Recovering with the Olympics

Recovering from a surgery that just removed parts of two muscles that I will never have back while watching Olympic athletes in the best shape of their lives compete in intense physical tests could go two ways.

Option 1: depressing. I could lay there remembering all the sports I used to play, wondering whether I’ll be able to play them again one day, even though I know the doctor said I’ll have full mobility again, but I currently can’t even sit up without rolling over on my side and pushing up with my arm so that seems very far away.

Option 2: inspiring. I could listen to the stories of these athletes who have overcome adversity, who have trained every day, who have dedicated years to achieving their goals, and I could think about what I want to do when I’m able to fully move again, what sport I want to get back into or discover for the first time, what hike I want to accomplish, what bike ride I want to be ready for.

I chose Option 2. I will not let this get me down. Tristen is gone, and for the first time in a decade I won’t have pain in my right side when I try to do the simplest of athletic activities. This recovery period is limited, and while I’ll carry the mark of him for the rest of my life, I will not carry the pain. When I am fully recovered, have completed my physical therapy, and finally feel no more pain, there are no limits to what I can do.

I am already making a mental list of physical feats I want to accomplish. It all starts on September 30th, when hopefully my PT clears me to get on a stationary bike and join team Ginger Strong in the fight against rare cancers at the NYC Cycle for Survival. Of course I’d like to run and play on a team again, but of all the things I did, I miss hiking most. The scenery, the sense of accomplishment when you summit a peak, the hours or days spent just appreciating this earth – I want to hike the Long Trail, I want to hike the Lost Coast, and one day I want to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro. Really I just want to be active again. Get out there and sweat, feel like my body has overcome this sedentary phase and can take on anything I challenge it to.

In the beginning of the Olympics I was watching Women’s Rugby and suddenly heard two words I never thought I’d hear in the Olympics: synovial sarcoma. One of the USA women, Jillian Potter, was diagnosed with synovial sarcoma in her late 20’s. Hers was Stage 3, mine is Stage 2, so our treatments have been different (Jillian had to go through chemo, which I have luckily been able to avoid, although I may still need radiation TBD), but here she was, two years later, competing on an international stage in a seriously tough sport. When I first saw her story, I broke down. Here was a face with the diagnosis, images of a hospital, talk of chemo making her weak – at that point I still didn’t know if mine was contained or not, so I’d been burying the worry that it had spread to my lungs and I too would need chemo. But after I let that fear and sadness wash over me, I let it go, and found inspiration in her story. If she can come back from this thing and be there, I can come back from it too. Right then I became a US Women’s rugby fan.

The Olympics are an amazing time when our world joins together to watch one thing. Not news, not violence, but good old-fashioned athletic competition. People from different countries help each other, cheer for each other, and celebrate their victories together. For a traveler who loves the world and a patient recovering from surgery it was the best possible thing to watch last week.

I’m Home

The surgery went well. At least that’s what they told me. All I knew when I woke up was PAIN. SERIOUS PAIN.

People said I would wake up from the anesthesia (I had general, so I was totally out) and not even know that the surgery had begun. I wish this was the case. I knew very well that something had happened to me. I opened an eye so the nurse would know I was awake, it was my only hope of contacting her. I did not remember there was a call button on my bed. I didn’t even know anyone had told me that. My eye move worked though and when she came over I was able to get out one word: pain.

She wiped my tears and pumped me full of something, lots of numbers and letters I had no hope of understanding, and I felt like I was floating on a cloud being showered in tingly confetti as I drifted off to sleep.

After a couple of rounds of coming to and passing out again, a swap out of the epidural they had given me for a much higher dosage (pregnant women heed my word: the epidural is a wonderful invention, get it), and my first and hopefully last experience with voiding in a bedpan, I was able to finally leave the recovery area and move to my room. My parents saw me there, filled me in on some of what my doctor told them and life outside the OR, and I fell asleep in the middle of the women’s gymnastics beam event final.

The first night went surprisingly well. In between vital signs checks, IV bag swaps, and pee breaks, I slept steadily the whole night. For my 5 am bathroom break I even managed a little walk to the neighboring reception desk and back. In normal life this 20 yard shuffle would be an embarrassing attempt at movement, but 12 hours post-surgery it was an accomplishment. By the time my doctor came to see me, around 9 am or so, I was sitting up in bed watching TV, having already consumed a breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast.

Then she told me it went well. They were able to get all of Tristen out, cleanly. He was, however, larger than anticipated. Instead of sticking to his home in my outermost muscle, he set up shop in the neighboring #2 muscle as well, so they had to take some of that one out too. Good news was that he didn’t touch the #3 muscle or my rib at all. Bad news was I now have 2 pieces of mesh in me, one in each muscle, and a permanent convex side. What used to be a huge bump has now become a sinkhole.

Now we wait for pathology. They will measure the cell sizes of Tristen and the margins of the muscle/tissue extracted with him, and that will determine whether or not I go through radiation. I’ll know in 7-10 days.

After our chat I talked to Physical Therapy, who taught me how to properly get in and out of bed so I don’t use what’s left of my abdomen muscles, and the Pain guys, who decided we could turn off the epidural and see how I did just on Oxy. Apparently I did just fine, and by 5 pm I was discharged and on my way home.

This does not mean I’m all better by any means. I still have a drain hanging from my side leaking red fluid that has to be emptied and measured consistently. As soon as it’s less than 30 cc for 2 days straight I can remove it, but we’re still seeing 75 cc so it’ll be a few days. I still have to take Oxy and Tylenol or Ibuprofen every 4 hours, although I’ve gotten it down to 5 hour intervals and will continue to wean myself off of it. And I still have to make a concerted effort to breath deeply, take shuffle walks every few hours, and shower. But at least I can do this all from the comfort of my home.

My family has been amazing. From 3 am pill doses to tetris pillow configurations they are there for me above and beyond. My parents, my sister, and her husband have all made this so much easier to bear, a thank you can’t even begin to cover my gratitude. My friends, I’m sorry I haven’t been near my phone to thank you for your support too. From the beautiful flowers that made it to my room before I even did to the endless goodybag of candies and trashy magazines, you guys are seriously the best. And to everyone who reached out to me after my last post, I am amazed at the wonderful, kind-hearted people that I have met in my life and thank you all for your words. They meant so much to me.

I’ll continue to update as I find out more and as the healing process continues.

Phase 3: The Tristen Phase

For some reason I always imagined there would be a Phase 3 of Travel Abrodge. Phase 1 was the RTW trip, Phase 2 was my Central America time, and Phase 3 was nothing more than an inkling that I would have one more thing to do before going back to stability. It usually took the form of Europe in my daydreams, sometimes a road trip, or the rare Antarctica idea. I never could have predicted what Phase 3 would actually be.

I came back to the United States because I had a bump in my side that was growing rapidly. Tristen the Tumor, as I called him. My male counterpart trying to break free out of my rib – a reverse Adam and Eve scenario. If Eve caused Adam this much pain, I feel for him.

I’ve had pain in my side for almost 10 years already. Back when it first showed up I was told it was an inflamed rib – costochondritis – and there was nothing I could do but ice it and take Advil when it acted up. Then on a random day in February 2016, a small bump appeared at the very spot that had been a constant literal pain in my side. That small bump was the size of a golf ball by May. Three different doctors in Guatemala told me three different things so I decided it was time to go home and get some answers.

Two doctors, one ultrasound, four jabs to get a biopsy sample, and three labs to analyze it finally gave me an answer. Tristen is a synovial sarcoma.

Synovial sarcoma is a rare malignant tumor. The chances of getting a sarcoma are small to begin with, but a synovial sarcoma is somewhere around 3 in a million. Don’t I feel special? It has been growing in a muscle in my side for 10 years, and just in the past 6 months it outgrew its home and declared its presence to the world.

Cancer is a scary word. It’s a term that is largely perceived as a dangerous, incurable disease. What it really is is an all-encompassing word that covers a vast range of illnesses. Yes I have cancer, if you want to put it that way, but it’s a very specific kind. As the most recent round of tests showed – a CT scan and an MRI followed my diagnosis, I’m getting really used to hospital visits – my cancer is localized in the sarcoma. This is the best news I have received since I started this process. This means that the surgery to remove Tristen is most likely curative. Yes there is a small chance I would need radiation/chemo to make sure it is gone for good, but the doctors are stressing that ‘small’ word. In all likelihood, when the surgery removes Tristen, the cancer should go with him.

I have surgery on Monday. 8 weeks after my first doctor’s visit but only 3 days after being told the surgery should fix the problem. It’s both a long time coming and so suddenly here I can’t wrap my mind around it yet. Maybe that’s better, less time to really think about being put under general anesthesia and having a near-tennis-ball-sized tumor cut out of me, along with part of the muscle it has lodged itself in and the skin on top of it, to be replaced by a piece of mesh that will hold the remaining parts of muscle together. Before I know it I’ll be on pain meds to help combat a whole new kind of pain – recovery. Then physical therapy. And hopefully the news that we got it all out. And then, the best part, no more pain in my side. I don’t even remember what that feels like after almost a decade of randomly feeling like I’m being stabbed in the rib. But I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, first things first.

I have debated whether or not to post anything about this unforseen Phase 3, heretofore known as The Tristen Phase. It’s deeply personal and uses words that probably causes more alarm than I am actually feeling. I am surprisingly calm about all of this. I even managed to enjoy the MRI (FYI if you ever have to get an MRI practice meditation, it helped me stay calm and barely even notice the loud banging noise). So why am I posting this now? Two reasons.

One. It is the easiest forum I have to update everyone. I have been facing the best problem in the world: having too many people who care about me. I am truly lucky to have so many people want to know how I’m doing and wishing me well. But it honestly does get exhausting, getting reminders almost daily that something is wrong with me and having to constantly retell what is going on. This way I can write it here and everyone gets the update at once.

Two. This is part of my journey. It is not why I started this blog and it is not about travel, but it is about life. I made the decision to travel at a time when I didn’t have any medical hinderance, knowing that the future was unpredictable. The future did not let me down, I could not have predicted this. So if anyone is reading this not because you know me but because you happened upon my blog for the travel stories (and managed to read this far into this long-winded post), take this as a reminder to go now. You never know what will happen so make that dream your reality.

When I found out I had a sarcoma… Well first I cried a little, I mean come on it’s cancer it’s scary shit… But then I realized that it came at a time when I could handle it. If I had found this out when the pain started at 19 years old I would have freaked out. Who knows what would have happened with school, how that would have affected my career or ability to travel. Having it now at 29 (which, by the way, is the typical age these things show up) I have done everything I wanted to do in my 20’s and I am okay to stay here and deal with this. Of course it would be better to never have to deal with this, but apparently life was going too well for me and the universe decided I needed some balance.

So there it is. I don’t know how much I will write about what’s going on with Tristen and me. The idea is that I will use this as a forum to update everyone, so if you want to check in on me please look here first. I have surgery on Monday 8/15 and will be in the hospital for 2 nights. Recovery will be 4-6 weeks in Vermont. I can’t promise frequent or timely updates so please be patient.

And lastly, no, they won’t let me keep Tristen and put him in a bottle of mezcal. I know, I’m disappointed too.

The Sun Will Always Rise Again

If I have found one constant around the world it is this simple fact: the sun will always set, and it will always rise again.

I have watched the sun set over the Pacific Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean, the Indian Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, the Andaman Sea, Lake Yamanaka, Laguna Bacalar, the Wörthersee, and the Amazon River. I have watched it rise over the Himalayas, the Kaikoura Ranges, Mount Rinjani, Volcan de Agua, the boulders in Hampi, the Temples of Angkor, the Temples of Bagan, the skyline of downtown San Francisco, and the rolling hills of Vermont.

The end of the day, the beginning of one. Sunsets and sunrises are events that encourage reflection, or at the very least taking a pause and admiring the beauty of nature. Sunsets are beautiful scenes, but I have discovered a personal preference for sunrises. The start of something new. The chance to begin again. When the sun sets on one phase, it rises on another.

If I have found one preference around the world it is this: I like the mountains.

Anyone who has read my posts over the past two years knows my affinity for rocky terrain. I love a good beach trip as much as anyone, but I can only last there for so long. Put me in a tiny mountain village, surrounded by nature so impressive all you can do is look up, and I will be happy. If there is water near by – a lake surrounded by hills, for example – I may never leave. From my family’s roots in Vermont and Austria to my homes in San Francisco and Antigua to some of my favorite travel destinations in New Zealand and Myanmar and Japan, the constant is mountains, often accompanied by water.

So it should be no surprise that, two days before leaving Antigua, two days before I uprooted a life in search of the next adventure, I got another tattoo memorializing all of this. Two years of travel, two years of not knowing where I would end up next, two years of the sun setting on one place and rising on another, in a lifetime of the sun setting on one phase and rising on another. My Antigua phase was over. My Travel Abrodge felt like it was coming to an end. I was hoping to return to stability, a hope I never knew I would want again but there it was. My sun was setting on my nomadic life. But it will rise again on another.

I never want to forget how important this philosophy has been to me. And now I never will.

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6 Months in Central America

 

The Expat Ending

Last year when I came back through the United States I knew I had a series of wrap-up blog posts to write – photo projects, how my planning worked out, how it felt to be done with that trip and moving forward, highlights of places I visited. The list was long and comprehensive.

This year I feel like I should do the same, but I don’t have a list. I don’t really know how to neatly wrap things up like I did before. Going through some pictures the other night I was reminded that my Central America adventure started much like my round the world trip, hopping from place to place seeing the sights of a new region. But in December that got derailed when I decided to stay in Antigua for an unknown amount of time. Over the next six months I built a life there, and that’s what has defined this part of my Travel Abrodge. I became an expat.

And I couldn’t imagine any better way to end this adventure.

One thing that I craved when I set out again in September was to get stuck somewhere. I’d encountered places in my first year that were tempting but I was so set on my moving itinerary that it wouldn’t have been possible to really enjoy stopping. This time though that wasn’t the case. I was intrigued by what it meant to be an expat, to get to know a place on a deeper level. Antigua became that place.

Antigua, the expat haven. It’s not a unique choice for this kind of experience, but maybe that’s also why it was appealing. I entered a place where expats were a huge part of the community. For better or for worse, I wasn’t alone.

I straddled a line between expat community – Cafe No Se – and Guatemalans and backpackers – Lucky Rabbit – in a way that made me feel like I got a pretty well-rounded experience of what living in Antigua was like. And on top of that, I had a more grounded life than I had maybe ever had before. I had a house, I had a relationship, I was caring for two dogs, I started to know people in town, was invited to parties in the city, became a person people would come visit at the bar, and couldn’t walk around without running into someone I knew. For the first time in a long time I felt like I had a real home and it was in Guatemala. A little bubble of Guatemala called Antigua. But it still had the market and the water issues and the language and the characteristics of being a town in Guatemala.

It was everything I didn’t know I was looking for, and even though it came to an end somewhat abruptly, I will forever be happy I experienced that life. My first year away was world exploration, constant movement, the backpacker life. My second year was dominated by this expat life. It’s the best combination that really made me feel like I’ve done it all now. Of course it’s not possible to have “done it all,” it never will be, but without that expat time I would not feel like I could come back to the States. Come back to a job. Come back to a life I never knew I would want to return to. It’s because of Antigua that I realized I did want to return to it.

Thank you to Antigua – to everyone there for making me feel so welcomed, so at home, and to the town itself for being the picture perfect place to stay.

Over the next couple of months I will probably write a handful of posts on concluding thoughts from the past two years. I don’t know what form they will take yet or where they will lead me. I just know that I can wholeheartedly say that I have just lived some of the best years of my life. It is bittersweet saying that it’s over, but if I’ve learned anything from it all, something wonderful still lies ahead. It always does.

I Can’t Keep Quiet About the Brexit Vote

I usually stay away from politics. It causes heated arguments that never seem to reach a conclusion, in fact they seem to do more damage than good. Plus I am admittedly less informed than those who want to fight about it so why enter into a conversation I don’t think I’m fully qualified to discuss in depth.

Today though, I don’t care. Because today I’m worried about the world.

As everyone knows by now, the U.K. has voted to leave the European Union. More specifically, the rural upper class in England have voted to leave the EU. This decision has serious consequences for my friends in the UK and across Europe, as well as millions of people I don’t know in those areas and around the world. I can’t even begin to fathom the economic impact, other than knowing my trip to London in October just got significantly more affordable. Silver lining?

The part that worries me most? Felix Salmon said it best:

“The result is that we are now entering a world in retreat from progress, a world of atavistic nationalisms and mutual distrust, a world in which we demonize foreigners and prefer walls to bridges.”

Demonize foreigners. Walls to bridges. Xenophobia. A misunderstanding of the world.

As a person who just spent two years of her life dedicated to exploring and better understanding the world, this is heartbreaking. How can two countries – now I am including the United States, whose upcoming presidential election terrifyingly mirrors this Brexit vote – who pretend to be so progressive, such leaders of the free world, be in favor of shutting their minds and their borders to the unfamiliar?

At no point in my travels did anyone in a foreign country tell me I wasn’t welcome there. Quite the opposite. Colombians yelled “Bienvenidos!” to us on the streets, people in Myanmar gave me the thumbs up when they greeted me with “Obama!”, and when I moved to Guatemala I was not questioned as to my purpose of being there or hounded for taking a job, I was admitted into the community with nothing but smiles and “Buen Provecho”s all the time.

The world has its terrible people and places, I will never deny that. But get out from behind your TV set, leave your comfortable rocking chair, and you will see that those people are not the majority. They are the exceptions that get the attention, as most exceptions to the rule do. The reality is that the world is full of kind, good-hearted people. If only that was the message that was broadcast around the world instead.

I know I can do nothing to change what has happened, and come November I will be like my friends in the UK – my fellow travelers who are saddened and angered by this outcome – and vote to stop the xenophobia from taking over. I can only hope that enough of us turn up to the polls to tip it in our favor. But outside of official elections, I will continue to do whatever it is I can do in my own little sphere of existence to spread the good news of the world, to share the stories of kindness I have received abroad, and to keep in mind that though today may seem bleak yesterday and tomorrow do not have to be.

It’s June 21 Again

How has it been 2 years already? 2 years to the day since I got on that plane to Brazil, since I left the world I knew behind and set out to discover the vast world I did not know.

One year ago today I wrote a reflective post about how I had spent the previous year living the trip of my dreams, and how, even though I was currently in Vermont to work, I was going to continue traveling in the coming fall. It was a pause, a shift of focus, an end to one phase and the beginning of the next.

Today I find myself somewhere I never expected I would be on this day: in Vermont. Again. Another end to a phase, another time to wrap things up and refocus, another summer in the mountains to clear my head and figure out my next move.

Vermont has become the place where I transition. Even as I write this now I realize that my trajectory will be similar – last year I took off in September for Central America, this year I plan to leave in September for a month or so in Europe – but the end goals are vastly different. Last year I came back with the intention to continue my backpacking life for at least another 6 months. This time I came back with the intention to go back to what many people call “the real world.”

So I guess now, on this 2 year anniversary of my departure, I can officially say that my journey around the world has come to an end. When I set out 2 years ago with a one way flight plan ending halfway across the world I did not know that I would end up with a one way flight back to the United States. I didn’t know where I would end up, truthfully. I definitely did not plan on living in Guatemala for six months, and then leaving such an established life behind to return to my home country.

When I left I felt like I had the world at my fingertips. Anything could and would happen. I was excited to see what that meant, to live freely, and solo. It was me and the world and nothing or no one could stop us.

Now that I’ve returned I feel oddly similar to how I felt then. Sure, I will experience a range of emotions that have already begun – denial at being back, confusion about the future, happiness at having achieved my travel goals, excitement for the possibilities of what comes next, serenity at where I am in life – but I am still excited to see what me and the world will do. Because for most of my 20’s I had a plan: work in architecture, live in New York City, live in San Francisco, leave to do my trip of a lifetime around the world. And now I can confidently say that, by the age of 29, I have achieved my life goals.

So now what? The world is still my oyster. And where I end up now will not be overshadowed by anything – no longstanding dream of travel, no need to save up for that goal or always live temporarily knowing I would one day depart. Now, I can really dig into life somewhere. Or not. Anything is possible.

Leaving Antigua

Where to begin?

I am leaving Antigua. The place that has become my home, that I have found a community, friends, family, that I have cared for puppies, that I have lived with a boyfriend, that I have talked up as a bartender and become a presence in as a manager, that I have lived abroad. It’s not an easy choice to leave such a place, but I knew one day it would come.

I didn’t know the circumstances under which it would happen. Simultaneously making the choice easy and difficult on the level of leaving San Francisco, there were clear factors that led me here.

I had a one way flight to New York in June. Going for a wedding, staying for a surgery that had an unknown timeline, I couldn’t predict how long I would need to be in my home country. My best guess was a month or two. With an impending trip like this it obviously made me take a closer look at my life, my priorities, my goals for the rest of the year. I haven’t been one to plan ahead too much in the past year but with ideas like Oktoberfest and the fact that I’ve been away from my profession for two years already I started to seriously think about some things.

Oktoberfest. The idea had come up to go with my best friends and, having wanted to experience this epic German festival most of my life, I couldn’t say no. Before I got locked into a lifestyle of limited vacation it seemed like the best way to blow the rest of my savings. And I’ve talked about visiting Europe for a year now to see if I wanted to live there. Oktoberfest could be the start of a research trip that would show me my next move.

I love bartending. I love Cafe No Se. I love the conversations and the people and the atmosphere. I love that my job is making sure people have a good night. I miss architecture. I miss working towards a project, pulling together something tangible, something that I’m proud of, winning a job. I left my career at a crossroads, when I was offered a manager position most people would kill for. I would have at one point. As my friends move into these roles I question where in the ranks I will have to reenter the architecture world. Will I have to start over again as I did at 22? How long can I rely on 5 years of experience? I’ve been away from it almost half as long as I was in it. But the realization that I want to go back to my former profession was enough to make me rethink my return to Antigua.

The people of Antigua made me stay here. The people of Antigua were making it nearly impossible to leave. Brayan has meant so much to me, from the time when we were just good friends wandering Mexico together to the deepest points of our relationship, and I am incredibly fortunate to have had him in my life. But as our relationship ran its course, I wondered if I could have a life in Antigua without him. My No Se family made me think it was possible. In the last two weeks before leaving I felt like I truly had found my people. They had me thinking about coming back when I’d already decided I wouldn’t. They have me thinking about coming back periodically over the years even after I have gone. But I have people at home, people I have missed dearly, that cannot be ignored. I do not take for granted how lucky I am to know so many terrific people that I feel pulled in so many directions.

I have loved being a nomad. The traveler life is one I took to instantly and lauded to any and everyone who would listen to me. Leaving to travel was the best decision I have ever made in my life. But there are things I have started to miss.

I miss winter. I miss cities. I miss walking on paved sidewalks in heeled boots. I miss sipping on a hot beverage because the air is brisk outside. I miss having my things in a place that I know I don’t have to leave. I miss sushi dinners with my friends. I miss the holidays with my family.

Trust me when I say this was a decision that haunted me for weeks before it came to fruition. I am positive I will have moments of doubt, I will look at flight prices, I will consider going back for just a month if I have it between surgery and Oktoberfest or Europe and a new job. And I am okay with that, because it is just further proof that Antigua was the right decision for me. That my time there meant the world to me. And that I will always consider it to be one of my homes.

(May 30, 2016)

200 Days Since I Arrived in Antigua

Antigua, how do I describe you?

Your first impression is among the best in the world. When first walking your streets your charm is undeniable. Your pretty colors, manicured parks, and commitment to cobblestones capture us. Our cameras snap at every glimpse of a wall half in ruins or a gated window holding a flower box. We hike to your Mirador, Cerro de la Cruz, and marvel at your tiny size dropped into the valley between three volcanoes. Your neighbors, the volcanoes, amaze us. We gape in awe at the erupting Fuego. We ascend Acatenango to watch the sun rise over you. We can’t get enough of your beauty.

Your people welcome us. They make us feel as if we belong, that we have found our new home, our island of misfit toys. They say hi to us on the streets after just one encounter. They offers us jobs, that lead to a family. They warn us that we are one of them now, that though we may try to leave we will always return to Antigua.

Your nightlife never ends. It carries us away with it – morning, noon or night – until we can’t remember the last time we didn’t have a drink. For better or for worse, it keeps us going.

Everyone loves you, Antigua. And everyone hates you. You bring out the best and the worst in us. But you make us feel like we’re in it together. You never judge us, you forgive us, you encourage us, and sometimes for good measure, you kick our asses.

Is this a love note or a hate note to Antigua? I don’t know either. All I know is that Antigua will be with me forever.