India – Terrific Tim and cleaning house of Chris & Jessica

EEK’s mission was to “inspire the next generation to realize their potential to transform the world and their roll in it”.

I believed in EEK! I still do. Apologies if I sound like a broken record but I believe it important to remind that, just because there was so much drama and they were responsible for some big missteps, something speculated to be due to growing too much too fast, it doesn’t mean that their foundation was “bad”. I’ve dealt with plenty of shade throughout my life; especially working in the subprime mortgage industry through my twenties. This was one of the rare places I saw heart and good intentions at the forefront, even if they were for-profit.

Back to the battle…

Up to the point you have come with me on this fantastic voyage, Anna had been my salvation. She kept my head on straight and helped me see not only a bigger picture but behind the scenes in the ways she could without revealing info the company would have opposed to her sharing. I had been trying like hell not to put her in the middle but she was literally the only person I had to turn to for some realistic perspective. EEK! had all but dropped us by parachute in a foreign land isolated from communication and help. She was my lifeline. That was until shortly after the shit hit the fan with the complaints from parents, kid’s reviews, my notes and the potential lawsuit about Jessica.

It had been easy to tell that a storm had been-a-brewin so I hadn’t been surprised when Chris relayed that someone from higher up in the company was being flown out to help. I didn’t buy the story, though, that it was just for extra support. Being the bully that he was, Chris had gone at EEK! saying that he would only tolerate someone below him. They had brought him in as the director and needed to trust him as such. So that’s who they told him they were sending. If someone told me cats were dogs, I wouldn’t believe them just because I’m a dog-lover. Apparently for him, that’s all his ego needed in order to justify that it was still “his” program. The real story was so blatant to me that I found it surreal that he could be so disillusioned.

From what I could tell, based in large part on what I had been told, someone was being flown out primarily to see if there was any way to salvage the situation with the three of us individually and as colleagues. The goal was to lessen the chance of upsetting the parents of that second group of kids. Something that was more likely to happen if they found out that one or two of the only three Westerners who were supposed to be on the ground with them had mysteriously disappeared. I knew that Chris and Jessica, especially Chris, was going to do their best to get rid of me. I also suspected the company thought it would be less of a mess to get rid of a first year mentor as opposed to the two higher positions. Even so, I knew it likely that it would take about two seconds for Chris and Jessica to dig their own graves once the person coming saw what was really going on.

Knowing someone was coming out, I instantly started to exhale for the first time and unfortunately began losing my composure in dealing with the two of them. Chris was back to rarely trying and blatantly taking advantage of his position as Director for personal gain, often to take jabs at me, and I started to stand up to him in a more direct manner. Even, unfortunately, in front of one of the kids when he told me I had to stay back with her on another one of my supposed days off instead of going to a meditation workshop I had been looking forward to. At the time I had been furious. Soon I was to get a kick out of the result, though, when it turned out to be only be a lecture without any of the expected meditation. On the rare occasion Jessica and I were around each other, things were a bit less hostile and catty. Partly because I did my best to stay away and ignore her, partly because of her becoming more and more checked out and “off” in ways that I suspected related, to alcohol.

Tim was the man who was emergency flown out on last-minute notice. He was a kind and laid-back dude in board shorts and flip flops who could have easily passed as a coastal San Diegian though actually from North Carolina. He also joined Anna as one of my angels in the program.

Not giving him a chance to rest when touching down after the two days of travel to get there, Chris took him to get a SIM card instead of having one of our local guys do it so he had a chance to trash me. One mistake Chris made during those first couple hours was in thinking it would be easy to pull him into the patriarchy boy’s club bullshit as he and Raja had done. More specifically when admitting to Tim’s question that, yes, he and Jessica were shacking up.

Shortly after getting to Cloud’s End, Chris and Jessica took off together for the evening and the next day. Tim, disoriented and shocked that they would not only take a day off at that particular time but also together, apologized over and over before heading off for a nap. First, however, he did manage to tell me how the company had only heard good things about me as well as to acknowledge how I must be feeling and to validate it. Already in those first few moments it was the most support I had gotten. Even when I pushed him to take the whole night and wait to dive in until the next day, he still insisted he was going to try to get up after a couple hours to help and felt bad when he did indeed end up sleeping until that next morning.

After apologizing multiple times the next morning for sleeping the whole night instead of just taking a nap (silly), Tim jumped on top of both trying to figure out what was going on with the program and helping with the kids. I was so used to being all but alone in taking care of them that when they came to me for help and Tim said he’d take care of it, I almost didn’t know how to let him. Sitting there disoriented, it was the first time I could remember being able to eat an entire meal without having to get up.
So many of the things that hadn’t seemed quite right started to make sense as he began to express his insight about what he was seeing. Right away, he was livid at the quality of food, Ishan being unfairly thrust in above his head, not having program drivers and other things that should have been better quality. Even most of the excursions that had been chosen were free ones. Suspecting it due to Raja pocketing more of the money EEK! allotted for his side of running the program than he should have (and maybe giving kickbacks to Chris?), something that could have been avoided if he had been more realistic with stating what was needed to make a reasonable profit, Tim was laid-back livid. My heart was exploding with love for this man actually caring so much that I was fighting tears. Looking at him with wide-eyed gratitude, I had to stop myself from all but tackling him with constant hugs. I felt like a Margaret Keane character who was finding comfort after just being stung by a million bees.

When Chris and Jessica came back late, I wondered if Chris was trying to make a statement about his being in charge or they had already given up and were trying to get fired. I was also pissed that they would so blatantly be disrespectful and defiant to Tim when this poor guy had just got there. Another reason I respected and was thankful for him – he was communicative, honest and tried to be forthcoming with information to all of us, always trying to keep it chill and positive. And hey, the craziness wasn’t my problem any more. Or at the very least I had someone whose lead I could trust and follow.

Even with their shitty-mc-shitterson actions and knowing that I still may be the one getting the boot, I trusted Tim’s morals and judgment so much that I would have believed him if he thought that the best move for the kids was for me to go. That didn’t happen, though. When going to talk to the Terrible Two, he was once again shocked at how venomous Chris was and how his only goal seemed to be to get rid of me. An attack that was even more damaging for Chris as I had been trying to point out the good they had done, take responsibility for my own shortcomings and had been making an effort to come up with a solution regardless of believing it a lost cause. Chris had no interest in trying to work with the situation, didn’t give any sign of caring about the kids and even went so far as to play hardball with a “she goes or we go” attitude. Further signs that the contemptuous and insolent personality that he had said he had as a kid (surprisingly to me as I would have thought him a nerd) had never gone away, only likely made worse in the Marines. I was the only one around to see it up to that point but found it pretty upsetting when finding out after the program that his director from the previous year had told EEK! about it. And yet they had still hired him as a director…
That was one of the most shocking “dropping the ball” actions on their part, in my opinion, as it had so much to do with my being treated so horribly as well as, and more importantly, affecting the kid’s experience negatively.

Tim tried as hard as he could to find a way to make it work, but once realizing that Jessica showed up not only even more late later but also drunk when we were working with the kids, he gave into the reality of it being a lost cause. She was so incredibly checked out and, just as Alexandra had mentioned more than once before, unhappy. Poor guy already looked like he was going to fall over and he hadn’t even made it through the first full day.

In line with his upfront way of running things, he came to my suite where I was hanging with Alexandra to tell me that Chris and Jessica were toxic for the program and had to go immediately before poisoning anything further. The second group of kids was still within their first couple of days there and he was hoping that we had a chance to salvage the program before they were too negatively affected. Having already told Chris that Jessica was going to be fired before he had come to me, Chris had made it easier for EEK! as they wouldn’t have to officially fire him if he really walked with her as he had threatened he would. Homie got played.

I admit to feeling a bit of gloating over “winning” and relief that I was able to stay there with the kids but, more than anything, I felt sad. Like having to give up the good along with the bad in a breakup, there’s a permanent loss. I pride myself on one of my strengths being my abilities with people. It had been a long time since I couldn’t work through it with someone, even with all of my own idiosyncrasies. It was more than a loss…it was a failure. Regardless of how horrible they had been to me and annoying I to them, I wished we could have worked through it and come out the other side with a happy ending. I so desperately yearned to find a way to tailor the more challenging parts of my personality and actions to not upset them so. Sadly, heart wasn’t enough and it just wasn’t meant to be.

Reflection helps now but validation and a good outside POV back then when there was no time for the former was a lifesaver. Tim told me that with them being together since the beginning, I never stood a chance. He also found it amusing that Chris tried to deny his episodes of shaking in anger at me as he had done the same on a joint conference call to headquarters when recommending firing Jessica. He continued to be supportive and understanding about my concern with unraveling a bit since I finally could and continued to give me the positive reinforcement that I so desperately needed. One way of which being to comment on how sometimes the best mentors (referring to me) are the best because they don’t have any preconceived notions or egos related to experience or extensive education (I only had my BA and Chris his masters). Apologizing for my not getting the next day off, I knew he meant it when promising we’d figure out another one. I also knew that wouldn’t happen…
Firing Jessica the next day was comically in line with the oddness of India and the program in that I was brought along for the ride. Literally. Not just me but also the gal who I had stayed back with a couple days before who still wasn’t feeling well. Ishan was going to take us to a medical clinic but Tim also jumped in the car last minute to stop at the placement Jessica was supervising to break the news. Already knowing it was coming and seeming relieved for it, she gave him (what I found to be) a grossly fake hug and got in the car to be taken back to homebase while he stayed with the kids. Can someone say awkward? Watching Chris and Jessica grab their stuff and hit the road likely with, we would find out later, an expensive camera that one of the gals from the first group had accidentally left behind, Ishan finally started to take us to the clinic but again made one more random stop. That poor kid had been stuck in the car sick and on a fantastic voyage that had gotten so loopy we just sat in the backseat together and laughed.

India – Calm before the monsoon

It was quiet at the villa after the kids left. The staff had been given the time off and even the king had left with Teddy to meet up with his wife, a badass politician who was also from royalty and attending the funeral of thousands for her mother. I wish I could have met her.
Besides making and hanging new program materials and managing communication that was increasing from headquarters, that few days was to be the closest thing I had to down time during the program. A good thing given the storm that was brewing.
It had all been so surreal that I felt like didn’t know my ass from my hat so had started documenting what went on as of a couple weeks before. That way, if I felt it got to the point of turning in those notes to headquarters, I could hopefully trust them as an outside(ish) source to see it clearly. Next post will be that document, BTW.

It was my first time to process. I thought about the things I wish I had done differently, what I could have done better and ways I behaved in difficult situations that I was proud of. For instance, trying to point out how we all had different strengths and weakness to the kids. For instance, Chris being better at keeping the kids together and therefore safe when we were out. Something I wasn’t so great at. Also when painfully humbling myself to tell Jessica that, regardless of what I thought of her letter, I was sorry for anything I had unintentionally done or said that had made her feel bad (she had deleted the convo on FB so no way to reflect), that my only intention was to make her laugh and feel supported and that maybe I was overcompensating to make myself look competent (after the way her and Chris had made me feel). Sadly, I wasn’t surprised when it fell on deaf ears as she focused on being livid at me for speaking up to the kids following her about gossip (about her) in a feeble attempt to try to show support. She took it instead as my undermining her authority. Regardless of my intent, maybe so maybe not, but either way it showed once again how I could never win.
On July first, eight days before the first group of kids left, Gustav (Country Field Manager for Asia and the Pacific – guy above Chris) had called me worked up about a lot of the same stuff that I was having issues with regarding Chris. He was also adamant that I needed to get my time off but didn’t help to figure out how to do that when up against Chris. A sign that he had no idea what was really going on. It was nice to finally see acknowledgment about the issues but also surreal and frustrating to have the negative energy of those things that I was the only one dealing with at ground-level.
Not getting help from Gustav (cool guy besides) about the letter from Jessica (which I felt fueled her confidence in continuing hostile treatment of me) along with having the time to sort through it while not under fire, I finally decided to turn the document in. At the same time, consequently and unbeknownst to me, I did it at the same time that the company was facing a sexual harassment lawsuit about Jessica as well as when the kid’s reviews were coming in with shockingly horrible feedback about Chris (running the program like the military) and Jessica (who was called a snake). They were the worst the company had ever seen. Mind you that the organization had felt pressure from the parents since the beginning of the program to get rid of Chris.
The sexual harassment lawsuit that had resulted from Jessica’s being inappropriately affectionate toward one of the boys (long hugs, holding his hand when watching a movie with her mentor group, etc.) after he had a mental break. Kid had lost his grandfather and then not too long after had found his dad dead (natural causes). Started shouting anti-Semitic remarks at another boy and threatening his life followed by sneaking into his (and the boy who told me) room that night to watch them sleep. He told them the next day.
Consequentially, when one of the boys brought this to me (and I had two other groups of kids coming to me with other things at the same time), Chris and Jessica were MIA. Chris apparently because he was headed back on Raja’s bike after one of their “meetings”.
So much shit was going down. Before they left I had warned Ahmad about the girls who had crushes on him causing issues amongst themselves and how it could cause trouble for him. Sadly, it didn’t seem to make much of a difference as he still got caught in the crossfire and was not allowed back with the second group. Instead he worked only with the UK group the local team was also running at the same time. What also happened to be the reason why the local guys who were more experienced and supposed to be running their side of our program were MIA. Regardless, Ahmad was coming to me still confused and heartbroken months later. Such a sweet guy. Maybe there’s more to it than I was aware of but as far as I know, he was little more than a casualty of war.
The calls and inquiries about everything I didn’t yet know was going on (and probably still don’t fully) didn’t take up too much of my time. I was mostly enjoying the swag I got from pricey stuff our well-off kids had left behind as trash (think pricey toiletries, good travel meds and one of the rainbow umbrellas that were so popular there) and time with Alexandra.
She read my cards (did you know my heart chakra is green?) we went out to eat, had drinks (of course) and went for walks with lots of shopping. Dodging and weaving around the cows (as always) I noticed how the Seek men who were often as attractive as their colorful turbans were beautiful so often made me uncomfortable with their intense staring. Something I didn’t notice so much when the kids were with me and was surprised by when Alexandra told me that even my white T-shirt with a V that ended at the base of the neck with a tank under as a second layer was still considered revealing.
She taught me that mala beads are similar to a rosary in that they are often used for different forms of meditation (think chanting the same thing in repetition) and that of the 108 beads, the one at the top is a Buddah Bead. Also that the bracelets (amongst other adornments) of a young couple we saw who were so obviously in love symbolized new marriage.
Excited to have finally got the green sari back my sister had sent me money to have made for her and bummed to have been moved back to an even more humid suite than the room I had been moved to a few weeks before (the word “moist” wasn’t so funny after staying for so long in a place that was always too much of it), my last few moments of part-time freedom were coming to a close. The new group of kids was coming, as was the grand finale of Chris and Jessica.


India – Going Septic

During the entire program it was ironic that Jessica, one of the (supposed) leaders was the one to get really sick. So sick, in fact, that she ended up in the hospital for three days after spending one of the only nights she actually stayed in our room shitting and puking her brains out. It happened at the beginning of the first program, too, which gave me a chance to bond with the kids by default. Something I later on had a sneaking suspicion to be a big part of what turned her into the devil. Still, I’ve always felt bad thinking about how traumatizing the experience in the hospital was for her. Being poked and prodded in so many ways while in intense pain, worried about unsanitary needles making her even more sick, being kept in for money against her wishes… Chris (as usual) took advantage of his position by making excuses as to why I couldn’t go check on her while he did time after with a level of concern noticeably above the norm; especially for him.
Cue my continuing to deny how obvious the favoritism and fact that they were hooking up was. Partly because I celebrated connection, which made me want it to be OK, and partly because I hadn’t figured out anything I could do about it. At least not yet.
In addition to the situation with Jessica, Chris continued to take advantage of his position in multiple ways. One of which was constantly making excuses to leave to meet with Raja for what I saw signs to be a boy’s club of sort that consisted of drinking beers and hatching some kind of competing program that I’m still not fully aware of but have a sneaking suspicion was a direct betrayal to EEK! Besides how he treated me, it was just so crazy how much he took advantage of the company’s trust and resources. I still get pissed on their behalf.

While the times the two of them were around was just about always some kind of horrible, I had plenty of time alone with the kids and my local guys to bond and run the show the way I wanted to. My way appeared to resonate, thank god, and they all seemed to enjoy it. I tried for way too long to find a way to work as a team with Chris and Jessica before finally raising the white flag when constantly trying to back them up, even against my best judgment, and still didn’t get anywhere. Eventually I got the message that I would never be able to do right in their eyes and learned to stay in the shadows as much as I could when they were around.
Back to the good. My favorite experience of the year was when we had a mentor group called Story of Self that Chris had suggested as a success from the year before. The focus was for every kid to tell the story of a challenge currently being faced and one that had been overcome. One of our amazing girls set the foundation by going in raw and exposing the vulnerabilities of her pain by talking about having to take care of her mom with MS. Opening that door for the rest, the room instantly filled with tears and continued on as the kids talked about being torn between cultures (Jewish in a Christian school, one parent French and the other American, etc.), diseases they’d survived, scars and some of the things in their lives that filled my heart with even more love for them as I fought like hell to keep my composure. They were so desperate to be heard and helped, each one looking directly into my eyes as they told their stories. Standing there, I thought about how much of a foundational age they were at and how moments such as those were so desperately need yet come so seldom. Scared of saying or doing the wrong thing, I was humbly grateful for being able to be a part of that for them. To see teenagers let their guards so far was one of the most meaningful moments I’d had in years. Maybe forever. There was just so much love and support in that room. It was one of those magically surreal moments where I knew I was doing something that really mattered.
While our mentor group was amazing, Jessica’s was the opposite. A couple of the girls came to me later upset about how she had made the stories about herself when telling her own relating tales after every kid’s turn and had gone so far as to shut down one of the girls who made a positive comment as an attempt to fix the damage one of the other girls unintentionally did by tuning her heart-breakingly horrific story into a situation that downplayed others as she had pointed out that they hadn’t been through anything compared to her.
Both of those situations looked to cause further damage during a time of emotional vulnerability when they had been reaching out. Though not OK with it, it was one of the times I tried (unsuccessfully) to make Jessica, Chris and I seem like a united team while also making the girls feel heard and validated. Unsurprisingly and despite my well-intentioned efforts, Chris was defensive and slightly hostile (as usual) later on when telling me that I should have brought it to both him and Jessica, not just him (I mentioned that I didn’t want to hurt her feelings unnecessarily) and that I should have shut them down from saying anything at all. It was around then that I reached my breaking point any told myself that I was going to do what I believed to be right by the kids regardless of what they (and what Chris represented EEK!) to instruct. If we were not on the same page, I was just going to have to live with getting fired or worse. What I was seeing was just too far off too often from what I believed to be the right thing for taking care of them and they were what mattered above all else. EEK! had dropped us there all but isolated with little to no check-ins, even when going to HR with a shockingly left-field letter of personal attack from Jessica that Chris and the regional director had blown off, so I was going to have to trust myself. Scroll down to the bottom of the post for that gem.
Feeling like I was the only one there for the kids and loving my time with them so much, I felt guilty when it finally came time for my one day off (as opposed to Jessica’s four) but it was essential as it gave me a little destimulation time. For the first time, I finally had a few hours to make it down to the local bizarre where I was able to have a chiffon Punjabi suit made and then make it to the McLeod Gang market for blissful pizza eating at a spot called Namgyal Cafe while writing away for my last few desperate moments as an outlet in the way I process. Finally a sweet, sweet reprieve from the chaos and the same stock food constantly provided at home. Among other things, it was during that time that I happily realized that I had made it halfway through my time in India on $300 without scrimping. Included in that was all the times of going out with Raja, Chris and Jessica before the kids got there, buying souvenirs, paying for taxis and taking our super homesick little lady out for our day on the town at the beginning of the program.
I wasn’t the only one who loved the McLeod Gang market. The kids did even more than I and we managed a small victory by getting there three times before they left. As their last couple days with me came to a close, I reflected on all the great pictures we had taken around that beautiful town (it was supposed to be a photojournalism program after all) along with the amazing workshop I had put on matching word to those photos (even if no one would see the final product thanks to Chris stealing the content) and fun down time when we were hanging at home. Something that often included the local guys and some of our kids playing chess. A game I used to love but didn’t get to participate in myself given how few moments I had where kids weren’t coming to me for different things.
Minus a lot of the kids being bummed that they hadn’t had traditional clothes made for the group picture at our end-of-program celebration, we had a blast. We watched a Bollywood movie, had henna art drawn on by local ladies and were given a great show with lessons of traditional dance that brought down the house. The dancing was especially highlighted by Ahmad’s amazing skills (check out the video in the previous post) and Ishan’s endearingly awkward moves. I had been surprised that none of us had broken our neck on that beautiful but constantly slippery marble floor of our humid home in the clouds and became even more so as it was absolutely soaked from the body heat of everyone getting down. It was my last night with them. The next morning they left for a whirlwind couple days of travel with a brief stop at the Taj Majal and Golden Temple with Jessica and Chris. I stayed left behind in tears of love and goodbye.
It’s been months and I still miss them. How I wish I could watch them grow and hear a hello with an update from time to time. I would never stop telling them how much they mean to me and what a difference they made in healing the scars of my battered heart.

Tibetian Parliment
Some of our teens telling one of the children’s caregivers that they had set up a fundraiser that would pay for the rest of her schooling. 🥰

India – Check out Ahmad dancing in the last video!

We were only together for three weeks but I loved that first group of 18 kids to the point of tearing up the last few nights before they left. I’d go so far as to say that they even made me start to question my preference about not having kids. It probably helped that I seemed to bond with those who would have been the troublemakers, the boys and those who had a more challenging time. Also, I’m sure, because they saw Chris and Jessica as such monsters which made it a lot easier to run to me.
The boy I bonded with the most was a jock who openly admitted to, and even bragged about, not being interested in most people unless he was manipulating them to get something he wanted. Finding it especially curious considering what a strong interest he seemed to have taken in hanging with and confiding in me about what was going on out of eyesight with the other kids, I asked him what he wanted from me. Puzzled for a minute his eventual response was “I don’t know…knowledge?”
Me. The wild and eccentric one who was used to the people in my life all to often telling me that who I was was wrong and that I needed to be different. He really did see me as a mentor. Those kids looked up to me. The adults (minus Chris and Jessica) even seemed to. I was used to living a type of life common to those with similar personalities where my free spirit and way of going about things was frowned upon as irresponsible, unrealistic and needing to change. Those things along with the way I loved were what made these kids and other adults think To them I, what I was doing and what I was all about was amazing. I had waited my entire life for a moment like that.
The young lady I was most proud of in the program was a 15 years old slightly awkward, shy, nervous and anti-social gal who had never been to a foreign country and yet had chosen to go to India for three weeks. Even though proud and impressed, I wasn’t at at all surprised when she started struggling with wanting to go home within the first day or two. During one of our first “working” days with the local kids the two of us stayed back when the rest of our group headed out to those placements and I took her to a place I liked called McLlo Restaurant for lunch. I was determined to remember, relate, look at it through her shoes and be as patient and compassionate as I could (“examples of basic psychological needs are: Belonging, Freedom, Respect and Fun”. As those efforts slowly seemed to make an impact, even if only giving a nudge toward her to find her own way, it felt amazing being able to get through to this smart young lady who so obviously didn’t let people in easily. It also came with an even bigger wow moment when I received a message from headquarters after they relayed a message from her parents that I had probably saved her from leaving. *tear*
There were so many kids I was in awe of. One of the young ladies, absolutely beautiful on the inside and out, hadn’t let her diabetes or having almost died from a mystery health scare within the previous year stop her. Another little lass came from a family of severe situations and mental health challenges that was shocking enough to cause me to struggle to hide a surprised and concerned expression when she confided about it to me and a few of the girls. One of our boys had Aspergers, which caused even more challenging situations for him as it wasn’t disclosed to the other kids. One of the other boys, a sweetheart of a young man, took him under his wing. I’ve never seen such a kind and strong care-giving personality in a fella so young.

All of those kids were so amazingly special and I love, love, loved them within days. Being able to see more of them, both through their records and what they confided in me, gave me a real-life example of how much we really aren’t alone in our struggles and pain. Also how much we really do need each other. One example being how many of the kids had recent suicide attempts. I don’t know if the program had somehow been marketed in a way that made parents think it could be utilized as a therapy program but I definitely found myself surrounded with kids who had much more immediate needs than I (or the company) had been made aware of.
The kids weren’t the only ones who filled my heart. Our local team (which included two twenty year old young men named Ahmad and Lalit) was amazing. Ahmad was an attractive Seek man with beautiful eyes and a shy disposition, though boy could he dance. Lalit was also attractive though had an opposite disposition in that he was outgoing, charismatic and funny. While young, he was already a natural leader and was sharp to pick up a bit on potential problems with the crushes the girls were developing. Ahmad had been more naive to it which sadly lead to his not working with the next group. A casualty of war, I suspect, because of all the hot water the company ended up in thanks to Chris and Jessica. Both boys, though especially Lit (his nickname), were all smiles and added to my own on the daily. Lit was also one hell of a support when the rest of the team came in short. I still smile when thinking of his calling me by the nickname he loved for me: Robbo Robbo.
Another fun aspect was the King of Kangra and his royal family who we were staying with at his home and property. Something I learned had become common was for royal families to use their properties as hotels. He was a jovial old man who loved drinks, women and socializing. Something proven by the servants that were sent on a constant basis to summon us for drinks, often causing me amused frustration as it was done around the kids when we were leading activities. So yeah, I was hangin for cocktail hour (after the kids went to bed) with a king on a normal normal basis. Oh yeah – and he loved my rhinestone cat ears as well as calling me kitty-cat since the first time we met when I had been wearing them.
His close friend Alexandra, a fiery expat from the Netherlands, was often there and we also developed a friendship. I think the strong smell of the Raat Ki Rani flowers that filled the air with the fireflies at night will always remind me of her. Also the impact of her knowing smile and comments about how I had the body of a mother along with comments of “yes you are, look at you!” when I claimed to not be a kid person. Those kind of constant remarks from her had an influence on my next step toward becoming an overseas ESL teacher. I can still hear the way she pronounced the name of those flowers.

India-ing

Chris, and on a lesser note Jessica, had reasoned that it was better for me to stay behind to make and hang banners along with other menial BS while they went to pick up the kids in New Delhi. It was great to have a break from them but also meant missing out on part of the program and getting around to a little more of India than just (the amazing town of) Dharmashala. A little bummed but more relieved for the coveted peace I got during that time, what was even better was having the king’s youngest fur-baby Teddy all to myself. It was then that I made the executive decision that he with his cute overbite was to be our new mascot. All of the king’s Jack Russell’s reminded me of my Layla. Something I was both thankful and saddened by. Oh how I missed her…
It was the middle of the night when they all arrived at Clouds End Villa. Excited and proudly standing there in my EEK! staff shirt, they were too tired to notice me or anything else for that matter. I wasn’t though. Chris walked up those three flights of long stairs of flattened-boulders wearing the hat that he had taken advantage of his position to grab from the swag provided for what I had been under the impression was to be given to the local staff. He had done it right in front of Jessica and I without any shame or asking if we wanted one. Lame but not a big deal if it was a one-off but it was a behavior that had already started to show it’s ugly face as the norm. Flashback to my days in the subprime mortgage industry when my lover-turned-boss had, right in front of me, taken the laptop bag our corporate office had sent me as a reward for the kick-ass job I had been doing. Great leadership skills, huh?
Throughout, and even more so after my experience in India, I remember thinking about how in my twenties everything had seemed to meld together into one big experience. The idea of compartmentalizing was so foreign that I had no idea where to even begin trying. Funny how age and experience take us 180 around so many things, my experience in India being an extreme version of one of them. I knew from the moment Anna told me about EEK! that it was something that could provide the kind of experience that I had been looking for since I had started volunteering in my younger twenties. Even with the hardships the experience did prove to be true. In no small part, I’m sure, because I was too inexperienced to get frustrated and/or pissed at times when others would have. The situations instead just felt strange. When they did feel wrong I often found myself thinking that there must be components I was unaware of or that I was at the bottom of the totem poll and it wasn’t my place to take too much initiative by stepping on toes fix them.
Chris, Jessica and the other not great stuff that presented itself couldn’t hold a candle to how much the good stuff brought to my heart and soul. Dharmashala for sure, I’d love to go back there on a spiritual quest, but being a part of those most foundational years of the kid’s lives was something that has been one the most meaningful experiences I’ve ever had. Well, next to Burning Man. Naturally. )'(
One of the things that did manage to bother me pretty quickly was how the terrible two, especially Chris once again, would pull answers to questions the kids would ask out of their asses. None of us had more than the couple weeks experience in that town. I believed doing so to be irresponsible, arrogant and dangerous. It also triggered my agitated memory of the training Chris and I had been at back in the US where he had told me that there wouldn’t be mosquitoes when I was contemplating if it would be OK to skip my second $300+ Japanese Encephalitis shot. Well there definitely was and I got bit a bunch.
The first day to be way too intense. Poor kids…and poor me. Our local team grew up there and were right on par with billy goats getting around on that mountain terrain. They never looked back to see how the group was doing with keeping up as we made our way around the entire town stopping at the placements where we were going to be working with local kids. Everything was “five minutes” and when asked about difficulty level it was all easy no matter how excessively off the response. Great guys whose friendship I was thankful for but they hadn’t been anywhere to know any better and it was a problem. Personally it wasn’t great for my vertigo, knees or physical ability though I was at least happy to find out a few days later that my struggles and the short breaks to catch my breath that came with had helped those kids having a hard time with the terrain but too embarrassed to say anything. A painful reminder of how humiliating everything seemed to be as a teenager and what hell that age was. The five-millionth reason I’m relieved those years are over and cringe at the idea of reliving them.
Adding to the fun of the trek that actually did make it a great intro to the program was a scavenger hunt where we were to munch on some of the only good food I was to eat while there (Tibetan vegetarian momos = yum) thanks to only one day (but not night) off and there being way too many kiddos under my watch for me to be able to get away with sneaking off for an hour or two. In addition to the placements and scavenger hunt, we also made it to the local and harder to take Kotwali Bazar with all it’s trash, honking horns and hot pavement. Understanding why it would be too much for our kids on that first day, I was confused why the local staff would take us there, especially on that first day, until realizing too late that it had been when the kids were to buy local clothes and take them to a tailor. As was to become the norm with the actions of our local guys as well as Chris and Jessica, I took on a feeling of responsibility though I was proud of the laughs and lessons we turned it into about learning to go with the flow. An important must of travel. Still, having that traditional clothing made was to be such a big and fun part of their experience and it upset me that most of our kids ended up missing out on it. However, what they did get was to see the Dalai Lama and his entourage driving by. I missed it due to hitting my limit and taken a taxi back home just minutes before though I did get to live vicarionsly. Especially through one of the more serious girls who was so excited about his making eye contact and waving directly to her that she came back manically rambling about what had happened before even managing to sit down. Super cute but hard to follow as I was feeling pretty woozy from pushing myself too far past the limit of my physical abilities thanks to the local team’s “easy five minutes” and Chris believing that the well-being of the staff wasn’t his problem (as he told me many times). I was so out of it, in fact, that my head was bobbing as I tried to stay coherent during a Hindi lesson put on by our local guy (who was supposed to be running the local side under Raja but rarely there), Kapil, and had to sneak out to go lay down. I hadn’t thought it necessary to tell Chris since I wasn’t a part of the lesson and had been sitting in the back of the room (he was sitting in the middle of the group) and was too dazed to think about texting him. All things considered, it had seemed less disruptive to sneak out. That was until he showed up to my door so angry that he was shaking. Queue flashbacks of my violent PTSD marine vet brother. Take orders, get violent, don’t ask questions. Peas in a pod.
Back to compartmentalizing and the little things of that fascinating place I was so so happy to be experiencing. No matter how many countries I’ve been to it’s still seems so easy to forget what an impact the little things have. Bugs weren’t scared like in the US and would fly right into our heads, often going straight for the eyes. Locals didn’t turn off their cars when getting petrol, spiders were hand-sized, seat belts were discouraged as a nuisance and metal straws were used in the Illiterati coffee shop we frequented. Reality checks were everywhere. The straws being one of good vibes regarding how we can make an effort to help our environment Rougher ones included the garbage that had been tossed down the beautiful hills and how it sparked thoughts of how, just because we were spoiled by having it taken away by others in our countries, it didn’t stop the reality of landfills. Also how lucky we were to be born in places that were so much more clean and sanitary.While a less than appealing culture in regard to so many ways women were treated, the dazzling smiles of the men and beauty of how affectionate they were to each other put a light on how hard men in the American culture have it in regard to expressing their emotions. We were all both excited and sadden by the street dogs, though I found it interesting to see the difference in perspective between the kids and I as those dogs were in much better shape than what I had seen in other places. Something I was to find out during an outing (that I put a lot of work into making happen) was due to people like my kind of hero: Deb at the Dharamsala Animal Rescue.
Taking it back to Chris and Jessica as it will over the next post or two, yes, there were an over-all horrible experience, but I think it important not to bust out the pitch-forks just yet and to mention that we did manage to have some nice moments before everything turned to shit. When originally finding my way through the New Delhi airport, Chris and I had been texting back and forth with jokes about the bidet guns that I call butt blasters and love so much. His response had been to call them bum guns, ass splashers and pooper pistols. Another little moment I remember fondly was when Jessica, myself and our cook cracked up after staring at each other in confusion when he brought ketchup for French toast instead of the syrup we had asked for. Yeah, it had been super rocky, but have managed to do OK reminding myself that we’re all both heroes and villains depending on when we’re caught. I’m sure I have plenty to own up to that they could point out. Three sides to every story and such. Anyway, I never did luck out in finding much of the hero within either of them, and it was about to get a whole lot uglier, but I did manage to let my love of the kids and the place win. The storm then, though, was-a-brewin and wouldn’t totally hit until after Jessica got out of the hospital due to a bad stomach bug that was to take hold a couple days later. Just you wait…

Entering India

It was finally time to put all that studying for the organization I was about to start working for into action (we’ll call the company EEK! for the Experience & Education the Kids would be getting) though in reality I wouldn’t end up using most of it as the job seemed to require more instinct and experience than book knowledge once there. Either way, it was once again time to hit the road. This time I was to fly out of LAX which meant either a 2 1/2 road road trip or 4 hours of Lyft trips and a train for around $80 all-told. As luck would have it, my mama was due for an overnight visit to check on my grandma’s secret garden in Glendale (an area of Los Angeles) with it’s vibrant red, pink and yellow flowers that smelled of spring and lots of different shades of green plant life to show just how much it had been loved over the years. A visit that provided an opportunity for the cheaper option as well as a warm overnight goodbye and reminder of the roots from which I came.
Hitting the airport after our mamma-daughter breakfast the next day, I grumbled as I made my way toward the China Eastern Airlines counter. Less than two years before I had sworn I would never fly that airline or through China again, though I had already known amidst that internal temper-tantrum (I get it from my daddy) even back then that my budget may prove otherwise.
Pleasantly surprised once in route, the two flights and one long layover didn’t end up being as bad as I had feared. I didn’t know it then but the rough stuff was apparently being saved up for the ride back a couple months later.
Arriving in New Delhi a couple of days later exhausted, disoriented and jet-lagged, there was one more puddle-jumper to Kangra that I would be taking with the other mentor I was about to start working with. Recalling my mention from the last post about already seeing flags regarding the director I was to be working with, I instantly saw the beginning of her own set the moment I walked up. An American expat living in Mexico, she seemed a little off: manic, immature and drunk. All of which I hoped was due to the large amount of travel we had been doing, lack of sleep and her having been drinking for hours, I was guessed, based on the copious amount of wine radiating from her pores that and that almost double knocked me out every time she opened her mouth. I like having drinks just as much as the next gal but I don’t think I’d ever want to show up drunk and smelling like booze when meeting a new colleague. Especially when we were going to be taking care of a bunch of teenagers in India together. Just saying.
Trying to make light of the warning signs and, in the spirit of bonding, we stopped to grab some Indian whiskey along the beautifully expansive and cloud-filled (though carsick-triggering) mountain views on the tiny Himalayan road that was taking us via a taxi that had been sent to pick us up. Clouds End Villa, our home for the next six weeks and a highlight of my time there (minus the always moldy everything), was a royal estate-turned-hotel. Something we were to find out out had become a normal source of income among royal properties in India.
I originally thought our boozy purchase would be used for an initial celebration only (I already sure knew we all liked to drink) but would soon regret it as Chris (no last names), our local director, and Jessica were to drink all day every day, pressuribg me to do so as well, while we were in “training” with his excuse being that we needed to get it out of our systems before the kids got there. A flimsy validation that I knew was a load of BS and made me worry about the potential problems in relation to how it was going to affect the program. Dun, dun, dun…

Besides alcohol seeming to fuel Jessica’s tendency to lecture me, it turned out to be the least of my problems during that first week as they both (especially Chris) cut off and shut down just about everything I tried to contribute. Making it even more miserable, they would expect me to participate in random breaks for stupid shit like watching unrelated YouTube videos that I didn’t find funny, held all training in Jessica and my shared room (though she had taken to sleeping with Chris by the second night) while Jess chain-smoked (I admit to participating when boozing) and both had a tendency to peacock about how much they had done, seen and how great they were. In reaction, I tried to stay humble and supportive (in opposition to my occasionaly defensive posturing when being shut down), but they took it as agitating weakness and an insecurity (their favorite word to throw at me) of mine that triggered them to act even nastier to me.
Fueling to it further was my habit to second-guess myself. A behavior based on that failed attempt to stay humble and open-minded due to lack of experience. While they did try at first, Chris longer than Jess, the seeds of contempt, disrespect and bullying had been starting to grow since day one and were to eventually consume them to the point of being one of the reasons they were sent packing a few weeks later. Thank God I grew up learning how to cope with bullying and had learned to find the strength to get through it.
The first group of kids hadn’t even gotten there and I was already questioning if I had been all wrong about the company, my fit within and if I was failing before I began. Still, the enchantment of Darmasala, that small pradesh in the clouds that was literally built into the side of a mountain, and what I would be doing with our teens brought enough magic to keep my hope alive. Even though it’s hills and stairs were already kicking my bad knees and out-of-shape ass.
Chris couldn’t have given two shits about my well-being when pushing us to walk our way around the entire town to check out the things we would be doing. When I protested in part because of the above problems, he went so far as to make defensive comments about how it wasn’t his responsibility and insisted that I had to pay for any taxis that I ended up taking when I couldn’t handle any more.
It just didn’t match up. How could I be so upside-down about what EEK! was all about and how they ran things? Or maybe it was just these two. The jury was out and I wasn’t anywhere near ready to close the case.
Walking around town on that trial run to the spots where we were going to place our teens was a lot of fun regardless of how much those hills and stairs sent me spinning. The balwadis (Indian daycares), some that were little more than deteriorating closet-sized shacks by American standards, excited my imagination with thoughts of how our kids would be impacted by teaching and playing with the local littles while also beautifying which locations they could. The structures provided one of a kind reality checks that can only be experienced through being there, regardless of how many times hearing about it, and I was finally doing just that. Us Westerners expect as much from India but even pictures still don’t stop that initial shock, regardless of how much we know it’s coming. In contrast to dilapidation and financial poverty being the first details to make an impact (and remembering that not to be anywhere near all that makes the culture what it is), beauty in ways such as when we walked through the tea gardens is what stuck out and proved how resplendent the peace and grace of nature can be, even in the form of farming. Also the Norbulingka Institute, which gave us our first real touch into the magnificense of the Tibetan culture both literally and figuratively. Within its alluring buildings visitors can watch Tibetans hand-craft art pieces, paint and more. It was not only an experience that made me appreciate the handcrafting of art to a level I hadn’t in the past but also to form a deeper respect of the culture within. That particular institute was making a conscious effort to keep Tibetan tradition, cultures and family values alive while also supporting education and employment; something not particularly easy for refugees. Venturing on, we might not have known it then, but hitting McLeod Ganj market was to give us the grand finale of our scouting when presenting what was to be the kid’s favorite spot to hang as well as where I would find some reprieve from the mostly disgusting and repetitive food the program was to provide (thanks to be what is speculated to be some of the funds aloted for better quality being pocketed by the local lead mentioned below) when chowing down on pizza and enjoying time to write on my one (until dinner) day off.
Labooze was a restaurant that turned into a loud and obnoxious club (not my thing) full of strobe lights in the evening with the odd twist of babies and families getting down who had stayed after that transition. It was where we met with the man, Raja, who was the head of the team we partnered with. An odd place to match the odd experience of him resentfully telling us how he was over working with EEK! and was stepping out after our program ended. Another thing that added to the flags piling up that I had lost track of.
There was so much wonderful with the place, connections and kids to come but if I had only known the full extent of the challenges those first few not so great experiences were foreshadowing, maybe I still would have ran like the roadrunner. Maybe but I’m not a quitter so maybe not. Either way, thank God I didn’t. At least for the kid’s sake…

Living Like a Traveler at Home – Mucho Video & Picture Edition

Finally home and falling right back into the category of “no rest for the wicked” , I flew into San Francisco and went straight back to putting in a couple hours behind the wheel Lyfting on my way to the casa of Aaron and Brigit, my burner pals, (and a second home of sorts for me) in the Santa Cruz Mountains. San Diego would have to wait, though the excitment of finally being able to check out the idea I’d had for years of flying back and forth every week or two did help to fight off too much homesickness. A new goal achieved that almost instantly proved too exhausting and expensive to keep up with once at it.

Between driving for rideshare and studying for the work I was to do with teens in India over the summer, I didn’t have much free time. Even so, Brigit, Aaron and I managed to find some fun to get into during the small windows I managed to carve out while there. Pedicures, our coveted hottub coctail hour of skinny-dipping under the stars, St. Patty’s Day, a dinner party, my favorite Felton log cabbin bar and Pedelyte to help recover from it all.

Once back in San Diego, I was excited to move into the new place I had found for (what ended up only being) the next month at home in OB. A spot that would end up costing me $450 more than I had budgeted, half-week’s pay (ouch), but worth it in order to avoid the confusion of figuring out an unstable daily back and forth amount. The roomie was also super flexible and chill which was appreciated. Plus she had doggos for me to love on.

Still forever trying to catch up with my writing, I was back in full school mode while still studying for my new gig. Visiting my favorite cafes along with dog and housesitting helped to get some quiet time for those things but my social and family life, along with catching up with that beach town that I loved so much, still (poor me) consumed an ansorbinant amount of my time.
So did falling in love.
Stephane and I were magic. We both swept each other off our feet to a place that brought old black-and-white romance movies to colorful and vibrant life. Our kind of chemistry put those around us in a whimspical state of euphoria. Minus the subpar sex life (but at least he tried), it was as close to perfect as I’d ever had. He not only admired me, the lifestyle I was leading and my dreams/goals but also supported them. He was also just as busy with his multiple companies, tennis and properties as I was with my stuff, which meant that we didn’t have the constant issues I’d in the past of lovers suffocating me.
So yeah. I went from the person who never falls in love to a level teenage girls dream of.
As mentioned, I was exhausted from the commute back and forth between San Diego and San Francisco within a couple trips. I’d imagine that to be, in large part, because of lack of routine and needing to figure out last minute when it made sense to go. A detail that made travel expenses jump from an expected $200 to double that per tri0. Ouch x 2. To triple it, I found out that I needed $1,000 in vaccines that the company I was to be working for would not cover. At least if I wanted to follow the reccommendations of the main immunization and travel clinic of San Francisco. Something my new regional director, concentually, hinted at me to not get in order to avoid overhead. Direction that still bothers me two months later. I’m 40 years old and don’t know my tits from my ass in regard to diseases in India and which vaccines to get in order to protect myself. Sorry dude but I’m trusting the professionals. Extra cash to buy another sari or two ain’t worth risking my health. And I know you mean well but I resent defending high overhead by reccommending otherwise.

Flying back to the old SDizzle again, I headed directly to my homie Bradley’s boat to hang with him and his girlfriend (who so happens to be one of my favorite gals) Juliette. It was fun watching the rideshare driver be surprised at how close it was (the airport is along the water downtown) and that there was a large sailboat pulling up to get me. Score for putting a smile on a random person’s face. Daily goal met.
Back to the Bay once again (head spinning yet?) where I managed to catch a comedy show by one of my favorite comedians (Kathleen Madigan) in Napa and then SD again, Big Red took me out for a Brothel & Bar history crawl in the Gaslamp quarter. I also got the chance to hang for one of Nikki & Brent’s son’s birthday parties and cheer Nik on for a thriathalon she rocked. Something she was to do a repeat performance of a couple weeks later. Kick-ass crazy woman.

Somewhere in there it was May. The month of my parent’s and sister’s birthdays as well as the anniversary of when I had lost my fur-baby in 2015 and four people the year before. Relieved that the losses (that will probably forever haunt me) didn’t take over the celebration, we had a great time at the pool at Harrah’s Resort & Cassino, starting with just Wendy and I so we could get our grown-up time in (AKA: coctails) and then were joined by our parents and my niece’s a few hours later.
One of my weeks in So Cal was consumed completely by an intensive WAFA (Wilderness and First Aid) certification course. It was the first time I met the man who was to become my local director and he instaintly rubbed me wrong. My instincts had me on alert but I told myself that it may just be because I had an aversion to Marines (he was a vet). Reasoning that, based on past experience, I would be able to be tolerant, compassionate and professional regardless of what was to come, I also tried to tell myself that polar-opposites have different strengths to offer which can create a kick-ass team as a whole.
Another flag was how obvious it was when he talked about the other mentor that he, at the very least, had a big crush from when they had crossed paths the summer before. I wouldn’t have been all that surprised to even find out they had even already danced the horizontal hokie pokie, minus the details that he was physically unattractive and socially awkward by traditional standards.
I hoped for the best and even reached out to give him rides along with going out to an awkward dinner with him and one more colleague for the sake of team building. What could I do? I tried and I tried and I tried but holy shit did it turn out to be worse than I ever expected. Just wait until that blog post of horror comes out…
Things with Stephane and I were ramping up. He and two of his closest friends headed down from Orange County (where they lived) to go with me to Brent’s birthday a week or two before leaving for India. A ton of my closest friends from our twenties and also my family (as far as he knew) were going to be there.Thank God they (my family) pulled out thanks to my mother being uptight about his being separated as opposed to divorced and sister not wanting to go after I got upset about her bringing Sean into my safety circle.
Drinking champagne before heading over, one of Stephane’s friends raved about how good we were together and what a good guy he was. A good time and good vibes that were to continue until a couple hours into the party. Drinks kept flowing, friends were made and the laughter amped up. Somewhere soon after, my world crumbled. As the minds of most women work, at least in my experience, I don’t just shrug and let it go if something seems to have even a little stink of fishiness. Instead, walls stay at least a little up while I bide my time, keeping myself in a “we’ll see” mode.
I had been in that “we’ll see” mode about the details of his separation since first finding out about it. His daughter, being an Olympic-hopeful for volleyball (according to him) and the kind of man he was, I could see how he could still be supporting his supposedly-separated-wife as she played manager to their daughter, but also knew that I was giving significant trust and was taking a big risk.
Stephane, once drunk at the party, said something that put me on alert at a time when I saw the door open to get a more honest answer. So I asked straight out in that moment of seeing an opportunity to finally get the whole story. And he responded.
Yes, he was still married.
Instaintly breaking down in alcohol-fueled tears, I refused to let him say anything more as I demanded he gather his friends and leave. Juliette showed up soon after, unknowing to what had happened, but was the one to sweep me off the floor, even without the details. Most of those people who used to be my closest friends didn’t even check on me as it happened to see if I was OK, let alone send me a text the day after. Another harsh reminder about what happens when not around to nurture relationships. C’est la vie.
Wendy had been through a lot with the type of guys she had dated and surrounded herself with. It had hardened her to men and made her defensive toward any sign of risk. Sister-syndrome likely making it worse, she had been against Stephane and my putting myself out on such a long limb since the beginning. With a question the day after the big reveal that was so obviously leading toward the opposite answer, she asked me if I regretted it. No. I did not. I would risk myself over and over again for something so wonderful. Even if only for a moment and even if not totally real. Sometimes, in a world that can be so cruel, it can be easy to forget that the best and most beautiful things are just as big abd worth it all. The look on her face made me think that maybe I had reminded her of that. And that started the strings of my heart to already start pulling back together again.

My mind has always shut out the most traumatic experiences for a few months before having enough distance to process. It gave me those last couple weeks to hang in OB with loved ones (including the mermaid who was up for a few sweet weeks), hiking in La Jolla, cheering Wendy on with billboards I had made of her face while she ran the Rock and Roll Marathon, dinner at Cafe Sevilla with Big Red that was followed by salsa lessons (in which Mom and Kate joined us later), wine tasting and a very satisfying afternoon of organizing my storage unit. The closest thing I had to a stable and constant space of my own, it gave me a great sense of peace and getting my affairs sorted right before leaving again. Even more, when my heart needed sorting as well.
That was it. Once again, it was time for this free Robin to fly.


Puerto Viejo – The Rest of My Time in Costa Rica

Saying a temporary goodbye to that sweet new litter of kittens in the quaint, royal blue hostel I was unexpectedly to call home over the next couple of weeks, I walked around the small town of vibrant nights and quiet mornings with sweat already dripping from my brow, surprised that so few places were still closed after 8 AM. Life of Pura Vida I suppose.
Finally finding a spot for breakfast on that, my first morning in Puerto Viejo, I was shocked when seeing prices on restaurant menus displaying California-level prices along the streets of Rastafarian vibes there at the ocean. Seeing the pricing trend continue the next day when grocery shopping, I was hit with the rude awakening that Costa Rica had become more on par with the expenses of home than the low cost of most of Central and South Americian countries. Lord knows why it hadn’t dawned on me before that things may have changed from the days of stoked-surfer comments about low cost had been what must had come no less than ten years before.
The reggae vibe brought over from the Carribbean people who had stayed in Puerto Viejo after building a railroad added an extra flavor to mix the two cultures. In addition to that, what I also loved was how many of the men I found physically attractive and how many of them also seemed to feel the same about me. Even down to my thick thighs; an area of my body I was used to being less than favorable in the US. What wasn’t so great was the first guy hitting on me, a thin but muscular Latin man with bright green eyes, going for one of my pet-peeves when giving me the back-handed compliment of telling me how most people say Americans are assholes but I’m cool. Uh…thanks?

There was an upsetting amount of cleaning that first day of “volunteering” in the two-story hostel and it was to continue every day. Also an infuriating moment when Hector, the hostel owner, came down on me for getting two check-ins with the same name mixed up. It was my first day with next to no training and I had been brought in under false pretenses. Dock it from my pay, dude.
I was also grouchy at the lack of bathroom butt blasters and instead, only super thin TP that couldn’t even be flushed down the toilet. Oh how I missed Thailand in those moments. Now, months later, I wonder why it hadn’t dawned on me to buy my own. *Scratching head*
The whole experience gave me a newfound respect and love for our protection in the US in regard to being exploited. Still, I liked Hector and even more so his tico (local) wife, Mary. It also became apparent by the end of my time there that their ethics when expecting next to free labor was not so likely a sign of who they were but more about falling into the “everyone’s doing it” category of their culture. Something I’m sure I’m ignorantly obliviously to in my own as well.
Mary, calm and cute with her long dark hair and one of the purest smiles I have ever seen, had an exciting history. The stories of who she was along with the way she thought and the life choices she had made showed her to be a kindred spirit among the crowd. A native Costa Rican, one would never have guessed she had so much worldly and career experience and had chosen that over being taken care of by men who adored her. Her laid back and humble way of living Pura Vida was an inspiration to show how we can have it all, as was her character that shown bright in moments such as when seeing me biking down the tropical streets full of tall lush green on both sides, whether from a car or a bar, and she was quick to call out a hello with that big smile and a wave or an invitation to join her and Hector. She was also quick to give reccommendations of places to go of which I was soon to follow.
It wasn’t the first time in another country, nor would I imagine it to be the last, before I quickly started being told that I talk too fast. Something I’ve noticed in Big Red (sister/Wendy) and I for years and have always been curious about given that our parents don’t and that we were raised in a multi-cultural place with many languages. If anything, I’d think that would create an environment that would teach us to talk slower. Or at least cling onto other Americans who can understand us better like a girl from Pacific Beach that checked into the hostel, the beach neighborhood right next to my own at home is San Diego, but nope. Most of the time I run from other Americans when travel. In fact, ans oddly enough, most of the friends I’ve been making the last couple of years have been French.

Sitting on the beach and staring out at a large, half-sunken sailboat during sunsets, I reflected new thoughts and revelations about all the things that were happening. How I enjoyed souvenir shopping for the first time, that I was getting to the next step in being ready to focus more on other areas in my travels beyond just beach location (good thing India was next on the list) and that I was at the end of my rope as far as traveling as a backpacker with no money. Also that I was ready to start taking tours at the beginning of my travels to show me more of the countries I go to before planting in one area. Still my preference but it was time to start focusing on getting around.
I love the things I learn about the communities and cultures I visit, not to mention the chance to establish relationships when staying long enough to make it happen. For instance, people would just leave their cars running, volcanic black sand is magnetic and the interesting fuachia fruit with it’s tentacles meant to be peeled before eating looked and tasted like lychee but was actually a fruit by the name of rambutan. While Puerto Rico was still in the lead for Mojitos, hanging at a chill beach bar while enjoying a two for one deal as I overlooked that same sunken ship from a different angle and listened to a Rastafari man selling souvaneers (as well as weed as announced by his larger-than-life shoutouts with the Alto voice of an opera singer) was pretty high up there.
My favorite experience while there had to be going to the Jaguar Rescue Center(please donate). A small and locally owned animal sanctuary that took in injured animals and set them free after nursing them back to health. Sorry to disappoint but there weren’t any actual jaguars there. The name had come from an injured cat that had been brought to the founders for help but had died due to their lack of knowledge. That loss was their inspiration for more education, resources and the small sanctuary. So cool.

A version of my heaven, there were animals roaming around everywhere amongst the green trees and accompanying small bodies of water. Monkeys and sloths with their babies, owels, crockodiles, other kinds of exotic cats and even a one year old color peccary by the name of Gentida that just strolled along with us for a bit. For once I was actually able to pay attention to the guide (hello ADD) and learn cool stuff. Did you know that howler monkeys are the loudest animal in the world? Or that they have been used for sounds in movies such as dinosaurs in the original Jurassic Park and dragons in GOT? Neither did I. What about how the holes in a sloth’s coats are meant to collect algae in order to turn them green and make them smell like the forrest for cammoflogue. Also that sloth moths lay eggs in their coats which allow larva to climb in and out, also helping them to cammoflogue. One more cool little tidbit was that their coat grows down so rain can run off since their body doesn’t produce enough energy to regulate temperature. A side effect from all the leaves they eat all day only providing around 800 calories. Also makes sense why they’re so slow. No calories = no energy. !Muy interesante!
Given the old and worn out rental bikes from the hostel “voluteers” were allowed to use for free, it never took long for something to go wrong. Case-in-point, a chain coming off or my yoni going numb after the first half an hour of riding. That combined with a daily work shift after the preserve meant that I didn’t make it to the twice as far Manzanillo beach as I had originally hoped to do after the rescue. What I did manage was to enjoy the more chill beach across from the preserve and another day later at that farther beach. A ride that would have killed me had that old rickety bike betrayed me on the longest and most intimidating of the downward slopes. Managing to survive that, I met a laid back local tico surfer dude with a cute little hut on the beach on my ride back. His chill energy was a relaxing change after all the hot but aggressive guys constantly hitting on all of us ladies. Especially considering that we were going out every night dancing until 3 AM to wherever lady’s night was going down. The only thing that was going on at night, really, given what a small town it was. My little Brazillian pal Andressa’s joke about those nights was how the bars were herding all of us ladies in to get us drunk before the guys pounce. Especially comedically ironic when we were out for Women’s Day.

In all honesty, I probably would have been a bit more naughty if the guys had chilled out. Well, and if it wasn’t such a small town for gossip to spread. Instead, I ended up in a brief backpacker-style fling with that guy I had met on my way home (who had mentioned noticing me in town before that, BTW) after one fun and impromptu double-date night (of sorts) with a lovely British bloke I met at a bar and two of the new French pals I had made at our casa as we sat around a rickety umbrella table in the yard while getting bit by fire ants.
The fling with the tico was sweet and romantic though the grand finale more that of comedy when it included getting devoured by Purrujas (sand gnats) while laying on the beach under a palm tree as we watched the sunset. Bites, mind you, that don’t show with their insane itchyness until the next day. After the yet-to-be-known bites that night, I was also faced with a long bike ride home though the jungle with my headlamp going dead and then becoming spastically nervous that an animal was going to get me. Wouldn’t be me if there wasn’t a factor of hot mess, now would it.
Spending time with my temporary sweetheart, the Latin side of the culture and the similarities in beaches made me feel at times like I was in Mexico. That was until the reality of how expensive it was slapped me in the face again. Something that made me chuckle with thoughts about how I may have to start living on dates in order to eat. Like most travel, and I suppose most of life, I could be lonely at times, even despite the amazing romances and pals, but travel moments such as those was a big part of what was giving my life meaning, good moments and bad.
Other random moments of contemplation seem to pop up at the most unexpected times. Say when plans to go out to get some coveted free mojitos for lady’s night turned into staying in, sitting in the dark and listening to the rain while hanging with the kittens (thanks to friends crashing out once a bad storm had hit and I had run a wee bit too tardy for the party). The things that become clear during those moments are fascinating. In that particular instance, that I don’t always enjoy what I’m doing in my travels but I need them. Learning, loving, adventure, growing and turning dreams into reality. Especially because I didn’t do it at the younger age of most, even though my dreams had never changed (much) and I had wanted it even back then.
As is such with the irony of life, one of the things that seemed to create the most growth had been working through rough stuff like wanting to leave so bad after Envision and then almost crying in thankful relief for getting past it and staying. Real travel ain’t for the faint of heart. Another revelation that had been creeping up was the thought (and hope) that it was time to move on into more moments of rest, relaxation and experiences purely about enjoying myself during my travels. Also that I couldn’t believe how much I was starting to crave being around people my own age. A need for diversity probably also played a large roll in that one given that there weren’t too many of my age-related peers around.
Finally time to leave, I wondered why I had bothered to wash anything given how it all smelled like travel/mold. Something that was becoming a constant in the humid places I was visiting. Once having traveled back to San Jose with one of my new pals who was to room with me, I said no to a last night out as I was exhausted and the devistation of leaving Puerto Viejo had set in. A sadness that didn’t start to fade until getting on the plane the next day in my yoga clothes, socks, earbuds and had my charger hooked up below the TV on the seat in front of me.
Managing to enjoy the two meals served between attempts at snoozing (adding to my weirdo = I like airplane food), I began to feel relaxed and like way more of a pro with the last thought before finally dozing off being about how my bag had been so fucking heavy but I had used every single thing in it.
As I settled in, wrapped up in a blanket in that row I had lucked out in getting to myself, the sadness had all but completely faded as the next adventure took hold. I was on my way home to get ready for India.



Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica – Finally a Favorite

With 5% battery left on my phone, it was surprising how relaxed I was given that I hadn’t realized during the 6+ hour bus ride to Puerto Viejo that I didn’t know where I was going upon arrival. A bit of a “whoopsie” moment though it turned out to be nice as I quickly found my smile during that extra time sitting there once pulling into town and waiting at the Rasta-themed bar/bus station next to the ocean. Soaking in the sounds of the surrounding palm trees rustling in the light breeze and taking in the smell of the blue water a few feet from me, I reveled in the sunshine of about 80° with mild humidity and knew as soon as I had taken note of all the stray dogs who not only looked as if in impressive health but also as if smiling that I had found my kind of place.
It was a nice couple hours though I was ready to leave once finally reaching one of the hostel owners where I was to be volunteering via a traveler networking website called Workaway. Fifteen minutes later, with my phone at 1%, a sweetheart of a man from Spain, on the smaller side and with a head full of black hair that reminded me of the slightly longer styles surfers wore back home, drove up flashing a dazzling smile and charming wide-eyed expression. A feature that I was to quickly find out always made it seem as though he was excited and paying attention, though the reality was that a lot of the time he was more caught up in his own intensity and thoughts. I instantly liked Hector and soon would also his darling and much more laid back (though worldly and experienced) tico wife, Mary.

Sadly, what happened from there in regard to the “volunteering” I was to do was upsettingly opposite of that first impression. As Hector gave me a quick rundown of what was expected of me, it became apparent that they had no interest in honoring the terms I came under in regard to food being provided and volunteering expectations set to be five hours a day, five days a week. Instead they expected six days a week, often for six hour shifts, and no food. Even worse, they had no interest in at at least meeting halfway when I pointed it out. I was instead told that they needed me to be happy and that if I wasn’t, they “understood” if I needed to move on. AKA: smile and take it or get out. No lube provided.
An unintentionally insulting comment from Hector about how there were plenty of volunteers who wanted the work was a lovely touch, as was the convenient ignoring of my comments about how I had already structured the rest of my trip around staying at that hostel and, as such, had already invested the time and money to get there, but did unfortunately prove to be true. Something I was quick to learn after asking around to other “volunteers” whose responses opened my eyes to how it really did seem to be a part of the lifestyle of how some backpackers traveled. Strange to find out given that the cost of a bed for the night was less than I’d make in an hour back home.
I did debate leaving. I had even gone to check out another cool-looking treehouse hostel down the street by the name of the Blue Butterfly Hotel with my tail between my legs. My bigger-picture goal of cultural immersion and to give back to the local community had been shattered. Reality at Kinkaju (and other hostels using free traveler labor) was that I was not only being taken advantage of but also taking much-needed work away from locals. Harsh reality check of my ignorance. Whoopsie.
I did end up staying there after all. The reasons being, besides the details I had mentioned to Hector above, that there was a new litter of kittens that had been born two weeks before. No surprise and nothing new that I’m a sucker for fur-babies. The second reason was friends I made starting with a wonderful French woman named Alexandra who was staying as a paying guest. Telling her I’d at least hang on as long as she was there, we soon made friends with many other Frenchies who randomly came to stay as well. I also bonded with a sweet little Brazilian chica named Andressa who was to come on as another volunteer a few days later to replace an Argentinian woman named Kinga whose hair was long and interestingly almost fully grey on top at 32 years old. A drawer and artist, on her last night we had the kind of refreshing chat over a bottle of wine (that is arguably my favorite part of travel) about the challenges in life of being an artist and traveler. Also about how she was supposed to leave a couple weeks earlier but aslo hadn’t wanted to take off on the mama kitty, Kinka, before the kittens were born and settled. Cute.
Reality from that point was that I just got comfortable.
Stepping back to that first day of my arrival, I had been exhausted and deliriously thankful when Hector had told me to take it easy before starting work the next day. A time I happily used to get out an (forever behind) blog post and to try to get a grip on groggy moments of sleep-deprived silliness such as momentary panic over incorrectly thinking I had lost all my makeup and sunscreen. A level of disorientation that made even more sense the morning after, as I had experienced a few of the strange episodes (focal seizures, anxiety attacks…who really knows what they are) in my sleep that always made me pretty fuzzy-brained the day before. An uncommon addition to those episodes was nightmares that included my dad taking over when I was trying to drive a motorhome and my sister taking the food I was trying to eat. Sister syndrome!
It wasn’t ideal but it was real. I was learning. And finally at a spot I could settle into for the next couple weeks. A time when I was to dance more, both metaphorically and physically, than I had in years. Especially after one of those happy stray pup’s crawled right up into my lap.