God Help America

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I woke up the morning after the US election feeling out of whack and completely off kilter. Soul-weary exhausted. I had so hoped that this would mark the day that he would just go away.

If politics is a reflection of our collective spirituality, how is it possible that my American neighbours could enable such a massive step backwards?

This presidential campaign preyed on anger, fear, and powerlessness. It revealed the chinks in democracy’s changing armour and a palpable shift in consciousness. It was one of the most divisive campaigns ever, and will be one of the hardest fractures to heal.

CS Lewis must have seen this coming 75 years ago when he wrote his insightful and prophetic Uncle Screwtape Letters:

“Make sure to keep the patient in a constant state of angst, frustration, and general disdain towards the rest of the human race in order to avoid any kind of charity or inner peace from further developing. Ensure the patient continues to believe that the problem is “out there” in the “broken system” rather than recognizing there is a problem with himself.”

15032688_1577828872230912_4162241211964790966_nIf you believe that we each have our own day of reckoning, he will certainly have a whole lot of explaining to do. He brought out the worst in many of us. I was shocked at the intensity of the anger he brought out in me. But I know that I alone am responsible for what comes out in me. Not him.

He has given a voice to people who are angry and fed up, but really those people and those feelings have been there along. He just happened to be the opportunistic lightning rod to channel it. He is only the symptom of a much bigger dis-ease in almost half of the American people. Had the other side won, those people would still be out there. Still angry.

Judgement is one of the ugliest and most destructive human traits, and one of the hardest to overcome. The judgement we have piled on him and his supporters because they do not think or behave the way we think they should has only served to further divide us. In a democracy, there will never be absolute agreement on everything–some will be happy with the outcome and some will not. So maybe “agreement” should not be the goal. Maybe the goal should be to let go of our insatiable need to be right, and try to find a better way to coexist despite our differences. Where does one person’s rights end and another’s begin? Yes it’s complicated.  Yes it’s a very delicate balance. Yes it’s much easier said than done. But it is the only way or we will destroy each other.

“We must mature into people who are, first and foremost, citizens of Earth and residents of the universe, and our identity and core values must be recast accordingly.” —Bill Plotkin

As messy and imperfect as democracy is, this is the process we have. At the very least the people have a choice, and some degree of influence over their own governance and future. Many countries do not have this privilege. America has chosen him, and now they must hold him accountable. I hope that there are enough decent people in his circle to balance him out, and that there are enough checks and balances in place to keep him in line. I hope that what he said after he won about “uniting the American people and healing wounds” represents the real person and intention, and that the hate he has spewed for months was only a tactic to get elected. Maybe I am naive.

Will he rise to the occasion? Will he win over his critics, or has too much damage been done? Will he succeed or will he implode? How much of what he said he would do, can he actually do? Only time will tell. I will try to reserve judgement until I have seen him in action.

Now that the choice has been made, the next steps are clear. If he works to truly and humanely improve the lives of all Americans, he should be supported. If he works a hateful, self serving, exclusionary, irresponsible, fear-based agenda in any way, shape, or form, he must be exposed, opposed, and conquered at every turn. On this there can be no compromise. He is being scrutinized like no other, and must be kept on a very short leash. The US could be on the precipice of a very dangerous, destructive, and revolting era, and it could get very ugly for a very long time. This is our wake-up call.

Of one thing I’m certain: hate cannot combat hate–many wise people have said this, and we know this to be universally true. Continuing to hate him and his supporters will get us absolutely nowhere.

We humans have a tendency to fear the unknown, and avoid that which is different from us. That fear and ignorance can often turn into hate. That’s the real war we should all be fighting.

We have survived other natural and unnatural disasters, and we will survive him. Nature has a way of taking care of itself. He is impermanent and containable. The sun will rise again tomorrow, and the day after that. In the meantime, we need vigilance but we must not be driven by fear. And we ALL need to listen, to try to understand, to self-reflect, and to be open.

If we can do that, then some good can come from all this. Maybe he’s here to teach us something about ourselves and to show us where we’re very clearly stuck. Maybe he’s here to shake us up and help us evolve. Nothing ever changes when we are too comfortable. Now that the fear has been exposed and the anger is out of the shadows, maybe the journey towards healing and civility can begin.

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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

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 South America: Week 1

In the Ecuadorean mountains, near Otavallo

In the Ecuadorean mountains, near Otavallo

Well, I have come to the end of week 1 in Ecuador, and what a ride it’s been. I realize that for some of you, all the nitty gritty, day to day stuff may be boring. So I will try a new format, starting with a bullet list of random thoughts and observations for those who want it short and sweet, and a full day by day insight for those who are interested in reading more.

Random thoughts and observations
Dogs: there is a dog society, parallel to humans, in most of the small towns I have visited. Dogs are walking around the streets–alone or in groups–going about their own business, running their own show–seemingly unaware or oblivious to what people are doing. I have never seen anything quite like it.
Popcorn: served with virtually every meal. No movie required.
The equator: I assumed it would be stupid hot here because Ecuador is on the equator. Not so, at least so far. 8-23 Celsius in the mountains, and 18-27 Celsius on the West coast. One day last week, pea-sized hail was actually falling from the sky in Quito! Wild.
Gas: 36 cents a litre!
Exports: Ecuador is the number one exporter of bananas and tuna worldwide.
Hats off: the Panama hat is actually made in Ecuador.
Young at heart: I was by far the eldest in the hostels I have stayed in so far. But somehow I don’t feel out of place. Like-minded travelling souls perhaps.
People and pride: people care here. They may not have much, but they take pride in what they do have. They are understated and not aggressive.

The week in review
Flying into the capital city of Quito, Ecuador was pretty cool…dropping into a mountainous valley 9,300 above sea level, twice the altitude of Denver Colorado. And what a pleasure it was to finally arrive after a long (and thankfully uneventful) day of travel, greeted by a very friendly and hassle-free immigration officer at the Quito airport. I then got into an airport cab. The driver was a very nice, pleasant older fellow…but he had no idea where he was going. I think was suffering from early stages of dementia. Poor guy. He must have stopped 10 times for directions, and then promptly forgot them every time! Mumbling to himself, then laughing. So a one hour trip took two.

Finally arrived at a very basic, but nice and clean and friendly hostel in a busy central neighbourhood…good vibe. Hotel staff Alejandro and Andres made me feel totally welcome. No doubt the whole hostel thing was a good idea, as there were people staying there from all over the world. Lots to learn from fellow travellers, but I really was too tired too talk to anyone the first night. But I did much better the second day, meeting lots of new people, including Mark, a young Irishman living in Ecuador. I would end up spending lots of time with him in my first week.

That usual initial fear of the unknown was, and is always right there, but I pushed through it, and ventured out on my own to walk around the neighbourhood on day 2. I had it in my head that I was arriving in a picturesque little Ecuadorian town. Wrong. Quito is a huge city of about 2.5 million people! The most unusual thing I saw was a female police inspector wearing 3-inch heels! I really do not like big city life, but I made the most of my surroundings over the next several days. A few food highlights of the day: a fresh juice I had never tried before (tree tomato), a delicious seafood ceviche, and an interesting combo of figs and cheese (queso) for dessert. Yummy!

The highlight of day 2? While I was walking around the city, a car was backing up and there were a bunch of small kids behind him. I jumped between the kids and the car and stopped him. We all kept walking and when I looked back, a young girl smiled shyly at me and said “gracias.” A very touching moment.

Overlooking Quito, on a volcano

Overlooking Quito, on a volcano

I started day 3 by climbing a volcano that overlooks the city…well not actually climbing. I took the cable car to about 13,000 feet. The air was even thinner up there, and I felt a little light headed and out of breath, but the view was spectacular. Then met a group at another hostel for a 3-hour walking tour of the old town. The guide was really good–engaging and informative–and I learned some Ecuadorian history and culture. Then the rain and cold came in a big way. Not only rain, but pea-sized hail!! But by the end of day 3, I was certainly becoming much more comfortable and confident.

Saturday I took a day tour several hours north of Quito through the Andes mountains. We made several stops, the highlight being Otavalo, home to south America’s biggest Saturday market. I am not a shopper, but I did enjoy this place. Huge market, but surprisingly calm and “tranquillo.” Unlike many other peoples, Ecuadorians are not aggressive when it comes to selling. I am very careful about what and where I eat when I’m travelling–nothing worse than getting sick thousands of miles away from home–but after carefully scoping out the food stands, I enjoyed a delicious freshly pulled pork snack for $1.50, eating with locals. Although the day was a little touristy, this was a really good way to make this kind of trip. I also really enjoyed chatting with some of the others in the bus…visitors from Germany, Thailand, Switzerland, US, and Canada. Even a US pilot. I learned about them, and picked up all kinds of useful travel tips and info. Made a few stops along the way, including a mountain lagoon and the equator line. Pretty cool to have one foot in the north hemisphere, and one in the south.

One foot in the North, and one in the South. pointing North.

One foot in the North, and one in the South. pointing North.

One very interesting thing I learned about that was a new way to look at the Earth. Kind of hard to explain, and I’m not sure I completely understand it, but the gist of it involves looking at the earth not as upper and lower hemispheres, but as left and right. North, South, East, and West stay the same, but the Earth is, in effect, turned on its side. If you hold a globe below you, looking at the equator with North on your left and South on your right, and spin it away from you! You get the idea. A whole new way to look at Mother Earth.

Day 5 (Sunday), I drove with Mark from Quito, heading South and West through the mountains and down to the coast. It was a very long drive…about 10 hours…but the 1-hour descent from about 9,000 to about 2,000 feet was wild. Twisty, turny roads, driving through the clouds, crossing different climate zones…it was an incredibly spectacular part of the journey. We finally made it to the modern port city of Manta (one of the biggest drug ports in the world apparently), then south along the coast to Salango, a small fishing village just outside of Puerto Lopez. We stayed at a very basic, but clean hostel for $8 a night. The best part was falling asleep to the sound of the ocean.

Fishermen arriving with their early morning catch...and the birds trying to get a free meal!

Fishermen arriving with their early morning catch…and the birds trying to get a free meal!

On Monday we visited a large Canadian real estate project (Hola Ecuador) which is about 45 minutes North of Salango. From there, we travelled South, stopping at most of the beach towns and main beaches along the way. Quite a nice stretch of about 60 km. between Puerto Lopez and Montanita, which is a very cool surf town. Lots of life and activity there compared to the others. Beach bums, hippies, and great waves. Then back to Salango for a second night.

imageOn Tuesday (day 7), we and headed south, back to Monanita where Mark dropped me, and where I will hang out for a few days. Earlier in the week, a fellow traveller recommended Balsa Surf Camp, a hostel, off the beaten path but on the beach for $25 a night. What a beautiful place this turned out to be. A lot of care and attention and thought has been put into this comfortable and relaxed oasis. Feels very welcoming and peaceful here. I have not been feeling 100% healthy over the last few days–adjusting to the food, fighting a cold–so this will be a restorative time I think. Spent the rest of the day walking the beach and doing some body surfing, getting to know the water. Not quite up to the physical demands of surfing yet, so will hope to do that tomorrow as I begin week 2!

It is very interesting how things have unfolded this week, the people I have met, and how one person or place leads to the next. I could never have predicted how any of this would unfold. I did not have a firm plan, yet things have turned out just perfectly. It reminds me of the gift that is the present moment, and allowing myself to go with the flow.

A few final thoughts…every time I arrive in a new place, I wonder what the hell am I doing here. My reflex is guarded and nervous and suspicious in various proportions and amount. I tend to want to keep to myself. And when I do that, invariably, that’s exactly what I get back. But I push through it, and make an effort to connect. And that changes the whole experience to something very rich and meaningful.

Even though I don’t know much Spanish, I make an effort in their language. I make an effort to know them. And that goes a long way to breaking barriers. Smiling, asking their name, showing an interest, trying to engage…it changes everything. I have been warned about all kinds of dangerous situations and scams and I am mindful. But I am reminded time and time again that when a I treat people with kindness and openness…the way I want to be treated….I invariably get the same treatment in return. I am perhaps naive in some ways, but I do know that people are fundamentally quite similar, and respond to the same things, whatever country they’re from.

Now why do I work extra hard at this only when I am in unfamiliar territory….need to think about this one.

Any thoughts or questions? Don’t be shy. ‘Til next week.

Jonathanimage

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Fifty Shades of Grey

“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured and far away.”Henry David Thoreau

Well, I made it. I celebrated my 50th birthday last week, singing my little heart out, surrounded by family and friends. On the day, exactly how I wanted to do it. Stepping to the music.

Many have asked if it feels different, hitting this milestone. I can report that there have been no great earth-shattering epiphanies between March 27 and March 28. But there have been many gradual realizations, especially over the past two or three years. Things slowly coming into focus.

Someone asked me recently if I thought I was an adult. I do not feel grown up, and I am not sure I know what that even means. I still find it hard to believe I have 50 years under my belt. Physically, I have to say that I am not wild about what happens to me as I age, and would happily trade myself in for a younger model at times. Benjamin Button has the right idea. Mentally, I don’t feel like I imagine a 50-year-old should feel. I still think I think young.

But spiritually and emotionally, I would not trade now for any time in the past. Up and down, good and bad, happy and sad, I have tried (and not always succeeded) to do the right thing, and treat others the way I want to be treated. There are things about my life that I wish had turned out differently, despite my efforts, but I have no regrets. Everything that has happened has made me who I am, and overall I am happy with the result. My friend Tommy reminded me of this recently, in a few more words.

I would do it all over again. It has been a good run.

Here are a few more insights, brought on by friends, family, and other great thinkers. As always, these always seem to come exactly when I am ready to receive them.

“It is a mistake to try and look too far ahead. The chain of destiny can only be grasped one link at a time.”Winston Churchill

I used to think I had it all mapped out, and everything would happen as I planned it. Not so. There is a much bigger plan unfolding, most of which I cannot control nor understand. So I just keep moving forward, less concerned about figuring it all out, and more concerned about what I wish to create. Trying not to let my past dictate my future.

My friend Rel wrote: “maybe you can move on now and find that big THING in life that will leave you feeling content, my friend.” I have no idea what that big thing is yet, but I am open, and I am ready.

“If you continue to pursue the goal of salvation through a relationship, you will be disillusioned again and again, but if you accept that the relationship is here to make you conscious instead of happy, then the relationship will offer you salvation.”—Ekhart Tolle

Slowly learning this the hard way. Relationships exist as mirrors, reflecting who we are. I understand the concept, but it’s very tough in practice.

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”—Rumi

And there are many. Trying to knock them down, one painful brick at a time. The dance of intimacy is and will continue to be my greatest life challenge.

My father said to me recently that he will always support me. Even though he may have reservations about my chosen paths, I am still his son, and he will always be proud of me. He also expressed that he was only sorry that he hadn’t told me this before. I can’t tell you how meaningful it was to finally hear these words.

It reminds me (loosely quoted, unknown source) that “I have and will incur the misunderstanding and perhaps even the wrath of those around me for having the temerity to march to my own drumbeat, which I am finally starting to hear. I will try not to take it personally. We are all on different paths and timetables, but we all seek and need unconditional love and support, especially from those closest to us.” That helps me feel worthy, confident, and better able to accept the good that comes my way.

And from my son Ben: “As always, the flow of life is unstoppable. But my paddle is wide, and my stroke is just. So I go where I need to.” When I asked Ben if this is an original quote, he replied “why of course…I live this shit, yo.” Wow…19 going on 50! Profound words from an old soul. You just never know where the wisdom will come from.

For me, getting older means learning to see things as they are, accepting them, and letting go. Externally, I control virtually nothing. All I can really control is what happens on the inside, and how I choose to experience life. Understanding how, why, and what I feel…a heightened awareness of everything. Learning to live with contradiction and ambiguity, and understanding that this is the way things are. Learning that fear is not something to be overcome, but rather something to face and move through.

Life is becoming much less black and white. I am learning to see the many, many shades of grey in between.

If this is what adulthood means, then I guess I am certainly well on my way.

IMG_5681 (1)

Out of Africa–On Purpose

IMG_4815This is my final post of a series of lingering thoughts from my recent trip to Mozambique, Africa. This post is on finding my life’s purpose.

I don’t know that I’m any closer to figuring out what to do with what’s left of my life, yet perhaps this experience has made things a little clearer. I know I like to help those who need it. I realized that whatever it is I am doing, I have to enjoy it–no more endless, meaningless drudgery with no connection to who I am. I was reminded that I still abhor the bureaucracy and bullshit that gets in the way of progress and putting talents to good use.

I discovered that I really enjoy the consultant or advisor role, and the fact that in a short-term contract, volunteer or otherwise, there is a beginning and an end. I am not entrenched in the organizational culture, and that allows me to approach the issues and situation with fresh eyes.

I enjoyed the structure and challenges of the work, the commitment to a purpose, but without the attachment to that purpose. I realize that once I’m gone it is out of my hands…and that feels good and freeing somehow.

I re-discovered that unfamiliarity brings out the best in me and helps me tune in to my inner voice that has all the answers.

I will close by paraphrasing a few relevant and meaningful thoughts that I heard recently from Deepak Chopra that have been bouncing around in me ever since:

Fear and desire can cloud our intuition. But beyond that is the source of all intuition. The law of detachment helps us embrace the unknown. Uncertainty is essential in our path to freedom….it reinforces our need to trust ourselves. Uncertainty is living from within, able to trust our inner being. No barriers, no limitations. Into the field of all possibilities. The intuitive heart knows. Listen closely. It will always lead you in the direction of your soul’s purpose.

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.

031

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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Into Africa–March 7, 2013

265Before I get into the week, here are a few random thoughts and observations. In many African countries, women still have no rights and are considered the property of men. Once she has been bought, a man is free to use and abuse her as he pleases. This used to be the norm across the continent; now less so, but still far too frequently which is very troubling. I firmly believe that if women ran countries there would be far less violence within and between countries. But I digress.

This does not seem to be the case in Maputo though, and I would guess most urban areas of Mozambique. Women are very aggressive and outspoken here. I have been asked by many local men why I don’t have a girlfriend. That is the culture. Friday nights are “girlfriend” nights. I tried to explain to one colleague why I cannot take part in that. “But you don’t have to tell your wife, she’s not here,” he said. I told him that that was not the issue…that I would know. It might be different if I where raised here to think that way, but I was not, and cannot. But I suppose the practice is not all that different from anywhere else, it’s just more socially accepted here.

Life expectancy in Mozambique is only about 50 years. Although there is hardly any obesity here and most people look healthy, the overall diet is terrible. Rice and potatoes (especially french fries) are staples with most meals, and not a lot of crunchy fruit and veggies. Lots of mushy food.

Part of it is poverty, but part of it I think is that they just don’t know about nutrition. All they know is what has been passed down to them from parents and family. They have not been taught otherwise.

Mozambique is the 4th fastest growing economy in the world. Really hard to believe in some ways, especially with the huge gap between rich and poor. Let’s pray that with a booming economy, increasing focus on education, and tremendous external interest in Mozambique’s natural resources, that gap will narrow in the coming years.

The week that was…

Minutes after last week’s post, I was very relieved to attend the closing reception of the international conference we hosted. It was cocktail party outside the conference centre featuring the same African musicians and dancers I wrote about last week, the same group that opened the conference…and my observation was that the whole thing felt quite unnatural.

IMG_1388Well, the universe works in some very interesting and mysterious ways sometimes. I was standing there, minding my own business, when one of the Zulu dudes grabbed me and led me to the front of the crowd. He put something on my head, and handed me a spear and leather shield and before I knew it, I was chanting and performing a Zulu war dance with them and three others from the conference! I was the only white guy up there, in a seersucker pants and a jacket. What a site it must have been. My body is just not capable of moving the way the Zulu do, but I gave it my best shot. As I have done with every aspect of this incredible journey.

I worked half a day on Friday, then off with my friend Liz, her two kids, and brother Sean235 for a whirlwind tour through Kruger national game park in South Africa and Swaziland. Sean and I went for an amazing three-hour open-vehicle sunset safari Friday night (or as Charlotte says, “safaaawee”…so cute) . Our Excellent guide (yes that’s his name) was a knowledgeable guy with a quirky sense of humour. He was comfortable and relaxed, but his eyes were fascinating–they never stopped moving, as he constantly scanned the terrain, on permanent alert. Like a predator.253

Kruger park is one of the largest in Africa, about 65 km west to east and 360 km north to south. It is home 547 species of birds, 147 species of mammals, and 114 species of reptiles.

I had no real expectations on what the experience would be like and what we might see. But in three short hours, it felt like the park animals gave us a real show, with impalas, hippos, elephants, wildebeest, buffalo, kudus, bush babies, porcupines, water bucks, and zebras all around us. We even spotted, albeit at a distance, a couple of lions and the rare black rhino. Apparently you can drive through the park for days and weeks and never see these. 247Rhinos, lions, elephants, buffalo, and leopards are what hunters refer to as “the big five” because these animals are so hard to kill, a reference that I dislike incidentally. We saw four out of the five, but the highlight for me was an elephant who just appeared on our right side, just feet away from the vehicle. I had spotted elephants at a242 distance a little earlier, but this was a completely different experience. It was MASSIVE, at least 15 feet tall…and so wise and peaceful looking. I stopped snapping shots and tried to just take it in. Magic.

One funny sidebar…about a year ago I bought this great safari-type shirt. Breathable, versatile, well designed and very comfortable. This will be perfect if I go on a safari one day, I thought. Ironic then that I did not have this with me for the safari (in the dirty laundry pile back in Maputo), and instead was wearing bright blue golf shirt! Very wilderness looking!251

Then up very early the next morning for another drive through the park, this time with the kids and Liz. More buffalo, elephants, zebras, as well as giraffes, vultures, turtles and more. Honestly, I wasn’t sure how well I’d fare inside a vehicle with two young kids for hours at a time, but I approached that as I have everything else on this trip, with openness to the flow. That attitude of acceptance changes everything.

The journey continued through South Africa to Swaziland, as we wound our way 110through the mountains of this small country (about 150×100 km), the last remaining monarchy in Africa. Interesting how this landlocked country, one of two in South Africa (the other being Lesotho) has managed to non-violently remain independent from British and South Africa rule. A country rich in tradition. Every year, for example, there is a national celebration where the king takes a new bride (he is about to about 13 now!). It is a showcase event for all the eligible women in the country. Is it a surprise then that about a third of the country is infected by HIV/AIDS.

The countryside is absolutely stunning, and there is certainly a different feel from South 283Africa and Mozambique. More orderly than Mozambique somehow, but not as modern as South Africa. We stopped at a little craft place with beautiful views, and minutes later, a massive water dam. We continued through the mountains, with pavement turning to dirt road. I started to feel that familiar tingle of worry and unease, not sure where we were headed and feeling like we had made a wrong turn. Being in the back with the kids, I had not really been paying attention. And we were beginning to lose daylight. No signage, and everyone we stopped to ask seemed to have no idea where we were. The what ifs started swirling around my head. Anyway, it passed and as it turned out, we were not off track at all. It just felt like we were.

We finally made it to the Mozambique border around 7:30 pm, where we discovered a problem with my entry visa. After about an hour of negotiation and waiting (thank you Liz), we sorted it out and were on our way. Just another part of the adventure. I probably should have paid more attention to the process, and been better prepared. As Sean pointed out, in the big picture it was a good thing because it showed that the immigration system can work the way it is supposed to. But I am so glad that we discovered this then, and not at the airport in a week from now, as this might have prevented me from leaving the country!

It was a wonderful tour, and I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to do this with friends.

Sunday was a grey, windy, and unsettled feeling day. It matched the tumultuous feeling I had inside of me. I wandered across the street to the park where an afternoon music and food festival was unfolding. I just wasn’t in the celebratory mood. I was off. It happens. But much less often than it used to. And I know that it passes, and not to let it discolour everything else in the meantime. Learning.

I ran into Vally, a musician I met about a month ago in a club who, at the time, seemed very eager for me to play with him and his band. When I followed up by phone and text a few days later, he never responded. I saw him again about two weeks ago and he apologized and said his phone was broken. Then he asked me for money to get drugs for his sick child. I didn’t buy it because I don’t trust him. Then I ran into him again at this festival on Sunday. He apologized for his phone again and for asking me for money the last time we met. Then he asked me for money again. It really bothered me.

The relationships I have formed here, by and large have not been based on money. And this dude is shifty, insincere, and disingenuous. There is something about this sort of person that really stirs something up deep inside of me. I gave him a few bucks anyway, and off he went. I have since learned that Vally is a drug addict which explains why I felt the way I felt.

Later that day Domingues, one of the hotel receptionists, asked if he could borrow a cable to re-charge his phone. And then he said in his broken English: “I love you Mr. Jonatan. You are the best.” And everything re-balanced.

Monday was a better day. Less than two weeks to go and I feel my time running out. I met with someone from the Ministry of Education about website issues. Before we got to his questions, I pointed out that the average can’t even find or get to the website. Seems obvious, but I need to keep reminding myself of where I am. I keep hammering home the universal message that you must think and act like the audience you want to reach, regardless of where you are in the world.

I returned to the office and had a chat with Alberto, one of my colleagues. He was asking me about my visit, with some very insightful comments abou how difficult it can be in a strange place, far from home, different culture, language barriers, the feeling of being alone. “That describes it perfectly,” I said, “but I managed, with help, to adjust very quickly, and I am very proud of that.”

“Ahhh,” he said wisely. “But your approach from the very beginnning has been very open, and very friendly.” He’s right. I have been. Flexibility, awareness, thoughtfulness, a willingness to help and serve, and finding my rhythm quickly have made all the difference, and made this an experience I will never forget.

Tuesday I was flying, starting to wrap up meetings and reports. I met with Chico at the end of the day, and we practiced together, just the two of us, for about two solid hours at his home. He was sober, rested, and focused. I really loved this particular practice because it was more than just me learning his songs…I was actually collaborating with him, suggesting a few changes in wording and structure to his songs. He was open, appreciative, and into it. We’re working on three songs, which I may perform with him and the rest if the InTransito band next week. After we’d run through each of them about four times, he kept saying: “one more time, for the road.” Then his wife Anita made us tea. One tea bag, three cups.

This practice marked a turning point in that up until now, I have been driving the process. Tuesday night Chico asked me if I wanted to practice at his place the next night as well. He also gave me one of his percussion instruments. I will treasure this always, and hopefully put it to very good use in the coming months.

Wednesday we had another rehearsal together. Again, a very interesting practice…I made suggestions and am becoming more confident, and Chico was doing harmonies this time. The songs are evolving. No ego, no expectations, no agenda…just open. “Very good,” he said. “You are ready.”

This morning (Thursday) I was able to arrange a interview with the Canadian lead of this educational reform program at Radio Mozambique. It was a great 10-minute interview. The host was prepared, had good questions, and Suzanne delivered important key messaging like a pro.

Off to the beach this weekend for the first time since I arrived, followed by a visit to one of the training centers early next week.

I will close with a quote that I really like from Ram Dass which ties it all together quite neatly this week. Something to continue to strive for:

“We are all affecting the world every moment, whether we mean to or not. Our actions and states of mind matter because we are so deeply interconnected. Working on our own consciousness is the most important thing that we are doing at any moment, and being love is the supreme creative act.”

‘Til next week…

MoJo269

The Doubt Worms

Last week I met with a group that is doing some wonderful humanitarian work in Africa. I have been looking to do something meaningful since my volunteer mission to Nicaragua earlier this year. It would appear that this group would welcome my expertise, and that if I want to do this, the opportunity is right there. I just need to say yes.

Almost immediately, the “what if” doubt worms set in. What if fail? What if I can’t do this? What if I’m not as good as they think I am? What if they discover that I am a fraud? Of course, my “right brain” knows that this is ridiculous. I am a 24-year communications veteran, and there is not much I haven’t seen (although I imagine Africa will challenge this). Of course you can do this, my rational side tries to tell me. But the doubt worms remain. They are pesky and persistent little creatures, reminding me of that niggly, familiar feeling that I may not be good enough.

And my instictive reaction to the unknown is fear. But perhaps, as Pema Chodron puts it, “fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.”

I then met with my wife and son to get their thoughts. My wife had no doubt whatsoever in my ability to do this work. My son asked me what was the worst that could happen. Good advice and wisdom close to home. They made me wonder what life would be like if I were able to see myself as others see me. If I had as much confidence in myself as others have in me.

The truth is I don’t need to prove myself to anyone, not even myself. The truth is I am enough, just as I am.

I will try to stop thinking and analyzing. I will simply do my best. I will trust myself and accept what comes. And things will work out just fine. Hell, it might even be great!

This time I will not fight or run from the doubt worms. I will simply let them have their say, shine the light, and watch them wither away.

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.”