Sunday, February 3, 2013

a birthday celebration

Today, February 3rd, Super Bowl Day 2013, is Erica's 35th birthday. A day that should be filled with balloons, cake, joy, pizza, beer, raw smoothies, rugby, beards, jeepney top riding through the mountains of Sagada, hot baths, friends, laughter, lots of love and family. Today is a day to celebrate Erica and all that she has fought through, all that she has created, and all that she has shared with the world.

For those of you who don't know Erica she has just finished her last chemo treatment. Over the last few months she has met cancer with grace and strength, refusing to let cancer define her or dictate her outlook on life. Throughout this battle Erica has radiated with positivity, acting as an inspiration and encouragement to those who know her.

This isn't shocking though because that's who Erica is. She is fun and kind and full of life and positive and passionate and strong. She is stubborn. No one will tell her cancer will have the best of her just as no one will tell her she can't work with a rice farmers cooperative in the mountains. She is understanding but fierce and unwavering. She is true to herself and what she believes. Always searching for answers and more understanding.

I met Erica more than two years ago. We both had the AWESOME opportunity to spend three months living in Olongapo aka the city known for "Shit River," countless floods, prostitution and creepy-old-white-men. During those three months I didn't know Erica very well, but that changed and I'm very glad it did.

After training we were sent to two towns about 14 hours apart. Somehow the distance didn't keep us from connecting.Through PC events and other activities we were able to get to know each other better and spend more time talking, processing and just trying to make the most of our experiences.

One highlight of my time in the Philippines was an Easter trip to the mountains of Sagada. Erica loves Sagada. You can read her blog to hear more about this magical, mountainous, oasis. A land of culture, kind people, yogurt, community, history, and peace. I will never forget riding on top of jeepneys for hours through sprawling rice terraces, rocky cliffs, and refreshingly cold clouds. We spent hours in silence just taking in the fresh air and the freedom that comes with top riding. We spent hours talking to the farmers sharing the roof with us. We laughed as we shared our stories from site.

Erica was in her element on the roof of the jeep. She laughed and joked with the farmers. She was at ease as the jeep struggled to stay on the road. She sat tall and content as we wove our way through mountain passes.

We stopped in Banuae and Erica took us to her friend's hotel so we could shed a few bags before our hike in Batad. When we were at the jeep terminal Erica saw a couple people she knew. She greeted her Ate's and Kuyas with love and familiarity. It was evident that Erica brought each of these people joy. They had become a part of each other's lives. She knew about their families and she cared to hear more about their families. Everyone Erica meets is important to her and she puts effort into knowing people, no matter how long or short she has known someone.

The same happened in Sagada and Batad. In Sagada we ate at her friend's restaurant. Erica was of course warmly welcomed back and treated like family. In Batad Erica asked about a boy named Rambo she had met months before. Everyone knew him, and through him knew Erica. Because of Erica's warmth we were welcomed and given the chance to also become a part of these people's lives for the few days we spent in the mountains.

As we hiked through the terraces Erica asked questions about the history of the terraces, about our guides' family, about the giant earthworms that were wrecking the stability of the terraces, about the recent collapses, about the future of the terraces, about the daily lives of the people who lived in Batad. She was curious because she has a passion for people and a passion for culture. She wants to understand what she can to help protect livelihoods and histories. Her questions were filled with compassion and empathy.

But, Erica is also feisty and she stands firmly for what she believes. One of my favorite conversations with Erica happened in her kitchen. It was a conversation my soul needed. We secretly lit two cloves and sat on plastic stools in her kitchen so no one could see us smoking (girls don't smoke after all, especially not Peace Corps girls). She understood me and I understood her. We were able to share our frustrations, sadness, and desires. We discussed our fears and our pessimism. We offset those fears and pessimism with stories of rebirth and hope. Anger at the injustices around us fueled the conversation long past the time our cloves fizzled out. Whereas I am often weak and unsure how to respond to what i feel is wrong, Erica is strong and stands firm against what she knows is wrong. She is honest regardless of whether or not her words will please those she is speaking to. From there we talked about solutions, solutions neither of us were sure would work. It hurt Erica to think about the problems of the world. She carries the burdens of those around her.  She is convicted by what is right and good.  She is human and gets discouraged. But she is also human in that she wakes up the next morning with optimism and determination. The world needs all of this. It needs people to hurt for it, it needs people to feel, it needs people to contemplate solutions, it needs people  to be unsure, it needs people to know what is right and good and stand unwavering in support of those things. It needs people who care and are willing to fight for change however they are able and know how.

Erica is fun. Rum and cokes on beaches, sneaking into music festivals because we literally had no money for anything including food (good old empty atm's), dancing  to great and terrible music alike, hanging out at artist parties, eating cheese whiz and sky flakes, playing african drums in the life to the fullest. She doesn't let money or preconceived notions of societal success stand in her way. Nothing slows her down or gets her down.Erica lives life and Erica shares life with all those she interacts with.

For her birthday we can commit to caring for all of those she cares about, and decide to stand against the hate and the wrong that inhibits empowerment and equality. On this day we celebrate Erica and all that she is. All she symbolizes and all that she inspires within us.

p.s. check out erica's blog:

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