Monday, March 25, 2013

Be Down Low

"Do you know what that is, sweet pea?  To be humble?  The word comes from the Latin words humilis and humus.  To be down low.  To be of the earth.  To be on the ground."  -Cheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things

"Earth, my likeness, though you look so impassive, ample and spheric there, I now suspect that is not all; I now suspect there is something fierce in you eligible to burst forth." -Walt Whitman, "Earth, My Likeness"

A few months ago Kevin & I spent a Saturday night pawing through our Collected Poems of Whitman.  Whitman wrote a poem called "This Compost."  No lie.  Of course, I don't believe he's using "compost" in the modern sense of purposefully returning organic matter to rich soil.  I believe he's applying the age-old definition of organic material inevitably returns to rich soil.  This rich soil is compost.

Based on my reading, Whitman wrote this shortly after witnessing the trauma of the Civil War.  The poem is too long to quote in it's entirety, but it expresses awe & horror at the diseased limbs & toxic matter absorbed by the earth.  Whitman watches fruit and flowers emerge from what was once rotting corpses.  Though impressed, he's scared.  His response seems to be an obvious reconciliation with the horrors of war.  He begins with, "Something startles me where I thought I was safest," in nature, on earth.  Slowly finding hope in the restorative power of the natural world, he ends by writing, "It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings from them at last."

This idea is lingering with me.  I took a fruit tree pruning workshop a few weeks ago.  The instructor briefly mentioned certain plant's ability to draw towards them (through chemicals & other behaviors) animals that might eat a predatory insect.  Plants, that are often characterized as inert, are dynamic.  I've written here & in the Rooted Blog about soil's capacity to heal, regenerate, break down inorganic material, find balance with various plants, & ultimately restore healthy habitats.  As Whitman wrote in "Earth, My Likeness," "I now suspect there is something fierce in you eligible to burst forth."

Derrick Jensen suggests to his readers to spend time on the ground.  Literally, lay down on grass or dirt or whatever is available to you & watch.  As a yoga practitioner, this feels like meditation.  Watching the earth at ground level, we're suddenly conscious of the many worlds cohabitating.  The actions of ants, the subtle movement of grass, the breath of soil.  This is why we practice yoga-- to draw deeper into our body's own dynamism.  Obviously, as I've written before, I see a profound parallel here.

This past month, my studio has been thinking about sickness, disease, & dying.  I've begun to reflect on taking in toxic foods that caused me to become ill.  I remembered bouts of sickness.  I've thought of death touching me, peripherally, & one day profoundly.  It reminds me of my body's ability to "give such divine materials" and "accept such leavings."  There is a profound ability, in soil, in bodies, to absorb, reconcile, and transform that which does not kill.  Even deadzones, like regions impacted by volcanoes or man-made "disasters" often teem with unpredicted new life.

I'm finding hope in these thoughts.  I'm finding renewed belief in the capacity of earth & body to evolve, grow, & be healthy.  In no way do these thoughts exonerate me, nor anyone else, from actively working against impediments to individual or collective health.  If anything, I find myself more motivated to fight against fracking, Monsanto, & any other practices or corporations that interfere with health.  But I also know that the devastation caused thus far is possibly impermanent.  I suspect that something fierce is eligible to burst forth.

Friday, March 22, 2013


This winter, landing in Quito, we realized that even though Quito is funky, we aren't really city people.  Or, we enjoy aspects of cities, but for short visits.  So after a day we boarded a bus north to Otavalo.  I was drawn by the market & hikes.  I LOVE markets.  I love seeing the pulse and community laid bare by a market day.  Unfortunately, we weren't going to hit the prime market day.  If we decided to stick around in Otavalo for peak market day, it would cost us other experiences in the country.  Plus, prime market day includes the "animal" market.  I've seen animal markets before, primarily in Bac Ha, Vietnam.  While I think they are more humane than the factory farms of my home country, they're still rough to behold.  I mentioned to a staff member in Quito that we'd be at the market on an "off" day in Otavalo & he congratulated our fore-thought.  I raised an eye-brow.  In response he said, "I always tell people to go to Otavalo during the week.  If you go on market day you see gringoes.  You've seen them before, haven't you?" 

Well, by being one, yes I have.

Thoroughly encouraged we paid our $.80 fare & boarded our first Ecuadorian bus.  We were scared.  We'd heard stories, read stories, & generally breathed in the lore around Ecuadorian buses.  Years ago in Panama, before Ecuador was even really on our radar, a couple told us about riding an overnight bus in Ecuador & nearly being overtaken by bandits.  Well, this bus was in mid-morning & more or less a commuter trip.  We soon breathed easy.  Maybe because we were so well-warned the buses really felt like nothing to write home about.

We did indeed find our way to the market.  There were beautiful wool goods, kids hats in the shapes of animals, wooden serving bowls, dishes, & trays, jewelry, & lace.  The market didn't feel as aggressive as others we've visited, which was a nice surprise.  This again, is possibly due to arriving on an off day.  It was mainly frequented by locals purchasing their daily goods.  We found some gifts and left after about two hours.

I'd read about a hike to El Lechero, a tree said to have magical powers.  "El Lechero" means the milkman.  I found myself intrigued that this magical tree was given this name.  I later learned that El Lechero and neighboring lake, San Pablo, are said to be possessed by the spirits of lovers.  These two were kept apart & ultimately transformed into tree & lake.  This repressed desire manifests in their powers.
Kevin's take on the tree's powers was decidedly less romantic.  We walked up the mountain towards where we were told we would find the tree.  We asked people en route.  We went the wrong way, the right way, and then the wrong way again.  A six mile hike turned into about ten miles.  And these are steep, unforgiving, Andean slopes.  My gringo legs were getting broken in quickly.  Kevin's assessment was that the tree's magic was compelling us to keep going even as we began to doubt it's existence.  But we kept telling ourselves, "We've come this far!  We'll regret it if we never see it!"
& of course, as with any worthy adventure, it's really what you see along the way that makes the going worth anything.  We hiked through gently scented eucalyptus groves.  We passed farms & farmers herding their sheep.  We saw llamas and alpacas, and sleepy packs of dogs napping on front stoops.
Passing clothes lines and rain barrels I giggled.  This is so much of why I travel where I do.  I want to learn and to remember.  I want to see people live in ways that cost their environment less.  I get ideas & inspiration.

Finally, FINALLY, we arrived.  Kevin laughed.  Kevin loves jokes that are really a joke on the listener.  His favorite joke is an endless telling of an insecure guy mouthing off to a clown.  The joke goes absolutely nowhere & the punchline is that the listener ceded that time to the teller to no end.  El Lechero felt something like the clown joke.  We hiked and hiked and this is what we found.  A peak with one tree that looked to have been struck by lightning.
And then I kept looking.  Lake San Pablo was in view.  The lover always just out of reach.  Wind sweeping up the peak and blowing the few standing trees.
The careful attention of all those who believe in El Lechero's powers.  The area surrounding El Lechero was obviously, lovingly tended by someone.  The farms lining the Andean slopes that rose and fell on and on into the horizon.  All of this was truly magical.

We began our descent back down to town.  I remembered again why I so value travel, especially when it mandates that I disconnect my smartphone, have no access to TVs, and limited access to phones.  My vision becomes a bit more acute.  My mind feels calmer.  I feel like I begin to see again.  Like I don't resent ceding my time to a story that goes nowhere.  Like taking an unintended ten mile hike really brought me somewhere magical.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013


Quito is funky.  High in the Andes, officially at middle-earth, latitude zero.

Kevin and I landed at night.  The narrow cobble-stone streets felt romantic and mysterious.  We stayed in the San Blas neighborhood, near old Quito.  At 11 pm, the streets were quiet and sleeping.
We learned that the Mariskal neighborhood has plenty of night-life.  However, we're not so urban-oriented & we're certainly not night-owls.  Being within walking distance of Old Quito charm felt perfect.

We woke with the city, to find the buildings lining the steep Andean slopes brightly colored, covered in balconies and dripping plants.
After winding our way through old town, we hiked towards the Basilica del Voto.  This church was constructed in the early 20th century, but it feels like an old Gothic cathedral.  The more modern sensibility is evident in the carvings adorning the ledges & engraved on doors.  There are multiple depictions of animals and the natural world, symbolizing the divinity in nature.

Within the Basilica, you can climb up to the roof and catch sweeping views of Quito & the mountains framing it.

When you need to rest your tired feet, walk a mile north or get a taxi to the Mariskal neighborhood.  There are tons of restaurant and clubs to hear live music.  We arrived during a game between Ecuador and Portugal. Thankfully, Ecuador won!  The streets were rumbling with happy soccer fans.

Quito struck me as a city with a pulse, but one that you might have to get to know before it fully reveals itself.  If you're a city person, stick around.  Listen to live music, wander the cobblestone streets, and allow Quito to gather you closer.  Given that I yearn for the wild, I followed the Andes up and out of the city.

Monday, March 18, 2013


I realized that in accounting for my time in Guatemala I made a huge omission: the market at Chichicastenango.  I had read that this is one of the most exciting markets in all of Central America, but wasn't sure if I'd have time to get there on a market day.  When Kevin & I decided on an extended stay in San Marcos, on Lake Atitlan, we learned that Chichi was an easy day trip.  The next market day was the day after my birthday.  Sweet!

We loaded into a van on a Sunday morning to wind through the mountains northwest towards Chichi.

The market is as wild as promised.  Not only is it vibrant and fun, but the shopping is fantastic!  Well, it's fantastic if, like me, you adore the rich, bright, hand-sewn tapestries famously made in this region of Guatemala.  I first sat in a cafe for a hearty plate of huevos rancheros and strong, dark coffee.  After I was properly fortified, it was on.  I had birthday money in my pocket, knew my budget, & was in bargain-mode. Thankfully, there is an ATM in Chichi!
Vendors expect you to haggle.  You always want to be fair, but firm.  Kevin & I established before-hand that we would walk away before committing to any purchase.  That way we could clear the air and ensure every decision was considered.  I became so addicted to bargaining it became hard to turn off!  The following day we got into a taxi & I tried to negotiate the fare!
There are some aggressive sales people in Chichi.  There are also children asking for money.  Poverty is always hard to bear.  I try to be human, generous, and safety-conscious when I'm in a new community encountering requests for money or resources.  I have no hard and fast answers on how to handle these situations.  I usually just weigh safety.  Obviously, if someone is asking for money, they are concerned for their own welfare.  If it seems safe to take out money and share with them, I will.  If, by taking out money I open myself up to an onslaught of requests-- or demands-- and potentially endanger myself, I usually acknowledge the human making the request but keep moving.  This never feels good because it's not an answer to poverty, or access, or any of the issues that arise in this encounter.  However, it's the best I can come up with at this time.  I also investigate organizations doing good work in the local community to see if they have guidelines on these situations or if I can support the group's work.

If it gets overwhelming, I suggest ducking into one of the second story restaurants.  Look up-- you'll see them!  From there, you can watch the crowds of the market with a bit of a buffer.  A calming cup of coffee can steady you to return to the teeming maze.
 The rooster-est rooster.
Hard to find, tucked behind the kiosk stalls, is this lovely mural depicting a Mayan understanding of the dawn of Creation.

If you have the opportunity, I highly reccomend spending a day at Chichi.  Smell the incense and roasting food, haggle with vendors, purchase beautiful handicrafts, sip a coffee as you watch it all unfold.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Journey with books

We've tried a lot of approaches to transporting books.  We love to support libraries, so we have traveled with library books.  I know, not advised.  Kevin got a kindle specifically for travel, but as I wrote before, it broke a week into our Guatemalan adventure.  Kindle was responsive once we were home & at a stable address, but we were moving around too much within Guatemala to have received a replacement device.  Not so helpful.  Ultimately, we've found it's easiest to purchase used books & leave them at hostals & community centers once we've finished the read.  Good karma.

I don't have all my reading lists, but a few.  Most guidebooks offer some suggested reading.  Also, check out to search books related to your travel destination.

I no longer have my reading list for trips prior to Guatemala, but I do remember reading Confessions of an Economic Hitman & Graham Greene in Panama.

We took the following to Guatemala (pay attention 2014 retreat participants!):
Secrets of the Talking Jaguar by Martin Prechtel
Bitter Fruit by Schlesinger & Kinzer
I, Rigoberta Menchu by Rigoberta Menchu
Men of Maize by Miguel Asturias
The Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano

A selection from Vietnam:

Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong
Shadows and Wind by Robert Templer
Buffalo Afternoon by Susan Fromberg
Dispatches by Michael Herr
A People's History of the Vietnam War by Jonathan Neale
A Wavering Grace by Gavin Young

I found Shadows and Wind dry-- it's a collection of essays on Vietnamese cultural, political, and economic life.  Compelling subject matter but a poor telling.  Buffalo Afternoon & Paradise of the Blind stand out in that grouping, but then again, I love a good novel!

Ecuador & the Galapagos:
Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut
Savages by Joe Kane
Living Poor by Moritz Thomsen
Darwin in Galapagos by Grant and Estes
The Mapmaker's Wife by Robert Whitaker

I would only recommend Living Poor if you head to the Ecuadorian coast.  It's interesting to watch the author's evolving thinking about US-Ecuadorian relationships, but I cringed some on the journey.  If you travel in the Ecuadorian Amazon I think Savages should be required reading.  Don't be thrown off the title-- it questions whether or not that word applies to foreign companies ravaging the rain forest.  Written by a NY Times correspondent it's even-handed and informative.

If you travel from Guayaquil to the Galapagos do what I did & read Vonnegut's Galapagos en route.  The experience truly freaked me out.  Once in the Galapagos we read Darwin in the Galapagos for context.  Good scientific content, but not the best writing.  Floreana was a surprisingly fun account of a German woman who moved to the (almost) uninhabited Galapagos island of Floreana early in the 20th century.  The memoir certainly enriched our visit to said island!

Heading back to the mainland we picked up The Mapmaker's Wife.  The jacket reads like a bodice-ripper, but this is another journalist telling of an historic event, the journey of mapmaker's to measure location of the equator.  If you're a scientist, I'd imagine you'd finding the telling substantive & the history interesting.  Thankfully for the rest of us, there's also love & intrigue to keep us page-turning.

Kevin bought State of Wonder by Anne Patchett on his Kindle while we were away.  I read the book on flights home.  It's set largely in Brazil but delves deep into the Amazon.  The Amazon is surprisingly distinct, depending on where you visit, but doesn't know borders.  After having skirted the border near Tena, the imagery was rich in my mind.  The story is gripping and poses serious moral questions I continue to consider.


The Possibility of Everything by Hope Edelman
Satsun by Dr. Rosita Arvigo

All good trips require good books.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Phu Quoc

We took an early ferry from Rach Gia to Phu Quoc.  The ferry was comfortable.  There were reclining seats, air conditioning, and movies.  As we arrived on the dock it began to rain.  We began struggling with our luggage to find a van to take us to Phu Quoc.  Eventually catching a ride, we began the trek from dock to beach.  As we rode through this island known for fish sauce and previously being a penal colony, the skies cleared.  Rich history, beautiful present.

We were left at the road & found an access down to the beach.  We began walking along the sand to see what hotel was in our price range.  Eventually, we settled on Hiep Thanh.  For $35 a night we had a beach side bungalow.

This is all we did for the next four days.

 Unfortunately, the ice in all those Vietnamese iced coffees eventually got us.  On our second to last night in Phu Quoc, Kevin became ill.  I got him bagettes, water, and coke-- the simplest food I could find.  This was the only moment when we were homesick!  Late that night I succumbed too.  The following day we lay languidly in the shade, nibbling on fresh ginger and rehydrating.  It's never fun to get sick, but at least we could recuperate in such a beautiful place.

Feeling a bit stronger, we boarded the ferry for Rach Gia, and from Rach Gia, a bus to Ho Chi Minh City.  We had one more night before returning home.

Monday, March 11, 2013

More than I am

I'm growing larger than I am
I'm growing past my strength
This has happened before
It was once strictly physical. The ground drifted further
below my sight. I re-balanced. I became
known as woman, became in relation to
others, to my experiences. This growth is
less visible but I feel it. It feels
tangible. I'm growing more capable of
caring for myself. I'm growing more connected
to the earth below me. 

That steady earth that held me
crawling, toddling, walking, and then gazing past
it. I'm working towards it once more, knowing that
it's relationship is possibly the
most sacred. Feeling myself sculpted, nourished, of and
working back towards. My body will grow stronger. I can
feel that. I can feel that one day I'll balance on my
hands, that my spine will open, that I won't be scared
of exposing myself. 

I can feel that. And then I'll begin to
curl back within. I'll relinquish some of that strength. I'll
give it back, little by little. Eventually, I'll let go
entirely. I'll give back my breath. I'll give back all that's
been given me. I'll go back into the earth. I'll begin that
radical practice of once more growing larger than
I am. Of dissolving into soil, seed, root. Of looking
up into depths of earth. Merging into something more
than I am.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Mekong Delta

When Kevin & I travel independently, we do usually join on a group tour if it allows us access somewhere we simply couldn't reach.  We took a group tour in Halong Bay, to Bac Ha market, and now a two day affair with Sinhbalo tours biking through the Mekong Delta.  I highly reccomend them!  Plus, the cost decreases as more participants sign on.  Tours are expensive if it's just you, or a couple.  If you create or tack onto a group you can pay about what you would traveling independently.  

For the sake of clarity, you can travel independently in the Mekong.  However, without handling logistics ourselves, we were able to quickly get on bikes & experience the farms, factories, and markets of the Mekong.

We spent the first day biking through villages, farms, and small factories.

Bananas waiting to go by boat to the floating market

Hungry hog


Monkey bridges offer people water crossing

Pepper vines

Salty sampan
This family wove thatch to create roofing material.  Their daughter scampered around, pulling mangoes off the nearby tree.
Workers roasting longon berries

Little girl playing in longon berry factory with her family
Workers shelling longon berries
Kids in the Mekong were so fun!  They play a game where they yell "Hallo!" & wave frantically whenever a tourist passes.  It never got old.

The following morning we visited floating markets.

Boatside breakfast

Eyes to keep evil spirits at bay

A pole to advertise your offerings

Sugar cane

Sinhbalo dropped us in Rach Gia to catch the ferry to Phu Quoc island the following day.  We were debating finishing our trip at the beaches in Phu Quoc or Can Tho.  Can Tho can only be reached by flight from Ho Chi Minh City.  We didn't want to travel north through the Delta when we were already so close to Phu Quoc.  We settled into the final journey of our trip.