Finding stillness in the present moment

 

I recently found a light and airy coffee shop tucked away in one of the neighborhoods near my apartment building. There are many nice little cafes like this one in my area, but this one distinguishes itself with highspeed internet so has become a regular haunt for me recently. Today is the day before Qing Ming Jie (Tomb Sweeping Day), so the cafe is full of young people enjoying a long weekend away from school and work. I’m perched on a high stool by the window where I can see people walking by and trees green with new spring leaves.

View from my new “office”

It’s been a week since we returned to Guangzhou, and we’ve settled quickly back into our schedules here. Though we loved the change of pace and scene in the DR, we’re both happy to be home. Our time away definitely helped me appreciate our life here. We arrived in a polluted haze, but after a few days of heavy rain, the skies are almost as clear as in Santo Domingo and spring is in full bloom everywhere.

Music rehearsals and a concert, research, wedding-planning, social outings, my birthday, and life’s numerous other small daily projects (playing in my music room, reorganizing our apartment, deepening my yoga practice, dancing to Just Dance in my living-room) have kept me from writing. Not that I haven’t tried a few times including on the long flight back. This letter has evolved and grown as the days have ebbed and flowed and has been a frequent reminder of how full my life is here.

The Guangzhou Baroque Orchestra at the XingHai Concert Hall 

During the long trip home, I, on more than one unsolicited occasion, gleefully told my fellow travelers how I had such a long trip. It felt like somehow I was winning the competition of who had to be in a cramped aircraft the longest. I admit that as I enjoy plane travel and exploring airports, I did just fine. Plus, I was on Korean Air for two of the flights, and they have quickly become my favorite airline. While my seat on the 14.5-hour flight was a small economy one, they still did everything possible to make passengers comfortable and I was even able to sleep for a few hours. I watched a variety of good movies during the trip including “Manchester by the Sea,” which was so good and so sad. Speaking from experience, I don’t recommend watching that one on a plane unless you’re prepared to audibly sob in front of strangers.

I’ve also fallen in love with the Seoul Incheon Airport where I just spent 4.5 hours napping, eating, and relaxing. It’s so huge and bright and clean. They particularly treat transfer passengers well; they offer a free area with futons to lie down on and showers. It’s so humane. I felt like I’d stepped into the future. Plus things in South Korea are so pretty and cute. Just look at my coffee:


Traveling back in time a bit, our last weekend in Jarabacoa was the highlight of our trip. It was just a two-hour bus trip from Santo Domingo but felt like a different country. Santo Domingo is a sprawling city that is always buzzing; Jarabacoa is a sleepy town in the middle of wild forests, rushing rivers, and hilly roads.

Amaury had told me that when we arrived at the bus stop, we’d go to his uncle’s house nearby to say hello and pick up the car we’d be borrowing over the weekend from a family friend. We left the bus, grabbed our bag, and walked 10 feet down the road straight through his uncle’s front door. I hadn’t realized just how close he meant! We spent some time chatting with his aunt and then drove over to our hotel. Again, I was surprised by proximity; the hotel is practically on top of the river and from our room, we could see and hear the rushing water.

View of Amaury in front of our hotel

While China and Santo Domingo and so many other places feel so big and foreign, Amaury’s hometown immediately felt accessible and close to me. Of course, this was mainly because I had him as a guide. As we drove to dinner that night he pointed out his old schools, churches, the cemetery, and the youth center, which is the heart of the community. Our first night there, we headed up the hill to a beautiful restaurant overlooking the town. The blinking lights below made up such a small space; lit-up points connected by glowing lines of cars and motorbikes over the few main thoroughfares. As the fog rolled in obscuring the view below, we both felt a rush of emotion. I’m so proud of how far he has come and in awe of his parents leaving their familiar community to go to New York so he could have access to all the opportunities he has had. It was a moment that I’ll revisit often in my mind. Our trip to Jarabacoa reinforced the strong bonds we are growing in our marriage.

The next day we spent the morning hiking down to a beautiful waterfall called el Salto de Jimenoa. The climb down left my legs shaky, and I struggled climbing back up because the higher altitude in the mountains made each step a fight for air. Like most hikes, it was worth it though.

Salto de Jimenoa

We spent the rest of the weekend seeing Amaury’s family and friends including two aunts, an uncle, and his best friend M and his family. We were so spoiled everywhere we went- his two aunts each cooked us a full lunch Saturday and Sunday and we were offered coffee at every house we visited. We had a particularly great time on Saturday afternoon hanging out by our hotel pool with Amaury’s friends including his best friend’s partner and their 9-month-old who has the biggest, most beautiful eyes.

 

Polaroid snap of Jarabacoa friends by the pool

Though I sometimes struggled with keeping up with the conversation in Spanish, it felt good to be able to carry on a full conversation and to sit back and just enjoy the peaceful environment and cuddles with the baby. Everywhere we went was full of love. We’ve both been away for our families for a long time now- Amaury for almost a year, me for over 2 years- it renewed our spirits to be with his extended family and old friends who have known him forever. We felt a little deflated returning to Santo Domingo after such a golden weekend, but the rest of our time in the city was wonderful too, including more good food and time in the old city center with new friends.

Coming back to Guangzhou, I feel like everything is in motion around me. My Chinese friend J, who took me under her wing when I first arrived, is moving to Yunnan this week, so we met for a last brunch. Sometimes I’m the one who stays. New people have arrived at the Consulate over the past couple months, and I enjoy playing tour guide.

Part of the reason that I feel grounded lately is that we recently found out where we’ll be headed next. You may remember I mentioned in my last letter that we’d been working on our plans. Last week we learned that Amaury will be sent on a 1-year assignment in Islamabad, Pakistan in May 2019, which was our first choice position for many personal and professional reasons. I’m planning to apply for jobs there, so assuming that goes well, I’ll be joining him. Our timeline will be: June 2018 leave Guangzhou; June – July 2018 holiday; August 2018-May 2019 Amaury in training; May 2019 – May 2020 Islamabad assignment. Knowing what the next three years look like gives me a rare feeling of permanence. We have over a year left here in Guangzhou, and I intend to enjoy every moment of it. We’ve spent so much time lately looking towards the future, that I’m happy to now focus on the present.

And last week my present involved my 30th birthday on the 30th! As my dear friend R told me, it was my golden birthday, which must be extra lucky right? I celebrated it over three days with a dinner date with Amaury, a happy hour with friends, and a day at the Chimelong Safari Park and International Circus. Chimelong is Guangdong’s Disneyland and is a super high-quality park with huge spaces for the animals to roam. Multiple friends had recommended both the safari and circus to us and they still surpassed our expectations. Highlights from the safari included seeing baby tigers, getting up close to giraffes, flying over the park in a cable car, being impressed by the surprisingly good Jurassic section (complete with robotic dinosaurs that, while not exactly convincing, were a lot of fun for the imagination), and seeing koalas with their babies. The baby animals were definitely my favorite part.



Meanwhile, the 1.5-hour circus show was non-stop fun from start to finish. It surprised us at every turn from the motorcycle stunts, to the acrobatics on the “Wheel of Death,” divers, aerialists twirling in the air above us with no harnesses, slapstick clowns, tightrope-walking, trapeze artists, and the gorgeous light, fire, and water effects. I don’t think my pictures do it justice but here are a few anyway:

 


Turning 30, of course, has led me to lots of introspection, as does pretty much any major life event. My best friend J told me over Skype today that having existential crises is part of my decision-making process, which is definitely true. At any major (or minor) point, I can’t help reflecting on who I am, where I am, and who and where I want to be. Sometimes I have not found an easy answer to one or more of those things; it feels fitting that as I enter my 30’s, I feel a deep sense of rightness in all of them.

A good ex-pat friend of mine just wrote in her regular newsletter that going back to the U.S. for a trip made her realize how much is changing at home relative to the consistency of her life in Saudi Arabia. I agree with her, though I can understand why our ex-pat lives would seem very active to people not living overseas (I certainly think her explorations in the desert and riding camels is pretty exciting!). I see many of my friends entering new phases of life, having and raising babies, moving to new places, embarking on new adventures in work and life. Meanwhile, after a long period of transition, I feel that I am approaching a needed period of stillness. But, my wise friend J also said that while I may feel that way, I’m actually in the process of growing inward, enriched by my surroundings and explorations (this friend is a gifted therapist, can you tell?).

Though of course in a few weeks Amaury and I will fly back to the States for our wedding. That certainly is another big life change and will involve a lot of moving around. I’m so excited to have this big celebration with our nearest and dearest. I’m also itching to see my family; homesickness is always something I vaguely feel when I’m apart from them. The joy I feel about marrying Amaury (again) is a large reason for my feelings of stability. So now I’m 30 and relatively still for me and for now and loving it.

 

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