The Way of the Pilgrimage

I ran across this beautiful piece on pilgrimage by Huston Smith:

The object of pilgrimage is not rest and recreation – to get away from it all. To set out on a pilgrimage is to throw down a challenge to everyday life. Nothing matters now but this adventure. Travelers jostle each other to board the train where they crowd together on a journey that may last several days. After that there is a stony road to climb on foot – a rough, wild path in a landscape where everything is new. The naked glitter of the sacred mountain stirs the imagination; the adventure of self-conquest has begun. Specifics may differ, but the substance in always the same.

Travel brings a special kind of wisdom if one is open to it. At home or abroad, things of the world pull us toward them with such gravitational force that, if we are not alert our entire lives, we can be sucked into their outwardness. Attentive travel helps us to see this, because the continually changing outward scene helps us to see through the world’s pretensions. With its phatasmagoric, kaleidoscopic character laid bare, we see it for what it truly is – perpetually perishing maya – and the world loses its wager. We can understand how perpetual wandering can be a spiritual vocation, as with dedicated pilgrims and sannyasins.


Notes from my Conversation with a Shaman

“Do you remember your purpose?” he asked me point blank. A little surprised by his question I knew exactly what he meant. “No” I nodded my head. “You’ve forgotten. You need to wake up. You need to wake up and remember who you are and why you are here." 

Those are the words that keep coming back to me even a month after the conversation I had with a Shaman in Guatemala. I’ve never been one to give too much credence to the stars -- the Indian horoscope that my mother forced me to get still sits somewhere in her dresser, never having been translated from Sanskrit.  Yet, something moved me to meet with a humble Shaman skilled in the Mayan horoscope.  All I shared was my date of birth and a curiosity of what all he might come up with. Not really looking for anything particular but still wanting to take advantage of all that came my way, I tried to stay open to any lessons I could learn from this.

The penetrating hazel eyes of this gentle man appeared to penetrate deep into my soul.  Sitting across a table, he circled three numbers on a complex looking chart that he had drawn on a piece of paper: 16 for the material world; 21 for the mental world; and 26 for the spiritual world. “You don’t care about the material world and are naturally inclined towards the spiritual world.” I nodded. He continued on, “You constantly struggle with this duality between the material and the spiritual. Until you find the balance, it will be hard for you to progress. In reality there’s no duality, it’s all maya -- an illusion. The good and the bad, the right and the wrong, the light and the dark are all an illusion.”    
Lake Panajachel, Guatemala
“According to the Mayan beliefs before we are born, we decide exactly where we’re going to be born, who our parents will be, and what purpose we want to fulfill in this lifetime. You had decided that you were going to work on some negative karma from your past life that you were carrying. You decided to work hard your entire life. There will be no free lunch for you. You will work for everything until the day you pass on. You made that decision for yourself.” Incidentally, this wasn’t the first time I was hearing this. “If you overcome any negativity that comes to you from others with love, it will bring them to a different vibration. You work with your hands -- you were a doctor in your past life. Your job is to heal yourself and others in your community. When you are in the space of love, you are connected to the first Shaman woman and can create miracles in life.” I wasn’t exactly sure what he meant by this, but he went on.  “In this life, you work with technology, like computers. You need to pay attention to your intuitions. You’ve lived 65 lives before and are ready for transmutation into the next world."  "You have to stop fighting with yourself,” he repeated.

We talked for an hour and a half. I listened intently without giving him any other information about myself.  The Shaman revealed truth after truth about me and the universe. I have to admit that I wasn’t sure what to make of a lot of this. And yet there were many things that made some things “click” within me, almost like finding a piece of the puzzle that you had all along but now you can see exactly how it fits. At the least, it was an excuse to have a really insightful conversation with a wise elder. :)

At the end, he wrote down on the piece of paper in front of me: “El camino spiritual es la base de la solucion.”  And explained, “the spiritual way is the base for your solutions. You need to meditate.”


Falling in Love with Antigua

Can you really fall in love with a city? Never one to understand why people waste money on those silly “I Love San Francisco” sweatshirts. I like S.F. too but can you really like a city so much that you want to declare your love for it in red and gold glossy letters across your chest, for years to come? But is it actually possible, I seriously pondered sitting in a heavenly outdoor cafĂ© and taking a bite of my heavenly square chocolate croissant for lunch. Can you love an entire city? To my astonishment, a resounding, “yes” arrived from the back of my mind (or perhaps my mouth), as I took a sip of the coffee. And between that bite of a square chocolate croissant and sip of that divine coffee, I had declared my love for Antigua. There was no more denying it. It’s true. I heart Antigua. 

I’m enamored by its cobble-stone streets, 17th century colonial buildings, the baroque style churches around every corner, the friendliness of it's natives. The city seems to be frozen in time. Once served as a rich colonial capital, it’s declared as a Unesco World Heritage Site. As a result, it’s clean, organized, ad-free since you can’t post anything on the streets. Tiny little storefronts open into magical spaces filled with restaurants and boutiques. Around Easter, purple robed monks from the dozens of churches packed the streets. All day people leisurely stroll through the Parque Central over-looking a beautiful Cathedral. Cafes, bookstores, bakeries, restaurants, and handicrafts shops line the streets. After having been in the rural areas for the past few weeks, my mouth watered on seeing a bookstore that had books – in Ingles. Si. I think there might have been a tear or two at the mere sight of it, since I had finished reading all my books and didn’t find anything at the one bookstore in San Marcos.

The skeptic in me wonders if it’s really love or just my inner urban girl coming out after being in nature for so long. Perhaps its knowing that I’m headed on my walking pilgrimage soon. These are probably the last couple of days that I can actually relax and be comfortable. Soon enough I’ll be sleeping in dorms with lots of other tired and snoring souls who’ve walked all day. Perhaps my love might be a little bit of an infatuation given the circumstances. But still there’s no denying it, there’s something magical about this place.

You almost feel like skipping through the streets for no reason. It’s a place where old men still stop and give you the way with a slight nod of their hats. It’s where you can watch artists quietly drawing on the streets early in the morning absorbed in their art. It’s where you can buy spiced mango on a stick and gobble it up by the time you get to the next block. It’s where butterflies will suddenly appear out of nowhere, and come sit on your lap on the quite steps of an old church and beckon you to stay. Just like the Antiguans, they’re in no rush to get anywhere and will let you even pet them. It’s absolutely magical.

And to answer my original question, the answer is – yes! If there was a shop selling an, “I Love Antigua” sweatshirt, I would absolutely get one and walk around wearing it for years to come as a reminder of the beautiful place and it’s spirit.

A friendly butterfly sitting in my lap, greeted me outside La Merced

Originally a convent, the famous arch

The popular church, "La Merced" that was recently renovated

                                                                (Dad and sons marimba team)


Lost in Time?

The Guatemalans in San Marcos seem to be living at such a pleasant rhythmic pace that I can’t help but be in awe of the ease with which they effortlessly carry on their daily affairs. They go about their normal day, going to work in the morning, raising their children, cooking and cleaning -- all the same things that we do, but no one’s ever rushing or even seen walking fast. No one ever says, “I don’t have time or let me look at my calendar to see if I can schedule you in for the Thursday after next.” 
Growing up in the Bay Area, life has always revolved around deadlines, meetings, spending hours in traffic, hours on email, and too busy a social calendar to keep up with everyone. The days are crowded with activity and yet most of us live with this overwhelming guilty feeling of not getting enough done in a day. We console with the latest self-help books on time-saving techniques, even attend courses on time management, or email others just to put the “ball in their court” so it’s off of ours. Heck we often enjoy crossing things off our lists more than completing the task itself, just so we can move on to the next item (on our never-ending-to-do list). We’ve become a culture of people used to running around at a dizzying pace trying to achieve the un-achievable. Why? Well, since everyone else seems to be in the same predicament, it must be “normal.”

One can understand my astonishment at arriving in San Marcos, where people are beating to a different drum all together ... completely oblivious to the fact that their neighbors up north are sprinting through their lives like their tails are on fire. So I can’t help but ask: what are we missing? What does an average Guatemalan know about time that an average American hasn’t figured out yet? After weeks of looking at them with scrutinizing eyes and making mental notes of their every move, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two simple reasons for our wide differences: contentment and living with rhythms of nature.

Although they work hard to have a better quality of life for their families, they never lose sight of what’s important. On the busiest tourist day of the year, they will not hesitate to shut down their restaurants, close down their shops, and go home to celebrate Easter with their families. They will not worry about missing out on a months’ worth of profits; instead they go to church and give thanks for what they have. In the US, this might be translated as un-ambitious but here they’re working off of a totally different grid all-together. Brand names mean very little since most families weave their own clothes. No one has a car. The small cobble streets aren’t even wide enough for motorized vehicles. It’s considered pretty snooty to have more than your neighbors (quite opposite of “competing with the Joneses”). Everyone borrows from each other at one point or another, for a wedding, a celebration, or a religious holiday. By the end, everyone owes everyone else in the village. Rather than a sign of weakness, this is considered a sign of community that connects everyone. And humility is a trait that supersedes all others.

Nature is also a central part of the Mayan culture so there’s an inherent connection to it in their daily lives. They live close to the lake; Wake up when the sun comes up to the sound of the birds chirping and the roosters roosting; Go to sleep when it gets dark. I’ve never seen a Guatemalan cram more into their days than comfortably possible. I don’t think they’ve ever heard of the term “multi-tasking”. I’m sure they would think it was a crazy idea. They’re not just doing things, they seem to “really” enjoy the process of simple everyday tasks, and never seem to be in a hurry to get to the next one but you know that they eventually will.

While we almost always chew more than we can swallow, they seem to have a built-in system for interruptions. They chat with neighbors; they talk to the grocers; they even have time enough to be curious about the random traveler that drops in on their town. They’re the most courteous people I’ve ever met, no matter how young or old, no one will let you pass by without saying a hearty “Buenas Dias” or “Buenas Tardes”. I’m almost certain that they think that Americans are a pretty antsy bunch, demanding a meal or a room before fully enquiring how their day is going. A little “como estas” (how’s it going?) goes a long way here.

They seem to allow space within all their exchanges, to sanction things below the surface to come up and permeate their lives. Just as you can’t hurry a bamboo tree to grow, you cannot rush your own natural rhythm of life. No matter what, a woman will take nine months to give birth to a child, a dog will take two months, and an elephant will take over two years. There’s a natural flow for everything. Interrupting it inevitably leads to the devastation of certain other parts of our selves. Maybe we wouldn’t need as many drugs and therapists in the US if we harmonized with our natural rhythms instead of the ticks of the clock.

On describing a typical day in San Marcos to a friend back home, he joked that Americans would’ve gone around the world five times by the time I finished a meal at a restaurant here. But then we pondered: after going around the world five times, we’d still end up in the same place, so what’s the rush. Where are we going after all?


Lessons From a Hazel-Eyed Boy

The ferry docks as passengers step in, one by one. The pre-pubescent ferry driver jumps onto the front of the boat, almost as if in an action flick. Inscribed on his shirt are five words that read, “I am the evil twin” and a long red scarf wrapped around his neck. I’m exhausted but find it quite humorous and want to laugh out loud but I hold it in. All are quiet. It wouldn’t be appropriate. In his most authoritative voice, he scurries the travelers along instructing them to move to the back and make space for others coming on. About thirty-five people squeeze in where normally eighteen would enjoy the ride. 

The boat finally splashes forward onto the wild waves. A little boy sits at the front of the boat, squeezing his little fingers tightly onto the edge of the boat as it roughly moves up and down. His big hazel eyes smile, enraptured by the setting sun. His mother calls him to the back, but he insists on being in the front, where another man from the States sits, with a long wooden musical instrument resting on his lap. Feeling the end of the day tiredness, the women in the Mayan dresses and the tourists in the cargo pants, we all sit quietly watching the sun. The waves get wilder and start to splash the passengers. Everyone quickly pulls down the plastic on the side, the little boy giggles as water splatters on his long eyelashes. Once accustomed to the sudden moods of the lake, we continue in silence.

The ferry driver, now sitting on top of the roof hums to whatever sounds are coming from his head phone. The boy with the big hazel eyes watches him intently. And minutes later starts singing at the top of his lungs, a Spanish song that he feels so obviously passionately about. I am floored by this show of courage, oblivious to the thirty-five strangers on the boat and can’t help but smile broadly. Lessons in bravery and living every moment of the day, from a little hazel-eyed boy -- these are the moments I later remember, when I recall my day.


Lava-Roasted Marshmellows on Pacaya

To climb or not to climb, that was the question. The mountain in question was the Pacaya – an active volcano near Antigua. For almost two days, I pondered the thought of laying my eyes on this beauty. Should I? Shouldn’t I? Many horror stories were heard about how grueling the climb is and how unsafe the mountain is since it is an “active” volcano. And the fact that there are no safety measures didn’t help what so ever. 

View of the volcano on the climb up
“This is something that would never be allowed in the US,” one traveler advised. I had a flash back to riding on top of buses in Nepal driving through the narrow and curvy Himalayan mountain roads, wondering where I would fall if the bus tilted over couple more inches. It was the most memorable bus ride of my life. I never regretted doing it. I wouldn’t do it again -- but I never regretted doing it. That would never be allowed in the sue-happy US, and neither would crossing the street in India where everyone (cows included) seem to be attempting to run you over. :)

I remembered my life-long dream (okay maybe not life-long) of one day returning to Nepal to climb up to the Mount Everest base camp. If I was ever going to do that, I needed to make sure I stay in shape. This might just be the type of challenge that my body needs right now. And being a self-proclaimed “very practical person”, if at some point I felt things were heading in a hazardous direction, I could just stop and not go further. The reasons were quickly stacking up in favor of climbing. And there was one over-arching reason above all that just could not be argued against: I wanted to see lava!

With the decision made, all I needed was a good pair of shoes (rubber soled shoes would melt I’d heard). A generous friend lent me her running shoes. They were two sizes bigger nonetheless they were a lot better than my sports sandals -- which would quickly get filled with ash. With little trepidation, I packed some snacks and water. After an hour and a half of driving to get to the starting point, we had barely gotten out of the van, when little kids selling wooden sticks came barging in through the windows. I bought one for 5 quetzales (about 60 cents) and marched on with my size nine shoes. The ascent was steeper than I expected, and oxygen was in short supply. Within the first five minutes I was completely breathless and wondering if I had made a good decision. I tried to take three breaths in for every two breaths out and avoided all conversation with anyone around me, since I couldn’t spare a single breath. The English guy, who was bent up on knowing where everyone was from, would just have to wait. :) I avoided all eye contact with him and strutted forward like a woman on a mission.

A huge ball of clouds followed overhead threatening to rain any second. And true to their word, ten minutes later they thunderously delivered on their promise. Everyone mumbled their surprise but kept moving along like troopers. I actually didn’t mind the coolness of the rain, being drenched was better than being hot and breathless. However, I did wonder about the effects lightning and thunder might have on an active volcano. Might not be a good combination to reckon with. Trying to be optimistic, I kept my thoughts to myself and focused on putting one size-nine foot in front of the other. If I could just get through the first half an hour, I would be fine. That’s about how long it takes for my heart to acclimatize to the steepness and the higher altitude. And then my trusted legs would carry me forward. At every twenty minute interval, men ready to rent out their horses waited preying on the hikers that had given up. With my sulfur-filled lungs, I tried not to huff and puff while passing them and put on my most courageous smile to let them know I would not be defeated. :) 

Step after step I finally made it to the last half an hour -- to the ash part of the mountain, where formerly lava flowed, in some places as recently as ten days ago.

I’d never seen anything even remotely like this.

Roasting marshmellows at the top of the volcano
The black waves of river seemed frozen in time, hard as a rock in some places and yet brittle and sharp in other places. Everyone had to tread very carefully to avoid stepping on any cracks, especially in the hot parts. It was quite astonishing to believe that actual lava was flowing right underneath us. Some spots felt like an oven. Climbing the last bit and seeing a huge river of lava flow on one side of the volcano was incredible. It was something I’ve only seen on National Geographic before. But the biggest highlight of all was roasting marshmellows through a crack of lava on top, overlooking the volcano. Strangers congratulated each other on making it to the top and forgot all about the pain they’d gone through only moments ago. It was a priceless moment. The best darn roasted marshmellows I’ve ever had in my life. That alone would’ve made the trip worth it.

On the way back there were a few scraped elbows and bloody knees around but most people survived. The ash part is pretty sharp, so any little tumble led to cuts and scrapes. Mountains, I’ve always felt were not something to be “conquered” -- that’s the delusional Western ego talking, since it would only take a second for the mountain to toss you over to your descent. They are aged-old-masters who’ve lived long enough to teach you the lessons that you need to learn. You offer them your toil, your own sweat and they reveal to you the secrets of the universe. There are reasons why many sacred temples in the world are on top of mountains. I couldn’t help but feel reverential to the great volcano for letting me climb it and to push myself beyond the personal boundaries of my own mind (and body).

Lava streaming down on the side of the mountain

Life - still finds a way to grow between the crevice