The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars – Jack Kerouac.
When my driver pulled up to Casa Alternavida’s gate, I thought – this is it? How could Travel and Leisure call this place one of its ’11 Wellness Retreats Around the World to Book in 2022?’ We were only 30-minutes from the San Juan airport, and the only thing separating us from Highway 3 was a 20′ wall and a short piece of road.
When the gate closed, a profound silence settled on the property. Only then did my mind turn away from the minutiae of travel and towards my wife, Jenn. I expected her to come bounding around the corner at any moment. Instead, Ivonne, the Head Chef, came out to greet me. She explained that Jenn was at the beach with Leah, who was minding the retreat until Yancy, the owner, returned.
Ivonne invited me to explore the grounds while we waited. I started by dropping my bags in our room, the Bashful Butterfly. A beautiful mural of colorful flowers adorned our walls, representing the butterfly’s reward after completing their transformation.
Then I climbed up to the rooftop patio to survey the scene. The beach was close enough to make out individual waves. Looking towards the interior, I could see the El Yunque Rain Forest climbing above the coastal plains. Below me, a rugged trail led through the lush grounds of the retreat. Then, I saw a truck pull in, so I rushed down to greet Jenn, who I hadn’t seen in four days.
We were on the tail end of an intense series of trips that took us from the Alabama Coast to North Georgia, then Eastern Washington for the Travel Blog Exchange (TBEX) conference. I went home while Jenn stayed in Washington on a press trip, but we planned to meet at Casa Alternavida for a much-needed short retreat.
After Casa Alternavida, we’d head on to a press trip to Fajardo and then the North American Travel Journalist Association conference in San Juan, and then back to Fajardo for diving for a day. Jenn would be on the road for 29 out of 34 days during these travels, which doesn’t begin to factor in all the required content we needed to provide to our sponsors. Not surprisingly, we set our intention for Casa Alternavida as finding work/life balance.
Yancy prepared a full slate of structured activities for us when he arrived, so we took some time to decompress from our travels, reconnect with the nature around us, and let Chef Ivonne do the cooking. She prepared all-natural, organic, locally sourced, gluten and sugar-free meals that were incredibly delicious and satisfying, despite the abundance of healthy buzzwords. That evening, we slept like babies to a chorus of coquis, a tiny tree frog indigenous to Puerto Rico, and basked in the happiness of our reunion.
The next day we followed a typical Casa Alternavida routine, starting with rooftop yoga, then a healthy breakfast, followed by a morning excursion to the rain forest. Leah took us on a waterfall trail in El Yunque National Park, where we saw three separate cascades on an hour-long hike. We also saw three well-built young men and their photographer on a shoot for what they called ‘social media.’ We mused whether or not OnlyFans could be considered social media.
When we returned to the house for lunch, we met Jane, another guest joining the retreat. She sauntered in, fresh from a conference at El Conquistador Hotel, an iconic beach hotel and conference center 30 minutes down the road in Fajardo. She looked powerful, dressed in business attire with a confident but aloof vibe.
After lunch, Leah suggested that we go to the beach. Jane and I went to change, but Jenn insisted on staying behind to finish some work. Spring storms washed a thick layer of sargassum onto the shore, but there was a wide patch of clean sand above the high tide line. That’s where Jane chose to relax and read a book while Leah, Honey (the wonder dog), and I walked to the estuary where Rio Mayemes entered the ocean.
Leah said this was her favorite spot on the island, and I could see why. The river deposited sand at its mouth, creating a small freshwater bay separated from the ocean by a wide sand bar. The waves couldn’t reach the sheltered, clear blue water, so El Yunque peak and the surrounding palm trees were reflected in the oasis. An occasional horse wandered down to the shore for a drink, but most of the time, we had the area to ourselves to swim and slash in the cool, fresh water. After a short swim, we walked back up the beach to find Jane and headed back to Casa Alternavida for one of Chef Ivonne’s fabulous dinners.
The food, as always, was magnificent, but the conversation didn’t flow as effortlessly as it did the night before. Jane was cordial but guarded and seemed to gravitate towards Leah. We excused ourselves after dessert and retired to the second-story porch with our laptops. Working side by side with Jenn in the evening felt normal and comforting, plus there was the bonus of tropical breezes and singing coquis.
We felt like we were on a fabulous vacation, with abundant nature and purposeful decompression. However, we didn’t have that rapid transformation we were hoping for to help us find balance, shift our mindset, and discover what unconscious commitments were holding us back. That all changed when Yancy arrived the next day.
Our bodies and minds were settling into the routine by our second full day. The morning yoga sessions didn’t seem so early and the dairy-free coffee sweetened with raw monk fruit didn’t taste (quite) as bitter. We enjoyed catching up with Yancy as Chef Ivonne cooked his signature gluten-free waffles. Only, we didn’t have the heart to tell him that we had already Googled the latte menu at the coffee shop in El Conquistador, where we were starting our press trip the next day.
Interestingly, we had all met Yancy before that breakfast. Jenn and I saw him the week before at TBEX. Leah worked with him to hold female empowerment retreats at Casa Alternavida, and Jane knew him from when he was a power player in the Seattle green building initiative before he moved to the island. We could see that Jane was open and receptive to Yancy, but we had yet to break through with her.
Yancy challenged us to leave our phones at home as we departed on our morning rainforest adventure. We aimed to swim in a shallow river at the bottom of a secret canyon adjacent to El Yunque Forest. After hearing Jenn and my shop-talk chatter when we started hiking, he added that we should walk silently and observe nature. At first, we only heard silence, then a cacophony of sounds percolated into our consciousness. A host of birds chirped back and forth, perhaps discussing the events of the forest over breakfast or maybe just greeting the morning while a steady rhythm of wind whispered through the treetops.
We marched to nature’s subtle serenade until we came to a large patch of mud that completely blocked the trail. He took this moment to observe the abundance of wisdom in nature and asked us to look at the mud as a metaphor for life’s challenges. Jenn plowed ahead into and through the muck. Jane asked Yancy what she should do, and I noticed two paths leading out of the puddle, so I asked which one we were taking.
That wasn’t the only mud that stood in our way. A little further down the trail, we came to the muddy slopes of a deep ravine. We were close enough to hear the river gurgling below us, but a thick layer of slick mud covered the steep trail down. We found a few fixed ropes and bamboo shoots placed where we needed them the most, but it wasn’t easy. The mud stripped away any perceived sophistication, leaving only our goals, desires, and teamwork to guide our way down. We welcomed our baptism in the chilly water when we reached the water – anything to be free from that mud. Despite the river’s cool cleansing waters, we definitely needed a shower at Casa Alternavida after returning to the car.
When it was time for the afternoon trip to the beach, Jenn again opted out in favor of working because she had deadlines. Yancy asked who imposed these deadlines, and she said it was her, but they were necessary to get all our deliverables out. She said – “If we didn’t do them now, we’d have to do them later and risk potentially being late” Finally, I thought, this will be that moment where we find balance, where Yancy pulls out his high-power life coaching skills and gets Jenn to go to the beach with me. Instead, he asked her to consider the importance of those self-imposed deadlines she was trying to meet and what would happen if she was a little late. Then he left her to ponder the question. As I departed with Leah and Jane for the beach, I felt a tinge of disappointment.
We experienced the full power of Yancy’s coaching when he led a fire ceremony later that evening after dinner. He started by introducing the fire cycle, which is more than just flames, but burning passions. Fires can purify or destroy. They can power ambition or burnout hopes. Everything depends on the structure of your fire and what you choose as fuel. We made three lists: what fuels us, what holds us back, and our dreams. We planned to build a file with the ‘what fuels us’ and ‘what holds us back’ lists and to read aloud our ‘dreams’ list.
Jane asked, “Can I put my boyfriend’s ex-wife into the fire?”
Yancy said, “No, but you can put how you react to her on your list if you think that belief no longer serves you. What’s going on with her?”
Jane told us how this woman disapproved of the new relationship and used the kids with coached parental alienation as weapons. These tactics felt all too familiar from my divorce except, for Jane, there wasn’t a ten-year court battle and false claims to child protective services thrown into the mix.
One of Yancy’s specialties is team building. At this moment, Jenn and Jane finally found their common ground. Maybe it was the culmination of seeing Jane covered in mud instead of business attire and sharing the adventure to the river. But Jane’s struggle resonated with everything Jenn experienced from my ex.
I looked at my paper, wondering what to put down. Two decades ago, I would have put ‘being a father and provider’ at the top of my ‘what fuels me’ list. A decade later, ‘corporate America’ and ‘adulting’ would have topped my ‘burn it all down’ list, but I’m not sure if that was a dream or just getting rid of things that weren’t serving me. I wanted anything but that to be my life 2.0.
When I met Jenn, she helped heal my wounds left from the fires of pain and fear. As the emotional bandages came off, I was surprised by the new skin that emerged from under my charred flesh, but that’s still a work in progress. I’m still a little pink and tender, but I know now that life is for living, not just pain avoidance.
For good or bad, Jenn operates by the literary advice of Jack Kerouac. She’s mad to live. Outdoor adventure forged her femininity, and heli-ski guiding was the yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across her dreams. She was so close to making them all come true too. If only her knees held out a little longer, she would have been carving deep powder turns in Alaska instead of desperately trying to stay on the mountain. She had a good run and managed to be a professional skier for a decade longer than the doctors thought possible, but when she came down from the mountain and found me in Tucson. We had both lost our most fiery passions.
Jenn emerged from the soot and ashes to discover travel writing and photography as her new passion. Sometimes, she’s desirous of everything at the same time, but that’s who she is. For her, travel writing isn’t a commonplace thing to help you escape adulting. I realized that, underneath the hurt and cynical indifference, it was the same for me, so I started to populate my dream list with travel writing goals.
After we completed our lists, we went out to the garden to build a fire. If you’ve ever been camping, you know this is harder than it looks. On our first attempt, we put in too much fuel. The flames flashed, but the large pieces of wood didn’t catch. We were almost out of paper, and there was still no fire. So we organized our resources by how fast they would catch and burn and how much fuel they contained.
We tried again, putting what remained of our paper lists on the bottom and layering incrementally larger pieces of wood on top. All the time, ensuring there was room for it to breathe. Even then, we had to blow on nascent flames when they started to smolder. However, combining our remaining kindling with careful planning and a few well-placed moments of extreme attention, the fire caught, and we were able to read our dream list.
We tossed and turned that night while the coqui croaked as the evening’s embers glowed in our dreams. I had let Pandora’s demons out of the box, and they weren’t ready to go back in. I realized I wanted more than sealing that lid shut forever. I needed to let my passions burn and give them the structure to grow. Travel writing wasn’t an escape; it was a passion.
Our rapid transformation to work-life balance wasn’t going to be as easy as choosing the beach over the laptop. The unconscious commitments we made to ourselves were the structure holding up our dreams, but we piled on too much wood too fast. It felt like our fires were smoking, and we were growing weary of fanning the flames. We didn’t want a smaller fire or to stop tending the flames, but we promised to be careful about how we built our blaze and always to leave room for it to breathe.
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