friends

I’m Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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6 Months in Central America

 

My Visit to San Francisco

6 months after I left the U.S. and 4 months after I came to Antigua, I boarded a flight to San Francisco. It was the first time I really removed myself from the bubble I’d been living in, and it was to go back to what I once called home.

Home is a difficult word for me. Is home where I grew up, New Jersey? Is home where I chose to make my life for a while, San Francisco? Is home the place I would go if shit hit the fan, Vermont? Is home where I now pay rent and work, Antigua? None of those really feel right but they also all do at the same time. I declare my status homeless.

Anyway, as I left my new home for my old home, I knew I had a lot to look forward to. I was going back for my sister’s wedding! I’ve been to family weddings and a friend’s wedding but nothing is the same as going to your only sister’s wedding. Not only would I be involved in a variety of stages – from a pre-wedding celebration of Kara (aka a bachelorette party but we’re not really using that word) to a flower market run to hair and make-up the morning of the big day to giving a toast at the reception – but I would also be a part of a family changed. My sister would now have a new first family with her husband and a new branch of the family with his family. I would now have a brother and extended family through him. The Brodgesell’s would now be a fivesome or a trio at holidays.

I wondered how this change would hit me. Would I feel the losing a sister or gaining a brother side more strongly? In truth, I didn’t really feel either. I simply felt happy for my sister. That she has a partner in life, one who I truly believe is right for her and genuinely like, and that they had a celebration of their love. It’s not like things will drastically change, they already live together and share pretty much everything, but we were all able to take a weekend to recognize how wonderful they are together. Isn’t that the point of weddings really? For everyone to be happy together because the couple is so obviously happy that it wafts over everyone like chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven?

Mmm chocolate chip cookies. What’s a girl gotta do to get some freshly baked chocolate chip cookies in Guatemala?

Leading up to the wedding I got to have some great San Francisco time with friends and family. I revisited my old neighborhood and ate all of the food I missed (burritos, sushi, udon, pizza, a legit burger, even a ridiculously expensive kale cesar salad) and drank all of the drinks I missed (IPAs and bourbon). I was fortunate enough to be in town for Easter, a day typically known for its drunken debauchery amongst my friends that was noticeably tamer this year, but at least I got to see friends and then see adults race down a serpentine road in costume on big wheels at the Bring Your Own Big Wheel Race, an event I forever associate with my first weekend living in SF. In between the bigger activities I just hung out with my friends, the real highlight of being back, in the city I love so much.

And then there was the family time. The bonus of being at your sister’s wedding is knowing most of the guests. Family from both sides were in town for the weekend so I got to see everyone on this visit. The longer I’m away the more I truly appreciate spending any time with family, so it was wonderful to see them all this time around.

The wedding itself was beautiful, perfect, seamless, and fitting for Kara and Noah. They looked fantastic. The ceremony was touching and candid. The dinner was tasty and filled with joyous conversation. Then everyone danced until they told us we couldn’t dance anymore. So we went to a bar two blocks away and kept going for a little while longer. Surprise of the night? The dance off between my dad and my sister’s husband. I never expected it and will never forget it, for better or for worse.

All in all, it was a fantastic visit to San Francisco. I couldn’t have wished for anything more. I would be lying if I didn’t admit it made returning to Antigua more difficult than I expected. But I wouldn’t trade my trip for anything, it was magical to be back in my old life for a little bit.

The Ladygang Invaded Antigua

One of my main concerns about leaving home was the strain it would put on my relationships with people. I remember a wine-induced breakdown that my friends would forget about me, and immediately being scolded for even thinking such a thing. Throughout the time I’ve been away I have been constantly impressed and pleased by the amount I have been able to keep in touch with people. Of course there are ups and downs, but in the end I know that we still have a relationship and that is what matters. It matters so much that I flew from Japan to Arizona to see some of these people who mean so much to me. So when I decided to stay in one place I naturally extended the invite to come here this time. But I still never imagined that my 7 closest girlfriends from San Francisco would all come together. But that’s exactly what happened. And it was amazing.

It was a whirlwind five days that went by too fast. I tried my best to show them my Antigua, and judging by Amy’s enthusiastic “I love your life here!” I think I did a pretty good job of it. From our first lunch at Rincon Tipico to our last lunch again at Rincon Tipico (a crowd favorite) I took them through the local market with picositas in hand, to brunch at the delicious creperie Luna del Miel, to see the carpets and processions of Semana Santa, to the artisan market for souvenirs, to my favorite rooftop at Zoola for happy hour shots with our feet dangling in the hot tub, to the bars where I spend most of my time, Lucky Rabbit and Cafe No Se, and to the La Piscina pool after party where we danced till the early morning hours to house music.

And I took them up Acatenango. We should not have gone out so hard the night before, but we were just too excited to be all together again that there was no stopping the fun tornado. So we sweat out our hangovers on a 6-hour uphill trek. At times it was pretty miserable – honorable mention to Amanda for keeping her and our spirits up the whole climb – but everyone agreed, as I knew they would, that the view from the top was worth any amount of struggle. We arrived at the campsite around 4 pm, which meant we had plenty of time to sit around with snacks and wine and truly catch up on life. Those hours remain my favorite of their visit. I am so impressed by the group of women who came here, and am honored to call them my best friends. They are motivated, smart, beautiful women who have achieved so much already in our young years and I know that they will go far in all aspects of life. I can’t wait to see what happens with everyone.

When night fell Volcan Fuego put on a show better than I have ever seen it do before. In just one lava-spewing mountain-covering burst it proved its strength and outdid any man-made fireworks show. At dawn we watched the sun peek up through a blanket of clouds as Fuego continued to boom and smoke. We took an obligatory jumping photo and started the trek down. The difficult and hilarious trek down. Almost everyone fell as we navigated the steep descent, I tried to learn how to slide down, and by the end we’d mastered the trot. At the bottom we got celebratory Modelos.

When we got home we ordered Dominos, showered, and took a nap. Everyone was exhausted and sunburned, but happy. Acatenango proved its status as one of the top things to do in a visit to Antigua. And if anyone else ever comes to visit, I will happily recommend a tour guide to go with. Twice was enough for me.

The goodbyes came too fast. It was great having my friends around again, and I knew I would miss them immediately. The only thing that tempered the sadness was the fact that I would see most of them again soon in San Francisco. And that Jessi stayed with me until my flight to the States. And convinced me to get a tattoo honoring our time in San Francisco, some of the happiest years of our lives so far. 1851 Hyde is now forever on my body, reminding me not just of those incredible times we shared in SF but also this visit to Antigua.

I don’t know when I’ll see these girls again, but I know that whenever it is it will be just as wonderful as this was, as September was, as Arizona was. I am no longer worried about my relationship with them. I know that this group is for life. I love you all.

My Unexpected Reaction to Being Back in San Francisco

I approached the Bay Area at perfect sunset timing. The sky was beautiful, and its vivid colors were reflected on the shimmering ocean. I resisted the urge to take out my camera. Just enjoy it, I told myself. San Francisco was welcoming me home with a stunning nature show.

Returning to San Francisco didn’t worry me when I left Antigua. I knew that I had a flight back, that this trip was just a vacation from the life I had begun in Antigua. I mentally prepared myself for the inevitable culture shock – I can flush toilet paper! I can drink the tap water! I can understand everyone around me! – that I had experienced before. I also mentally prepared myself to face the changes that had altered a city I once loved and called my home. A city that, just the day before, I permanently marked on my body in a new tattoo I got with my SF roommate.

I did not mentally prepare myself for wanting to move back. Within the first 24 hours of being back I was riding Andy’s hoverboard (technically it’s called a OneWheel but hoverboard is way more fun) through Crissy Field with the Golden Gate Bridge in front of me. Then we stopped for empanadas before meeting friends at a bar to watch March Madness, where I happily drank a Lagunitas IPA and Chainbreaker White IPA, my two favorite Bay Area beers. More beers and empanadas followed, and my night ended in the bar we’ve affectionately nicknamed “the littlest bar” talking literature with men twice our age. My San Francisco was still here. It wasn’t totally the same, but after two years neither am I. The point is, new me and new SF can still hang out.

Shit.

It hasn’t even been two days, so I’m not saying I will feel this way by the time I get on that return flight. But if it’s only taken this little time to feel at home here again, I fear for what will happen when my entire family comes to town next week. Best friends, all my family, and feeling again like this place is my city soulmate. I’m in for one hell of a trip.

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The World I Saw

 

Post Trip Analysis: The People I Met

Another topic I’ve frequently been asked about is the people I met along the way. There tends to be a big focus on the fact that I did this big trip alone, but I always respond the same way: “I wasn’t ever really alone.”

I’ve written multiple blog posts about the people I met and how much they all meant to me (Travel BuddiesThe Why of Buenos AiresQueenstown, Take 2The People in SydneyFried Toofoo1,000 Miles…). I do still talk to many of them, some more than others, and even though communication has faded a bit now that we’ve all returned home I still believe that these people are my friends for life. That doesn’t mean we’ll know every detail about each other like we did in the time we traveled together, but it does mean that for years to come if any of them ever reaches out to me for a just a hi or a couch to crash on, I will happily be there for them, and I think I can say they feel the same way about me.

Sometimes people wonder how it’s possible to feel such a close connection with someone I knew for so little time. With some people I spent just one evening at a hostel, with others I spent every minute of every day for half a month, and the rest are somewhere in between. It began with a first impression, a snap judgement of whether or not this person and I could get along well. Travelers are masters at quick opinions; we meet so many people on the road that there’s no way not to learn the personality types we mesh well with. Luckily I could already relate to most people who were in the same places as me – we were all people who liked to explore the unknown in a low cost high adventure sort of way. So once we passed the first impression it was just a matter of time until the conversation deepened.

Whether together for two hours, two days, or two weeks, the nature of traveling accelerated my connections with people. We lived in the moment, knowing that all we had was right now, that there was no reason to hold back, and that without the preconceived notions that come with home we were free to be ourselves. We called it our “travel selves,” but after a few months I dropped the “travel” part and just became “myself.” Travel me felt more like me than US me ever did, and that person wanted to share myself with these new friends, and was delighted when my companions reciprocated with the same openness.

I love you guys.

A friend embarking on her own solo journey for the first time asked me how I met people. There were a variety of ways. The best was in hostels, my home away from home. In common areas and dorm rooms it was easy to strike up a conversation, sometimes starting more formal with “hi I’m so-and-so” or “where are you from?” and other times just jumping in when I had something relevant to say. Transportation was good too – a comment about the ride, the destination, or someone’s luggage could lead to a new friendship. Then there’s the activities. A tour like the Whitsundays or Fraser Island had built-in companions that could become friends beyond their end dates, free/hostel-organized walking tours were always a hit, or sometimes all it took was stopping to take a picture on a bike ride and saying something to the other person doing the same thing. It’s easier than people think to engage in conversation with a stranger. No matter what we already had something in common: we were both in that place at that time. The rest worked itself out from there.

Now the tough part for me is being back in a society where that extreme of friendliness is viewed as strange rather than normal. Having other travelers to talk to about the adjustment of being back home has been crucial. We all go through reverse culture shock in some way, and even just having a friend say “I get it” can be a huge help. Same with travel stories. Those people with who I experienced the highs and lows of travel – from incredible new places to torturing overnight buses – are the ones I can best talk to about the past year. We reminisce, we empathize, and we are totally okay with every anecdote including “when I was in…”

I hope to continue meeting people on my travels and extend my already fairly sizable network of international friends. I also hope I’ll have a chance to visit everyone one day. Moving to Europe is looking like a possibility again next year, so I might kick off that chapter with some friend couch hopping… if you’ll all have me.