A few weeks ago I arrived at a hostel in Santa Marta, Colombia, and on the sign marking the entrance I saw a quote: "When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it."
This is from Paulo Coehlo's "The Alchemist". I was in university when I read that book. This was back in the day when my roommate, Ben, taught me about making wishes at 11:11, and since then whenever I've noticed that time on the clock I've always made the same wish and I've never told anyone about it.
What I could remember from "The Alchemist" is that the sheep do not need the shepherd, and nothing more.
Just before I left for this trip I began following a blogger whose life choices have, of late, closely matched my own. He writes of having the courage to face up to your desires and pursue them, and he writes of the practical aspects of living a rootless, international lifestyle. He chose Medellín as his "home" (as much as he has one), and I had been intrigued as to why he would pick that city.
It didn't take long to find out. Medellín is a modern city where the living is high-quality yet low-cost. But more importantly, it is famous for having the most beautiful women in Colombia, which puts it in the running for having the most beautiful women in the world. I am completely serious when I say that every single time the city gets mentioned, the person I'm talking to mentions this fact. It is literally true to call the city "legendary". One of my close friends even told me that his girlfriend (who is from Bogotá) has forbade him from visiting the city without her. Throughout the trip it was the city I was looking forward to the most, but my expectations ran so high that I knew they could not be fulfilled. I even told Darren how excited I was to visit the city, but that if I didn't double over laughing at how amazing the place is, then I'd be disappointed.
Meanwhile, I needed parts for my bike sent to an address down the road, so I Googled to find a hostel in Medellín that I thought might be moto-friendly and I had the parts shipped there.
Another thing that happened just before I left is that I discovered what may be my favorite internet video. It's Ice-T on "F*ck It". It's about using the power of that phrase to get yourself past your fears, and it's hilarious and inspiring and brilliant.
–"A lot of people like it safe. You don't get credit for being safe in life."
–"To take risks, you gotta go, 'F*ck it.'"
–"Most men who met their wives, it was a 'F*ck it' before they walked up to her, that moment where, 'She won't talk to me but, f*ck it, I gotta just put myself past what I normally would do.'"
–"You see mountain climbers? Those mountain climbers are saying, 'F*ck it.'"
–"You can say, "F*ck it," and ruin your life. It's that edge, but in that edge, it's so profitable and so dangerous, that's where creation lives, whether there's Donald Trump taking that risk, or you making that mistake and driving too fast and killing yourself."
I think about that last quote several times a day.
San Gil, Colombia, was the last place we spent time in before coming to Medellín. We stayed at a hostel on the main square, and there were not just one but two lovely receptionists that were very friendly and totally adorable. I wanted to talk to them, maybe take them out on a date. But what could I do with them? What would be the point? Wouldn't I be leaving town in a few days? Wouldn't I just be some flighty gringo trying to get laid? Plus they are working, and isn't it rude to hit on women while they work?
These, of course, were all simply rationalizations for not having to confront my desires, how we could have gone for a drink and some dancing, how it didn't have to be a big deal. After leaving town, I regretted not saying anything to either of them, and I thought of them and of all the other lovely hostel receptionists I had encountered and not said anything to, I thought of Holbox and Isla Ometepe and San Miguel de Allende, and I promised myself that next time would be different.
Every time I fail, I feel like the universe wants me to fail because it's grooming me for something, it's saving me for something, and if I succeed too soon I'll miss what it's saving me for.
My friends tried to get me to go to a different hostel in Medellín, and I almost switched, but I had invested myself in my choice by having my packages shipped there. When I checked into the hostel early in the day I was welcomed by Jorge, who guessed who I was from our correspondence. He had saved all the packages I had been sent and I was grateful for his help. Then I unloaded and unpacked and afterward I met Spyros, who runs the place, and I sat down with him by the reception counter and talked to him about my trip, but there must have been a shift change because in Jorge's place was Victoria, a girl with shoulder-length dark hair and glasses, and I deliberately didn't look at her because I knew I was going to have a crush on her. My internal reaction was along the lines of, "Goddammit, now I have to deal with this." Then I actually looked at her dead-on and she was even cuter than I had feared. She lit up the room with her energy, men were drawn to her like moth and flame, she blew kisses, she got things done, she was incredible. I immediately began inventing excuses not to like her. "Well, I prefer dorky, smart girls and she probably doesn't like my kind of music and I'm sure she has a boyfriend..." And so the cycle would continue.
Except that it didn't.
The next day, Tuesday, she says, "Meester Innocent!" She sat at the counter holding my card and she kept saying my name over and over again. I smiled and asked what's up, she said, "I just like saying it."
Later that night she said that she had to work all night and I told her I was going to have to bother her and she said she didn't mind, so around midnight we began chatting and soon I was behind the counter and she shared her favorite YouTube videos and so did I. I asked about her life and she told me that it's like a novel. She dropped out of a premier pre-med program a while back when she realized that it wasn't her dream after all, that it was a very difficult decision that she caught a lot of flak for, that now she's studying engineering. She had only been working at the hostel for two weeks and, being vastly overqualified for the position, would only work there for a few more. She told me she claims Jewish ancestry and is studying Hebrew and the Torah, she flipped through a notebook and I glimpsed a sketch of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. She said she had a math exam soon and I asked why she's not studying and she said, "Calculus is easy".
Looking back, that was the very moment I knew I was in trouble.
Thinking about the dates she named for the events in her life, they didn't seem to add up, given that she's twenty-six, and I asked her about this and she said, "That's because I graduated from high school when I was fifteen."
Around five in the morning we lay down on separate sections of the long, narrow, L-shaped couch in the lobby, our heads at the junction. I fell asleep for a moment and when I woke up she said, "I make you sleep, I am your dream girl!" I began to suspect that she was.
I look back and realize I was afraid, not of rejection but of intimacy, of caring too much and having to deal with it. So the next day, Wednesday, I avoided her as much as possible. I worked on my bike during the day and I went to a language meet-up in the evening and the whole time I thought of her. Between this and my loss of appetite and inability to sleep, I knew I had a classic, full-blown crush. Walking back from the meet-up I saw a girl who looked like her, she was waiting at a bus stop, and she seemed like an apparition or a mirage and I squinted and she waved and, of course, it was her. She greeted me with that cheek-kiss thing people do down here and she immediately got a call from her ride and she said she had to run and, like a gazelle, like a vanishing apparition, she was gone.
I went back to the hostel and had a few beers and stared into space.
I knew the next day, Thursday, that I had to make a move, so I devised a brilliant plan. First, I would wait for her to arrive for work. Then, I would ask her to go on a date with me. Finally, we would go on the date.
Yes, it was a simple plan, but it was brilliant in its simplicity.
As five o'clock approached I could feel the hesitation take hold, but I remembered the wise, eternal words of Ice-T, and how every man has that "F*ck it" moment where he pushes himself past what he normally would do, and when she rolled up at five o'clock sharp, she nearly hurried past but I stopped her, "Whoa whoa whoa, wait a sec, what are you doing after work?"
Her: "Nothing, why?"
Me: "Because we should do something after work."
Her: "Maybe," and she smiled.
Her: She started up the stairs and she laughed, "Yes, of course, Meester Innocent!"
Before the date, I had drinks with friends and I politely waited for them to finish what they were saying and finally I dropped the bomb. I tried to hide my enthusiasm when I told them, "I have a date tonight," and they asked if she was cute. I said:
"She is the hottest girl who has ever existed. Not only is she hotter than anyone alive, she is hotter than anyone who has ever lived in all of history or pre-history. Her hotness is the apex of our evolution on this planet, and now the world can be destroyed because her hotness is the achievement of mankind's eternal purpose."
They looked at me like I was insane, and then I realized I had failed to hide my enthusiasm.
On our date we first stopped to get her some food, something in a bowl with corn and chicken and cream all mixed up. She insisted on feeding me some directly from her spoon and it felt strangely maternal. Then we went to a nightclub and we danced to rock music, which was great because it was mostly American music and I knew all the words. There were some songs I normally don't like but with her I really enjoyed them. Right when I realized this anomaly, Stardust's "The Music Sounds Better with You" came on. We sang along and danced for four hours straight, drinking beer but not too much beer. She laughed at the way I danced but I didn't care, it felt great just to be around her. But then, something very important happened. I asked, simply, if she had ever heard of The Deftones. Her face lit up: "Oh my God, I love The Deftones! When I went to their concert in Bogotá, I was super close to Chino Moreno! I cried when they started playing."
The sensation that came next I remember as having fallen backward out of space and time. I remember a strange inner silence, like that which comes over a stadium when the crowd suddenly stops cheering because a player has gone down and isn't getting back up, or when you're in the middle of a car crash and for some reason you feel no fear. It's the disorientation you feel when suddenly everything has changed forever.
What happened? Basically, I've always loved this one band, The Deftones, and every girl I've ever dated or even liked has hated them, and I always told myself that if I ever found a girl who liked them as much as me, I'd marry her. I've always just silently accepted it as a sign. And I came into the date thinking, "Wow, she's great, but if only she liked The Deftones, then she'd be perfect." I was literally thinking these very words. Yes, it's ridiculous. Yes, it's important to me. And then this happened.
When I came back I realized I had been staring at her the whole time. "What?" She had asked this a couple of times. I knew I would have to play it cool, I'd have to say something that didn't betray the epiphany I just had.
"Marry me." Goddammit, Erik.
She replied, "This isn't Las Vegas."
And it wasn't — this girl knew her geography. We'd continue dancing, we'd walk home arm-in-arm, and she'd catch a taxi ride home.
The next day, Friday, I told a friend back home about her.
We made plans for Saturday to go horseback riding with all my intercontinental motorcyclist friends and the girls they had been hanging with. The dozen or so of us formed an armada of motos as we rode an hour out to El Retiro, a small, bucolic town nestled into the Antioquian hills. By the time we got onto the horses, it was warm and sunny in the late afternoon and we rode for more than an hour through gorgeous countryside, trotting along while kicking back swigs of Aguardiente Antioqueño, a local anise-based liquor. Finally we arrived at a bar in the middle of nowhere just in time for it to rain. Other riders arrived, too, and soon it was a party. Beer and empanadas circulated, wet women danced in the rain, and horses stood watch over the fun. I sat out back with Victoria and we watched the rain on the hills at last light and I had a perfect moment and I told her so. A local expat, Pietro, introduced himself as the owner of our horses, and he said that, if necessary, we could stay at his place, back at the ranch.
Later we'd leave in the rain with real, country dark and our guide drunk on aguardiente and our clothing not fit for the weather. We started home and promptly went the wrong way. The horses at times broke into a gallop and I'd see sparks from the horseshoes whenever we'd pass over pavement. Suddenly, Victoria's horse pulled away, it seemed she couldn't control it, so I chased her down and I realized I'm rescuing a girl on a runaway horse in the rain at night in the Colombian countryside, and I admitted to myself that this is pretty adventurey. Or at least until I caught up with her when she said she's fine and she just likes riding fast. Which was cool, too. But then she said this is the most adventurous thing she's ever done, and I remembered that I already did this back in Nicaragua and that this feels like just another day to me, and then I'd feel adventurey again.
We went through town before finding our way back to the ranch, and by the time we arrived Victoria was freezing. She's literally shivering, soaked in the cold, and Pietro starts insisting that she's not fit to ride on the moto back into Medellín. So Victoria and I, along with another couple, stay over and Pietro gets a fire going in his tastefully-appointed home, he cooks a simple but tasty Italian dinner for us, he gives us clean, dry clothes, and he puts on romantic music and he chats with us and he sips rum with us. When I go back into the bedroom to change, it occurs me what's happening — the girl, the place, the situation, everything — and I double over, laughing at the gloriousness of it all.
On Sunday, Victoria and I ride back to Medellín and we chill out in bed all day and we talk and we watch videos. In the evening, we go to Crepes and Waffles and talk about what we each want in a relationship, and it happens to be the same thing. She says (more or less), "You check off so many boxes for me, it's ridiculous," which is funny because I'm also thinking that. That night, Darren graciously allows her to stay over in our room. There are three pillows in our bed and we each usually sleep with two, so we build a little pyramid and share the top pillow.
On Monday we wake up together and it's time to leave town. It's absolutely clear to me, without doubt or question, that I am coming back for her. I tell her so and she's doubtful, and then I tell her: I never make promises because it isn't necessary, I always do what I say. But, this time I'm going to make a promise. And I take one of the lovely cards that Karen Chu designed for me, and I write on the back:
Mi promesa: Yo regresaré para tí.
Never in my life have I written down a promise before. She says she will wait for me, her only concern is that I'll forget about her first. I doubt this. Then I ride to Bogotá, and I ride faster than I've ever ridden. I'm high on the certainty of my conviction, but I'm also somewhat angry with myself. I keep asking myself,
"Did I make a mistake in leaving? Will she be there when I get back? Could it really have been this easy? Did I realize my dream and then leave it behind?"
When I look at the omens and the signs and all the events along the way that led to this, I feel a pattern emerging from the swirling, Pynchonian chaos, and it's hard not to think that this was meant to be. All the stars align just so, until the star on her necklace aligns with the star tattooed on her back and everything fits together. But we see what we want to see, and I know I'm blinding myself to a lot of important issues. Am I going to live in Medellín? How might I start a life there? To be with a girl that I've known for four days? These are all valid questions, to which I respond: "F*ck it."
In Bogotá, I finally re-read "The Alchemist". Here's what it's about:
A young shepherd has a dream in which he must travel to the ends of the earth. He gives up the certainty of his profession and the comfort of home to travel through foreign lands where everyone speaks a different language that he gradually learns. He teams up with an experienced traveller who helps him on his journey. They look to the omens to discover their path, and they ignore them at their own peril. Halfway through his quest, he falls in love with a woman and he considers staying for her, but he realizes he must finish his quest or he will never be complete, and she vows to wait for him, and he vows to return.
I feel like some of this might be relevant to me.
Next time: I write an article that isn't quite so personal.