Friday, December 15, 2017

Sandpaper Travel ... from nameless streets to stromatolites

Staying between Cenote Esmeralda & Cenote de la Bruja
Sometimes, our preferences become our necessities … we need Starbucks coffee, soft chairs, firm beds and just the right pillow. We need non-dairy, gluten-free, organic, non-gmo, free range, hermetically sealed ... all with Himalayan salt. And, of course, we, especially me, need wifi, 37 iPhone apps, a well-stocked Kindle. and GPS with the latest maps. (I have an auto-correct friend who is having a mini-stroke reading this, insisting that the “especially me” above should be “especially I.” She’s right, of course, but don’t tell her … it goes to her head.) 
    So many colors.
  • I am in the small village of Bacalar, Quintana Roo, Mexico, close to the border of Belize (think incredible water, cenotes, Mayan history, and pirates). On our first day here, my traveling companion and I are dropped off at the local mercado where we could stock up on veggies and fruits, and left alone to find our way back home. 
  •  I am directionally challenged but I had a map, neatly labeled with street numbers and names, so I was only a little concerned. After realizing that I had the map upside down, we set off in the direction of the lake and the plaza. However, (there’s always a "however" in travel stories), it didn’t take long to realize that the map was labeled, but the streets weren’t. And my perfect-Spanish queries about whether this was Calle 9 or Calle 7 met with blank stares. Maybe my Spanish wasn’t so perfect.
Some really nice wall art here in Bacalar.
Travel has a way of sandpapering away our comfort zones, leaving us raw, open, and often resistant to the unfamiliar sights and sounds of a new environment. We look around, jarred by what we see, yearning for what we don’t see, uncertain, not knowing where to go or even how to get there. All the competencies we’ve so carefully gathered through the years circle the drain regressing us to a dependency somewhat like childhood. 
Manati Restaurant & Art Gallery
  • Finally, we happened upon Manati, a restaurant/art gallery which our host had recommended, and situated ourselves into a charming palapa, listening to overly loud music. I have found that when I’m in a raw state of agitation, almost all music is overly loud, however, it does seem that Mexico loves high-volume music with a heavy, droning beat. I thought it was just Mexico, until I recently listened to some current American music and it also seemed to have that same volume-over-melody-or meaning quality. Am I really as old as this sounds? (Yes, my dear, you are.)
The death of competency.

Adults seldom enjoy feeling foolish and incompetent. That could be one reason why we’re all so angry these days. 
Old, even then.
I remember my early career when I worked as a bookkeeper using one of those old-fashioned, crank adding machines with rows of numbers and a spool of paper spitting out the answer which could then be stapled to the worksheet as backup for when you found an error later, as often happened. 

I was fast and knew that machine backwards and forward. It was the tool of my trade and I was competent and sure-fingered. 
Lake Bacalar, early morning
Little did we know the end of an era was creeping toward us, not only of adding machines, but of that feeling of competency. Around the corner waited things like Lotus 123, WordPerfect, dBase III and eventually Photoshop, software so richly complex that learning to use ten percent of any of them made you a whiz … and left you feeling overwhelmed and incompetent because you didn’t know the other 90%. 
Adults tend to get grumpy when we feel incompetent.
A rolling snack bar
  • I have a friend who is something of a guru with iPhones and under her encouragement, I left my “real” camera at home and only carried my iPhone with me on this trip to one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, the Lake of Seven Colors … Lake Bacalar. She recommended that I learn to use Hipstamatic. Unfortunately, I accidentally deleted it, and with spotty wifi and cell coverage here, I haven’t replaced it.  So now I also feel completely incompetent photographically … and, admittedly, a little grumpy.
Travel is about experiencing “Not mine.” 

Cenote de la Bruja
A recent article discussed the finding that we are attached to our stuff because we perceive it as being an extension of ourselves, a part of our identity. Stepping into a new country or environment means we’re surrounded by “not me.” It throws us back into childhood where everything was new and different. No wonder kids are a little crazy and often cling to mom and dad for safety and comfort. When we travel, we’re breaking away from the safety of mom and dad all over again. We naturally try to reestablish our comfort zone, heading toward familiar fast food places, sometimes even carrying our favorite pillow with us much like children carry their teddy bears. 
So, why do we travel? What makes us want to leave our comfort zone and walk into a strange neighborhood, climb to a higher altitude, fly to a foreign land? 
Travel is like sandpaper, wearing away the crust of our everyday world, leaving us open to the wonder and surprise of new stories and thoughts, new feelings and understandings of ourselves and the people and world around us. It’s a strange blend of yin and yang: by stripping away our competencies, we are open to wisdom and deeper connection, as well as the joy of discovery. Travel scares us ... and delights us.
Cenote de la Bruja
  • On a tour around the lake, we ask about the cenote known as La Bruja (the witch) and hear stories told to children about how she either drowns them or protects them. The trees along the edge are known as pucte and our guide tells us it means “water loving.” Branches trail into the water looking like witches’ claws. Their bony limbs draw us over the edge of a "bottomless" cavern of crystalline water.
  • A few days ago, I stepped on an ancient being, one of the oldest on our planet. I didn’t mean to harm it; I was just ignorant, thinking it was a rock instead of a living bed of stromatolites. Lake Bacalar hosts one of the biggest colonies of these ancient bacteria and this may be the largest living organism on the planet. It’s one thing to read about the wonders of our planet; it’s something else to step on something that has been here for 3.5 billion years and actually helped create the oxygen that we need to live. Suddenly, I felt connected to this life form which helped create the place where I live. 
That was one of the gifts of this particular trip: feeling more a part of the world because of meeting this ancient being. It makes me feel at once bigger and at the same time smaller, knowing a wee bit more than I did last week AND understanding how immense and ancient the world is and how I comprehend such an infinitesimal bit of it.

As I sit here this morning under a palapa looking out at the sunrise over this calm and beautiful lake, my imagination flips back centuries, seeing Mayans quietly paddling across the water, heading for the gate constructed to allow them to cross the wetlands to the Bay of Chetumal, and then on, perhaps, to a ceremony or trading at Tulum or to the coast where the endless bounty of sea awaits them.
One of the incredible sunrises.

Once again, I realize that traveling is worth having my comfort zone sandpapered away.

Stromatolites: One of the unique members  of the Laguna Bacalar community is the living Giant Stromatolites that represent the earliest life form discovered on Earth. The Laguna’s biogeochemistry has allowed these life forms to flourish in both number and exceptional size. A physical feature is the submarine cenotes (beneath the lake’s surface) that are thought to be the most extensive of any in the world. Ecologically, Laguna Bacalar is a leading indicator of the ecological health of the region and is home to numerous marine species that have adapted to freshwater. Moreover, these microbialites may be the largest known organismal colony on Earth.


  1. Wow. I learned a bit of biology in this post and certainly savored your images. You capture quiet beauty like few others are able, and your words are often palpable. Thanks for the journey. I love the sandpaper metaphor.

  2. Thanks, Becky ... it's always so nice to be at least loosely connected with you!

  3. yes dear sandpaper sister traveler, you nailed it all the way around.

  4. Well that was was not only educational, but it sounds like you are enjoying your adventure. Good!

    1. Absolutemente! Looks like you've found your niche also.