Monday, April 14, 2014

The Fear of Moving Forward

"Something that is difficult is not necessarily something to be afraid of or worried about—it is usually out of the difficult moments in our lives that we learn the lessons that matter most." 
                                                                - A Few Minor Adjustments (Peace Corps Guide for Volunteers)

There are a lot of changes happening in my life right now.

  • My second year of AmeriCorps is coming to an end.
  • I'm moving away from a state that has (while not always my most favorite place in the world) become home for the past two years. 
  • The adventure of a lifetime awaits me in 4 months as I embrace the prospect of living in a foreign country for 2+ years. 
  • New relationships are flourishing while old ones are floundering. 
It's definitely enough to make one go mad and stress out. Change is one thing that many people have trouble with. Human beings like things to be consistent and the same. We like routines. We like predictability. We like to be in control. When any of those constants are threatened, the easiest thing to do is run in the other direction and hide in the corner. These feelings finally caught up to me recently and it really forced me to stop and evaluate where things are at currently in my life and where they are headed in the near future.

Currently, I am a member of an amazing organization that works to improve the literacy and well-being of under-valued and under-appreciated populations in South Florida, including the homeless, immigrants, and "problem students". While the work is tiring and sometimes seems fruitless, it is something that I have come to enjoy day in and day out. I have established a close-knit circle of friends that I would do anything for and hope for the same in return. I have met various families from all walks of life through my tutoring that have taught me just as much as I hope I am teaching their children.

In the upcoming months, I will be completing my second round of over 1700 volunteer hours in Palm Beach County, moving out of Florida, making my way back to Iowa (by way of Houston, TX with one of my best friends to see another one of my best friends), and getting ready to leave all that I know behind for over two years. It's a scary endeavor. Don't get me wrong - the chance to live in another culture that is not my own is something that I jump at the opportunity to do. But at the same time, I'm getting to that point in my life where it's almost time to start thinking about settling down, getting a "real" job, and growing up. Obviously, I'm not quite ready to tick off that box yet...

As my time in Florida winds down, I am challenging myself to face my fears. While the prospect of teaching and learning in another country thrills me to no end, I'm also scared out of mind. Scared of what my host family will be like. Scared that I won't like the food. Scared of not being able to instruct my students. Scared of being isolated. All of these fears are natural reactions to new, unknown premises. They're the way that our minds cope with being exposed to new stimuli and situations. Being scared is nothing to be ashamed of; it's an opportunity to push yourself out of your comfort zone and discover a new part of yourself. Being scared challenges the mind and body to push past external barriers.

With Colombia looming on the horizon, I could easily cower in the corner and try to keep everything the same. But what would I gain from that? Comfort and a lifetime of "what if's." Thanks to some great friendly advice from those close by, I'm determined to make the most of the here and now and not put too much pressure on myself to figure out my future. The cards will fall as they may - time to shuffle the deck...

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Paradise, Kayaks, and Bugs...

Work retreats are always interesting events. Images like the following tend to come to mind:

While they're normally held at an awesome location (i.e. Las Vegas, the Bahamas, mountains of Colorado, etc.), there's always that component that work is always also involved as well. It's never just a fully relaxing, duty free couple of days.

During the second half of spring break (March 19-21), we had our annual work retreat down in Key Largo. We stayed at the same resort that we did last year, the Pelican, and were provided with the same awesome service. We had the entire resort to ourselves (except for one little hut that was taken over by a Canadian couple) and were able to enjoy the water, sunset, and each other's company.

Getting down the to the Keys proved to be a bit more adventurous than it was supposed to be. In all honesty, our final destination was a straight shot down the Turnpike. 2 hours. Done. Except we live in Florida. The land of eternal road work and lack of signage. As we were cruising down the turnpike, jamming out to some classic 90's tunes, we hit some construction. While in the midst of avoiding the workers, horrible drivers that don't know what lane they want to be in, and the sun, we somehow ended up back on I-95, headed towards Miami. Not really where we wanted to be. After being rerouted through another 30 minutes of nauseating, headache inducing constructon, we were back on track to the Keys!

The majority of the first afternoon was spent doing team builders and some reflection on our year so far. We created a journal that was used to help us gather our thoughts about our AmeriYear and beyond. While I'm not the most artistic person in the group, I decorated my journal with the names of countries and cities that I have traveled to during my life. It actually turned out pretty cool - go me!

Once all of the activities concluded, we were given our room assignments, amd then given time to unpack and relax before dinnertime. I ended up getting my own room this year, which was actually really nice. It was nothing too fancy, but served it's purpose. We gathered back later that night for a delicious taco feast and some trivia prepared by two of our members. (After that game, one of our members, Andrea, will for sure never forget how to properly say "subpoena"!)

The next day was the much anticipated kayak trip in Islamorada! As we all pealed ourselves out of bed around 7 am to prepare our lunches and bodies for the trip, that excitement level was high and contagious! The 30 minute drive down US 1 was filled with blue skies, lots of sun rays, and high hopes. When we arrived at Robbie's, we paid for our trip and headed down to our boats. Cassie and I were partners and made a great team! The only problem was that we were horrible at maintaining a straight line while rowing. We were constantly veering into other boats and having to over-correct.

The kayak trip this year was a bit of a disappointment in comparison to the one that we were treated to last year. Last year's trip included an intense journey out to an island, a quick walking tour, a trip through the mangrove trees, and then back through the lazy canals to our starting point. It was absolutely amazing and so much fun. This year, not so much. We kayaked out to the same island, but instead of just taking a quick look around and jumping back into our boats, we stayed on this island. We ate surrounded by the elements of nature (including bugs, hermit crabs, and other unwanted friends) and then kayaked back to where we started. I really felt bad for the new members because all of the second years had really built up this trip, only to have it not really live up to our expectations. Despite this let down, it was still a nice workout accompanied by beautiful weather!

The rest of Thursday was spent laying out, soaking in some awesome sun, and delving into life's little mysteries (aka figuring out our future plans). Dinner that night consisted of fresh mahi mahi and another catch of the day that was absolutely delicious! There's nothing like fresh, catch of the day to top of a wonderful day of kayaking and tanning! That night was spent at a Luau event, complete with the limbo and a hula hoop contest. We wrapped up our last night in paradise by enjoying each other's company until about 3:30 am, playing games, chatting, and laughing the night away!

Friday brought with it a few last minute wrap-up activities and the 2 hour trip back to Boynton. The rest of the day was spent relaxing and avoiding contact with any other living being. The retreat this year was well done! It had a much different feel from last year in the sense that it was a bit more structured and calm. But each year's going to be different - honestly it was just super nice to be out of PBC for a few days, with a chance to rejuvenate and reenergize!

Saturday was a whirlwind of a day filled with lots of activities and one "pesty" beach wedding. That morning, I followed Phetsada up to her mechanic to get her car looked at. This poor car has been through hell and back over the last two years, but somehow continues to get her where she needs to go. Unfortunately, she had a friend, Jen, in town that weekend and she was also feeling a bit sick. Great combination! After dropping off the car, we headed up to Juno Beach and went to Loggerhead Marine Life Center. This place is pretty amazing! They help rehabilitate injured sea turtles that have been hit by boats, caught in fishing nets, or wash up on shore and help nurse them back to health so that they can return to their natural habitat. This Saturday we are actually volunteering at their largest event of the year, TurtleFest, which promises to be just as big of a success as last year!

Following our time with the turtles, we headed back to West Palm and treated ourselves to some delicious Cuban food at Don Ramon's and then wandered on down to City Place to do some browsing and window shopping. From there, we headed over to my co-teacher, Carly's, house. Her son, Jace, was turning 1 and both Phetsada (she babysits the little guy every now and then) and I had been invited to partake in the festivities. The party was adorable and baseball themed (I was glad to see all of the decisions that I had helped her make at school turned out so well!). Jace is a little stud and was definitely enjoying all of the attention. Unfortunately, we weren't able to stay very long because I had one final commitment for that night - a random beach wedding.

After dropping Phetsada and Jen back off at the mechanic to pick up Phetsada's car, I headed up to the Jupiter Civic Center to be the supervisor of a children's pavilion and lend a hand to my friend Tavia, who has been helping the bride plan her big day. Unfortunately, Tavia was out of town so she couldn't actually help out with the wedding itself. She asked me if I would step in and I was happy to help out! I had met with the bride and groom prior to the ceremony itself and it seemed like a pretty easy gig - show up, make sure none of the kids got hurt/lost the pieces to the games/went home in one piece/etc., clean up everything, collect a check, and go home. Of course, it wasn't quite THAT easy...

Upon arriving at the site, I quickly realized that I was in for an "interesting" night. I was quickly engulfed by mad chaos as the ceremony was quickly approaching and no one was ready. Decorations were being forcefully stapled into the wall. Lights were being strung with such vigor that I was sure there were going to bust. Guests were awkwardly mingling in all the wrong places. After finally tracking down the wedding coordinator, I was informed that my "pavilion" was in fact four round tables, covered in white paper, in the middle of a small grove of trees. Lovely.

I went to go help set up the tables. Remember, I knew absolutely no one. This was pretty much the equivalent of a really awkward blind date - instead of one person, there were a couple hundred. Awesome. After we got the tables covered (the wind DEFINITELY did not help that endeavor), I was relegated to my area. I started shifting through the activities that were provided for me and was a bit taken about. Instead of classic, children's board games like Candyland and Chutes and Ladders, my eyes were greeted with Balderdash (a game for adults) and Twister (this version requiring a boombox and CD, plus a flat surface, which also didn't exist). Joy. Let the fun begin!

For the first two hours, I was faced with the prospect of sitting in a semi-moist pile of leaves for the entire night as there were not enough chairs to seat all the guests AND the children's area. On top of all of that, ominous clouds started to roll in, threatening to end everything early and send me home! I spent a solid 20 minutes in my car out of fear that if I didn't I would become a victim to one of Florida's famed flash storms. Once the ceremony ended, chairs were brought to my tables and children started to trickle in to see what was going on. There was never a large enough surge in which I felt like I have to really interact with the kids (yes that sounds bad, but there were always adults with them). Granted, I was working on some materials for the Peace Corps, but every time that a new child joined the tables, I would go over, talk to them, and see what they wanted to do.

As the night continued, it became pretty clear that the kids area wasn't as huge of a hit as the bride made it out to be. It also didn't help that there were only like 15 kids at the wedding, none over the age of 6. They were more content coloring on the tables and play hide-and-go-seek, not Twister and cards. The minutes crept by, which slowly turned into hours. By about 8:30, I had been sitting at my table for about 4 hours with very little interaction from anyone outside of a few small 5 year olds. Eventually, someone noticed that I was there and told me that if no kids showed up by 10 that I could pack up and go.

Now, remember that I'm in the middle of a wooded area by the beach. No real sources of light once the sun goes down were available, so two giant spot lights were provided for the area. One of them was forcefully unplugged by a pretty intoxicated women who complained about it shining in her eyes (which was false because it was pointing towards the sky and she never once was near them). Down to one light and very little patience, I anxiously awaited for 10 to roll around so I could pack up and go. One other lovely element that was introduced was bugs. Hundreds and hundreds of bugs. My legs and feet still look like they were ravaged by a flesh-eating disease. Fantastic.

10:00 finally rolled around and with the lack of children in the area, I decided to start to clean up and then track down the bride and groom for my check. As I started to get ready to pack up, my last source of light went out. Left in complete darkness (outside of the ambient glow of my iPad), I cleared the tables to the best of my ability (while also placing my hand into the middle of someone's half-eaten, soggy salad plate - glorious). By the time everything was cleaned up, I was covered in salad dressing, attempting to ignore the itchy burning that had become my lower body, and just wanting to go home. Luckily, the bride and groom were making their way down towards me. We exchanged a few pleasantries, they paid me ($20 more than what they had promised - thank you alcohol and poor memory!), and I was out and on my way back home.

While not quite the experience that I was looking for (or way to end my break from reality), I walked away from that experience with some extra spending cash and some pretty classic Snapchats to help entertain my friends enjoying a nice, bug free night!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A Much Needed Break...

I will never be able to make a career in any profession that is not education oriented. Not only do I love working with students and being able to teach them every day, but I can't leave behind some of the other perks as well - mainly the breaks.

Summer Break. Fall Break. Winter Break. Spring Break.

These much needed vacations also tend to come at must the right time in the school year. Not only do the students need a break from their overloaded lives, but the teachers also need a chance to recharge to continue to deliver quality instruction and material.

March 13th signified the unofficial start to Spring Break 2014. With no obligations the next day, a small group of us hit Clematis in West Palm for a much needed night out on the town. We started at Off The Hookah for ladies night, where free drinks were enjoyed and strong dance moves were admired. From there, we headed to O'Shay's, a really relaxed, chill Irish pub just down the street and participated in some beer pong on the back patio. It was a great night and the perfect way to kick off our vacation from life!

Friday was met with tons of excitement as my official Peace Corps invitation was received! The next great stop on this adventure that I call life will be Colombia in South America! Needless to say, I was on Cloud 9 for the rest of the night/weekend! That night, we headed up to one of my favorite places in all of Palm Beach County - Renegades! This country bar/club is by far the one place that I feel the most comfortable in! Between the line dancing (which I participate in as much as possible), people watching opportunities, and atmosphere, this place never ceases to entertain!


Saturday brought about a trip down to Miami for the rest of the weekend! Nick, Jess, and I headed down and spent the afternoon soaking in some much needed tan-inducing rays on the infamous South Beach. It was my first time actually being on the beach and was quite relaxing and enjoyable. We then headed over to our hotel where we met up with Monica, Andrea, and her friend, Sam. The rest of the night was spent enjoying some BBQ, partaking in a bar crawl or sorts, and enjoying the night life that Miami has to offer. Despite my early departure from the festivities, it was nice to be out of Boynton for a night. Sunday brought another trip to South Beach and the most delicious sub ever from Hungry Bear. It was an awesome and much needed trip south that helped re-energize the mind and soul!

Monday was spent resting, eating, and playing board games with Nick, Hallie, Jess, Courtney, and Cassie. It was a much needed "day off" after running around Miami and PBC the couple of days before. We played the game "Head's Up" from the Ellen DeGeneres show. This charades-like game is hilarious and such a riot to play! We imitated animals, describes movies and TV shows, and acted like the 5 year-old fools that we all are deep down inside!

One of the many traditions that I always looked forward to as a small child was the Muscatine County Fair. Between the fried foods, fear-inducing rides, live entertainment, and plentiful exhibits, those 5 days were always a highlight of the hot, muggy days of July. Well, Tuesday, Nick, Jess, Hallie, and I headed down to the FIU campus in Miami for the Youth Fair. It was everything that I had hoped for and more! My inner 5-year old was at the forefront as we walked through the main gate. Game booths, unstable-looking rides, fried food stands, and livestock littered the grounds. The sounds of screaming children, popping balloons, and whirring rides filled the air and energized all of us! We divulged in some fried oreos, slushies, and pizza, while purchasing a wrist band that enabled to us enjoy any and all of the rides that we wanted to! Talk about an all out extravaganza for the senses!

But the highlight of this trip was the purchase that was made at the end of the night. When we first got there, we passed through the main exhibition building where a pet store was selling beta fish and turtles. Both Jess and Hallie were instantly attracted to the small, little shell-encased animals that were about the size of my palm. The girls discussed for the next 4 hours whether or not they were going to purchase these little reptiles to add to their apartment family. Nick and I probably weren't the best people to have there, since we were both pretty indifferent. In the end, Donatello and Raphael joined us in the car for the ride back to Boynton. These turtles are now unofficial members of our AmeriCorps group!

That takes me through half of break, with another couple of days left to recap. So instead of this one post becoming the length of a short novel, I'm going to leave you hanging...anxiously wondering what else went on during my small little break from life...