Three weeks ago I was on a small island in Belize called Caye Calker. At one end of the island is a popular swimming/hang out spot called “The Split”. A hurricane once came through and split the island creating a little channel that’s fun to swim in. Riding this current is like being on a Disneyland ride - put your feet up, float, and allow the water to take you out to sea.
I was chatting with a group of new friends on the deck above the water when out of the corner of my eye I saw a black plastic bag floating by. It was covered in algae, so it looks like it’s been there for a while. In the middle of conversation, I turned to the group and said “One second, I’ll be back”, and jumped into the water to grab the bag. Later, I see a beer bottle float by. This time two local kids swam out to get it. When they returned, we all gave them each a high five! Few minutes later, an empty box of cigarettes floats by…then a cup.. again I jump in. I’m feeling a bit annoyed at this point, that tons of visitors and locals are enjoying themselves yet all of this trash is being dumped into the ocean.
Wanting to escape this scene, a friend and I swam across the channel to the other tiny island. The minute we got there, we saw a fisherman throw his plastic chip bags into the water. As we swam over to grab it, we looked up at the island and saw what looked like landfill. Piles and piles of trash!! My heart dropped, I started to get teary-eyed. We are all visitors of this island, this Earth, yet look at what we, as humans, are doing. How is it that one day I can swim into the mysterious Blue Hole, and the next day swim in trash. Same ocean.
Feeling upset, I started to pack up my stuff to leave. One of the other travelers came up to me and said: “Thank you for diving in to get that plastic bag. I saw that bag come around many times, yet I never went to get it. I admit I’ve made judgements about the US and its culture. But after seeing you today, I realize that maybe it’s because of your culture that you feel the freedom to act on your feelings. When I watched you jump into the water, I knew exactly how you felt about the Earth. Now I’ve learned that I also need to act on my feelings, even if it’s just for one bag.”
I’m thankful for that conversation and that the girl was so open and honest with her feelings. Throughout my life I’ve been unaccepted for being too spontaneous or impulsive. I can’t help it - this is part of my nature that I’ve been working on toning down. This conversation reminds me to continue following my heart. Maybe it’s also a sign that it’s time I tune that impulse back up.
A few weeks ago, I met another traveler while on a local colectivo (shuttle bus). We were the only foreigners on the bus. She told me I had to go to a lake in the Yucatan called Laguna Bacalar, and stay at Casa Lahar. I love lakes, and one of my soul sisters is named Lahar, so I thought to myself “Ok Universe, I’ll go!” I was suppose to spend the day with this traveler, yet somehow we lost each other while visiting a tiny church. I guess our paths were meant to cross for just that moment.
As I was leaving Chiapas, one of the locals told me that the Mayans in the Yucatan would first go to the lake to get energy from the masculine, then to the ocean to meet the feminine. It sounds really beautiful to me! I’m not sure if Laguna Bacalar is masculine or feminine… I think it’s a gift from a different planet. It’s magical. Like nature’s swimming pool, it has crystal clear water, no algae, few tiny fish, NO trash floating, barely any waves (perfect for floating), bath tub temperature, and for extra points - no mosquitoes. The floor is a bit mushy and sulfuric as the water comes from the jungle through a network of cenotes. I can’t think of a better place to be with the super full moon.
The truth is, I’ve felt lonely throughout my entire life. That’s what happens when you travel life solo - especially to countries where you can’t speak the language and whose culture you can’t quite grasp. Loneliness. If you allow it.
When I was younger (ahem.. 3 years ago?) I might have gone to a bar and diluted this feeling. Or I would have hopped on a bus to another town to allow the new sights and sounds to distract me. I might even have hung out with someone for an entire day that I didn’t really match. Instead, for the last 2 months, I’ve been listening to my soul, who wants me to sit with it. There are days I tear. Nights I long for a hug. Mornings I wake up ridden with fear that this loneliness will be my life. Then I think to myself, Why is that such a bad thing?
It’s loneliness that’s made me so grateful for the smallest of connections. I’m grateful for the nurturing rays of the morning sun. For the leaves that rattle HI to me. For the bird that flew just close enough so that I could hear its wings. I’m grateful for the kiss of rain. For the sweet whiff of a flower. For the love of mosquitoes reminding me that I’m still alive. For the tree that patiently shaded me with its leaves for hours. I’m grateful for the artful clouds that are always changing. For the nudging nose of a dog asking to be pet. For the curiosity of a cow, blinking her big, beautiful eyes. I’m thankful for the warm smile of a child and her dimpled cheeks. For the “Buenos Dias!, Buenas Tardes! and Provecho!” from strangers. And wow… I feel like the Universe is giving me golden gems when I do meet people that I connect with at the soul, with or without language. I feel like the luckiest person in the world! My heart jumps up and down and says, “You see me for me and I see you for you and I’ve known you for 10 min?”
It’s because of loneliness that I no longer need to grasp for companionship. It’s because of loneliness that I no longer need to be the extroverted child that performs. It’s because of loneliness that I feel so, inexcusably, connected to me.
It’s because of loneliness that I feel so connected to this world.
"If you can make people understand why freedom is so important through the arts, that would be a big help." - Aung San Suu Kyi
While we were only allowed to be in the village for 1 hour, accompanied by a guard, not talk to anyone (even though we snuck in a few laughs with the kids), and no photos of anything except for the murals.. it’s through these paintings that we are able to understand a little more of their journey.
More information on the Zapatista school system and their community here.
One of my favorite memories as a child was making dumplings with my mom. She had all of the ingredients prepped - mushrooms, leeks, meat, onions, garlic all mushed up into a bowl. We’d sit around the kitchen table, grabbing the flat dumpling dough, dipping it in flour, putting a little ball of mushy filling in the middle, folding it in half, then squeezing the edges together. We had the option of using this plastic, blue clamshell contraption that would make the process faster. I didn’t like using it - I wanted to make my own shapes and sizes. I loved that no matter how my dumplings came out - even if they had holes in it, they were perfect. Perfectly imperfect. Perfect because I was learning something my mother learned from her mother. Perfect because we were spending time together, chit chatting around a table. Perfect because working with our hands releases our layers and puts us in this tranquil, meditative zone. Perfect because it was the one time where I didn’t have to be a straight A student, or polite, or in proper clothes, or an older sister, or the oldest daughter. I could just be me, making these little quirky pockets of fun.
I’m sure many of us have similar memories - stewing amazing curry with your mom, layering tiramisu with an old friend, s’mores around a campfire, or grilling tortillas with a new family in their village. This week I was invited by my Mayan family to visit their home. To think that when I first met them, 5 days prior, our relationship was transactional - they wanted me to buy their goods and would only allow me to take a photo of them if I paid for it. At the end of our weaving time, we shared hugs, they asked me to take family photos for them, and invited me to their home.
The family lives in the hills near Chamula, about 30 min from San Cristobal de las Casas. As the shared van climbed the hills, the buildings started to fade revealing the peaceful and lush landscape of the highlands. Here is a photo of Pascuala’s 8 sheep… ahhh I see why she said she only has 3 colors of yarn ;)
Mama Maria taking me on a a tour of her black and yellow corn field!
Head straps hanging on the wall (how they carry heavy loads), their veggie garden (the family is vegetarian), and their little chicks.
We arrived at their house around 6:30pm, just in time for dinner! Here we are in their kitchen, heating tea.
Mama Maria’s late husband’s aunt, who lives with them. She can’t hear and doesn’t really have enough teeth to talk, but she smiles a lot!
Dinner! Yummy beans and fresh (organic) corn tortillas.
After dinner, we walked over to Pascuala’s house to sleep. Mama Maria and her share this house (their cot beds are not shown). Against the far wall behind her are her clothes - shirts and 2 more skirts. One of the skirts is newly finished! It takes her 6 months to weave one skirt, and 2 months to embroider the details of her shirt. Some of the warmer blankets they also weaved themselves. I was lucky, I got to snuggle with Reyna on the floor!
At 6am, I woke up, walked over to the kitchen and saw Pascuala and Mama Maria already up and cooking.
I even got to help them make tortillas! They make a day’s worth for the entire family in the morning before work. The batter filled a whole bucket. They have this metal press that helps them speed up the process. We grab a handful of cornmeal, ball it up in our hands, put it in the center of the press, and gently flatten them into perfect round shapes. Except, my tortillas looked ridiculous - with many unintentional mountains, valleys, and folds. Perfectly imperfect. I felt so bad being a guest in their home and creating a mess out of their meal. As I reached back into the grill to try and fix the folds, Mama Maria would stop me. “Está bien, Está bien!” Over and over again, I kept trying to fix my mistakes, and each time Mama would say “no, Está bien”.
After cooking, we quickly headed back into the city. The short evening felt like a dream. I cannot say that after one evening, I know what their lives are like. I still don’t fully understand what their dreams are, what makes them happy, or what they might struggle with. Perhaps that’s not for me to judge. I did walk away with a better understand of what Home means to me. There’s that saying “Home is where the heart is”. Well how about, Home is where my soul is free to Be.
What is it with my love affair with handmade, indigenous art? I use to think that it was the vibrant colors, textures and fine artistry that drew me in. I’m finding now that the connection is about a quality much deeper than the aesthetics - these crafts are about families creating together, as a community. It’s not an expression of one person, like we find in cities. They represent thousands of years of culture and serve as a prayer for the whole. They represent a part of time that still stands still. In Chiapas, Mexico, the Mayan communities are fighting to hold on to their culture - the communion of language, prayers, art and land (earth). Over the last month of travel, I’ve been admiring their culture at a distance. But my heart wanted to somehow connect with them more deeply.
I was visiting Na Bolom, a museum and foundation that supports the Mayan communities. Right in front of the store where they sell tickets is a family selling their work. A little 8 year old girl named Reyna came up to me, selling a basket full of macramé bracelets. I smiled, said “No muchas gracias!” and continued into the museum. Little Reyna, full of smiles, followed me in and instantly, a new friendship was born. We told stories of the little animal figurines in the cases. Danced for half an hour to the music playing in the documentary video, using her bracelets as props. Reyna would throw the bracelets high into the air so we could dance under them. We played hide-n-seek in the garden and created our own special hand shake. I love how quickly this young business woman reverts back to being a playful child when given the opportunity. After a few hours, her grandmother asked how I liked the museum. I looked at Reyna, we giggled, and I said “Muy bien!” I then asked her grandmother if she could teach me how to weave. The grandmother was delighted! She said she would send her oldest daughter to teach, and we could have our lessons in the Museum’s garden. “YAAAAAAY!!!” - said my heart.
The next day I came and saw my teacher, Pascuala, setting up the handloom. Amazing. We did a brief introduction, and without words she started. After demonstrating a few rows, she stepped out of the contraption, looked at me and gestured for me to step in. As she guided me through each row, my mind was trying to understand the purpose for each of these sticks. How does lifting one and sliding another create a weave?Why are the sticks so long? Why are some wide and some skinny? Why do we need so many?! And how can you do this while kneeling on the ground for 8 hours a day?!
With each passing row, each passing hour, and each passing day, I started to discover the answers to my questions. Each stick has a different purpose, and a slightly different shape, by design. Even the ends of one of the sticks are shaped a little differently - as Pascuala would say “No iqual” I also figured out the dance of when to lean back to keep the contraption taught, and when to lean forward to give the strings more breath. Lastly, the biggest tip she gave me was “Mas fuerte!”, reminding me to push the sticks and yarn with force.
Family photo :) Mama Maria, Isabella, Reyna and Pascuala
I spent 4 hours a day for 5 days as part of their family. In the mornings we’d sit in a circle on the floor to eat breakfast (tortilla, beans, and jamaica water). On Reyna’s selling breaks she’d poke her head through the weave to give our special handshake. Each woman would check on my progress throughout the day, giving me smiles and hugs, and a kind reminder “Mas fuerte!” Other tourist would pass by and ask me, “Is it difficult?” I’d say proudly, “Yes, but I have a very good teacher” Pascuala would sit up tall and smile. At the end of each lesson, my back was be sore, my eyes crossed, and my heart filled with joy - excited to see the family again the next day.
On the fifth day, as I was nearing the end, I noticed myself weaving slower and slower. I started getting emotional as I realized that this was my last day as part of their family. There came a point where it was too difficult for me to continue and Pascuala stepped in to finish the last few rows. Reyna, baby Cela and I sat around her, watching. Admiring. I felt so much love for Pascuala, imagining this is probably how her Mama Maria taught her. This is probably how Reyna and Cela are learning right now. This is probably how weaving has been passed on in their tribe for the last hundred years. We’re using sticks they found in the mountains and yarn from Pascuala’s 8 sheep. We weren’t just weaving a piece of fabric. We were weaving hearts.
When we finished I started getting teary eyed. Mama Maria came over and gave me a big hug! She said I am a fast learner. Then she said “You come to visit my house. Sleep at my house. Tomorrow?” "YAAAAAY!!!" - said my heart! Reyna started jumping up and down, running around telling everyone I was going to visit. Ahhh.. The fun continues…
Reyna and Cela playing.
Reyna and Cela coloring the Disney activity book I gifted. She played with it for 2 days, sounding out the words, playing the games, and making up her own stories for each character.
It was last Friday, in the late afternoon of the new moon. Irma Luz said that this is a powerful time because this is the new moon of the summer solstice. This moon will bring very strong energy, and it’s important that we cleanse our bodies of any negativity. The ritual started with us sitting in a circle, with two burning chalices in the center. Irma passed around a bowl of lavender and other herbs. As she spoke in Spanish about the energy in the sky, I looked around at the other nervously excited faces. Most of us had never been to a temazcal before. I imagined it to be like a cave, far away in the middle of nowhere. Instead we were in this woman’s backyard - quaint, quiet and intimate. Irma has a really nurturing energy that taps into your childlike nature making you want to run up to her and give her a big bear hug. With a robust stature, gleaming eyes, and a warm smile, she also holds so much strength and depth that I knew we would all be safe under her guidance.
Mario kindly translated “We are setting our intentions into these herbs, and then placing it into the fire”. I look down at my handful of lavender, smelling its sweet aroma and feeling the crunchy prickles between my fingers. I close my eyes and started tuning into my heart and my inner guidance. Remembering my dream, I ask them: What is in me that needs to be released? What is laying in the depths of my being that need to leave? Please help me keep my heart open and seen. (and as my dear friend might say…) With whatever is released, may they please be transmuted into Universal Love. Thank you.
One by one, each person stepped up. Holding all of our intentions in our hands, we gently spread our seeds into the smokey chalices. Sounds of enchanting singing. Sounds of rhythmic drumming. This music was so meditative, introspective, and celebratory. It told my soul that this is not a burial. It’s a celebration! A release. Breathe.
After the circle was done, two women picked up the chalices and stood near the entrance of the temazcal. We walked up to them, one by one, like we were awaiting to receive holy communion. Very slowly and thoroughly, the woman swirled the chalice around my body from head to toe, cleansing me with its smoke. I stepped up to the temazcal, peeked in, and saw Mario and Irma already inside, with their bright smiles, calling me in. I turned around, sat down, and scooted into the lodge backwards, finding myself sitting next to Mario. Irma had us enter backwards, alternating male and female, until all 15 of us were in. We were packed like little sardines in this round, adobe igloo, with our legs stretched out, feet meeting in the center. Closing our circle, entered this warrior-goddess like woman, wearing nothing but a red sash tied around her waist for protection and a beautiful sarong. Oh yeah, and she had her drum! Ahhhh I took off the last piece of clothing I had on, my bikini bottoms, and threw them out of the temazcal. Let’s do this!!!
Irma gave a little introduction.. explaining that we are now inside of the earth’s womb. I imagined myself beneath the earth’s surface, beyond the mantle, inside of the fiery core where all of creation brews. I imagine spirits of plants, bugs, the ocean, clouds, rocks, tall redwood trees, animals, and us - young humans, all developing together. Breathing the same air. The curtain to the entrance closed and the room became pitch black. Irma threw water into the hot coals behind her, swirling a big bunch of herbs and leaves above our heads to circulate the heat. Drumming. Chanting. Singing. She tells us to make sounds from within.. sounds of our body. ooooooomh… OOOOOOmh….eeeerrrrreeeerrrrr… I started tuning into my emotions, feeling where in my body these emotions were stuck. Those parts of my body would channel sounds, vibrating for its release. I remembered my prayer, of keeping my heart open and seen. I remembered how my dear friend John Malloy would tell his kids “Your expression and voice is important. Pound on your chest to awaken your voice.” To the beat of the drum, I pounded my chest, harder and harder, singing louder and louder, screaming, hearing my own voice bounce off of the walls amongst the sea of sounds. The heat growing, sweat pouring, Irma splashing cinnamon water onto our bodies, her herbs flying through the air. Tears started swelling up in my eyes…
The curtain opens. Light enters the womb. Relief.
A woman enters the temazcal with a tray of citrus-sweet tea. Before drinking it, we pour a little in the center to bless the temazcal, then at our feet. For the next hour or two, we journeyed in the womb, chanting, singing, praying, offering our own songs, with breaks of relief. Slowly, people started leaving, including Irma, creating more space between us. At the head of the circle now was our beautiful drummer. She lead us through prayers of gratitude for the earth, for us to feel connected to each other, to feel our oneness, singing sometimes in English. Most of the time in Spanish. We’d repeat, singing back her words. Mario started singing Indian mantras. We’d repeat, singing back to him. Back and forth, songs in Spanish, English, and Hindi.
The drummer lead us in chants of blessings to the different cities we were from. Taking turns people would announce their town, and in unison we’d all chant the blessing. When it came to me, Mario looked at me and said “Where are you from? Where do you live?” All of these feelings and memories over the last 3 years started surfacing at once. It was as if they were returning from my heart to be thrown into the rising heat. The smell the mountain villages in Laos. Sleeping in a stilted house. The squishy sounds of walking through rice paddies in northern Vietnam. The stillness of the pounding rain in the jungles of Borneo. The awful stench of my body. Songkran blessings from a grandma in a small village in Thailand. Cold water smacking my face, followed by children laughing. A flooding island. Climbing onto an aircraft carrier that would bring us to safety. Lost in a jungle. Love. Loss. Sitting in circles singing with tribal villages in India. Sitting in meditation circles in Oakland and Santa Clara. Being with the Malibu ocean. Three steps and a bow. Peacocks screaming. Children laughing. The smell of an open fire, cooking roti. A sky full of stars. Raghubhai giggling and singing “You’re my honey bunny…”. Holding newborn babies. Paw paw dying. Love. Loss. All of it - dissolved.
I look up at Mario, his smile lighting up the pitch dark lodge like stars. My mind was melted. I couldn’t grasp a place. I didn’t know where I lived. I didn’t know where I came from. I didn’t know where I was now. I didn’t even know who I was. I didn’t know where one body began and where one ended. The room, quiet, waiting for my answer. All that could come out was “Planet Earth…” I look at Mario in the eyes and said louder “I’m from Planet Earth!” The drummer screamed, and chanted really loud as we all sang our blessings to our Earth.
By the end of the journey, most of the people had left the room. The few of us that remained found ourselves laying on the floor, fetal position, weightless. In that state, the drummer called upon our inner child. I felt so excited, my heart filled with joy, because I know my inner child so well. I said to her: Oh my inner child, I’m so happy I found you. I’m so grateful that you never left me. I’m so grateful that you never gave up hope. I’m so proud of myself that we can now be a part of a world that you’ve been keeping safe for me. I’m so grateful that you are free.
I then offered this song out loud:
“You are my sunshine,
My only sunshine,
You make me happy,
When skies are gray,
You’ll never know dear,
How much I love you,
Please don’t take my sunshine away”
We crawled out of the temazcal, facing forward into the world, bowing in gratitude at the entrance. The entrance into our new world. Our bodies were cleansed with cold water, wrapped in sheets like little cocoons, then laid side by side in a neat row. As we’re sharing hugs and saying our goodbyes, the beautiful drummer came up to me. I said to her “Mi hermana!” We hugged for a long time and I asked “Como se llama?” She replied “My name is Paz”. I looked deeply into her light, smiled, and said “Peace…”
Two weeks ago I woke up in the middle of the night with a very clear message. In my dream, I was given snapshots of what my life’s work (or next “thing”) would look like. However, my guides told me that before I meet that light, I have one thing deep within me that is waiting to clear. Those visions quickly faded away from my conscious mind, but the message and feelings remain: it’s important for me to deepen my inner work and take a pause from exploring the external.
Because of this dream, I decided to change my plans of visiting a Chinantecas pueblo in the mountains, and follow this tiny voice to the ocean. As a dear friend said to me, “For you, communing with the ocean is connecting with the depths of your being”. After a few nights in San Agustinillo, I heard from the locals of a sweet man named Mario, who offers yoga by donation daily. I went early the next morning to try it out. Wow. The minute I stepped foot on his land and his loving space, my heart started singing “This is where I have to be!”
Mario to me is like a spiritual human rubber band. He found yoga 15 years ago, at the age of 50. He said he was unhealthy and his body was declining. His friend recommended he try yoga, and he’s been doing it everyday since. Mario says he’s Mexican-Indian fusion - spending 1/2 of his time in India exploring yoga and his own spirituality, and the other 1/2 of his time here in Mexico where he shares his practice with the community. This 64 year old man can wiggle and contort his body in ways that I’m just in awe of - with ease. All the while he constantly reminds us that the pose is not what’s important. What’s important is keeping our vulnerable heart open and seen. “Tuck in your pelvis, lengthen your sacrum to connect with the earth, and from the earth’s energy, open your chest and expand your heart. We are like a lotus flowers, beautiful and elegant, with roots that are deeply grounded in the mud”.
It’s been less than a week, and already I can feel the ends of my circle coming together. I’m finally experiencing the connection and constant flow between the heart - body - earth - and spirit. Life is so interesting isn’t it? I spent 6 months in India without doing a single yoga pose. And now, here I am in Mexico, learning yoga from a man who embody’s a similar spirit of oneness and heart that I found in India.
My outdoor desk and hammock where I spend my afternoons writing, drawing, dreaming…
Bucket bath and dry toilet with a view :) I want an eco-outdoor bathroom like this one day!
Mario took us on a hike to Punte Cometa, the most southern point in Mexico.
Here it is! He said that the cracks between the rocks are some of the deepest cracks on this earth, giving this land very special energy. The indigenous tribes originally built a wall around this point.
Last week I was wandering around the Center of the Arts in San Agustin Etla, and I made new friends! yay! The trio are on a road trip from Mexico City. Over lunch, Renè invited me to his Uncle’s home, where they are staying:
"You should cancel all of your plans and come back with us because you will love this home. My uncle is an archaeologist and spent his life visiting pueblos around Mexico and Guatemala studying and documenting masks used for spiritual dances. This home has probably the largest collection of old masks in the world.”
Plans cancelled. Let’s go!
The minute I walked into this home, my jaw dropped… room after room, walls upon walls of hand made masks (the photo above is one of many rooms that look like this!). Not to mention Renee’s uncle built this beautiful home with his own two hands, by himself.
Unfortunately, Renee’s uncle is in Guatemala so I never got to meet him or hear his stories first hand. I am so thankful to get to experience it second hand though!!
These jaguar masks are the oldest in his collection, from Zitlala, Guerrero. The color of the masks represents the color of corn they are praying for in the next season. The mirrored eyes symbolize rain/water. As these masks are made out of leather, the villagers would soak them in water before putting it on. The mask then dries on their face, creating a snug fit. This allows them to fully embody the spirit of the character they are playing. They become the jaguar. They become their characters so much so that they don’t need proper eye holes to see, only needing to peek through the tiny spaces between the jaguar’s teeth.
In each mask, lives their story, their connection to spirits in nature, and their prayers. You can feel the energy of the hands that created each one. Their love for each other and for earth. Their history. Their prayers. Unfortunately, because of the drug war in the area, these ancient works of art are being destroyed along with their communities.
This mask was made in Sonora. It is made out of paper, the hair from a cactus. After the dance was finished, the villagers would throw their masks into the river. (I can’t imagine doing that to my own pieces of art…)
Masks of Hernan Cortes (bearded masks). Renè said that in the pueblos, they are still doing the dance of Hernan Cortes… Renè has been to a tribal dance before. He said the dance is really intense - full of passion through drumming, chanting, dancing.. it was difficult for him to describe in words. He said he was pushed into the dance circle and had to “fight” Hernan Cortes. I get the sense that through that dance, he walked away with a deeper connection to this pueblo and what they’ve been through.
More! Here are some of my favorites.
These rituals must be so healing… to embody the spirit of what you are praying for. Or to replay history in the way your heart wishes it would have been. To allow your imagination to travel to the depths of your spirit, with intention. To allow your prayers to flow through your hands to art, and through the art back to your body, and out of your body to the Universe. My prayer for them is that these dances continue to live, in peace. That the art and tradition of mask making by hand is honored and preserved. That the new generation can stand by these rituals and feel a sense of pride, and connection to their roots.
Yesterday was summer solstice, the longest day of the year. I had this feeling inside that on this day, I wanted to be with the ocean, in water where life for us begins. I’m a bit intimidated by the Pacific Coast - her waters are strong and deceiving, demanding our respect. Yet through her strength, I always find a sense of peace and oneness… the feeling of Home.
I took a 7 hour bus ride and 2 colllectivos (shared taxi’s) to come to this tiny beach pueblo called San Agustinillo. In the late afternoon, I sat with an owner of a cafe, who shared, really openly and honestly, his story. Carlos was born in Mexico City. Estranged from his family, he came to the US at 8 years old, not knowing any English, undocumented, alone, and afraid. His journey to the US was not easy - as he said “I have seen awful things that nobody should see.. violence, manipulation, rape…” Within minutes of his arrival to Long Beach, he met a woman who took him in. For years she treated him as part of her family - put him through school, housed him, fed him… Carlos would work on weekends and help take care of the other kids. After a few years, the woman and her husband divorced and moved to another state. Carlos had no choice but to live under a freeway overpass for 8 months, out of a cardboard box, in order to finish school. The rest of his story and time in the US had a similar flow - Carlos would find himself in extreme lows, only to be lifted up by the kindness of strangers.
Five years ago, Carlos came to visit Oaxaca. Even though he is now a US citizen, he said he loved the people and the land so much he stayed. ”In the US, I was fighting life alone - working hard to being homeless, drugs, married, serving in the military. I’m so grateful for the kindness of the people there, who helped me along the way. But here in Mexico, we don’t fight life alone because we live together. I’ve learned the true meaning of community here, from this tiny pueblo.”
Carlos shared how the first day his cafe opened, it was robbed. Not only did the robbers take almost everything, they came back the next day to try and take more. Almost instantly, someone from the pueblo saw them, blew a whistle, and within seconds, the entire street was filled with people from the community ready to defend his little cafe. His tip for me: “Since you’re traveling alone, carry a whistle with you. Guaranteed if you ever need help, everyone in Mexico will know what that sound means and come.”
Carlos said that even though this pueblo is now owned by 1/2 foreigners and 1/2 Oaxaqueños, they all see each other as equal - as family, a part of this community. When Hurricane Carlotta hit a few years ago, destroying much of the town, everyone was out on the streets shoveling, cleaning, rebuilding. Carlos said it didn’t matter who you were or how much money you had - American, European, Mexican - they were all out on the street shoveling together. “We’re not going to wait for the Government to come and help us. We help ourselves, together. That experience forever bonds our pueblo.”
Throughout Carlos’ story telling, I felt like I was watching a movie. His strong yet weathered voice, friendly smile, slightly guarded eyes, speaking against a faint soundtrack in the background of our dear Pacific Ocean. I can hear the waves pulling back, quietly, building up momentum, then crashing like one large orchestra playing the same note at the same time. His eyes tell me he is bracing himself for another crash of life’s wave. They also tell me that he now feels relaxed knowing he won’t have to swim alone.
Yesterday I went to visit the Angeles family, alebrije artisans of the pueblo San Martin Tilcajete (Tilcajete literally translated means “painted container”). Alebrijes are wooden animal figurines. Traditionally, when a baby is born, the family will create an alebrije for him/her, carving the day and time of the birth into the piece. The chosen animal becomes the child’s life protector. They also carve animals with human faces, as the pueblo believes that humans transform into animal spirits at night.
I wonder what animal has been protecting me?
Alebrijes are carved out of a sacred tree called copal, which has an oil/resin in it that keeps it moist and gives it a beautiful scent. There are two types of copals - a female and male. The female is an off white color and smells like sweet flowers. The male is a dark brownish-red color, and smells more earthy.
The master artisan in the upper right photo is carving another jaguar. It will take him about 2 weeks to carve. They add chemicals to the wood to clean it of termites and anything else, then leave it to dry naturally for 7-9 months. The family believes that the sun is the best way to protect the piece from future insects.
The artisan let me try carving a part of his jaguar - it felt so smooth and the oil damped wood allows the blade to glide easily. What fun!
These days, most of the artisans use acrylic paints because it lasts longer. The Angeles family is one of the few that still use natural paints. Here an artisan is showing us how he achieves colors using different combinations of dried male copal, lime, limestone, baking soda, and zinc - mixing it with honey as a sealant. The honey also keeps the color from being absorbed by the wood.
I am in total awe of their paintings. All of it is done freehand! For the zapotecas, all of their motifs have meaning - seeds for fertility and rain, home for protection, symbols of the sun, waves, and many more.
It makes me wonder, what would our modern day symbols of life look like in the cities? An iphone/ computer, pills for fertility instead of seeds, building skyline instead of homes… The thought of this makes me want to be in nature - to live in a tree instead of a building and to swim in the ocean instead of a freeway.
The Angeles Family
Jacobo Angeles Ojeda started carving when he was young. His father passed away at an early age, which forced Jacobo to grow up and take on the responsibility of head of household. In partnership with Jacobo’s wife, Maria, who’s expertise and family tradition is in Native American painting, their alebrijes quickly gained visibility and global recognition. Today the family supports their pueblo as much as they can - training others in carving and painting and putting a lot of their earnings back into the the schools and community. Their kids hand painted street signs to further beautify their pueblo. The family also has a store out of their home where other artisans can sell their work and receive 100% of the profits (the family does not take any commission).
Amazing zapotec alter/temple to their god of rain and fertility (also represented by all of the seeds). The 3 levels represent hell, earth and heaven. This temple reminds them that they must continue to sacrifice in order to welcome in new things.
hmmm… what things in my life would I sacrifice to make room for my dreams? For me, sacrifice means letting go of things/feelings that are no longer supportive of our higher good. With that thought, I spent a moment at their alter, with their God.
Watercolor painting is something I stumbled on in 2013. I had just returned from 6 months in India, with a whole new brain and a newly found heart. I found it challenging to relate to society as “home” didn’t feel like home. The only thing that made sense to me, and the only thing I could hold onto was art.
Painting was my way of exploring - this time through my inner worlds. I wanted to try an art form that I was never taught so that I couldn’t use my brain. As I painted, I noticed all of these emotions that would arise in me - fear, joy, anxiety, grief, love, happiness, and complete awe. I started to collaborate with my body and emotions - asking them how they wanted to move through the page, all the while practicing non judgement and detachment from what was coming out. The more I painted, the deeper I travelled through my emotions, sometimes landing in a different conscious space.
This practice started creeping into my real world - if I can move through fear on paper and come out alive, why can’t I do that in life? What fears am I experiencing now that I have the opportunity to move through? What are these emotions teaching me about my journey and who I am today? What are these emotions teaching me about my Truth and the layers that I still need to let go of? What can our emotions teach us about each other and what we all are experiencing?
In my meditation practice, they teach us to observe, detach, and let these things go as everything in life is always changing. I have found so much wisdom in observing, learning and understanding, detaching and letting these things go. My emotional body is such a gift, and my greatest guru.