Thursday, January 23, 2014

Adrift in Chepu

I broke down and sobbed in the middle of my work day at the Ecolodge today following a solid week of having to hold back tears. Started crying so hard I had to excuse myself to the bathroom, then sat there for half an hour while I cried and cried and cried. I am in Chile, on an island in Patagonia, in a stunningly beautiful and peaceful place with really nice people. Nothing has changed since I said that this has been the happiest year of my life, there has been no bad news, have been no heartbreaks or disappointments.

If anything, the opposite. I've met wonderful and inspiring people who quickly became like a second set of parents. I've worked on fun projects and am learning a lot. I've had amazing experiences here, like the morning I watched the sun break through clouds as it rose and turn the river pink around my kayak. Or the morning I went for a swim and was joined by an endangered river otter, who came up to within a meter of me and circled me, ducking in and out of the water while “grrrrrr”ing at me for a solid 10 minutes before swimming off. It’s been magical.

Misty dawn over Río Punta and the Sunken Forest in Chepu

But being here in this beautiful place, working at this innovative sustainability project that my wonderful hosts—Amory and Fernando—built with love and passion with their own hands, working with this couple who has the sort of relationship that restores my faith in love and marriage, makes my heart ache.

My dream

Almost exactly two years ago I spotted the image below on Facebook and was charmed. The hobbit house was built by a man named Simon Dale in Wales to house himself, his wife, and his sons on the cheap. It is beautiful. I wanted to live in it. So did my boyfriend.

Simon Dale's Eco Hobbit House

My boyfriend was German and living in Braunschweig, Germany as he finished his PhD in Immunology. I had met him while in Braunschweig working with the esteemed director of the German Culture Collection on a project involving photosynthesis at the lower limits of light that was frustrating, difficult, and probably hopeless, but that I loved. I met my boyfriend at a Christmas party where he was bartending, and by three hours into our first date I was certain I had found my soulmate. He was handsome, a creative thinker, passionate about biology, adventurous, sexy, kind, funny, and it seemed like we shared all of the same dreams.  On our third date he informed me that he wanted to marry me someday. It took me a few dates longer to overcome my realistic doubts, but I soon agreed. We were meant for each other.

So when I returned to the U.S. to finish my PhD work, we started a cross-ocean, cross-continent long-long distance relationship that involved almost daily long Skype chats. When we saw the hobbit house, we talked about it. What it was we liked about it, what that said about us, how we both wanted to build our own house today, what it would look like, how our future children would help, how it would be difficult to build a house while both of us worked full-time, how we’d need to get it finished before we had kids so maybe we should build on weekends, where would we get the money and how long would it take?…etc.

Feral kittens hanging out on the Ecolodge stairs

That night an idea struck me—what if we did the same thing that Simon Dale had done? His house had been inexpensive, since he supplied the labor, borrowed equipment, and took most of the materials he used from the land. Both my boyfriend and I loved building things, and he was particularly skilled at it, a creative and artistic hobby carpenter who had built huge sunken beds, massive wrap-around full-wall sofas, and who later carved me an engagement ring. He was passionate about science, but not about research, and it seemed clear to me that he would be happiest doing something else. Maybe building? What if I got the full-time job while he built our house?

The next day when we talked, I mentioned the idea and after a very brief pause he replied that that that was perfect. He was reluctant to leave me to do the breadwinning, but I reasoned with him that the money he’d save us by doing the building would more than make up for any income either of us was likely to earn. He got excited, and over the coming months he drew up design plans while I dreamed up the practical aspects.

“Build our house” turned into “Build an eco lodge / education center” where both of us could earn a basic living—enough to provide for our basic needs and support the tribe of children we planned to have. We would start by buying a large tract of land somewhere beautiful with generous building codes. Then would build ourselves a hobbit house while I brought in money to support the building and helped out on weekends building and preparing a small garden/farm for growing our own food. Then we would build up other “dwellings” using other sustainable building techniques and install different types of energy systems to make a small demonstration village for sustainable living. The houses would be adorable, charming, and romantic, and we would appeal to tourists and vacationers wanting to live in a treehouse or hobbit hole all while their inner hippies felt good about the eco-experience they were having. We would grow it into a business that could support both of us to work there full-time on new projects. Ultimately I wanted to build a dorm, teaching center, and small lab for running educational camps and for tinkering with methods of energy production, waste treatment, and water recycling.

Wind turbine that supplies energy in winter at Chepu Adventures

While my boyfriend drew sketches of buildings and dreamed, I drew up a business plan, calculated how many solar panels we’d need and approximately how much that would cost to support us in the beginning, priced out composting toilets, estimated loan amounts and rates we’d need to get started, contacted property managers in the Pacific Northwest who specialized in areas that I thought would be perfect for what we wanted to do, and tried to work out all the details. It should have been a warning that while I was reading books on how to write a business plan and sustainable building technologies, he was still in dreaming mode. I thought it was just that I am a detail person and he is not (my friends and family will laugh at this because “detail person” usually wouldn’t be their first word to describe me), that once we got to building was when he’d take over.

In February of that year, I flew to visit him for a month. We dreamed more, worked on our PhD writing, went snowboarding, visited his family, and got engaged. He took me out on a repeat of our romantic first date, then, on top of a tower where we had a stunning view over frozen Braunschweig, got down on one knee, read me a poem he had written, presented me with two rings that he had carved: one for him, and one for me, and asked me to marry him. I said yes, with all my heart, and spent the next month blissfully happy.

My future was secure and it was beautiful. I was going to build a life with my soulmate, and it was going to be the life we wanted. I would have a job that was creative and challenging and that I could feel good about all while being home where I could be with my family and raise the children I wanted to have. I would work closely with my best friend, the man I loved, and we would grow closer in our teamwork toward the dream we shared. For the first time in my life, I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, and felt a peace that I hadn’t felt before. This was right, it was what I was born to do, and I was with who I was born to do it with.

Dawn over the Río Punta from my kayak

Falling to pieces

It was a high place to fall from.

Just over a month following our engagement, after the visa application had been sent in and paid for, a wedding date in September tentatively set and the campground we wanted to do it in booked, the wedding dress shopped for, the wedding website made and sent around to friends and family, I got a call from my doctor. The test results had come back positive (where “positive” means bad). I needed to go in for more biopsies. The bad news hit both of us hard and led to a fight. The fight led to a worse fight.

And then he said, “I can’t do this, I can’t do this life, I want to be able to go out and party until 6am, smoke when I want to, be myself, I’m sorry, but I can’t do this.”

And that was it. He would hear no protests, no suggestions for how we could work things out, no attempts to understand him and how I could support him, he threw our relationship, our dreams, and me as far away from himself as he could, and we never spoke again.

Mist rising from the forest's edge on the Río Punta

I was devastated, crushed, destroyed. I felt that I had lost everything: I had lost my soulmate, my future, my chance at the life I had always wanted. And I had something ugly growing inside me, rotting me from the inside. I felt disgusting, damaged, unlovable, underserving of love, and broken.

Eventually, with a lot of help from the outside, I got through it. The way the relationship ended made it easier for me to get past him. It took me a long time to forgive him; I spent a good year and a half seething with anger about how he had misled and deceived me (and, I realized, himself), and how he had left me when I was at my most frightened and vulnerable before I could come to terms with why he had to do what he did. But although forgiveness came slowly, after the breakup I didn't spend much time wanting him back. Long before I stopped crying daily I was at least able to feel rationally grateful that the stress had shown the real nature of the relationship and exposed my fiancé for the person he really was—not the person he said he wanted to be. I could be grateful that I had been saved from the same thing happening at a much worse stage in life: after marriage, after giving up everything else to support him and build a business with him, after starting the tribe of children we wanted to have.

What hurt the most and has proved much harder to get over was the loss of the dream, a life and a future that seemed, at the time and still seems in my heart, perfect. It’s been two years, and I’m still not over the dream. It’s been two years and I still haven’t come close to feeling the excitement and sense of “yes, this is my path” that I had with that dream. I keep waiting for the light that fired me to reignite, scraping the bitterness and pain bit by bit from the windows of my heart hoping that will bring it back. It hasn’t come back.

The Río Punta from the Ecolodge


Flash forward to here on the soggy green island of Chiloé. I landed here for peace, stayed to work. It’s beautiful here, with 200° views of the Río Punta and a huge sunken forest that formed when the 1960 earthquake dropped the forest by ~2 meters (!) and the subsequent tsunami drowned the trees. Today the dead trees punctuate the odd and stunning resulting landscape. The wetlands are home to more bird species than my jellyfish memory could ever hope to recount, as well as pudu—the world’s smallest deer (I saw one drinking from the river while out kayaking), and huilin—an endangered species of river otter (one swam up to me while I was swimming the other day).

The ecolodge itself was built up over time out of a dream of Amory and Fernando’s to live in a simpler, more sustainable way. Their whole story was beautifully captured in this article, but began with doubts about their future in Santiago and culminated in the construction of eco-friendly buildings run off of solar and wind power, using only water captured on their land from rainfall. They have won awards for sustainability, green living, and ecotourism, and are featured in Lonely Planet of one of the best places to stay in Chile. Having been here for two weeks now, I can attest to the magic of the place. They are also good people, and happy people. I am so grateful for the warmth they have shown me in "adopting" me into their family, and have learned a lot from them. Most inspiring: the two of them have grown together through their work on this project, and I have only rarely seen a mature couple so obviously in love.

Theirs is a story so romantic, so powerful, so special, so eerily similar to what I had pictured, that at the same time that it is beautiful and inspiring, it is painful to see live.

Moon over the Chepu Adventures Ecolodge

A ship adrift

The pain, I suppose, means that this is good for me. Being here, inside a living version of the dream I had, is drawing out that final bit of stuffed-down pain that I have been carrying with me all this time. Forcing me to face it, stand up with it, and choose to either carry it in a positive new way or let it go.

Building a place like this is not something I could do alone. That is not something I say easily, but building and running a place like this one is an incredible burden of work for two people working together as a solid team. It is too much for one person alone. But also evident is that it is, as I thought it would be, a good life, a life I feel sure I would be very happy with. It is interesting to see what I overlooked in my plans, and what I got right. This has given me incredible insight and the best possible contacts and mentors if I decide to reignite and carry that old dream. I would do it in a heartbeat if I found a place and a partner.

But alone?

Dead, bleached out, half-eaten crab on a log in the river. Not a metaphor for my life.

I have often felt my aloneness on this trip, but it’s usually been a powerful feeling, like during my Navarino trek when, looking around me and realizing that I was the only human in all that vista, I was filled with such joy I felt like I could fly. Now, for the first time since leaving on this trip, I feel lonely. Deeply, painfully alone. The freedom and lack of ties and responsibilities and solitude that I have so enjoyed on this trip suddenly feel heavy. I feel that old emptiness.

I am also nervous, preoccupied and weighed down by not knowing what’s next. I was enjoying this trip by living and loving every moment in the moment, but in a few months I return home, and then what? I have learned and re-learned a lot of things about myself on this trip, but am no closer to choosing a path. I had a north star by which to orient myself once, for that brief blissful period of knowing where my life was going, but it blinked out. I feel adrift.

I am adrift.

Alone and adrift in a big, dark —albeit beautiful— ocean. 

Sunrise over the Río Punta


  1. Man, Carie... this was like reading an amazing novel (to put it lightly)... gave me goosebumps.
    You're funny -> "Not a metaphor for my life"... Definitely NOT!
    You're not really alone Carie! Many of us following your adventures and almost experiencing them together thanks to your writing talent, and all of us waiting back home. But i could imagine what you mean.

    1. Thank you for the support, Yuki. It does make me feel less alone. And thanks also for being one of my sources of inspiration, I am so glad we connected and I got to hear about your adventures, and I can't wait to hear about more of them! Hug!