(Photo by Eduardo Rubiano Moncada)

I've been far too exhausted to write anything this week; several weeks of intense work and travel were followed by five days of intense creativity and feminine energy at Squam by the Sea. I returned home joyous and nearly comatose in time to celebrate my birthday three days later. I had a spectacular birthday and the amount of love and good energy I received absolutely blew me away, but the festivities left me drained. Today, Halloween, I'm still struggling to be able to think straight. All I want to do is rest, and I have a mere week to prepare for my return to Brazil for a month-long project throughout the country. I'm inclined to hide under my bed for the next few weeks and hope nobody notices.

While my mind and body re-group, I thought I'd share an appropriate story given today's date. The image above was taken a couple weeks ago, the day my pumpkin found me. The site wasn't a true pumpkin patch; actually, the pumpkin refuge was on the lot of a local church where the pumpkin-sellers would lure their customers in with their good-looking produce and then go into brainwashing mode... I managed to escape unharmed and without offending anyone.

A few days later, my pumpkin took a road trip with me down to the Outer Banks. He sat proudly on the dining table at Squam for the duration of the workshop, waiting expectantly to be carved, and then reluctantly got back in the car with me and returned to southern Virginia. I'd had him for nearly a week at that point and had grown rather attached to his firm, round, orange surface. I do hate that pumpkins rot so quickly once you carve them; I suppose on some level I was avoiding the inevitable. Upon returning to Virginia, I decided that it was time. And my craving for pumpkin seeds had become unbearable.

Here is a photo of the pumpkin awaiting his fate:



And here is the final product:



Yes, I realize the carving job is a little mediocre. And I'm fine with that. Part of my ongoing effort to keep it simple.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Recharged and taking flight


Just reentering the real world after five marvelous days in the Outer Banks with some of the most inspiring women I've ever met. As expected, Elizabeth and Michelle created magic. They held the space for all of us with grace and love and changed all of us for the better. Sarah coaxed me out of my head and away from fear and showed me that I too am an artist. (The photo above is of the paintings I made in Sarah's class- I'm still glowing about them.) Michelle, my angel in so many ways this year, led perhaps the most powerful, meditative yoga class I've ever experienced. I was so blissed out after class I could barely speak. Jen, my storytelling guru, got into my head once again and pulled out all sorts of ideas that I can't wait to get onto paper (or the computer screen). And rock star Mccabe encouraged me to release my inner mermaid and strut my badass self. She also reminded me how great it is to dance to that really ghetto club music from the late '90s. Thank you all.

With fuel in my tank and wings on my back, I'm taking off and ready to conquer the world. Yup, I'm feeling pretty damn good right now.

Monday, October 18, 2010

System failure

Let me preface this post by sharing that I am currently immersed in Squam love on the beautiful Outer Banks of North Carolina, hypnotized by sound of the waves and the creative energy all around me. I feel myself being catapulted yet again onto another plane. I'm finding myself and connecting with amazing souls. Few things could make me feel happier or more at peace. Especially after last week.

"El que mucho abarca, poco aprieta." Loosely translated, he who carries too much can't get a good grip on any of it.

I've always considered myself to be a good multitasker, but I've realized that in truth, at least during this stage of my journey, that's a load of crap. I need to concentrate on one thing at a time, do it well, and move onto the next thing. And I need to stop taking on work that hampers my process and leaves me ragged. It's just not worth it.

It's a standard problem of freelancing, learning to balance your time and trust that if you say no to one opportunity (paycheck), another will come around. In the last few months I completely over-committed, delusional about the number of hours in the day and the amount of time I need to complete my work and still have time for myself.

Last week I hit my breaking point. I took two steps backward in terms of progress on my internal process by putting my own needs on the back burner as I struggled to juggle my various freelancing projects. I accepted "one last gig" for a certain project that has caused me absurd levels of physical and emotional stress in the past and, not surprisingly, I became instantly sick. (I get it. That one really was the last one.) Finally, I dropped the ball on a project for someone that really believes in me. As a recovering perfectionist and manic approval-seeker, I'm having a very hard time forgiving myself for this one.

I think I'm finally done banging my head against the wall and have learned the lesson. I'm making it public to keep myself accountable. If I need money that badly, I can start selling blood plasma.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Facing demons and pushing boundaries


I hope you are all enjoying Columbus Day. It's a rather strange thing to celebrate, setting up shop in already inhabited land, but for many it offers an excuse to take a long holiday weekend, so it would be hypocritical to say it's all bad.

For me, today is special because it marks the start date to my first-ever creative writing course. That is, the first writing course I'm taking on my own terms, not for grades and simply for my own enjoyment and development as a writer. I've been finding excuses to avoid signing up for over a year now, so I'm happy to publicize that I finally took the leap and stretched my own limits.

I see this course as another important step in my active process to let go of those things holding me back and step into my fullest self. In a short time I've made significant progress that is perceivable not only to me but also to those that know me well. Naturally, this gives me fuel to continue pushing forward. I admit, however, that this process can be quite a struggle and shouldn't be described as "fun".

Rather, I'd say that what I'm putting myself through in some ways resembles an exorcism or rehab. I can't say I've ever been possessed (some people might testify otherwise), nor have I had a serious meth addiction, but teaching myself to think differently--to actually re-wire my brain (neuroplasticity is a new fascination of mine)--is not a matter of flipping a switch and boom: miraculous change. I believe that the DECISION to make a change can happen suddenly, but what follows is far from smooth. Some days I feel like I'm unstoppable, like I've truly reached another level of understanding and calm. Then out of nowhere, my confidence kicks me in the face and the negative thoughts and feelings I thought I'd already processed and set free reappear and I'm forced to deal with them all over again. And the second, third and fourth times, those old bad habits don't release their grip so easily. Instead, they hold on tighter, fearful of losing their controlling force over me, making me work that much harder to evolve. As a result, I've quickly come to realize that sticking to that decision to change is what matters most. Like kicking any addiction (and believe it or not, a granola addiction is a tough one), some days are easier than others.

As my partner put it, it's something like a river. Sometimes it flows rapidly, even violently. Sometimes it's barely moving. And sometimes it's seemingly flowing in reverse. What's important to recognize is that it is moving, freely and organically, and eventually it will carry you downstream. It's a matter of patience, and sometimes rowing a little harder to stay on course.

Monday, October 4, 2010

A simple reminder

Thank you, Jenny, for sharing these wise words:

"Give yourself credit for all that you do and all that you are."

Sunday, October 3, 2010

More talk of rest

I'm tired. Yesterday I realized just how tired I am when I looked in the mirror and barely recognized the face staring back at me, at which point I had my first real "oh f*$%, I'm aging" moment. Now I realize that those of you who know me are probably scoffing at this; I am blessed with great skin, I look years younger than my age and I ALWAYS get carded. All the more reason I was shocked to see the effects of too much sun and fatigue so visibly displayed on my face.

I'm fairly certain that all my moving around is starting to catch up with me. Since the end of June, I've put nearly 7,500 miles on my car (my Honda Civic has been good to me) as I travel from place to place on my nomadic journey. These last few months, however, are only a fast-forward version of the last several years of my life. I can't recall the last time I had a true "home"-- meaning a place from which I didn't have a scheduled departure two weeks, six months, a year from the move-in date. Save the two suitcases, a yoga mat and a stuffed dog that currently reside in my car, my life-- or rather, the belongings I refuse to part with, namely designer shoes, handbags and clothing-- is packed away in boxes in three different cities. One of those cities is across the Atlantic.

While I'm very much enjoying the ride and excited about dreams of returning to Europe and spending time in the South Pacific, I'm starting to realize just how badly I need a place to call home. Not a place to stay forever; not "the" place, from which I'll never move again. Simply a place that serves as a base, with a bed I can call my own. A place that reflects me. A place where I can unpack my shoe collection and leave it nicely displayed amidst other chaos in a big, disorganized closet when I travel elsewhere for months at a time.

For now, as I continue my search, I'm grateful for the many temporary homes I've been offered and for the chance to stay in one place longer than a week. I can only hope that the dark circles under my eyes will start to dissipate once I get used to the bed I'll be occupying...

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Reviving Siesta


A beautiful Sunday spent exploring the countryside near Carlos Paz, Argentina with Fer and her husband, Franco, in January 2007.

I love taking naps. Rather, I should say I love the IDEA of taking naps. Although many of the places I've lived still uphold siesta as a sacred and practiced tradition, I rarely allow myself the luxury of crawling into bed mid-day. In part, I don't often nap because every time I wake up from one, I'm ready and willing to devour an entire sheet cake--even when my nap directly follows lunch and lasts only 20 minutes. More importantly, however, I don't take naps because I think I don't have time for a nap. A common symptom of the American lifestyle model.

Yesterday I got out of bed far earlier than desired in order to get in the car and drive to Washington-Dulles airport in rush hour traffic. The coffee machine at my host's house is currently broken, which meant driving sans my morning caffeine injection. Not something I wish to repeat, nor should I.

The trip to Dulles was an attempt to see Fer, the woman who ten years ago became my older sister and dearest of friends- the person who readily shares love and advice and isn't afraid to tell me when I'm acting like an ass. It's been nearly three years since I was last with her in Córdoba, so when we discovered that she had a four-hour layover in DC on her trip from Argentina to Beijing, we were thrilled. Unfortunately, she got trapped in the insanity that immigration and security have become in US airports and didn't have time to leave the transit area. I was disappointed, of course, but felt somehow glad to have briefly shared a common space. I got back in my car and fought my fatigue-induced blurred vision back to Washington.

It was only during the precious summers I spent at Fer's house in Carlos Paz that I actually took to napping. I had nothing better to do; the entire town was asleep between 2 and 5 PM. In fact, there I learned to appreciate a whole myriad of activities that force one to stop, enjoy the moment and recharge. In the US, we claim that we don't have time for such things. "I'm too busy" is a phrase we use almost automatically, a conditioned response to any threat of deviation from the 9 to 5 work routine. In truth, we don't MAKE time for these activities. Instead of organic, impromptu gatherings, friendships here are manifested as events that we program into our electronic agendas weeks in advance, and when we do meet a friend for coffee, more often than not we spend our time talking about what we have to do next and why we have to rush off. Anything "self-indulgent" like taking a siesta is considered a waste of time rather than an opportunity to pause and regroup in order to resume work more productively afterward. There are clear benefits--health and otherwise-- to the "work to live" mentality upheld in many places across the globe as compared to the American "live to work" model. Most of us, however, are too busy to realize this.

In a recent post, Jen Lee reminds us that "It's okay not to know what to do next. Laying down is always good for the not-knowing moments." I found this all too fitting, given my current state of uncertainty about the future. Jen reminded me that I DO have time to slow down and breathe-- I just usually fill that time seeking answers rather than staying with the questions. I decided then that I would make a point of incorporating a mini-siesta into my day, and when I returned home from the airport, I saw my first opportunity to do so. I closed the shades, climbed into bed, and just as I was drifting off, the landscapers arrived and began their work just below my window. Next time I'll nap with earplugs.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

A few things that make me truly happy:

Hiking in obscenely beautiful places.



Laughing. I love to laugh.



Dancing. Anywhere, anytime.



And Chow Chows. Nothing makes me happier than Chow Chows.



I've been told that when I obliviously bolted across traffic to sneak this picture I was nearly hit by a car. Perhaps my obsession is a bit out of control. But still... who could resist Little Red Riding Chow?

Photos of me by Eduardo Rubiano Moncada.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

I suppose I am a writer...



I love someecards. I can always find a horribly inappropriate card to send to a friend when I'm feeling stressed or upset. At least it's better than taking up smoking.

On another note...

The other day, my friend Wendy reminded me just how special it is that I've been published and told me to toot my own horn a bit more about it. I've posted links on my Facebook profile but for the most part, have left it at that. In part it has taken me this long to accept the fact that yes, perhaps I am a writer, because I'm too stubborn to hear it from someone else. I have to come to terms with it on my own and believe that it came from within me rather than from external influences. In any case, it's about time I get excited about this so here I go:

Here is our article in National Geographic En Español (The Latin American edition, not Spain), published in June.

And this our article in The Ecologist, published in July.

And here is a link to the various articles I wrote for the Rio Times while in Brazil earlier this year.

Enjoy!

xo

Friday, September 24, 2010

Timing and gratitude



The image above was taken outside Paraty, Brazil. In only a few places have I experienced a comparable sense of peace. Photo by Eduardo Rubiano Moncada.

Over the last few weeks I've been soaking up an abundance of love and good energy that I've received both from old friends and new favorites that have come into my life recently. Your words of support and compassion have been genuinely nourishing and have guided me out of a rather bleak mindset, and for that I am truly grateful. I feel especially blessed to have had so many of you open your homes to me as I embrace my current life as a hobo. Thank you.

My newfound sense of "om" was tested on Tuesday, when I received a call telling me that a project I've been planning for, counting on and scheduling around has been postponed indefinitely. Instead of bursting into tears and panicking (what I would have done last month), I found myself strangely calm, trusting that this had happened for a reason. When an opportunity manifested itself the next day during a meeting about when and how to revive the project, I understood.

Yesterday I was once again baffled by the particular timing of the universe. I've been doing freelance work for Elizabeth for nearly a year now. From our first phone conversation I knew instantly that I liked her and it has been a pleasure to work with her on various projects, but yesterday was the first time we met in person. And we talked continuously for four hours. It was one of those connections that perhaps never would have occurred had we met at a different point in my life, but her insight is profound and precisely what I needed to hear in the moment. More importantly, I was prepared to receive her words and as a result, I left our meeting feeling grounded and brave.

I'm still in a state of awe regarding my tranquility about not knowing what's to come or where I'll be next week. It's unheard of for someone so typically controlling and anal-retentive about planning years in advance. But what the hell. As I told Elizabeth, for once I'm actually enjoying the moment instead of worrying about the future. And with my schedule now wide open in upcoming months, I'll likely be passing through your neighborhood soon. Just make sure you have some clean sheets on hand. And no flannel. Flannel sheets should be outlawed.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Something about the fall

Early autumn is my absolute favorite time of the year, and New England in the fall is nothing less than magical. I don't know what it is, but something inside me comes alive with the transition from summer heat to cooler days. It has been years since I experienced the crisp, charged air and the vibrant colors of the changing leaves, and in the last week I've been quickly reminded just how much I love it here.

I've been anti-Garmin for years, as I think they make people lazy and contribute to the spoon-feeding, dumbing down of this country, but when I left for New Hampshire last week, my partner insisted on buying me a device to keep me from messing with maps and my phone while driving. (He knows I'm prone to multitasking...)

I have to admit, I am grateful to have had the little machine mapping the route for me. On Sunday, I left behind breathtaking Squam Lake and drove to Albany. Instead of taking 93 south to the Mass Pike, the safe and easy route I would have taken, the GPS took me through country roads across the rolling mountains of Vermont. I couldn't have planned a more beautiful transition back to the "real world". I do admit, however, that the drive was so pretty it was outright distracting. A slightly different incarnation of that problem of keeping my eyes on the road...

After spending the last couple days enjoying upstate New York with my dear Katie, I'm now heading south again. Hopefully, the strange, talking device can lead me on another majestic ride--and help me avoid New York traffic.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The measuring stick

A few weeks ago I had one of those moments that feels like a punch to the stomach because of the clarity with which it reflects everything else that's going on in my life. The sense of deep tranquility and release I'm left with after my mind-blowing Squam experience makes me feel like I'm finally ready to target this, and thus I would like to share.

This is my standing bow posture.



So is this.




(It's one of my favorite postures, so I practice it whenever I can.)

I've been on the verge of locking my leg out for over a year and the damn thing just won't lock. It's not a problem of flexibility. I can do the splits. I can hyperextend my splits. I can sit in the splits and get into this posture. So why I cannot get into the posture when I'm standing was frustrating me beyond belief.

My "ta-da" moment hit me on the yoga mat a couple weeks ago as I was struggling in this very posture. It was actually a rather wordy, complex ta-da so bear with me.

I'm competitive by nature. It is one of my strengths, but more often than not my competitive side causes me more grief than good. And that day in the yoga room, as I balanced on one foot, kicking and stretching as hard as I could, I noticed myself keenly aware of the woman in front of me, whose leg was slightly closer to locked than mine. Every time she moved deeper into the posture, I pushed myself to go further, not wanting to be beaten. With every breath I kicked harder, yet I wasn't getting anywhere. I was blocked.

In that moment I saw clearly that I was COMPETING in yoga--the ultimate oxymoron. And I realized that up until that point, I had always been competing, measuring my practice against that of other yogis-- even teachers. I wanted to show the world that I was up to par with the best, even though I've only been practicing a short time, and inconsistently.

As I acknowledged the absurdity of it all, I saw how this was such a clear representation of my current struggle to move into my fullest self. I have been so consumed by the addictive need to measure myself against others, to determine my alleged value based on things external to me, that this in great part is what has kept me on the treadmill, unable to move forward. (See previous post.)

I'm not making any promises to have abandoned my competitive tendencies by making this public declaration, but I do somehow hope it will keep me accountable, on and off the mat. And I'm pretty certain that when I stop pushing, that leg will finally lock. I just need to LET GO!!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Moving forward, staying present


I built a fire today. Granted, it was done in a fireplace and not by rubbing sticks together, but nevertheless I built a fire all by myself, without guidance or even someone to bear witness. And my sense of achievement is noteworthy. The perfect way to end a truly inspiring weekend.

My blog has been abandoned for several months now. I can blame a lack of time, but in all honesty, I've lacked motivation. I've been blocked and uninspired and unwilling to make time to organize my thoughts into an eloquent set of paragraphs. And much of this is due to the greater overarching block that has been impeding me from moving into my truest and most fulfilled self.

I've made significant changes in my life in the last year for the sake of letting go of expectations and judgement-others' and my own-in an attempt to discover my true purpose in this life. A year ago almost to the date I submitted the final version of my master's thesis and promised myself that from that point forward, my decisions would come from the heart. On my birthday, one month later, I swore to myself that this would be my year- that by October 27th, 2010 I will have made major strides and will be on a clear path to success, fully engaged in something I love. No pressure, right? In January I took space for myself and moved to Brazil in order to jump-start my life there on my own terms. At the end of June I returned to the States, my overachieving self certain that I would have things figured out within a matter of weeks. What a load of crap. I was going through the motions but utterly terrified of change and of the possible outcomes and was therefore stuck on a treadmill, frustrated that I wasn't moving forward. I had been crying for months-literally-and couldn't stand myself anymore. (Needless to say I strained the patience of my dearest loved ones in the process; I cannot begin to express the breadth of my gratitude for your uninterrupted love and support!)

Something clicked in the last few days. Last week, an unexpected opportunity arose to attend the Squam Art Workshops in beautiful New Hampshire. A few months ago I would have never considered attending something like this-I wouldn't have let myself. Perhaps because of my state of desperation, this time I felt compelled to step out of my comfort zone and do something just for me, just for the hell of it. The internal debate was brief, facilitated by my yearning to experience another New England fall and the "subtle" persuasion of a dear friend, and I said yes to the universe. And as what usually happens when you say yes to the gifts of the universe, things start to shift. After four blissful days at Squam, immersed in nature and surrounded by some of the most creative, inspiring people I've ever met, I finally feel that something has been unleashed. I can't explain it, but I feel that now, one year after completing a master's that I admittedly did in order to fulfill my own expectations for prestige and merit rather than to satisfy my passion for understanding the complexities of international relations, I have taken the hand-break off. I am finally on the right path and for once calm about letting go and giving into the process.

Special thanks to Jen, Helene and Michelle for your amazing classes and the wonderful energy and encouraging words you shared, and to Elizabeth, for creating this magical space.

I don't know where this is all leading, but for the first time ever I'm excited about enjoying the ride.

xo.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Snowball Effect


Seems like the whole "say yes to life" idea has been paying off in the last couple weeks. I'm now a regular writer for the Rio Times. Thanks to that work, I landed a major translating gig with one of Brazil's top companies. And for the last two weeks I've been working with Magnum and National Geographic Photographer David Alan Harvey. I'm sleep deprived, I'm entirely overbooked, my mind won't stop racing, and I'm loving every minute of it. A fascinating blog entry is in the making, but it will have to wait another week until life slows down a bit. For now, here are a few photos of Rio from above, which I took on my recent helicopter ride. Working for David definitely has its perks...

Copacabana:


Ipanema:


Mira in disbelief of how cool her life suddenly became:


xo!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Happy Valentine's Day!



While I'm quite tempted to discuss my feelings about the absurdities of Valentine's Day, I'll restrain myself and simply wish you all a happy day. In many places in Latin America, today isn't merely about chocolates and roses and people don't become overly depressed or bitter if they happen to be alone. Instead, it's a day to celebrate all of your loved ones, especially friendships. I find particular beauty in this.

So to my friends scattered across the globe, feliz dia!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Drugged for Carnival

I'm sick and tired. Literally. I've managed to catch some flu-like thing here that seems to be getting progressively worse rather than better, and just as things are taking off for me. I guess it's a lesson in patience and a blessing in disguise to keep me from blowing off my work and spending loads of money going out every day. It's always good to have someone or something to keep you in check. The good news is that here most pharmacies sell antibiotics without a prescription. As I'm one to pride myself on my ability to self-diagnose and self-medicate with absolutely no medical training, in my feverish haze last night I got myself a Z-pac. I may have inherited minor hypochondriac tendencies from my mother, but I have to be close to comatose before I'll check myself into a clinic here. Not that clinics here are bad--they're just not absolutely sterile. I'll be thrilled to live in Germany some day...

My cold arrived in time for Carnival in Rio. Technically Carnival starts tomorrow, but pre-Carnival has been going on for over a couple weeks now. All-night block parties and parades and chaos are around every corner, and people wish each other a "Happy Carnival!" with the same enthusiasm as if to congratulate a woman on giving birth to her first child. It's quite a spectacle.

And while everyone else is out getting obscenely drunk this weekend, I'll be in journalist mode, writing articles 6 and 7 for the Rio Times (in between beach time and block parties, of course). Check out my articles at: http://riotimesonline.com/news/author/mira-olson/.

I hope you all have a wonderful weekend, and Happy Carnival!

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Taming the mane

A month ago today I arrived in Rio, just in time to celebrate New Year's on the beach. (Yes, it was an amazing way to start 2010. I recommend that you all try it.) It was raining when I arrived, and as soon as I stepped outside my nicely straightened hair instantly turned into a gigantic lion's mane--not a pretty sight. Don't worry; I haven't been walking around like a freak this entire time. It's nowhere near straight, but I've managed to tame the mane a bit with the help of some styling products and Leo, a most fabulous hair stylist.

I arrived in Rio without much of a plan and highly anxious about finding a productive way to occupy my time here. Much like my hair, however, my emotions have settled down over the last few weeks and I finally feel that things are falling into place. I have a better idea of what I want out of this particular experience as well as heightened clarity about what I want for myself in the future. I am finishing my third article for the Rio Times and can now call myself a journalist. I'm exercising daily and feeling results. I've met some very worthwhile people. And I am beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel after what began as an unknown amount of time away from my partner. In other words, things are looking up.

Happy month-back-in-Rio to me! Now if I can only find some extremely well-paying freelance work so I can stay a while longer...

xoxo M.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The engine is running

I think this will balance out my previous post, or as my boyfriend refers to it, the "death entry". I believe I've turned a page. I just got back from my first outing (interview) as a reporter.

Yes, a reporter. I'm working on my first assignment as a contributing reporter for the Rio Times, Rio's only English-language newspaper. While this is not a full-time job from which I'll make a living, it's certainly an opportunity to write and to be published-- by someone other than myself, that is. Plus it's a chance to dive deeply into some topics of my interest, giving my plans for Brazil considerable leverage. I met with the publisher/editor yesterday, and after a very pleasant meeting we agreed that my first article will discuss recent pacification efforts by the police in the favela (shantytown) where I volunteered in 2006. This morning I made a few phone calls and by 1:30 p.m. I was heading up the mountain on my way to interview Carlos. Sorry, Mom.

A little background: The NGO/school where I volunteered, Solar Meninos de Luz, serves the Pavão-Pavãozinho and Cantagalo favelas in the mountainous terrain that separates Rio's famous Copacabana and Ipanema neighborhoods. For the last 30 years, these favelas, which are essentially one large, connected community, have been controlled by drug and arms trafficking. In the last two months, the drug lords have been pushed out and are no longer dictating life there.

As part of the government's policy to heighten security in preparation for the 2016 Olympics, the police have already invaded and installed Pacification Police Units (UPP) in five communities including Cantagalo/Pavão-Pavãozinho, with plans to set up units in 100 favelas by the end of the year. In the past the police would invade and then leave, which ultimately did nothing to curb drug trafficking. Now the UPP are setting up permanent bases in the favelas to run the criminals out and keep them out. Whether or not this will work is questionable, given that the police corruption has traditionally played a significant role in trafficking here, but for the moment things are peaceful.

I was blown away by how much things have changed in three years. The metro (subway) system, which until recently only operated in the lower-middle class neighborhoods of the north part of the city unknown to most tourists, has opened two new stations in Copacabana and Ipanema. This has cleaned up and modernized various street corners that in the past I avoided whenever I could. I took the Sa Ferreira exit at the Ipanema station, which dumped me at entrance to the favela closest to Solar-- very convenient. (Favelas that have developed on mountainsides generally have one or two main roads and several staircases along the face of the mountain that lead into the community.) The hike up the endless staircase into the community remains the same, but it seemed a bit sunnier and more colorful and also less intimidating. There was a policeman standing at the entrance keeping watch, and the energy of the people walking in and out seemed lighter and less aggressive. I was received warmly at Solar by people I'd never met but that were thrilled that a former volunteer had returned for a visit. They filled me in on the school's developments over the last few years and offered their positive opinions about how the UPP presence is affecting the community. After a little over an hour I concluded the visit and made my way back to the metro, marveled by how natural it felt to be there again and filled with a sense of satisfaction, renewed energy and purpose.

OK, enough blogging. Time to start working on the article. Look for it as of Wednesday: http://riotimesonline.com!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Brazil isn't for beginners



I arrived in Rio just over two weeks ago, and it has taken me this long to sit down and write about my (second) first impressions of the “Cidade Maravilhosa” (Marvelous City—Rio’s nickname). I left Rio in 2007 after an unproductive year of too little work and far too much sun exposure. I haven’t returned since, except for a three-day trip to attend a friend’s wedding that same year. Whereas I had hoped to arrive and instantly fall in love with the city again, this did not happen; the adjustment process has been slow. I did not find the exotic atmosphere, the breathtaking landscapes, or the overly warm people I was expecting. Nor did I find the noticeably more modern, developed Brazil that appears in the news and economic studies. These elements exist, of course. I simply wasn´t seeing them. Instead, I found myself in a truly developing country littered with garbage where nothing works properly, where broadband internet is unbearably slow, where you can never let your guard down due to the high risk of being mugged, and where to make rice or beans you must first carefully sort through every grain in the sealed 1lb bag you bought at the grocery store to remove sticks and rocks and then rinse for any excess dirt and other particles before cooking. Although pigeons and cockroaches can be found in the most modern cities in the world, I have to mention them here because it was here in Rio where my disgust and hatred for these nasty creatures was born. The heat and humidity are suffocating, and the filth of the city is inescapable. Ever-expanding shantytowns plagued by drug wars interrupt the lush flora that covers the mountains throughout the city. And rather than kind and welcoming, I found the people to be highly superficial and critical of everything but willing to do nothing to change the situation. Without question, I’ve had a very difficult time finding the beauty—and the marvel—of the Marvelous City.

Perhaps it’s having fallen in love with Europe since I was last here, or perhaps I’ve finally come to appreciate how easy life can be in the US, or maybe I’m just older and more intolerant, but this time around I’ve been especially resistant to the Carioca pace and social norms. Here it’s perfectly acceptable if your guests show up two hours after the agreed time or don’t show up at all, and without warning. What should be extraordinarily simple tasks are complicated by bureaucratic measures and what is seemingly laziness masked as stupidity on behalf of Brazilian employees in any position. (This may seem like a sweeping generalization, but any foreigner that has lived in Rio can attest to this.) Here, for instance, you need a CPF (the Brazilian social security number) to do just about anything. It took three trips to the store and much negotiation (read: flirting) to buy a pre-paid cell phone and a pre-paid aircard for internet service because I’m a foreigner and do not have a CPF--the salesman just couldn’t seem to move past that section of the endless paperwork. I encountered the same stuck-in-the-headlights-paralysis when I signed up for the gym. Forty-five minutes had passed before the woman helping me came up with the solution to use her own CPF in order to complete my registration, because it was “simply impossible” without the magic number. I found this proclamation quite entertaining because in Rio everything is negotiable. You just have to know how to negotiate.

Here, the Brazilian “jeitinho” guides social interaction at all levels. If you can offer something in return- a favor, a bribe, a contact, and yes, flirting- you’ll get what you want; if you can’t, you’re likely stuck. Finding jobs and affordable apartments is more a question of who you know than what you know. It’s a constant game of who can outsmart the others and who can walk away with the greatest advantage. As Tom Jobim said, Brazil is not for beginners.

I think my experience with Brazil is much like any other relationship, with places as well as people. At first you are so enchanted with the novelty that you only pay attention to the good aspects and anything negative is readily overlooked. After a while, however, the newness wears off and you start seeing what lies beneath. You start questioning whether this is something you truly want, and if you choose that you do, you have to accept the faults and work carefully and diligently to maintain the relationship.

That’s where I am with Rio—questioning whether the aforementioned chaos and insecurity is something I want to accept as a normal part of my life and whether the superficial cultural norms are something I want to adapt as my own. I left in 2007 right as I was beginning to notice the faults and this trip I jumped in right where I’d left off. By the end of the first week I was nearly ready to haul my suitcases back to the airport. Nevertheless, I knew that I don’t want to limit my description of my Brazil experience to the above paragraphs. Ultimately a place is what you make of it. If you choose to focus on the faults, that’s all you’ll see. I made the decision to stay, to force myself to look beyond the crap and try to find something genuine amidst the ultimate soap opera culture. So far it hasn’t been easy, but I know that it requires added effort and practice. And little by little I’m starting to find beauty again. It’s a different sort of beauty—but beauty nonetheless.