hangry in Antigua

As my boyfriend and I walked down the cobblestone streets and alleys of the ancient capitol of Guatemala, a dusty, colorful and quaint remnant of Spanish colonialism, I grew quiet.  Everything around me faded as if the world beyond a five-foot diameter was an undefined white miasma.

Then I blurted out: “Just to let you know, I’m going to need to eat in the next five minutes.”

The ‘oh-shit’ look transformed his features as we embarked on a not so pleasant adventure to find the closest eatery that had: 1) food; 2) vegetarian options that wouldn’t cause vomiting or severe intestinal cramping; and 3) had a chance of being delicious and heathly.

Here’s the confession:  I am one of those people. You know the kind. The ones who go from 0 to scary in five minutes if they don’t receive immediate nourishment.

It’s embarassing, and causes its share of problems. As my boyfriend has pointed out, food is the source of 95% of our arguments.  Considering we don’t fight often, that’s  significant.

So what is it that drives me to become the explosive ice queen whenever I get hungry?  Or ‘hangry’ as some people call it.

As it turns out, there’s a science-backed answer in the giant morass of the great intergalactic library called the Internet.

That’s right … Science is on my side.  (And my physiology is to blame.)

Hungry is an emotion

Some things are happening in your body when you get hungry.  The concentration of glucose in your blood is depleting. Once it achieves a certain level (from 3.8 to 2.8 mmol/L), your brain, which survives on glucose, initiates a desparate cry for help.  A progressive SOS goes out to the pituitary gland, pancreas, and adrenal glands who in turn respond by releasing growth hormone, glucagon, and adrenaline and cortisol, respectively.  The body releases these hormones in stages.  Early stages are supposed to trigger glucogenesis, a process whereby the body converts amino acids into glucose so that your greedy, gluttonous brain doesn’t have to stop bingeing.  Adrenaline and cortisol come into play when the glucose levels further drop.

Being low on glucose is a bit like being drunk.  Muddled thoughts, slurred speech, and difficulty concentrating are some typical symptoms.  Being really low on glucose is dangerous, and can lead to seizures, coma and death.  Seriously.

The link between adrenal, cortisol and anger seems obvious, however it’s not the only thing driving this irrational behavioral response.  You know how genes provide the basis for our programming.  Well, the one controlling hunger also controls anger. Neuropeptide Y (benign name for such an implement of destruction) is found to be significantly elevated in the cerebral spinal fluid of some lucky individuals, together with a higher incidence of the Y1 receptor. [ASIDE: Neuropeptide Y, like many things in the body, has  different functions, and can induce various responses to diverse stimuli.  For example, it plays a role in obesity, aids in dealing with PTSD, enhances performance under stress, and may provide protection against alcoholism.]

Is anger ever a good thing? 

Evolutionarily speaking (because who doesn’t like gazing back on those knuckle dragging days with misty-eyed nostalgia) increased aggression while hungry probably served a very important biological function… like making sure you beat out the competition and didn’t die of starvation.

As it turns out, my irritating habit of losing my rationale mind when I get hungry may have been beneficial in some kind of yesteryear.  I imagine my ancient self racing across a muddy savannah, flecks of earth sailing through the air like miniature bombs against the smoke-filled sky.  Spear in hand.  Prey trying to escape me, but turning its sharp tusks at me once I finally corner it.

*sigh*

It’s no excuse, nor is it fair to my amazing friends and family to become she-hulk when my blood sugar drops.  How do I combat evolutionary biology?  I haven’t quite figured that out yet.  Some basic tricks are always having a healthy snack on hand, no matter where on the planet I am.  Maintaining blood sugar levels requires a bit of vigilence, as well as a deeper knowledge of our own internal bio-rhythms.

Perhaps the main thing is to remember a moment of hanger is temporary, and to stay grateful for my boyfriend, who is so patience with me, and keeps an internal map of all the closest eateries.

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into the jungle

We had been sitting in a minivan, facing backwards on a hard handmade bench, for hours as the driver delivered people and goods between the start point and our destination.  We passed through villages, jostled over dirt roads, and witnessed teenaged infatuation, and jealousy.  After the last passengers were delivered to homes or stores, we continued onward into increasingly rural areas, until there was nothing to see outside of the window but a single strip of a two-lane road, and the imposing figures of trees.

The next piece of civilization we came across was a roadblock, guarded by armed men who waited and lounged and watched.  We paid an entrance fee at the hut, and continued on, going deeper still.

A modest complex marks the entrance of the Parque Nacional Tikal, where Mayan ruins happen to haunt a small portion of a jungle, which occupies the entire Northern part of Guatemala.  After dumping our gear in the bungalow where the archeologists who originally excavated and studied the ruins once lived, we ventured out on foot.

The air, wet, sat heavy on our skin, and sank into our clothes. And then a slew of creatures and sounds confronted us.  An alligator lazed in a giant cistern-pond with its Mesozoic snout hovering above the waterline.  Ceiba trees towered above us, and between the chatter of bugs and arguments among birds, there was no silence, no pause in the stream of oscillating frequencies.  Monkeys crashed gracefully from one tree to the next, their approach marked by the sensation of a strong wind menacing the boughs.

Tikal National Park

It is so easy, as an urban dweller whose time in the wilderness is curated, to draw cliched analogies between the jungle and city life.  Patterns of movement, behavior and survival might be applicable to both environments, but they are not the same.

The process of life here in this madness of green is arguably far less managed by the hand of man.  Unfettered to a degree.  When the day flickers off, and night stands in the sky, the insects go from whispering aphrodisiacs and warnings to screaming them.  They are a glimpse into an ecosystem, which is fed by birth and death, foraging and hunting, social relationships, and the chemistry of change. The dirt of the jungle floor is the result of a millennia of these comings and goings, as are the trees and the creatures who are perfectly adapted for that place and its circumstances.

I thought I would be moved by the ruins at Tikal, entranced and beguiled by them; but I never thought the jungle in which they resided would hold so much magic. That place was outside of my experience, raw in ways I couldn’t anticipate.  And this, after only dipping a toe in.  The magic of the jungle swims in my blood, my imagination.  It beckons me to return, and venture deeper still.

this place is not home

Antigua-Branding

The plane swoops through the clouds, which separate the pale blue of daybreak from whatever lays beneath, just waking. When we finally get a peek, we see volcanoes sitting heavy atop the land, over the lips of tectonic plates. And then the staccato of buildings rising up competes for attention. Blocks, and webs of streets, and the pulsing of cars, busses, and bodies.

Once we step off the plane, we are surrounded by new smells. A new language tickles the canals of our ears. As we weave out of the airport in someone else’s car, a familiar sight accosts our eyes. And another, and another. American fast food companies populate the city almost as much as the chicken busses. Another American contribution made.

My brain twitches at this incongruity. We get to Antigua; the streets are cobblestoned and the buildings are faded, streaked and peeling colors of rust, mustard, lilac, mold and forget me nots. And yet there’s a sandwich shop, a pizza place, and a fast food burger joint, which I can see everyday in my normal life, here in this place that’s supposed to be different.

This place is not home, but it looks familiar in the most mundane ways. We’ve come here to be someplace different. And it is; it’s not home but the sameness is surprising and, for it’s presence, overwhelming.

The Anatomy of Adventure

The notion of adventure connotes a sort of breathlessness, poised and waiting on the edge of an unveiling. And at this perch we stand, crawl, kneel or are otherwise in the domain of the unknown. Adventure is rubbed in the spice of daring, smoked in the hot char of danger (even if just a hint). How do we come to adventure? Does one land in our lap, like a little present hand delivered by toga-wearing gods? Do we seek them out; make them? Are they good for us?

First things first: Toga-wearing gods. There’s something to this. I feel it quivering in my bones, anointing the fibers of my muscles with the intoxicating nectar of excitement. Why? Because it conjures images of Odysseus stepping out of his realm to set sail and go out there. Don’t stop here. This isn’t the exciting thing. (It’s not nearly nerdy enough.)

I would like to butcher–I, mean enlist Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. He observes that the hero trope generally starts in one way. Boring. The hero or heroine is going about their usual business, minding their manners, doing a chore they’ve done a thousand times. Then it happens. The “Call to Adventure”. Whether the hero knows it or not, it’s about to go down. The thing about this moment is complacency. The hero is cozy in his/her reality. Nested. Sure. They think they know the world and their place in it. This is where the hero is when the call comes. This is the state of mind. Business as usual, and then the hero departs into adventure, embarks into the unknown.

We peel back adventure’s skin, its muscles, peer into its circulatory and nervous systems, examine its bones. A whole series of events plot the hero’s journey. The hero accepts the call, eventually. A guide appears along the way. This person has traversed rough waters, circumnavigated circles down into the pit. The hero loses connection with past realities as he sinks into newness. There’s more, but I’m not making a list. The point I want to make is this: adventure is a vehicle of transformation. Not all adventures are hero’s journeys, although even mundane adventures hold the potential for transformation.

When I went backpacking a month ago, the trip leader guided us a few choice sites. I’ve done some desert camping. The other occasions had a little bit of wildlife, gorgeous geologic formations, but nothing like this. Yonis were sprinkled around the valley. Obviously modern minds find this graphic and sexual. That component should not be dismissed, nor can it override the symbolic aspect. Fertility is associated with this symbol. So is the metaphor of birth, which is transition and transformation, movement from one realm into the next, leaving the known to face the unknown. The great punctuation in life is birth and death. Campbell argues that we face many deaths and births over our lifetimes. We shed fragments or whole identities as a snake sheds it’s skin. Adventure is critical to the process. It is not easy, or pleasant at times, but it is better to step into new skin than accept the smothering embrace of stagnation.

desert :: fear

I am of the mindset that TV is a mind-sucking, time-sink. I frequently get off my high horse to give my brain a rest and check out from reality. Tonight I swore I wasn’t going to do it. But then I rationalized that reading my completed book draft (my very LAST read before I actually and really send it out) required 100% of my attention, and not a split focus over dinner. So I gave in to temptation, and was rewarded with this bit of dialogue: If you feel fear start to rise, change it. Turn it into inspiration instead.

Okay. So that wasn’t the exact line, however it is the spirit of the line. I sat there, staring at the screen with a mouth full of food that I wasn’t chewing thinking, hell yes!

Since September 13th (for my entire life if I’m being honest), but particularly since then I have activated a process of intentional change. The lynchpin of this, aside from intense reflection, is to do one scary thing each week. It’s been as basic as walking up to a stranger and asking a question (a terrifying prospect for me). It’s been as ultimately satisfying as dance lessons.

What ever “it” is, each week I purposefully engage in a fear-inducing situation. My thought is that eventually, my relationship with those things that make me fearful will change. That eventually I’ll have a greater tolerance, and therefore be better able to handle challenges and embark on the adventures that make me sing.

The most recent “fear” installment was my afore mentioned trip to the desert. Originally I was going to be super badass and go by camping myself (thank you Heather and Rach for talking me OUT of this). Then I thought being the mastermind of the excursion was the fear-inducing bit. An hour and a half into my solo 4+ hour, ~9.5 mile hike (into the desert near dusk, mind you), I realized that was not it. WTF was I thinking?

A couple of disclaimers: most of this “hiking” was in the valley on jeep trails. I had a topo map and compass, and didn’t have to use them (so it wasn’t real hiking). I had food, and first aid, emergency shelter, and someone at base camp who was aware of where I was going and when I should be back.

The fear-inducing part? Being alone in the freaking desert.

At first, the landscape and the camera in my hands distracted me from everything. I love lighting and texture. I love seeing, aligning, and framing. I can lose myself in a viewfinder or darkroom. After a while, I noticed no one had passed me (the compact car full of people my Mom’s age (no offense, Mom) didn’t count). There were no sounds. Texture was all around me. The rocks. The cacti and shrubs. The tracks, and scat at my feet.

[Note: I’m a writer. My imagination is POWERFUL and has a will of its own.]

This was the playground of big horn sheep, ground rodents, and snakes. Coyotes, and mountain lions. Those last two? They’re predators. Not to mention crazy people who hole up in the desert. [Imagination. What can I say? I’m a little ashamed of it.] All around my feet were tracks I couldn’t identify. Some of them looked huge, like they belonged to a bear. Or anything weighing more than 300 pounds. My heart wasn’t exactly pounding, but I wasn’t at ease either. I believe the word was unsettled (around mile 4).

The most intense thing was being out there alone. The bee hive and the bird that surprised me induced little shrieks; however the absolute quiet and relative lack of another human was chilling. It’s the kind of quiet where you either find yourself, or lose yourself.

At a couple of points along the way, I thought about turning back without achieving my goal: seeing the pictographs. Instead, I stayed with the fear. I stayed with the solitude. I remained steadfast to the path. When I finally reached the trailhead, a thrill rushed through me. After another mile of more dubious, yet somehow more comforting trekking, I finally reached my goal. Red and yellow remnants of someone’s song, from somewhere in the past. Peace settled over me in that moment. Utter calm.