6 Weeks Post-Op

Today is 6 weeks since my surgery. Physically, that means I’m healed. Mentally, it means so much more.

My surgeon told me I would be healed in 4-6 weeks. What that means is that tissue has started to incorporate the mesh into my body and the incision is a securely closed scar. It means that I am no long at risk of popping a suture. It means that I can start to resume a normal life.

Start to resume.

It does not mean I am totally back to normal. I am still in a healing process that is beyond the surgery. My muscles are adjusting, my range of motion is increasing, but I am still limited. I can do some warrior yoga poses now and quicken my walking pace, but runs are still 6 more weeks away, as is any attempt at a routine yoga class. Cycling is on hold for now too, as is lifting anything more than 10 lbs. After that 12 week marker I’ll be able to resume more movement as long as it doesn’t require quick, hard action from my right side. Think of someone throwing a ball and saying “think fast!” and having to grab it with my right hand. I can’t do that. Yet.

Which is why I’ve set the personal goal of learning how to play tennis. Tennis is pretty much the antithesis of what I’m supposed to be doing right now, especially since I’m right-handed and the tumor was on my right side, so I think the day I can play tennis is the day I’ll be fully healed. Apparently that is a 9-12 month goal.

I had my last doctors appointments on Thursday (for now). Four appointments in two days, I covered everything from Physical Therapy to a chemo talk with the sarcoma expert to what the eff is the sudden rash that showed up and how to get rid of it. It was exhausting, emotionally draining, and, in the end, wonderful. The odd rash that showed up was a delayed reaction at 5 weeks to the glue – strange to everyone who saw it – and is going away with the strong cream the dermatologist gave me. My PT was thrilled at my range of motion and was as happy to give me some yoga to work on as I was to be able to do some yoga.

The sarcoma expert and I talked about the decision to not have radiation or chemo, why chemo would be the choice in the future but why we should avoid it, and the idea of talking to a familial cancer specialist. Chemo is not as effective on synovial sarcomas as it is on other types of cancers, and it could actually give me a different kind of cancer in the process. It’s not worth it for someone my age who had the surgical results that I had. According to a metric devised by some doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering, I have an 80-90% chance of staying tumor-free. That is fantastic news. Of course it could always come back, and in more places than just its original home, but at least the odds are in my favor. It’s most likely to recur in the first 3-5 years after surgery, hence the close monitoring. I have a follow-up MRI/CT appointment in January. At this or my follow-up PT appointment, I will see a familial cancer specialist. Since my grandfather also had a sarcoma, it’s possible I have a gene that means I’m more prone to getting cancer. We will discuss genetic testing to see if I have it; if I do, I’ll have to be tested for all kinds of cancers for the rest of my life. I’ll deal with that when I need to.

For now though, I am free. I can leave Vermont, I can get on a plane, I can get a job, I can move on with my life. This is a momentous mental shift. For months I have been waiting – waiting to find out what I had, waiting to schedule a surgery, waiting to heal. Even before the waiting began was the decision to return to the United States to deal with Tristen. Ever since he first appeared 7 months ago, my life has been dominated by Tristen. And now he is gone, really gone, and my life is mine again.

Vermont was the best place to go through all of this. The support from my family has been incredible, the tranquility of the setting perfect for healing, and the doctors and hospital experience at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center the best I could have ever hoped for. And in the grand scheme of life, the three months I spent here dealing with my sarcoma will seem like the blink of an eye. But I will forever be grateful to everyone here. Thank you for getting me through this.

No Radiation

I found out last night that I do not need radiation.

I DO NOT NEED RADIATION!

This is the huge final step I’ve been waiting for. After I reviewed the pathology results with my doctor it sounded like I had a 50/50 chance of radiation. Typically for tumors under 5 cm and clear margins there is no way they would recommend radiation, but for high grade tumors – very aggressive, high rate of multiplication – they usually do recommend radiation. I was facing the possibility of having to make the final decision myself with no clear yes or no from the doctors.

A little background on the radiation factor. Radiation is an x-ray treatment that is targeted at a specific area. The treatment would be 5 weeks, 5 days a week, 15 minutes of radiation a day. While it’s possible to do radiation treatment before or after work, or whatever other activities are going on, it is still a month plus commitment to shooting up your body with harmful rays almost every day. And it was not an option to wait and do it in six months or a year. The radiation had to be done immediately to be effective, so my window was at 6 weeks post-op, when the mesh has healed into my body and the wound safely closed up.

Radiation would be purely preventative; the tumor is gone but just in case a rogue cell went off to find home (Tristen’s cells were poorly differentiated, meaning they didn’t look like where they came from like normal cancer cells do, so it’s possible a few could have felt lost and confused and went to find where they belonged) and was wandering outside the margins, we would zap it with radiation. This would help lower the possibility of Tristen’s younger brother showing up in a few years. However it was still possible he’d show up anyway even with radiation.

Obviously exposing your body to strong x-rays is cause for concern. It could damage the skin, tissue, muscles, organs, and bones in the nearby vicinity. We had to weigh whether the harm would be greater than the help or vice versa. Some people think because I’m young it’s better to keep me away from radiation so it doesn’t have long-term adverse affects on my health. Some people think because I’m young it’s better to do it now because my body can handle it. And then yesterday I found out that radiation could also damage the mesh that was just put into me. Why would we want to weaken the thing that’s now holding me together?

Then there’s the consideration of what happens if it comes back. The rate of recurrence is really unknown for synovial sarcomas. No matter what we do now, my Hulk Hogan-level aggressive cancer cells could decide they’re coming back anyway. But if they do come back they’d be at Terminator levels. Those bastards would really want to survive. So if Tristen II shows up and we had already radiated, then a) what a waste of time, and b) we can’t radiate again. Radiation can only occur in a place one time. So not radiating now means that we’ll have that card in our back pockets if we need it later. But also as I found out yesterday, if Tristen II does happen, it’s possible they would recommend chemo instead of radiation, thinking he’s so damn persistent that his cells could have moved beyond my abdominal obliques so let’s do a full body treatment to really cover our bases. All recurrence treatment options would include another surgery, of course.

So all of this was talked about in Tumor Board on Tuesday. Tumor Board is where all the oncologists discuss cases to come to a unified treatment decision. In addition to Tumor Board, my results were sent to the Mayo Clinic for a second opinion e-consult. And for a third opinion, my doctor talked to hear colleagues at Memorial Sloan Kettering, aka the leading sarcoma experts in the country.

Tumor Board: Every person said do not radiate except one, the radiologist, who would have voted yes even if I didn’t have cancer just because it’s his thing. Their reasons: small tumor, clear margins, young person who does not need harmful radiation rays to not only harm her body but the mesh we just put in.

MSK: Do not radiate. Same reasons. And not only should I not radiate, but if this comes back I should have chemo instead.

Mayo Clinic: I still don’t know. They’ve had my info since Labor Day but we haven’t heard an answer yet. It’s unlikely they would recommend radiation, but it’s even less likely that their recommendation would change my mind.

In the end I have the final say. But with the best oncology doctors on the East Coast – Dartmouth and MSK – saying don’t do it, why on earth would I decide any other way?

“So, does this mean I’m done? When do I see you again?” “Yes, this means you get a break. I’ll see you in 4 months for your MRI.”

I get a break. Even though I want to say I’m done, I know I’m not really done done. I have two appointments next week, one with the sarcoma specialist just to make sure it’s healing ok and I know my next steps, and one with my physical therapist. Then I have to keep up my exercises and see a physical therapist probably once or twice a month. And for the next two years I need an MRI and CT scan every 4-5 months. If they stay clear, then I go down to once a year. For the rest of my life.

I will never be totally free of Tristen. The dent in my side will lessen as tissue forms around it and the scar will continue to diminish to a fine line, but they will still be there. My monitoring scans will reduce from every 4 months to every year, but they will never end. But today, with the immense relief of not having to go through 5 weeks of radiation, for the first time since this all began 7 months ago, I feel like I can finally start to move on with my life.

Pathology Results

So I was totally wrong when I said I would have to wait until September 2nd for my pathology reports. About 2 hours after I posted my last update I got a call from my doctor. She had my results.

The margins are negative. This is priority number one, and it is a huge relief. What does this mean? They got it all out. No more surgery – Tristen is completely, officially gone.

The official size of the tumor was 3.6 cm. Even though they removed 7 cm, he was actually only 3.6, hence the clear margins. Anything under 5 cm is considered small and typically means no radiation. This means, despite appearances, he was actually a small tumor.

Those are two incredibly great pieces of news. They’re exactly what everyone was hoping for. Typically with those results there is no radiation, the surgery having been enough to be considered curative. However those aren’t the only results I received. Continuing on…

The mitotic rate (how fast it multiplies) is 24. This is considered a high grade, aggressive tumor.

While clear, the margin at the skin was close. She did take some skin but not all, in order to avoid doing a skin graft, so we knew this would be tight.

The combination of a high grade tumor and close margin typically means radiation. So you see the dilemma now – half the results say no radiation, half say yes. So what’s the consensus?

The tumor board is going to review me again. With the new information they’ll form a recommendation for my next steps. Right now it’s a 50/50 chance of radiation. Radiation can only occur in an area of the body once, so if we radiate now and it somehow comes back (Tristen missed me too much) we won’t be able to radiate again next time, so surgery will have to be enough. If we don’t radiate now and it somehow comes back (that bastard) we could radiate me then to make it smaller before surgery, making it a less invasive surgery. This is just considering the off chance that it comes back, but since synovial sarcoma is so rare we unfortunately have no information about the risk of recurrence. The other consideration is whether or not to radiate someone at my age and the effects it could have on me. Some people think it’s better to avoid radiation at a young age, others think I can handle it at a young age and it’s better to give me a higher chance of non-recurrence.

Either way radiation would be a preventative measure. The tumor, the cancer, is gone. I will have ultimate say once they tell me their referral. I have to wait about 2 weeks for that.

In the meantime, I have my first Physical Therapy appointment on Thursday.

How I’m Doing

It’s been a week and a half since surgery and the number one question I get now is, “how are you doing?” I said I would use this blog as my forum to update everyone, so I figured here is where I should answer that question.

I am doing well, thank you for asking.

Last week was focused on recovering. Lots of time on the couch watching the Olympics or at the dining room table coloring in my Landmarks of the World coloring book (it was a great time for adult coloring books to become popular). I was on Oxy every day plus Ibuprofin and Tylenol, had a drain hanging from my side leaking red body fluid, and was working on breathing deeply and walking to the end of the street and back.

Now, I haven’t taken so much as Tylenol since Sunday morning. This isn’t to say that the pain is totally gone, it’s just changed enough that it doesn’t need medication anymore. The post-surgery discomfort was at first replaced with shoulder and neck pain from sleeping on my back – which I still have to do until Monday – and has now turned into a subtle but constant feeling of tightness. Imagine what it feels like when you pull a muscle, or try to touch your toes when you can’t – the feeling that your muscle has been stretched to its limit and is at risk of working too hard. That’s what I feel all the time in my side. My muscles are still adjusting to the mesh, trying to pull back against it, against where they were cut in half. This is what I assume I will work on with the Physical Therapist once those sessions start. But for now I’m still being very careful about how I get up and down, not lifting anything heavy, and watching my posture while sitting and standing.

As for the drain, well that’s a fun story. Sunday late morning it just stopped working – the suction wouldn’t stay and it was suddenly hard at the end closest to my body. I called the doctor’s office to see what I should do and while I was waiting it fell out. I repeat, the drain FELL OUT of me. Onto the living room carpet. I stared at it in shock for a second, then calmly gathered it and my medications and got in the car. On the way to the Bennington ER the General Surgeon on call got back to me and told me that it was totally fine, I could go to Bennington if I’d like so they could remove the suture that had been holding it in, but there was nothing to worry about. Apparently this happens sometimes. Would have been nice to know. Long story short, because I’d already had below 30cc the day before and was on schedule to have another low day that day it was ready to come out anyway, so the nice doctor in Bennington cleaned up the black ooze and gauze pad, took out the surface stitch, put a steri-strip on the drain hole, and sent me on my way. But not before telling me how clean it all looked, what a nice job my doctor had done, and how well it is going to heal. Great things to hear just under a week after surgery.

As for my breathing and movement, they’re getting there. I have been out of the house this week, which was a huge step. I can sit up in chairs without backs and go up and down stairs without a problem. Getting into and out of a car is a bit tricky still, as is getting into and out of bed, but I don’t feel so confined anymore. Next week I’ll tackle longer walks and small hills. The main thing I have to remember is that I just had major surgery less than 2 weeks ago. I’m at that tricky point of feeling like I can do more than I actually should do. I’m slightly impatient and one of those people who doesn’t like to be sick or hurt so I’m constantly reminding myself to wait. Healing properly is the most important thing right now.

I still have not found out the results of pathology, and I don’t think I will until my follow-up appointment on September 2nd. So TBD on that one.

In the meantime, I can’t even express my gratitude to the people in my life. In addition to all the nice messages, so many packages have shown up to help me get through this that FedEx and UPS now know us. Flowers, cupcakes, fudge, books, high school in a box, and the insanely generous iPhone, thank you a million times everyone. You really know how to make a girl who just got a little unlucky feel loved.

I’d like to end this with a strange moment I experienced the other night. I was lying in bed on my back – something I’ve become accustomed to – when I realized that I didn’t feel the sheet putting pressure on Tristen. In the past few months I had gotten used to even the slightest contact with my tumor causing some discomfort, but that night the discomfort wasn’t there. For the first time since the surgery I felt what it was going to be like from now on. Tristen is gone. Sure he’s replaced by a partially numb indent, but I’m getting used to what that looks and feels like. In this one moment – a subconscious awareness I had for the contact between blanket and tumor that was awakened because of the absence of discomfort – the consequences of this procedure became real. No more pain. Forever. I can’t put into words what that means to me.

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.