Into South America: Week 3

imageI keep thinking my updates will be brief, but so far it is not to be. It would appear I have a few things to say! Here’s another long one, but if you don’t feel like reading, you may want to focus on some of the cool pics and videos.

If week 2 was slow and relaxed beach time, week 3 has been the complete opposite. On the move through the Andes as I made my way North towards the Colombian border crossing. When I updated last week, I talked about loud and inconsiderate people. Well the universe has certainly given me a big dose of noise this week. Wednesday we continued through the mountains, and arrived in Banos. We checked into a clean hostel on the main square. The next morning at 6:45 am, a 7-piece band began playing, right below my hostel window! And not even a good band at that! This was followed by fireworks and other explosions. Friday and Saturday mornings, it was parades and fireworks. Sunday, no parades, but a tremendous amount of activity and door slamming and alarms going off beginning at 6 am. Now I just have to laugh, because the universe is evidently sending me a message. What it is ain’t exactly clear, but I can certainly hear it!

I am usually pretty good at going with the flow, but sometimes I get edgy or anxious when things are not going to plan. Little things, like waiting 15 minutes for coffee in the morning, or having a 7-piece band outside my window, or things being consistently done ass backwards (I know….suspend judgment), or how complicated things get if you ask for something a little different. I keep having to remind myself that I’m not in Kansas anymore, that everything moves at a different speed, and that they have their own ways of doing things. I have to keep reminding myself that I do not necessarily create the flow; rather I must simply allow myself to connect to it, whatever and wherever it is. My work in progress continues.

Banos, at the base of an active Volcano

Banos, at the base of an active Volcano

The trip through the mountains into Banos was another very cool drive, in, through, and around various peaks and valleys. Because of the rich, volcanic soil, there are many vertical farms actually running up the mountain/volcano sides. Banos is at about 6,000 feet nestled into a valley, at the base of the active Turgurahua volcano. Really orderly, friendly, safe-feeling little town where people take pride in their surroundings. Lots of stuff to do here…rafting, biking, hang gliding, zip lining, bungee jumping, natural volcano fed hot springs, waterfalls, jungle trips, etc.

Thursday turned out to be one of the best days I have had in a very long time. I took a jungle tour around Puyo, about 90 minutes east of Banos, where the mountains end and the jungle begins. This is also where the rivers from Ecuador (and also Peru, and Colombia) flow into Brazil to form the Amazon River, which then flows out to the Atlantic. Interesting facts about the Amazon River…it is about 6,400 km. long, and used to flow in the opposite direction (from East to West) before the formation of the Andes/Sierra mountains, thousands of years ago.image

imageOur guide, Ruma (whose real name was Richard I found out later…never quite understood this) spent 20 years living in the jungle with no electricity or running water. This dude really was the king of the jungle in every sense of the word. Our first stop was a rescued animal sanctuary…lots of monkeys who had been rescued from various situations. They are so very human when you study them carefully. One took a special interest in me and we stared at each other for awhile, then he curled up and covered his eyes, which I thought was quite rude!

Muddied, with Simon

Muddied, with Simon

Then a 45-minute hike into the jungle. Ruma would stop every few minutes and show us things. For example, leaves when you crumple them release a substance that helps asthma. Or mud from a river bank that is good for the skin. I asked him what he might suggest for a cut on my leg. He walked up to a tree, sliced the bark, collected the resin, and rubbed it on my cut. They refer to it as sangue de dragone (dragon’s blood). He also showed us a very different looking tree (the Devil’s Penis) that can actually move itself several feet in any direction by extending its above-ground roots!

imageWe arrived at a secluded mountain waterfall and pool (Ola Vida). I have never seen anything like it…simply breathtaking. I jumped in, and then under the waterfall until I was behind it. I looked up and could see the water falling just in front of me. I looked down and saw a rainbow. imageI looked through and I could see a misty version of the outside world. In some meditations and therapy, they talk about going to your safe place. This waterfall oasis will be that place for me.

With then king of the jungle, Ruma (or Richard?)

With then king of the jungle, Ruma (or Richard?)

We hiked back, then to the Puyo River, and got into these long wooden canoe-type boats and rafted for about 45 minutes through some very active water. The boat guides maneuvered them expertly using only long sticks, around some very treacherous and rocky stretches. But it was very peaceful, and it makes me want to take a bigger trip down the Amazon in Peru or Brazil. Check out this video.

imageWe then stopped for lunch and climbed up to a lookout where there was a swing that went right off the side of a cliff. Freaking terrifying! I wasn’t going to do it, but I watched the others and decided I did not want to regret not doing it. Plus I was the only Canadian, so I felt I had to swing for my country. So I did it….and what a rush! Check out this video.

Ruma, King of the jungle. Note the shirt.

Ruma, King of the jungle. Note the shirt.

Finally we visited an indigenous community where I learned to use a blow dart gun, and we learned about some of their customs and traditions. These communities are extended families, so it is not permitted to marry inside one’s own community. It is not uncommon for men to have 10-15 children with a number of partners. Ruma himself is in his mid 20s, has been “divorced” once, and already has four kids with several women. No question, he is the jungle version of a ladies’ man. Some of the girls on the tour were swooning over him, and he knew it, and was clearly used to it. And for good reason. He is also somewhat of a prankster. He coated my face with mud, and into my hair for good measure. He also offered us to taste the inside of a certain leaf, and when we asked him what it was, he told us “ants!” He seemed to have a number of side deals going on wherever we went, and had clearly bridged the gap between jungle and “civilization,” but I liked him, and he gave me a day I will never forget. I asked him what life he preferred–jungle or city, and he said without hesitation, “the jungle.” A very interesting response.

I also met a few other cool people that day. A filmmaker from Amsterdam who was shooting a documentary in Quito on gated communities, and how these are rooted in fear. And also a young drama student from London, Simon. He has been travelling the world on and off for the past several years, and his parents have finally stopped asking what he is doing with his life. It seems many of his generation are doing exactly this. Good for them. He jumped into the bus with almost nothing with him, and blissfully unaware of what we were doing that day. He reminded me of the the critical importance of being in the moment and going with the flow.

We spent the next couple of days in Banos, every morning serenaded by some form of early local entertainment outside the hotel window. Halloween night, as I walked down the street chewing on a candy, I felt a hard crunch. I had grabbed a handful of these delicious, chewy, soft, chocolate sweets from the restaurant. The crunch was not the candy, but my FILLING which had fallen out. “What the @&$? am I going to do now,” I thought. That’s what greed will get you. If I had taken only one and not made a pig of myself. Mark thought I was overreacting, and that all would be fine, but I found it quite traumatic, and had a mini meltdown. I was worried about having swallowed silver and mercury. I thought I might not make it through the night. It really is the strangest “filling,” missing half a tooth! Surprisingly, I did wake up the next morning, and it didn’t hurt. I’m getting used to it, but know I must get it looked at soon.

imageOne other note from Banos and other spots along the way. They serve a local “delicacy” called cuye, but really it is a large rat, roasted whole over hot coals, with its teeth and paws sticking up. I am usually a fairly adventurous eater, and will try almost anything, but I simply cannot bring myself to eat that! Yuck!

Another sidebar on services…generally tipping is not expected, and not part of their culture. So if you leave them anything, they are surprised and grateful. I leave modest tips for almost everything, and I can always feel a positive vibe shift. This raises a lot of thoughts in my mind about money…how people view it, what they will do for it, and what it represents. And perhaps now a different way of viewing it for me. More like a form of energy transfer.

Saturday we continued North through the mountains, past Quito, Otovallo, stopping in Ibarra for the night, a non-touristy town of about 100,000. Good vibe here. Why I keep thinking I will arrive in a tiny Ecuadorian village, I have no idea. These are mostly big cities. I am also realizing again that I don’t like big cities! I don’t mind short visits, but I really don’t want to live in one. Too much hustle and bustle and yuck.

In Ibarra with Doris and Jefferson

In Ibarra with Doris and Jefferson

Nothing was booked, so we just drove around near the main square, and happened upon this small family-run hostel. Doris and Jefferson greeted us warmly. They don’t speak much English, but somehow my musical background came up before we left for a quick bite.

..and daughters Kelly and Angie!

..and daughters Kelly and Angie!

When we came back, they were waiting to chat with us, and more of their family had joined them. I had to explain in my halting Spanish that, no I am not a famous musician but that I just like to sing! They wanted pictures anyway, and immediately said they were fans. Really very lovely people. The next morning right on cue at 6 am, slamming doors, loud voices, and lots of noise (this is not Kansas).

We hit the road again for a short hop to the border town of Tulcan. It is also about 100,000 population, and I did not get a good vibe here at all. We splurged and stayed in a very nice place for $36, and I had perhaps the best sleep I’ve had since arriving in Ecuador. This was also my final day with Mark, and we said our goodbyes. I have been so very fortunate to have met him and have really been spoiled travelling by car. I am very grateful to have toured most of the country with him, and have really enjoyed his company.

Monday morning I was up early (no band or parade!), and took a short cab ride to the Colombian border of Rumichaca. I have heard this crossing can get crazy, so I was there by about 7 am. I had my passport stamped by the Ecuadorian immigration, then simply walked across a small bridge and did the same at Colombian immigration. Easy. Too easy actually. There was nothing preventing me from simply walking across and not showing anyone my passport. Or maybe because I’m a gringo. But with no stamp out of Ecuador, and into Colombia, I would not be able to get out.

For the rest of the day I felt uneasy–new country, unfamiliar surroundings. I took a short cab ride to the bus station in Ipiales, the nearest town. The fare was 7,000 pesos (about $4). Nice, friendly cabby, but when we arrived he announced it was 10,000 for no reason I could understand (maybe because I am a gringo, or because that’s how much I gave him?). At the bus station, you have to pay to use the washroom. There is no central ticket counter, and everyone is shouting at you to buy your ticket from them. And I certainly don’t look like I’m local, so I am likely a target. A big target. Then a spectacular 90-minute bus ride through the mountains to Pasto (sit on the right side for best views). It continues to amaze me how these roads were built.

Rather than a 20-hour bus ride to Medellin, I had previously booked a flight for Tuesday, but thought I would try to get a flight that day (Monday). So rather than stay in Pasto, I headed directly to the airport. After a lot of confusion, and befriending a policeman, I learned that buses or cabs to the airport from the bus station was not possible. So I took a cab to another place where a bunch of mini buses were parked. The fare to the airport (about 45 minutes north of Pasto) was 5,000 pesos. But when I gave him 6,000, he announced that that was the fare. Note to self…don’t expect change! Annoying, and I want to argue on principal, but I guess this is how they make money and for the amount, it’s simply not worth fighting about, especially given my limited Spanish.

So far, there is definitely a different feel in Colombia. Not unsafe exactly, but as soon as I crossed over, I saw police and other armed people everywhere..in the towns, and along the roadside, in the middle of nowhere. So far it feels…unsettled…as do I.

Travelling light...

Travelling light…

At the airport I learned that it was possible to fly that day, but that it would cost me more than what I had paid for the ticket. So rather than go back to Pasto, I left the airport on foot with backpack and luggage in tow, and tried to find a place to stay for the night. What a site that must have been, I’m sure. Yes, I certainly must look local! The truth is I am a gringo, and will always be, but there are ways to break down this barrier, in time. I have written about this before…when it comes down to it, we are not all that different, regardless of background or culture. We respond to the same things. And a smile goes a long, long way in any culture.

On the road I befriended another policeman, and he pointed me in the right direction to find a hotel. I stopped at the first place I found, and took a $10 room for the night. Nothing fancy, but clean and the people seemed honest. Not really a town, but there are few hotels and restaurants along the main road. No wifi, and no banks. Note to self: always get what you need whenever it’s available, because you have no way of knowing where you will end up and what will or won’t be available when you get there. And forget about cashing traveller’s cheques. So far, impossible, even at any of the main banks in the big cities.

I dumped my stuff, locked everything up, and walked up the road and had a bite, again very much aware that I stick out like a sore thumb, and feeling everyone’s eyes on me. Then back to my room where I napped for a few hours. I wandered back out around 7:30 pm looking for another snack, but the strip of highway felt very eerie in the dark. I could feel that there were shady things going on. Anyway I found a place, and had coffee. Again I felt everyone’s eyes on me. And that can feel intimidating, especially when I am not in zone. A young man who works at the restaurant, Daniel, took a special interest in me, as did the rest of the staff. I was suspicious at first, but then it started to feel OK. I loosened up and tried to chat with him. I reminded myself again that it takes time to find the flow, or for it to find you. Flow is elusive. Be patient.

Then back to Hotel San Miguel where I flipped through the TV channels, bit my nails, worried, and finally fell asleep. I ended up sleeping alot that first day. I kept wondering what the hell I was doing here, realizing that I really am alone now, with no Mark to ease the way for me.

Deep down I know things will be OK, and that I have been and will be taken care of, but sometimes I forget. In any given moment, I will never have all the answers.

imageI woke up Tuesday to a bright sunny day, feeling refreshed and more comfortable. Everything seems different today, better somehow. I walked back to the restaurant I had found the night before and had breakfast. And this time it felt completely different. What a difference a day makes. I was very friendly and more open with Daniel and the staff, and they were all excited, laughing, and buzzing around me. imageWe even took a bunch of pictures together, all the kitchen staff giggling. As I look back on my first day in Colombia, for the most part I know I was guarded and nervous. And that’s exactly what I got back, or felt I was getting back. When I opened up, that’s exactly what I felt I got back. Funny that.

Then I packed up, and walked back to the airport for my scheduled flight to Medellin, via Bogota. Packing is a struggle every time. Too much stuff, more things to keep track of and worry about. Note to self: don’t bring so much stuff!

imageI still get a buzz of excitement every time I fly, and continue to be amazed that a big metal tube can fly through the air. Also a relatively cheap option compared to a 20+ hour bus ride!

I connected through Bogota, the capital, a large mountain-rimmed city high in the Sierra. I can’t say much else about it, but it certainly looks neat, well-designed, and green…at least from the air! Then a short hop to Medellin (population 4.5 million), a few hundred kilometres West of Bogota. The usual travel hiccups and delays, and I did find myself getting more anxious as edgy as the day wore on (maybe too much strong coffee?). And of course, the usual uneasiness when I arrive somewhere new. No doubt things will look better, and I will be more comfortable when I wake up tomorrow.

Things would have been so much easier the last few days if I could speak the language better. I have the tools…dictionaries and apps, but in the moment they are quite useless. Note to self: you must learn more Spanish!

I arrived in a section of Medellin called El Poblado, and found a boutique room at a place called Happy Buddha, which I thought sounded perfect at the end of a long travel day. Too loud and young and expensive, but it will do for the night. From the little I have seen so far, Medellin is young, chic, hip, modern, definitely has Western standards, and is far more expensive than what I have been used to the last several weeks.

More from Medellin and the rest of Colombia next week.

‘Til then,
Jonathanimage

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Into South America: Week 2

Spectacular views from Isla de Plata

Spectacular views from Isla de Plata

 

Although my updates generally paint a rosy picture, and for the most part it is, there are challenging times on the road. I struggle with anxiety, loneliness, and fear. The unknown can be a very difficult place to be. And although I talk a lot about tolerance and acceptance, that doesn’t mean that I always am. Probably the most difficult for me is being around people who are inconsiderate to others. I fucking hate that. Like the four girls staying at Balsa who got up early and stayed up late. Nothing inherently wrong with that but they talk and yell and laugh loudly together all the time, like they are the only ones here, completely oblivious that there may be other people around who are sleeping, or just want peace and quiet. Or the dog owners who let their animals crap on the beach. I realize these are not big problems in the overall scheme of things, but I do feel strongly here, and everywhere, that being considerate of others would solve many problems. The bigger goal, I know, is learning to suspend judgement. But it’s hard. Having said that, I did make an effort to understand why they were this way, sitting in the dining area on several occasions…watching, listening. I think by nature most Latin Americans are loud and expressive. And there is a certain life and joy in that. By the end it still bugged me, but not as much I suppose. I didn’t really make much of an effort to connect with them, but I tried to understand a little more.

And perhaps that is something about travel that I appreciate most. Outside of my usual element, and surrounded by strange and new things and people, forces me to become more patient, tolerant, and accepting. Maybe not always by much, but incrementally more. And that is a good thing.

With Julie who runs Balsa Surf Camp with her husband Rasti.

With Julie who runs Balsa Surf Camp with her husband Rasti.

When I updated last week, I had just arrived at Balsa Surf Camp in Montanita, located a few minutes from the party town at the North end of the beach. I cannot recommend it enough…this is magical place…and I have rarely felt this. It’s worth a little background here. Balsa is owned by Julie, a teacher from France, and Rasti, an Ecuadorian. They are both probably early thirties. Julie came to teach French in Ecuador in 2004 and met Rasti. They got married and decided to open a hostel. They bought the land and spent the next year and half in 2008/2009 building it with about 15 locals. The hostel (although it is much more than that) is beautiful in every sense of the word. Care and attention to detail is evident everywhere. Beautiful, intricate wood and stone work. Quiet music. Hammocks to relax. Good food. Environmentally and socially conscious. Rasti makes his own balsa wood surf boards, and creates wonders with all types of wood. Together, they have created a peaceful, relaxed, client-focused sanctuary. For $25 a night I had my own little cabin. It is a very special place, and a I will never forget it. I had planned to stay a couple of nights and ended up staying a week.

imageI really did not do much of anything for most of the week: swimming, surfing, body surfing, boogie boarding, walking, thinking, and sleeping. It was a restorative week. Fighting a cold (at the equator, go figure), ongoing intestinal issues and adjustments (I mistakenly took a stool softener instead of Imodium…THAT was fun!), and nursing a few minor surf injuries. I used this quiet time to try to mend. But I found it really tough at times to allow myself to just be. One minute I think I am in a perfect beach groove, the next I think I should bugger off and be doing something. But I have no timetable, no agenda, no place I have to be. Quiet time forces you to be alone with your thoughts, and that can be unsettling. And also rewarding.

At night, I would often lie in a hammock and read or write…no TV, no distractions. I slept really well. But there were mosquitoes…not the malaria kind, but still hungry. And they are much more sophisticated here. You can’t hear them buzzing around you, and you can’t feel them biting you. Smart little bastards.

And not one minute of sun for the entire week, with the exception of a day trip I took on Monday. Gray and kind of rainy, heavy, and humid the whole time. The upside? I saved a fortune in sun screen! It was actually a very good time to be there because it is low season, and not too many people. That changes significantly come December where prices go up, it’s hard to get a room, or even a meal without waiting.

With Oscar, my surf instructor.

With Oscar, my surf instructor.

The atmosphere is tolerant and laid back, and Montanita is one of the top surfing destinations in the world. The first few days I did some surf “research” and found a cool dude, Oscar, from Costa Rica. He did not push me, suggesting I wait until conditions are optimal to surf. Which I really need. By Thursday things were looking good, so out I went with very little success. Surfing is the toughest sport I have ever tried, using all kinds of muscles I don’t normally use. Out again on Friday, and this time I got up. Not gracefully or for long, but up nonetheless. I had planned to do about an hour a day, but after hurting my back on the second day, that would be it for me for surfing. I was content to body surf and boogie board for my remaining days, and caught some really great waves.

Toward the end of each day I would wander down the beach to a really cool beachside patio called Dharma Beach Hotel, watching the waves and surfers. Man, the good ones are so graceful, and make it look so easy. I think Dharma is owned by a famous DJ. Everytime I walked in off the beach, they had this chill house music thumping softly in the background…nice funky, low key groove. The servers are friendly. They burn incense, serve nice food. And they make a great 2 for 1 Mojito!

With my Argentinian friends Santiago, Lucas, and Gonzalo.

With my Argentinian friends Santiago, Lucas, and Gonzalo.

It was here on Thursday I think that I met three very cool surfer dudes from Argentina…Lucas, Santiago, and Gonzalo. Very bright, funny, engaging, and real. I really connected right away with two in particular…Santiago and Lucas. We talked politics, education, the environment, sports hooligans, problems in our respective countries, love, and life. We would meet towards the end of each day on the hotel beach patio. They are 30 something guys who go on surf trip every year together. I have a strong feeling we will remain in touch.

Santiago said something interesting about the ocean: “I am not afraid of the waves, but I respect them.” That is absolutely how you have to approach surfing, and the ocean in general. And for me the message was even more relevant. After hurting my back on the second surf day, and my elbow boogie boarding, and sitting on top of a few very big waves and looking down, I am sure that was the ocean’s way of warning me to be careful. Although the waves in Montanita are great for all levels of surfers, it is still the ocean, and Mother Nature is always in charge. I hear you, ocean, and I am listening.

I also learned something about riptides as well. When waves crash and the water travels up the shore, that water eventually travels back to the sea. When there is a break in a sandbar for example, that water can get funnelled together, creating a strong, narrow current back to the sea. The beach patrol told me that rip current can be particularly strong when the tide is receding, which makes sense.

Monday was my final full day, so I decided to do some sightseeing. I took a tour to Isla de Plata (silver island), so named because of the colour of the bird poo when it rains looks silver. After a 45-minute drive North to Puerto Lopez, we took an hour or so boat to the island which is about 37 km. away. There was about 16 of us in the boat, mostly Dutch. Maybe it was me or them, or the situation, but I hardly connected with anyone until the end of the day. The boat stopped about midway, and a few humpback wales pulled up alongside the boat to say hi! Beautiful, majestic creatures, and we were so lucky to see them.

imageAs we anchored near the island, several massive sea turtles surrounded the boat…so curious they were! The island, a protected national park of about eight square km, is desolate. There is absolutely nothing there. I felt like Tom Hanks in Castaway. Oh…and finally the sun came out for awhile. After a week of gray, it felt so nice on my skin. But even with partial sun and lots of protection, I almost burned.

Some people call Isla de Plata a mini version of the Galapagos. It is home to many species of lizards, birds, sea lions, and other animals. But the island is probably best known for a very particular type of bird…wait for it…the booby! This next segment will reveal my sometimes infantile sense of humour, so I apologize in advance.

imageWithout question, the funniest and most memorable part of the day was the search for the boobys. I appeared to be the only one on the tour to find this funny. Maybe it was my sense of humour, or maybe because I was the only English speaking person there (yes of course it must have been that). Anyway, the guide, in all seriousness, kept saying (in English, with a very distinctive Spanish accent) things like: “now we will find some boobys.” OMG…it was freakin’ PRICELESS! We saw more boobys than I have ever seen before, certainly in one day. We saw big boobys, small boobys, single boobys, and even a really nice pair of boobys! No wonder so many men visit this island! I never really got over the hilarity of it all, but the birds themselves are pretty cool–inquisitive and unafraid. And they are real posers as well. Hope you enjoy some of these very up close and personal photos of boobys.

A pair of boobys.

A pair of boobys.

It has been a wonderful stay here, and it was very hard to leave magic of Balsa, but now I feel ready to move on. So Tuesday I was on an early morning bus to Guayaquil where I met up again with Mark the Irishman. Guayaquil is big, dirty, and not particularly safe from what I have heard, so the least amount of time I can spend here, the better. He and I walked around the central area for awhile, and then headed North-East, through the Andes mountains (avenue of the volcanoes) about four hours to Riobamba. It is at about 9,000 feet altitude and is, or at least I thought it was, home to the famous Devil’s Nose train which through an impressive engineering feat, is able to drop/climb 500 metres in a relatively short distance. Anyway, the train actually leaves about 100 km. south of Riobamba, back where we had just come from, so no train ride for me…this time. Nice town, but not a particularly memorable night at the hostel.

Running out of gas in the Andes mountain? Not when Mark has a spare tank!

Running out of gas in the Andes mountain? Not when Mark has a spare tank!

My final thoughts of the week concern the whole issue of connecting, which I suppose I am more aware of in these unfamiliar surroundings: sometimes you connect with a person, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes right away. Other times it may take awhile. But when I travel, I somehow feel that I must try to connect with everybody, which is particularly hard for an introvert like me. But I realize that I can’t always connect with everybody, and I need to learn to be OK with that, while not forgetting the importance of trying. All the people I have met and enjoyed so far happened because I pushed myself to make an effort, even though it was not always comfortable. Connecting and finding the flow in a new place or situation often takes time. And I must remember to be patient with myself.

The journey continues…til next week.

Jonathanimage

Into Africa–March 14, 2013

035“Goodness in your life does not come to you from someone else. When you see this, you will be free. Have courage, for what you seek is not outside of you. It is not a gift from another person. It is yours to give, not to acquire. Let no one, therefore, hold you hostage. Not your partner, not your boss, not your family…and certainly not your God.”

–Neil Donald Walsch

There is something about Sundays for me in Africa. Windy and stormy on the outside, unsettled and anxious on the inside. I think I felt it even stronger this week because it was also my 4th wedding anniversary. I’m sorry to be missing the day, my love, but I will be home very soon now. Home is close now, and it can’t come fast enough.

Aside from that, it has been a wonderful couple of days outside of the city.

My friends Mike and Liz and their kids Charlotte and Seamus joined me for my last weekend in Africa. We travelled to Bilene, a beach town about 180 km. north of Maputo in Gaza province, not far from the recent devastating floods in Chokwe. Bilene surrounds a natural salt water lagoon, fed by the Indian Ocean just on the far side, over the huge dunes. The beaches are relatively clean, the water shallow and warm. Nice, but it’s not quite the ocean. We all took Friday off and made it a long weekend. We arrived around noon on Friday in scorching hot weather, high 30s and no wind.

We finally found accommodation, a great big three-bedroom beach house with a massive deck, just steps from the water. It felt over the top given where I am. But it was nice and comfortable. There are no real deals to be had here, unfortunately, even in low season. Surprising as most of these places are South African run, and I would have thought they might have more business sense.

008By the time we got settled, we were all a little grumpy, so into the lagoon we went to cool off. We met a really nice guy named Jose walking along the beach. He is a local artist who works with wood and stone. I made plans to try and see him the next day on the beach or at the beach hotel nearby where he works.

Saturday was even hotter. Liz and Mike headed off for a long early morning run while I watched the kids. Although challenging at times, as all kids can be, I really enjoyed my time with them playing whatever games they wanted. They are so pure, unfiltered, and in the moment at that age, something I have lost, as most of us inevitably do. But it’s nice to know that I can go back to that place sometimes.Good for the soul.

Then I went wandering to figure out boat rides and alternate accommodation, as my plan was to stay on an extra night on Sunday, make my way to Macia on Monday, be picked up by my colleagues (Suzanne and Helder), and continue north past the capital of Xai Xai to Chidenguele for a conference.

022Although I had a small bottle of water, a sunscreen and a hat, the heat was crazy and I began to feel disoriented. I knew there was a hotel not far off the beach but I just couldn’t find it, walking almost from one end to the other. I finally found Praia del Sol, this cool and comfortable place, rustic grass huts scattered around the property, for only about $40 a night. “This feels more like it,” I said to myself. Yes I do this, quite often it would seem. I also found my artist friend Jose here, in his workshop at the hotel, and bought a few little things from him.026

After a cold beer and some agua, I headed back to find my friends who were happily splashing around in the water. Then the wind started to pick up, which is very dangerous in this kind of heat because it makes you think it’s cooler than it is. I should have taken this time to take the boat to the ocean, but figured I could do this myself the next day after they had gone.

But Sunday turned out to be too windy with no boats making the trip, so I was out of luck. My friends dropped me off at Praia on the way out and here I was, alone again, anxious, unsure, and unsettled. I walked the lagoon beach for a few hours…the beach always settles me down. Then back to Praia where I found Jose and spent the rest of the afternoon chatting with him, learning about his life, learning Changaan, and thinking of ways to help him earn a living. He has been saving for years to buy blocks, steel, and cement to strengthen his house. He calculates he will have enough in 3-5 more years. He carves and teaches other kids to do the same. He teaches them the value of work and to be proud of a craft, a positive alternative to begging and stealing. A really good and kind man.

028I was also greeted by David and Dino who manage the hotel. Two really nice guys as well. Dino earns 3,500 mets per month, the equivalent of about $120. On that he cares for his mother, two sisters, and two brothers. Can you imagine all of these people surviving on $4 a day? His father died about 10 years ago. I could see the stress in his face as he talked about it. But he is grateful to have a job. He is not bitter, and smiles a lot. A good guy with a good heart.

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View from entrance to the bathroom to sink and outdoor, screened in shower. It gives a whole new meaning to room with a view!

020As night fell, I have to say I was a little nervous. The hut was comfortable, but certainly not “hermetically” sealed, with only a flimsy screen separating the back half from the outside. And all kinds of little creatures in my neighbourhood. And then the lights went out. Stay calm. Don’t focus on things you don’t want to have happen. And then it passed. I began to appreciate the sounds of the night, and the the wind whistling through the treetops to the screened windows of my stilted hut. And I finally drifted off to sleep.

I was up very early Monday morning to figure out a way to get to Macia, about 30 km. away, where I was to be picked up. My options were to hire a car which would not be cheap, or ride he local “chapa” which is Mozambique version of mass transit. Jam packed, open trucks where people pile into the back. Cheap, but not the safest or fastest way to travel. But as it so often has happened here, the universe responds. I met Christo, a South African staying at the hotel who just happened to be going in that direction and he agreed to give me a lift. Perfect! It turned out to be a wet and rainy start to the day, so I was happy not to be riding in an open-air chapa.

032I had heard negative things about South Africans in general, and felt that pre-judgement starting to sway me. So I stopped it. Christo is a mechanic who works for a group called JAM (Joint Aid Management) who provide a number of relief and sustainable development programs to seven African countries, including Mozambique. What I love best about their model is that they help people help themselves, so it’s much more than a handout….it’s a hand up. One of the food programs for example (which Christo is involved with), feeds 700,000 children, but only if they go to school. Right now their team and the entire area of Chokwe has been decimated by the floods I wrote about a few weeks back. So the remaining $200 I have left from funds I raised before I left Canada will go to to the feeding program there.

Anyway, a very nice man doing some wonderful work. We had a really good chat on our way to Macia. He dropped me off, and minutes later my colleagues Helder and Suzanne picked me up. Divine timing. We continued north about 90 minutes to the school management conference at a lake resort in Chidenguele.

The speakers were hard to follow (make that painful!) because everything was in Portuguese, but still interesting to see how they do things here, and to watch the non-verbal stuff going on. For a little while. We were introduced as the two Canadians visiting. One person, a professor, introduced himself to me. Non inclusiveness was to become the theme of the day.

At coffee break, I was amazed that the snacks were completely cleaned out within seconds, with people walking away with piles of food, and many others, like me, getting nothing. It pissed me off at first–how rude, how inconsiderate–but then I realized that although the people attending this conference have relatively well paying jobs, perhaps they weren’t always comfortable. Maybe they have been hungry before. And maybe the feeling of going hungry never leaves you, that feeling that there will never be enough. And it’s not the first time I have experienced this hoarding effect in Mozambique. But I take for granted that I will eat, and somehow know the food will be there. Probably not so for them.

I shared a two-bedroom apartment at the conference with Helder. I though it was perfectly natural to expect that each of us would have a key to the apartment, so that we could come and go independently. But not at all for Helder. It did not cross his mind to ask for another key, and he saw no issue with sharing one. When I asked the front desk, it was like the thought had never occurred to them, or they had never been asked the question. I have noticed lots of little things like this–an unwillingness or inability to think differently about things. To me it seems like a lapse in logic, or common sense. Like they have been taught one way, and that is the only way. Don’t colour outside the lines.

I spent the afternoon working on my own. Then a quick late early evening jaunt to the beach. I could hear it, and feel it, and smell it, but it was too dark. I would have to come back. I headed back for dinner. The language barrier was very noticeable tonight. And so were the cliques. And the politics. And I &%#* hate these. Over dinner, Suzanne and I were sitting with a few of the top people, most of whom I have worked with over the last few weeks. We were completely shut out of the conversation and the celebrations, barely acknowledged. Maybe my veneer was wearing thin, or I was feeling fragile or sorry for myself…but maybe not…regardless, it really felt isolating, and it really bothered me. I felt…resentment. And I haven’t felt that in quite awhile. It turned me off everything. My friend Jules warned me there would be low moments, and this was definitely one of them. But why do I feel the need for their approval? But as upsetting as it was, I knew that I couldn’t allow this incident to taint my entire experience here, so I wrote about it and went to bed. It will be better tomorrow.

I woke up Tuesday and decided not to put myself through that again. My wife gave me some good advice (which I cannot repeat here!). I skipped breakfast and the morning conference, and headed to the beach with Helder. I have been longing for the beach since I arrived and this was my last chance. It was only about 5 km. from the resort, but through narrow, bumpy roads.

There were many people of all ages walking along the road, on their way to school or work. Many were making a hand gesture to us…kind of like praying, but their hands were cupped. “It means thank you, deep gratitude, with all my heart,” Helder explained. Their way of asking and expressing gratitude for a lift.049 It’s a beautiful thought and gesture. We stopped and picked up a bunch of young girls on their way to school–nine km., each way, every day (see top photo)! Then we picked up some older folks on their way to work. “Welcome to Helder’s chapa,” I joked. The smiles from them all, and looks of curiosity they gave me were priceless. What a way to start the day!040

Minutes later we pulled up to an oceanside hotel, up high on a dune, overlooking the magnificent Indian Ocean. Breathtaking. I could hear the waves breaking in the background. It was a spectacular moment. 047We hurried down to the beach, and quickly I was in the water, minding the rocks, rip tides, and marine life. I even managed to body surf a couple of really good waves. And not a soul in sight, except for Helder. Magic.053

Most of the yuck of the previous day had passed. And I was so grateful for that morning at the beach. Feeling better, I decided to go to the conference lunch. And guess who I just happened to sit with? The universe works in mysterious and interesting ways. I approached them with fresh eyes and no resentment, and it was OK.

Tuesday afternoon, we headed back to Maputo, about four hours or 250 km. On the way Helder talked about the problems most Mozambicans have in business. Although many are involved in selling goods of all kinds, when it comes to quantity discounts, standards, caring for the client, thinking differently, and solving problems from a business standpoint, they can’t or don’t do it. This is a big problem. This simplistic or naive approach to business may begin to explain (and I’m extrapolating here) why so many Africans have been ripped off and taken advantage of. And with the eyes of the world on Africa’s plentiful natural resources, the consequences of not being business savvy, and allowing others to pillage will be dire.

We made a few stops along the way, connecting with some of the road side folk. Again I noted how much my behaviour and attitude affects outcome. When I approached these people with uncertainty, that’s exactly what I got back. As soon as I caught myself doing that, and turned on the “MoJo,” the whole interpersonal dynamic changed….smiles, jokes, handshakes…connection.

Wednesday and Thursday…back at the office, finalizing reports, and saying my goodbyes. And the weather has been mercifully cool and comfortable. First time in my two months here.

I had one final (let’s hope) brush with corruption walking back to the office from lunch on Wednesday. A policeman pulled me aside and asked to see my documents. I always carry a copy of my passport with me. He looked at my paper and said: “no, no…this is a big problem.” We went back and forth for a few minutes, arguing, clarifying, BS. He was clearly looking to be greased. I looked him straight in the eye (I had to look down) and said: “diplomatica de Canada…do you want me to call them right now?” “You can go,” he said, looking defeated. Jonathan 1. Corruption 0.

I closed out the week with two very heartwarming conversations. Wednesday night, in the hotel lobby, I was chatting with Domingues, the receptionist. “Your first time in Mozambique?” he asked? Yes…first time. “You have really learned about us, and our country, Mr. Jonatan.” And then with Ida, at work Thursday morning. “We have really enjoyed you,” she said. ”You are different. You have tried to become one of us. You care about us, you have brought empathy.”

One for the road
Here’s a really nice piece from Tiela Garnett’s blog. Something that is starting to click with me, especially after two months on the road:

“Our suffering as human beings comes from investing our focus in the external illusion rather than the internal reality. When careers, activities, and possessions become more important than humanity, compassion, and kindness, we know we’re in trouble. Our daily activity needs to be an expression of our true nature, rather than a way of defining it. We need to be who we are first and then allow our activities to flow naturally from that source.”

I have met many people and observed many different things over the last eight weeks. People who I have really liked, some not so much. People whose character I admire, others not so much. Customs, traditions, practices, and behaviours that are wonderful, others that have driven me right round the bend. They say that what you see in other people is simply a reflection of those same characteristics in you. This has given me lots to ponder. But overall, it has all been consistently positive energy, at least that’s how I have chosen to experience it, which tells me something.

Life on the road, immersed in the unfamiliar and unstable, seems to bring out the best in me. And yet I know the dark side is still there, as it lurks to varying degrees in all of us. Mine has a tendency to come out more often closer to home. I need to change that. I need to think about why it is that I become complacent with the familiar. Maybe I need to find ways in everyday life to keep myself off balance.

Whatever happens, I know that I have definitely tested and pushed the boundaries on this trip, in unfamiliar territory, in so many different ways, on so many levels, and that I have used all my skills to do it. Even some I had no idea I had. This has been a very expansive way to live my life: aware, conscious, and open to what is happening now, and recognizing how this will affect who I am moving forward. And there is no question that I have felt more alive than I ever have before. As Chico said to me a few weeks back, “don’t think, just do it.” And I have.

I’ve never really given much thought to the chakra energy centres of the body, but maybe this is what it feels like when they are open and energy is flowing. Four in particular I am aware of because of my journey to Africa:
–heart chakra…I nourish the universe and the universe nourishes me.
–throat chakra…detachment…expression of authentic self…my actions are blissfully free from the outcome.
–intuition chakra…connection to purpose…my life is in harmony with cosmic law.
–crown chakra…pure potentiality….I am a field of all possibilities.

I have observed people doing their thing. Living their lives. Animals doing their thing, going about their business and simply being who they are: crabs being crabs, birds being birds, elephants being elephants. The lesson for me is that I need to do the same…simply be who I am, and not allow anything or anyone–including and especially me–to muddy that.

I begin my voyage home in two days, and will be reunited with my wife, son, friends, and family. I know she is proud of me, but I am also proud of and grateful to her for giving me the room and encouragement to take this journey, thousands of miles away from home, into the heart of Africa. But perhaps more importantly, I have also made the journey within, into the heart of who I am.

Two months is a long time. In some ways it has gone quickly, but in other ways it has felt like a year. In a good way. I have tried as best I can to become part of something here, and succeeded for the most part. But I am ready to go home now.

Although this will be my last post from “inside” Africa, I still have lots of information to process. I will be back a few times over the next several weeks with some closing images and thoughts as I re-adjust to the life I knew, incorporating some of what I have learned.

Thank you for sharing the journey with me.

MoJo

007

Calming the Monkey Mind

“Be master of mind rather than mastered by mind.” ~Zen Proverb

I wrote this note last week for two very special people in my life, and thought that maybe it would be helpful to others. Sort of an intro to meditation and how it can help in life. I am still very much a beginner, and am not yet as disciplined as I would like to be, but I am so grateful to have discovered it. At first I thought it was too freaky for me, but gradually it has opened new pathways for me. I wish I’d learned this 20 years ago, but better late than never. This will sound dramatic, but I am coming to believe that calming the monkey mind and finding the peace that is already within you is the key to everything. Only good things flow from this.

Meditation is a way to calm and slow down the incessant chattering and busy-ness of the monkey mind. Think of it as your quiet time. Only for you. Like a mental spa. A way to clear and reset your mind. A time to focus. A time to heighten your awareness. It will help you tune in to something bigger and more powerful. And this will spill over into the rest of your day.

The key is to be open, and that you be willing and disciplined enough to try to be still, if only for a few minutes every day. Especially when your mind is in overdrive. Try not to judge the process itself…your initial reaction might be that it’s kind of “out there,” but try to see beyond that. Try to accept the possibility that there may be other ways of being which may not yet have been revealed to you. Meditation is simply a relaxation and rejuvenation technique. The first, second, or third time might feel a little weird, but stick with it and you will start to feel its effects. You will feel different–better, clearer, more focussed, more balanced, and calmer.

The idea is to simply focus on your breathing, be still, and in doing so you forget about the past and the future, and focus on being here, in the now. God knows we need it, because the mind generates 60,000-80,000 thoughts a day. That’s about 60 every minute, or a thought every second! No wonder we’re freakin’ exhausted most of the time!

Meditating will help your mind slowly empty. When you empty your mind, it is then available to you for new thoughts, ideas, ways of being. When your mind is empty, you can find solutions to problems that you can’t access when your mind is crammed with shite.

There are many ways of doing it. With practice, some people can just sit and take themselves through it, wherever they happen to be, regardless of what’s happening around them. I am certainly not there yet, so I prefer to have someone guide me through it. I try to focus on my breathing and what the guide is saying, then let myself float to the sounds or music.

Without a doubt your mind will want to do what it is used to doing…churning away, solving problems, creating scenarios, reviewing, and on and on. This is what it likes to do….it likes to be in control. But remember that you are much more than your mind. You are much more than your body. The essence of you is so much more. And there are many parts of the mind which you can access in addition to the crazy, spinning part that will help you settle down.

So when you become aware of your mind trying to take over while you are meditating, slowly and gently bring it back and “place” it on your breathing.

Breathe in. Feel yourself lifting higher, connecting to something bigger.

Breathe out. Feel the negative energy exiting your body. Feel yourself becoming more and more grounded.

Above all, do not allow yourself to become frustrated when your mind starts thinking because this is normal. Remember that there is no wrong way. Resist the temptation to think you can’t do it or it’s not working. This is your mind trying to take over again. Simply and gently bring your attention back to your breathing. Even if you are able to focus on your breathing for seconds at a time during your meditation, this is progress. Over time the churning mind will become less and less, the chatter will die down. It’s just practice.

Once or twice a day, maybe morning and night. 15 minutes or so. Whenever you need it. When you are feeling overwhelmed or anxious. When your mind is cloudy.

Over time you will emerge from your meditation with clearer head. You will feel calmer, better able to make decisions. Better able to be present. More balanced and in tune. More peaceful for longer stretches at a time. You will find yourself not being controlled as much by your negative emotional states.

So…are you ready? Sit comfortably (nothing crossed), press play, close your eyes, bring your attention to your breathing, let your spirit float, and enjoy the ride.

“Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” – Franz Kafka

Life Lessons From the Road

I often see things more clearly from the road—when I’m travelling or away from home. It gives me perspective and helps me better appreciate what I have. I seem to be more intuitive and better able to listen. And my recent trip was no exception.

My wife Deborah and I drove East along the Northern shore of the St. Lawrence river last week to see the whales, something she has always wanted to do. From Ottawa, it is about an 800 km. journey through Montreal and Quebec City, and then through the hills to the mouth of the Saguenay river which runs into the St. Lawrence. Whales, dolphins, and other marine life make the annual trip from the warm waters of the Carribean to feed on a huge buffet of krill.

Even before I left, that intuitiveness began to kick in. I am not mechanically inclined, but as I was leaving to meet my wife in Montreal, something told me that my brakes were not quite right. And I listened. Turns out the front brakes were shot and had to be replaced.

Two hours later, I arrived in Montreal. I picked up Deborah, and we made our way around the city, on our way to Quebec city. There was heavy traffic and lots of distractions. We came to a major fork in the road, and suddenly I realized I was in the wrong lane. I made a stupid, split-second decision to stop and switch to the right lane. A huge tractor trailer was barreling up behind me, and the right lane was thick with cars whizzing by. I managed to somehow just get out of the way of the tractor trailer, and into the right lane between cars. There was perhaps a two second window for me to make the move without causing a serious crash. I pissed off a few drivers, but I just made it. There was no time to think, just act. And I did. But that little maneuver had nothing to do with me. I know that something intervened.

I had not made any reservations anywhere, and really had no idea where we would end up and when. Deborah loves this kind of spontaneous trip, but this is something I usually have a really hard time with. I am a planner, and I always like to know where I’m going. It was very unsettling, but I did it anyway. I trusted that things would work out OK. There is a freedom in the not knowing, but it takes awhile to not be so afraid of it. And here’s how the accomodation part played out…

We came upon a beautiful little hotel in the heart of Quebec City, and they just happened to have one room left. We would never have found it if everything had been completely planned out. On the second day, we drove beyond the usual whale watching destination (Tadoussac) to the middle of nowhere. But we had heard that there was a gorgeous little campsite, right on the river. They were full, but we had chatted a little earlier with a very nice woman who just happened to be related to someone who ran the campsite. She phoned ahead, and somehow got a spot for us. We pulled in, checked with the person in charge, and wandered over to our site, which opened up through the trees to a small clearing. It was completely isolated from the rest of the site, overlooking the river. And by some miracle (of not planning), we had this little spot all to ourselves.

As we looked out over the river, a whale broke the surface of the water, and we heard the ‘whoosh’ as he cleared out his blowhole. And then another. This went on for hours, and then into the night. These magnificent creatures—so graceful, elegant, and majestic—and there we were somehow with them. There was something very peaceful about the experience. I felt very small in the overall scheme of things, yet somehow connected to something much, much bigger. Nature has a way of doing that.

The next day we went out in a small zodiac to get even closer to them. There were whales, dolphins, and seals all around us at times, coming to the surface, diving back down, gracefully doing what they were meant to do. Just being themselves, as nature intended, and allowing us the occasional glimpse into their world. Whales don’t know how to be be anything other than whales. I wondered what it might be like if I could be the same way. Just being who I am, without all the other things that I allow to get in the way.

We headed for home the following day, stopping in Montreal to visit with her family on the way home. I have trouble with this when traveling because I just want to get to where I’m going. But I surrendered. Well sort of, for a couple of hours. After visiting with her brother, John, she went to visit her aunt while I went looking for a bookstore with John. I had no idea where we were going and became agitated (once again) as we looked around for a bookstore. And then I thought to myself, who cares about the bookstore, and tried to just enjoy the drive with him. I began to let go of the burning need for a destination. We never found the bookstore, but by then it really didn’t seem to matter.

Leaving Montreal we drove through some very unsettled weather. I was anxious—my default state. And I knew it. But this time I tried to just allow the anxiety to happen instead of fighting it. And Deborah gave me some room. And then it passed.

As we neared home, there was a massive dark cloud on the left, and clear skies on the right. Yin and yan like as my wife put it.  And we drove right through the heart of it, together, as the rays of the sun pierced the clouds, an awesome light display of nature’s finest. A metaphor in some way for our marriage perhaps.

Lately I have been somewhat negative about our marriage, focussing more on the struggles and difficulties, and less on the good stuff. Deborah asked me to think a little more carefully about my words. She asked me to just try to enjoy our time together, like we did before we were married. I chose to listen instead of resist. And I remembered what a cool and joyful person she is. She gives me a soft place to land. I think it will be better now.

She also pointed out aspects of my personality that I have never been able to recognize in myself. I spread joy to those around me, apparently. I don’t see it, but I will take her word for it. And I am grateful to have a partner who cares enough, and is interested enough to help me see what I am unable to see in myself. Perhaps therein lies the potential magic of relationships…they allow you to see who you are, who you can be, and they give you the opportunity to work out the issues that are holding you back.

Over the last few days on the road I have been able to practice what I have read and written so much about over the last year or two. I’m not sure that practice will make perfect, but it definitely moves me closer towards the person I want to become.

The road reminds me of how little I really control in the big picture, and how exhausting the need to control can be.

It gives me perspective, as it always does, helping me to appreciate what I have. It reminds me how important it is to be in the moment. It reminds me that once I have set my intention, to let the universe work out the details and to have faith that things will work out somehow. It reminds of the extreme importance of attitude and gratitude.

And the road reminds me, yet again, that there are massive, unknown forces at work out there that are conspiring to help me. “The mysterious guidance that comes when we surrender,” as Anda so eloquently commented below.

I just need to get out of the way and let them work their magic.

Violence: When Will We Decide That Enough is Enough?

In the wake of these recent individual violent acts in the US, I keep wondering about what it is that makes these people do what they do. What is making them so angry? And it’s not just a US phenomenon. There are examples everywhere.

And it’s not just the individual. Our frame of reference is a world that is constantly bickering and competing. One where countries are always at war with each other. Where individual acts of terrorism seem like the norm, and where the decisions and actions of the few dictate the parameters in which the vast majority of us live our lives.

I don’t have the answers but I do know that it is a symptom of profound anger, unhappiness, and disconnectedness. It is a symptom of a very sick and fearful society. One that has lost its way.

Why do we continue to choose hurt over healing? Why do we not opt for creation, cooperation, and peace over destruction and aggression? These are not new questions, but we keep doing and allowing the same things over and over, expecting a different result (Einstein’s definition of insanity).

How often will it have to happen before we look honestly at the root causes, and decide collectively that we don’t want to live this way? Once a month? Once a week?

Or will it be when enough of us have been more closely impacted by these acts of violence? Or will it be when we have all simply wiped each other out?

What a blunt and primitive species we are. And we know better.

Surely we have all seen enough–lived enough–to know that violence does not work.  We have thousands of years of history that proves it. And we must know by now that it is getting us absolutely nowhere.

Aren’t we all getting just a little tired of this?

I just came across this timely piece by Richard Rohr. Substitute your own beliefs or words, but the overiding message is clear and universal.

“If  the self doesn’t find some way to connect radically with Being, it will live in anxiety and insecurity. The false self is inherently insecure. It’s intrinsically fragile, grasping for significance. That’s precisely because it is insignificant! So it grabs at things like badges and uniforms and titles and hats and flags (and I would add: GUNS) to give itself importance and power. People talk about dying for the flag of their country. They don’t realize that the Bible would definitely call that idolatry. What were you before you were an American? Will you be an American in heaven? Most of us don’t know how to answer those questions without a spiritual journey and an inner prayer life.

In prayer you will discover who you were before you were male, before you were  female, before you were black, before you were white, before you were straight, before you were gay, before you were Lutheran, Mormon, or Amish.

Have you ever lived there? At that naked place, you will have very little to defend, fight about, compete with, overcome, hate, or fear. You are then living in the Reign  of God, or what Buddha calls the Great Compassion.

Violence is unneeded and undesired.”

 

 

 

 

 

Learning to Let Go: My Son is Out in the World Now

Our son Ben recently graduated from high school, and is heading out into the world today. Panama then Paris for almost a month.  He is with his girlfriend Nathalie and her parents for the Panama part of it, then he will be only with her for the Paris part. He is 17 going on 30 in some ways. In other ways, my wife and I think he is going on 14. Not really, but sort of because we realize that there is so much for him to learn. The world is a wonderful, but scary place. And he’s just a kid. How will he survive out there on his own in the big bad world without us?

We have spent the past several weeks helping him prepare. Making sure he has everything he could possibly need, and that he has thought through every possible scenario. Drilling into him all the tips and life experiences we can think of. Preparing him for every possible “what if” scenario.

I won’t lie. I am anxious and worried—my default state. I know…this is wasted energy, but I can’t help it. That’s what parents do. And yet, now that he has gone this uneasiness is subsiding. Not exactly peaceful, but certainly not as intense as it was leading up to his departure. A little more settled now.

The truth is, we have been helping him prepare for this moment his whole life. We have taught him everything we know. Given him all the tools we can think of. We have guided him as best we can. And he has taken all these life experiences and evolved into a unique and interesting young man. Ready to take his show on the road. Capable of meeting the challenges that will come his way. It’s up to Ben now.

He may not approach life the way I have, but that might not be such a bad thing. Most of my life has been lived in fear of what’s out there. At 48 I’m only starting to break free of that prison.

He will surely stumble. He will surely fall. Just as we all do. But that’s what life is all about. I need to trust that he will somehow figure things out and find his way, just as we all do.

I am learning that the only way he will create his story, is for us to let him go.

And perhaps in the letting go, there will be peace.

Birthday “Presence”

Aside

This “in the moment” theme has come up a lot lately. Like someone out there is really trying to tell me something. I have written a lot about it in theory, but the practice part certainly needs work. That’s why events of this past weekend were meaningful. There was a shift.

This weekend was my wife Deborah and sister in law Lori’s birthday. So I decided to just go with it. Actually I didn’t really decide. I just did it. And that’s the curious part…it just happened.

Deborah wanted to do a few things, and then go on to her sister’s neighbourhood BBQ. Normally I’d be trying to influence the course of events. Some might call it control. But not on this day.

First stop was the leather store for my wife to get supplies for her purse making. I just sat in the car and did nothing. Normally I’d be climbing the walls.

Second stop was the pharmacy where they were having some sort of make-up event. Not only did I take here there, I went in with her and actually participated. Well not the make-up part, but I had a few snacks, got a henna tattoo, and watched the event unfold. Not another guy in sight! I somehow resisted the urge that there was somewhere else I had to be.

Third stop was the BBQ. Mostly people I had never met. Normally this would be anxiety inducing for me. But this time I didn’t feel I had to talk to anyone. I didn’t feel I had to introduce myself or make an impression. I didn’t feel I really had to do anything. My mind wasn’t racing with thoughts of the past. Nor was it pre-occupied with figuring out next steps. So I just watched, and listened. And kept my mind blank. I was happy just to be.

What the hell is going on here?

Deborah is really good at going with the flow…perhaps some of that is rubbing off. And perhaps all the theory is somehow starting to translate into practice. I hope it’s here to stay. I do feel at some level that there is so much for me to learn and enjoy from being present. That must be why I keep getting these universal reminders–sort of like sticky notes for my soul.

Then I came across this piece by Richard Rohr. Another message. And definitely a sign that I should keep it up:

“The word “Buddha”  means “I am awake.” To be awake is to be fully conscious. The Buddhists sometimes call it “object-less consciousness”; I might  just call it “undefended knowing.” It is a consciousness where we are not conscious of anything in particular but everything in general. It is a panoramic receptive awareness—whereby you take in all that the moment offers  without eliminating anything or attaching to anything. You just watch it pass.

This does not come naturally to us, surely not in our  culture. We have to work at it. All forms of meditation and contemplation teach  some form of compartmentalizing or limiting the control of the mental ego—or  what some call the “monkey mind,” which just keeps jumping from observation to observation, distraction to distraction, feeling to feeling, commentary to commentary. Most of this mental action means very little and is actually the opposite of consciousness. In fact, it is unconsciousness. It is even foolish to call it “thinking” at all, although educated people tend to think their self-referential commentaries are  high-level thinking.”