Friday, February 19, 2010


Normally, this is the sort of thing I'd write in my paper journal, where no one else could ever read it. But this time, I felt compelled to bare my soul and put it out for all the world (or the 11 of you who subscribe to the blog) to read.

Dear Leah:

Stop being so hard on yourself! Yes, it's ok to be sad - you don't need to criticize yourself for feeling that way! Even more than that, you probably don't even need to feel sad! Let's take a look at this, shall we?

How many people are there out there who have told you they miss you and love you since you left? And now, add in the ones you haven't had direct contact with, but that you still know love you.

Now let's face it. Although you have a very large number (are you looking at that list?) of people who love you, and that you love in return, let's be honest here. Some of them are just a teeny-tiny bit critical and judgmental at times. (For example, just now before you corrected it, you spelled "judgmental" with an "e" after the "g" - if you hadn't corrected it, how many of those aforementioned loved ones would have emailed about that?!)

So, remembering that some of those loved ones are a bit judgmental, you can also remember that they love you! And when you look at the size of that list (it's a damn good list!), you have to think they can't all be wrong! If they all love you, even the judgmental ones, there's probably good reason, right? I bet you could even come up with a list of reasons why they love you. Not including because of how you vote, which I (even I!) think is a pretty lame reason to love someone.

Are you perfect? Well, I guess that depends on whether you are one of those "don't be so hard on yourself, nobody's perfect" types or one of those more Buddhist "everyone's perfect because all creation is perfect" types. But really, that's not the point. The point is, you have a few flaws. Who doesn't? According the former philosophy, those flaws don't matter. According to the latter philosophy, those flaws are perfect.

Aside from the flaws, you're pretty ok! Let's take a look at just a few of the relevant factors for today's lesson.

1. You can buy your own food in Spanish, and hand over the appropriate amount of money without staring blankly at the person selling you the food.

2. You can buy a bus ticket in Spanish, and while you might stare blankly at the person selling the ticket when they start issuing instructions, you still end up at the right place.

3. You have not only got great friends and family at home, but made a whole bunch of new ones since arriving in Mexico. (P.S. you might want to consider adding them to the list from above.)

4. You are able to ask for help when you need it. Don't underestimate the value of this trait! It's not weak to ask for help - it's a sign of strength to recognize when you need it!

5. You are able to fend for yourself when you think you need help, but actually don't, and there's no help to be had. This is very important. You are surprisingly resourceful.

6. You have improved your ability to stay focused in meditation from approximately 10 seconds when you first began to up to an hour or sometimes even more on occasion! Ok, yes, the average is probably about 15 minutes, but that's not so bad! If you can overcome the Sesame Street attention span, what can't you accomplish?!

7. You can write a soul-searching, soul-revealing journal entry, and infuse it with humour! That is no mean gift! (Ok, so you might be the only one who appreciates the humour, but who cares?! This is a letter to you anyway!)

8. You are able to appreciate the hard lessons in life, even when they really suck, because you know they make you stronger and wiser and generally better, etc. Sometimes, you can even appreciate those lessons before several years have passed!

9. You are facing a challenge that many people never attempt in their lifetime - the challenge to accept yourself, as you are, no matter what other people think.

10. You can remember up to five or 10 minutes after first thinking and/or writing it that what other people think is - hey, you're pretty ok!

I think a list of 10 things (even if some of them seem a bit contrived) that you can be pleased with is not too shabby. In fact, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that you have accomplished a whole hell of a lot in the last year, never mind the previous 34 years, and that you ought be incredibly proud of yourself! I'll spare you the list of all those accomplishments, because you already know what they are. But the next time you start being so hard on yourself, I'm going to remind you about how you mustered up the courage to leave your friends, family, job, sell your apartment, your furniture and your worldly belongings to travel in a place where you don't speak the language... etc. You get the point?

So - get on with it already! Stop being so hard on yourself!

I'm just sayin'... give it some thought.


(seriously. love yourself. other people do, how hard can it be?)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

San Miguel de Allende

I arrived on Tuesday in San Miguel de Allende, which is inland in Mexico, far from the ocean but in mountains. It’s a heritage site, a very old colonial town, and very lovely (though I haven’t seen much of it yet). I am fortunate to be able to stay with a friend for a few days, then housesit for her for the next 10 days while she’s away.

Getting here was a challenge for me. Sam decided to stay in Tulan a bit longer, at least in part to give me an opportunity to visit with my friend without him. The idea of leaving him behind and travelling on my own was intimidating, to say the least, and I wasn’t at all sure I was willing to do it. However, fate being what it is, I followed the path laid out for me. I caught a lift into Tepic from Tulan with a friend, who also put me up for a night and took me to the bank and the bus the next day. I caught a bus to Guadalajara, but got stuck there for a night as I’d missed the last bus to SMA. I will confess that I was already emotional and overwrought and finding out that I was stuck threw me into a tailspin, resulting in the shedding of a few tears in the bathroom. I was lonely, scared and frustrated at my inability to communicate effectively (at least with words).

Despite my fears, everything worked out just fine. A very nice young woman happened to be at one of the bus company counters I approached. I am not entirely clear what her job was, but it appeared to be related to providing comfort and assistance to distraught foreigners. She didn’t speak English, but she did manage to communicate with me despite the language barrier, and while we did not resolve the bus dilemma, I was gently guided to a hotel across the parking lot where they had a restaurant, a bed, hot water (in theory, though I didn’t experience it myself) and an internet connection (of sorts). Though it cost more than I would like to have spent (since I hadn’t anticipated the overnight stop at all), it sure beat sleeping on a hard plastic chair at the bus station. I forced myself to eat a bit, then spent an hour or two online on skype instant messenger with friends who cheered me up no end, allowing me to return to my room in a much more positive frame of mind. I escaped reality briefly by watching “The Truman Show”, happily in English with Spanish subtitles so I could actually understand it.

Lesson learned: my worst fear was realized – I got stuck somewhere without Sam or anyone else I knew, without a capacity to communicate with language – and yet, I emerged from the experience perfectly fine. I got up in the morning, met a very nice gentleman from Victoria at breakfast who paid for my oatmeal and walked with me to get my bus ticket as he was leaving at the same time, got on the bus and had a perfectly pleasant trip to San Miguel. I arrived safely, and though my friend wasn’t home, her neighbours were and they kindly stored my backpack so I could wander through the town a wee bit and find some food (the bus company gave me a pre-packaged sandwich, but even my lowered standards couldn’t allow me to eat it). I found a shop that makes espresso drinks (insert hallelujah chorus here, thank goodness for ex pat communities!) and chocolate croissants and right next to it is a bookstore that provided me my long-desired English-Spanish dictionary and a copy of “El Principito” (the Little Prince). I arrived back home at the same time as my lovely hostess and all worked out swimmingly. Fear, clearly, is a wasted emotion. There is wisdom beyond wisdom in the Buddhist teachings of mindfulness and staying in the present moment – everything is perfect, just the way it is.

I am an incredibly lucky person, for any number of reasons, not least of which is this opportunity to travel, see the world, meet new people and discover new things about myself. But also, and I think more importantly, I am lucky because of the amazing people in my life. I have friends and family who give me support, friendship, guidance, lessons and more love than I could ever have imagined. For someone who has spent the better part of her adult life living with depression, and who spent the vast majority of her childhood believing that she didn’t have many friends, that love is a gift beyond measure.

Part of this journey for me is a lesson in receiving love. In my reality, the reality of depression and feeling friendless, there was never a lot of room for receiving love, because I didn’t feel that I deserved it. I either didn’t believe it was real when it was offered to me, or I subconsciously worked to sabotage it because I knew I didn’t deserve it, and then if the person trying to love me gave up and left, my belief in the inconstancy of love and my own undeservedness (is that a word?) were affirmed.

I have, I believe, a huge capacity to give love. I have no problem outlining the innumerable qualities in others that make them deserving of love, mine or anyone else’s. I can even list the qualities in myself that other people will say makes me deserve love – but believing in that is a whole other story. So in this time and place, I am opening myself to love – to give, to receive, to believe that it’s real and deserved and beautiful.

The magic of technology, in the form of skype, allowed me to have a long talk last night with a beautiful friend at home. Although I knew we had many things in common, I discovered through our talk that we share much more than common political values or a love of art, music, and writing. We talked about love and what it means, and about joy and sadness, and how lucky we are to be able to experience emotions. And in our talk, she gave me two gifts that I will hold onto. One of them was not new to me, I’d heard and read it before in a variety of ways from a variety of people, but there was something about hearing it at that moment that made it feel particularly valuable and hopefully this time, it’ll stick with me:

It’s ok to be sad. It’s ok to feel emotions and let them pass through us. We DON’T, however, need to think about them, analyze them, worry at them, become angry at ourselves for feeling them – we can just accept them, feel them, and then let them go. As someone who seems to default to sadness when I hit bumps in the road, these words of wisdom are invaluable to me, and I’m so grateful.

The second gift she gave me was a theory she developed as a child (and I hope it’s ok for me to publish this theory!): emotions are like a box of Crayola crayons. Some people only get the 4 pack, and while you can mix the colours, it takes a lot of work. Others of us, though, get the 96 pack with the built-in sharpener. We have the great fortune to have all the shades imaginable, plus the ones we hadn’t imagined. While this means, as she pointed out, that there are many shades of blue to experience, we also get to go to the other end of the spectrum. I am a 96-pack person. I have been through every shade of blue you could think of, but I also can leave the blue and jump into all the shades of red, orange, green and yellow (which I personally think is a very cheery, sunshiney sort of colour) and what a blessing that is!

I hung up from that phone call feeling incredibly grateful for the love in my life. Knowing that even though I feel far from home at times, that I can’t just drop by to see my friends or my family, that it costs a fortune to phone home (except for skype!), I am not alone. I am connected to everyone who loves me, because they love me no matter where I am, and all I have to do is receive that love and send my own love back to them.

I am so grateful for these gifts. So even though I am a little nervous about this leg of my journey, venturing solo into a new place, I am not alone. I have the ability to make new friends, learn new things and keep my heart open.

Like my night in Guadalajara, last night allowed me to experience the joy in sharing my sadness with friends, and having them receive that sadness and transform it into humour, happiness and love. As long as I open myself to my friends and family, to receiving friendship and love, I can feel the sadness and then let it go, instead of trying to analyze and rationalize it away (which, FYI, does not work). It’s ok to feel sad. But it’s so much better to feel happy!

Because I want to make the most of my time here in San Miguel de Allende, I pushed myself out the door into the rain this afternoon to explore a bit. I didn’t go far, but I did find the mercado (public market) and bought some groceries. Happily, my limited Spanish is sufficient for me to name the foods that I want and understand when I’m given a total cost. Tomorrow, I’ll walk a little further. There’s a lot to see and I plan to see as much as I can and fully experience what SMA has to offer while I’m here. In the meantime, I’m hungry and I have groceries to cook! Buen provecho!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Beach holiday

Look at that, two posts in a matter of days... this one is short, however...

San Blas has been an absolutely lovely vacation. The beach here is clean, the sand is soft and white and lovely, the water is warm, the waves are high enough to play in though not high enough the past several days for good surfing. The bugs are nasty, but you can’t have everything.

We’re staying at a place called Stoners Surf Camp (I have not asked the owners to explain the name!), which was the first beach establishment built along this stretch a few years ago. They have 5 cabanas, two beachfront and three at the back. There’s a restaurant open till 6ish with cheap and tasty food and, of course, beer. We’ve befriended (I should say, Sam befriended and Erica and I joined in the fun) a couple of the staff people, which has been a lot of fun and also makes us feel more like family and less like tourists. We’ll be very comfortable to return here, I think.

Our cabana is lovely. It’s up high off the ground, with a porch to sit on., watch the waves, write, have a beer, socialize, etc. There’s electricity, which we hardly need, two pretty decent beds, and mosquito nets to cover the beds, an added bonus. The bathrooms are clean and while the showers have only cold water, it’s been warm enough that I haven’t really missed the hot water.

We’re expecting a visit from one of my cousins tomorrow, and then I think will head out on Saturday. The cabana is booked up that night so we need to leave here that afternoon anyway.

Since my life the past several days has involved nothing more than eating, enjoying a cold beer or two, swimming, and generally lounging around, I will leave this a much shorter blurb than the last one. Till next time!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Mother Lode

Well, I'm back in civilization for a few days, and I'm sure everyone has been anxiously awaiting my news, so here's a very long update about my life over the last few weeks. I started writing it a few days ago while still in Tulan so some of the present tense might be a few days out of date. Enjoy the update!

I suddenly understand why there are so many travel writers and bloggers. There’s just so much to write about. I’ve been gone now about 3 ½ weeks, nearly 4, and I have so many stories to tell that it’s hard to know where to start. The people, the place, the life I’ve been living, the way the community functions… everything is the same and very different and definitely fascinating.

I know I talked a bit about my adventures so far in the last post but I think I’ll repeat myself somewhat in order to give more detail about what we’ve been up to since we came to Mexico. So: Tulan.

Tulan, as I’ve mentioned, is an 800-acre ranch in the hills of San Juan, north of Tepic, Nayarit, which is about 3 hours from Puerto Vallarta. It’s sub-tropical rainforest, legally owned by a few men who wanted to protect the land from development and/or over-use. It’s considered a very sacred, highly spiritual place by all who come here and certainly the men who own this land believe themselves more as caretakers than landowners. No one owns God’s country. We’re in indigenous territory, largely Huichol land in this area, but there are many traditions represented in this place. The ranch is surrounded by 7 peaks, pyramids, believed to have been sacred temples in bygone days. The hike up to two of those pyramids was a highlight of the journey thus far. It’s easy to believe, when climbing those mountains, that this is indeed sacred land and that spirits reign supreme in this place.

Our first two weeks in Tulan were spent surrounded by people. We arrived for the event we attended a few days early, and the majority of participants stayed for a few extra days after the event officially ended. I don’t think I talked much about the event last time so I’ll tell you a bit about it now. (One challenge I face is that I’m living in a place with no electricity, and certainly no internet access, so I can’t access my blog to see what I’ve already written. Sorry about repetitions, but I’m sure you’ll forgive me.)

The event is called 7:7:7:7, organized by an old friend of Sam’s, arising from his spiritual path in a shamanic tradition. It’s held for 7 days in the 7th moon (based on the 13 moon calendar of Dreamspell, which is a modified Mayan calendar, as opposed to the 12-month Gregorian calendar most of us follow) for 7 years (this was year 5, the last year is 2012) for 7 generations (i.e. planting seeds of hope and community-building for future generations). Most of the people who attended the event, and certainly the ones who stayed on in Tulan, have some interest in living a different kind of life. Two references frequently made here are to “the 12:60” – which refers to the 12-month calendar and the frequency generated by living by that calendar in a society dominated by electricity and technology – and to “the Matrix” – which of course refers to the movie and the idea that here, in Tulan, we are outside the Matrix, we are aware that what other people perceive as reality is in fact an illusion.

The 13-moon calendar (the “13:20” frequency) is considered a more natural way of keeping time, based on lunar cycles. On average, a lunar cycle (from full moon to full moon) runs 28 days. There are 13 lunar cycles per year, at 28 days each, which totals 364 days, leaving one “day out of time”. The theory is that the body, mind & spirit flow more naturally when we follow the natural rhythms of the sun and the moon. The Gregorian calendar – the 12:60 – is viewed as artificial and it’s believed by many to be damaging to our bodies and souls to force ourselves into that rhythm.

At any rate, now that you have some background on the belief structure of many folks who attended the event, I can move on. The event itself, as I said, lasted 7 days. It wasn’t an overly structured event, more of a loose gathering of like-minded folks, coming together to share ideas, knowledge and spiritual ceremony in a beautiful, sacred space. There were usually a couple of workshops each day. For example, I participated in a workshop facilitated by Setting Sun White Bear (Steve), a medicine man from an Ojibway tradition in the Thunder Bay area. We learned his traditional teachings of the sweat lodge, then we built one, and then we held the sweat lodge ceremony. While it is possible to participate in sweat lodges (temezcal, in Espanol) at home, the chance to learn how to build one was an opportunity I didn’t want to let slip by. Other workshops included teachings on Sufi chanting & dancing, holotropic rebirth, history of Mayan tradition and culture (facilitated by a Mayan elder), among others. I attended some, and some I missed in favour of other activities.
(At one point during that week, as I reflected on what I would write about when I had the chance to update the blog and all the things that were happening here, I distinctly heard a certain friend’s voice in my head saying, “oh, Leah went to hippie church for a week.” It’s pretty much true. Hee hee – I’m just thinking now how many of you reading this are assuming I’m referring to you as that certain friend!)

The truth is that, while I didn’t noise it about too much in political and work circles, I’m a deeply spiritual person and I’ve never found that there’s much room for that within “the movement.” We tend to write off all spirituality as fundamentalism (I realize that’s a broad, blanket statement, but it’s been my perception and my experience, with exceptions as always). At any rate, I have been feeling the lack of spiritual expression in my life over the years (at least until the last year or so when I ventured out and found a group of like-minded souls), and this year of travel is at least in part an expression of my spiritual beliefs. It’s a journey into my own spirit and heart and a chance to learn about the beliefs of people I meet along the way.

The 7:7:7:7 event and Tulan more generally has been an ideal landing spot for Sam and me. For one thing, it’s given me a chance to get used to the idea of travel, of living more simply, of integrating with other cultures and belief systems. There have been many Mexican nationals with whom to interact and practice my Spanish (which I can safely say is progressing, but oh-so-slowly!). It’s clean and safe, giving me a chance to venture out on my own (such as going for a hike or just mingling with other people living here, not going too far) so that I can get used to the idea of being at least somewhat independent. Sam is an excellent guide – his fluency in Spanish and years of travel experience, not to mention the fact that he seems to be able to light a fire under any circumstance, are invaluable to me – but I don’t want to rely so heavily on him that I become afraid to try anything on my own or that I become burdensome to him.

To that end, I’m practicing my Spanish more and more with the Mexican guys who are also living here, Sam and I are camped in different spots so that we have a bit of time apart when we want it and I have my own little campfire (I was a Girl Guide, after all, and am perfectly capable of managing my own fire), and I’m taking an active role in our little community.

After the event ended, we headed into Tepic for a couple of days to do laundry, check emails, and have a hot shower. We came back up to Tulan a little over a week ago, to a much smaller, simpler community than the event we’d left behind. There have been between 5 and 8 of us over the last 8 or 9 days, with so much work to do that it’s nearly impossible to know where to begin. There are anywhere from 3 to 5 Mexican guys who spend as much time here as they can, working the land, building the garden, etc. Then there’s a young American woman and Sam and I. A vanload of folks who’d been at the event just arrived, bumping our numbers back up to about 8 from the five we’d dwindled down to

My participation in the community has largely focused on the kitchen. I cook for everyone who’s working in the garden, clean the kitchen, and have lots of time to wash my clothes, dig in my own little garden at my campsite, forage for firewood, etc. I haven’t been taking nearly as much time for yoga and meditation as I have intended but I get it in where I can.

Cooking for 6-8 people over a small fire in a barely-functional kitchen is a challenge that I think I can proudly claim to have met with success. Because there’s no electricity, we rely on foods that don’t go bad too quickly – lots of rice, beans, lentils, tortillas, guacamole and salsa, supplemented by the foods that grow here, like chayote and ojasanta, a leafy green vegetable that is highly nutritious and has a strong flavour with a hint of anise. I don’t seem to be suffering from the lack of meat in my diet (pause for the smug gloating of the veggies in the crowd, and the sceptical raised eyebrow of Tones…) Those of you who want to live without dairy, sugar, or wheat/gluten would also find the food here ideal. I’ve learned how to make salsa properly (at least, the way Juan likes it) and my guacamole seems to have been good enough already. The trick to salsa, for you foodies out there, is to burn the vegetables in the fire first – tomatoes, onions, cloves of garlic and jalapenos – then mash them with the mortar and pestle. The cilantro and salt get added after the fact, along with a bit of water to ensure there’s enough to go around (or maybe it’s a crucial ingredient, I should really ask about that). I have not yet mastered the art of making a decent tortilla, but to be fair to myself, I’ve only tried once. We have masa, instead tortilla mix (basically corn flour, just add water) and a tortilla making machine- place a ball of the dough on the wooden thingy (I have no idea what it’s called, but it looks a little bit like a waffle iron or one of those sandwich makers, but it’s smaller, square, wooden, and has a handle on it). Then close the top wooden square over the bottom one, push down on the handle and open it up – voila! A tortilla. Of course, the amount of pressure is important, as I discovered when my first attempt looked more like a crepe. My second attempt wasn’t nearly big enough. It’s not as easy as it appeared. Anyway, once the shape and thickness are appropriate, carefully remove the tortilla and place it on the comal (the hot, iron flat pan sitting on the fire waiting to cook your tortillas). This is also not as easy as I had assumed. My tortilla slid down awkwardly and did not lie flat. The last piece of information I will share about tortilla-making is not to walk away after you put it on the fire, as it will burn. Note: this is not appreciated by hungry Mexican men when it is the very last tortilla in the house. Oops.

I have adjusted to life without electricity and hot water very easily. I think it helps that I love camping so much so I’m not unfamiliar with this way of life. I’ve never camped this long, but we do have a house, a kitchen, and running water, so I can bathe and wash my clothes as often as I feel necessary. Generally, I wash myself in the creek every day – except the last 3 days, when it has poured rain in unseasonably torrential downpours. I figure as long as I can get into town for a hot shower every couple of weeks to give my hair a proper wash, I am content. That said, as I write this, I have no idea how long we’ll stay here. Now that the rain has stopped and the sun has returned (oh, blessed, beautiful sun!) Sam and I are preparing to head to the beach for a few days. We don’t know exactly when or where or for how long we’ll go. Probably we’ll head down in the morning, catch a bus to somewhere and stay as long as we feel like staying. Right now, the biggest decision is whether we pack up all our gear or leave most of it here. There are advantages to both. Obviously, the less we bring, the less we have to carry. But if we take it all with us, we are free to go wherever the wind blows us without having to worry about coming back to Tulan to get stuff. I am discovering, in living life as a vagabond, that you never really know what opportunities will come your way. We could meet a caravan of people off on an exciting adventure that we want to join, but if we don’t have all our stuff, we’ll miss that chance. That means carrying everything, though, and we are very high up and will likely have to walk down to the village of La Yerba with everything we’re bringing on our backs. Unless we get lucky and a vehicle appears. You just never know around here.

We arrived in San Blas Saturday. Fortune held and we got a ride here with Gustavo, another regular at Tulan. Gus comes once a week to bring supplies and work around the ranch. He and his partner were coming to the beach for the weekend, so the timing was excellent. They’ve left now, leaving Sam and I in a beautiful cabana on the beach, and Erica camping underneath our cabana.

I’m sitting on the balcony of our cabana, watching the sunset and a group of young folk play beach volleyball. The mosquitoes are fierce. So small they can barely seen, but they have a nasty ability to do damage. Sam just got a bite on his eyelid. Ouch. However, once it gets dark, they should disappear again.

This seems ridiculously long, so I'll leave it here for now. 'til next time!