How Nature Heals Me - This American Girl

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Nature could care less what you do for a living.


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It doesn’t mind how much money you make, how many awards you’ve received, or how many possessions you own.


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A thorn will prick you just as sharply no matter how much you’ve invested in your 401K. A muddy trail will happily swallow your shoes no matter how many employees you manage and how many zeros appear on your paycheck. A jaguar can still kill you no matter if you have 3,000,000 followers on Instagram or 300. A hornet does not withhold its stinger for the less “successful”, the less “beautiful”, or the less “important “of us.


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Nature doesn’t give a damn about your ego.

And that is precisely why it heals.


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When I first came to Costa Rica in February 2012, I prepared myself for the jungle with brand new white dresses and a hair iron. Tropical Caribbean chic I thought as I spent nearly a thousand dollars on designer clothes.


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The first time I tried styling my hair I walked out the door for dinner and was immediately drenched by a tropical storm. I tried again when the sky was clear, but the heat and humidity turned each strand into a curl within fifteen minutes. My clothes were covered in mud splatters, sand, gecko poop, or mildew by the end of the first week.


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Between the ocean’s strong currents, the temperamental weather, and the abundance of insects in my home, I discovered quickly that nature’s will would always supersede my own. In my extreme discomfort I chose to surrender to nature’s force instead of fight it. That was the first time I understood what it meant to relax.


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The process of surrendering to nature healed my unresolved relationships with others and my relationship with myself. It showed me what made me feel good. It showed me who I truly was.


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But even in a place like Costa Rica where birds sing louder than twitter notifications and there’s more jungle than concrete, one can still find herself diverging from the harmony of nature.


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Two months ago I returned to Costa Rica’s South Caribbean, the place I consider home, intending to settle in, relax, and reconnect with the healing energy of nature. Yet somehow since the moment I arrived I fought against it. I moved houses eleven times, spent a week in four different hotels in Panama, and traveled to six different towns in Costa Rica in six days. In addition to maintaining this blog I was designing websites, writing articles for multiple publications, managing the social media pages of other organizations, teaching public yoga classes, planning press trips, and organizing numerous events in the community. I spread myself so thin that I barely had the energy to breathe.


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I spent more time engaging in small talk than I did in silence in nature and I felt more connected to my ego than I did to my soul. Perhaps in part because by creating This American Girl, I created a persona with a life of its own. I couldn’t check into a hostel, walk down the street, sit in a café, or teach a yoga class in Puerto Viejo without being stopped at least twice a day by people who recognized me from the blog. Messages flooded my inbox from readers who were on their way to Costa Rica and wanted to meet me.


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And I know what you’re thinking. How fortunate I am. How amazing it is to touch so many people. How reinforcing it is to receive praise. And it is. It is so amazing and I am still so floored every time someone recognizes me from my blog.


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But it’s also been hard. To feel like I have to not only give in my writing but that I also have to give every moment while I’m just trying to live. That if I’m having a bad day or feeling introverted or tired I still have to wear a smile and answer questions about my travels, my profession, and my life.


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Not to mention that given the deeply personal nature of my blog it’s awkward to meet people who have read it. Hello. You know the deepest gushiest most vulnerable parts of me and I know absolutely nothing about you. Nice to meet you too.


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My recent post about being physically harmed by someone in the community here led many readers and friends to approach me and offer their concern. Which is so generous and kind and loving of them. It’s also overwhelming. It’s also been a reminder that when I’m here in the tiny community of Puerto Viejo perhaps I can’t write as candidly as I could when I was nobody in the bustling streets of Bangkok.


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So despite already feeling spread thin, despite already feeling uprooted and overwhelmed, I packed up all of my belongings and I got on the bus to San Jose to embark on a retreat in the mountains of Costa Rica.


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A reader of mine, Hailey, who created the empowerment through fitness community Run Like a Girl, invited me to join their first Adventure Camp in Costa Rica. With everything I had going on in my life the opportunity to simply escape seemed like a divine gift. The itinerary included waterfall rappelling, tree climbing, hiking to a summit, and sleeping in a treehouse with no electricity, wifi, or cellular connection.


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Bear in mind that my only possessions include bikinis, flip flops, and spandex dresses. That the women on this trip were marathon runners and athletes and my form of exercise includes long walks on the beach and yoga. And that the last time I spent a day without opening my laptop was nearly two years ago.


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I was way out of my comfort zone.


However seeking a fresh perspective and the ability to be completely anonymous I made my way to the retreat longing for the same connection I felt the first time I came to Costa Rica. I needed to allow nature to heal me.


I reminded myself of this as I walked uphill for three miles in the pouring rain.


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We had just left the small mountain town of San Jeronimo where we began our journey volunteering at a local school. I helped repaint a twenty-year-old mural on the facade of the building with green mountains, giant trees, a rushing waterfall, and exotic animals. It amazed me that in this town in the middle of nowhere the kids were learning about alternative energy sources and living in harmony with nature.


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Pura vida,” I laughed, shivering in my soaking wet windbreaker, trudging through flooded gravel roads in running shoes without socks.


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Finally we arrived at La Chakra Tent Lodge, nestled between two of Costa Rica’s most important national parks: Chirripo and La Amistad. There were no people, no cars, no telephone poles, no wires. Only trees and birds and rivers and sky.


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Rain continued to hail and after showering off the mud, various women in the group showered me with warm clothes. “You don’t have socks?” Maria the yoga teacher asked. “You will not survive,” she said as she handed me a pair of hers. Hailey gifted me a cozy sweatshirt and a sleeping bag and one of the girls offered her jacket.


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It was humbling allowing myself to receive all that they offered. In Puerto Viejo I was This American Girl, but in the mountains I was this American girl who didn’t have any appropriate clothes.


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Darkness fell and we entered the yoga space surrounded by glowing candles, delicious incense, and the sounds of birds singing from the trees. I made way back to the familiar space of my mat, crossed my legs, and closed my eyes.


Maria invited us to join her in a chant.


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“Pacha Mama. Madre Tierra. Pacha Mama. Madre Tierra. Wiricuta. Wiricuta. Wiricuta. Gran Espiritu. Wiricuta. Wiricuta. Wiricuta. Gran Espiritu.” Again and again we sang. The chant strangely felt like a song I had known forever despite hearing it only for the first time. Had I heard it before? I still wonder in retrospect.


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The phrases Pacha Mama and Madre Tierra mean the same thing just in two languages. Madre Tierra translates from Spanish into mother earth. Pacha Mama comes from the ancient indigenous tribes. Wiricuta and Gran Espiritu refer to the great spirit of nature. This chant intends to heal our separation from the earth that we came from.


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We gathered in a circle after closing our practice and I watched women open their hearts and offer their emotions with the freedom of a flowing river. Twelve hours ago we left San Jose but it felt like a lifetime had passed. We transcended the world of men and had entered the womb of Mother Nature.


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Over the days that followed I played in nature, snuggled in warm clothing, felt an adrenaline rush walking down the side of a cliff on a rappel, and bonded more with these women in three days than I knew I could. All the while in the background I hummed, “Pacha Mama. Madre Tierra. Pacha Mama. Madre Tierra. Wiricuta. Wiricuta. Wiricuta. Gran Espiritu. Wiricuta. Wiricuta. Wiricuta. Gran Espiritu.” I was cold and wet and dirty but I felt so happy and free.


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Then came the challenge.


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The sky was still dark when my alarm told me to wake. That day I would hike 32 kilometers to one of the highest ridges in Costa Rica at an elevation of over 10,000 feet.


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I trekked up rocky switchbacks, crossed rushing rivers on slick logs, eased through grassy fields full of grazing cattle, nearly lost my shoes in mud trenches, and ate more energy bars than one might deem humanly possible. This was only by the midway point. I felt exhausted and winded, but I had to keep going. I had to keep moving. When my mind told me to give up I focused it by chanting, “Pacha Mama. Madre Tierra. Pacha Mama. Madre Tierra. Wiricuta. Wiricuta. Wiricuta. Gran Espiritu. Wiricuta. Wiricuta. Wiricuta. Gran Espiritu.” And my feet moved, one step in front of the other.


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After six hours of uphill we reached the summit.


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The vegetation turned from towering trees and jungle vines to delicate shrubs and succulents covering the arid ground. It was how I’d imagine being on the moon. Few tourists had ever placed their feet on this Earth and I felt blessed to even stand there. I shivered at the top watching the misty clouds roll in. We still had to go down.


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Initially the downhill felt like a blessing. Easy after huffing up to the summit. Then my knees began to speak and my blisters rubbed raw. Each step impacted my joints like two colliding logs. I sunk deeply into the mud and grabbed onto tree roots to keep from falling. I fell to the back of the group. We arrived at a “short cut” and took the path into gardens blanketed in a sea of mist. It was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.


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We talked about pumas, how I had seen one in the wild, and Maria told me that there were pumas killing dogs around the village where she intended to move. Our Costa Rican guide from Real Costa Rica Adventures told a story about park rangers hunting one down because it came too close to humans.


“If you decide to hunt a puma you should have to do it with your bare hands.” I said self-righteously.


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Just then I smacked my leg so hard against a log that I kneeled over in pain. Tears filled my eyes and for a moment I couldn’t speak. Then the pain subsided and I kept walking. “Wake up,” the woods told me.


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We entered denser gardens and the bushes and thorns tore at my fragile skin. I slipped and fell over numerous rocks, struggling to see where the path even was. The “short cut” was my undoing.


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When we finally emerged back onto the dirt trail I found myself wanting to blame someone for the discomfort that I felt. Who could I blame? Who could I blame? Could I blame my guide for making me go this way? Could I blame Run Like a Girl for inviting me knowing that I didn’t even own a pair of hiking boots? Could I blame myself for agreeing to go knowing that I wasn’t in good shape?


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But there was no one to blame. There was just me and the trail. Nothing else mattered and nothing else existed. I had to keep walking not because of the opinions of others but because every day the sun decides to go down and bring darkness. I had to keep moving because I had no habitat here on this trail in these woods. I had to keep moving because I had already drank all of my water and eaten all of my energy bars.


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I remembered that the same way I couldn’t blame my mother or my father or my ex boyfriend or my best friend for the stains on my clothes and the sand on my feet and the ants in my bathroom in Puerto Viejo, I couldn’t blame anyone here for my current discomfort here in the mountains.


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So I kept moving. I kept moving by chanting “Pacha Mama. Madre Tierra. Pacha Mama. Madre Tierra. Wiricuta. Wiricuta. Wiricuta. Gran Espiritu. Wiricuta. Wiricuta. Wiricuta. Gran Espiritu.” And then I started running. The faster I ran the easier all of it felt. I ran the muddy rocky trail until I found myself again at the front of the group.


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The sun set between the hills and colored the sky pink by the time I reached the base of the road back to camp. Uphill felt like rest after all of the impact on my knees. Rain trickled and then pounded on me. Could I stop now? I wondered. What would happen if I stopped now?


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Climbing the hill without collapsing onto all fours required an incredible amount of willpower. I fought against every urge within me to give up. Yet somehow this level of force also felt like complete surrender. Nature decided whether to bake me in sun or freeze me in fog or drench me in rain. Nature decided whether my path was smooth or slick or steep or flat. No matter how much I pushed, nature always decided. And because nature decided that it was almost dark, I decided to keep going.


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With each step I chanted, “Pacha Mama. Madre Tierra. Pacha Mama. Madre Tierra. Wiricuta. Wiricuta. Wiricuta. Gran Espiritu. Wiricuta. Wiricuta. Wiricuta. Gran Espiritu.” Just as darkness fell I arrived back at the camp.


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I could barely walk the next day as we journeyed back to the bus in San Jeronimo. Could it be that only four days prior I walked up this hill instead of down? This time the sun blazed and we chatted excitedly about the next leg of our journey at the beach in Manuel Antonio.


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When we arrived at the hotel I scrubbed myself in the hot shower and checked every social media account on the planet from my iPhone. I put on makeup and jewelry and responded to blog comments at lightening speed. Almost immediately I noticed a shift in myself. My teeth ripped my nails to nubs and I felt simultaneously wired and exhausted. The world of technology sucked me back into its web.


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I noticed a shift in everyone. I felt less connected to everyone. At dinner some of us connected to wifi and stared at the screen. In the national park in Manuel Antonio we walked gravel paths and “wild” monkeys and raccoons ran up and stole our belongings on the crowded beach. We seemed disoriented and disharmonious and each went in different directions. The high vibration of nature that once surrounded us faded from memory as we slumped into the low vibration of development.


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Suddenly it felt difficult to shine my light. I was back in mermaid land on a jungle backed beach but it felt difficult to be the girl who giggled and skipped and played.


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The last day after most of the Adventure Campers had departed for their flights, a small group of us went to the public beach in Manuel Antonio. Day trippers smoked cigarettes and played loud music and beach hawkers approached us incessantly. I felt too stimulated to feel. I missed Chakra Camp.


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I couldn’t bring myself back to Chakra, but I could bring Chakra back to me. So we gathered together under the shade of an almond tree and we chanted, “Pacha Mama. Madre Tierra. Pacha Mama. Madre Tierra. Wiricuta. Wiricuta. Wiricuta. Gran Espiritu. Wiricuta. Wiricuta. Wiricuta. Gran Espiritu.”


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We laughed and ran wildly into the ocean and cleansed ourselves of the energy that brought us down.


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I told myself the truest thing that I know.


That I am forever connected to nature. Even when I don’t feel it or I don’t see it, it’s still there. Because it lives inside of me. Beyond being Camille or This American Girl or a yoga teacher or a writer or a woman, I am the Earth and the Earth is me.


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The key is simply remembering.


If you’d like to have your own off the grid experience at La Chakra Camp, Run Like a Girl is offering $150 off of their next Adventure Camp in February for everyone who uses the offer code “this american girl.” 


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