Healing My Heart on The Río Dulce
The following piece was written in June of 2017 as a submission for a travel anthology. Although it was not selected to be published at the moment, I’ve decided to share it on the blog. It’s a deeply personal narrative reflecting on the life and death of one of my best friends, Carlos Armas. I’m scared as hell to post but after a few close friend read it and encouraged me to share it I’ve decided to go for it. If you’re mourning a lost loved one I hope this helps you 🙂
I’d also like to give a special thank you to the clients who were with me in Guatemala during the time of the accident for your support, compassion and generosity. Thank you.
I fell to the floor in disbelief, wailing as they told me over and over again that he was dead. “Si Chelsea, lo siento mucho pero es cierto”. “No, no puede ser” I replied, insisting that it couldn’t possibly be my Carlos. In the midst of shock, confusion and utter heartbreak I tried to convince myself that they had made a mistake, that it was someone else. I was just with Carlos the day before, riding on that very motorcycle, scarfing down tacos and mapping out our plans for world domination. The voices of my dear friends attempted to console me over the phone but I would soon come to find that only the passing of time would heal this wound.
Alone in my cozy wooden cabin looking out at Guatemala’s expansive Río Dulce, my personal paradise, I clung to the bed as my world came crashing down on me. My best friend, my business partner, my mentor and my rock had been hit on his motorcycle and killed on the outskirts of Antigua, Guatemala just two hours after we had last spoken. I was stuck six hours away on an island in the middle of Río Dulce with fourteen people depending on me as their tour guide to keep them safe, happy, healthy, entertained and well informed on everything from what species of bird was in that tree or what percentage of Guatemala’s energy came from renewable sources. How the hell was I going to pull that off? I panicked. How was I going to finish this tour without Carlos? How was I going to continue without him in my life?
The following days were a blur but thanks to shock, denial and an incredibly compassionate and understanding group of clients, I completed the tour. The next few months, however, would welcome to my life a new level of depression, detachment and doubt to whose existence I was previously ignorant. Everywhere I went I saw his face or heard his voice, the magnitude of his role in my life was inescapable. I tortured myself stewing over what seemed to be ancient photographs from a previous lifetime and, adding salt to the wound, I dug through years of archived text messages and emails. I would open up my laptop to begin work and there in my inbox or deep in the corners of google drive, or tucked away in bank statements were remnants of our deep partnership, both professional and personal.
As I foolishly indulged in this twisted trip down the rabbit hole of darkness it became crystal clear that looking back on my relationship with Carlos really just meant looking back on my transition from a naive teenage girl to a confident young woman. There wasn’t a single part of my personal evolution in young adulthood that he wasn’t there for and in fact he was often at the forefront of it all. He provided me with my first job in the travel industry, afforded me the opportunity to study Spanish, listened to me whine and complain about frustrating boyfriends, threw me birthday and graduation parties, organized aspects of my ridiculously over the top Guatemalan wedding, picked up the pieces of my broken heart when said marriage crumbled, and counseled and encouraged me when I took the leap to start my own travel company. In between these monumental moments of supporting one another were the perfectly mundane mornings drinking coffee together while staring off at volcanoes and evenings spent eating Chinese food in our PJ’s when we were too tired to be tempted by the lively streets of Antigua.
We loved like friends, fought like brother and sister, played wingman for one another like Batman and Robin and worked like wolves on Wall Street. Alone we were strong, but together we were a force to be reckoned with. Carlos was always pushing me to the limit and throwing obstacles my way, while I cooled his occasional hot temper and encouraged him to shift his perspectives. He sharpened my mind and I softened his heart, we were ying and yang and it worked. The idea of living life any other way seemed impossible and when faced with accepting reality or curling into the fetal position and drowning my sorrows in tears and the occasional cocktail, the second choice had the alluring advantage of avoidance.
And so, I mourned. I gave myself permission to grieve, to be angry and to feel completely lost. However, after a few too many tequila fueled “woah is me” nights, that almost always ended with me sitting on the floor of my shower in tears, I decided enough was enough. Mourning is an important process but in many ways it can be rather selfish really. We spend so much time thinking about how we, the living, feel and how the person’s absence in our life affects us. In reality it’s not about us, it’s about the fellow human being who lost their life, and in the instance of Carlos this happened far before it should have. My selfish tears and excuses to squeak by doing the bare minimum had to end. There would be no more fits of hysteria in the shower, I needed to buck up. So, buck up I did. Carlos wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Before he passed, Carlos guided me on a pathway to self discovery and growth. Today, my business, which would not have come to exist without him, allows me the privilege to write a letter of love and gratitude to him, and his country, for the profound impact they’ve made in my life. With every move I make, I’m given the opportunity to honor the legacy of my best friend, to showcase the beauty of a country so often misunderstood, to bring happiness and adventure to the lives of many the way Carlos did. More than anything, I have the opportunity to give back, in however small a way, to a country that has given me more than I could have ever dreamed.
It’s been just over four months since the night my world came crashing down and here I am back in this little cabin, for the first time since the accident, peering out at the calm, glassy waters of the Río Dulce. My heart stops as the voices from that phone call echo in my head. I push them away and dig deeper into the past and I see myself at 19, with pigtail braids and no idea when to put a lid on my blabber mouth. Next to me is a younger Carlos, navigating through the early stages of running his company. We pulled into our final destination in Río Dulce in the midst of 2010’s Storm Agatha, all our gear on top of the van soaked in rain. I laugh thinking about how much things changed over time and how much we became more like the other over the years. Instead of crying I close my eyes and smile. An incredible era has ended but the world still turns and life goes on. Carlos achieved what most set out to do in this lifetime, he left something behind worth remembering.
My mind jumps to the present and I appreciate the beauty of life’s cyclical nature. Rio Dulce is where it all began for me, where I was when Carlos passed, and from where it will all continue. The sun is slowly coming up over the river and creeping its way through the curtains and into my sleepy eyes. After breakfast, I’ll be taking a family out on a tour of the region and I’m overwhelmed with genuine joy and excitement to share this experience with them. For the two teenagers it’s their first time out of the country and I’m blown away as I watch their eyes opening up to a different way of life. As they are reminded how fortunate they are, their young minds also realize that the world is a big, beautiful and sometimes messy place, but that we are all connected. I see a spark in young Kate’s eyes and I can tell she will be an adventurer as she stares in awe at the new surroundings, pigtail braids and all.