Sunday, December 28, 2014

It Happened in Kingman, Arizona

Blake: "To see a world in a grain of sand,"
Kingman,  the last Arizona dot going west on I-40, is an unlikely place for almost everything … an oil slick forest of billboards and fast food sirens place … a quick-stop for gas without a backward glance place … a stay here only if you missed Flagstaff place … an Andy Divine … who? ... lived here and now has a street named after him place … never an everything-changed-here place. But, there it was, the fever-broke here place, in a Motel 6 room no less, on one of those throw-away days between Christmas and New Years.

In an alternative universe I would have swung south out of Flagstaff toward the energy vortex of Sedona, nestled into a bungalow among the art-infested red hills, aligned my chakras with the winter solstice and sat in meditation on the Devil’s Arch until the four directions merged  into a deep cellular peace in a Hollywood-worthy moment. At the very least there would have been photos. But, who takes photos of a Motel 6 room in Kingman, Arizona?

If I had known then what I know now, I would have made that left turn off of I-40 onto I-17 headed south to Sedona and prepared myself for the change to come. But, what did I know? How could I have known that one night in a Motel 6 bed would wipe away the confused torment of the previous months and leave me in the welcome but recently unusual state of clarity. Perhaps, I should call Tom Bodett of the “We’ll leave the lights on” fame and suggest a new marketing strategy … Motel 6 … home of instant enlightenment.

But it wasn’t enlightenment exactly that happened that night in that comfy Motel 6 bed … it was much more of an evaporation, a disappearance of what was. Nothing new was revealed, no thunder rolled, no clouds parted, no voices spoke words of wisdom into my ear. It wasn’t what was suddenly there; it was what was suddenly gone: the conflict, the doubt, the fear.

More importantly, what was gone was the thought that I had to do something, take charge, make a decision, choose. What was also gone was the illusion that I was … that I should be or even could be … the controller of my destiny. Heresy! My entire life is a paean to self-determination; my theme song straight from “Invictus” … I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul. Oh how I wish … or, now, perhaps more correctly, wished.

Suddenly my whole belief system blew out the window into that not-quite desert, rainbow dawn morning as I drove out of Kingman, Arizona, headed toward the unknown, knowing I had no control over what I would find waiting for me when I reached the bright Pacific waters but feeling, for the first time in many months, completely at peace with whatever it might be.

This is not the ending of the story, probably not much more than the beginning … or the beginning of the beginning but it’s all there is right now … a new awareness, a new feeling of peace … perhaps a fragile candle flame that could wick out  in a slight breeze … or perhaps the beginning a something bigger and stronger. One never knows. One can only wait to see what lies in store for us while taking one small step at a time toward the truth of who we are, letting that way-too-subtle whisper of the Universe guide our steps, accepting every twist and turn of the path for its perfection.

It makes for a rather comic, cosmic headline:  … kid from Kansas, with all the great religions, gurus and masters to choose from, finds peace in a Motel 6 room in Kingman, Arizona. As Paul Harvey would say: stay tuned for “the rest of the story."

Postscript: Facebook added another dimension to this story when the image below was posted this morning. I now know that what happened on 12/27/2014 in that Motel 6 room was that infatuation moved over and love moved in. Thanks to the anonymous author.


Sunday, December 14, 2014

Starting in Kansas

Refection in Mesilla, Las Cruces, NM
You’re in Kansas … perhaps you’re in a tiny town just outside a slightly less tiny town … and you want to go somewhere and see new things and make new friends. People around you say, “Go for it!” … well some of them say, “What?!” or “Do be careful!” 

You’re encouraged though, so you pack your bags and head out. Adventure ahead. Before long, however, you realize you don’t know where you’re going or how you’re going to get there. You’re not even sure you know where you want to go. However, people keep saying, “Just keep going. You’ll get there. Don’t be afraid.” Just keep going … so you do … you just keep going.

Soon though, you’re tired … and discouraged. You haven’t gotten very far and things don’t look so very different from where you began. You slump down on a rock. Suddenly, some guy flashes by carrying a sign that says, “I got there in 3 months!” You're confused and shocked … but then someone else hurries by with a sign that boldly shouts, “Ha! It only took me 3 weeks!” And, before you could even grasp that, you see a woman on a skateboard wearing a colorful t-shirt proclaiming: “Thin thighs in 30 days!"

Your head is spinning and you’re too dizzy to even stand up, let alone chase after them. You just want to sleep … maybe back in your own little bed, in your own little house, in your own little town outside the slightly bigger town.
It has taken me three months to realize that I packed my bags and launched my journey without really knowing where I wanted to go or how to get there. And, I don’t think that’s all that unusual … we often find ourselves drawn to something without knowing exactly why or what for. For me, I find that I almost always have to learn as I go, one step at a time until one day, I wake up and can say … “That’s where I want to go and here’s the road map that will get me there."

This morning was that day … two days before I’m about to leave, I finally discover what I wish I had known when I began. Perhaps that’s just the way these things are … if someone had handed me a road map three months ago, would I have followed it? … could I have? I don’t know … but now I feel like I have the tools and the information I need to create a road map for myself … and, perhaps … just perhaps … one that will be useful for others.

Part of me wishes I could roll back the calendar and start over … the other part of me knows that can’t be done but that I can use the understanding gained in the past three months to now choose a destination and plot the journey to getting there … not that there won’t be side trips and rabbit holes along the way … what would a journey be without them? 
No more forced marches for me.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Festival of Guadalupe

Guadalupe Festival (click for video)
Yesterday was the last day of the Festival of Guadalupe and the city was filled with pilgrims from all over the region who ran or biked here to show their devotion to the Virgin. It’s a lovely, noisy, chaotic time, filled with music, sirens, cannon-like fireworks sounding late into the night and beginning again early in the morning. Food, flowers, bright costumes and candles are everywhere.

Guadalupe is one of the most venerated of religious icons, especially to the campesinos of Mexico. Her story begins with Juan Diego, a poor farmer, who saw a dark-skinned apparition of the Virgin in the winter of 1531. She instructed him to visit the Bishop of Mexico City, ten miles away, and ask him to construct a church in her honor on Tepeyac Hill.

At first Diego was unable to gain an audience with the Bishop but again the Virgin visited Juan Diego and implored him to see the Bishop. This time he was successful but the Bishop demanded proof. Diego visited the same hill every day until December 12th when the Virgin appeared once more and told him to climb Tepeyac Hill to collect roses growing there.

Even though roses had never been known to grow on the rocky slopes and it was the dead of winter when roses would not flower, Juan Diego found the hill covered with blood red roses and returned to the Virgin with his arms overflowing. She filled his cape with the roses and bid him to visit the Bishop once more. When he opened his cape before the Bishop and the roses tumbled to the ground, it also revealed a beautiful painting of a dark-skinned Virgin with Indian features.

This proof of the miracle convinced the Bishop and the church was built and the famous cape is still on display.

The rest of the story … as with many a good story, the facts of this one are often in question.
  • Juan Diego, now a saint himself, may never have existed.
  • The Bishop Juan Diego supposedly presented with the roses was Bishop Juan de Zumarraga … except he wasn’t made Bishop until three years after the miracle … and, until his death 14 years later, he never mentioned the miracle, and, in his last catechism stated, “The Redeemer of the world doesn’t want any more miracles, because they are no longer necessary.” No one actually wrote about this miracle for another hundred years.
  • It is said that the now famous image of the Virgin was actually done as a commission by Marcos Cipac de Aquino, an Indian painter famous throughout the regions north of Mexico City.
The true miracle of the story may be how much this famous artifact with its likeness to the indigenous peoples of the region helped convert the people to a new religion and how deeply the Virgin is revered to this day. The Basilica of Guadalupe received 22 million visitors in 2010 and is considered the world's major centre of pilgrimage for Roman Catholics.
Here are photos from the day ...
The zocalo at night

Pilgrims from all over the region

Pilgrim parade past the zocalo

The pilgrim groups all carry images of the Virgin.

Parents dress their children in indigenous
 costumes ... including mustaches for the boys.

Friday, November 28, 2014


One of the great blessings of travel is that occasionally you get to meet people who would never have touched your life’s “normal” circle. San Cristóbal has offered me several of those moments ...

— from my first night here when my taxi driver couldn’t find the address where I was supposed to stay, did not speak English and had no phone. About the time when I was wondering just what might happen to me, an angel dressed in white appeared. Her name was Blanca; she spoke English and sorted out the problem and promptly delivered me to my door. The next day, over a thank-you lunch, we discovered areas of commonality despite our polar backgrounds, and became friends.

— to a nun who came here eighteen years ago to start a project to help the Mayan people learn photography in order to document their own lives and culture. Not only did Carlota Duarte tell me fascinating stories about her journey that led her to San Cristóbal and the formation of the Chiapas Photography Project, which is now sending amazing photographic exhibits around the world, but she also introduced me to Jonathan Castañeda, who has become my conversation coach and friend.

— to the hostess of the place where I’m staying, whom I’ve yet to meet in person, but who, through her books and a lot of emailing has introduced me to the world of Mayan textiles and many other interesting people. Janet Schwartz is now on a six-month grant in Israel to photograph and write about what she finds there.

— to a woman who adopts people and opens her home to fascinating gatherings of folks from different backgrounds, cultures, and worlds. Alison opened a conversation in a coffee shop my first day here and was kind enough to add me to her tribe. At one of her gatherings, I met Pablo* (not his real name).

I knew at our first meeting in Alison's home that Pablo was a unique soul. Yesterday I got to spend several hours with him as we worked our way through the mundane task of traveling to Tuxtla (one hour away) and mailing a package, a seemingly simple task made more difficult by customs and bureaucracy.

We spent much of the day talking about how Pablo arrived here in San Cristóbal which is always a fun story since people come here from all over the world ... many coming just for a visit and then just somehow staying on. Pablo came ten years ago and he’s still here, now taking care of 16 street dogs, 16 cats and 2 lame horses.  He is also helping a group of indigenous local women, who can't read or have experiences with the world outside of their villages, get their hand-made textiles to the market using the internet.

I was fascinated with the logistics of caring for so many animals … especially when I found out that it involved cooking 3 kilos (a little over 6.6 pounds) of rice every day and spending hours buying and carrying home enormous amounts of food without benefit of a truck or car! However, his eyes light up when he talks about each one of his animal family and how they respond to having a home where fed, petted and brushed … and how he sometimes sleeps with up to 12 cats. It takes an enormous amount of time and effort to care for so many abused and wounded animals, but Pablo’s response when I asked, was “This wasn’t my plan but what else would I do?” In addition to feeding his adopted family every day, he carries dog food on all his trips to town to feed the street dogs.

Pablo is an off-the-grid kind of guy who lives in the country where he has built his own cabin, installed a solar panel to heat water and uses a composting toilet and tends his garden. He doesn’t consider any of this “work”; it’s just all part of his life.

As we traveled through his day, I watched Pablo “gift” everyone he came into contact with … a conversation with the woman who sells snacks in the bus station  a mini-lesson in English for the guy at the post office counter, smiles and jokes everywhere. At some point I realized that this is a man who is content with his life ... a man at peace with a world that often makes no sense but offers him “enough."

*Why am I using a pseudonym? ... Pablo asked me to.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Befuddled at Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Sunset at Posada de Santiago
Some experiences pull you in two different directions, leaving you befuddled as to whether you should sign up for another round or cross it off the list with a fat, black marker.

Two days in Guatemala left me in that befuddled state. There is something magically colorful and compelling about Guatemala, especially Lake Atitlan which rightfully deserves it’s billing as one of the world’s most beautiful lakes and best climates. 

A young boy starts his day.
The land around the lake is a national park and other than the transportation launchas and the paddled skiffs of fishermen, there are few boats. The lake should be pristine, however, in the late 1950s, a well-meaning person stocked the lake with black bass in order to create more angler interest. The newcomers promptly wiped out most of the local fish and at least one rare bird. The lake is still beautiful but it is questionable as to whether it is safe to swim there … a challenge for me because that wonderfully warm and clear water called to me.
Cloud draped volcano

Three spectacular volcanoes dominate the southern lake landscape and the highlight of our trip was canoeing on the glassy lake just before and during sunrise. The lake was quiet, blanketed with a mist, and empty save for a few fishermen paddling their skiffs around the lake, tossing their nets, checking their lines.

Kath on the dock before canoeing.

Kath on the early morning canoe.
Early morning fisherman.

Sunset from the hot tub.
Sunset from the hot tub.

One of the cabins at Posada de Santiago.

Flowers at Posada de Santiago
Lake view
Several Mayan villages dot the rim of the lake … each with its own culture and style, ranging from serious art and textiles on San Juan, to yoga, meditation and all things Eastern on San Marcos, to Santiago, home of the         most aggressive of the tourist markets and Maximom, perhaps the most unique of all the “saints."

Healing ceremony in front of Maximom

Visiting Maximom The tuk tuk driver stops in front of a cement block building with a narrow open doorway and indicates that we are “here” … at Maximom, the smoking saint’s, house. We weave our way through a bevy of young children and old dogs, broken toys and scattered food. Hesitantly we step into a dim room where we see candles burning on the floor and hear chanting. Trying to make sense of what’s going on, we see three men sitting on chairs on one side of the candles and two men and a woman kneeling on the floor on the other side of the candles. One of the kneeling men is chanting and the woman is obviously praying while the third man sits with his head bowed and a colorful piece of cloth or plastic attached to his hat.
One of the men indicates that we should pass behind the kneeling people and that we can take photos. As we adjust our position, we notice Maximom, who appears to be a statue with a cigarette in his mouth. We learn later that Maximom is too powerful to see his face so he wears a mask. Apparently two of the seated men are there to attend to Maximom’s comfort, keeping his cigarette lit and the ashes caught, and one is a shaman. We are also told that the man in the cowboy hat is sick and so this is a healing ceremony.
We watch for a few minutes and then begin to feel out of place and intrusive so we pay our tribute and wind our way back out, through the kids and dogs and back into our tuk tuk. 
Colorful Tuk Tuks
There are so many charming things about this part of Guatemala … the tuk tuks (small, 3-wheel taxis), the launchas that provide the main form of transportation between the villages, the Chicken buses, refugees from the American school bus system, wholly transformed into a visual and chaotic world of their own, the colorful textiles, the women balancing huge baskets on their heads, the men in their own stylized dress.
Yes, we actually did take a lancha named
"Titanic" ... and no, it did not have life preservers.

We didn't get a chance to take a Chicken bus
but we did watch the rush hour chaos of people and
stuff loading and unloading.
However, this is also a distressed land, not only by the poverty that comes with centuries of oppression of the Mayan people but also the stress of volcanic activity, earthquakes, hurricanes, mud slides and the tidal wave of tourism that brings needed capital but also the demands of foreign visitors who want to see strange new sites while also having their daily lattes and pizzas. Cokes are no problem since the marketing arm of Coke seems to have embraced all of Latin America. I even saw women pouring Coke on graves during the Day of the Dead celebrations.

There is great beauty here and deep seated poverty. Everyone we met was friendly, eager to talk and many of them were fluent or passably fluent in English. One morning I went out early and caught many signs of how hard people work, reconstructing their shops and moveable businesses every single day.
Morning begins.

Getting ready to set up shop.

Well stuffed  tuk tuk.

Lake Atitlan. Guatemala, is a fascinating and beautiful place but also a hard place to witness from my perspective as someone lucky enough to be born into an affluent and comfortable world, someone lucky enough to have a choice of which world to visit and which world to live in.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

¡Qué Día Estupendo!

 Take away the sound of a weed wacker in the background ...
Take away the tin roofs shining white in the sun ...
Take away the Mexican flag flying over the distant military base built to control the Zapatistas in the 1990s ...

And suddenly you could be over a thousand years back in time, standing on the steps of Toniná scanning the horizon for a possible war party from Palenque. 

This lesser known Mayan ruin has many unique archeological features but what made it truly special was the silence and solitude and the spectacularly beautiful and peaceful setting. For more details:á.

Kath Hockey at the top.
The tour started this morning when my new neighbor Kath (English artist living in Spain) and I met Julian (New Zealand, avid traveler) and Fernando (traveling Tijuana coffee shop owner) and set off through the Chiapas highlands for Toniná. The day was glorious and the winding, mountainous, speed- bump-laden road was the responsibility of Homero who did quite a fine job of weaving us through the dozens of Mayan villages that line the road for the two-and-a-half hour trip to Toniná.
Fernando Fortis is young enough
to scale the last little bit of the
pyramid that the rest of us
wisely decided not to do.

The rainy season has just passed here and the pine forested mountains are a shimmering green with flowering trees sparking the hills.  The trip was filled with language ... new words and phrases and Spanish at all levels from my barely basic Spanish to Homero's excellent Spanish as well as a Mayan language and some Italian and English. 

My favorite idiom came from the Brits ... or actually ex-Brits ... "splash out!" Basically you "splash out" when you buy something a bit expensive or something that stretches your budget.

At the top ... starting to wonder how to get down.
Toniná is built in a series of levels and each one offers something new to look at and spectacular views of the surrounding valley and mountains. Before you know it, you are several levels up and the top level calls to you. The steps here are much are shorter than other pyramids I've visited ... but there are a LOT of them and, seemingly, always more.

Finally we reached the top and after reveling in the view, I begin to wonder what it would take to get a helicopter to rescue us ... it is a LONG way down ... and, somehow, never as much fun as going up.
Julian Haworth at the top ...
fortunately he did not take one
more step backward.

But down we went and then headed off to La Cascada "El Corralito"... a beautiful river cascading down a rocky channel into a pool large enough to swim in. The water was clear and bracing ... refreshing after a hot day of climbing the pyramid. 

After a nappy ride back to San Cristóbal, Kath and I decided to explore the local beverage ... posh or pox. I expected the burn of strong alcohol but the flavored posh which is infused with fruits or herbs was delicious and served in a ceremonial fashion in tiny cups surrounded by slices of orange sprinkled with coffee and two small pieces of incredible chocolate.

I'm not sure if it was the posh or the company since we had joined Mirella, a Mexican-American woman from San Diego ... but we wound up trying the un-infused white version and it burned but suddenly we were all laughing a bit more than normal.

All in all a truly stupendous day.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Dia de los Muertos: Zinacantán & Chamula

Today was a completely different day … more like what I expected … beautiful, quiet and serene. Zinacantán is a picturesque valley of flower fields and greenhouses surrounded by lush green hills. Their incredible textiles echo the flowers of their valley.


We found traditional dancers
at the center in Zinacantán

Click here for a short video of the dance.

Chamula Church
We also went to Chamula, a large village which enjoys a unique autonomous status within Mexico. No outside police or military are allowed in the village and Chamulas have their own police force. One thing they are very particular about is photography. Absolutely no photography is allowed within the church but we were allowed to enter after buying a ticket for a modest fee.

(For another point of view about all of this and
some great photos, click here.)

What we saw corresponded with the Wikipedia description although we did not see any curanderos or chickens:  
There are no pews in the church, and the floor area is completely covered in a carpet of green pine boughs and soda bottles (mostly Coca Cola). Curanderos (medicine men) diagnose medical, psychological or ‘evil-eye’ afflictions and prescribe remedies such as candles of specific colors and sizes, specific flower petals or feathers, or - in a dire situation - a live chicken. The specified remedies are brought to a healing ceremony. Chamula families kneel on the floor of the church with sacrificial items, stick candles to the floor with melted wax, drink ceremonial cups of Posh, artisanal sugar-cane-based liquor, and chant prayers in an archaic dialect of Tzotzil.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Día de los Muertos: Romerillo

Beauty, color, family ...
How do you describe the indescribable? 

Beautiful … touching … colorful … raucous … reverent ... creative … disturbing … overwhelming … chaotic … charming. 

Maybe all you have to say is ... Day of the Dead in Mexico.

Outside of the village of Tenehapa in the Chiapas highlands, about 40 minutes by taxi from San Cristóbal, is Romerillo, a cemetery that was the center of activity for several thousand mainly Mayan celebrants of el Día de los Muertos today ... the day when the spirits of the ancestors are honored, wined and dined, and welcomed back to this world if only for a brief period.

Here are just a few word and picture glimpses into this most amazing day which was also shrouded in a cold cloud of mist  ...
Part wake, part carnival, part fiesta.

Glimpse: a woman pouring Coke onto the
grave of a loved one and
another one pouring “posh."

Incense burning on top of a pine-needle
and bright marigold-covered graves.

Glimpse: Heavy black wool skirts and tunics
that are very labor intensive and stiff as well as beautiful, colorful hand sewn textiles.

Glimpse: 5-gallon containers, hundreds of used liter bottles and it seemed like thousands of single-serving soft drink bottles all filled with posh, the locally brewed rot gut.

Blue and green crosses
rising out of the mist at the top of the hill.

Well-worn wooden boards on top of graves
provide a “threshold” for the spirits
to come and go.

Click here for a musical moment.

Colorful roving musicians.
Click here fora musical moment.
Glimpse: a borracho (drunk) handing out peanuts to strangers.

Glimpse: Food … sold and shared … hundreds of vendors of peanuts, fruit, sugar cane, roasted potatoes, cake, tamales, pizza, and, of course, cerveza.

Back pocket "posh" bottle.
Glimpse: Being looked at in wonder and fear by children as if I were another color … but, of course, I am. I was one of the very few gringas in the crowd.

Glimpse: what happens when an event of several thousand people involving a lot of drinking does not provide porta-potties.

Glimpse: a hawker of bedding who sounded like an auctioneer and
went non-stop for over 30-minutes while my taxi-driver looked for one more passenger to round out his fare back to the city. Unfortunately, it was a young man who had obviously been participating in the celebration and wanted to smoke (I said "por favor ... no"). He also had to stop on the way back to town to relieve himself.

I wonder what the spirits
think of all this beauty and festivity?
A seven-year-old child drinking
“Sol” (cerveza) and offering it
to his playmates while adults stood about.

This morning when I contemplated not going to Romerillo today, I thought I knew what to expect. I didn’t … and I’m so glad I went. 

I also added my 70th "-ería" word to my list today. When I snapped the photo from inside the taxi on the way to Romerillo, I didn't know how appropriate it would be.