Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Uglies … and, no, we’re not talking politics


Moving to a new country allows you to discover new things in the environment around you … and, as they say here in Mexico, desafortunadamente (I love the eight rolling syllables of that word), it also reveals things about ourselves that sometimes we’d rather not see. I call them the uglies.

I’ve been visited by two uglies in the past couple of weeks. The first was more of a blemish, but apparently I didn’t pay enough attention, so it came back in a much uglier form. As a relatively well-educated woman from a wealthy country, I have had decades to build up my prejudices and biases.

(And, just in case you believe you are prejudice-free, you might want to take the assessment at www.understandingprejudice.org/iat/. I first took it years ago and it surprised, and disappointed, me to find that I was moderately biased toward white people. It did open my eyes though, and made me more aware of my own bias and stereotyping.)

I believe strongly in tolerance and equality, and thought I had made progress in moving past bias. Apparently not so much. In a conversation with a Mexican man, I was surprised to find out that he had been a University professor in the US. I think I made it through that conversation without appearing completely arrogant, but, on reflection, realized that I carried into that conversation the stereotype of “less educated Mexican.” It made me uncomfortable to see that piece of myself.

However, there was more in store. At breakfast a couple of days ago with friends who have recently arrived to start their life here in Ajijic, we sat at a table next to an older, dark-skinned Mexican man missing several teeth. I actually felt myself write him off as a borracho (drunkard).

My friends are moving into their new place and were admiring the chairs in the restaurant, wondering if they could find some just like them, when the man at the next table, in near-perfect English, started telling us about where they came from and how they were made. And, then, without pausing, about his life here and in the US and how he learned to speak English by following tourists around the town when he was a boy. Once his words started, they didn’t stop.

My mind began a chaotic spin … attracted to his language skill, repulsed by his appearance (truly an Ugly reaction), amazed by the way he had learned the language when I am working so hard and seeing such slow results, irritated by his needy demand to be part of our conversation, startled by my own reaction that someone “like him” could be so fluent in a second language, impatient with his endless flow of words, wanting to be on with our own conversation and my own life.

It wasn’t until later that it all swirled into a truly ugly discovery about myself. I just finished a book (Forty Rules of Love (see more here) about Rumi and Shams of Tabriz. Shams is a wandering dervish who talks to drunkards, prostitutes and people of low status. Not only talks with them but learns from them, helps them. The book reminded me of my own commitment to “being love,” being kind and grateful for everything that comes my way. I don’t believe I have to go wandering through the world like Shams, but I do believe I need to be kind to everyone who comes my way.

The encounter at breakfast was like the Universe said, “Here’s an opportunity to be what you say you want to be.” And, I blew it. I knew it the minute I got up from that table and walked away from a man, a human being, who needed kindness. I fretted about it all day and went back the next morning, hoping to find him at that table, hoping to have another chance to be who I want to be. I thought at least I could buy him breakfast, listen to his words, be kind.

Of course, he wasn’t there. Chances are, I may never see him again. Perhaps, he was just an angel sent to give me a chance to express my better nature.

So, I’m left writing this, accepting and kindly embracing my inner uglies, hoping to make peace with them, hoping to do better next time. Inspite of the title of this piece, there is a political message here. I have been struggling with many of the policies of the current administration, wondering how our leaders could be so heartless and insensitive to the needs of our people. Now I realize that my behavior toward that man in the restaurant was just an example of how we wind up focused on our own wants and needs even when it’s at the expense of the person next to us.

If I can think my time is too important to be kind to an old man in a restaurant, why should I expect our leaders to choose kindness over their own interests?

More thoughts on kindness:

"There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy.  Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; my philosophy is kindness."  -- The Dalai Lama

"The magic in this world seems to work in whispers and small kindnesses." -- Charles de Lint

"One kind word can warm three winter months."   -- Japanese proverb

"Doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested.” -- Martin Seligman, Founder and Director of the Positive Psychology Center, University of Pennsylvania

Monday, June 26, 2017

Review: The Forty Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi by Elif Shafak


"Into the Unknown"
Harika!*
Have you ever started a book, which, from the first word, you didn’t want it to end? A book that you wanted to read as slowly as possible, savoring every word? A book that you knew was more than just a story, more than just black words on a white page? This is one of those.

I have to admit the recommendation from my sister-from-another-mother clued me in to the possibilities of this book, but the first words enchanted me and offered me a reflecting pool on my own life. From the beginning I knew reading this book was going to be a journey.

Many long years ago as a sophomore in college, I read a short story. Although the title and author are lost in time, the insight it gave me changed my life. All I remember about the story is that some guys are sitting around a campfire and one of them explains that The Bible could be condensed to one word: Love. That story, that one insight, stripped away my need for religious dogma and political debate and gave me a one-word rudder for my life.

While my skill at wielding this rudder through the journey of my life has been less than expert, I always know what I’m trying to do. I even announced it at the end of a workshop decades ago. When asked to state our after-workshop intention, I stood, and with my introvert-heart pounding, announced that I wanted to “BE love."

But, time and life keep rolling along, picking up sand and pebbles and boulders until it’s a muddy, frothy flow and clarity is lost. Moving to Mexico was like jumping out of the river onto the bank of a small island away from distractions and expectations.

At first it felt wrong to just be sitting on the sideline as the river rushed on without me. How could I just do nothing when there were so many problems and issues, opportunities and possibilities swimming past me? Slowly I found myself breathing deeply, wrapping my arms around my knees and turning my face to the sun, just being alive and unencumbered.

And then, the book arrived. It’s an interesting story by a Turkish writer. An ordinary woman in a tired marriage is assigned a book to review as part of her editing job. The story takes her back centuries, to the time when a highly educated and revered Islamic scholar meets an itinerant dervish, a meeting that breaks open the scholar’s heart, freeing the poet within. It is the story of Rumi and Shams of Tabriz. It is a story of love, the power of love, the mystic power of relationship to break us open.

In my vertigo, in my dizziness, in my drunken haze,
whirling and dancing like a spinning wheel,
I saw myself as the source of existence,
I was there at the beginning and I was the spirit of love.
  -- Rumi

In January, 2011, I did a blog celebration of Rumi with 31 days of Rumi’s poetry as read by Coleman Barks with his incredible voice and deep connection with the spirit of Rumi. (For an index of that series click here: http://www.joycewycoff.com/p/blog-page.html)

Now, this book calls me back to Rumi and to my determination to “Be Love.” Here in this sheltered village on a peaceful lake, maybe I will be guided to discover what that truly means. As this journey opens up, the recent piece of art which I thought was about a young woman entering into the unknown world of adulthood takes on a new meaning. Deep within all of us there is a spirit who is always entering into the unknown, still somewhat hesitant, glancing back, wondering if the watching world will judge us, wondering if we are up to the trials ahead. Are we good enough? Strong enough? Beautiful enough? 
This book reminds me through the forty rules of love that all we truly need is to love enough.

  • An amazon.com review of this book from reviewer EEE included this word, which means "wonderful." I have decided to adopt it.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

My Four Agreements and naming the full moons


"New World Coming" **
One of my new neighbors and I have started a small ritual of reviewing our intentions on the night of the full moon. Last night’s incredible Strawberry Moon (see below for more info) prompted a lot of thoughts about personal agreements and the keeping of them. 
With gratitude and deference to Don Miguel Ruiz who gave the world Four Agreements that have changed lives for millions, I have decided to set down my own four agreements for this place and time in my life.

 * Connect Deeply … with my self, my spirit, my body, with others, with my environment and the world.
* Express Gratitude … for everything that comes to me and everything that exists in our world.
* Give Generously … of my time and resources, to myself, to others and to the world we live in.
* Celebrate Beauty … honor the beauty of the world and let it flow into my actions and art.

However, what are the actions that support those agreements? 

Thought without action is a seed on the wind. Or, as my elders used to say, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” What actions will I take to give life to my agreements, to plant these seeds in fallow ground where they can grow and thrive?

The agreement that most calls to me now is  Connect Deeply. I want to know my new environment, its culture, its history, its people, its language. I also want to slow down and take time to connect to my spiritual and physical self.
Action: learn Spanish. I’ve embarked on a self-study course but need to speak the language more. I need to find a native speaking tutor.

Action: practice yoga. Getting ready for this move to Mexico, I sprained my foot (mildly). In the process of hobbling about, I threw my hips out of whack. While my foot has mended, my hips hurt and it is taking away from my joy of walking. I’ve been seeing a chiropractor, which has helped, but I need to practice yoga and allow my body to regain flexibility.

Action: meet mural artists. I am fascinated by the wall art I find here in Mexico and I want to know more about the artists and their work. So, go meet them.
So, that's my plan for this moon. We'll see where we are at the next full moon.
If you are fascinated by moon names, here’s some additional information, which makes me think that we should get to name our moons according to life in our particular environment. Since I am now living on Lake Chapala, Mexico, I am renaming Strawberry Moon to Return of Rain Moon.

Thank you, Return of Rain Moon for these insights and I look forward to your next appearance, which, for now, I will think of as New World Coming Moon. 
** (I recently started a new Photoshop Artistry online class and this is one of the first images from that class.)

More full Moon names: 
MonthNameDescription
JanuaryFull Wolf MoonThis full Moon appeared when wolves howled in hunger outside the villages. It is also known as the Old Moon. To some Native American tribes, this was the Snow Moon, but most applied that name to the next full Moon, in February.
FebruaryFull Snow MoonUsually the heaviest snows fall in February. Hunting becomes very difficult, and hence to some Native American tribes this was the Hunger Moon.
MarchFull Worm MoonAt the time of this spring Moon, the ground begins to soften and earthworm casts reappear, inviting the return of robins. This is also known as the Sap Moon, as it marks the time when maple sap begins to flow and the annual tapping of maple trees begins.
AprilFull Pink MoonThis full Moon heralded the appearance of the moss pink, or wild ground phlox—one of the first spring flowers. It is also known as the Sprouting Grass Moon, the Egg Moon, and the Fish Moon.
MayFull Flower MoonFlowers spring forth in abundance this month. Some Algonquin tribes knew this full Moon as the Corn Planting Moon or the Milk Moon.
JuneFull Strawberry MoonThe Algonquin tribes knew this Moon as a time to gather ripening strawberries. It is also known as the Rose Moon and the Hot Moon.
JulyFull Buck MoonAt this time, a buck’s antlers are in full growth mode. This full Moon was also known as the Thunder Moon, because thunderstorms are so frequent during this month.
AugustFull Sturgeon MoonSome Native American tribes knew that the sturgeon of the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain were most readily caught during this full Moon. Others called it the Green Corn Moon.
SeptemberFull Corn MoonThis full Moon corresponds with the time of harvesting corn. It is also called the Barley Moon, because it is the time to harvest and thresh the ripened barley. The Harvest Moon is the full Moon nearest the autumnal equinox, which can occur in September or October and is bright enough to allow finishing of all the harvest chores.
OctoberFull Hunter’s MoonThis is the month when the leaves are falling and the game is fattened. Now is the time for hunting and laying in a store of provisions for the long winter ahead. October’s Moon is also known as the Travel Moon and the Dying Moon.
NovemberFull Beaver MoonFor both the colonists and the Algonquin tribes, this was the time to set beaver traps before the swamps froze, to ensure a supply of warm winter furs. This full Moon was also called the Frost Moon.
DecemberFull Cold MoonThis is the month when the winter cold fastens its grip and the nights become long and dark. This full Moon is also called the Long Nights Moon by some Native American tribes.

There are many names for full moons … here is a plethora of names from different cultures:

From the Native American Tribes:
(from: http://www.ecoenchantments.co.uk/mynaming_of_moonspage.html)

Jan Old Moon,    Wolf Moon,    Ice Moon,    Moon after Yule,      Winter Moon
Feb  Hunger or Starvation Moon,  Storm Moon, Trapper's Moon,    Moon of Ice,  Tree Moon
Mar Crow Moon,  Sap Moon,   Worm Moon,  Moon of Winds,  Fish Moon,   Chaste Moon, Death Moon
Apr  Egg Moon,    Seed Moon, Frog Moon,   Pink Moon, Awakening Moon
May  Flower Moon,     Milk Moon,  Hare Moon,  Grass Moon
Jun  Strawberry Moon,    Planting Moon,  Green Corn Moon
Jul  Hay Moon,      Summer Moon,  Thunder Moon,     Buck Moon
Aug   Sturgeon Moon,      Corn Moon, Green Corn Moon,    Dog Days Moon,  Lightening Moon
Sep   Singing Moon,     Barley Moon
Oct   Travellers' Moon,      Blackberry Moon
Nov   Frosty Moon,    Beaver Moon,  Dark Moon,     Tree Moon, Snow Moon
Dec   Cold Moon,    Long Night Moon

Or these - special ones from the Siouan (Assiniboines) Tribe, Montana ....  the March 'Sore Eye Moon' comes from long days watching the glare of the sun on the snow - and 'Gophur Looks Back' from the little Gophur looking behind him at lost summer days.

Jan
    Hard Time Moon
Feb
    Long day Moon
March
    Sore Eye Moon
April
    Frog's Moon
May
    Idle Moon
June
    Full Leaf Moon
July
    Red Berries Moon
Aug
    Black Cherries Moon
Sep
   Yellow leaf Moon
Oct
   Gophur Looks Back Moon
Nov
    Frost Moon
Dec
   Younger Hard Time Moon 

  How about these - from the Inuit peoples of Northern Canada?

Jan
   Dwarf Seal Moon
Feb
   Seal Pup Moon
March
   Snow Bird Moon
April
   Snow Melt Moon
May
   Goose Moon
June
   Hunting Moon
July
   Dry Moon
Aug
   Swan Flight moon
Sep
   Harpoon Moon
Oct
   Ice Moon
Nov
   Freezing Mist Moon
Dec
   Dark Night Moon
 
Here are the old Celtic and Medieval names attributed to Britain
Jan
Wolf Moon,  Stay Home Moon,  Moon after Yule
Feb
Storm Moon,  Ice Moon,  Snow Moon
March
Plough Moon,  Wind Moon,  Lenten (lengthening) Moon
April
Budding moon,  New Shoots Moon,  Seed Moon
May
Mothers' Moon,  Bright Moon, 
June
Mead Moon, Horse Moon, Dyan Moon,  Rose Moon
July
Claiming Moon,  Wyrt or Herb Moon,  Mead Moon
Aug
Dispute Moon, Lynx Moon, Grain Moon
Sep
Wine Moon, Song Moon, Harvest Moon
Oct
Hunter's Moon,  Blood Moon.  Seed Fall Moon
Nov
Mourning Moon,  Darkest Depths Moon,
Dec
Oak Moon,  Full Cold Moon

 Then, there are the beautiful and ancient names for their much celebrated Moons, given by the Chinese people
Jan
       Holiday Moon     
Feb
       Budding Moon     
March
       Sleeping Moon     
April
       Peony Moon
May
       Dragon Moon
June
       Lotus Moon
July
       Hungry Ghost Moon             
Aug
       Harvest Moon
Sep
       Crysanthemum Moon             
Oct
       Kindly Moon
Nov
       White Moon
Dec
       Bitter Moon


 Here are Muddypond's Faery Moon names

    Wolf Moon
Dec 21st - Jan
     Icicle Moon
Jan - Feb
    Snowdrop Moon
Feb - March
    Waking Wood Moon
March - April
    Birthing Moon
April - May
    Moon of White Petals
May - June
    Wild Cherry Moon
June - July
    Dancing Delight Moon
July - Aug
    Blackberry Harvest Moon
Aug - Sep
    Chestnut Moon
Sep - Oct
    Moon of the Wild Hunt
Oct - Nov
    Mistletoe Moon

 Stop.  The rest of this is formatting I can't make go away. Sorry.




























 


























  

























  




















































































 













































































Inuit Protrait - Inuit Library of Congress
























   ...
























Celtic design - Courtney Davis























 
    
     ....

























 
Dr Ho ©Q T Long






















































 


Hindu Girl -© Margaret Bourke White
        Indian
   Lunar Month


 


    Paush


    Magh


    Phalgun


    Chaitra


    Vaishakh


    Jyeshtha


    Ashadh


    Shravan


    Bhadrapad


    Ashvin


    Kartika



    Margashirsha
















































































Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Going away present


One of the things I will miss about the Grass Valley area is the Nevada County Camera Club. Every month we had a chance to learn from a stunning photographer and have two pieces of work critiqued. The critique sessions were always golden, not only for the suggestions received on my own work, but for new perspectives on all the works.

April was the last meeting I got to attend and I was thrilled to find out after I got down here that both of my photos submitted for that month were picked as best in category. 

Here are the photos which were honored:

 Casa DeBlanc (best color) - friends stayed at an incredible house when we were here in Ajijic in February. As we were walking to the door one day, the light coming through a window bowled me over.

San Francisco Magic (best creative interpretation) - This beautiful city is a dance of fog and light. Compositing two separate photos helped me capture the magic. 















Thanks, NCCC for all the great lessons and friendship and the going away present.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Golden anniversary of a different sort


Fifty years ago I married my first love. He was on his way to Vietnam and had three weeks at home. We wanted to spend as much time as possible being married and would have eloped, but his mom insisted on being married in a church, with real invitations. 

 So, we told our folks they had a week to get ready. It wasn’t a glamorous affair but we did it and headed out for a 2-day honeymoon on Mount Magazine, at 2,753 feet the highest mountain in Arkansas. We wanted to spend most of our precious time just being married. We didn’t understand the realities of war, but we did know that there was a possibility that this would be all the time we would be given.

On this Memorial Day coinciding with the anniversary of that day so long ago, I mourn for the ones who didn’t return from that war, the ones who are honored on walls around the land. But, I also mourn for the ones who did return, some visibly wounded, some wounded in ways that couldn’t be seen. And, I also mourn for the families torn apart by all they lost.

We were babies then. I, barely 21. He, still 20. There was so much we didn’t know about life and making a life together. About ourselves and what we wanted from life. I could blame the eventual ending of our marriage on Vietnam, and it definitely played a role, but I believe it was all those things we didn’t know that took the biggest toll. We weren’t yet baked as human beings and the 13 months he spent in Vietnam was a hotter, more violent fire that changed things … changed him ... in ways I could never comprehend.

Sometimes I have conversations with friends about what we regret in life and often the response is that the person has no regrets. I think that generally means they have made peace with the way their life unfolded. While I honor my life and my journey, I do still have regrets. I very much regret my youthful ignorance. And, I regret the reception we as a country gave our returning soldiers. We didn’t understand the horrors they had gone through nor the pain they were in. We just wanted to go on with our tidy lives. I didn’t understand the hidden wounds of my too-young soldier-husband. I don’t know that being wiser and more compassionate would have changed the outcome of our marriage, but I truly wish I could have been wiser than I was.

The only way I know how to make that regret more bearable is to resist more conflicts that consume our young. 

Sometimes, love is not enough. Always, war is too much. 
On this Memorial Day as we honor those who have served, let us pledge: Never again!

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Mexico laughs at expectations and cries over its lost children


San Cristóbal de las Casas
I hit the wall in early evening when I landed at Tuxtla Gutiérrez airport in Chiapas. It was 2014 and at age 69 I had embarked on a grand adventure. The plan was two weeks of language immersion in San Miguel de Allende, three weeks of snorkeling and swimming in cenotes in Maya Riviera, and then a final week of language immersion in Mérida where I would also follow the trail of a story that had intrigued me for years. Six weeks. I expected that would be enough time to ground me in Spanish well enough to travel with the Spanish-fluent guy with whom I was making happily-ever-after plans.
I expected to take a bus to San Cristóbal de las Casas, a place I knew absolutely nothing about other than it was at 7200’ and should be cooler than Playa del Carmen which was where I was supposed to stay for three weeks but lasted only two days. What I didn’t expect was that no one at the Tuxtla airport spoke English any better than I spoke Spanish. My abysmal Spanish skills had gotten me by so far but now it seemed that I wasn’t going to be able to just walk over to the bus stop and get whisked to San Cristóbal.

This adventure was my first extended trip not prompted by work and the first by myself. Already my carefully constructed plan looked a bit tattered and I could feel tendrils of panic rising as the non-conversation with an airport woman about how to get to San Cristóbal failed. I had been told to take the bus because taxis were expensive. However, I wasn’t even sure how to find a taxi.

As I stood there, somewhat frozen, a young woman joined our conversation. Her English was limited but a smidge better than my Spanish. After a long back and forth, most of which I couldn’t understand, I finally understood that she was inviting me to share her taxi to town. I wasn’t sure, but I thought she might also be able to drop me at the bus station. While I didn’t realize it at the time, she was my introduction to the kindness of strangers in Mexico, a pattern that would repeat itself regularly as I blundered into interesting situations.

The Tuxtla Gutiérrez airport is relatively new and built on the far outskirts of town. As I was riding in the cab with this young woman on the long trip to Tuxtla, I realized that I had no idea where we were actually going. She seemed friendly enough, but I didn’t know if she really understood what I had been trying to tell her about the bus station and San Cristóbal. And, it was getting dark. Finally, we wound up in front of a small, concrete building where, apparently, I was supposed to get out. So, I did even though I saw no buses and felt a sudden wave of desperation as my new protector drove away in her taxi. I was on my own, in the dark, in a strange city. No one knew where I was  and I couldn’t speak the language. I had heard enough stories to be nervous.

Finally, I entered the little concrete building where a man at a battered desk understood my words enough to take my money and point me toward a small van already filled with people. I squeezed myself into a seat and gave myself up to the belief that this might actually take me to my destination. I was almost relaxed when I realized I’d left my backpack with laptop and other necessities in the office. Fortunately, it was still there and I relaxed into the long drive through the night until we wound up at the San Cristóbal bus station where a bunch of taxis waited. I had arrived.

I breathed a sign of relief as I handed the taxi driver the address and expected the rest to be simple. Clearly, the taxi driver did not speak English but, since he had my carefully printed address, I wasn’t worried. We wound through town and then into a darker neighborhood and soon the driver was glancing around in a way that concerned me. Finally, we pulled up at what seemed like the right address and a couple came out. However, the place didn’t seem right from the pictures I had seen. More language fumbling and it was clear that they didn’t know anything about a guest arriving in the middle of the night.

The driver seemed confused and asked me questions that I didn’t understand. By now, it was about 10:30 and I was getting nervous again. The driver didn’t have a phone or a map or apparently any connection to a home office and I was trying to figure out what I was going to do. I had no resources, knew no hotels and didn’t know how to ask the frustrated driver for help. 

Together our frustration was rising rapidly as we stood in the street speaking but not communicating. Suddenly, out of the shadows, a woman in white appeared. Completely in white. Long, white robe-like dress and white turban. She walked over to us and said in perfect English, “Can I help you?” I now believe in angels.

Angel Blanca and friend.
After talking for awhile with the woman named Blanca, we decided that if I could show her a picture of the house, she could help us find it. We needed a computer. At Blanca’s direction, we piled into the taxi and went back about three blocks to an undistinguished row of concrete buildings. Blanca knocked on one of the many doors and an eight-year-old kid let us into a room full of twenty-year-old computers. With a high level of skepticism about the functioning of these systems, I waited as he warmed up the antique PC, logged onto the internet and I pulled up my airbnb site. Blanca recognized the house and within minutes and a few pesos, we were at my destination.

During this time, I learned that Blanca lived in the neighborhood. I was so grateful for her help that I invited her to lunch and she accepted. Gradually, I learned about her life as a Mexican hippy living with her partner, the father of her three children, making clay flutes and trying to live by principles that set them apart from the “normal" culture. She introduced me to new foods and new places and new ways of thinking about life and amazed me with the breadth and depth of her English, which she had "picked up” on a job.

I expected to go to San Cristóbal as a comfortable place to continue studying Spanish. What I didn’t expect was to meet such fascinating people such as Blanca. However, throughout my time in San Cristóbal I continued to meet amazing people. The house I stayed in belonged to a woman photographer who had just left for a six-month stay in Israel. We never met but talked a lot by email and became friends. Her book on the various textile styles of the Mayan villages made me fall in love with weavings and I quickly developed a favorite … Zinacantan, which had a distinctive style and incredible blending of colors.

On my first day walking around town, I stopped into a coffee shop and met a US woman married to a Mexican man. We quickly became friends and she introduced me to so many interesting people: Women from Mayan villages, a nun who started a photography project for the local villagers, a Muslim man who left the US after being continually harassed after 9/11 and now rescues street dogs and cats as well as lame horses, cooking seven pounds of rice every day for his ever-expanding flock.

From the top of Tonina ruins
As my planned six-week trip expanded into four months, I met a British woman living in Spain, when she stayed for two weeks in the same compound where I was staying. We traveled together to Guatemala where we explored the villages around Lake Atitlán, met a US woman helping Mayan women sell their weavings, and fell in love with chicken buses. On a trip to the ruins at Tonina, we met a young Mexican entrepreneur with the most beautiful dreadlocks I’ve ever seen and an older world traveler from New Zealand. We formed an unlikely foursome as we explored the ruins as well as an incredibly beautiful swimming hole and local restaurants. They also introduced me to Posh (the local intoxicant) and I became a fan.

Gringos in foreign places tend to recognize each other and often fall into conversation as they explore the standard where-are-you-from, how-long-have-you-been-here questions. One of these conversations resulted in an ongoing conversation with an older woman artist traveling the world on $600 a month with no safety net. Her confidence and cheeriness about her financial situation reminded me of how fortunate I am. 

As it became clear that my language skills were not racing ahead, I asked a charming, young guy to be my language coach. Our Posh-fueled sessions definitely improved my confidence as we explored life in San Cristóbal and our challenging love lives in mostly broken Spanish.

I had expected to make rapid progress learning Spanish. I felt like I had a head start having lived in California for decades and having started several adult-ed Spanish classes (perhaps it would have been good if I had finished a few of them). Since I had been listening to Pimsleur CDs for months, I did not expect the wall of meaningless sounds that I found when I arrived at the Mexico City airport. Even concentrating, language was a sound blur with only an occasional word like “pero” (but) rising to the level of recognition. Not extremely useful.

When I had arrived in San Miguel at the beginning of this adventure, I expected to be put into an “intermediate beginner” class at my language school. I expected to work hard and learn fast. I expected it to come easily. It was immersion, supposedly the magical panacea of learning a language. How quickly so many expectations can be dashed. My “immersion” seemed to be limited to waiters and taxi drivers. There were plenty of people around all too happy to speak English. I expected myself to be a good student, to do the worksheets and sit in the cramped student seats in a stuffy classroom. I didn’t expect myself to chuck it all for the “escuela de las calles” as I called the fascinating, colorful, exciting sights and sounds I found in the streets.

The first mural I fell in love with.
I didn’t expect myself to fall in love with the murals and wall art I found just wandering about. There are many things I didn’t expect, but probably the biggest happened one day while I was wandering through the plaza in front of the Cathedral. There was almost always something going on there so at first I thought it was a concert or something. There was a man's voice booming over huge speakers and there must have been a thousand people wandering around the plaza.

As I walked through the crowd, my chest began to hurt and I felt like crying. The words were just sounds so I didn’t know why and started trying to figure out the words on posters. I saw a row of pictures of young men and on the ground children were putting flowers on pictures of the same young men laid out in a grid. I realized that what I was feeling was grief. That something horrible had happened to these young men.

Finally, I ran into someone I knew who explained that 43 students from Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers' College went missing in Iguala, Guerrero. They had just disappeared twelve days earlier. Over the next several weeks in San Cristóbal, Tuxtla Gutiérrez, and Merida, I saw heartbreaking marches demanding action and information about the students. At first the students were called “Los Vivos,” the living.

The story that gradually came out was horrifying. It remains unclear who all was involved but the story that I heard most was that the ambitious, cartel-related wife of the mayor of Iguala was going to give a speech in Mexico City before announcing her candidacy for office. She heard that the students planned to protest her speech and she had them kidnapped, apparently with the assistance of local police and government officials. This incident set off massive protests in Mexico as well as worldwide and led to the arrest of more than 130 suspects, 44 of whom were police officers. It also significantly stained the administration of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.

By later in October, the most common signs included the words:

nos enterraron (they buried us)
pero no sabían (but they did not know)
que estamos semillas. (that we are seeds)

The inquiry remains open.

I didn’t expect to see the underbelly of this beautiful country. I didn’t expect to feel the pain of a system where human rights often disappear under the weight of power, money and greed. 

I didn’t expect to return almost three years later when life turned once again toward Mexico. I hadn't expected to experience the underbelly of my own country as human rights began to be attacked in a way we thought we had left behind decades ago.

When I left San Cristóbal, I was innocently planning my future ... reconnecting with my guy, traveling and creating a nest together in New Mexico, settling down in a new dream. With all of these expectations clanging around in my head, I didn’t hear Mexico chuckling while it also cried for its lost children.

Morning in Ajijic, Mexico
Now, three years later, as I return to Mexico, I have fewer expectations, fewer illusions about the shadow side of the human experience. But, I still have the expectation of learning the beautiful language of this country and soaking in more of its natural beauty and culture.