Category Archives: New York City

White Noise

As I sit here at my new desk, in my new room, in my brand new SoHo apartment, I’m thinking about the noise around me. I’m living, for the first time, on a busy NYC street and on the lowest floor yet (3rd, after fifth-, fourth-, and seventh-floor apartments). Every time a bus rolls by, my apartment shakes like there is a minor earthquake. Whenever a truck goes by, I hear the aggressive screeching, rattling and clanking that distinguishes it from any other vehicle. Cars whiz by in a relative whisper compared to these big gas-guzzling monsters, and even motorcycles add a loud chuckle and spit to the busy background sounds that will now become my new New York white noise.

Like the traffic outside, things are moving quickly. I just spent my first few nights in SoHo, and what can I say? It takes a couple weeks to get settled into a new place, but I think I’m on my way. Here’s what the past week has been like:

On Monday, I woke up really early to spend four hours sitting at a sterile, isolated computer desk while people all around me took important, possibly life-defining standardized tests. There was a palpable sense of stress in the air that seemed to parallel the weather outside, where humidity condensed into the blackness of a summer-like thunderstorm. From the 17th floor of a high-rise in midtown Manhattan, I watched the rain crack down from the sky like it was never meant to be up there in the first place.

I was taking the GREs. The first hour was rough, unfamiliar, and uncomfortable. It had been twelve years since I took a standardized test, and the security measures of the facility were a bit over-the-top (I was not allowed to wear long-sleeves!). But at about the halfway point, I got into a groove and felt comfortable. In a sick way, I was enjoying myself; there was a certain nostalgia to the whole test-taking experience, and I found myself sinking right back into the experience of it, like sitting in the same nook of an old smelly couch you haven’t sat in for years.

Stillness at sunrise on Isla Floreana, Galapagos Islands. Ecuador.

After celebrating my completion of the exam with several beers that evening, I found myself a bit dazed and burnt out the next morning (ok, fine: hungover) when I was supposed to be packing for my final move into the new digs. (I had postponed the move because I realized I was focusing way too much on the apartment and not the GRE-studying, so decided it was wisest to focus on my exam, and move in immediately afterwards). On Wednesday, I loaded the last things I had at my parents’ place into a taxi and headed downtown. Finally, I was home. Sort of.

Home is an empty word when you haven’t lived there yet. The apartment needed a lot of things, and I wanted to take care of the odds and ends before the weekend. Thursday, I spent most of my day running errands around the new ‘hood, with a quick stop in ‘Dash, the Kardashian’s store because I couldn’t resist (just to look and see if they were there, while pretending to admire sparkly mini-dresses and $75 tank tops. Mmhmm… not so much what I’m going for these days!).

The afternoon was spent at the famous wedding dress mecca that is Kleinfeld’s. This was a pretty wild experience for me. I went to help my sister’s girlfriend/fiance find a wedding dress for their wedding this August, and let me just say: WOW. Like, WHOA. I have never been surrounded by that many brides-to-be. It felt like I was in some diamond-encrusted bubble of beaded silk, embroidered organza, satin, chiffon, charmeuse and lace. Needless to say, I felt out of my element.

But, there was something slightly fantastic about it all too. I mean, this was a bizarre place for ME to be in, and yet, it only takes one moment surrounded by racks of designer wedding dresses to get you in the mood. My mom, future sister-in-law, and I began plowing through the dresses. These weren’t just dresses, they were GOWNS. Not to get all GRE on you, but here is a quick multiple choice analogy question:

Kleinfeld wedding gown: dress

a) carrot: vegetable

b) stiletto: flip-flop

c) Kobe beef: hamburger

d) limo: bicyle

e) diamond: dirt

(The best answer is C.)

It didn’t hurt to have the cast and camera crew of “Say Yes to the Dress” all around. The experience was somewhat thrilling, and at the same time, confusing. I am not one of those girls who fantasizes about their wedding, but there is something to say about the whole experience when you see some of these dresses. I mean, my mom CRIED (like, actual tears behind the leopard print eyeglasses) when a girl she didn’t even know walked by in what appeared to be seven layers of dresses in one. I was like “Mom, are you crying?! You don’t even know her!” as she, the same woman who told me to play in the traffic as a kid (jokingly), struggled to coherently say “but that DRESS! It’s just so, so, exquisite! It’s beautiful!” Shit, it was true. But I will NOT get choked up for a wedding dress that is not mine! Every time I made a comment about a dress, my mom would laugh at me and say “but Rachel, it’s not YOUR wedding” and I would bite my tongue and take the scathing bullet that I didn’t even think would hurt. Obviously I didn’t care. Right? I really wasn’t there thinking about me at all… And yet, why did that hurt just a little? Probably because, as we all know, there are layers and layers of depth to a comment like that.

Blue feet: dare to be different. Blue footed boobie. Galapagos Islands, Ecuador.

Alas, watching my sister’s fiance prance around in these actual wedding GOWNS was a fun, out-of-body experience for me. Every now and then, I would catch myself noticing dresses that I liked for me (how could you not?!), and I’d have to quickly look at a mirror, see my jewel-less style, my blue plaid flannel shirt, and my dark circles under my eyes to jolt me back to reality.

But hey, my reality aint so bad! Yesterday, I had my NYU post-bac pre-med orientation. I met some awesome people along with whom I will be spending the next couple years struggling through hard sciences. It was so cool to be with a bunch of other people whose friends and families think they are kind of crazy for doing this, and to commiserate over the fact that we are all in our mid-t0-late twenties and even thirties, starting something new, and excited as heck to begin.

Among my new classmates: a couple professional musicians, a published novelist, a Marine, a Navy pilot, a twenty-two-year-old who just graduated early from NYU and already wants to get back into school, a bio major who has to retake all the pre-requisited because they’ve expired, and… me.

In a couple hours, I will be heading to Connecticut for a high school friend’s wedding — the first of six (give-or-take what I can actually swing) this summer. On Monday, I have my first class. It all starts to happen. I bought my first textbooks yesterday, and am standing in the gates, waiting for the doors to break open so I can fly through. I’m going back to school hungry, and the time has almost come to take my first bites.

But first, I will toss back a little champagne and get my dance on at an old friend’s wedding to celebrate the important stuff and the amazing friends that happen along the way — the calming white noise that will counter the loud cacophony that is about to become my new life as a student. While, as has been the case for a few weeks, I feel a bit in-over-my-head, everything is under control at this point.

On Monday, I begin. Right now, I pack. And, in case anyone was worried, the writing won’t stop. TwT is along for the ride.

Here’s a little rock and roll for you, coming from an uptown (North side?) turned downtown girl:

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20,000 Hits Under the T, and Joe

You, me, and TwT have made it to 20,000 hits. The blog was started twenty-two months ago with no certainty of where it might go. During this time, I think I took about 20,000 hits myself! OK, maybe that’s a bit melodramatic, but a lot of shit happened – let’s be honest. Yet somehow I made it here, to another turning point between one set of life decisions and another, past the 20,000 hits and onto the next ones.

I’m in the eye of another storm – a pleasant but slightly stressful one (as I’ve mentioned before, I’m not very good with change, even though I invite it constantly). Things are chaotically being thrown all around me, and I’m just trying to keep centered and hold on to my Panama hat. For starters, as we all know, I’m moving from the Upper West Side to my first non-UWS home in NYC: SoHo. You know, it’s funny moving downtown. It’s like moving to the opposite side of your hometowm – mine just happens to be NYC (and it’s the only hometown I’ve got). I’m about to take the GREs, which I thought I’d never ever have to do and would somehow get away without every seeing a standardized test again. The hardest part was realizing what happened to all that math I studied so hard throughout high school and during my freshman year of college. As I was telling a friend yesterday, my brain really feels like an out of shape muscle right now. I got it from a slow walk to an awkward jog, and now I’ve got a reasonable pace, when it comes to my math abilities, but I’m definitely not in sprinting form yet. Hopefully I should be there by the fall.

This is how my brain felt when I started studying for the GREs. Sea Lion on the shore of Isla Espanola. Galapagos Islands, Ecuador.

Speaking of, I’m about to go back to school for — if all goes according to plan — what will be five straight years of intense classes without A SINGLE summer vacation. Brutal, right? No more rendezvous in Buenos Aires whenever I want. No more last-second trips to sleep on a friend’s floor for a week in Brussels, or hop on a plane to a friend’s family’s home in Kona, Hawaii, or convincing anyone to fly to Central America for a week or two, or being a “YES” person when it comes to trips and expensive meals. But you know, I really am excited for this “other” path I’m on now. Thank goodness I got all those trips and international romances out of my system, because only now, after experiencing more than I would have ever imagined I might in my early twenties, am I ok with giving all that up.

Some of you might not know this, but since January, I have been volunteering at two different physical therapy/sports medicine and rehab facilities here in New York. I signed up partially because I needed some volunteer hours for my eventual Doctor of Physical Therapy application, and partially because I wanted to be 110% SURE that this investment of time and LOTS of money (breathe Rachel, breathe!) is going to be worth it.

I’ve got to say… I walked into the volunteering with only a vague idea of what to expect and what I might get out of it. I was nervous before the first day, realizing that there was ever-so-slight-a-chance I could still change my mind, and I didn’t want to. But I hoped, if anything, my volunteering would at least confirm everything I was planning to do.

Well, it did more than that. Not only did I become more certain than ever that this is what I want to do, career-wise, but I got even more excited and more motivated. I love it. I’ve said this before, but it’s so funny how different and foreign the whole healthcare thing is from what I’ve been doing since I graduated, and yet how right it feels to be involved in some way. Working with people is fascinating, fun, exciting and inspiring. Through my PT Aide jobs, I have encountered such incredible and fascinating people! There’s been the professional female volleyball player, the ballerina who her PT describes as “the Black Swan” equivalent, the gay Irish speech therapist, the Argentine guy with back problems, the Polish man with a frozen shoulder, the teenager who wears totally inappropriate things to her PT sessions, the attractive male athletes, the marathon runners, the pregnant woman with backpain, the adorable arthritic Ecuadorian lady who speaks Spanish with me and bakes us zucchini cake every week… the list goes on and on!

Lonely George. The last remaining turtle of his species. Charles Darwin Center. Galapagos Islands, Ecuador.

And then there’s Joe (*not his actual name). One thing you learn quickly in PT, and I’m sure in other medical fields, is that everyone has a different response to pain and treatment — both physically and psychologically. The way each person deals with his/her injury on both those levels can vary incredibly. Much of my job has been working one-on-one with patients, either getting them ready for their treatment, helping them after their treatment, or showing them how to do certain exercises and self-care measures for when they are on their own. I deal with ice, heat, e-stim, laser probes, foam rollers, mats, BoSus, thera bands, exercise balls, ramps, weights, and all that good stuff all day long (in case you were wondering). But one thing that always changes is the individual, and you have to adapt to each one as you go. For me, that’s one of the most fun parts of this job: just seeing the way people are different, and making sure each one feels comfortable, safe, strong and hopeful.

A lot of the time is spent motivating the patient to push themselves, get through their exercise challenges for the day, and/or generally measuring their progress and capabilities (while having conversations over just about anything – so fun!). Everybody has such an interesting life story, and they always want to know mine. It’s funny, because when you talk to people, you really get to see that everyone has been through SO much… Ups, downs, loves, frustrations with the world… Most people are also willing to open up very quickly, which I respect and appreciate. I get lots of unsolicited advice about life, actually, which is great (hehe), and I surprise people when I tell them that I am not fresh-out-of-college, that I’m changing careers, and that I have traveled to a lot of different places. They are also intrigued by my family’s background, which is fun to talk about.

But the best experiences are when you get to work with people like Joe.

Joe is 82. He is about 6’4”, totally grey and old in some ways (on the outside), quiet, respectful, and sweet as can be in that silent, reserved, peaceful sort of way. He is a musician and an orchestra conductor (the office I work at is right by Lincoln Center, so we get lots of performers). Joe is also an avid runner and has been his whole life.

I see many patients just out of surgery, with crazy scars (I love scars!), swollen joints, extreme pain, and a list of complaints. Joe had both hip and ankle surgery on the same day. He aces every single exercise and strengthening activity I give him, and he never complains – not even a little bit. Not only that, but some people take months or even years to get back for a run after a surgery, and Joe took weeks. In addition, he runs every day. He is 82, I repeat. And, without a negative comment, a complaint, or a frustration, he tackles every challenge ahead of him and succeeds with flying colors. He has an incredibly strong mind, and he is determined to get back to running 8-10 miles per day.

Joe is an inspiration to me, and to the other patients. He is one of those people who –without trying to be an inspiration at all– quietly shows everyone else that we are capable of whatever we set our mind to (at least with the proper preparation and care). After working in PT for a few months, you finally get to see patients make extreme progress and take steps towards a new chapter — the one that begins after their pain has ended.

At first, I loved the PT Aide-ing because I was finally able to be useful and work with people in some helping capacity, be trusted in that way, be an authority (at least they think so!) on how to help. But when you see a patient who can barely lie down on the treatment table on day one riding the stationary bicycle so hard you have to slow them down on their last day of treatment, you realize what it’s all about; that feeling, that smile, that moment when you witness someone who has overcome a difficult experience… THAT is what makes me so happy and so excited to suffer through all the science classes I’ve got ahead of me right now.

Joe is one of the reasons I cannot wait to be a part of this field. I knew I would feel this way, and for years I tried to brush it off because who wants to spend five years without summers in school when you’re supposed to be getting married, thinking about having babies, buying a house and making a great salary (allegedly)?! Well, my work with Joe is done, and I’m about to begin school. But the other day, Joe’s physical therapist told me he was asking about me. He told her that he wanted to thank me, because my work with him really helped and he felt great and was running 8 miles a day again. What did I do?! I’m not sure I really deserve the thank you, but that gesture, that thank you, is why I’m doing this. The truth is, Joe is the one who should be thanked.

A large wave off the coast on my last morning in the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador.

But where am I? This weekend, I’m moving, for real, into my new apartment. I take the GRE in ten days. I go back to school in two weeks. Everything is uphill right now. Nothing feels easy.

Then I remember Joe. And if Joe can run 10 miles after hip and ankle surgeries at age 82, I think all of us can, in our own way.

Cheers to the next 20,000 hits. And THANK YOU for the first 20,000.

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Filed under Healthcare, Life Stuff, New York City, Physical Therapy, Uncategorized

SoHo Za-Za-Zoo

I headed downtown with reluctance, ready for another disappointment, tired of searching, but – as always – with a twinkle of hope in my increasingly cynical New Yorker eyes. I was beginning to resent swiping my Metrocard at the entrance to the subway, for it only led me onto a train of disappointments.

After searching uptown, where I thought there would be more apartments available and for better prices, the realtor with whom I had been apartment-hunting sent me photos of a small SoHo apartment with black brick walls. SoHo? I thought. Yeah, right

Cherry Blossoms and Sky. Central Park, NYC. (Taken by Blackberry)

The idea of being within walking distance of NYU seemed impossible, so I hadn’t been looking downtown. I looked at a couple Brooklyn apartments (some day, I do think I will end up in Brooklyn if I am still in NYC…), but, in order to get the benefits of cheaper apartments, you’ve got to go deep enough into Brooklyn that the idea of hopping on a train one to two times a day (for science labs, NYU events, using the NYU gym — whatever) buffs the sparkle of Brooklyn down to a dull muted tone. There is a lot of appeal to living in Brooklyn, but I guess this just wasn’t my Brooklyn-year.

I headed down to Canal Street on the 1 train — my loyalty will always be to the 1, no matter where I live — to meet the realtor in front of the SoHo walk-up. While black brick walls aren’t my thing, my quest for the right apartment was becoming thoroughly dehumanizing, and I had to give something different a chance.

SoHo is way too cool and hip for me — I’m a comfort girl. SoHo is like the pair of cute shoes that I figure I should own, but never actually wear because I’m much more comfortable in my Upper West Side-esque flip-flops, alpargatas (actual ones from Argentina, such as these, NOT Tom’s – side note: did you know these currently very popular shoes are Argentine gaucho shoes that Argentines have been wearing forever? Notice the Argentine flag on every pair?), and flats. SoHo is chic, fashionable, designer, white tablecloths. I am sporty/casual, low-maintenance, reusable water bottle, and second-hand table right now.  But I am also something else: open-minded. I had to at least see what a SoHo apartment could look like.

We met downstairs. I immediately felt this neighborhood — the SoHo-Tribeca border with Chinatown and Little Italy just a few blocks away — felt totally not me, in a good way. I’m an uptown girl at heart, but if I could live on the corner of Guanguiltagua y Arosemena Tola en Batan Alto (my Quito address – yeah, I had to carry an index card around my first week), I could probably handle this change of scenery too. South of Houston isn’t South America — what’s the big deal, right?

Bridge in Central Park. NYC. (Taken by Blackberry)

On the corner of my potential future block: a cute Mexican restaurant. SCORE. Also on the block: a mini-supermarket, a pizza place, a cool lounge, and a modern Chinese-comfort food restaurant. All great things. I also like it when buildings have names. This one did. But I’ve stood hopeful outside a building many times. This momentary optimism was usually quickly shut-down upon ascension into the potential digs. According to the photos, this apartment had black walls. That’s a big no-no for me! But I knew that a little paint could fix that — the black walls, at this point, were not a deal-breaker.

We entered the red and white, tiny, tiled lobby. Good vibe. We headed up to the third floor – good: fourth floor or higher apartments were deal-breakers to me (knee trauma), and second or first-floor apartments usually meant noise, garbage, cold, or darkness — all deal-breakers. (I told you, I know what I want.) The staircase was wider than other ones I had seen. I liked this: good for carrying my bike up and down. We got to the door. It had a good number. I walk in, quickly evaluating the tiny but cute kitchen, which opened up into a decent little living room, and that’s when it happened: I smiled.

The apartment is completely imperfect — the kitchen is teeny-tiny, but it is an actual eat-in with a big window: score. The bathroom is in two parts: a toilet in one end of the apartment, the shower at the other end (hehe — this would “not” make sense better if you could see it). They call it “European-style” — yeah, yeah, whatever. The walls were NOT black! Much to my happiness, the apartment was full of light, the brick walls are painted white but in a really nice way. The light fixtures were antique-style, not the usual upside-down glass bowl with a cluster of dead bugs at the bottom. The floor was being redone, the closet space was great, the views were actually nice (enough) and — most importantly — despite all it’s minor imperfections, it was the first apartment that I walked into and felt HAPPY.

After a whirlwind of cashier checks, lease-signing, paperwork and the nightmare that is moving-logistics, I have a new apartment to call home, beginning this weekend. It’s going to be a quirky place to live, but – if anything – it can be “that quirky SoHo apartment with the weird bathroom that I lived in during my twenties.”

As you can see, I may come off as a perfectionist with unreal expectations (OK, I really hope I don’t but I think that is how the previous realtor I was working with might describe me), but really, I just know what I want is out there, and I’m willing to take a little longer to find it. Of course I am also willing to compromise, and I’m not expecting everything I am looking for to come in one perfectly tied-up package, but the important thing is finding that place that makes you happy, despite its imperfections. And really, the imperfections are what make my new home special.

A mid-April stroll through Central Park. NYC.

Every apartment brings with it a new set of memories, life experiences, ups and downs… I’m excited to find out what SoHo has in store for me. Within the next three weeks, I have to pack up all my stuff, move it all downtown (along with furniture in three different locations), unpack, set up wireless, set up cable, set-up furniture and LIFE. I also have to finish studying for the GREs, take the GREs, get my new NYU ID, figure out my new life, and begin school for the first time in six years. There is actually even more going on, which I’m not blogging about… Just trust me when I say I’ve got my hands pretty full right now.

But outside, the cloak of winter has been lifted and the cherry blossom petals rain over the cement. A new season, with a new apartment, and a new chapter full of possibility is about to begin. And the black walls have been painted over in white.

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The Quest for Apartment Za-Za-Zoo

I interrupt your wanderlusting to share with you the dreadful non-adventure that is the NYC apartment hunt.

I can’t help myself. I’ve got to write about the fruitless quest for the perfect (trust me, “perfect” is a very loose term in New York City real estate lingo), affordable (herein lies my first major problem), apartment (or excuse for one) to spend the next two or more  years studying.

Finding an apartment in NYC is like the apartment-Olympics; ANYWHERE else in the world, you are competing at the high school or maybe intramural college level. In Manhattan, it aint NO joke. It’s as tough as it gets. Yes, it’s rough out there, people. We take a lot of shit in this town, because it is fantastic. Or at least, at times like this, we have to keep telling ourselves that.

In Manhattan (yes, Williamsburg, you count), it’s not about what you get, but what you don’t get. A deal? Let’s just get this overwith: you won’t get one of those. Roaches? Meh, maybe. But if you don’t have cockroaches, you most likely will have mice. No mice? Congrats! Bedbugs for you. Don’t even get me started on the bedbug conversation… If you’ve never checked out bedbugregistry.com, now might not be the best time to do so, as bedbug infestations are predicted to be the worst — by far — beginning this June (so help us all).

View from the outside of a beautiful, spacious apartment I loved... with a history of bedbug infestations.

If you get a great layout, you sacrifice natural light. If you find an apartment with many windows, it is most likely on the first floor which does you no good. The cheapest apartments are on the top of fifth- and sixth-floor walk-ups — a deal breaker for the girl with a bad knee. When you finally find the dream home you were looking for, you’ve got a drummer with daily 9pm band practice in the room directly above your bedroom (but you don’t find this out until you’ve already moved in). No matter what you find, apartment-wise, you can never predict your neighbors, or their hobbies (opera singers: check, drummers: check, barking dogs: double-check)… and they are EVERYWHERE. Like, within a foot of your home in every single direction.

Apartments in New York are lose-lose situations. We just accept that. The trick is to find some WIN in that loss. It’s a delicate dance of sacrifices.

I’ve gotten lucky with apartments in the past. Wait, scratch that.

My first Manhattan apartment was on 80th and Amsterdam — a neighborhood that has now become incredibly yuppy (a recent New York Times article called it the new “suburbs of Manhattan” because of all the blossoming young families of finance advisors and lawyers who can afford the ‘hood). But in my defense, it was an opportunistic move; a friend from college (shout-out to SK!) had moved out a year earlier, and even though she had found a replacement, her roommate now needed to move out too. So, I got in touch. I had been to a party or two at her place, and knew it was exactly what I was looking for, although a bit more expensive that I was hoping to find. That said, the cost of not having to search for a roommate or apartment in New York (brokers fees, crazy people, questionable supers galore) made the extra monthly cost worth it. I could slip right in.

Well, when I say I was excited to move in to my first Manhattan apartment and out of my parents’ place, where I had been living and saving money for travel and life for two years, that would be an understatement. I was feeling empowered, grown-up, and beyond ready to finally be independent in NYC. I felt so strong that I decided I could move into the 5th-floor walk-up without any help (pssh, boyfriends  – who needs them?! Fresh out of heartbreak, I didn’t!). I wanted to prove to myself that I could manage without anyone’s help, even if it meant my quads would be burning by the fourth or fifth trip up the steep, pre-war stairs.

I did the move in flip-flops, because it was a gorgeous day and I was young, sturdy, and in my eyes, unbreakable. Now, it’s one thing to walk up five steep flights of stairs over and over again. It’s another thing to do it carrying as much as you are physically capable of holding during each trip up. When I say I did this alone, I should add that I didn’t have a bed or dresser yet, my parents stuck by the car downstairs, and I had a rowing friend bring over a table she wanted to get rid of. I eventually had a couple teammates help me carry my Ikea and West Elm furniture up in pieces, which we then sat on the floor and put together (adult Legos), which was SO much fun. I actually love building furniture (side job?!).

Nevertheless, I must have completed at least 20 trips up and down those stairs. I’m no mathematician, but I probably walked up over 100 flights of stairs while carrying around 30-50lbs of stuff on many trips up. That’s a lot. But when it was all said and done, I couldn’t have been happier. I was in my first apartment, I loved it, and that suppressed (do to lack of funds and stability) domestic side of me was ready to pounce on the possibilities of my new home. Exhausted but thrilled, I finished the move off right: with my rowing teammate (the table-donator) and a couple margaritas at the bar downstairs. It was the perfect start to summer.

Three weeks into my brand new one-year lease, while rowing 3-4 times a week and running almost every day I didn’t row (I was planning to race again for the first time since college, and as always, wanted to rip it up on the water), disaster struck. I dislocated my knee, could barely walk, and found myself in so much pain I kept blacking out as I walked on my suddenly bad knee. A few x-rays, a couple MRIs, and three disagreeing doctors later, I realized I was in a tough spot. I could barely walk, let alone go up five flights of stairs, but I refused to give up my new independence so quickly. Instead, I decided I could hop on one foot up the five flights of stairs, and the staircase was narrow enough that I could slowly get down it using my upper body to lift myself between the wall and the banister, and lower myself several steps at a time, while keeping all weight off my right knee. It was a hovering technique, and it almost worked.

A couple weeks of this, and I knew I was screwed. I had to move right back into my parents’ place, leave my new apartment (which I still had to pay for), and wait until I was healed enough to get back in there. My roommate would pack me some clothes and bring it down the stairs for me, and I’d hobble with a roller suitcase back to my parents’, in my sunken, new, injured reality. Thanks, life.

I moved back a month later, definitely prematurely. I continued my hopping up the stairs and hovering down, to the best of my abilities, plotting each day so that this up and down procedure only needed to be done once. It wasn’t long before my good knee started getting mad at me, and one day, while getting my breakfast ready for early morning physical therapy, I nailed my forehead on the sharp corner of a new shelf I had installed, giving myself a small concussion. I half-passed out in my towel, and had to lay on the floor of my kitchen until the nausea and stars stopped twinkling overhead. I’ve had brighter moments.

My year in the fifth-floor dream apartment in the perfect neighborhood didn’t quite pan out the way I had hoped, but I got through it. Sadly, I was forced to move because my knee just wasn’t healing (the last thing anyone with a knee injury should be doing is walking up and down five flights of stairs daily, often more than once). For apartment number two, I required an elevator, which usually shoots the rent right up.

Thanks to the economy crashing, and sudden panic amongst the New York landlords, I snagged an incredible apartment twenty blocks further north, with an elevator! I was prepared for a long hunt, but this was the first apartment I saw, and I knew it was the one. I took it, without a second thought, and it was — although I hesitate to use the word — perfect. I reluctantly hired movers to get my furniture from the fifth-floor walk-up to my new, cheaper-and-easier-to-access 4th-floor digs, and, yes, with the help of a wonderful boyfriend (who would fail to last until the next move),  the transition was smooth. I was in this place to stay, I could only hope. The biggest issue was that, like clockwork, every night when I finally got into bed, the thumping of a pedal, the strumming of an electric guitar, and the low off-key notes of a 20-something guy having band practice would cause my bed to vibrate. But eventually, I was able to make peace with the guys who played the drums above my bed. It was a New York miracle.

I had so many good times while living in that apartment. When one romance ended, another one began. It was a fantastic, albeit tumultuous, year. But, when the second relationship fell apart, I was offered a job in Ecuador, and it was clear that I was going to have to give this gem of an apartment up. That decision still haunts me a little, but it was the right one at the time.

Now, I’ve got to find myself a new place. I knew it would be difficult, but the options I have seen so far are just depressing. Not only has confidence in the economy suddenly spiked, causing the highest rents the city has seen in a few years, but there is also less than 1% vacancy in New York City apartments. That means people are desperate, landlords can raise rents, and any apartment you see has several other applications already in the works. If you don’t act immediately, your crappy option for an apartment is gone. So, what about the good ones? The “perfect” apartments? Well, apparently they are no longer out there. Yippy.

So far, I have seen apartments with barely any windows, beautiful teaser apartments that have a history of bedbug infestations, and construction sites with no walls, sinks, or floors installed yet that already have applications in progress. Every apartment that comes close to being something I can work with has a deal breaker, such as bedbugs, one bedroom with no windows (that does NOT qualify as a bedroom, ya jerks!) or hardcore construction going on directly outside every window. In other words, there is a reason all these apartments are vacant. And in NYC, finding an apartment that works is like striking gold; you don’t give that up for nothing. Right now, all I’m getting is the scraps.

Actual apartment I saw yesterday, available immediately for $2400. This is one bedroom. The other one didn't have a window.

Sigh. It’s brutal, people. This apartment hunt is making me question why I love NYC so much. It makes me want to live anywhere but here. Every year, I get closer and closer to wanting to live elsewhere. I fantasize about having a home or apartment in any city but this one, and I know I could find something that works for a fraction of the cost that I have to pay here. I have to stop myself from thinking about this reality because it is painful, especially in moments like this. Whatever you do, do NOT tell me how wonderful your place is and how little you pay for it. And if you have a porch or terrace, you must remain silent. Bottom line: I KNOW, ok. I know! And I don’t want to hear about it. [See other posts for why I love NYC. I should probably re-read those right about now…]

Because I am going to be a student, I am not very flexible on the cost. This takes me to new depths of despair. Because I have a soul, I am not flexible on the amount of windows and natural light. Because I am a New Yorker, I know what is out there — I know what each neighborhood means, in terms of apartment,  atmosphere and accessibility. I’ve seen it all, at this point, and yet the only thing I haven’t seen is a place I could or would want to live for the next year or two.

The gloomy view from another apartment I saw yesterday. $2300/month.

It’s pretty depressing. I’m feeling a little deflated with the whole search process, but finding an apartment is like finding someone to love: some people are willing to settle, some people think “I can work with this if I just change one or two things around,” but I’m not looking for a fixer-upper. I am looking for it, the apartment that I can fall in love with, the one that clicks (I’ve felt it before), the one that becomes my home — the one, above everything, I can trust with my new life. I need an apartment that gives me the za-za-zoo when I walk in. It’s got to make me happy, and be zen. I might be picky, but I’ve seen enough apartments (and yes, had enough relationships) to just be at a place where I know what I want. I’ve felt the za-za-zoo before, and I need to feel it again. As discouraging as this search is right now, I know my future apartment is out there. Until I find it, I just can’t see myself settling for anything less.

And so the hunt continues.

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Filed under Life Stuff, New York City, Uncategorized, USA

A New York Girl In Old San Juan

I didn’t expect “beautiful.” No, not necessarily. Puerto Rico isn’t the most culturally “exotic” place for a New Yorker to visit since we’ve actually got more Puerto Ricans in NYC than there are in San Juan. Plus, the island is a US territory; although they consider themselves their own country, culture, and nationality, no passport is required for Americans to enter (nice!). But I did want a taste. I wanted to know what it would feel like to walk the streets of Old San Juan surrounded by Puerto Ricans and enveloped by warm ocean breezes, rather than riding the subways of New York City surrounded by the same people all bundled up in the frigid stillness of an East Coast winter. It quickly became clear that, even while many Puerto Ricans and I call New York City “home,” this island, this colonial city, is where their heart is. And for one week, mine got to be there too.

View from Fort of San Cristobal. Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Part of me expected Spanglish to fly out of everyone’s mouth, because that’s what I’m used to in NYC. But when you’re on the island of Puerto Rico, you’re far, far away from the urban jungle. I found myself speaking Spanish like I was in South America — how I love when I have to speak Spanish. While most locals speak English as well as Spanish, many do not. I quickly realized that I was farther away from the US than I expected to feel, although the first sight of a Starbucks, Chili’s, and Walgreen’s helped to remind me of the connection. It’s Miami meets Cuba meets New Orleans. That’s how I’d sum up this town. The Latin energy thickly coats the muggy nights, and the colors, architecture, and rhythm are undoubtedly Spanish-influenced. It’s exotic but familiar, foreign but navigable, us (U.S.) but them, here but there

Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Often when I travel, especially to Latin American cities or even Caribbean islands, I find myself confused by a feeling that I am almost more in my element and more at home in these places than in my beloved Manhattan. I definitely feel more at home in Latin cultures than anywhere else in the US where, even though I look white, I never feel as white as the general culture around me.

Fort of San Cristobal. San Juan, Puerto Rico.

I love to dance. For anyone who doesn’t know that, there it is. But, as I have joked, I can’t really dance to “white people” music — the kind they play at weddings and in well-lit rooms. It just doesn’t feel natural. I’ve got to get my hips shaking and I need the right beat, but without forcing anything — it’s got to just start happening on its own. I like to get close, to sync-up with another person charged by the music. I like to be spun and led by a Latin man who knows how to work it. I can’t just listen to salsa, merengue, reggaeton, reggae, bachata, cumbia, dancehall, soca, tango, etc. and not MOVE. It gets in me, as white as I may seem, and works its way through me with a determined vigor that rock (or whatever you call it) just doesn’t give me.

Graffiti in Old San Juan. Puerto Rico.

This all became extra clear on Saturday night, when my mom, my sister, her Australian boyfriend and I headed to the Hotel San Juan just down the street from our swanky hotel, where we were told the locals love to go for the live salsa music and dancing. We sat in the old, massive lobby and watched as Puerto Ricans of all shapes, sizes, and ages got up and shook their hips, gliding across the dance floor with their partners in an effortless haze of natural talent. These people are so unafraid, so uninhibited, so free and HAPPY when they dance — and boy can those men dance! At one point, we all found ourselves completely mesmerized by the hips of a tall dark-skinned man with moves that could slay vacationing gringas with one perfectly placed thrust. Women wore anything that resembled second skin — words that come to mind: short, tight, revealing and/or excessively sparkly. Men wore loose, airy button-down t-shirts with white belts and comfortable pants, many with that dark complexion that beckons a panama hat and cigar. They danced because they couldn’t help it. They danced because it was in their sangre. They danced and danced and all I wanted to do was transport this place to New York, take all of this energy with me, and dance with them as one of them on my island. But this time, I was an onlooker.

Window and cobblestones. Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

It made me nostalgic for Ecuador, where every Wednesday I would go salsa dancing with a combination of gringas and Ecuadorians (shout out to Victor, my favorite dance partner!). That’s probably what I miss most about living in South America: the dancing. The constant liberty to just move if you felt like it — the inevitability of dancing. This is what the US lacks. Americans can be so up-tight on the dance floor — so afraid. Especially the men. (Of course, this is certainly not ALWAYS the case.) It just isn’t a part of the culture the same way it is in the Caribbean, Africa and Latin America. And it’s not in Americans’ (oops, “our”) blood to just MOVE, to let a beat take them wherever it wants to, and to let go. When I travel and dance in other countries, all I want is to take these places and the people back with me to Manhattan where I can feel at home in my hometown. And yet they’re already here, already transported, immigrated, mixed right in. But it’s different here, on the continental US. The energy, the music, the weather — it’s just different.

Colorful homes in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

I’ve got to say: I loved Old San Juan. I was expecting it to be a little seedy or run-down, but it was quiet vibrant and — the travel writer’s most despised adjective — charming. Not to mention, Puerto Rican men can be quite friendly when you wear short shorts… Yeah… Hehe.

Ok let’s see if I can paint the picture for you: Imagine you’re walking up a hill, two sixteenth-to-eighteen century fortresses to your right are separated by a large expanse of bright blue ocean. To your left, a dark man with a potbelly in a too-tight bright green t-shirt shakes a bell, letting you know he’s selling coconut and mango flavored ices. Another man sells potato skins in a rolling cart. An overwhelmingly warm morning is whipping around you in the refreshing ocean breeze. When it stops, you realize your sunglasses are sliding off your sweat-slicked nose. The tops of your feet are burning a little in your flip-flops, but despite the excessive heat, the air is light. The streets are filled with colorful colonial-style homes, with balconies and shutters that remind you of the Creole-Caribbean influenced houses in the French Quarter of New Orleans. All the streets are cobblestoned and lined with leafy trees, bright magenta flowers, and the occasional graffiti. The energy is new even though the city reeks of history, pirates, cannon ball fire, large ships with the quest to conquer, and footprints of the Spanish.

Ship sketch on wall of dungeon in Fort of San Cristobal. San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Dome next to El Morro. San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Especially after the sun sets, Old San Juan comes to life from beneath the heat. Pulsing with a newfound chic-ness, this city is anything but dead or run-down. Puerto Rican food is generally unhealthy — chincharrones (the Puerto Rican interpretation of chicken nuggets) and fufu or mafongo, a sort of stew with a base of mashed plantains and black beans — are staples here. However, either I had very good luck with our restaurant selections for the week or Old San Juan has an amazing little selection of Nuevo-Latino restaurants with with which to play. (See list at the end of this post.) Let’s just say I ate well. Like, really well.

Tres Banderas: Spanish Military flag, Puerto Rican flag, American flag. El Morro. San Juan, Puerto Rico.

For those wondering, this was a family trip. Every year, my family (of seven) tries to do a spring break together. It’s a tradition that, for most families, fades after high school, but in ours, it has managed to continue, albeit with the occasional sibling missing in action. One nice perk to dating a Tavel: you get to join, courtesy of my dad. Not too shabby… Not that you need ANOTHER reason to date or hang out with me, but there it is. (HA! SO JUST KIDDING. This better be obvious.) Not bribing. Just sayin’…

Me strolling through Old San Juan.

Since I graduated from college, the annual Tavel spring break has taken me to Turkey (Istanbul), Argentina (Buenos Aires, Salta, Tucuman, Cafayate, Purmamarca), Portugal (Lisbon, Sintra), Austria (Vienna, Salzburg, Bruck), Italy (Rome, Pompeii, Vatican City), and now Puerto Rico. As you can see, most of the trips have been to European cities, where we spend our days exploring museums, ruins, and general neighborhoods in a nonstop fury of productivity, punctuated by heavy, excessively delicious three-to-five course meals that often happily backfire on us and slow things down. Getting four adult kids and an opinionated, sassy Argentine mom to agree on the daily itinerary can be trying, at times. It often feels like the opposite of vacation, and sometimes – by the end of the trip – I find myself needing another one just to dilute the intensity of the phantom vacation I supposedly just had. But it’s also wonderful, and it means a lot to my parents that we are still happy to do these trips. That said, I always end up in the middle  seat on every flight when I specifically request the aisle (why, WHY, will no sibling every trade with me!?). My mom acts like an excited puppy when she sees good shopping, at which point my impatience begins to take over (I am not a shopper). We all just have slightly different agendas, and it takes a lot of bending and shutting up to make things work in a big family. Alas, it somehow always does…in its own way.

Colorful street. Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Needless to say, it’s getting harder and more complicated to pull off these trips without a clash of opinions, priorities (mine are always cultural – the art, the food, the people, the street life, the history, the desire to take in the big picture of a place), and moral/existential/social/personal preferences. To try something different (and save a little cash), I thought we should go somewhere that could combine our interest in another culture with our desire to completely RELAX (you know — the point of a vacation), and suggested Puerto Rico.

El Morro. San Juan, Puerto Rico.

To my happiness, this worked out PERFECTLY. Every morning, we’d sip our Puerto Rican coffee on the balcony of our hotel overlooking the ocean, and spend most of each day either basking in the sun by the pool, or submerging ourselves in the warm sea. We’d go for daily walks up and down the beach of Isla Verde, and order the occasional pina colada, mango smoothie, or beer from the comfort of our bright blue pool-side chairs. Most evenings, we’d venture into Old San Juan for a trendy restaurant, and spend a morning or two casually strolling through the city, only to follow the effectively calm morning up with an afternoon nap by the water. It really was heaven, and for a change, it truly felt like a vacation.

Beach. Isla Verde. San Juan, Puerto Rico.

And now we’re back in New York City. Gone are the beaches and the palm trees, the waves of calm water, the cilantro and plantain-filled meals, the constant pulsing desire to move my hips and speak Spanish. But here in Manhattan, I’ve still got the Puerto Ricans. A girl like me can only hope that I will find myself a slice of that Old San Juan energy somewhere within the crowded streets of this less tropical and slightly less Latin island that, like for many Puerto Ricans, I call home.

For those of you actually traveling to Puerto Rico, here are some restaurant suggestions:

Tavel’s Old San Juan Dinner Picks:

Marmalade. Considered “the best” restaurant in Old San Juan, it was an easy choice for the Tavel clan. The restaurant is very trendy, but backs it up with a really delicious and funky Latin-inspired menu. I opted for the four-course tasting menu, which included a paella with smoked chicken, then an unforgettable white bean soup scented with truffle oil and dusted with pancetta, followed by a perfectly tender beef tenderloin in a cabernet-rosemery jus with roasted mushrooms and three cheese potato gratin, and topped off by a killer chocolate mousse. Before dinner, I sipped a honey-chamomile martini (for a girl who hates sweet drinks, this was a good choice as it was like a chill, alcoholic version of relaxing and strong chamomile tea with honey). White curtains dangle between diners, and the hip but relaxed atmosphere of this primely located San Juan restaurant — not to mention the memorable food — hit the spot. It’s a great place to celebrate anything, or nothing. Basically, just come up with some excuse to go here if you find yourself nearby. www.marmaladepr.com.

Baru. The tapas-style menu, along with the flamenco music on the speakers and the outdoor courtyard in the high-ceilinged Spanish-style building, will temporarily transport you to Southern Spain. I loved this restaurant from the moment I walked in. Immediately, the interior architecture makes you feel like you could be in someone’s home, with the small rooms having the natural flow of a house, and the outdoor seating small enough to be intimate beneath the shade of a big palm tree, but large enough to feel you’re on your own even surrounded by other diners. Highlights of the menu include a salad with greens and incredibly sweet mangoes, plantain chips in fufu and a spicy black bean dip, amazingly light pan seared scallops in a coconut curry sauce, a delicate asparagus risotto, a fresh paper-thin halibut carpaccio, and possibly the best chocolate mousse I’ve had in a long time. The vibe is a perfect island calm, and it’s a great place for a small group dinner or a romantic evening for two. After dinner, the restaurants and bars on this famously beautiful street, San Sebastien, fill with locals grabbing a quick bite or setting up for a night of live salsa. www.barupr.com.

Dragonfly. Located on a bustling Old San Juan street with a string of outdoor dining just outside, this restaurant was modeled after a Shanghai opium den. The atmosphere is hip at this Latin-Asian restaurant, which provides a great getaway from the Puerto Rican standards while incorporating the strengths of the island’s flavors. The dark, red seductive interior goes well with dishes like the criollo BBQ pork steamed bun sliders, the pork and amarillo (plantain) dumplings, and the miso-honey halibut. Creative cocktails and tapas-sized dishes make for a fun dinner experience. More sexy than casual, I’d definitely go back — perhaps with a nice Puerto Rican man rather than my family, the second time around. If you can stomach it, try the ginger tres leches dessert. www.oofrestaurants.com.

And here are a few songs to finish off this post and complete your immersion into the San Juan mood (as always, ignore the actual videos and just enjoy the music):

Feel free to add links to your favorite salsa music as a comment!

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Filed under Food, Islands, New York City, Puerto Rico, Travel, Uncategorized, USA

One-Way Ticket to Trouble

To everyone who contributed their 2011 Travel Wish Lists: THANK YOU! Great lists. Go ahead and check out the comments to see where other people hope to travel this year. It’s always fun to get you all participating. I knew I couldn’t possibly be the only one daydreaming about vacations, especially this time of year.

Oh look, another snowstorm. I am not amused, winter.

It’s that time of year when winter begins to take its toll on me. It becomes not just a season, but a state of mind. The cold dark days hold my spirit down like a snowball and chain. Some days, I forget what a little warmth and sunshine could do for my soul. The idea of tulip buds springing out from the blanket of winter is a distant memory, a fantasy of a world hidden from this one. The sun is an afterthought, the warmth – a dream…

Bah! Enough sulking! Things are good! Dreary, but good. I can already taste the happy-high I get on that first spring-like day. It makes all this winter crap WORTH it. Vale la pena, people. Vale la pena…

In the meantime, there is one travel story that I haven’t written about yet… I’ll call it: One-Way Ticket to Trouble

Love in the snow. Central Park, NYC.

Before returning from Quito to NYC, I did something I will avoid for the rest of my life: I bought a one-way ticket from a South American city to JFK International Airport. (You just can’t get away with this stuff anymore!) Now, I’m used to getting pulled aside for security checks at airports (apparently my combination of visas and stamps from Japan to Turkey to Belgium to Argentina several times to Ecuador to Mexico to the Dominican Republic to… (you get the idea)… is a bit suspicious).

All was off to a good start until I got to the front of the line at the Quito airport. I had one large suitcase (afterall, I wasn’t sure if I was going to be living in Quito for 1 or 2 years), one small suitcase/duffle bag thing, a backpack, a purse (god I hate that word), and only one suitcase lock. In South America, most people have their suitcases wrapped in plastic so that no thieves can get in. I never bother. If they want to steal my cheap socks, power to them (actually no, please don’t do that). I was dreading this trip because it was probably the most luggage I have ever had to travel with (by plane), and I was alone (eh, I’m used to it) with a layover in Bogota. Have you ever tried to use a restroom in an airport with that much stuff? Yeah, good luck.

As soon as I entered the airport, my body covered in luggage (ugh), an Ecuadorian man began walking beside me insisting that I get my bags wrapped for security. It, of course, would cost me $10 plus more for the extra weight my oversized suitcase was carrying, so there was no way. I knew my bag was going to be overweight (the suitcase itself weighs a ton — it’s an old one, and I borrowed it from my parents but let me tell you people: invest in a really GOOD lightweight suitcase, even if it’s a little more expensive: the over-weight penalties aren’t worth it, and if you’re as professional a packer as me, you will need it!).

Anyway, I was not into the whole Saran-wrap thing, and I was not forking over the money. I had a lock, and a couple paperclips. I locked one suitcase and unfolded the paper clips to create makeshift “locks” for the zippers of my other suitcase, twisting them in such a way that maybe a thief would look at the tangled clips and go “forget this nonsense, onto the next one.” I’ve learned that if you make it just SLIGHTLY inconvenient for someone to rob you, they’ll pass. I do what I can.

I get in line and eventually make it to the front of the check-in pack. I am told that the combined weight of my two suitcases is over the weight limit for the Colombian airline, and I couldn’t bring everything.

HA. No.

I do my usual nice begging and ask about my options. They say I have to remove some stuff. I see an Ecuadorian guy next to me with the same problem, starting to empty out the insane amount of t-shirts he has in his suitcase while a friend tries to put them in his own bag. I ask the woman, “What can I do? I need to bring my stuff home….” She looks at me and sighs. Then says to give her a second. I do what I’ve learned to do and say: “How much will it cost?” She comes back with a number, and my bags are good to go. First crisis: averted.

Winter in Central Park. NYC.

I’m about two hours early (oops), so I buy the most expensive magazine I’ve ever purchased (don’t ask — let’s just say I hadn’t seen a Vanity Fair in seven months and I was beyond excited to be on my way home). I go through security, buy a little snack, and park myself at the gate, my heart buzzing uncontrollably with excitement for my too-good-to-be-true anticipated return to NYC. All I need is for the voyage to be smooth.

Twenty minutes before the flight was supposed to depart, I see a man from the airline start walking around the 40 or so people sitting at the gate, asking to check everyone’s passport and name. When he gets to me, he asks if I will come with him for a few minutes… Not to worry, this was “a standard safety procedure.” Oh crap. Here we go…

Luckily, two other people were also selected form the crowd. We walked through everyone like we had already been convicted of a crime, left the gate behind, and headed down a dark, long hallway. I asked where we were going (of course!), and he told us they were going to do a thorough security check of our luggage. Curses. My suitcase packing-job was a work of art, I tell ya. I don’t think anyone could possibly fit more in that thing than I did, and now I was going to have to watch them open it, dishevel my shit, and remove each item one at a time, in front of four armed Ecuadorian officers (one of which kept flirting with me… grr).

They took us up and down staircases, around corners, through doors, and eventually, we were outside and practically on the runway. We ended up in a garage behind the airplane with our luggage sitting there, waiting. Luckily, they only had one of my two suitcases – the smaller one. Yippy.

One by one (I was last), they opened our suitcases and removed every single item. As the police officer took out each pair of my underwear, the wooden hand-painted bowl, an alpaca blanket, etc. etc., I stared uncomfortably. All the Ecuadorian cops were just watching and I just wanted to get this overwith. I was a little alarmed when the guy started sniffing my bag (hey!), but what can ya do? He found my large, external hard drive (cords dangling off and all) and asked suspiciously what it was. I explained, he had another guy check it. They moved on.

Finally, we were all cleared and were sent back up to the gate. Whew, I thought. Got that overwith!

The short flight from Quito to Bogota was a rough, bumpy ride over the Andes. I knew it would be; you can’t fly over mountains without a healthy amount of prayer-inducing turbulence — but whoa. Let’s just say I was happy to land in Colombia. That happiness was then short-lived.

Immediately, after we got off the plane, we were somehow in line for something else. None of us knew what, since the line was so long and it passed through a tiny, hidden doorway. But, sure enough, it was a security check. I had already been through security TWICE since I was randomly selected for an additional full security check in Quito, and there was nowhere I could have gone (and nothing I could have done) between the last security check and this one, having only been on the airplane in between, but there we were, getting thoroughly checked one by one, again. Fine, it’s Colombia, I get it.

As you can imagine, this took some time. Luckily, I had a 3 hr layover, so things weren’t too desperate. I open every single pocket, remove laptop, etc., put it all back, put shoes back on, clear security and start walking to my gate.

I get to the gate, buy a water to drink in between flights (I was still about 8,500 feet up and you need to keep hydrated… I was totally lightheaded from the altitude). I buy my water, go to walk into the gate, and the woman who had been sitting next to me on the plane and I decide to sit together. She was Ecuadorian, but had family she was visiting in NJ, so we were on the same two flights and both happy to have an in-transit buddy. After getting comfortable for about 20 minutes, we were told everyone at the gate (an enclosed glass room) had to exit the gate and re-enter through a security checkpoint designed only for our flight. Annoying, but fine.

We go out of the gate, they say no food or water beyond that point. I’m forced to chug the water bottle I just bought before i re-enter, but am in good company as the young French guy next to me had to as well. We commiserate. Then, we have to open every pocket of every carry-on bag, remove all of our stuff, put it all back in, take off shoes, get frisked, and put everything back together as quickly as possible to get back into the gate. I still have two hours before the flight, but after just chugging a water, I know I will want to use the restroom before we board (I avoid airplane bathrooms when I can). I dread this moment, because they informed us that if we leave the gate again, we’d have to repeat the security process. You’ve got to be kidding me, I think.

The sweet Ecuadorian woman has to get food and asks me to watch her bag while she runs out, to keep the security measures to a minimum. I agree (something I was hesitant about doing, especially in a country like Colombia…) but decide I’m being paranoid and it’s ok. While she is gone, I am left there alone for about 20 minutes. A couple cops with drug-sniffing dogs make their way through the rows of chairs. I start getting scared — what if there is something in this woman’s suitcase and this was all planned?!? SHIT SHIT SHIT. Suddenly, over the loud speaker, I hear my name called and I have to go to the front desk. My name is NEVER called! HOLY SHIT. My heart starts racing and I remember that I didn’t lock my suitcases. What if someone planted cocaine in one of the unlocked pockets on the outside? GAHHH.

There I am, with all my stuff and this woman’s stuff, she is not there, and I’m being called to the front. I run up, keeping one eye on the bags, and ask them if it’s ok to wait until my “friend” comes back from the restroom, as I did not want to leave her stuff behind. They say that’s fine, and I’ve got all eyes on me in the quiet terminal. Wahhh.

The woman comes back, feels bad for keeping me waiting, and is shocked (and probably suspicious) when I tell her I just got asked to the front. Two Colombian police officers take me to a back room, where my OTHER suitcase is sitting, and tell me that they need to do a security check on my bag. I get a little flustered and whimper, realizing this is my completely over-stuffed suitcase — the big one — and worry that they won’t be able to close it afterwards. In a sad voice, I just tell them that there is so much stuff in that bag… (Did I really have to go through this again?!) Big mistake. I was just trying to be human with them, but they immediately looked me in the eyes – no humor – and said, deadpanned, “What kind of stuff ma’am? Is there anything suspicious in here?” Wait, no! I say “No no, nothing! Just, I was living in Ecuador so I packed the suitcase really tightly…But feel free to go through it, you just have to promise me you’ll help me close it up!” I was trying to be myself, but not the time and place I guess. Heh.

They proceed to remove every item, one at a time…. AGAIN. And I have to helplessly sit there and watch. Then, they start asking me if I am traveling alone, if I am single, asking me where I learned to speak Spanish, etc. When he goes in for the sniff, I am not surprised this time around. The dog comes over, starts sniffing around too, and I start wondering what the heck it smells like. I want to sniff it now (ok not really). I panic a little again. I have this fear of having someone plant something on me while I’m traveling and getting taken into custody in another country (I’ve watched too many of those ABC specials, “Locked Up Abroad,” I think). I promise myself I will never travel without a lock after this experience.

Winter sunset over the Hudson. NY, NY.

Just as I begin to let my worst fears take over, they told me everything was ok, and helped me put all my stuff back into the suitcase — the once pristine packing job was now a dumpster. It took three Colombian police to close it back up. Finally, I was free to go — but I had them secure every single zipper with these little plastic snappy things they had, just for peace of mind.

When I got back to the waiting area, I was so relieved. Then, I realized we were boarding in an hour, and I had to pee. SERIOUSLY?! I rushed out, and proceeded back through the security check — removing shoes, emptying my bag, etc. — for hopefully the last time. Total carry-on security checks: 5 (2 in Quito, 3 in Bogota). Total “additional” security checks: 2 (1 in Quito, 1 in Colombia). 1 for each suitcase. Finally, I was on the plane home for the last leg of the trip… and I could rest with ease.

At one point during the flight, about 45 minutes before landing, one of the pilots stepped out to use the restroom. While he was in there, the cockpit door swung open. Everyone on the plane was sleeping, and I was in row 9, staring straight into the cockpit, realizing there were no flight attendants in site. Hello!!?? (I mean HOLA?!) Does anybody see this?! I wasn’t sure what was going on, but this New Yorker does not like seeing a cockpit door fly open with no flight attendants anywhere near it. I stared into the cockpit, through the front window of the plane, and watched the little blinking lights in the distance as we approached NYC. I was honestly pretty nervous, and decided without hesitation that, if something were to go wrong, I am a fight not flight person (proven over and over, for better or worse), and I would be trying to tackle someone before I sat and watched something bad happen.

Relief came over me when the pilot left the bathroom, went back into the cockpit, and securely shut the door. And suddenly, I appreciated the unique and beautiful view I had just gotten. It was all going to be ok: I was almost home.

I made it through immigration just fine, although they asked me more questions than the usual “what were you doing in Ecuador?” and I was shocked and happy to find that my bags were among the first to tumble around the belt. I breezed through the final gates, holding my breath in anticipation of something stopping me from the freedom that awaited, but nothing got in my way.

After six months in Ecuador, and numerous intense security checks along the way, I was HOME.

Rose in Argentina. Palermo, Buenos Aires.

It’s been two and a half months since I returned from Quito, and it’s getting harder and harder to believe the whole experience ever happened. The memories are so vivid and real, but nothing in my day-to-day life connects me to the people and adventures I had when I was there. The whole experience feels like a shot of something strong and powerful was dropped into one big drink I’ve been sipping slowly for years. But the ripples continue to spill out from my adventure in Ecuador. I’ll just keep watching until the ripples are too far away to count.

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Filed under Ecuador, Life Stuff, New York City, Uncategorized, Winter

Routinely Unpredictable

I’ve gotten into a little routine. Whoever thinks “unemployment” means you have nothing to do is incorrect, at least in my case. In fact, I haven’t fully felt the psychological effects of “unemployment” yet because, since I got home from Ecuador, I feel like my mind has been buzzing nonstop in a whole new direction. That said, I am consistently sleeping past 8 am — something that has almost never happened to me — and I am taking longer to sip my coffee in the morning. I read articles I would otherwise skip, and I stay in my sweatpants and flip-flops just a tad longer than I would normally. And you know, it’s quite nice. For now.

I’ll keep this relatively short. (Big fat lie.)

Stained Glass Window. Pampas, Argentina

Things are good. I’m going to information sessions left and right for post-baccalaureate pre-med programs (and no, I am not planning on going to med school…), doing a ton of online research, and studying for the GREs. I am trying to figure out how to earn a little money while life is in flux, and attempting a bit of freelancing, which would be really fun to pull off. I have moments of such excitement for my new plan, followed by moments of slight anxiety when I realize how much I have to accomplish over the next six years.

I always thought of myself as someone who could commit to another person very easily, but committing to my own personal career plan is a little trickier. The truth is, I haven’t had a plan beyond a year, or even a few months, since I graduated — by choice, for the most part. I’ve been living life flying by the seat of my pants (did I say that correctly?). I’ve been here, there, up, down, anywhere I wanted whenever I wanted, and now, I’m giving up a little of that freedom to live on a whole other planet for a while — Planet Relative Stability (eek). Giving up the ability to live spur-of-the-moment is a bit scary for a girl like me. But it’s also necessary, and a welcome change of pace.

During the past five and a half years since I graduated, I’ve been living exactly the adventurous life I always craved and wanted. It’s been a dream, complete with ridiculous over-the-top local and international romances, mini-tragedies, and self-discovery. Even though a lot of you keep quiet about what’s going on in your lives, I know I am NOT the only one out there who has been on a wild and unpredictable ride these last few years. And, although I don’t plan to fully leave the adventures (and romances) behind (EVER – although just one long romance would be ideal), I’m happy to step off the rollercoaster for a bit to allow some other doe-eyed new graduate with better knees to get on. (I’ve already warmed up the seat!) I’ve got those chapters of my memoir covered. Now I’m just trying to set up the next ones. Boy do I think this is going to be a good book!

Headed towards Cotopaxi Volcano. Cotopaxi Province, Ecuador.

If I’ve learned anything, it’s that even the best plans are packed with mystery. The fact is, I wax and wane between being totally overwhelmed with what I want to accomplish over the next few years, and completely excited. (I’m not alone on this – right?!) But that’s the beauty of being 27 and never knowing what’s next, no matter how much you try to plan. While maybe, occasionally, I admit that it can be completely intimidating (yes, that is how I feel right now), it’s also pretty exciting to build mountains for myself to summit. But standing at the base and looking up, well, I can safely say that yes, it can be scary. But when was the last time  fear stopped me from doing anything?

Off I go.

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