Posted by: Sarah | June 29, 2010

I feel the earth move under my feet…

I arrived to my friend’s apartment in Guatemala City late last night. He showed me where the bathroom was, told me to help myself to anything I wanted in the kitchen, set up a guest bed where I could crash for a few nights.  Then, in all seriousness, he told me that before I went to bed, he needed to tell me what to do in case of an emergency.  Pretty sure I appeared puzzled.

The earth shakes all the time here.  It’s Guatemala, it happens.  If it’s just a little bit, don’t worry about it, enjoy the shaking.  We’re in a high-rise building, even after the shaking stops, you will still feel it move.  If it’s more serious, you’ll know.  Head out the door, we’ll be just a few seconds behind you. Head toward this staircase out here, that’s going to be the safest place.

Good to know. I’ve never needed to think about an earthquake evacuation route before when I’ve been a guest at any of my friend’s apartments.

Posted by: Sarah | June 25, 2010

mi casa es su casa…

In the past 11 days that I have been in Quetzaltenango, my host family has without a doubt been the highlight of my experience here. I love chatting with Laura and Gustavo during our meals together. Over the past week and a half, I have gotten a glimpse into their life, their culture, their country.

Laura, who is 65, brags about her grandchildren, as she cooks delicious food, hearty and full of flavor.  She asks me about New York, suggests places that I should visit in Guatemala and elsewhere in Central America, tells me about all the students they have hosted in the past.

Gustavo, her older brother, loves practicing his English and seems to have a new word every day that he throws into the conversation. The best one was when he was telling us that he was a dermatologist, but only works half-days, “porque ya soy muy old“. No matter how warm it is, he constantly wears a heavy winter coat in the apartment, whether we are setting the table, eating dinner, or watching the world cup.

I love that even at their age, they still bicker like brothers and sisters. I love that we have coffee at almost every meal and that Laura asked me if I prefer Splenda to regular sugar because she noted that I go to the gym almost every day.  I love when they teach me about Guatemalan folklore and legends, history and natural disasters that have hit, how holidays are celebrated here.

Brianna, who has been here for over a month, and I bought them an apple pie today, a token of thanks and a little bit of our American culture in exchange for theirs. When I head to Antigua tomorrow morning, I will definitely miss mis abuelitos guatemaltecos.

Posted by: Sarah | June 22, 2010

La Chica de la Laguna

I headed to Lago Atitlan this weekend, having been told that it is one of the most beautiful places in Guatemala, just a few hours away from Quetzaltenango.

I was more than happy to tag along with the other girl who is staying with the same host family as me and other students from her school, since they have all been in Guatemala for several weeks.  I am quickly learning that traveling here means continually asking people around you how to get to where you are going and they will at least point you in the right direction, even if that next step doesn’t take you completely to your destination. Bus “terminals” are street corners or ends of the market where buses happen to be parked rather than actual terminals. Traveling to San Pedro involved taking a (ridiculously crowded) chicken bus and a motor boat across the lake; the return trip consisted of three buses and walking halfway across town once we got back to Xela.

Lake Atitlan is surrounded by towering volcanos and villages set into the mountainside, 12 of which are named for the 12 Apostles of Jesus, each pueblo maintaining a unique indigenous language, which we seemed to hear more than Spanish.  Upon arriving to San Pedro, we were greeted by a Guatemalan who worked for a local tour company and offered to help us find a hostel.  We figured that he would expect a generous tip in return, but instead he laughed and told us that he just expected to see us out at the bars later that night (we obliged).  We were amused to find that the owner of the restaurant where we stopped for a late lunch was Irish, until we realized that San Pedro was packed with expats who had escaped to this picturesque lakeside town.

I am still so amazed by how cheap everything is in Guatemala compared to Colombia, which I know is much more developed but still serves as my reference point for Latin America.  At lunch, I paid 10 quetzales, about $1.40, for a Cuba Libre.  After chilling in hammocks on the porch of our hostel, which cost each of us 40Q for the night (less than $6), we wandered to the explore more of the town. Down by the docks, some locals asked if we were interested in kayaking.  When they told us that it would be 10Q for an hour, we jumped at the chance.

A young girl, who couldn’t have been more than 12 years old, took charge, collected our money, and directed everyone to the kayaks, telling us that life jackets were mandatory.  I asked her, jokingly, “Tu eres la duena?” Are you the owner? She didn’t hesitate when she replied yes.

Out on the lake, a short while later, she expertly paddled her kayak toward ours, telling us to be careful of other boats.  I was curious to know her story and we started to chat.  I learned that she was 10 years old, but as she insisted, her birthday was at the end of the month, so really, almost 11. I asked if the kayak company was her family’s, and she responded, that her father, was already, well… alluding to the fact that he was dead, and told us her mother worked in the capital city, making bread. Who did she live with here in San Pedro? Her sister, who was studying right now…and is only 15 years old. We ascertained that it was, in fact, just the two of them who lived together and ran the kayak shop.  Our little tour guide went to school in the morning, and her sister in the afternoon.  By this point, she was more comfortable talking with us and told us proudly how she spoke five languages (Spanish, English, and the indigenous languages of San Pedro, San Pablo, and San Marco), that she kayaked so well, since her father had done it since he was seven years old, that she had lots of friends in San Pedro, that she enjoyed art class and she was helping to paint a mural in one of the churches.

Caught between the worlds of childhood and adulthood, she and her sister were running a household and a business, while their mother was away in Guate, working to earn money for their family. I was torn between feeling that this little girl was far too young to be worrying about supporting herself and thinking that maybe she was among the lucky ones, since her family did have this business and she and her sister weren’t out on the streets…

Posted by: Sarah | June 15, 2010


Woke up this morning to an ice cold shower. Shit. It took about five seconds to realize that the water wasn’t going to heat up and to decide that a quick rinse was sufficient and my hair didn’t really need to be washed. Que puedo decir? Standards change quickly while traveling.

After arriving to Xela after dark last night, I was excited to see that the sun was out this morning and get a glimpse of the city where I will be based for the next two weeks. First impressions – it’s relatively small (about 150,000-300,000 people, depending on who you talk to), and decidedly less developed than Barranquilla, but somehow has a charm that made me take to it instantly. It’s as if you combined the Candalaria district of Bogota with the south side of Barranquilla, but with much less chaos.

With the exception of a few gringos studying at my school and another American staying with the same host family as me, no one speaks English. I am already slipping back into Spanish mode, which was one of the main objectives of this summer’s travel. Conversations revolve around Guatemalan culture, history, food, music, places to visit, the World Cup, and how Guatemala compares to other places in Latin America. Estoy super contenta.

Posted by: Sarah | June 14, 2010

Every day is a winding road…

I stepped off the plane and all my nervousness melted away in an instant.  I took a deep breath and knew instinctively that I was back in Latin America, that I somehow belonged in this country where I had never stepped foot before this afternoon. It infiltrated my senses. My eyes fell on Tigo cell phone advertisements, and while I wasn’t in Colombia, those posters represented familiarity.

I felt my Spanish coming back to my as I chatted candidly with my taxi driver about the World Cup, New York, which parts of Guatemala are safe and which are dangerous.  He pointed out ash alongside the road from the recent volcanic explosion and told me how it had affected the city and the outlying areas.

I realized with an almost overwhelming sense of contentment that I have the next two months to have these kinds of conversations and satisfy my curiosity.

As the bus taking me to Quetzaltenango (ket-zal-ten-on-go) winds through the mountainous countryside, I find myself wondering why it took me so long to return to Latin America for more than just a week here and there.  There were a million reasons, pero en este momento, those all seem like a distant memory.

Cali was amazing, no doubt about that. Having so many close friends out there with me for a week and a half softened the blow of leaving New York. I have such an incredible support network, people who make me laugh, inspire me, make me believe in myself…both in terms of running and the crazy path that I have set forth on this summer.

The San Diego Marathon was everything that I could have hoped and more. Although I knew that my training over the past six months indicated I should run a crazy PR, I was still incredibly nervous that I would not be able to pull it off, that I would disappoint the high expectations of myself and others around me.

The temperatures skyrocketed early on race day.  I enjoy running in the heat and still had a tough time staying hydrated and keeping my breathing under control. There were miles that blended together in deliriousness, where I vaguely saw the scenery around me, but was mostly waging an internal argument with myself, telling my legs not to stop running, not to give up on the hard work I had put in leading up to this day.

I drew motivation from Carola, who I ran alongside for the first 22 miles of the race; Peter, who told me at mile 18 I was the third girl he had seen so far from our NYC team pass by; Elyssa, who ran with me from miles 21-25; my other coaches who were spread out around the tough miles of Fiesta Island. I don’t think a single runner out there found that island to be any kind of party, by the way…

I went out there to take my running to a new level, to see how strong I was, to push myself to the limits, to test just how much I had to give.  When I crossed the finish line in 3:51, more than an hour faster than I had run Philly less than 7 months ago, I can honestly say that I did just that. I left it all out on the course. No complaints, no regrets.

I spent the rest of my time in Cali exploring an incredibly beautiful state and bonding with my teammates. We drove up the Pacific Coast Highway, which fully exceeded my expectations. Our road trip led us through Carlsbad to Los Angeles and Hermosa Beach; through Santa Monica and Malibu to Santa Barbara; beach-hopping at Butterfly Beach and Pismo Beach; camping out in Big Sur before we concluded our journey in San Francisco.

Traveling in good company made the trip even more unforgettable than the natural beauty of the places we visited. With minimal planning, we pulled everything off better than we could have hoped. I already miss The Entourage, as our car was dubbed. We played road trip games, listened to a ridiculous amount of 90s music, stopped for burritos on the beach, took tons of pictures, crashed at friends’ houses along the way.

The drive from Santa Barbara to Big Sur was the most beautiful stretch of the PCH. Breathtaking, stunning, gorgeous…there really are no words that can do justice to the beauty we saw out there. The sight of the waves beating against the cliffs never got old. The 11 of us had our hearts set on camping out in Big Sur, and we managed to find two cabins at a campground that worked out perfectly. We spent the last night all together chilling by the campfire, roasting hot dogs, making s’mores, shotgunning beers, Bros Icing Bros, stargazing.

Friday came all too fast.  We spent the afternoon hiking around Big Sur and said our good-byes before we parted ways for San Fran. Y ahora, el paso siguiente. The next step. Another early wake up call, another long day of traveling. Guatemala, here I come.

Posted by: Sarah | June 1, 2010

tameles y sol…la próxima aventura empieza

Why Central America? Beautiful beaches, adventure sports, cheap hostels? It’s so much more than that…

Each time that I have ventured abroad, whether to study in Paris during college or to work in Colombia after I graduated, I have had a nagging sense of impatience with my routine in the US.  A desire to expand my horizons, break out of my shell. A feeling that there was so much more out there that I needed to experience, to learn, to understand. A feeling that when I become too content with where I am, that place becomes stagnant, ceases to push me to grow.

The day that I have been dreading, the day that I never thought would come, has come, and I said good-bye to NYC this morning, after several tearful good-byes over the past week. Over and over, people have posed the question – if I am so sad to leave New York, why leave? Because staying in New York would be the easier option. Because I know that there is more out there for me to experience. I know that each time I have packed my bags before and leapt into something unknown, it has challenged me, made me grow, and taught me amazing things.  Because I know that if I don’t continue to push myself out of my comfort zone, I will miss out on so much.

Central America. 7 tiny countries located in the heart of the Western Hemisphere, between the Caribbean and the Pacific, North and South America. A region of the world with rich biodiversity, a mixture of Indigenous, European, and African heritages, a violent history, and complex ties to the United States. In short, many of the same characteristics that fascinated me about Colombia.

Spending a year in Colombia ultimately influenced my decision to pursue the graduate degree that I will begin this fall. Even as I was accepted to top programs in my field, I still felt that I needed more real-world experience in the region to draw upon when I delve into my studies in a few months. So here I am.

The plan? To plan as little as possible. While that level of spontaneity in another country may seem inconceivable to many, that is how I prefer my travels. One of the best experiences that I had in Colombia was during Christmas break when I set out for 4 weeks with a backpack, destined for Medellin, with a rough idea of other places that I wanted to see after that, but taking it one day at a time, periodically changing the route, staying as long or as short as I wanted to in various places.  I have a few checkpoints in place this summer: 2 weeks of Spanish classes in Xela, Guatemala to begin the summer, a date when I need to arrive in Belize to meet Michelle, another date when Elke arrives to Costa Rica, a flight from Panama back to the States. In between that, the goal of the summer is to immerse myself in the culture, share my impressions of the countries I visit, taste new foods, listen, learn, understand, and fill my passport with stamps, my mind with lasting memories.

Posted by: Sarah | May 18, 2010

what I will miss…

The sights and the sounds. The comfortable crowdedness. The smell of fresh produce as I walk through the GreenMarket on my way to the subway station in Union Square. The subtle changes that you notice evolve in a city if you live there long enough. The aura of New York.

Riding the Q train from Manhattan to Brooklyn and watching the scene change from the rooftops of Chinatown to Lower Manhattan; to the East River with the Statue of Liberty, Staten Island, and the Verrazano in the distance; to DUMBO and Brooklyn Heights.  Running over that same bridge with Elyssa and Carla and watching the sunrise over my city.

Crunch, where I have danced hip hop and samba, played volleyball and capoeira, bounced on a trampoline, swung in a hammock and practiced Bikram yoga.

Watching snowflakes fall from a midnight black sky and blanket the city in white. Running through snow-covered Central Park. Listening to rain fall on the skylights in our building. Splashing in puddles around the reservoir.

The restaurant. It will be strange after almost a year to have my weeknights free, to not have someone cook dinner for me every night, to not sip espresso every afternoon and listen to the familiar/unfamiliar babble of Albanian.

My apartment, my diamond in the rough apartment that is my home, my comfort zone. My street, my piece of the neighborhood, sandwiched between Union Square and Flatiron. Listening to our downstairs neighbors sing karaoke. Our ridiculous elevator, our rooftop, the pole and all the laughs/strange looks that has generated. The little Italian cafe across the street which in my very biased opinion has the best coffee in the city.  And I will miss my roommates.  I will miss them so much.

Gizzi’s and Essex and Kiku and M&H and all the places that remind me of my AIESEC days and the friendships that endured.

Running the rolling hills of Central Park, that like most New York runners, I know all too well. Seeing familiar faces no matter where I run, almost every time I run, the faces that make this city so much smaller than it is. In this crazy metropolis, the serenity that awaits me the minute my running shoes hit the Westside Highway or Central Park or the Bridges or Palisades State Park is priceless.  My worries fade into the background and I find a rhythm that allows me to escape for as long as I need, 30 minutes or 3 hours.

This is what I will miss…

New York is intense, it is so intense.  But in return, it will offer you the world.  The opportunity to do what you want, be who you want, stretch your imagination to its limits.  New York will make you grow weary, make you want to escape for long weekends, and once you leave, you are surprised to find yourself missing it, ready to return to the hustle and bustle.

In a New York Minute, everything can and does change.  If there is one thing I can say of my three years in New York, it is that there was no lack of change.  All I know is that the cumulation of these changes have led me to where I am now, to the adventures ahead of me.

All the memories that this city holds, the happiness, the heartbreak, the imprint that New York has left on my heart. This beautiful, rough, concrete jungle, center of the universe.  If I can make it here, it’s time for me to move on and see if I really can make it anywhere. It is cliche, but it is true.  This city will push you to your limits, show you the highest highs, knock you down to your lowest lows, and see whether or not you have the strength, the guts, and the heart to get back up on your feet again.  See whether or not, after all that, you will still say with an unwavering conviction that you love New York.

Posted by: Sarah | April 5, 2010

Another reason you’ll love dc…

Moving to DC and leaving behind the wonderful city that has become home over the past 3 years is pretty much all that is on my mind these days. Attending grad school has been a dream for so long, but I can’t say that it is not bittersweet. One of my very close friends, Nisha, has been a resident of DC since last summer and she is as infatuated with DC as I am with NYC.  I told her that she is responsible for convincing me why DC really is as fabulous as she claims it is, and she has been living up to that job very well.

During my long run yesterday, one of my TNT buddies, Rose, was running a loop of Central Park with me before I headed out to Riverside for the rest of my 15 miler (which turned into 13.5 miles. grrr).  I mused on the fact that the running routes in NYC were one of the things I would miss the most when I left.  In the past week alone, I had run in Central Park, the Bridges Loop over the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges that I do with Elyssa, Riverside Park, and Prospect Park.  A little bit of everything. A little bit of heaven in the concrete jungle of New York City. sigh.

As I parted ways with Rose near Columbus Circle, stopped to stretch a bit and buy some water, this email from Nisha popped up on my iPhone, and made me realize that even if I am leaving what is, in my very biased opinion, one of the greatest running cities in the world, I’ll be ok.

Another reason you’ll love dc…

The running is BEAUTIFUL. I went running today for the first time in years and went by the White House, Washington Monument and national mall. How can anyone possibly have a more scenic route than that?! 🙂

Sent from my iPhone

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go”
– T.S. Eliot

There are rare moments in life, very few and far between when the universe seems to give you a small nod of reassurance to acknowledge that you are moving in the right direction, that all your hard work is paying off, that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and even when you may feel lost, you are moving toward that light.

This past weekend was one of those moments.  DC was magic for me.  Going into this weekend, everything just seemed to be out of sorts.  Running was consistently the only thing in my life that seemed to be making any sense.  That shifted this weekend and other pieces started to fall into place.

I found out Friday afternoon that I was accepted to one of my top choice grad school programs (which happens to be in DC).  Saturday morning, I set a 23 minute PR (personal record) at the National Half Marathon, which, for any non runners reading this, is a HUGE PR at that distance (a difference of nearly 2 minutes per mile).  It had to be a dream, surely this couldn’t be happening, I couldn’t be this lucky.  But that was the best park.  It wasn’t luck. I had set my heart 100% on two very specific goals, two passions, that I wanted more than anything else.  I had believed in those passions, other people had believed in me, and it was paying off.

As much as I like to travel in good company, I like to race in good company. My crew this weekend did not disappoint. Elke has been one of my best running buddies since Day 1.  We joined TNT at the same time, ran our first marathon together in San Francisco, mentored together for TNT in 2009, completed the 9+1 program together, and more. Courtney also joined TNT the same season as Elke and I, but has moved quickly over to the Tri world, so I haven’t trained with her much.  My roommate, Michelle, completed the entourage.  She moved in with me in December, but we have very opposite work schedules and rarely even see each other during the week, except when I am waking up for a 6 a.m. run and she is heading out the door for her hour long commute up to Westchester.  While we did not run together, all of us finished within a ten-minute window, Courtney at 1:51, me at 1:53, Elke breaking the 2-hour mark at 1:59 and Michelle just over 2:00 in only her second half marathon.  Better yet – this race was a PR for each of us.

We headed from NYC to DC Friday afternoon for the National Half Marathon, giddy by the fact that spring had finally arrived and we were going to have beautifully warm weather for our race and our weekend of hanging out in the District. Amidst all of the usual pre-race preparations that have now become second nature, checking into our hotel, visiting the expo for race material pick-up, pasta party, and preparing out race day outfits and gear, the much anticipated graduate school acceptance letter arrived, giving me a huge confidence boost for the rest of the weekend. Bouncing off the hotel walls would be an understatement to describe my reaction when I read the email.

I had lofty goals going into this race.  I wanted to break the two-hour mark more than anything.  While everything about my training over the past few months indicated that this would be no problem, the self-doubt, those “I’m not a fast runner” thoughts still lingered and told me that sub-2 was way, way too fast for me. The numbers in my training log may not lie, but my psyche has a very hard time believing those numbers.  Either way, I was determined to leave it all out on the roads of DC that morning.  That I did.

While the forecast had predicted a high of 70, DC was still very chilly at the starting line before the sun had come up.  Major props to this race for having both bag check and bathrooms indoors at the Armory, which at least saved some energy while waiting around indoors rather than shivering out in the cold. Shortly after the gun sounded and we took off, the sky slowly started to turn pink and within the first mile, we were rewarded with a view of the sun rising up behind the Capitol building. It was going to be a beautiful day.

The first two miles were challenging in terms of weaving through the crowds and finding my pace.  Runners were passing each other like crazy, running up and down the sidewalks, around cars.  A quick time check at the first mile told me I was at 9:18, but I knew that I would have no problem picking up that pace once everyone settled into a rhythm.  I don’t run with a Garmin, so my main strategy was to keep my overall pace at around 9:00 miles and try to pick it up if I slowed from that at all.  I have always been a pretty consistent runner in terms of pace, so not using a Garmin isn’t a HUGE disadvantage (although it is definitely on my wish list).  I passed the 4 mile marker at 34 min & change and knew that I was already ahead of where I needed to be.

My confidence went up a little more when I hit the 10k mark at 53ish minutes, which included a pretty decent incline up Connecticut Avenue.  When my watch turned exactly 1 hour at Mile 7, I knew that I was onto something good, that today was my day, that barring anything unexpected, I needed to reevaluate my goal because I was going to come in well under two hours. 1:55? Was that possible?  I was about to find out.

This was the first big race that I have done where I actually haven’t fed off the energy of the spectators.  Not that the crowd support wasn’t great, because it was.  Rather, I put on the iPod right from the beginning, rather than waiting until the halfway point when I usually need music in a race, and quickly fell into the zone. The zone where you tune out everything going on around you and tune in to everything going on within.  I was pushing myself, paying very close attention to how my body felt and whether or not I would be able to sustain my pace. The music was driving me and I was giving it all I got.  The one point at which I did truly appreciate the spectators were around Mile 8 or 9 around Howard University, where there were a few DJs rocking some Michael Jackson and Black Eyed Peas…I think I actually laughed out loud just how into the race they were.

The last few miles were tough.  I was starting to feel drained, the course took a less than scenic route, and I was ready to be done with it. At one point, I glanced down at my watch to see that it was 1:40 and I had not seen the Mile 11 marker.  Worried that I was actually more off on my pace that I thought, I was relieved to pass Mile 12 a few minutes later at 1:44 (chatting with other runners later confirmed that no one had seen the Mile 11 sign. annoying).

Another sense of relief came when the course split – Half Marathoners stay to the right, Full Marathoners stay to the left. With pleasure.  I see that finish line, I am very happy that I am not turning the other direction, 26.2 miles is scary, 13.1 I can handle. (Little voice in the back of my head reminding me that I am signed up for two marathons this year. Quickly pushed that little voice away).  That finish line ahead told me to give everything that I had left.  Sidenote: Why do race directors always seem to make that last little stretch land on a slight incline?  Granted, not as bad as the hill at the end of the Lake Placid Half, but definitely still a small hill up toward the Armory. I pulled out my headphones.  Now I wanted to hear those cheers, those enthusiastic, supportive cheers from spectators and runners who were lined up along the finish corral.  I crossed the finish line and instinctively stopped my watch. I couldn’t believe what I saw. 1:53:05.

I felt tears welling up in my eyes, which has only happened after one other race – my first marathon.  This may have been my 7th half marathon, but it symbolized a drastic shift in my training that has occurred over the past four months since Philly.  Add that to the academic news and I was slightly overwhelmed by emotion – happiness, relief, excitement, disbelief – it was almost more than I could handle.

I had smashed my previous conceptions about what kind of runner I was, what barriers I would be able to break in future races. I had quit my full-time job a year ago after realizing that not only was it making my unhappy on a daily basis, but that it was not the direction that I wanted my career to go, and decided to apply to grad school.  After working at the restaurant for the past year, which I love but knew wasn’t a long-term position, after I had submitted the applications, I started to worry about figuring out a back-up plan if I were to get rejected from all the schools I had applied to.  I had not applied to any back-up schools, I had only applied to the best of the best.  Did I really have any chance to get into these programs?  Would I go abroad again? Search for a new job? In an instant, with that acceptance letter, this all melted away.  I was indeed on the right track. Things are falling into place.

The rest of the weekend was spent with some well-deserved fun around DC, sightseeing with Michelle, drinking champagne at happy hour, catching up with some wonderful Madison friends who now call DC home. Through it all, I couldn’t stop smiling.

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