Because I’m Happy: Cinque Terre, Italy – April 18

The universe has been speaking to me more and more lately.

The more trust I’ve placed within myself, the more the universe guides and provides for me. Some may call it God, but I just know it’s a force greater than all of us.

After wallowing in loneliness and anxiety for a couple of days, all of a sudden, the storm was over.

It happened in an instant.

The sun’s rays broke through the clouds and fed the hungriest corners of my soul, and a sense of peace and immense gratitude replaced the parts of me where uncertainty once resided.

In one spontaneous moment, the universe spoke to me through the innocence of a child and showed me why I was here – and it’s the same reason why we are all here on this Earth.

“Umm, are you talking about the meaning of life? Cause THAT sounds a little cray.”

Weeeeell, I wouldn’t go that far. I don’ t want y’all to think I’ve completely lost my shit. I obviously don’t have all the answers – I’m only beginning to discover my answers. But they could be yours, too.

Let me explain.

I kept letting things get to me the past few days. It all started when I arrived in Cinque Terre a day late due to the Italian train strike. And when I finally arrived and felt how life-changing this place was going to be, I wished I had another day to soak it all in. I felt cheated.

To top it off I was exhausted from country-hopping for the past two months, and the mild discomfort of living in other people’s homes was wearing on me. I felt like I was squandering away this beautiful experience by focusing on the negatives – by focusing on what I didn’t have.

Monterosso

Monterosso’s beach is magic

I continued making my way through Cinque Terre’s five villages, and on my final day I visited Monterosso and Corniglia.

Monterosso’s beaches were sunny and gorgeous. I didn’t have a swimsuit but I didn’t think twice to strip down and sunbathe as hang gliders jumped from the cliffs and landed on the beach in front of me.

With my earbuds in and Spotify on, I observed my own personal paradise to the tune of a hip hop soundtrack.

IMG_2013

Some plots of land in Corniglia remain in rubble like this one, while the home behind it still stands.

A few tanlines later, I hopped back on the train and traveled further down the coast to Corniglia, a village perched high on the Ligurian cliffsides with no beach access.

I walked around the village and noticed it was still recovering from damage caused by the floods and mudslides of 2011. Many of the structures were still being rebuilt.

Seeing as this village was still under construction, it seemed less picturesque compared to the others.

Selfishly, I wished I had ventured to Vernazza instead, or back to Riomaggiore or Manarola which had captured my heart. Since I only had three full days in Cinque Terre, I felt pressured to make use of every moment. I didn’t want to “waste time”, which in retrospect, is a very American way of thinking.

After walking through Corniglia and snapping some photos, I stopped for dinner. I claimed a table in a rustic little courtyard in front of this dilapidated church covered in scaffolding. I sipped my wine and observed the people around me.IMG_2012

All of a sudden, I hear a familiar song. It’s a song I had heard in several countries during this trip, but it didn’t resonate with me until now.

“It might seem crazy what I’m bout to say…

Sunshine she’s here, you can take a break..”

Pharrell’s song “Happy” flooded the courtyard, and a toddler at a nearby table lept out of his mother’s lap to dance!

Soon, the courtyard united in laughter, watching him shake his little diaper butt. I wanted to tell the boy’s family how much their son had made my day, but all I could mutter was “Bambino prezioso.”

They spoke no English, yet an American song transcended language and made us all feel the song’s message: happiness.

Then I started thinking about how I had also heard “Happy” at Placa Nova in Barcelona. A little boy wearing a Messi jersey stopped kicking his soccer ball around to dance, while his father watched and smiled. And in Brighton, England, a cover band sang it at a beachside cafe and people stopped eating to grab their friends by the hand to dance to it.

So what does it all mean?

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The rays of light peeking through this dark alleyway in Corniglia was another reminder to follow my sunshine…my Happy.

Well, on my walk back to the Corniglia train station, I played the song on my Spotify app and listened closely to the lyrics, with the gorgeous cliffsides of Corniglia as my backdrop.

I was inspired. I can’t explain why, but it hit me so hard.

Tears started streaming down my face from behind my shades. My pent-up anxiety and loneliness began to fade, because I felt like the song had been following me on this trip, cheering me on for finally living out my “Happy”.

I was doing what I had always been scared to do. To move away from San Francisco and leave family, friends, my career, and put myself in an unknown situation where I could fail, and fail hard. Because I didn’t have a plan, but “winging it” kinda was my plan.

It was then I knew that I was exactly where I needed to be.

What I realized is…

The purpose of life isn’t to struggle and sacrifice and shut out our sense of adventure so that we can be happy someday. Life is happening around us, all the time. And most days, we miss living because we’re too busy merely existing.

… too busy commuting to a job we hate, face-down in our smartphones, surrounded with people who don’t inspire us or reciprocate our efforts, participating in obligatory activities, forcing smiles, faking enthusiasm.

And we become good at it. So good, that even we believe the lies we tell ourselves.

Day after day, doing the same thing…

Usually the safe thing…

Usually the predictable, familiar thing.

All for what?

So we can work our way up at a job to maybe get a raise that we’ll probably end up spending anyway? So we can have people around us to pass the time with so we’re not alone? So we can avoid failure by never trying?

I know this all too well. I spent my 20s working hard at things I thought would give me my Happy:
college, grad school, promotions at work, bought a house, got married…you know, typical stuff. And there’s nothing wrong with these things if you want them for the right reasons.

When I finally left my job I was raking in an enviable salary, even by San Francisco’s standards. But with every promotion, I allowed my lifestyle to become more expensive to compensate for the fact that I was missing something.

I was in a marriage where I felt like a shell of myself. I was his property and he controlled my body and mind. I spent over a decade feeling insecure and numb, living life on autopilot with a rehearsed smile.

From the outside, it looked like I had it all. But that was far from the truth.

The day I decided that starting over was less terrifying than staying on my current path is the day I began reclaiming my life.

I saw this quote just before I booked my flight to London last summer, and it resonates with me to this day: BirdTrustsInItsWings

Live your Happy today, not tomorrow or someday.

To think you can wait is presumptuous, because you may not be given the gift of tomorrow. It’s normal to procrastinate while you work up the courage to make a change, but after a while, the excuses get stale and you’re just using fear as a crutch.

If there’s something you’ve been talking about doing for years, why aren’t you actively working towards doing it? Because trust me, your friends and family are tired of hearing you talk about it already.

So shut up.

Stop talking about what you’re gonna do or what you should do and start doing it. Go chase after your Happy.

Before you go to bed tonight, do something that brings you closer to your Happy. Whether it’s browsing through job postings, taking a photography class, looking into licensing requirements for a new business, or making a long-overdue phone call to tell someone you forgive them.

Whatever it is, take a baby step towards it today.

Start by waking up every morning with gratitude for everything you love about your life, and a tenacious drive to change all that you don’t.

“Happiness is the truth”. And happiness waits for no one. Happiness chases no one. Not even you.

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Companionship Detox: Cinque Terre, Italy – April 16

The train strike ended and I picked up right where I left off. The next morning, I said goodbye to Ventimiglia from the window of my eastbound Trenitalia train.

I had a feeling that my next destination would forever change me. Even from the pictures I had seen of Cinque Terre, I felt a stirring in my soul. I couldn’t wait to see it in person.

Cinque Terre, Italian for “The Five Lands”, is comprised of five villages – Manarola, Riomaggiore, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso. They are only accessible by train or hiking trails. There are no cars, buses or corporations here.

Needless to say, it’s a tricky place to get to. When my train arrived, I lugged my suitcase 1km uphill because my AirBnB is in the mountains of La Spezia, Italy. But as in life, any destination worth getting to won’t be easy.

When I left California, I didn’t know where I would end up. I booked a one-way ticket and purposely left my travel plans open. I found Cinque Terre by way of a travel blog. All it took was one photograph to know I was meant to be there.

Manarola

Manarola is breathtaking. Bucket-list worthy.

The next morning, I began making my way to each of the five villages. And when I arrived at Manarola, I had to stop and wonder whether it was a mirage. Maybe I should just rub my eyes because this place just can’t be real.

Only it is real.

To know that I’ve lived a lifetime not knowing this inexplicably gorgeous place exists, makes me feel like I’ve been living life wrong. I’ve been missing out. I haven’t been living.

Because if Cinque Terre exists, with its multicolored houses perched high along the cliffsides of the Italian Mediterranean coast, then what else have I been missing?

It’s too much to bear. I don’t even know what to say. I can’t stop staring. This place is magic. It’s so beautiful it almost hurts.

Riomaggiore

Even if real life, Riomaggiore doesn’t look like real life.

On my second day, I make my way to Riomaggiore. I find a rock to sit on, just below the cliffs. My senses drink in every sight, smell and sound as if they have been starved. I sat there for hours, just listening…

To the fishing boats sploshing around where the river meets the ocean.

To the distant call of seagulls.

To the waves crashing along the cliffside.

It looked as if Mother Earth had turned up the saturation, because every color was as vivid as I’ve ever seen it. If heaven exists on earth, this would be mine.

The picture I just painted with words don’t do it justice, so here is some footage I shot. Like Jhene Aiko says in this song, “There’s no place quite like here. There’s no better time than now.”

And then I start crying.

I swear I’ve been hella emo (emotional) on this trip. I probably could’ve burst into tears at the sight of two birds preening each other. I need to get my shit together.

RiomaggioreLockBridge

Couples write their names on a lock and secure it to this bridge overlooking the ocean in Riomaggiore.

In the midst of my entrancement, I suddenly realized I had no one to share this view with. No one to take pictures with. Nobody to stare off into the ocean with.

Even if I could Skype home, they’re not even awake yet. I look around me, and I seem to be the only person without a companion. People around me are taking pictures of each other, holding hands, sharing gelato cones.

I feel so fucking alone right now. I know it sounds ridiculous to be feeling sorry for myself when I’m in a city that would top anyone’s bucket list. But somehow, I yearned to connect with someone in that moment…to share in the beauty of what I was seeing.

Even if we didn’t speak a word.

To just sit there, in silence, on a giant rock and watch the waves crash along the rocks.

Or watch hang gliders land right in front of you on the beach (yes that really happened!).

I’m so proud of myself for being here. For my whole life up until year ago, I couldn’t stand being alone. I never had to be. I purposely kept my social calendar full, even if it was with the wrong people.

That’s part of why I’ve traveled so much – to know what and who I really need in my life.

CinqueTerre

If heaven existed on earth, this would be mine.

I’ve lived out of a suitcase for a while now. The only people I communicate with regularly are my boyfriend, mom, and two best friends. And I’m okay with that. I don’t need my travel experiences to be validated by anyone, but I’ve spent so much time alone that I longed to share this moment with someone.

I started to feel like I did in Barcelona at Fontana de Montjuic. My solitude is starting to catch up with me. I just want to be seen by someone who knows me. Someone whose eyes tell me that they recognize me and are happy to see me. I miss having the companionship of someone familiar. It’s different when you converse with strangers.

Although the anonymity can be liberating at first, eventually it starts to feel quite empty. I’m not in each city long enough to make friends. And even when I have, I inevitably have to say goodbye to them. Familiar faces replenish the soul, and mine is starting to run on empty.

And then I realize that, until now, I had never enjoyed my own company. I couldn’t stand to be with myself in silence. It gave me too much time to think.

But that’s all starting to change now. By traveling, I’ve put myself into Companionship Detox, in a sense. Because if I’m not comfortable spending time alone, then I’m making it too easy for the wrong people to occupy that void in my life.

Don’t allow people to occupy space in your life unless they are contributing something – unless they are reciprocating your time and your efforts.

Otherwise, you will inevitably find yourself drained and disappointed. I know this all too well.

This isn’t the realization I expected to have during my time here. But it’s a realization that was long overdue.

I’m All I Need to Get By: Ventimiglia (by way of train strike), April 14

Sometimes you just have to laugh.

Have you ever had one of those days with one setback after another? You might even bust out laughing just to avoid cutting someone or bursting into tears.

That was yesterday. After finally receiving my new phone in the mail and the data STILL not working, I left Nice with no way to navigate to the mountains of Cinque Terre, Italy except screenshots of maps on my phone.

So when my train inexplicably stopped at the French-Italian border and all passengers got off, I was like “Oh well of COURSE this is happening right now. PERFECT!”

I have no clue where I am except that I’m 300km from my next destination. I don’t know what the train conductor is saying in French except that we all need to get the fuck off the train because no trains were entering Italy.

I overhear a group of British ladies on my train and they graciously offer to let me tag along with them while they figure out what’s going on, since one of them spoke French.

It turns out there was an Italian train strike until 9pm. Apparently train strikes are fairly common in Italy, but it just haaad to happen when I was traveling, with a non-functioning phone. Ugh!

So all four of us squeeze into a cab and cross the border into Italy. Our taxi let us out at a bus station in the sleepy, seaside town of Ventimiglia, Italy, where my British saviors planned to board a bus to San Remo, just a few kilometers away.

“Okay perfect, I’ll just take a bus then too!”

“Oh no, darling. We’ve been to Cinque Terre and that’s much too long. You’d spend an entire day and night on different buses. You’d better stay the night here. Good luck.”

And in a flash, the taxi had taken off, the British ladies were gone, and I stood outside in the rain with my luggage. And as much as I wanted to feel sorry for myself or be overcome with fear, I couldn’t. I was stranded. I had no time for that.

My inner hood chick came out like “Bitch you better stop sulking and start walking! Ain’t nobody here to feel sorry for you. Figure it out. GO.”

I had to find a hotel. Without a functioning phone, my only option was to roll my bag with me around town looking for a bed and breakfast. In larger cities that would be easy, but not here.

IMG_1851It took me about half an hour to stumble across Hotel Posta. When the front desk receptionist told me a room was 70 euros I was like “Oh thank GOD!” It could’ve been so much worse.

IMG_1871 IMG_1867 No sooner did I settle into my room when the rain suddenly stopped and the sun beamed brightly. Perfect timing, Mother Nature. *side eye*

So I spent the afternoon walking along the gorgeous waterfront, admiring the colorful little boats on the beach and the palm trees swaying in the wind. Then I explored the hills of Old Ventimiglia, where steep, narrow staircases and dark, twisted tunnels WERE the streets.

IMG_1866 Houses sat perched on cliffsides, overlooking the sea. It’s a city of inexplicable, effortless beauty. This city is rustic and charming with views that took my breath away.

I could’ve easily gotten lost but my sense of fear had almost diminished at this point. I allowed myself to get lost in the twisted tangle of winding alleys, with faith that I would find my way back.

IMG_1862Every person I saw in Ventimiglia greeted others by name as they passed each other in the street. There were no tourists here. So needless to say, I stood out with my Chucks, Run DMC shirt, and neon orange nail polish. But this is Italia, after all, so the glares I caught were always friendly ones.

After finding my way back near my hotel, I stopped at Brasserie Oceane for a limoncello. I was alone, but not for long.

“They would like to buy you a drink if you go and sit with them. It’s ok?” My bartender pointed to the next table.

I glanced over and saw Giada, Angela, Massimiliano, Natalina and their golden Labrador retriever puppy, Roy.

I nervously walked over and sat down to a table of smiling faces. The one who spoke English quickly became my translator. They ordered me an Aperol spritz and began asking about who I was, why I was here and where I was going next.

At first I had my guard up. I wondered what they wanted and why they were being so nice.

But then I was like “Shut up bitch, they’re buying you drinks!”

So I stayed. Three bars, one sushi dinner and several Aperol spritz later, we found ourselves comparing notes on the state of excessive taxation of the working class in our respective countries.

A conversation facilitated by my Spanish, broken Italian and the iTranslate app. I remember stopping mid conversation to revel in the serendipity of it all…

If there hadn’t been a train strike or I’d chosen to travel on a different day, I wouldn’t be having this conversation with these people right now. I would’ve passed this city on the train and gone straight through to Cinque Terre, which was my plan. But this experience was given to me by the universe, not my own doing.

In a situation where I had every right to freak out, I didn’t. I was strangely calm. I embraced being stranded in a new city with an open mind and dare I say, enthusiasm?

As someone with a headstrong Type A personality, who makes checklists for everything, who until now had approached life as a project manager instead of an artist…this was a huge step forward for me.

I let go. I relinquished control to something greater than myself, even though I’m not quite sure what that something is. I had to have faith in myself instead of my plans.

In retrospect, my newfound disdain for monotony has a lot to do with being raised in a strict, old-school Mexican Catholic household. Girls (and women) are seen as frail creatures to be protected, first by their parents and then by their boyfriends and husbands.

We make decisions for them, tell them what’s best, what’s too dangerous, too late, or not good enough. We tell them who to date, how to behave, how to dress, and to avoid risk at all costs.

Women raised in this environment often equate love with control because we are accustomed to having those who love us tell us what is in our best interest.

For me, this mindset continued into my marriage. He was my first boyfriend and he took on the role of Controller. But this role was familiar to me. And even though I was educated with an established career, I let him retain control because I associated control with love.

As I had been accustomed, I silenced my own judgment and intuition. When my intuition tried to surface, I shoved it deeper into a soundproof box in my mind and locked it away. Until one day, something in me was awakened and I no longer wanted to silence it.

Since walking away from that relationship more than two years ago, I’ve challenged myself to use a set of emotional muscles I never used before.

I think that’s why I’ve thrown myself into situations where I am forced to rely only on myself – by traveling alone and “winging” my travel plans instead of planning everything in advance. By removing myself from familiar people and places. By leaving my marriage, my hometown, my job and my family.

I felt the need to go to great lengths to prove to myself that only I know what I need best. That I can do anything, go anywhere, be anyone. That I can dismantle my life and start over.

I called a train strike on the path of my life and forced it into a new and unknown direction. And it saved my life…not in the physical sense, but spiritually. I no longer need to silence my spirit in order to sketch my path to fit another person’s blueprint.

Doing so is worse than dying, because you have to wake up every morning and live someone else’s idea of the life you should be leading.

When the train strike ended and I boarded that train to Cinque Terre the next morning, I stared out the window and couldn’t stop smiling. Because I know that I am who I needed all along.