It’s been a month since Joel and I arrived in Colombia.
Perhaps you may be wondering, “What is this yoga-doing, shirt-making, mandala-drawing human being doing in South America?”
The short answer: Gaining new experiences… Exploring new perspectives… & Challenging myself to create a life that lets my soul sing.
The long answer: ……..
Part I: The Travel Bug Unleashed
When I first met Joel, during one of our getting-to-know-eachother convos, I asked something like, “What is one thing you want to do before you die?”
Without hesitation, he answered, “I want to travel the world.”
This caused my ears to perk and my stomach to flutter. At last, a fellow adventurer!
I’d discovered my own travel bug before turning 20, while at Eckerd College where they pride themselves on their study abroad programs. My first time overseas was a semester in London, where we studied British Literature, Art History, and Theatre… while spending too much money on 7-pound falafel sandwiches (“pounds” meaning british currency…not the weight of the sandwich.) And the travel bug was officially unleashed… by the next semester I was on a NOLS trip in New Zealand; followed shortly after by a service trip to Honduras; a research project in Malaysia; another service trip to Thailand and Cambodia; a summer in Guatemala amongst the Mayan ruins; and after college, my longest excursion yet– a year of teaching English in China.
There’s a piece of me that requires adventure. In past relationships, the idea of settling down with a life-long career, a mortgage, and (eep!) babies, pushed me away. Now, here was this new love, with the promise of future adventures, of living unconventionally, of exploring the depths of human experience.
I have to admit, my second gut-reaction to Joel’s plan of “traveling the world from the tip of South America going all the way around the world until getting to South Africa” was a feeling of, “Sure, sounds great… once I get the rest of my life figured out.”
My back-to-back experiences of traveling brought me home to Maryland with the desire to be grounded for awhile. While living at home with my parents, I started crafting the details behind ShockT Designs… learning from scratch what I could about business, clothing manufacturing, screen printing, websites, etc. (The idea for ShockT came from a personal practice I started in China, where I would draw on tshirts with Sharpies as a sort of therapeutic release, an unusual way of picture-journaling and meditating. …In other words, ShockT came from a seed of creativity rather than a well-thought-out business plan from someone trained in entrepreneurship and/or fashion design.) It’s taken me about 5 years to get to a place where most small-business owners would be after a year or two.
So, the idea of leaving my business behind and running off to have different adventures sounded impossible. Irresponsible. Confusing. Life-altering. And… interesting.
Perhaps I am being naive. Perhaps I suffer from “shiny-object syndrome.” Perhaps I’m making a mistake. But I can’t ignore the tug at my heart, the nudging at my spirit, to try something unexpected.
Discussions about travel plans between Joel and I came to the forefront over the past 6 months. A word to sum up my attitude: indecision. I’m someone who likes to look for “signs from the universe” …or, if you’ve ever read the book The Alchemist, for “omens.” (Side note: I think “signs” and “omens” pop out at us because our subconscious mind recognizes them based on our deepest, truest desires.) And so it began. Songs on the radio, inspirational quotes on Facebook, wisdom nuggets from books… everything seemed to be saying, “How could you NOT go?!” I was fired up by a quote from Hellen Keller, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.” I burst into tears while driving, listening to the lyrics from Mumford & Sons’ song The Cave: “So come out of your cave walking on your hands; And see the world hanging upside down; You can understand dependence; when you know the maker’s land.” Something inside me was calling out for some serious perspective-flipping.
As it goes with “following your gut” or “listening to your heart,” sometimes you know what to do before you can explain why you want to do it. I’d decided I was going. Now the challenge was verbalizing WHY I was going (because it helps to have reasons to give to friends, family, and not to mention yourself, when you leave the country for an indefinite period of time.)
I’m not a big fan of the phrase, “Finding Yourself.” I like better the idea of “Creating Yourself.” I like to think I’m on a spiritual journey, seeking out experiences that can shape who I am and who I want to become. Stepping away from the comforts and routines of life at home, I can more easily confront what’s inside me– recognizing where I have room for growth, nurturing the traits I want to cultivate, and giving attention to the practices that lift me up (i.e., yoga, art, writing, meditation.) Travel is a way of cleaning the slate. A way of shaking up the foundation so it may be rebuilt… sturdier this time.
Not long ago I wondered if I’d find the time or the resources to travel again before starting a family. (Funny how we have fears of things that are so far from the present moment.) “Fear is one of the greatest enemies of creativity,” I read today in a Jack Kornfield book. And before I’d decided to make travel a reality, I was lodged in a whirlwind of self-doubt. Little problems that needed solving (see my post here about preparing for the trip) felt like huge obstacles outside of my potential. One thing I love about Joel is his ability to look at life as a game to be played. He never seems to be overwhelmed by the usual stresses of daily life. Things just roll off his back, and nothing is impossible to him. Following his example, and with plenty of pep-talks, he’s helped me recognize where my inner-critic is out of line, and has helped me realize the power of shifting my mindset into one that focuses on goals rather than fears. Once a goal is realized, start moving toward it. Start solving the problems, one by one. Have patience. Have faith. Live in your power. That’s when the miracles unfold.
Part II: “WorkAway” & The Mushroom Farm
Now, here I am, in Colombia, South America… learning how to manage a business from abroad while earning my keep of food and shelter through volunteer work.
And I must say, it is a miracle that I’m here, considering all the uncertainty with which I struggled before departing. If I’d known those obstacles were ahead of me, perhaps I would have turned back. But, that’s the beauty of living in the present moment. There’s nothing happening right now that you can’t deal with.
In case you were wondering, I didn’t save up buckets of money in order to make this travel happen. (In fact, I did a pretty good job at spending money this past summer while I was touring around the USA promoting ShockT Designs.)
No, this approach to traveling is different than any I’ve done in the past.
A few years ago, my little brother spent some time making his way around the USA by WWOOFing (“World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms”) — an organization that links you up with farms that provide room and board in exchange for your volunteering. This seemed like the best option for Joel and I. But once we paid for a membership to receive the list of farms, we realized… that’s all you receive. There were no reviews from other volunteers, or pictures, or anything to give you a feel of what you’re getting yourself into. Between Joel and I, our Spanish skills can hopefully get us past the airport; but being on an only-Spanish-speaking farm might prove less successful. Also, if we wanted to consider visiting a different country than Colombia, we’d have to pay again for a separate list of farms. The WWOOFing possibility left much to be desired.
But as it goes with destiny, things have a way of falling into place. A cousin of mine is a faculty member atNaropa University–a Buddhist-philosophy-based school in Bolder, CO. The unconventionality of the school is a magnet for people who have led unconventional lives, and one of these people happened to share with my cousin his experiences with “Work Away.” This 24-year-old guy had just spent the past 4-5 years traveling the world by using this website. My cousin called me right away to tell me about it… and the puzzle piece fit right in.
WorkAway.info is a platform much like CouchSurfing. It’s a place where “hosts” and “volunteers” can find each other, showcasing profiles with reviews and other pertinent details like, “Yes, we have internet access,” “No, we do not smoke” or “Yes, we speak English.”
Most of the hosts you find are hostels; many are families seeking language tutors for kids; and some are farms. I’d been attracted to WWOOFing because I saw it as a chance to step outside my comfort zone, learning skills lending themselves to sustainable living, working with the land, and using my body instead of my computer to get work accomplished. So, in searching for hosts, the “organic mushroom farm” caught my eye. Organic, check. Farm, check. Mushrooms… Yeah, why not?! (A chuckle at the thought of these being the “magic” kind of mushrooms.)
While still in Florida, we Skyped with the host after exchanging a few messages through the WorkAway site. He spoke perfect English, with a Dutch accent. Obviously he had internet that worked well enough to allow for Skyping, which was a good sign. He was laid-back– literally, lounging in an arm charm, but also with his promise of letting us choose what projects to complete for him based on our interests and skills. We were set to fly into Colombia on September 15th; he told us to enjoy the city until the 21st, then we could take the 7-hour bus ride from Medellin to Laguneta… tell the driver to drop us off in front of the little elementary school along the road in front of the farm… and come up the long driveway to the farm/ his home.
And we did just that. (And with only a little concern that the bus driver had no idea what we were trying to explain when we asked to be dropped off before the final destination.)
The farm is perched on a hillside that overlooks sprawling views of rural Colombia scenery– lush, green jungle sprawling on mountainsides; hills speckled with lines of tomato, coffee, or banana trees,
Turns out, the mushrooms grown on the farm are “white buttons.” (Not magic, but good enough.) And ironically Joel and I are doing very little with the production of said mushrooms. The farm has been in operation for 30 years, and has full-time employees, from before dawn til late in the night, and some even on Sundays (the work ethic of Hispanics is one to be admired.) Peter has a vision of creating his 14 acres of hillside into a “wild-growing” farm. His apartment and the mushroom-growing facilities only occupy an acre of land, and the rest is some trees, bamboo, grass, and a few baby banana trees (and two marijuana plants left behind from a past volunteer.) Eventually, the grassy hills will be used for growing coffee, tomatoes, yucca, and other vegetables, that can be sold and served at the farm’s own future mini-market and organic restaurant. Our work as volunteers is to help turn Peter’s dreams into reality.
How did I envision life to be while living and working on a mushroom farm? I indulged in daydreams about tilling the rich, dark soil, gaining a magical gift of blessing the earth with fertility… In my intimacy with nature, the mysterious wisdom of mushroom birthing would be unlocked for me. Visions of mycelium networks spreading through the rich earth, the secrets of the organic world unraveling as mushroomlings rise from the muck in the warmth of the sunrise. A kaleidoscope of fairy-world imaginings, prompted by the enchanted realms of the mushroom, blended with romantic ideals of small-farm, Spanish-villa visions.
But I’m not totally delusional. I also thought of the descriptions my brother gave during his WWOOFing experiences (doing volunteer work in the south of the USA, where projects ranged from building goat bridges to sifting fertilizer.) Within my fairytale world, I sifted in some reality-checks– days spent digging, hurling, pounding, pushing, shoveling, scooping, hauling, lifting. (The sort of work that is made tolerable by treating it as a gym session… “And now, for back and shoulders! Work that shovel, now!*)
Our obligation as WorkAwayers is 5 hours a day, 5 days a week. Days tend to be longer, though, because Joel has a way of pushing til the job is done or til the sun is down… and I have a “fear of missing out” and a guilt of being lazy when I head in while he’s still out busting his ass. (Plus the exercise-addict in me gets jealous when he comes in sweating, dirty, and out of breath, and I’m hunched over my laptop drinking honeyed tea and nibbling tangerines. How dare he burn more calories than me! *Munch, munch, munch.*)
All I’ve learned about mushrooms thus far has come from observation. To my chagrin, these mushrooms do not grow in enchanted forests sparkling with dew being drunk off flowers by fairies in the misty morning light. They grow in climate-controlled rooms located in a 1-story building that stretches the length of about 10 rooms wide, 1 room deep. When the doors happen to be open, I peek inside and see high shelves all filled with short, fat cylinders of dirt speckled with the heads of white button mushrooms. Warm, moist air wafts out of the open doors as I walk past. (I walk by this area every day going to and from my cabin.)
There seem to be about 10 employees who I pass by daily– the women are down by the growing rooms, and men I see loading and unloading small trucks that pull in to the loading dock between the apartment and the growing rooms. When that work is done, I see them busy shoveling dirt or tending to the stacks of hay that are being turned into substrates for mushroom incubation. In passing, I see more people working inside another set of rooms opposite the growing area–cold-climate, glass-windowed, with stainless steel counter tops on which harvested mushrooms are cleaned, sliced, and packaged by hand.
From my brief observations, I feel I’ve grasped the skeleton of the commercial-mushroom-farming process. But the details elude me. Peter, the owner, is open and willing to answer any questions, but thus far my inquiring into mushroom-growing has been little. My questions instead have been geared toward the culture in which I now find myself immersed– questions about Spanish language, questions trying to unravel who Peter is as an individual and not just as a “boss,” and details about the region and the country. I figure questions about optimal climate for mushroom growing can come later.
Already I feel accomplished in the work we’ve done here. The last few experiences Peter had with volunteers turned out to be rather unproductive, so he’s been thrilled not only that Joel and I are actually getting work done, but also that the work isn’t shitty. We re-did a few projects that proved to be ineffective– such as stairs made from earth reinforced with wooden stakes that were breaking apart, along with a railing that was too low and tied to trees instead of posts. We cleaned up brush the other volunteers had cleared away and tossed into the woods instead of hauling it out; and then spent hours burning it all. The fire pit was made from small rocks that had been overgrown by grass; so we wheelbarrowed in mini-boulders to make a more solid pit. We sifted through piles of logs and used them to build a retention wall rising up from the sloping hill and semi-circling the back of our cabin, then filled this with clay-dirt and pounded in smooth stones to create a patio. The dirt we used came from earth we’d pick-axed, hoed, shoveled, and wheel-borrowed out of the hillside, from an area that needed leveling to help make passage smoother for the Land Rovers that sometimes drive in and out for both work and play. And in between projects, we continue to clear out paths through the jungle that wind down the steep eastern slope of the mountain and lead down to a stream and waterfalls.
Did I mentioned, the weather is lovely? I had my concerns of equator-heat, tropical humidity, and mosquito-breeding grounds. But thousands of meters high in the Andes Mountains, the temperature remains in the 60s at night– jacket weather–and in the 80s during the day. The sun is strong, so you can feel it burning during the heat of the day. But the breezes are cool, and rainstorms are typical, blowing through at any time of the day. Some days, we awaken to a thick fog settled over the hills; and some, the sky clear blue and the sun drying out the grasses from a night of rain. The sun begins to rise at 5:30 and begins to set at 5:30. And this schedule is the same year-round. Like its frozen in time, this region’s weather feels forever like summer shifting into fall.
The cool nights send me into deep sleeps. Our cabin is small, not well insulated, and shaped like a triangle. It’s perched on the edge of the farm land in a little clearing– the area where we’ve been working most. One end is the door, the other, an opaque window that floods with light in the mornings. The space is enough to fit an air mattress, our shoes, and a few non-valuable belongings. When it rains–as it does most days and nights, in bursts– water leaks in on Joel’s side, and twice has soaked his freshly-folded clothes. Aside from the wetness, it could be easily entered if a thief were wanting, so we leave most of our things up in Peter’s apartment– the place where we “shower and shit” and make our food.
In exchange for our work, Peter brings us groceries. He asks us to make grocery lists, and we do so modestly– limiting ourselves to staple items like brown rice and beans along with fresh things like oranges and tomatoes, eggs, and sometimes frozen chicken and canned tuna, plus a few special items like peanut butter and mustard. I’ve satisfied my sweet tooth with some cocoa powder I found in the pantry, mixed with some honey and olive oil that were already at the house, and a little warm water. I’ve been able to make all my own food–an activity that soothes my soul–using the same sort of ingredients I would at home. With there being a gas stove, a food processor, a blender, and an array of spices at my disposal, I find myself wanting for little.
I am happy here. Being outside more, moving my body and interacting with nature, feels healthy. I feel addictive behavior melting away (like my desire to snack throughout the day, or having cravings for wine at dinner.) My mind feels more clear and calm, more often. Of course, with this “clearing away” of old habits and “letting go” of physical and mental clutter, this allows for deeper things to rise to the surface. So I haven’t been without tears and turmoil in my moments of emotional baggage-clearing. But this lifestyle has allowed me to confront some ongoing questions in my life from a space where I feel better prepared to receive answers. My inner strength is flexing its muscles; my inner voice is filling its lungs.