Into South America: Week 5

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With a "friendly" Cartagena cabbie.

With a “friendly” Cartagena cabbie.

When we last left off, I had just arrived for a brief stay in the walled city of Cartagena. I made the most of my day there, walking around the castle, and different parts of the city, after befriending yet another policeman who helped me get my bearings. It was so hot though. I was had by a very smooth talking Morgan Freeman look-alike who offered me a walking tour. Well we did walk, but he really didn’t tell me much (e,g. “that’s a church”). He would also walk me into places to shop where he clearly already had agreements in place, but after awhile he got the message that I wasn’t buying. He really had only one thing in his mind, and that was to see how much money he could extract from me. The whole experience was disappointing and I found him to be disingenuous and insincere, although he was very, very good at reading people.

First mate Janeiro

First mate Janeiro

I headed to the marina for about 5:30 pm to board the Gitano del Mar, a 47-foot catamaran, for five-day trip to Panama. Captain David, a Frenchman, briefly went over some rules, introduced the crew Janeiro (first mate), and Luis (cook). Fourteen passengers in all including me, all

Luis, our chef.

Luis, our chef.

early twenties to early thirties from Sweden, Great Britain, Holland, and a bunch from Australia. More on them later. Oh…and Mystico, the boxer, who lives on the boat.

imageAll our shoes were taken as we boarded because no one wears shoes on the boat, which makes sense. I did not realize then that my feet would not be dry again until five days later. There is no ice on board, or anywhere in San Blas as it turned out, so all drinks would be luke warm at best from now on. Then our main bags were stowed for the trip (we all packed and kept only a day pack for the trip), dinner was served, and we were shown our very modest quarters. I had a small space on the port side, about 2×6 feet, in a small corridor connecting to small rooms. This will be like camping on a boat, I thought. It also felt a little like being on Survivor. Part of me was also panicking, wondering how I would ever survive five days on this relatively small boat, with all these people that I have very, very little in common with.

The boat gently pulled away, all of us perched on different parts of the deck admiring the night view of Cartagena behind us, and the spectacular lightning show ahead of us, way in the distance. Then I helped the crew hoist the main sail, and we were off on our sailing voyage! I sat over the edge of the bow and noticed a bunch of glowing dots in the churning water. It was some kind of plankton apparently that glows when it’s disturbed. Really cool.

Then it started to rain a little, so we all moved to the seating/dining area in the stern. Then it rained harder and the sea got a little rougher, so we battened down the hatches. Hmm…not quite so cool now, but just another part of the adventure. I really should have taken their advice and picked up some sea sickness pills, I thought.

Then everyone started disappearing to bed, most not looking so good. I tried to go to bed as well, but could not sleep for hours. Not because I was in a tiny little bunk. Not because there was some water dripping on me. Mostly because we had sailed directly into the eye of this storm. Thunder and lightning crashed around us. The boat was rolling front to back and side to side, and crashing into huge waves. With every heave and crash, I could hear and feel the entire structure groaning, and I was sure the boat would break apart. I could hear the captain and crew screaming instructions to each other through the wind and the rain. I could also hear alarms going off every few seconds. This can’t be normal. It all felt like a movie. It was a long, scary night, but I finally drifted off, sometime in the wee hours of Thursday morning, thinking “please Jesus take the wheel.” And he did.

Things were still rough, but not so stormy the next morning. We had, in fact, sailed through a severe storm, and there were some equipment malfunctions that the crew had to cope with. The 30 knot winds were much more that the usual 5-10 on crossings over the last several months. “Like a lake,” was how our captain described the crossings of the past several months. Not today though. Everyone on board spent the second day napping, sitting quietly, and/or vomiting. But I felt some level of group cohesion kick in. Check out this clip.

Captain David

Captain David

I spotted flying fish off the bow all day long. And out of nowhere, many miles from shore, a bird landed on our boat, sat in our hands for a few minutes, and then flew off.

I still found it quite bumpy and it took time to adjust to the constant rocking and lurching of the boat. I bumped my head and fell a few times over the first day or two, but eventually started to find my sea legs. I was fortunate that I never got sick though. And once I made it through that first night, I thought I had probably weathered the worst. Another very stuffy night in the cabin, but the seas were not as rough as the first night, and I slept quite well.

Before we left, the captain had explained the “gypsy toilet,” which essentially involves hanging off the back of the boat and urinating…while the boat is moving! The toilets were not very nice places to be–tiny, basic, and smelly, but I thought there is no way in hell I will be hanging off the back of this boat! But by about day 3, I had found my balance, and was really enjoying the whole gypsy toilet experience. And also by day 3, I had figured out everyone’s name, and had connected at some level with everyone. By day 3, I could really feel a relaxed, nautical groove kicking in. Check out this clip.

Sunny skies, after weathering they storm.

Sunny skies, after weathering they storm.

We were supposed to hit the San Blas islands early on day 3 (Friday), but the crossing took us much longer than expected with a heavy head wind the entire trip. In fact, we set a record for the longest crossing in this boat…about 44 hours. We finally spotted a few birds, and then land in the early afternoon, which was so exciting. I now have a glimpse of how it must have been for sailors hundreds of years ago, who were at sea for months at a time, to finally spot land. Around 4 pm we pulled in between three small islands and dropped anchor. The clouds finally parted and the sun came out as the day wound down. And boy did we need the sun by then!image

Everyone jumped off the boat, basking in the stunning surroundings and warm sunshine. We swam to one of the islands, drank some fresh coconut milk, bought a bunch of fresh lobster, and Luis, our chef, cooked a delicious dinner. The party was going strong, but I was exhausted, so I moved to the front of the boat, away from the noise, and drifted off to sleep lying on the net between both hulls, watching the sky, a few shooting stars, and listening to the water lap gently against the boat. Magic.

IMG_0584IMG_0581We woke up to a beautiful sunny day on Saturday, and after breakfast and a quick swim, we headed off for a leisurely ride to a few more islands where we dropped anchor, swam, snorkelled around the stunning reef…all kinds of fish, even a stingray, and visited a few more islands. There are almost 400 islands that make up San Blas which run along much of the Caribbean side of the Panamanian coast. They are owned and inhabited by the Kuna Indonesian people, part of Panama, but with some cultural independence, and very different from mainland Panamanians. Some islands are small enough to fit a single coconut tree, others might take you 5 or 10 minutes to walk the perimeter.

Greeted by the Kuna

Greeted by the Kuna

imageSome of our gang swam over to a nearby island and spent the day there. I had proposed to our captain and passengers that we give the entire crew the evening off, and that we eat “out” at one of the nearby islands. Everyone loved the idea, so off we went for a traditional Kuna dinner of lobster and tuna. We ate, drank, toasted the crew, and enjoyed each other’s company. And the crew were thrilled with some time off, with Luis saying at one point that he didn’t know what to do with himself.

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A side note again about coconuts (yes I know I seem to be quite obsessed with them). I have mentioned that I have often wondered how many people die every year from falling coconuts. Well, walking around that Kuna island today, a big heavy coconut fell from a tree only about 10 feet away from me! Definitely not the way I want to go!image

Everyone since day 1 had been putting on their music at different times…some really good stuff I had never heard before which was fun. I hadn’t bothered putting any of my own stuff on. But I did have a few ideas brewing as we headed back to the boat on that 4th night, and a few people had learned of my musical background and asked me to play that night. So I came out of DJ retirement for a few hours Saturday night, and I rocked the boat! A wild party ensued with everyone screaming, dancing, and laughing, well into the wee hours. I felt another groove kick in as passengers and crew saw a different side of me that perhaps they had not imagined. And it was fun for me to let that side of me run wild for awhile. Got my MoJo workin’ now.

One side note about Australians…I had heard how they like to party, but this bunch of Ozzie blokes were wild, wild men. I had no idea. It reminded me of some of my younger days. I can’t and don’t want to run like that anymore, but it was very interesting to observe, and “gently” partake.

To bead or not to bead...

To bead or not to bead…

The trip was supposed to end Sunday afternoon, but because the crossing had taken so long, the captain offered to extend it to Monday morning which was very kind. Sunday morning the weather was looking threatening again, and we were moving early while everyone slept. Well, mostly everyone. We dropped anchor next to a small island with a tiny landing strip that serves as a Panamanian immigration for San Blas. Our bleary-eyed, rag-tag crew all marched in, got our passports stamped, and swam or dinghied back to the boat where we continued out magical mystery tour of San Blas. We dropped anchor between two new islands surrounded by reef, went snorkelling (with small sharks!), swam, and relaxed for the rest of the day, with many of our group napping and nursing very sore heads. The crew worked for hours to put on a special final dinner for us: seafood ceviche appetizer, followed by fish tacos and sushi made with fresh caught tuna! Captain David spun a few very cool tunes, the crew picked up their percussion instruments and started to groove, and Luis and I had an impromptu little jam session.

For the final night of the trip, we had made arrangements to have a bonfire on the island next to us and meet up with passengers and crew from another boat, as well as the local Kuna inhabitants. Check out this clip of captain David showing off his great balls of fire!

imageI was hoping for a quiet night to try to catch up on sleep and be ready for a big travel day on Monday, but it was not to be. The Ozzies had arranged a rum run to restock, and had every intention of going out with a bang. So I stopped resisting the flow and just went with it. And I was very, very touched when back on board they had all got together and decided I was “Best On Vessel,” and made a big show of announcing it. And then it felt like the generation gap narrowed a whole bunch. I heard lots of “Good on ya, John-o!” This was followed many shaking of hands, slaps on shoulders, hugging, more music and singing, and general all around merriment until the wee hours, as the lightning rumbled around the night sky.

Another thing I noticed repeatedly about the Ozzies, or at least this group of lads anyway…they laugh easily, whole heartedly, and often. I loved their sense of humour and would spend hours enjoying their banter. Often very crude, but always very sharp, witty, and very clever. I found it to be quite entertaining, and really enjoyed listening to the banter.

IMG_0572Overall the experience was very challenging (mentally and physically), cramped, stuffy, hot, smelly, basic, loud, wet, and potentially dangerous if you do not have your wits about you, particularly during the 30-45 hour crossing. It is not a trip for everyone. But it was also awe inspiring, exciting, expansive, and peaceful. I loved all of it, on so many levels, and it is without a doubt a trip I will never forget. I did not completely click or connect with everybody, but I did with many, at different points on the journey. With some the connection happened early in the trip, some right at the end. And some not really in any meaningful way. Sometimes it’s just not meant to be. But the intention and the effort was there. The trip forced me wide open, perhaps more open and flexible than I have ever been.

The whole island hopping part of the trip was fun and beautiful, and they are certainly quite unique. Many people have referred to San Blas as paradise on earth. I would not characterize them this way, although I’m not sure I would recognize paradise if I found it. Lots more soul searching to do on this clearly.

A final note regarding our crew. Although I have nothing to compare them to, I have heard horror stories about bad and incompetent captains and/or crew on other crossings. Captain David, Janeiro, and Luis were superb. Flexible and professional and always looking for ways to improve the experience for the passengers. I was really, really impressed with these guys and am very grateful for everything they did. I am also grateful to all the passengers who shared their week with me and made it such a memorable trip. Check out this clip from Captain David.

imageMonday morning we packed up quickly, said out goodbyes to the crew, and were picked up by another boat to the mainland where we were met by a few SUVs for the hilly and quite spectacular 3-hour drive to Panama City, where we all dispersed to various hostels. In my case, I continued on to the bus station, in a bit of a daze, where I continued on another 5 hours to the Azuero peninsula in South Panama, finally stopping in Las Tablas. I started my day on the Caribbean and ended my day on the Pacific Ocean, or very close to it. But I felt really tired and travel weary on this day.

Woke up Tuesday morning in Las Tablas feeling like death warmed over and still had wobbly sea legs. What the hell am I doing here, I thought, a feeling that comes over me every few days since I have been on the road. I did not feel good about this place, and I felt like a fish out of water, and that people were looking at me funny. But I suspect it had little to do with the town, and everything to do with me. As I am, so is the world. That lesson is becoming clear.

After a shave and shower, I felt a little more human and decided to continue South to Pedasi to get closer to the ocean. With the help of a few locals, I found a “collectivo” (mini bus) nearby. I know I must have looked like I needed help at that point, and the Canada flag on my bag didn’t hurt. I crammed into the hot bus with all my stuff and about 15 other locals and after about 20 minutes, off we went. I tried to wait outside the bus until we were ready to leave, but I was able to somehow figure out from the driver that it doesn’t work like that. You have to be in your seat or risk losing it if someone else takes it. A little strange. It was only a short trip to Pedasi, and I am happy to say, after five weeks, I have finally landed in a quaint little chill beach town of only about 2,000 people! I stayed at Dim’s, a really nice, clean hostel opposite a grocery store and a tourism agency. Perfect! There are many quality restaurants and shops, and quite a large Canadian and American community here.

imageAfter quickly settling in at Dim’s, I popped into Smiley’s, a decent looking restaurant right next door for a quick bite. They had a full musical set up, and an older dude was fiddling with the sound board, so I asked him if he was leader of the band. “Do you play,” he asked. “No…but I sing,” I replied. Then he asked me to sing with the band, who just happened to be playing that very night. And that’s exactly what I did! We performed a couple of songs together, including the slinkiest, coolest, most laid back versions of Honky Tonk Woman I have ever done. And zero rehearsal time with these guys. I just dropped right into their groove, and let it rip. A very talented bunch of guys who play so loosely, yet are so tight! It was a pleasure to share a stage with them, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity. From feeling crappy in the morning, to singing with a bunch of locals in Pedasi…I certainly could not have predicted this day. You never know what’s around the corner.

‘Til next week,

Jonathan

With Smiley's House Band...what a night!

With Smiley’s House Band…what a night!

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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

A Letter From A Friend

imageI met a very interesting guy in Toronto a few weeks ago, Austin Repath, author of the Pilgrim Cards and other spiritual books. It was the unlikeliest of meetings…I wrote to him many months before to compliment and thank him for the inspiration I get from reading these cards. After that, every once in awhile, I would get a quick email from him.

I didn’t even make it to the first meeting, in fact I stood him up because I was caught in traffic! But we managed to reschedule. We sat for about two hours together and talked about very personal things–life issues that usually take months or years to get to with most people. There is something very different about Austin….wizened, knowing, and profound. I came away from that feeling changed somehow, like I had connected with someone or something much more powerful than the norm.

I have heard from him once or twice since then, and yesterday he sent me a long note with his thoughts on our time together, and the challenges I was and am facing. Challenges that I suspect we all face at various stages of our lives. I was very moved by this. His words have captured the essence of my difficult journey. And opened the door to healing. And somehow make me feel that it will be OK.They will roll around in my head for many weeks to come as I try to incorporate the depths and wisdom of what he has given me. I share it with you now in the hopes that his words may also resonate with you.

Dear Jonathan,

We sat over breakfast and your told me where you were in your life–unhappy split with your wife of ten years, your decision to leave your job, and the fact that you were about to turn fifty.

Looking at you, warming your hands around a cup of coffee, I saw a good man, in the prime of his mature life, hurting and at a loss of what to do next. You had the style and image of a man well able to get ahead in the world. However, I could see from the way you presented yourself that you were armoured with style and personality.

You did indeed create an image in my mind of a knight in shiny armour. One who had just received the healing wound that could make all the difference in the rest of your life.

I could offer understanding, advice, help you on your way. As I am much older–in my seventies–I knew of breakup and heartbreak. I knew what you were going through, knew also, that in truth the best I could be was a witness to a changing time in your life, one that could drag you down into cynicism, misogyny, and unhappiness for years to come. Or be with you as you endured a rite of passage that would give you fellowship with all who suffer and live from the open heart–the deeply and truly human among us all: a man on the street begging for some change, an older woman looking directly at you, a child sitting by her mother across from you. You sense a caring and a connection with each of them that was not there before. You begin to grasp that you are being accepted into a gathering of others who hurt, vulnerable to the vagaries of life, and yet are open to you and to life in a way your never allowed yourself to be. You see their innate dignity. You feel touched that you are one with them. This is your reward, and of course there is more.

Being much further down this road, some call life, I knew the lay of the land that lay ahead for you. I sat there trying to frame the words that would guide you forward, make your way easier. And yet I knew that although what I would tell you was the way it was, anything I said would not help you move forward. It might ease the pain and that might be sufficient, but it would be doing you a disservice.

Now a few days later sitting at my computer, I want to try to give you what I can.

Jonathan, it was good to be with you the other afternoon. I saw and could grasp the cusp in your life where you stood, anguishing not in grief or sadness, but in that place that seems given over especially for those who have lost love, been given the wound of a broken heart that no one can cure.

I know and you know in some desperate, hopeful way that one day this exquisite pain will wear itself out. I could tell you that one day you will look back on this time and realize that much of the anguish and pain that you are going through was unnecessary. This is helpful? I think not.

I could tell you that you are within a learning process, but learning in such matters is not what it is about. I believe that you are within the realm of possibility that even articulated will have little meaning for you. Right now is not the time for doing. Right now is a time to to trust and endure.

However, you do have some choice and some responsibility in the matter. For if you are patient enough and can endure, you might one day see this as a time of transformation. Think of yourself as in a crucible. If the term crucify comes to mind, you might not be too far off. If you are happy with the alchemical term think alchemical.

In very simple terms, something is happening to you. You are breaking down. Falling apart. Your task is to stay within the process.

I doubt if you could, but don’t jump out of the crucible. Stay within and let the lead of your being transform into, dare I say it, gold. You will come out of the process different. A bit like a creature of the sea who has its hard outer shell cracked open, you will feel soft and vulnerable. You will be the same you, but not the same old you. Some shell of protection, some outer layer of sophistication or stance will have been burnt away. This is the alchemy of such a moment.

You find that people are more open to you. You sense a way of being with others that is less manipulating, less controlling and more fun, more satisfying. You find delight in your own weaknesses that somehow seem playful and harmless.

People want to be around you. You are not sure why. You are safe to be with. You are not demanding, pushy. One day you connect with another and feeling the energy between you, you both you now realize what love is like.

And you would never had known this if you had not endured the cauldron.

Of course there is so much more. One’s life is an endless infinite series of such moments, but they become less painful, less traumatic. More important, you begin to realize that you have been initiated into the adult world of humanity. And you begin to see that life has given you….what some call grace.

If we are fortunate, life blesses us with this, the greatest of human gifts.

Blessings my friend,
Austin

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Two True Gifts of Christmas

imageThe best part of the Christmas season for me are those unexpected gifts of goodness, insight, connection, and light that sometimes come our way. They are gifts of magic. And they are all around us, when we are open to receiving them. Here are two from my world that may lift you up.

The first story is about Sister Lorraine Malo, a beautiful woman I have known for many years who died in June at the age of 76. She was born in 1936, and entered religious life in 1955 at the age 19. She was a woman of unshakeable faith, who lived through unspeakable horrors, and yet spent her life serving others–always smiling, always hopeful. For most of the last 10 years, she helped orphaned and very sick children in Haiti–befriending them, teaching them, consoling them, and playing with them. I just found out recently that she had died, and it made me very sad.image

On my way out of Toronto last week, I stopped in at the Sisters of St Joseph to make a donation towards the work she started in Haiti. I also hoped to speak to a sister who knew Sister Lorraine, and was with her at the end. And as luck would have it, I ended up having a very emotional chat with Sister Pat Boucher who shared with me some of the final days, moments, and memories with her. We both cried. Towards the end I noted that Sister Lorraine died just a few days shy of her 77th birthday. Sister Pat had asked her what she wanted to do for her birthday about two weeks prior to that.

Sister Lorraine said: “there is nothing to plan for me, Sister Pat…because I will be in heaven.”

If anyone deserves to be there, it is surely Sister Lorraine. And I have absolutely no doubt that she is there now, watching over all the souls she touched.

The second story happened just this past week. I stopped by to say hi to the Wongs, my next door neighbours for 15 years. I usually pop in once a year since since I moved away in 2008. Mr. and Mrs. Wong don’t speak English very well, but somehow we manage to communicate, at least superficially. Mrs. Wong and I had never shared more than a brief hug, but on this day, it was very different.

Mrs. Wong asked me for my address. I tried to explain that I don’t really have an official home address right now, following the profoundly painful experience earlier this year of separating from my wife. She locked onto my eyes and started crying. Then she held my hand, grabbed my arm, and tried to explain to me that her son was going through a similar experience, and how worried she was about him and her five-year-old granddaughter. I shared with her some thoughts on how I am somehow getting through this, and how important her family’s support and the support of her son’s friends would be over the coming months. She told me to be strong and to never doubt my goodness. And for the next 20 minutes or so she held onto me tightly and did not let go. She never stopped looking in my eyes.

It was an extended moment of very close, intense physical and emotional connection that I have very rarely felt in my life, in particular from a relative stranger. We locked onto each other, and somehow in those moments, we gave each other the gift of comfort.

“It is only in love that the human heart is happy and in loving action that fulfillment and peace reside.”–Sister Lorraine Malo

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

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