Yoga-ing in Caye Caulker

"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." 

We are all familiar with this phrase, whether from it's proverb origins or it's more sinister role in The Shining. But I've long held that the reverse is equally true. All play and no work makes Jack (or, *cough*, Jane) just as dull. 

I find a deep satisfaction in work well and truly done. In projects that challenge and stimulate me, that push my creative boundaries. I don't want to "phone it in" when it comes to my work, to show up and merely deliver the minimum expected of me. I want to push and experiment and come at the work from every conceivable angle. 

I want to grow.

Looking at these images shot for Freeport Yoga Company, now a full year old, it's thrilling to see the work done and all the growth that has occurred since.  

I am fortunate in the work that I do. I am fortunate in the clients that are drawn to my work and who hire me to do fantastic jobs for them, like capturing a yoga retreat in Belize. I am grateful every single day for being privileged to do work that I love. But make no mistake, it is, indeed, work, no matter where in the world I'm lucky enough to be doing it...and that's part of the joy as well as part of the pain. 

 

 

 

Learning to Go Slow in Caye Caulker, Belize

It occurred to me this morning that exactly a year ago, I was in the midst of a bit of a travel frenzy. It began with an icy engagement session on a Christmas tree farm outside of Toronto in which the temperatures dropped so low that my camera gear began to have issues and frostbite to our fingers was an actual risk. I arrived home from that long weekend with less than 12 hours to dump my luggage and re-pack it for ten days of shooting in the mountains near San Salvador. I traded mittens for sunscreen and gorged myself on green mangoes soaked in lime juice and chili powder for next week and a half as I shot for a service organization building homes in the small town of Talnique. Which brings me to exactly one year ago today.

With a full 48 hours between flights, I’d managed to have my camera gear cleaned, catch up on my laundry, and, you know, spend more than an hour or two with my boy and our dog in our snowy Maine spring. And then it was back to Central America and sunshine for an assignment in Belize.

You may remember some of my first week in Belize…maybe when I mistakenly ordered 16 tacos at the market, or when I spent the morning with Mayan ghosts before meeting little Vivianna, who reached in and grabbed my heart. I wandered western Belize and learned to make tortillas from a true master and began to slough off the frenzied feel that my many flights and transitions over the last month had left me with. I’m an introvert by nature, albeit a very outgoing one, and the time spent wandering alone began to re-energize me and reignite my desire for engagement.

So it was in this state that I made my way to the small island of Caye Caulker and a different Belize altogether. Gone were the howler monkeys and scorpions and in their place bright orange starfish and the great birds of the sea. It was a sensory feast of turquoise water, brightly painted buildings, diverse ethnicities, a vast array of scrumptious street food, and a level of relaxation unparalleled by anywhere I’d ever been before. I settled into my hotel the day before I was scheduled to begin shooting for a yoga retreat and began to tune into the island vibe.

It was actually the next day that I really learned what Caye Caulker was all about. Having met a friend and retreat participant as she disembarked from her ferry ride to the island, we decided to wander down to the famous Split and have a beer before the retreat officially kicked off later in the evening. Enchanted by the music and the setting sun, we lost track of time and suddenly realized that we would be late for the retreat kickoff. As we power walked our way back to the hotel, suddenly stressed at the prospect of our late arrival, a barefoot man with no shirt and the world’s most impressive set of dreadlocks, looked at us from across the narrow “road” filled with strolling people and yelled over to us, “Why da FUCK you goin’ so fast!?!?!” 

After a startled moment that hung in the air for the briefest second, Shelley and I burst out laughing. Why were we going so fast on an island where the official motto is “Go Slow”? 

Isn’t this the story of our lives? We rush about in whatever way our frenzy of the moment requires, driven insane by the dings of our cell phones and emails and repeating often to each other and ourselves some variation of “When I have time to slow down…” except that we never make time to slow down. Sometimes we even find ourselves on an island with a “Go Slow” motto for a yoga and mindfulness retreat and it still takes a random dreadlocked stranger yelling at us before we even realize that we’re still rushing around.

Go Slow.

It really is just that simple. 

Xunantunich

Howler monkeys, Mayans, a view of Guatemala, and a spider monkey to round things out...

Caves and Canoes and Connections

My days in western Belize were full. Full of awe at the great ceiba tree, the Mayan tree of life,  reaching into the heavens and connecting its roots down into the underworld. Full of wonder at the variety of birds and bats spotted from a canoe at dusk on the Macal River. Full of trepidation and the overcoming of a great personal fear as I paddled into the yawning mouth of Barton Creek Cave, setting aside my irrational fear of dark water in order to witness the majesty of sparkling stalactites and ancient Mayan artifacts buried nearly a mile into the earth. Full of education as I wandered the natural history exhibit and blue morpho butterfly enclosure and cantered on the back of a docile mare named Sweet Thing to the working organic farm. Full of meandering hikes alone and laughing dinners with my fellow campers. Full of naps in my hammock and scribblings in my journal and nights rent by the otherworldly and magnificent calls of a troupe of howler monkeys in the jungle of our camp.  My days quickly began to form a rhythm, a perfect combination of solitude and quiet with conversation and connection.   

{Curious about the sound of howler monkeys? They don't howl…it's more like a prehistoric roar…this video on You Tube captures it well}

Francelia's Tortillas- A Recipe

The running of Chaa Creek's wonderful little Macal River Camp is a family affair. Dulcio is the general go-to for just about everything with his son, Ariel, by his side! His wife, Francelia, does all of the cooking and manages to almost single-handedly feed anywhere in the range of 3 to 30 people twice a day! Her food is more than delicious…it is made with such care and expertise and I found myself on more than one occasion quite convinced that those of us down at the camp were eating the very best Chaa Creek had to offer, despite our more modest accommodations.

Ariel, Dulcio, Francelia, Alan

Ariel, Dulcio, Francelia, Alan

Not only is Francelia an incredible cook, but she is warm and welcoming and was endlessly patient as I asked her question after question about the scrumptious food that showed up on my plate twice a day. I couldn't get enough. She would smile and humbly describe what she was making, always shrugging nonchalantly as I exclaimed at the effort she went to to cook everything from scratch with fresh, local ingredients.

Dulcio helps Francelia sometimes, too!

Dulcio helps Francelia sometimes, too!

One morning I poked my head into her kitchen in search of another cup of coffee and found her making tortillas. My interest was piqued as I have an utter weakness  for chewy, fresh, homemade tortillas. By the end of the conversation, Francelia had agreed to pick up a comal (a flat metal pan that sits on the stovetop for cooking tortillas) for me to take home and to teach me to use it that evening after dinner. 

Without further ado…Francelia's tortilla recipe:

Ingredients

1lb flour*

3tsp baking powder

1/3tsp salt

1 1/2 tablespoon lard {shortening can be substituted}

Water*

---

(1) Mix the flour, baking powder, and salt together with a whisk

(2) Work in the lard/shortening until it has a cornmeal-like consistency

(3) Add water a little at a time, beginning to knead the dough as soon as it will stick together enough to knead; keep adding water a few teaspoons at a time until the consistency is similar to that of pizza dough

(4) Let dough rest for 10-15 minutes

(5) Grease your hands and countertop with additional lard/shortening- the grease rather than flour is key; keep more on hand for reapplication throughout the process

(6) Form dough into balls- Francelia recommended beginning with small tortillas and I generally form a ball that is between a golf-ball and racquetball in size

(7) Heat your flat surface (griddle, frying pan, comal) on a burner over medium heat- you may find that you need to adjust your heat slightly up or down depending on how long it takes your tortillas to cook or if they are burning

(8) Flatten the ball between the palms of your hand to form a disc and then place on the greased countertop and use your greased fingers to stretch the tortilla out in a circle taking care not to rip the dough; try to stretch the dough quite thin

(9) Taking care (this takes practice!), transfer the stretched tortilla to the cooking surface

(10) Flip the tortilla when the dough has bubbled and has begun to brown on the underside

(11) Eat hot and fresh, with eyes closed and in a state of pure bliss

* Francelia recommends Bebe Agua flour, a baker's flour, which seems to only be available in Belize; I've had good luck with just a basic organic unbleached white flour, but note that the amount of water you use depends on your flour!

Metta, another guest at the camp, snapped this shot of Francelia teaching me and Dulcio laughing at my bumbling efforts!

Metta, another guest at the camp, snapped this shot of Francelia teaching me and Dulcio laughing at my bumbling efforts!

Of Mornings & Mayans

I love to be awake in the wee hours before the rest of the world begins to stir. Admittedly, I'm often much happier about the being awake than the getting awake, but it is always worth the pain of leaving a comfy bed to experience the world in those early hours. This lesson was driven home to me many years ago when I awoke alone in Budapest and greeted the sun as it rose above the gothic parliament building across the Danube River from where I sat in solitude at the Fisherman's Bastion. It was a morning that will remain with me forever.

On this sticky morning, I slapped the snooze button on my phone twice before stumbling out of bed in the dark, performing my ablutions, and locking my door behind me as I made my way quietly out of the guesthouse in the pre-dawn light. Coming to life as I walked and munched one of the bananas I'd picked up at the market on Saturday, I passed through the entrance of Cahal Pech just as the dark sky began to give way to the dim greys of an overcast morning. A little bummed that it didn't look like I'd get the golden rising sun I'd hoped to photograph, I was still eager to investigate one of the oldest recognizably Mayan sites in western Belize. 

There is something undeniably mystical and eerie and magical about sitting alone among structures built more than 1000 years ago as the watery light of the early morning leaves the shadow deep. I sat quietly for minutes at a time as I tiptoed from structure to structure and passed beneath the low hanging branches of wormwood and qualm wood trees and bay leaf palms. Howler monkeys roared in the distance and small songbirds flitted through the leaves, unconcerned with my presence. My disappointment at the flat grey light ebbed as I tuned into my surroundings and began to sink into a sense of connection and mystery.

Somewhere long ago I read about the idea of "thin places," places on earth where the distance between this world and the mysteries that lie beyond it contracts just a bit and we humans can sense a greater closeness. I don't know what truth there is in this idea, but I felt it once as I wandered the damp recesses of San Miniato al Monte near sunset, as the lamps were being lit by brown-robed monks. And I felt it here in these ancient ruins alone in the jungle, the echoes of lives and eras and ways so archaic.

After wandering and being still among the stones for nearly three hours in solitude, I left the site and walked back toward the main part of San Ignacio, hungry and ready to try out Pop's restaurant after hearing that their fry-jacks and refried beans were the best in town. Tiny Pop's was bustling and while I waited for a table, I met 91 year old Vivianna Logan, who joined me for breakfast and grabbed my heart with her tale. {shameless plug- the story of our conversation over breakfast that morning is the subject of my recent publication in Traveler's Tales…head over and check it out!}

We sat for hours, Vivianna and I, drinking coffee and talking. When we eventually parted ways, I decided to grab one last San Ignacio experience I'd heard about before figuring out how to get to my next destination and walked up to the luxurious San Ignacio Resort Hotel to visit their iguana exhibit. As our guide educated our combined group of four, we held and fed and were scowled at by the exhibit's many residents. It was a novel and enjoyable experience, though I admit to harboring qualms about these types of displays, not knowing enough about the local ecology or the reptiles to know whether the exhibit is responsible, sustainable, and humane.

I had reservations just a few miles outside of San Ignacio at Chaa Creek's Macal River Camp for the next few nights, so I checked out of my guesthouse and weighed the many options for getting there from town. Deciding that it was the perfect short distance to dip my toes into the local custom of hitchhiking from place to place, I headed toward the road near the edge of town. I barely had an opportunity to stick my thumb out as the very first car pulled over and I was greeted by Mr. Ireland, a gregarious man in thick glasses and a checked hat who actually took me right to Chaa Creek's entrance instead of dropping me at the end of the road as I'd expected. I waved goodbye to the rattling jalopy and smiling Mr. Ireland before turning toward the concierge desk for check in.

A bit about Chaa Creek. Founded as a small jungle farm in 1977 by Mick and Lucy Fleming, who took their veggies to market in San Ignacio via dugout canoe, visitors would sometimes find their way out to the property and ask to stay. As the number of those visitors increased, the Flemings had the idea of building a guest cottage from materials sourced from their land. One cottage grew into two and then three, the operation culminating in the swanky eco-resort that now dominates the property. In 1997, they added the Macal River camp, an unplugged camp located just under a mile downstream from the main resort on the Macal River. This is where I was headed.

Passing by the infinity pool and thatched roofs of the luxury cottages and suites, the camp's caretaker and manager, Dulcio, explained a bit about the day-to-day workings as we  bounced along the dirt double track in his truck. The only electricity in the camp is located in the kitchen/dining area and centrally located bathrooms, all solar-powered and thus in limited supply. Each room, or casita, is a screened-in raised platform outfitted with beds and two kerosene lanterns which he or his son, Ariel, would light each evening at dusk. Breakfast and dinner are cooked by his wife, Francelia, and are eaten in the dining area as a group at the designated hours. I could access the rest of the resort at any time by walking the mile-long Rainforest Medicine Trail that connected the camp with the main lodge.

When we arrived at the camp, Dulcio showed me to my casita and around the property and I met Francelia, already busily laboring away in the kitchen for dinner. It was perfect. Without the constant hum of electricity, I could hear the many birds in the surrounding jungle without impediment. My casita's small patio faced the web of trees and was complete with a hammock, of which I made immediate use. The soft breeze, rustling leaves, birdsong, and utter lack of human or machine powered noise lulled me into the first of many naps I would take on that patio, awakening just in time to get my fill of Francelia's culinary magic.