The Bank Of Hope
Immediately after my early return to LA, I had to visit Avianca’s offices to make sure everything was OK with my flight. It was a cold, rainy day -very unusual for LA- and I was very nervous about what they could say. By then, some countries had started to close their borders and Argentina had joined that group 4 days ago.
When I got there, most of the people in the line were +60, from El Salvador and Guatemala. They were there because their flights had already been canceled. I felt “lucky”, because my flight was still confirmed but…for how long?
I decided to look up and take a deep breath to avoid the anxiety trap and there it was…The Bank Of Hope. Right next door to the airline’s office, this big green sign caught my attention. Is it even real? What does a bank of hope do? As the line moved, I kept my eyes on it, trying to remember that hope was the one thing that could keep me from panicking, from giving up.
That day, I was lucky. My flight was still scheduled and I was going to be able to fly home in a week. The Bank Of Hope sign helped me stay still and strong and optimistic.
As I walked to the subway, a friend of a friend called offering to host me for as long as I needed. I smiled and agreed to meet him that night in Venice. Seemed that things were working out for me during that miserable rainy, cold day. It even felt like the Bank Of Hope had extended a generous check for me.
I made it to Venice that night. It was raining even more and the temperature was down to 9°C. I was sad to leave a chapter of my life behind but I knew I didn’t belong there -I was no longer welcome-.
When Ken came to open the door, the street was slightly flooded and it was windy, but he had a big smile and seemed happy to see me. I smiled back and jumped all the way to the door with my not-so-heavy suitcase (thank God!).
We went to an empty apartment and, even though he had bought some stuff for making it livable, there was no mattress, no couch, not even a sleeping bag. I tried to focus on what it had: a roof to protect me from rain, a bathroom with hot water and a heater.
He ordered pizza and we ate at his place. The conversation jumped from my sister’s wedding to the craziness around coronavirus, from how our friend Justine did her magic by introducing us to why LA is such a wonderful place (rainy, cold weather and all). When it was time to sleep, he gave me a sheet and a blanket and offered to go to the apartment with me to turn on the heater… That decided to break precisely that night!
He brought a small heater and said goodnight. I managed to lay on the floor, over the sheet, covered with my various colorful scarves, wearing my winter pantyhoes and using a sweater as a pillow. It was cold, so, so, so cold (temperature went down to 6° that night) and I was so uncomfortable it was impossible to sleep.
I wanted to cry and I couldn’t. I tried to meditate and, maybe out of discipline, I managed to follow my breath and calm down. Then, I remembered.
6 weeks before that night I tried to practice a compassion meditation and the subject of it was homeless people. I visualized them, laying in the corner of my building, screaming to me and my neighbours for money, using the trees in the sidewalk as their bathroom. I sat for 45 minutes trying really hard to find compassion for them, the circumstances that led them to that situation, the fear, the anger, the frustration, the sadness that, as humans, all of them must have experience on a daily basis. I couldn’t feel anything but rejection. I stood up and tried to forget about it.
But there I was, trying to sleep on the floor, feeling pain in my back, my ribs, my neck, my arms. My head and feet were cold. My face felt like a stone. It was hard to breathe, hard to be still, hard to feel like my bright and shiny self. I was afraid, angry, frustrated and sad. I knew I couldn’t stay there another night but I didn’t have another place to go. The circumstances that led me to that moment were not entirely my responsibility… Well, they were even if other people had a part in it, I mean, I chose to trust unreliable people, I chose to ask for help in a less-than-centered way and I got exactly what I needed: a life lesson.
Somehow, I turned around and saw the sun shining. It was already 8am. I went to the shower and the hot water made me feel a lot better. I got dressed and, a few moments later, more help came my way. The imaginary check I got from the Bank Of Hope finally paid off.
Ken texted at around 10am asking if I wanted to go for groceries and some breakfast. Yes!!!!
So we went to a nearby shop, got some stuff and drove to a building where he had to take some pictures for work. As he pulled over and told me to wait for him, a big, old, white pick up filled with old furniture stopped next to the car. An old, grumpy man looked like he was trying to say something so Ken opened the window and we heard a very loud “Do you want me to break your car!?”.
We were in absolute disbelief. “What did he say?” asked Ken and I just screamed “Go, go, go” as I saw the man getting out of his pick up truck and running after us with some sort of metal pole. It took us less than 7 minutes to get home, and over 2 hours to recover from that bizarre episode. We were both grateful to have gone through it together, since he was sure he’d frozen with fear and I was certain I would have chased the crazy man myself. Yes, being in that situation together saved our lives and Ken’s car.
After breakfast and a good laugh, Ken decided to take me for a walk around Venice. The boulevard was so desolated, social distancing was not even a problem! It was the perfect day for my inner 13 year-old self, walking the same spots I had seen on MTV shows back in 1994. We took some pictures of the skaters, enjoyed the sun in our faces and even admired the graffiti that decorated trees and walls.
Having someone to talk and laugh after 48hs of stress, uncertainty and fear felt so good. And it reminded me that friends aren’t those people who make plans and promises, but the ones who show up for you, even when all they can offer is a little support and optimism.
I was heartbroken at the realization that my so-called “friend”, the one I was supposed to spend that final week in LA, disappeared. First, she was too busy at work, then she was having issues with her dad, then she turned out to be back with her ex. In any case, what all this meant is that she was unavailable and couldn’t help at all. She kept asking me what my plans were, even though she knew my plan was to spend that week with her.
The thing is… Friends are far more meaningful than romantic partners. They belong in your life before you fall in love and they stay when relationships are over and help you go through that pain. But when a friend is the reason for heartbreak, how do you deal with that?
I trusted her. I spent hours on the phone, making plans, booking places and saving dates for all different sorts of things. I was excited to see her again and I saved an entire week just to share all we could together. I had no back up plan because I felt I could rely on her. I didn’t think she’d turn her back on me.
But, again, this was my choice. Looking back, I decided to trust her, I decided to give her my time, I decided to believe she was doing the same. We have to own our choices and get through the consequences without blaming anyone else. That’s what being an adult means.
However, it hurts. Maybe I need to work on my people-radar, to be more careful when giving my trust, to have a solid plan B, to not give up my independence just to feel like I am part of a team.
I always say I travel alone because I like the freedom of it, the possibility of improvising and being spontaneous, and the opportunity to learn more about myself and my own resources when things go sideways. This time, I failed to remember this. I gave away my power momentarily and I paid the price. But again, the generous check from Bank Of Hope paid off.
Just a week before everything happened, I was having dinner at a beautiful restaurant with some of my favorite people.
Ryan is the reason I love LA. He’s opened his home and his schedule to me twice and is always kind, generous, funny and willing to show me as many delicious places our stomachs can handle. He’s sweet and good, trustworthy and patient, he makes me feel safe and welcome. He was the first angel I met and, in his house, I’ve been through some of the most intense life lessons I can recall.
Gail and Miles are a fabulous couple I met a few months ago. They’re fun, love to eat out and enjoy wine as much as I do. Gail was nice enough to take me on a tour around City Hall, where she works, and introduce me to some really interesting people.
We were having dinner, jumping from one topic to another, planning a visit to Cafayate (Argentina) next november and just dreaming about gathering again soon. It was so much fun to be at that table, even the manager of the place kept coming just to join the conversation for a few moments.
7 days after, Ken drove me to Gail and Miles’. We were not friends yet, only acquaintances, but they were kind enough to open their home so I had a place to stay until I could fly home. They set up a room for me, with more blankets than I could use, a beautiful terrace where I could enjoy the sun and a kitchen so full it could feed more people than just the three of us.
They drove me to a few spots I had always wanted to see in Hollywood, but didn’t have the chance because of the quarantine. Luckily, with such few people in the streets, I was able to photograph those places, to see the signs up and the stars down, and even to have a great chef prepare our dinner (take away, I promise!) so we could enjoy it at home with an exquisite wine.
It was the perfect night before the moment that would test my life learnings of the past year.
When we were finishing dinner at the porch -such a typical scene in any american movie, neighbor with adorable dogs included-, I got an email from the airline saying the second leg of my flight had been canceled. I freaked out!
I texted the Argentine consulate to verify Colombian borders were still open for transit and they said yes. I went to bed, set the alarm to go to the airline’s office again next morning and played one of my favorite meditations to try to have a peaceful night of sleep.
When I got to the airline’s office, it was empty, but before going in, I took the time to look at the Bank Of Hope sign next door. “Lead me home” I thought, and waved to the lady at the counter.
“There is nothing we can do, you won’t be able to enter the airport in Bogota because you are not a citizen or resident,” said Mrs. Ibarra. She recognized me from my previous visit and knew I didn’t have a place to stay much longer, so she called the airport operations staff to see if they could help. After a few minutes, she offered to email me when she had an answer so I left.
It started raining so I tried to go to a nearby church. It was closed. I cried as I asked God if He had also taken a few days off because of the quarantine. The answer came back when the employee of a coffee shop used his discount to pay for my mocha saying “Coffee and chocolate will make you feel better.” He was right, it’s always the little things that help.
Later that day, after another meditation, I got an email from Mrs. Ibarra saying I should go to the airport and try to get on the next flight. So, I did.
Sadly, people at the airport were not as helpful. They were not even polite. At the counter, all I got was a “Your flight is canceled and you are going to have to stay here. Or find money to buy a new ticket”. That new ticket was USD 1900, and I don’t think a lot of people actually have that much money to pay for a one way ticket. I didn’t.
After standing at that counter for 3 hrs, they turned off the lights and left. I called the Argentinian consulate one more time and they were surprised by the response the airline gave. But instead of getting angry or complaining, both me and the person on the other side of the line did what we had to do: find a new, affordable, viable ticket that would allow me to fly home through one of the few airports still allowing transit passengers.
40 minutes later, we managed to find a flight that seemed appropriate and not ridiculously expensive. At least I had enough money to pay for it and it was leaving next afternoon. With some luck, I’d be able to pass by Santiago de Chile and continue my journey to Buenos Aires.
I got confirmation, did my check-in and waited for Miles to pick me up. One last night in LA before going back home.
All three of us were happy. Miles cooked a lamb that would have made Francis Mallman proud, paired with an argentinian Malbec, so I’d feel home already. We spent hours eating and chatting, giving thanks for simply being there, for being angels. Life had brought us together to take care of each other. Life made its wisdom visible, once again!
Next morning they drove me to the airport and, as I stood in the line to drop my baggage, I understood the concept behind the word “Miracle”. Turns out it has nothing to do with magic, happy endings or getting things your way. A miracle is to be able to see clearly in the middle of the storm, and identify the opportunity, the solution, the answer. A miracle is to be surrounded by people who help you find calm and peace, who help you feel safe and supported. A miracle is to remain strong and confident.
I thought of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. She wanted to find her way back home, and she was convinced the Wizard could make that happen -she was hoping for magic to bring the result she expected-. But when that didn’t work, she went back to her own inner strength, she aligned with her one, true desire, and it was that intense passion, that vision, that purpose what got her home in the end.
No one had the magic wand, or the US$2000, or the private jet to get me home. My miracle was to keep my eyes, ears, heart and mind open to find my way, with the help of friends and strangers, over the phone. From the people in the Consulate, to my friends all over the world, to the angels that held me in LA, to even the passengers that were almost stranded with me in Houston and Santiago de Chile. They were all part of the journey that brought me back to Buenos Aires. And my gratitude goes to each and every one of them, for allowing me to be part of their journeys too.