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Crossing the river before summiting 17,500 Pico Austria. Photo by Ella Williams (2016 Fall Semester Photo Contest, 2nd Place), South America Semester.

Finding clarity in unexpected places

Before you start reading this yak, do me a favor: look up John Butler’s 2012 studio version of Ocean on YouTube. If you don’t have twelve full minutes to dedicate to listening to this song and doing nothing else, listening to it quietly in the background will suffice. If you do have twelve minutes to dedicate to listening to this song and nothing else, though, please do so. Turn it up so its all you can hear, find a comfortable position in your chair, close your eyes, and try to appreciate each note. Let that smile creep onto your face and maybe a tear fall from your eye as you become entranced by the intricacy of the notes and your heart beat starts to match the rhythm, as you are overcome by the rise and fall of energy.

Alright, now that you’ve listened to that magical piece of art (excuse my bias), take a moment to reflect. How do you feel? I listened to this version of this song for the first time in English class last year. My friend Josh put the video on for me and told me to close my eyes and listen – nothing else. I did just that and was struck by how much control the song had over my emotions. I was exhausted by the time the song ended, as if I had just experienced something more than listening to an acoustic guitar solo for twelve minutes, but rather I felt like I experienced a rush of emotions – excitement, frustration, anticipation, happiness, curiosity, disappointment, and more. I walked out of class that day feeling slightly off and unfulfilled. I never was able to figure out why I felt that way until today, while on a four hour bus ride from Potosí to La Salar de Uyuni, when I heard those first few notes coming through my earphones.

I want to take you to that moment, when I heard Butler’s song for the second time. The landscape outside the bus was impeccable. Mountains erupted all around us, covered in rock, dirt, cacti, and occasionally llamas. We had been on the bus for about two and a half hours already when the song came on and it was about 5:30 pm. This is one of my favorite times of day. It’s the warmest part of the day and more often than not, encompasses the climax of the sun’s intensity – the world lays under the blanket of the sun’s warmth and brightness. It seemed as though all around, the tops of the mountains were engulfed in flames, the fire moved up the mountains as the sun moved down in the sky. Everything stopped for the almighty sun as it worked its way towards the horizon, slowly saying goodbye to the landscape for the night. In this moment, looking around, everything felt warm. It’s humbling to watch the sun rise and set because it did rise and it did set and it will rise and it will set. It will always rise and set. The earth spins continually, infinitely producing beautiful sunrises and sunsets no matter what.

In this exact moment, when the Butler’s song came on, I was instantly overcome by excitement. I looked around and saw the faces of my group mates: some laughed at jokes, some read, slept, listened to music, talked. Everyone was peaceful, content and happy to be in their own individual space on the bus. As the song progressed, though, and the energy built up, people began taking their earbuds out, waking up from their naps, putting away their books, and instead, playing a very extended game of “I’m thinking of an animal”.  Around us, the powerful sun made its presence known, illuminated the mountain peaks as laughter filled the bus as an occasional “ooh a whale! A shark!!” was heard. It’s silly, because the music was only coming out of my earphones and into my ears, but it felt as though the whole group could feel the rise and fall of Butler’s guitar, as though his finger picks and strums controlled the group like a puppeteer.

I looked around and couldn’t contain my excitement. I realized, in that moment, why the second hearing of the song felt more complete than the first. After the first hearing, I craved a connection, wishing and hoping to compare the melody and rhythm to experiences and emotions in my own life. But I couldn’t, until now. This song, although just a song, meant and means so much more. This song, after giving it some more thought, represents our whole experience in Bolivia thus far, and most likely for the remainder of our trip. Think about it – those first few notes represent the airport, filled with anticipation, curiosity, and nerves. No one wanted to come on too strong but everyone wanted to jump right into that group dynamic we all knew we’d fall into eventually. Different notes danced around, independent plucking, representing each individual in the group throughout our orientation period – during this time, we learned more about the group and how we all fit together. Slowly, Butler introduces chords and repetitions signifying togetherness and harmony, speeding up and slowing down, just as the group has done so far. Our itinerary involves busy days filled with heavy information, hectic travel, group tension, new foods, funny stories and more. Similarly, our itinerary also allows for times of reflection, relaxation, group discussions, etc. We are part of a dynamic experience – ever changing and never stopping.

It’s easy to get down, on a trip like this, on the little things, to focus on the long bus rides, “ouch” moments within the group, miscommunications, etc., but listening to Butler’s “Ocean,” reminded me of how silly all of that is. Every trip has its dull moments, moments of oversight, mistakes, and disorganization. Likewise, every group has its issues – arguments, disagreements, lapses of judgement. But what the heck are we doing focusing on these things? The world is filled with so many unknowns, so many places to go, cultures to learn about, people to meet, strong relationships to foster (sorry this is getting a bit preachy, but hearing this song on this bus was kind of like a revelation for me).

After about a minute (1:43 to be exact), Butler settles into a steady groove. I think our group just got to this point. We’ve talked enough about our feelings and learned enough about each member of the group to know how to work cohesively, like a well oiled machine. After all, we are currently on our way to Salar de Uyuni for three days using transportation arranged by students. When we get there, we will meet up with Quechua Connections, a group whom students contacted to organize/structure our time. Students are in charge this time around – introducing educational content about the history and impact of the salt flats and arranging our transportation back to La Paz at the end of our stay. We’re working together because we can, now. Just as the song progresses, gaining complexity and dimensions, our group will continue to grow and advance until the X phase of our trip, when we will take control and plan everything together. Just like the song, though, we will rise and fall, and every now and then, well need to slow down to pick apart the complex rhythms and melodies we’ve grown used to in order to find our footing once again and move on.

The end of “Ocean” was the most powerful part for me, after comparing it to our trip. Slowly, Butler fades away, decreasing the volume, the speed, and the complexity of his strumming pattern, leaving room for occasional moments of silence, then picking up the pace once more. I like to think of this part of the song as similar to what our transference stage might be – filled with reflection and thought. But, as Butler exhibits, there will be an increase in intensity at the very end – the trip will be nearing its conclusion and we will be fighting as hard as we can to make every moment count, staying up late, making as many memories as we can until our time is up and we are parting ways in Miami. Then comes the silence. As far as I know, we’re all on different flights home and, just as the song builds up and builds up, gaining color and momentum, it cuts off abruptly and concludes with twenty seconds of silence. Our version of Butler’s twenty seconds of silence will be our final plane ride home, on our own, filled with thought.

Hearing Butler’s song helped me learn so much more about the trip that I had no idea about before. I’m not thinking about the end of the trip, now, but rather the opposite. Comparing “Ocean” to our Andes and Amazon semester from start to finish helped me realize how important the now is – to appreciate each and every sunset and sunrise, to laugh at every joke, move past group tensions efficiently and effectively, foster strong and meaningful relationships, absorb as much information as I can, and reflect every day. Today is the twenty-fifth day of the trip. The past twenty-five days have flown by faster than I thought possible. Before we know it, the next two months will fly by just as fast, if not faster, if we don’t actively work to slow it down by appreciating all of the little things. The individual finger plucks against the strings make up the song just as every tiny moment makes up our adventure.

Now, do me a favor and give the song another listen if you can. Maybe you’ll think about it differently, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll find a connection to something in your life or maybe not. All that I know is I’m sitting on the bus, writing in my notebook by the light from Molly’s headlamp, and I’m smiling so big. I feel like I figured it all out – like I cheated the system in the best way possible.

(Thank you Becca for the beautiful photos from the bus!!)