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Ecuador: Be Humble

The second day started the same as the first. I woke up to obscenely loud animals filling my room with noise and the mid equator sun filling my body with heat and blinding me with light. Nonetheless, I got up. I stumbled out of my room as did everyone with such stressful nights of sleep. We gathered around our table and Billy strolled in with a big grin on his face. He announced to us that today instead of 3 pieces of bread, we would get 4. Now I know that we had barely been in Ecuador for 24 hours, but already we were jumping for joy as if we had just been liberated from the poverty we were immersed in. It might sound sad, but 4 pieces was a big deal to us. Imagine the suffering that other individuals went through in the area if we got excited over 1 extra piece of bread. We had begun to appreciate our food a lot more after just 1 day. I could think back to American dining when bread was nothing but a precursor to a meal. I scarfed it down not considering that it was even really food. But when bread is your meal and there are no free refills on the bread basket, you begin to ration your bites and take your time eating it. Every bite became significant.

Billy told us to all get ready and put on some nicer clothes. Nicer clothes consisted of jeans and a t-shirt. We filled up our water bottles and headed into the tightly crammed van. We drove around Arbolito for a little bit and then we realized we were leaving the area. We started going back towards the airport. It was interesting to drive back the way we came because this time it was light out so we could see the city. The first thing we noticed, there were people, everywhere. Unlike American cities and small towns that we were familiar with, there were people outside, congregating and being with one another. We need to incorporate more sidewalk sitting into our everyday life. Keep people informed and happy. It’s the healthy version of Facebook.

As we drove we passed the airport, the curiosity crept into our minds. Where were we going? Well soon enough we figured it out. We pulled up to a long wall on the street with a gate that opened into what looked like a mini town behind the wall. This was this establishment’s security from the world, a huge wall around it. As we unloaded from the van and walked in, all we knew based off of context clues was that we were at a place called the Damien House. It was a hospital ward for people suffering from Hansen’s disease. Also known as leprosy. Excuse me? You brought me to a leprosy house?   My American ignorance kicked in as I quickly grew fearful of if I would be leaving Ecuador as a leper. I looked upon the faces of other’s in my group and it seemed clear I wasn’t the only one with this fear. But they quickly reassured us that while it is a common belief that leprosy is transferable by touch, it is very much a false fact. It is actually known as the disease of the poor. People who suffer from the disease have lived in circumstances so stricken by poverty that the disease becomes common and transferable because of high bacteria levels in the area.

We met with many different patients. But what was a nice realization was that while at first we looked at them as lepers. By the time we left, we looked them as beautiful people. We met a man named Raul who was 101 years old. He was such a sweet heart. But when we left the nurses warned the girls to be careful because he was handsy. This 101 year old man was handsy. What a playa. This man was so cheery to be alive and happy for visitors. I have unfortunately had to visit family and friends in the hospital with terminal illnesses. When I visit, one of the hardest parts is being around the gloomy feeling that is death. Everyone is sad. The patients, the nurses. People know that they are going to the hospital for their last stop. Nurses are not happy because their jobs are constantly dealing with people who pass away. Who can blame them for seeming a bit dreary. The have to watch grieving families, that is their job. At Damien House, it is not the case. While these are possibly the sickest people I have ever been around, they are happy. Because despite the fact that this is most likely their last stop in life. They do not perceive it as such. They look at it along the lines of a new chapter opening up. The medical professionals there are not sad because of the patient’s outlook. By looking at what is left of life and trying to make the most that they can with it, they can be happy until the end. This provides a pleasing outlook on life for those working there as well. And again, these are the sickest people I have ever met.

After that we went back home and started cooking. I may have mentioned this before, but we lived constantly on tuna, bread, warm water and a vegetable base. Vegetable base consisted of diced tomatoes, peppers and onions. The second day was my cooking day on the chore list rotation.  I stepped up to the counter and as the girl’s feared away from the onions in hopes to avoid tearing up, I manned up and took a few. After about 5 slices into the onion,  I was crying like a baby. Something we learned about food in Ecuador was that there was no form of it being processed. It was all fresh. If we ever went to the market, the food we bought had been picked that morning. The vegetables were much more potent, specifically the onions. After that meal, I cowarded away from them as well.

After lunch, Billy had us all gather at the table and introduced us to a volunteer who was new to us. Her name was Julia. She was a small, very sweet girl. He told us she would be taking us to our next site but was going to talk with us a little bit first. Her talk was about invasion communities. The community that we were in, Arbolito, and the one we would be going ASJ, were invasion communities. What this meant was that these were lands that the people that were housed on them had literally invaded them. The land was no good. Most of it was either swamp land or old landfills. These were towns literally built on trash dumps. She explained how these people were constantly living in fear because technically at any time the government could come in and take them over, wipe them out, and do what they wanted with the land. Arbolito was a much more progressive invasion community. When we heard this it shocked us a little. We had been living in a mud based community with falling apart homes and hungry citizens. How was this a more progressive town? Well we found our answer.

When we loaded into the bus for our next stop, Julia told us that similar to when we first arrived in Ecuador, at a certain point in our journey, we would have a silent van ride to look at the community we would be working in that afternoon. As we drove into the community and Julia instructed the silence to began, we witnessed a much worse community than could have been imagined. Arbolito was built on swamps. This community known as ASJ was built on trash. The homes were much more tattered than the ones we had been seeing so far. They were just roofs. The merest of shelter for an individual to survive. In between the houses we would see massive piles of trash. Many of which were on fire. After 10 minutes of driving through the same scenes over and over again, we came to a stop. Julia told us we had arrived.

We all unloaded the van to stand in front of a massive concrete wall with a tiny gate door. Julia walked over and let us in. We stepped over a bar which the door was locked to and went inside to see a large area with some concrete stands for sitting and some barred up rooms along the walls. There was a small jungle gym looking apparatus in the corner with rust and greenery growing off of it. I had walked in first and so I walked around and what caught my attention was a raise in the ground over to my left. I walked over to see a pool. It was empty. At first I was surprised to see a pool at all. Then I sadly laughed to myself because it was just one more sad sight. In the midst  of all this heat, a swim sounded amazing, warm water or not. But even though it was built for such a use, it sat there empty.

Until Julia walked up and proclaimed, “Oh God, the kids are going to want to go swimming today.” I quickly became confused. She said it in such a tone that can be related to by any camp counselor. When they know their kids are going to love something, but the second they see it they will go crazy making their job harder. But I didn’t understand, the pool was empty. What were they going to go swimming in? I did a double take and starred into the empty pool. It wasn’t exactly empty. There was about an inch and a half of collected rain water resting at the bottom.

Everyone knows that phrase, optimists see a glass half full, pessimists see it half empty. These kids saw an inch of water in a large concrete hole as a swimming pool. I saw it completely empty. What does that say? That moment quickly would be one that would change me forever. Because while I still was hesitant to fully believe Julia that these kids were going to swimming, the second they got there it was like the pool was Justin Beiber and I was holding back every American tween girl to make sure he was not touched. But the fact remained, I wasn’t protecting some overrated American pop star, I was trying to prevent some kids from going into this tiny pool with dirty water in it. And that didn’t feel right. Regardless, I had to do it, but I would be lying if I said I was strict. The kids would throw their shoes in the pool and say they needed to go get them. I would quickly step aside and let them jump in and splash around. To see their giant smiles as the relief of taking a step into the small bit of water, was the most humbling moment of my life.

I know this is coming almost four months late. It is something that had been saved in the draft section of my blog for a long time. But it deserved to be published. Because someone once told me, no matter how small, every attempt to do good counts.



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Ecuador: 1 Hour In – What am I doing?

This is the whole group before boarding the plane to Guayaquil

Like I said, this is a continuation of posts describing my disappearance from America. When I woke up at 5:45am on January 2, I considered going back to bed. I could easily just lay back into bed, fall asleep, wake up in a few hours, make an extravagant breakfast, drive to the gym, maybe visit the lady, maybe hang with some friends, grab a beer, write about some anecdotal story that I can draw some sort of message from which I may have encountered through the day and then fall asleep to the soft sounds of a playlist on shuffle. But whatever it was, morale, drive or something I can just not explain, I got out of bed, showered, pulled on a new pair of jeans and a new white t-shirt. I went into my closet and got an old rain coat. See I had my whole wardrobe for the week planned out. I had bought a couple of cheap shirts, boxers and socks. I packed two pairs of basketball shorts. I had no intention of bringing anything back from Ecuador. I went on a service trip to a Native American Reservation in Pine Ridge, South Dakota last year. I brought back bed bugs. The risk was not going to exist this time. I would leave all my belongings in Duran as if I never bought them.

I got my bags and got into the car. My mom and sister drove me to the bus station, which would bring me to the airport. The whole ride to the airport I was quiet. When I said goodbye to my family, my mom double checked to see if I was alright. I was unsure what to say. I knew it was going to be a big trip. I knew it was going to probably change me in one way another. God if I knew what I know now, I might have just stayed in bed considering the leaps and bounds of change which I would undergo. Alas, I got to the airport. I spotted a Dunkin Donuts and decided, my last meal in Boston…why not. I sat down on the floor and people watched. My mindset at the time was examining people. Wondering what their lives were. I wondered if any of them had any concept of simple living like I was about to dive into for the upcoming week.

As I finished my breakfast sandwich and ice cold coffee. I began to walk. I did not know where I was going. Figuratively and literally. I eventually found a friend and sat with her and her family for a little bit before the group showed up. The next few hours were pretty standard. Hopped on the plane. Got a few single serving snacks aboard the plane. Went from Boston to Miami in three hours. Upon arrival to Florida we found our next gate to Guayaquil and set up base camp as we waited for our plane to leave for about a 2 hour layover. We wondered around Miami Airport and realized something. We were in the international section of the airport and all around us was Latin American culture. The restaurants, the people. It grew intimidating quickly. We were looking for somewhere to eat and half the food service in the airport only spoke Spanish. If this wasn’t foreshadowing to upcoming difficulties, I don’t know what would have been.

Funny side note though. In walking around the airport I discovered Nathan’s. Nathan’s is pretty much the pinnacle of American obesity. But my friends on the trip suggested why not go all American before we dive into the deep abyss that is Ecuador. I got chicken tenders and bacon ranch fries. Bacon ranch fries might be the most beautiful thing to ever enter my mouth. Greasy, potato-y, crispy french fries smothered in ranch and then doused in chopped bacon. Just pure God in food form. My friend Jeremy and I downed a box of them each before the flight and agreed that once in Ecuador, this would be all we desired upon arrival. And we both got sick of them upon arrival, but I’m getting way ahead of myself. We all sat at the gate and waited patiently.

Side note. In my travels on this day I purchased two books, I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell and Assholes Finish First. Both written by Tucker Max, both wonderful books which would give us much enjoyment and many laughs as the week proceeded.  I read the first in 3 hours and began the second on the second flight. We boarded the plane and prepared for our journey down below the equator. You know you are leaving America when the instructions for plane safety are read in English second. As we traveled though, we all started to prepare ourselves for entrance into this very foreign land. After a 4 hour flight, we landed.

Now here is a fun fact about myself. I absolutely prefer the cold to the heat. Many people would disagree. But I grew up in the cold and will always choose it over heat. So as we began our leave from the flight and I felt that first draft of hot, dry, humid air, all I could think was…shit. We all walked off and waited for our group at the end of the boarding tunnel. We walked off and were made aware quickly that we were in a foreign place. The signs were all in Spanish with English as a second language. It might not have been a big deal for some, but again, I’ve never been to a foreign speaking country, never mind one I had extremely minimal knowledge of the language, so this was terrifying. But I still walked with confidence through the airport. Couldn’t be that bad…right?

Very little in this world makes me nervous. I am a pretty secure and confident person. But one thing that does scare me is airport security. What scares me so much is that these are people whom if you have a conversation with, you will quickly realize that something went very wrong in their lives and that is why they are working in airport security. Lewis Black, one of my favorite comedians, likes to speak about people in this profession very often. While some might thing he is looking for filler in his routine, I can assure you he is not. These are not the most intelligent of people. As a college student, I am very used to having the only thing standing between me and something I want or a goal I am working towards to be someone of reasonable intelligence. But when the only thing standing between me and getting out of the airport without problems is a person with very little intelligence, it makes me very nervous.

Now going into a foreign country, I knew all this. I have had this fear for a few years. To make it worse, I had to handle this situation with people who do not speak English making it even more nerve racking and frustrating. When I walked up to the customs officer and handed him my passport and customs form. He starred at it and then me, then back at the forms, then back at me. I could feel my fear grow inside. He then to this moment said something in Spanish so quickly that I could not hear what he was saying never mind process it. I assumed, since he was a customs officer, he was asking my reason for being in the country. I responded,

“El tripo de servioco”

Never have I had someone look at me like I was a bigger idiot. Usually when I say stupid things, I know they are stupid. But this was a genuine moment of stupidity on my part. Sorry for failing to represent America. But despite my own ineptitude, he stamped my passport and pointed to the exit. He clearly knew in our 60 second encounter, I would not be able to understand him. I walked through and waited for the group. I then made two great life decisions. As I could feel the Ecuadorian heat sneaking through the airport and activate my sweat glands, I pulled off the under armor long sleeve which was sealing in the inevitable all day funk that comes from riding on planes. I then applied some deodorant because though I had failed with the customs officer, I wasn’t about to make a miserable first impression with the rest of Ecuador by being smelly as a they probably assume most Americans to be.

We walked through baggage claim and then through a second customs checkpoint which did random searches. I couldn’t tell if this was to be taken seriously. A man screaming what was gibberish to me, flashed each of our tickets to a machine which flashed an X or ->. If it was the X you had to go through a bag scan. Otherwise you could walk through…that’s safe. When we left the checkpoint, we entered full on Spanish speaking airport. We shunned ourselves to a corner. After a few minutes of straight up fear and confusion of what we would do next, we were approached by five very cheery individuals. The main thing we noticed, they were white and SPOKE ENGLISH. In the ten minutes I had spent in this country, I was so excited to find someone who understood me. The individuals were Molly, Lindsay, Madison, Chris and Billy. They were all recently graduated college students doing a year of service with the Rostro de Christo program located in three different locations in Ecuador. Billy was our group leader and would be our director for the week.

They told us that if anyone needed to go to the bathroom we should go there before we left because it would be about a half hour bus ride. We all took advantage of the opportunity. This would be our second awareness lesson that we were not in America. Like the customs officer, we knew that the bathroom situation down there would tricky, but unlike the officer, this was a health concern. After doing my business and walking to wash my hands. I got nervous. When being offered advice from random individuals back home about keys to surviving in Ecuador, like they knew everything, the one thing everyone agreed upon was don’t drink the water. I starred at the sink. My ignorance tricked me into thinking if I turned it on, some kind of disease water would kill me as soon as contact was made. I scrubbed quickly and dried my hands off on my jeans. I think some point later on in the night I touched my lips and thought I was done for. Not the case.

The next moment was one of many that would make an imprint in my mind. The volunteers who would be shepherding us through the next week had to ask for security escorts to our bus which was parked not a stone’s throw from the airport entrance. White people or, in Ecuadorian terms, Gringos are most likely to be mugged leaving the airport. Now in America security guards, no matter what their position, tend to be well kept and appear professional. Very different story down there. The guards walking us to our cars sported some dark khakis and clean button downs. But unlike an American cop, their weapons were not holstered. They held their weapons. Also unlike American officers, they did not have a handgun or pistol, they showed off their sawed off shotguns and 12-gauge rifles, they weren’t ready to arrest someone, they were ready to kill them. As we packed out belongings into a truck bed with a custom built cage over it, we looked around and the question started to grow…where have we gone and what are we doing?

We piled into the van. Literally piled because it was too small to seat us all. But Ecuador doesn’t really enforce driving laws. They don’t really enforce any laws. Before we left, Billy instructed that we were going to do a silent van ride to our house. He instructed we take the opportunity to witness everything we were going to be living in for the next week. This van ride was very interesting. As we left the airport, we all started growing victim to the blistering heat. The first few things we noticed were not super impressionable. There might have been a bit more trash on the street than I would see back home. There would be more cars with improvised windows than I was used to. Gas was $1.45. Ecuador seemed great. But when we turned off the main highway, things started to change.

We would learn later on that we literally driving through worsening areas and the one we would live in would be the worst. The houses in the first area weren’t bad necessarily. They were just very plain. A few walls and metal roof. But something that caught my eye a lot was that every house, shop or building we passed had massive bars built around it to avoid break ins and criminals. The other thing we noticed so much of was stray animals. Dogs, cats, roosters, anything you could think of, just roaming around the streets. The next part of the town started to worsen. Houses started becoming more worn. There was a lack of metal bars and cage fronts and it became makeshift security systems. A house we would visit later during the week, but which a lot of initial attention was given, was a house with boards similar to common fencing built around the house with large nails and spikes and barbed wire sticking out and drooping around it. It was a disturbing site. But it wasn’t even the worst. As we got about 5 minutes away from our house, there was no street. We were now maneuvering through mud and dirt. The houses became shacks. Fires were apparent on the streets. They were utilized to burn trash.

Finally after a day of flying and driving, we came to our house. In the midst of this very very decrepit area, we came across a house surrounded by a metal cage fence with shrubs grown on it to avoid people being able to see inside. The entrance to the cage was guarded by a large Ecuadorian man sporting his own shotgun. He opened the gate to us and waved. We pulled in and stared at two houses. One had a hammock hanging from it. This was the house for the volunteers and the other house had a large metal door with a sturdy lock on it. That was safe I guess? We all began to unload and grab our bags. We walked into accommodations that looked decent at first. There was a front room with a musty sense to it. There was paint on the walls with words and images talking about the program’s mission. When one walked through the doorless doorway to the next area, it was three large tables with benches. Then a kitchen which had a fridge, oven, sink and a long counter top for preparing food.

They sat us down and expressed that we would have a chance to settle in after a little introduction. We all introduced ourselves and met the volunteers officially. They wanted to explain some housekeeping items before they allowed us to unwind and settle in. The doors to the main room were open and they asked, would we prefer heat or bugs. We all agreed, heat. So they shut the doors. We would soon learn that doors open or shut, bugs and heat would get in. The big thing they wanted us to know was bathroom etiquette. They followed military style for showers. This meant turn the water on, get wet, turn the water off, scrub up, turn water back on, rinse off, done. They explained that there was no hot water so the desire to keep the water on wasn’t that great. Other than that, don’t leave it running, don’t drink it and by no means DO YOU FLUSH TOILET PAPER. We learned that their septic system was so fragile that just the smallest bit of toilet paper would cause feces to rebound into the system. Translation? Shit comes out the shower head…great.

They said more instructions would be given the next morning for detailed living for the rest of the week. We were bid goodnight and myself and the three other males grabbed the quad. Our bedroom was about 10×8 ft. There were two sets of metal bunk beds with mattresses that could have been yoga mats. When you slept, all you could feel was metal bars in your back. As well after you got into bed prepared to sleep, a net hung from the ceiling which you would unfold and tuck into all the sides of your bed so to not allow bugs to get you while you slept…great.

As we all said chatted before falling asleep, we joked and commented on all the differences that we had seen in the one hour we had been in Ecuador. This conversation was quickly stifled by what would seemingly become the most frustrating part of the trip, sleeping. On top of sleeping on metal bars, there was no quiet or darkness. Lights that lit up the compound we lived on stayed on to allow the guard to walk around and see if someone were to ever sneak in. So our room was pretty bright. But what was worse than the light was the sound that filled our room. If it wasn’t dogs and cats screaming, it was a rooster crowing from our windowsill, directly into our face. But what made it more difficult was the occasional scream from some individual or a gunshot in the distance. So much fear can be instilled in attempting to sleep, these sounds did not help. 1 Hour In…what am I doing here?

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Ecuador: Way Before and Way After

I woke up this morning. I guess that is well known knowledge. But this morning I woke up in a state of pure thought. Often times we fall into these spells that all we can do is replay certain moments and ponder how to process them. I found myself thinking about last night. I have been moved into my apartment at college for about a week now. But yesterday the majority of my friends came back and what did we do to celebrate reuniting? We drank. And then drank some more. And then drank a little bit more than that. A couple of friends in the apartment below me asked I come say hi. When I stopped by I was sharing some moments from the night so far and quickly two of them grew nervous. See they knew that I have not been in a good place lately. Figuratively and literally. They were nervous that I might have been drinking some emotional troubles away. After a little bit of time I came back to my room to sleep.

But waking up I felt a little bit angry. I don’t need someone parenting my motives. But in the midst of waking up and in a sleepy daze crossing my room to sit at my computer I signed into my email. I noticed an address that was unfamiliar to me and clicked on the email. It was from Christina Mellace. I met Christina a few months ago. In September I was approached by my Campus Minister who I work close with about becoming apart of a group that would spend the fall semester training and reflecting in preparation for a one week service immersion trip to Duran, Ecuador. My first response was no. He asked why and I told him that money was just non existent for me. The trip, though majorly covered by the Campus Ministry department, was $400. This is a lot of money to a senior in undergrad. Hell, that’s a lot of money for anyone. But after chatting a little more he explained that this trip was different than others. There was a grant for this trip because it was new and hopefully, if successful, the trip would be a launching point for the service trip program at Assumption. After talking about it and finding out more details, I agreed. Little did I know what I would be getting myself into.

The training started at the end of September. We talked a lot about social injustice in this world. We discussed how we as college students could fix them. As a group of people that did not know one another that well, we did not get that far. I’ve been on these service trips with the school before and the meetings beforehand are always terribly awkward. But for 3 months we met. Every Wednesday night at 6:30. The meetings started to develop different agendas. We watched a 2-part documentary called “Crude” about the pollution of Ecuadorian lands by American oil companies. It was sad to watch American ignorance at its best destroying a beautiful land. But again, the concept of Ecuador being a beautiful place was not one I was privy to. My own American ignorance had me believing that the whole country of Ecuador was a jungle. Not at all was this case I would soon learn. Another training meeting included working on our Spanish. If I have one regret about this experience it was that I did not take learning Spanish nearly as seriously as I should have. I have never been to another country that does not speak English. That would take it’s toll about 3 minutes after getting off the plane in Guayaquil.

But the most interesting of the meetings was when a girl, not much older than myself came to speak with us. Her name was Christina Mellace. She is the Assistant Director of the program we would be working with called Rostro de Christo. As we piled into the meeting room like we had to often before, she greeted us with a big smile on her face. She was so excited. At the time this was confusing. Now I completely understood. She was very excited for us to experience this mission. She proceeded to say a lot of things. A lot of things which made no sense to us at the time. She confessed at the end that she knew she told us a lot of information and it would be hard to process before our venture down south. Some of the questions we asked were along the lines of how difficult would the language barrier be? How would the food be? What kinds of accommodations would we have? She gave a bit of a laugh with these types of questions. She knew something we did not. Before going on a trip like this, everyone is so concerned with their own well being while being in such a foreign place. Upon arrival though, we would quickly learn that accommodations would be the least of our concerns. But despite her knowing the insignificance of such things, she gave us answers along the lines of the food would be very minimal. It would be enough to get us through the week but we should absolutely prepare for cutting our diets down a lot. As well, the bed situation would be very different from what we were used to. She did not want to give it all away then but she mentioned that we would be sleeping in a net to shield us from bugs while we slept.

…I would be sleeping in a net? What was I getting myself into? I can’t count how many times I asked myself that question during this whole process. But as this meeting began to wrap up, Christina could not stress enough to go in without expectations and have fun. Sure sure, that’s what they all say. But little did I know what I would soon be immersed into. What was weird was that as the semester ended and I was home for Christmas break I would see lots of family and friends and tell them all I was preparing for the trip and they would ask what I would be doing and each time I got asked that, I stumbled. I really had no idea what I would be doing. Despite Christina chatting to us about the week, I really could not tell you before the trip a single thing we would be doing. The morning of our departure I woke up and sat up in bed. Did I really want to do this? I could stay in bed, sleep in, go to the gym, visit friends during the week. But whatever it was pushed me out of bed and on the road to the airport.

I’m very happy I did. This morning when I signed into my email and saw the message from Christina, I read and found myself in a pure state of thought. Her email was sent out to myself and the rest of my group talking about how she hoped we had such a great time and wanting us to respond and tell her about our experience. She mentioned that she would send out a more detailed message to us in a few days but to keep remaining strong. One of the last things she said was how coming back from this trip was the hardest part of the trip. Emotionally and mentally. But once we are able to process everything, it becomes understandable how we truly lived an amazing once in a lifetime experience. As I read her email and thought about the emotional and mental struggle I’ve been fighting for the past week, it became clear. It is time to stop being upset, frustrated, confused. I can’t sit here in a perplexed state and remain lost. I had to face it all. How better to do that than do what I do best. Write.

In the next few posts, I’m hoping to explain in a relate-able way what I experienced. For me and for you, to understand what exactly I did and how this experience would truly be a changing point for me in my life.

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