Breathless

My stomach growled. I hadn’t had anything to eat since the ants in my coffee.

I know.  You have questions.  Hold your horses.

So far, I was the only one up.  I stretched my pajama-covered legs and swung them off the daybed.  The sun was shining over my shoulders, and I paused to admire my freshly-pedicured toes.   I grinned, remembering that the pedicure had come to me.  My butt hadn’t moved off of it’s comfy chair in the main living room while the nail tech happily chatted with M.  I may or may not have lost consciousness once or twice.

Back to reality.  Beyond my toes, an impossibly blue pool glittered and patiently waited for me.  “Not a bad reality,” I thought, and stood up to move toward the breakfast area.  Ada had cut up some fresh papaya, pineapple and cantaloupe.  I ran into her in the kitchen the first morning and she told me the names of the fruit in Spanish, smiling and taking her time with the pronunciation.  I repeated the words back to her, and she nodded.  I immediately forgot.

I began humming a Tom Petty tune, and lazily flicked the ants off the fruit before filling my bowl.  Again with the ants.  I know you want answers. Here you go:

I come from a place where the ants try to kill you.  Much time and money is devoted to killing them.  I reserve the word “hate” for very few things (and a couple assholes), but I hate ants.  That is, I hated them until two days ago.  As I walked across the pool deck for the first time, I saw the telltale line.  There they were.  The little assholes were marching across the ground as if they owned the place.  Great.  I was prepared for snakes and (gulp) spiders and perhaps other random creepy things that show up in movies where a plane crashes into the jungle.  But for some reason, I hadn’t prepared for ants.  I had just spent three weeks in New York where there are mice and rats and the occasional gnat or spider… but no ants.  I had all but forgotten them.  Now here they were, threatening to ruin a perfectly wonderful vacation.

But these ants were different.  They had an agenda.  They didn’t want me.  And they didn’t bite or sting.  They were just tiny, indifferent aliens on a mission.  And who was I to get in their way?  We came to an immediate agreement, and left each other alone.

But what about the ants in the coffee, you wonder?  Or on the fruit?  Yes, these are different ants.  Tinier than the others, and disorganized.  They are fast, and move about like crazy microscopic crackheads.   I immediately felt sorry for these poor creatures.  Like their slightly larger cousins, they were also happy to leave me alone.  But they were intensely attracted to the ceramic pitcher of milk, the bowl of sugar, and of course the fruit.  There were hundreds of them and as I poured them, along with the milk and sugar, into my coffee, I knew I had to make a choice.  Abandon the coffee altogether?  Not an option.  Spend the next 10 days obsessively picking minute ants out of my coffee and food?  Maybe.  Or, simply ignore them and continue eating and drinking as if they weren’t even there.

I chose option number three.  I realize that as you are reading this, you may be gasping and clutching at your pearls.  But let me fill you in on a couple things that have led to this point.

I flew into Bogota (elevation 8,600 ft) late Friday night.  The two things missing when I arrived were my suitcase and oxygen.  Both remained back in New Jersey.  And while I might have freaked out about the lost luggage, I simply didn’t have enough oxygen to care.  I spent the next two days lazily admiring a beautiful and unique city.  I stayed in a lovely apartment with equally lovely people.  I also ate elephant snot.

Again with the questions!  Fine.  It wasn’t literally elephant snot.  It was a granadilla.  A fruit which grows in Colombia and tastes like heaven.  But it looks like hell.  Like elephant snot-covered hell.  And yet, in my oxygen deprived state, I happily slurped it up and asked for more.  I was also introduced to some traditional Colombian food, which included my new obsession, Arepa.  Google it.  Find it.  Eat it.  You can thank me later.

By Sunday, my luggage had made it to Bogota.  D & M loaded me and my luggage in the back of a car and began to drive us all down to where the oxygen lives.  Anapoima.

I am geographically challenged.  Two weeks ago, if you had asked me where the Andes Mountains were, I would have guessed, “somewhere in Europe?”  Turns out, they are here in Colombia!  And they are magnificent!  As we made our way down the winding roads from 8,600 to 2,330 ft, I smiled like a kid on her way to Disneyland.  And then I did the thing that irritates me when other people do it.  I pulled out my phone and began to take pictures and video.  The scenery was so breathtaking (and not in a “I just walked up the jetway from the plane and I can’t breathe!” kind of way) that I wanted to record it.  Preserve it.  To remember and to share.  But what happened instead was I became Rain Man.

After miles of scenic vistas and culturally fascinating views, all that ended up on my iPhone were random shots of road construction and blurry videos of trees.  Oh, but the sound!  Yeah, that sucked too.  While cool songs M played on the trip would have made an entertaining background to the videos, I had managed to stick my hand out the window.  So, while recording the contruction and blurry trees, there is a soundtrack of skydive-quality wind.

As we were stopped at different points along the road due to construction, street vendors would approach the car.  During one of these stops, M rolled down the window and purchased something.  Money and salutations were exchanged, and then she held out her hand to me and told me to try it.  I looked down at what appeared to be monkey brains, and took a breath and tried it.  Again, heaven!  This monkey-brain fruit was called mangostino, and it was even better than the granadilla.  At that moment, I decided to open my mind and try every new thing that was offered me.  Which now included plantains, yucca, cuajada cheese, campesino cheese, and feijoa juice and, yes, ants.

So remember when I mentioned snakes and spiders?  I have seen dozens of places where, if I were a snake or a spider, I would love to hang out or hide.  And yet, they are not here.  Perhaps they take the summer off?  Maybe vacation in France?  That seems to be where everyone else is going this year.  But it doesn’t matter.  They aren’t here, and I don’t miss them.

And in case you are thinking, “Hey, it’s South America, there’s got to be stuff!”  You would be correct.  There are frogs, which make adorable frog sounds.  There are cicadas who have formed an awesome A cappella group and serenade us (loudly) during dinner.  There are bees that don’t sting and pigeons that don’t steal food.  In fact, I am beginning to wonder if I am, perhaps, on a movie set.  This can’t really be paradise, can it?   I think maybe my reality is something like this:

We have arrived at the breakfast table, which sits on the pool deck, chatting about important things like the quality of our sleep, the temperature of the pool, and how nice the breeze feels.  As we pull our chairs up to the table, a frazzled woman behind the scenes, dressed in baggy overalls and wearing Crocs and a bandana on her head to hide an unfortunate hair situation whispers into her mic and points at a man holding a bird cage.  At that moment, he opens the cage and two tiny gold birds fly out and land just next to our table.  We can’t help but notice, and as they begin to sing a perfect bird song, Carol (I’ve named the frazzled “stage manager”) points to the man again and whispers, “Cue the hummingbird!” With that, Tim (I’ve also named the “birdman”) opens another tiny cage and out swoops a miniature green jewel with wings, darting over our heads and happily sipping from perfect lavender flowers on a perfect vine crawling up the perfect wall to the perfect veranda.  As our gaze switches between golden birds and the green hummingbird, Carol waves wildly and a young girl holding a box.  She is on her phone (again) and Carol silently vows to fire her later. But for now, she must get her attention.  She growls into the mic, “Damnit Charlene, that bumble bee should have been flying over their heads 10 seconds ago!”  Charlene looks up with a start.  She opens the small box and gives it a slight jiggle.  The bee is up and humming over our heads and we are all smiling with childish delight.

About this time, Ada walks out with our breakfast.  Carol takes a minute to visit Craft Services for her own breakfast.  Colorful plates of eggs, scrambled with fresh tomatoes, corn and onion, are placed in front of us.  There is a basket with warm arepa, and pale blue cups filled with freshly-squeezed orange juice.  The sun begins to rise above the back wall of the veranda, and Carol races over, granola bar clenched between her teeth, to turn on a large fan.  We, of course, have no idea that this is all going on backstage.  All we know is that a delightful breeze has just offset the warming temperature, and we comment on it before deciding what to do with our day.  Between buttery bites of arepa, it is decided that we will all toggle between reading, napping and a dip in the pool.

Ada begins to clear our plates away as we push back from the table.  With that, Carol races over to an unmanned birdcage (damnit Tim!) and sets free another tiny pair of birds.  This time they are white and black and flutter, on cue, to the pool for a drink.  All of us turn to watch these adorable creatures, and Carol grabs at invisible wire to tug at the branches of a tree, releasing flower-shaped pods which twist and turn while floating down to the pool.  We comment how much they resemble butterflies, and Carol grins.  She points to Charlene who is ready this time with brightly-colored butterflies.  She releases them at the precise moment we are passing by, and we all laugh and point like 5 year old children.

I want to feel guilty about enjoying myself so much.  I try and focus on how I don’t deserve this.  But instead, as I open the door to my room and walk across the bright yellow tile, I remember that this time next week, I will be back at work.  I fling myself across the huge bed and stare out the screen doors.  There will be a lot of work to do.  I reach back and turn the knob that controls a ceiling fan that I am certain once belonged to the jet engine of a B-52.  The wind blows my hair… the curtains… my brain cells.  What was I thinking about?  Oh yeah, work.

And then, the sound of a bell wakes me up.  Lunch is being served under a tree.  A tree that is so perfect it can’t be real.  Where shall I sit?  Facing the pool?  Or facing down the hill toward the lagoon, where the sun sets over South American trees with the massive Andes looming in the background?  As I choose my seat, Carol calls into her walkie-talkie for the dog wrangler to let the two German Shepherds go.  They come trotting up to our table, but they don’t steal food or beg.  They are there to entertain us, to love us, to protect us.  I wiggle my toes in the grass and marvel at the fact that there are no bugs in this grass!  Carol must have been reading my mind, because she flips a switch that turns on the “bug noises”.  We can hear them, of course, but we can’t see them.

More discussion at the table about the level of relaxation and who might go for a swim.

After lunch, I head back to my room.  This is not a hotel, but magically my bed has been made, my trash has been emptied, my laundry has been done, and a fresh pitcher of water has been placed on the bedside table.  I stay long enough to change into my bathing suit and head out to the pool.  I swim laps for 30 minutes, grateful for the oxygen at this elevation.  Then I pour myself a lemonade from the pitcher that ALWAYS has lemonade (Ada, not Carol this time), and slip it into a tiny inflated palm tree so that it can float along with me in the pool.

The sun has set.  Dinner will appear on the veranda shortly.  We will all drink and laugh and again discuss our level of relaxation while staying in this paradise. And while we will never see the frazzled Carol, we appreciate her nighttime playlist of crickets and frogs and cicadas and lowing cattle.  She stays up as long as we do to make sure the giant fan blows just enough breeze and the dog wrangler sends out a couple more dogs to lay at our feet.

We will all move back over to the pillow-covered couches and daybeds on the other side of the veranda and continue drinking and talking and laughing while soft lights create a warm glow along the stone walls and stucco buildings of the hacienda.  The ghosts who sit with us hold the long history of this place.  They are not here to frighten us.

Eventually, the dogs disappear into the mango trees to guard the farm for the night.  The ghosts wander the mountain or dance in the courtyard.  And as I make my way back to my room, which was once a stable, I am grateful.  Grateful in such a way that it takes my breath away.  I am surrounded by people I love, and who love me.  I have a front seat as they continue to make the world a better place, and they make me want to be a better person.

There is no Carol, of course.  There is no Tim or Charlene or giant fan or invisible wire.

This is real.  It is paradise.  And I am breathless.

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