Sunday, January 6, 2013

I am the Walrus

"I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.
See how they run like pigs from a gun, see how they fly.
I'm crying." ~John Lennon/Paul McCartney

When I was in my early 20s, my boyfriend and I broke up. As I had come to rely on our relationship to provide me with a sense of security, I was thrown into a feeling of chaos. I became profoundly depressed as I struggled to cope with this loss of identity as his girlfriend and find new ways of grounding myself in relation to the world around me. Seeing my struggle, one of my friends referred me to a therapist, a beautiful soul named Beth.

Beth was the first to introduce me to an important piece of wisdom: the idea of choice. Everything we think, feel, and do is a choice, she said. Every action, every reaction: it’s all a choice. Therefore, I could choose to remain depressed or I could choose to be happy.

In her book, “My Stroke of Insight,” Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor says that when we become angry, for example, we experience a physiological response – increased adrenaline, etc – for 90 seconds. If we remain angry after 90 seconds, it’s a choice.

Although I recognized the validity of this wisdom when Beth explained it to me, it took me years to integrate it into my own experience. In other words, I chose to remain depressed. While this may sound like an oversimplification, it isn’t really. For all the years I struggled with my depression, I refused to consider a pharmaceutical remedy. No meds for me: I can beat this on my own. I knew I had a choice and when things started getting too bleak, I flipped a switch inside myself and pulled myself back up. The problem I had was context. I had been depressed for so long that my frame of reference for “happy” was lacking, so the best I seemed to accomplish was “less-depressed” or, sometimes, “not-depressed.” It wasn’t until an experience with ayahuasca at a shamanic healing ceremony several years ago that the depression lifted and I suddenly understood the difference between “not-depressed” and “happy.”

I tell you this to provide you with my personal understanding of the idea of choice. As I say, I believe that everything is a choice. When someone tells me that they wish they could do what I did, leave their job and travel and experience the world and new things, I ask why they don’t do it. “Oh, I can’t,” is the usual response. “I have a mortgage.” Or something along those lines. “I can’t,” a refrain that echoes through my past like an insanely loud gong, is, if you’ll excuse me, a totally bullshit excuse. “I choose not to” is far more accurate.

It wasn’t easy for me to make the choices I did. I gave up a very good job, sold a condo that I loved, parted with material possessions I’d become unwholesomely attached to, and departed the city I called home, in which reside many of my very dearest friends and family. But I could, and I did. I too had a mortgage. I freed myself of it. It was a choice.

I think the problem most people in our society have with this idea of personal choice, the root of this misguided belief that we don’t have choices, comes from an avoidance of accepting personal responsibility. If we don’t have a choice, if we’re required or forced to do something, we are not responsible for the consequences. Sometimes we are afraid to make hard choices because we fear the unknown, which means we can’t foresee the consequences and we’d rather not have to face anything uncomfortable. But sometimes we have to face the uncomfortable. If we always remain in our comfort zones, we never grow. Trust me. I know of what I speak. Despite my great strides in recent years at leaving my comfort zone, making hard choices, and facing the unknown, I still resist making new hard choices at every turn.

But this avoidance of accepting responsibility doesn’t just leave us stuck at a job that we hate or in a relationship that’s stagnating or eating a mediocre burger when we could have had that really yummy-looking plate of pasta our friend is eating. It reverberates through our society, so that we run this way and that asking the wrong questions, therefore looking for the wrong answers and implementing false solutions. We have developed an entire social structure and financial economy based on a lack of personal responsibility.

I am not talking about that whole, “Get a job and pull yourself up by the bootstraps” versus “We need a social safety net” ideological debate, though it seems likely that such a debate is relevant to my point. Nor am I talking about the religion versus science debate, of “I don’t have to accept any responsibility because God will do that for me” as opposed to “There is no God, only random chance, and because it’s all chance, I couldn’t really do anything about it anyway.” I am talking about personal choice: not systems, not philosophies, not ideologies, not faiths. This is a free will universe. Faith in God or Goddess or Energy or the Universe or any other name we choose is not the point. Atheism is not the point. Whether we are guided by an infinite, omnipresent, omniscient being or not, we still have free will. We make choices and as soon as we undermine that fact, as soon as we absolve ourselves or others of responsibility for their choices, we also undermine our ability to psychologically, spiritually and/or emotionally evolve. We inhibit our own growth, collectively.

So this is what has been running through my head since I first heard about the Sandy Hook school shootings a few weeks ago. I watched on Facebook and in other forms of media a great debate emerge: we need gun control. We need to improve access to mental health services. It was his mother’s fault for keeping guns. Guns don’t kill people, people kill people. It’s the lack of public health care. It’s a fundamental breakdown in the fabric of American society because we have too many guns or we don’t have enough guns. Etc.

And I sat back and did not involve myself in any of the discussions, because the vast majority of my friends are strong advocates for gun control and I knew that my view would by wildly unpopular. For the record, I am also an advocate of gun control. In my ideal world, all handguns (I exempt rifles and shotguns for the purpose of hunting for food, though I think bow hunting is more ethical) should be melted down and recycled into something beautiful. Make art, not death. Etc. But despite this, despite the fact that this young man did have access to guns and used one to massacre a whole bunch of children, gun control alone does not address the problem. It doesn’t resolve the issue of personal responsibility, of personal choice. This young man chose to walk into that school and kill people, and despite the many Facebook posts I saw saying they don’t care why, just get rid of the guns, I do care why. What has gone so wrong in our world that anyone thinks it is okay to gun down anyone else?

So yes, if there were fewer guns and greater gun control, it would have made it more difficult for him to complete his actions. Yes, it is true that in places like Canada where we do have fewer guns, we have fewer such massacres, although they do occur. And yes, improved access to health services of any kind is always a good thing. However, there is no evidence from what I have seen that this young man had any kind of diagnosed condition – and I am extremely uncomfortable any time there is a correlation made between extreme violence and schizophrenia or psychosis, as that tends to enhance the fear and stigma rather than allowing us to learn about and from people who are considered mentally ill.

Why is it such a problem to stop and say, “Why did this man choose to kill people? What can we do to examine this kind of rage in ourselves, in others, in our society, and prevent such an action from happening again?” Why is it wrong to say, “Gun control is just one small piece of a much larger problem, that of violent rage, a rage that is permeating our entire society, the whole globe, and being manifested globally as international war and the rape and pillage of our planet’s natural resources?” The killer was acting out a global condition. He made a choice. We all make choices and we all need to be responsible for them. We need to look at ourselves and say, “what do I do or think or feel or say that perpetuates this violence?” and not just say, “it’s the fault of the government/corporation/gun lobby/military industrial complex/etc.” Because we are all part of all those things, we are one giant interconnected organism and while we feel tremendous sympathy for the families of those who died in that massacre, we should also have compassion for the killer, who acted out a collective rage that we all contain and for which we are all responsible.

Choose personal responsibility. Choose to accept that your personal responsibility affects the collective. Choose to love rather than hate. Choose compassion rather than anger. If we all make these choices, we can heal the hurt far more holistically than simply writing a new piece of legislation restricting access to guns.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Happy Solstice!

Yesterday was Winter Solstice, an event worthy of celebration no matter your spiritual affiliation (or lack thereof) for the simple reason that it marks the return of the sun. Lengthening days are something I appreciate a great deal as I experience a Northern Winter, especially after three winters in a row spent in sunny, tropical environments that are many degrees closer to the equator.

Yesterday was also an historic event, though one widely misrepresented in Western civilization: at 11:12 UTC (03:12 PST), there was a planetary alignment that was explained in the Mayan long count calendar. Unlike popular lore would have us believe, the Mayans of old did not "prophecy" the "end of the world." Rather, in that particular calendar, there is a series of ascending cycles. December 21, 2012, as we designate the date in the Gregorian Calendar, marked the end of Baktun 13 and also, the end of a 26,000 year cycle. In other traditions, this was known as the Kaliyuga (I can't remember the name of the new yuga) and today begins "the Age of Aquarius." If you're interested in the Mayan long count, there's some good info here:

Perhaps you had been expecting an apocalypse, a solar flare to knock out the whole grid, the arrival of the Mother Ship to take you home, the Rapture, or just another cold winter day. Me, I awaited the day with interest, because rarely have I seen any campaign of information (and misinformation) spread as widely as the various ideas put forward about the end of the Mayan calendar. Many of my dear friends have travelled to (and within) Mexico to celebrate the Solstice at the various Mayan temples, in Palenque, Tulum, Chichen Itza, or at the most ancient site, Teotihuacan (which is not Mayan, but that's a whole other post).

Sam and I were content to be cozy in our northern BC abode and mark the day without much fanfare. We let our fires in the two wood stoves go out and carried the coals to the fire pit outside, where we burned away the last of the old cycle. We started new fires for the new cycle when we came back inside. And so with that simple ceremony, we acknowledged the new season - and also cleaned all the ashes out of the wood stoves, which was a task that badly needed doing. No reason why ceremony can't have practical aspects to it.

And now it's a new day, winter is here, and the sun will be making it's long journey back to us, with increasingly longer days. Though you wouldn't know it by looking outside our windows. The snow is falling and the outdoor thermometer reads somewhere around -20 C. Sometimes I can't remember why we're not in Mexico...though this picture Sam took of the lake at sunrise a few mornings ago is a good reminder.

So between keeping the home fires burning and the cat and ourselves well fed, I am attempting to write something that may one day resemble a book. Or something. It's slow going, I confess, but I have got several short blurbs that may end up being useful. Or not. Part of the problem I've got is that I recently read a memoir that should have been very interesting - the story the author was telling was worth writing about, I thought - but it was just one long chronology, really - and so ended up being hard to get through. It was kind of a boring book, even though the story wasn't boring.
After reading it, I thought: oh bloody hell. I can't write one of those! And now, I'm trying to figure out what I can write, if not one long chronology that fills in all the fascinating details of my life and the lessons I've learned along the way. I'm thinking about throwing in some aliens and making the story science fiction. I'll keep you posted. (And lest you think I'm slacking entirely, here is a picture of our Christmas tree, with physical evidence behind it: my row of flip charts full of notes, outlining the book.)

Monday, December 10, 2012

You can't lose paradise if you always take it with you

It's typical of me that my last blog post was all about how I shall keep on writing despite having landed back home for the time being, travel be damned!, and that said post was a good 8 months ago. Oh, the dedication! The discipline! It's overwhelming.

As it turns out, after that last post, I began working on a new one, which was about money: our relationship to it in this society, my own relationship to it, where it all comes from (as in history, not as in banks or jobs or the ATM or whatever). But as I delved into researching currency, I discovered it was a really big topic. Even just understanding my own views about money and how that relationship evolved was a really big topic. I was overwhelmed. And then, I stopped researching and writing about it, and went back to work to earn some instead.

Sometime in April, Sam and I headed out into the wilds of Vancouver Island in our beloved Lulabelle the camper van. We found a perfect spot way off in the bush past Port Renfrew in an old clearcut. We watched eagles fly around our heads. It was grand. While we soaked up the peacefulness and the tender loving shelter of our home on wheels, I pondered my next steps. Money, I thought. What the heck is that all about? Jobs, I thought. If it weren't for this stupid crazy idea people have formed in our collective (un)conscious that we have named The Economy, we wouldn't need to have this other figment of our imaginations we call Money. And then we wouldn't need to have Jobs, which to my mind are just tools used by others to usurp my personal freedom by having me perform tasks that serve those others but don't serve me. All I get in return is Money, which I continue to think ought to be unnecessary. The whole system seems totally bizarre and I am not at all impressed with those wizards who created it in the first place. However, here we are.

Honestly, I had been feeling a bit bored or restless since about the time we decided to return to Canada. I'd looked a plethora of job postings and found next to nothing I found interesting. So I sat out in that old clearcut, watching the eagles (and slugs, which although rather less majestic than eagles, are surprisingly interesting creatures - great meditation), and as I sat in the stillness, I projected a picture of myself sitting at a desk at my previous place of employment. I waited for a reaction.

In the past, the reaction upon such an exercise has been visceral: a clear, unequivocal, "Nope. Don't go there." There are many reasons for this, which I will not bother going into now. This time, however, the reaction was, "Huh. That doesn't seem like such a bad idea. You've learned a lot and grown a lot. You might have something new to bring to that work that you lacked in the past, and consequently, that work might have something new for you to gain from it." (My inner dialogue is a bit wordy.)

So upon our return from the camping trip, I contacted my former Director and asked how she'd feel about hiring me back to do some temp work. She seemed to feel pretty good about it, so I went back to work on May 1. I dove into the work with something approximating gusto and found what I was enjoying the most was working with colleagues in Victoria that I'd never had a chance to work closely with in the past. They are great people.

In July, I was asked if I'd still be willing to travel for work. Work and travel, I thought? Heck yeah. So Sam and I loaded up our little Honda Prelude (we bought a great little car for really cheap when I went back to work) and headed to Terrace for two weeks. From there, we were supposed to head to Vancouver for the rest of the summer, but we were diverted to Williams Lake. Then to Prince George. Then back to Williams Lake. Then there was a week off to go to Victoria, put away the flip flops and pack the woolies, and we went back to Prince George.

I loved it in Prince George. The surrounding area is a wilderness lover's dream. The people in the town are friendly and welcoming. The work in the office was pleasantly engaging without being soul-sucking and my colleagues in the office are a delight to work with. The work I was doing there was coverage of a vacant position that is due to be posted in January, and I have been encouraged to consider applying for that permanent position. So we spent a couple months this fall, feeling out Prince George, making new friends, and I considered how I feel about being back at work on a longer-term basis.

Then this new thing came up: it turns out that on that magical thing we call "Internet," there are other magical things called "websites" and some of them are dedicated to advertising housesitting opportunities. In my random browsing of the internet, I stumbled upon such sites and discovered that there was a couple at Nimpo Lake, BC (look it up on a map) looking for a house and cat sitter for a few months. They advertised it as a "Northern getaway/winter retreat for artists/writers" or something along those lines. Since Sam and I regularly discuss the idea of retreating into the wilderness to work on our various artistic endeavours, it was incredibly appealing. The timing coincided nicely with what was supposed to be the end of my term at work. Of course, it wasn't that easy: I was offered an extension of that contract to the end of January, and the dilemma emerged: do we stay living in a hotel in Prince George for a few more months, earning income but feeling a bit confined (renting a place meant acquiring furniture, etc - a bigger expenditure than it would be worth for the short term)? Or do we give up the income and set out once more into the unknown?

As I've said, we've talked a lot about retreating to work on creative projects. I think a lot about turning my experiences of the last three years into some kind of book (despite my lack of blogging discipline, I think I can write a book. Really.) and Sam has both musical and photographical works underway. The possibility of housesitting meant that we could afford to live for awhile on the savings from the previous six months. And it occurred to me that if I do want to write about my experiences, I'd best get to it before the freshness of them vanishes. I have a window of opportunity here that narrows with the passage of time. So the opportunity was seized. I declined the offer of continued work, somewhat regretfully, because as I said, I really enjoyed my time in that office and particularly enjoyed the people I worked with.

Sam and I are now very comfortably holed up in a charming, cozy, quirky old log house right on the waterfront at Nimpo Lake (you can see where we are by going to We are the caretakers of a purry old cat who strongly suggests the spirit of a wise, patient (ish), occasionally grumpy old man who really likes to be fed ON TIME. We have wood stoves to feed as well, keeping us warm, and a view of the lake and mountains that nourishes the spirit. We have quirky neighbours, Mary and Logan. Mary built this house and owned the resort for 40 years and now lives in a log house on the property, a short walk away. They host happy hour every day at 4:00. We have been twice, I think, not because we're not happy, but it quickly becomes apparent that trying to go every couple of days is a much bigger commitment and expenditure of emotional energy (all that visiting and small talk!) than we're interested in. We're here to work on creative projects, after all. Still, the neighbours are all interesting folk and we've enjoyed the visits we've had.

We are studiously avoiding deliberations on what comes next. We're here now and there's no better place to be. I'm immersed in writing, though its early days yet, and I'm amazed at what I've learned over the last three years. This is a fascinating process and whether a book emerges and goes anywhere is far less important to me at this point than the actual engaging in the work itself. I've decorated the walls with flipchart pages of notes. It's great.

Other than a bout with some sort of flu that is wearing us down a bit, we are both in a great space (literally and metaphorically). We look around every day, marveling at what we can accomplish for ourselves by creating a positive vision and intention of what we wish to experience. We are so grateful for this time and place and opportunity to nourish our spirits, individually and together.

We couldn't have asked for a better time to live this dream. Sam's birthday is coming in another 9 days, then Solstice, then Christmas, my birthday, New Year's, and another month after that, our one year anniversary of our handfasting ceremony. This is a time for contemplation, celebration, and thanksgiving - living in joyful communion with the world around us and most especially, with each other, as Sam and I receive the gifts we've given each other through our hard, dedicated work on ourselves and our relationship.

I wish you all the peacefulness, joy and love for yourselves that we share with each other every day. Love life. Live the dream.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Life, the Universe, and Everything

I can't remember if Douglas Adams used the Oxford comma in the title of his book, which is from where I took the title of this post. The good news for all of you is that this isn't a post about the Oxford comma, or punctuation at all. Though now that I think about it, it's kind of astonishing that I've never written about that topic, since it's one of my favourite things to complain about. Nope, today I'm not thinking about how poor use of punctuation is a shocking demonstration of a world gone wrong. I'm thinking about blogging.

I've just been reading a whole bunch of blog posts by writer Justine Musk (, who writes about creativity. She's inspiring and interesting and providing me with a veritable feast of food for thought. Her blog is a timely discovery for me, as it has very recently occurred to me that despite having always referred to this blog as a "travel blog" it frequently resembles nothing of the sort, and also, now that I'm sitting in my parents' basement, many people would not consider me to be travelling at all. So I have been thinking, if I'm not travelling, do I still keep writing? Do I have things to say? Is anyone interested in what I have to say? If it's not about travel, what am I writing about? And is there a point in writing a blog if no one is reading it?

These are the answers I've come up with so far:
1) Yes, I still keep writing, because
2) I always have things to say, and
3) I wouldn't want to assume that anyone is or is not interested in what I have to say but the stats on my blog show that occasionally, people do read this thing. Also,
4) I'm writing about whatever I feel like in a particular moment, which is what I've always done anyway. Because "travel" is a subjective term and doesn't always relate to geography, and because (see #2). And finally,
5) Perhaps many bloggers (and non-bloggers for that matter) would disagree, but yes, I think there is a point in writing a blog even if no one reads it. I write because it feels good to write and it helps me clarify my thoughts and feelings. It's part of my learning and growth processes.

I shall carry on as I have from the outset, writing for myself and for anyone who cares to read what I have to say, without worrying about the numbers or the stats or my followers. I'm not blogging as a source of income, or to build my public profile, or for a host of other perfectly legitimate reasons to write a blog. My reasons may change, as my blog will change and as I do - it's part of the growth process - which does not necessarily mean expansion, BTW.

So from now on, I won't refer to this as a "travel blog." It's about Life, the Universe, and Everything - which should give me adequate scope to cover whatever the heck I feel like.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Tale of Too Many Cities...and Buses... and Planes

Catching up
Time has marched on, once again, and I’m well behind in my blog maintenance. The challenge I have with blogging is the expectation that regular updates will be posted – an expectation of myself, at least, and presumably at least the hope of those who read it regularly. It seems that many a travel blogger are far more dedicated than I am to writing regularly. I’m sure I have as much to write about as anyone else, but life seems to carry me away and I lose track of time. Or something like that.

Anyway, here’s the Coles notes version of the last couple of months:

Some time in early January, we left Ecuador and crossed into Peru. We had originally intended to make our way toward Iquitos, in the heart of the Amazon, but our plans changed (as they often do). We spent around a week or thereabouts in the vicinity of Chiclayo and another week or so in Lima. And then, suddenly, we were in Mexico again, heading to Tulan-of-our-hearts for the final 7:7:7:7 gathering.

When we first decided to head to South America, it seemed obvious that Mexico was not on the agenda this winter. South America and Mexico aren’t really close together, and it’s expensive to get from one to the other. We discussed it at length in November, and rather regretfully agreed that we would not be in attendance at 7:7:7:7 this year. It was a somewhat painful decision. The gathering has a special significance for us; it was there we began our journeys in January 2010 and is the coming-together of many people we love. Add that to the fact that the event was in its seventh and final year and you can see how difficult a decision it was. However, we had good reasons for choosing to go further south, so the decision was made and off we went. Or so we thought.

Despite having reached the decision not to go, the subject kept coming up. We’d skim over it, not really looking too closely at why it kept coming up, and agree once again that it didn’t make much sense to veer off to Mexico, then carry on.

And then, suddenly, everything changed.

The Back Story
When Sam and I decided in November to embark on a new journey to Peru, we had essentially two objectives in mind. Our primary purpose was to strengthen our relationship – to work together on aspects of ourselves as individuals and as a couple that we wanted to change or let go and on other aspects that we wanted to strengthen and develop. We chose Peru partly because we wanted to explore a place that was new to both of us. Our secondary purpose for this trip was to journey into the heart of the Amazon jungle and experience traditional spiritual and healing ceremony with an indigenous curandero (healer) or shaman.

In the first of the blog posts for this journey, back in December, I touched on that primary purpose briefly. Sam and I had found ourselves stuck in a rut, in our personal development, in our relationship, in our quest for spiritual growth. We have a good relationship that allows us to show each other our best and our worst, to express conflict as well as love and laughter, but had found ourselves expressing somewhat more conflict and less love and laughter than either one of us found enjoyable. Yet at the same time, we both really believed that we are good for each other and that we have a tremendous potential to find, live, create, and express beauty and joy and love and compassion wherever we go. We had a commitment to each other that we weren’t ready to break. We decided to head to a new land with the intention of really focusing on fixing or releasing what wasn’t working and making the good parts better.

The secondary purpose, to journey to the Amazon and experience ceremony together, seemed to me to be the less complicated aspect of the journey, though I recognized it would not be without its challenges too. The trip up the Amazon to Iquitos is not for the faint of heart – a minimum of four days on a boat up the river under what I consider less-than-ideal conditions (unless, of course, one takes the easy way out and flies, but where’s the fun in that?). Once you arrive in Iquitos, you’re in the heart of the jungle. It’s hot. And humid, something like 100% humidity. There are bugs and snakes and plants that attack. Anyway, it’s an adventure, but one that we fully intended to embark upon, embracing the challenges and getting the maximum benefit that comes with overcoming said challenges.

We crossed from Ecuador into Peru, and after one night in Piura (which we hated, except for the amazing, lovely, kind, generous people we met), we headed to Chiclayo, from where we would go to Tarapoto, then to Yurimaguas to find a boat. On our first night in Chiclayo, which we liked much better than Piura, we met a young artisan who, it turns out, is also a curandero, learning traditional ceremony of a pre-Incan culture indigenous to the Lambayeque area of Peru. He invited us to participate in a ceremony at full moon, which was in two days’ time.

We had just eaten dinner, so we began our fast to prepare for ceremony the next day, and the day following we met our new friend and headed out of the city. He has some friends who live in a small village outside Chiclayo who had offered the use of their sizeable fruit plantation for our ceremony. We loaded up our camping gear, storing everything else at our hostel, and hiked for about an hour under the midday sun to our camping place. We set up camp, rested in the shade, hiked to the river to swim and cool off, and at sunset, created our ceremonial circle and altar. We spent the night in ritual ceremony and quiet contemplation under a full moon, breaking our fast in the morning with fresh fruit from the land.

It is customary in this type of ceremony to set an intention for what you hope to gain from the experience, a sort of mantra on which to meditate. In keeping with the spirit of our journey to Peru, I focused on opening my heart and being more open to both giving and receiving love. Our curandero said that the medicine of this ceremony will stay with us for many months, working quietly and subtly, but always there. I emerged from the ceremony feeling tranquil, open, serene, though not transformed or enlightened. I was tired and very, very dirty after spending a night sitting or lying in the dust, but happy to have been a part of something so unique and beautiful. It is not a common experience for North American travelers to happen across curanderos on the street who invite them to participate in traditional ceremony under the full moon. I would call it luck, but I don’t actually believe that. It’s serendipity, if you will. It’s fate, and it’s beautiful, and I’m so grateful for the experience.

Several days later, we were at a hostel in a beach town near Chiclayo, and I pulled an intercostal muscle on the left side of my chest. It hurt like you wouldn’t believe. Then about a week later, I pulled another intercostal muscle on the right side. It was a bizarre happening the first time, and even more bizarre the second – but synchronicities do occur and I do not believe it a coincidence that I pulled chest muscles within 10 days of participating in a ceremony during which I meditated on the idea of heart-opening.

When we met our young artisan friend, we also met another artisan who was heading toward Iquitos a few days later and invited us to join him. As this met our intention of journeying to the jungle, we tentatively arranged to meet with him and his friends after we returned from our ceremonial excursion. After that experience, however, I realized that I was in no way emotionally, mentally or physically prepared for the rigors of the trip into the Amazon. For one thing, I wilted like a delicate flower when hiking an hour with less than half the weight of my usual full backpack in a hot but far less humid climate than that of the Amazon. I have vivid memories of complaining bitterly on every hike my parents “subjected” me to as a child and neither Sam nor I had any wish to experience me at my most whiny. For another, I realized after our ceremony that I was not spiritually prepared for the work involved in the ceremonial aspects of such a journey, which I do not take lightly.

And thus it was that we found ourselves on a horrible 12-hour overnight bus to Lima instead of a bus to Tarapoto. I was in excruciating pain from my pulled muscle and Sam was sick as a dog. We spent a night, miserable and uncomfortable, cramped in a bus with no leg room, people in South America being somewhat smaller than us giants from up north. After a night in a really crappy hotel in downtown Lima, I packed up and herded my still-sick beloved into a taxi to a new hotel. I hadn’t quite realized how gigantic Lima is, however. After about an hour of driving around looking for the hotel on a street that our taxi driver didn’t believe existed (it does, I found it a few days later) I finally asked our driver to take us to an affordable, nice-ish, quiet hotel nearby. He did, and though it was somewhat more expensive than we’d hoped, it was beautiful. They had only one room left, a Jacuzzi suite. It was a real Jacuzzi, with jets and everything. It was spotless. The bed was comfortable, the room was quiet (mostly, anyway), and all the services we needed (like food and a bank) were a short walk away. (It’s called Hotel Fenix in Lima 18, in case you’re ever in Lima and need a nice place to stay. It cost approximately $40 per night, I think). This room became our home for nearly a week. Within a few days, Sam was back on his feet and we explored as big an area as we could manage on foot. We did not ever try out the transit system and we avoided the long, long taxi rides again, so we never made it back downtown to Lima’s centre. I expect we missed every major tourist attraction in the entire area.

The Proposal
At any rate, here we were in Lima, feeling healthy, happy, and enjoying each other’s company immensely. In fact, we had been noticing for weeks (I think the subject first came up in Cuenca, Ecuador) that we were finding ourselves more in love than we’d ever felt before. Since our full moon ceremony, that “lovin’ feelin’” amplified. We had set out to South America to rejuvenate and reconnect to all the good in our relationship, and somehow, we had succeeded – without even realizing that we’d started doing the work we needed to do. And that’s how we found ourselves at a cozy, romantic Italian restaurant somewhere in the Miraflores district of Lima, sharing some wine, drunk on love – and engaged. Yep, you read that right. While basking in the glow of candlelight on our corner table on the balcony, I proposed to my beloved, and he said yes. It was, to say the least, unplanned. I doubt there’s ever been a more spontaneous proposal. But there it was – we always knew we were committed to each other and our relationship and that we would do whatever we needed to make it strong, but I don’t think either one of us had any idea what would emerge from our journey south.

The next morning, we lounged in our room, and I asked again – just to make sure it was, in fact, the love and not the wine that led to my asking and his accepting. As we talked and laughed and hugged and giggled about the craziness of the whole idea, I suddenly blurted out, “I want to go to Tulan. I want to get married at 7:7:7:7 and I want Chris to perform the ceremony,” (Chris being our dear friend and the organizer of the event). This was on Saturday. The event was starting in two days, and we were a continent or so away. The cheapest flight I could find was as far from cheap as we could imagine. It was madness of a whole other sort.

Not being known for our sanity, we packed up our madness and our backpacks, and the next morning we were on a flight to Mexico City. We left our hotel in Lima at about 7:00am, landed in Mexico City at around 4:00pm, took a taxi to one of the bus terminals, got on a bus to Guadalajara, arriving there at about 2:00am. Long day. We were in Tepic the next afternoon, arriving – we thought – just on time to catch the ride with dinner up to Tulan. Alas, the truck had departed a couple of hours earlier and we were stuck in Tepic for the night.

We checked ourselves into a hotel, dropped our packs on the floor, and wearily wondered what we were doing there. Were we actually crazy? We had just spent a huge part of our travel budget spontaneously flying from Lima to Mexico to surprise our friends at an event and possibly to hold a wedding ceremony. We must be crazy! Are we ready for this step? What if we aren’t welcomed back up there? We haven’t been dedicated to our spiritual practice for a long time. What if our friends don’t support us getting married? How could we ask them to fit such a ceremony into the already-full schedule of the gathering?

We discussed these not-unreasonable questions and ideas for quite some time, and at last, we reached a state of contentment. We were doing the right thing. We chose to follow our hearts instead of our bank account, listening to our intuition instead of our fears. Our friends would be happy to see us and if there was no room on the schedule for us to have our ceremony, we’d still be so glad to be there in Tulan with our loved ones. Everything would be perfect.

And it was. We caught our ride up the mountain the next afternoon and were greeted with so much love and joy from our friends that it was almost overwhelming. We got our camp set up before the sun went down and were whisked off to a Navajo teepee ceremony that lasted until about noon the next day, and spent the rest of the week encircled by the profound love of a family that created itself through a shared commitment to spirit, to love, to nature and to creating a more harmonious world. The gathering, as always, closed with a traditional Huichol ceremony, where we all gather around a fire at sunset and dance and sing and pray and meditate and dance some more until the sun rises. (The Huicholes are a pre-Hispanic indigenous nation in Nayarit, Mexico.)

After the close of the Huichol ceremony, Sam and I sat with some of our very closest friends in Tulan and planned a quiet ceremony for ourselves. Twenty minutes later, we closed the final 7:7:7:7 gathering, surrounded by our tribe, with an almost-spontaneous, totally unique handfasting ceremony, receiving the blessings of our friends and elders, and making a commitment before them all on the sacred land of our heart’s home, Tulan. One tradition of handfasting is that it is a commitment to be married. The commitment lasts for one year and a day, and after that, the marriage is to take place.

We chose to hold this ceremony in Tulan for a number of reasons. It is sacred land, part of the traditional lands of the Huichol people, and rich in their spiritual and cultural heritage. It is, as I mentioned earlier, the place where we began our travels together two years ago. It is where we have gathered with friends, our spiritual family, to learn from each other, to explore diverse spiritual and cultural traditions, to meditate, to dance and sing and drum and laugh together. It is the place where our beloved elder and spiritual teacher Setting Sun White Bear chose to leave this earthly plane, and where we held a four-day funeral ceremony in his tradition. We wanted to celebrate our love and commitment to each other where we feel White Bear’s spirit so strongly. We wanted to bring that love and commitment to the gathering, to remember that there is love and life, as well as death, in Tulan. We wanted to share the celebration of our love with our tribe, to remind everyone that a true, loving relationship requires commitment, that it’s work. That giving up after a short time because things are hard is not “ a sign from the Universe that it isn’t meant to be,” because the Universe expects us to do our part. We wanted to share our belief that some of the best spiritual work is done in partnership, where we see ourselves reflected in the mirror of our partner and grow from that.

We had an amazing, incredible, joyous, beautiful, wondrous experience as we gathered around the fire that day. We are incredibly blessed to have each other, to have made this commitment to each other, and to have shared it in the special, unique way we did. We can’t wait to celebrate our marriage with the rest of our family and friends next year.

After we came down from the mountain, we joined several of our friends at a mansion in Sayulita (literally a mansion. It was huge, and had a pool, and a view of the ocean. So lovely). We followed that with a week or so of holidaying in Puerto Vallarta, a tourist haven but also a city we love, and from there we headed to San Jose del Cabo on the peninsula of southern Baja California. We had thought to spend a couple of months or so in San Jose, the home of one of our friends. He had invited us to investigate volunteer and work trade opportunities at, a retreat centre offering yoga (and other) classes, a vegetarian restaurant, and affiliated with La Semilla, an organic farm project that supplies the food for the restaurant. It sounded wonderful (and it is!) yet for some reason when we got there, it just didn’t feel right. Increasingly, we felt like it was time to head north, though the idea of going home in winter wasn’t exactly an incentive for action!

However, true to form, we followed our intuition and so here we are, back in BC, staying at my parents’ place for the time being. We are fortunate that there is a basement suite here where we can be independent, and so grateful for the use of it. We hope to sort ourselves out quickly and so not infringe on that hospitality too long.

It was a relatively short trip south this time; we were gone just under three months. Yet, I have learned not to mark our lives by linear time alone. The changes in our lives and the tremendous growth we experienced together are far more significant than the number of weeks that passed. Once again, I am so grateful for the circumstances that have allowed me to travel and live such a full, beautiful life. Now, I will focus on making a transition from travel to something resembling “stability” and strive to maintain the beauty and the richness I experience when travelling.

Life is grand and it’s good to be back. But will someone please turn up the heat?

Monday, January 2, 2012

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

2012! We kicked off the year in style here in Cuenca, Ecuador. Dressed up in our finest, we headed off to a fancy restaurant that was recommended on a blog I stumbled across, to treat ourselves to some fine dining and a cup o’ cheer. It was closed. Undaunted, we roamed the city centre for a half hour or so looking for something that was open – apparently, things are done a little differently around here, for that was no easy task – and eventually came across a nice little place near the main plaza. You would think (at least, I did) that every restaurant would be open, lights blazing, music blasting, ready for all celebrants. But no. Not so here in Cuenca.

Anyway, we found our restaurant, ordered a bottle of ridiculously expensive wine ($30 for Casillero del Diablo? At BC Liquor Stores, it’s about $17 – and BC LDB is not exactly known for its cheap wines) and ordered our meals – filet mignon for Sam and Chateau Briand for me – at $7 per entrée. Our wine arrived, already opened, with a cracked and saturated cork and visible sugar crystals dancing down the insides of our glasses. And thus began the education of our waiter in proper presentation of a bottle of wine to his guests. There are reasons for the rituals, after all, and after lengthy discussion and explanation, the wine was taken away and a new bottle – with the cork still firmly in place – was delivered. I’m sure the waiter was delighted with his education. The fresh bottle of wine (an Argentinian wine whose name I can’t remember) was acceptable, the food was excellent, and the overall experience very pleasant. We settled up our bill, headed off to find a café Americano and some dessert, and prepared to let the evening really get started.

We walked around the historical centre of Cuenca for awhile, looking for somewhere interesting to insert ourselves. There were people wandering the streets, but strangely, there still didn’t appear to be many establishments open and lively. One night club had lights flashing and music blaring, but wasn’t open to the public until 1:00am. Another place looked promising – it had speakers outside, music blasting, people mingling on the sidewalk… but it turned out to be a fast food chicken joint. Still, we kept wandering, looking for the party that had to be out there!

We had been noticing for several days that there were big, stuffed dummies everywhere. Every highway was lined with vendors selling dummies – people-shaped ones, movie characters, cartoon characters, and Smurfs. Smurfs everywhere. Weird. Sometimes they were propped up outside stores. Some people had them strapped onto their cars, either on the roof or on the bumper. Others were carrying them around. What, we wondered, was the point of all these effigies?

So as we wandered the streets of Cuenca, looking for a party, everything started to become clear. Sort of. First, we finally found a party. Or so we thought. As we turned a corner, we saw at the end of the block a huge throng of people and heard loud, rocking Latin pop music. When we actually joined the crowd, we saw that they were gathered around a large display of human-sized, but immobile, Smurfs. No one was dancing or singing or carrying on. They were just gathered around, staring at the Smurfs. It was kind of like a Nativity display, but… Smurfs. What the hell? It was totally inexplicable. It still is. Since we are not Smurf-worshipers and there was nothing interesting actually occurring, we moved on to another crowd of people, this one dancing to a live band of human-sized humans on a stage. Thank goodness for activities we can understand! We joined in for a dance or two, then continued our quest to immerse ourselves in NY Eve – Ecuador style.

And at last, we found what we were looking for. As we turned onto a new street, a group of young people were gathered around, beating their effigies with sticks and lighting them on fire. Much more exciting than the smurfs! We had noticed fires throughout the city all day, and assumed that they were due to the burning of the dummies, but we still weren’t sure what the meaning was. Not surprisingly, the burning effigies represent a letting go of the old and embracing of the new. Once the fires are good and hot and blazing, people jump over them, focusing on everything bad and ugly and old from the past year that they want to be free of. Sam and I joyfully joined in this celebration, jumping over the fire on our own, and then together, hand in hand, letting go of everything from our lives as individuals and as a couple that we don’t want or need, and embracing the new, positive, good things to come.

After jumping over the fire, we were invited into the establishment that appeared to be hosting the fire, a little café called “OM”, where there was plenty of libation being passed around. The popular drink of the house was a hot beverage tasting kind of like pears, and was undoubtedly alcoholic in nature… whatever it was, it was tasty! And there was a lot of it. The highlight, though, was the assortment of kindly men who patiently tried to teach me how to salsa dance. It’s a tricky business that. I could usually manage to get my feet going ok, but then I was supposed to add in some kind of circular hip motion… and then the shoulders! That’s way too much at once, I don’t know how any of them manage it! My teachers were all lovely and kind and patient and I had a blast. I think the amount of hot pear drink they poured into me helped somewhat – likely without it I’d have run away without trying at all!

All in all, we rang in 2012 with love and laughter and joy, releasing the old, embracing the new, and feeling so blessed to have been welcomed into what amounted to a family party so wholeheartedly and graciously. It promises to be a good year! I hope your new year is equally full of love, laughter and joy. Embrace the adventure!

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Mindo & beyond

DEC 27, 2011

Christmas day for us this year was a very low-key affair, partly due to the excellent Christmas dinner hosted by the hostel on the 24th. It was well-attended by staff, their families, and guests, an interesting and very fun mix of German, French, Swiss, Canadian and Ecuadorean folks. Aside from some of the Ecuadoreans, I believe I was the only uni-lingual person there. It was interesting to note that among the Europeans, English became the default language since the French-speakers and the German-speakers couldn’t speak each other’s languages, and spoke Spanish in varying degrees, but could all speak English. Of course, when interacting with the hostel staff and their families, we all spoke Spanish as best we could. Sam and I have typically avoided international hostels in our travels, tending to prefer locally-owned, family-run hotels or hostels where we experience more local flavour. I found it very interesting to experience how, as the only guest there who could speak only one language fluently, it was my own language that everyone defaulted to. Convenient, but bizarre, and even somewhat embarrassing.

Anyway, it was a heckuva good party, and a very good time was had by all. The meal was excellent – some kind of chicken stroganoff sort of thing, served with salad and rice – and we made sure to tip the cook and servers well since they were working on their party night. The motto “eat, drink and be merry,” was the prevailing theme for the night, and I expect there were more than a couple of sore heads the next morning.

We laid pretty low on the 25th, resting, reading, and feasting on pizza delivered right to our door – not quite the roasted turkey with all the trimmings that I’m accustomed to, but just fine nonetheless. The next day dawned clear and bright, and so did we, so after celebrating my birthday with a cup of coffee and toast, we packed our gear and prepared to hit the road. Our first stop was the Institute for Military Geography, where we selected a couple of topographical maps, which we hope will encourage us to get trekking in this bountiful, beautiful land. After that, we hopped on a bus to Mindo.

Mindo is one of those places that can easily be dubbed “God’s Garden.” It’s a tropical paradise, known as a cloud forest, due to the clouds that gather atop the trees, maintaining constant moisture and the lush green plant life this area is known for. Mindo is also renowned for its diverse bird life, and is why Sam and I could be found – awake! – at 5:00 this morning, heading to a bioreserve to witness the mating dance of the “gallo de la peña” or “cock of the rock.” The male of the species is bright red, and one would think (or at least, I did) that being so bright it should be easy to spot even in dense foliage. One would be wrong, however, and every glimpse of the red feathers was very exciting as a result. We also saw a very large woodpecker of some sort, hummingbirds a-plenty, and, to my great excitement, even a female quetzal (less rare than the male, but exciting nonetheless). The quetzal is exciting to spot, for me, because of its association to Mayan spirituality. The son of God in Mayan tradition is named Quetzalcoatl, a feathered serpent. The quetzal is named so because when the male flies, its tail feathers (astonishingly beautiful long feathers) look like a serpent undulating. (There’s a whole lot more to this correlation that I won’t go into here, but you can look it up.) The quetzal is also an endangered species as a result of deforestation. At any rate, it was an exciting thing to spot.

We’re spending tonight in a little wooden cabin in a garden paradise, which so far at least, seems much more peaceful than the hostel we were in last night – it was a nice place with nice people, but the walls were thin enough to make me wonder if there were actually people in the room with us, and (sigh) the roosters started awfully early, especially when we had a 4:00am start this morning.

One unanticipated point of interest on our jaunt to the park this morning was the brightness of the stars in the still-dark sky. As we drove, I saw the Big Dipper out my car window, upside down and low on the horizon, reminding us that the night sky here is totally different from what we’re accustomed to north of the Equator. I have to look up the Southern Cross star pattern so I know what to look for!

Having seen the birds and experienced the rain and clouds, we feel ready to move on. Tomorrow after breakfast, we’ll pack up and catch a bus around the mountain and into the lowlands, heading south. As beautiful as Ecuador is, it’s a country very focused on tourism and it’s easy to get sucked into the tourist track – fun, but expensive, and not why we’re here.

DEC 31, 2011

Now that I have internet again, I can finish this post...
We hopped on a bus the other day and spent about 10 or 11 hours traveling from Mindo to Guayaquil, which I'm pretty sure is in an alternate universe. We went from a small town with mud roads to a city that could easily have been NY or Chicago, except that at 11:30pm, everything was closed. It was fascinating, but definitely not what we're looking for, so yesterday we hopped on another bus and came to Cuenca.

Cuenca is another beautiful historic town, like Quito but somehow more real - in the heart of the historic centre,there are still real people doing normal things. It's been fascinating so far, and we're looking forward to heading out this afternoon to investigate a couple of Incan archaeological sites. First, however, I need to pick up our clean clothes so that we actually have something to wear out and about.

We haven't quite decided how we'll ring in the New Year tonight, but given the ongoing celebrations, it won't be hard to find people to join. Fireworks and firecrackers have been going non-stop since we arrived yesterday afternoon.

I'll leave this here for now. Wishing you all the happiest of New Year's celebrations and all the best for 2012!