The Grandeur We Behold

Labor Day was Monday and it seemed that all the world was basking in the sunshine and cool breezes, out and about and determined to suck the marrow from the last hoorah of summer.

I found myself wondering about the roots of this holiday, where this weekend that so universally, though unofficially, marks the end of summer came from. So, in the way of super cool kids everywhere, I looked it up on the Department of Labor’s website. This is what I found:

"Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country."

Later, the article quotes one of the contested founders as suggesting a day to honor those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.” While I take exception to the 19th century idea that the manipulation of nature for the sole purpose of benefitting and profiting mankind was to be celebrated, I do think that a re-interpretation of his words contain a deep truth: that our own labors and hard work can transform our own own “rude natures” into real grandeur to behold. 

We all know that this is true in the “doing your work” sense of addressing our personal and emotional baggage through everything from therapy to stress-management, etc. But I mean this in the more literal sense of labor and work…in the work of our chosen professions and the work of goal-setting, literally getting shit done.

I think it should be obvious if you’ve ever talked with me for more than five minutes or read anything I’ve written that I am quite firmly in the camp of believers that life is meant to be utterly lived and enjoyed. But I no longer believe that the path of enjoyment or fulfillment or real, lasting happiness is a life of unlimited leisure. On the contrary, I think too much empty leisure is often a good recipe for discontent, listlessness, and dissatisfaction. 

Whether it’s the labor of pursuing excellence in a field or profession that fascinates and excites you, or training for a marathon, or learning to play the viola, or simply the work involved in actually noticing your life and being present with it, there is real joy in work well and truly done. In his book, The Happiness of Pursuit, Chris Guillebeau explores the idea that it’s the pursuit of a challenging quest that brings real and lasting happiness to our lives (by the way, if you haven’t checked out his work, do it- he’s awesome). Alistair Humphreys brings this idea to life over and over in his work, and I am constantly inspired by his investment in small, close to home adventures as well as big, life-altering ones (check out his most recent quest where he taught himself the violin and then busked his way across Spain, singing for his supper). 

So I've come to think of Labor Day as more than just a day to take a well-earned break and bbq with friends, but a celebration of the growth and satisfaction of pursuing our labors, of pushing ourselves to learn and excel, of exploration and discovery that can only come with peeling back the layers of what we’re capable of, of transforming our own rude natures into grandeur.

What grandeurs are you laboring to build in your life? 

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. 

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.

Mo' Love, Mon!

"Da world, it needs mo' love, mon! Whatchu need, what we ALL need, is mo' love!"

The rasta dude with glistening ebony skin and an enormous, dazzling white smile was clearly selling something from the two plastic 5-gallon buckets strapped to the side of the rusty bike he was pushing along the thoroughfare, but I had absolutely no idea what it might be. Passersby didn't so much as glance up as he yelled out about the world's need for "mo' love, mon" and I watched as he made his way across San Ignacio's central green in my direction.

When he was a few feet from the bench where I sat munching my way through the epiphany of fried flour and mashed beans and stringy melted cheese that were my pupusas, our eyes met and I couldn't help but smile big at his mischievous expression.

"Ahhh, girlie," he exclaimed, "you look like you already got plenty o' love wit a smile like dat!" He grinned even wider and slapped my hand in a gregarious high-five as he passed and continued across the green and down a side street. I could hear his message of love long after I could spot his impressive dreadlocks or decaying bicycle or buckets of mystery substance.

I finished the last bites of my pupusas, licking every last bit of flavor from my fingers, and waved goodbye to the two Mennonite women at the cart whose talented hands had made my scrumptious lunch.

This was a first for me, this traveling in another country without companion or agenda. All of my past international experiences had included one or the other (usually both), but I had an entire week ahead of me in Belize before I was due in Caye Caulker to work. This combination of foreignness and freedom was both thrilling and intimidating and I was still making heads and tails of it, though my experience accidentally purchasing sixteen tacos at the market the day before was exactly the breakthrough idiocy I'd needed to begin to settle in.

With nothing but my personal whims and fancy as my guide, I decided to spend the day ahead simply wandering. I wandered a few miles up to the Mayan ruins at Cahal Pech, making sure that I knew the way so that I could explore them as the sun rose the next morning. I wandered past pastel homes built high on stilts with yards strewn with sleeping dogs and children's toys. I wandered into a cluttered convenience store to buy an ice cream from a freezer that sounded as though it were heaving its last as I scraped open its door to retrieve my treat. I sat on a bench in the center of a busy roundabout to eat a tamale next to a cracked fountain with no water in it and smiled at the man eating his lunch on the bench beside me as a grizzled old vaquero walked his horse through the traffic.

As I made my way back toward my guesthouse, I popped my head into Ajaw to see if there was room for me to join a demonstration in making chocolate in the Mayan tradition. As it turned out, I was lucky enough to get a private lesson in taking the humble cacao bean to sacred Mayan hot chocolate drink. Elida, my teacher, even scolded me on proper form as I ground the beans on the ancient stone metate that her great grandfather had unearthed on his farm decades before.  

Feeling a bit like Juliette Binoche in Chocolat, I left the little shop and headed next door to my guesthouse where the adorable and very pregnant proprietor greeted me warmly. Setting my alarm for 4:00 a.m., I collapsed onto the bed thinking of all of the love that had touched my small world that day, smiling again at the thought of my rasta friend, and fell asleep already dreaming of the coming sunrise spent with Mayan gods.

To Triund In The Mist

We knew we needed to get up. For real. We needed to get out of bed right now if we were to have any hope of reaching Triund before the afternoon cloud cover set in and rendered every view of the Himalayan foothills obscure.

But our bed was, if not exceedingly comfortable, at least warm and cozy enough to convince me that leaving it before the sun rose was a terrible idea. This was backed up by the telltale headache I could feel even before opening my eyes, the product of too much Old Monk rum drank into the wee hours with Sonali and Sushant at Indique after they closed the restaurant for the night. 

I slapped at my phone, eventually hitting snooze and buying us ten more minutes. But Justin is more disciplined than I am when it comes to alarm clocks and his movement elicited a groan of protest from me.

"If we want to actually see the mountains, we need to go," he whispered.

"I can see the mountains from the balcony," I argued, but I was pushing out of the sleeping bag liner I'd been cocooned in under the thin butter-yellow coverlet. I wanted to see them too.

After a granola bar breakfast and water chugged to fight the hazy residue from last night's rum, we threw everything into our day packs and started walking in the soft dawn light. We wound up the sloppy dirt roads through McCleodganj, past wandering cows and uniformed schoolchildren with their bright pink cheeks and scolding mothers. Eventually the buildings thinned and the road turned to wide path before narrowing further into a rocky trail.

Up we walked, stopping along curves to watch the cloudy mists roll in and out of the space between mountains. The green was kept from lushness by the hardscrabble rock jutting along the trail and from around jagged trees and tall grasses.

We were caught off guard the first time it happened. Walking along the steep rocky trail, watching our footing and feeling far from civilization, we reached the top of a curving precipice and found a blue-tarped hut selling bagged potato chips and steaming cups of hot masala chai for R100. We nodded hello to the dozing man leaning back in his white plastic chair and continued past, marveling to find this piece of entrepreneurial grit in the midst of our "wilderness" adventure.

But Triund is not, by any stretch "wilderness." The trail is a well-worn and frequently utilized pathway, a fact evidenced by the many sandaled goatherds and other tourists we met along the way, as well as the several chai stands we passed on our way. Like much of what we experienced in India, no resource was left untapped, be it tall mountain grass for goats and cows alike, or the rupees of the slightly more adventurous tourist. 

We knew we'd reached our goal when we crested a hill to find a wide ridge dotted with blue and brown-tarped lean-tos where we could rent camping sleeping bags or small tents, or buy hot tea or a bowl of noodles for lunch. The ridge was landscaped with hikers napping on daypacks or laughing over steaming bowls and pack mules busy frustrating their guides by attempting to roll onto their backs for a good scratch before their loads were removed. 

We found a grassy spot down the hill a bit, inhaled our packed lunches (we sadly hadn't believed the rumors of noodles and were traveling a few rupees shy), and dozed in the sunshine. Every few minutes the cloud cover would shift long enough for us to get a peek at the forbidding crags of this young mountain range.

We lazed about until our sweaty backs dried and our tired legs began to stiffen. We stopped at the stupa to pay our regards, laughed once more at the misbehaving mules, pet a few unimpressed cows, and began our descent back to McCleodganj. The conversation, as it always does in the second half of all hikes long or short, turned to food and what we would eat when we were down the mountain and once again jumping garbage-laden ditches and sidestepping sleeping dogs and wandering cattle and honking lorries.

Justin was inclined toward more momos and sweet and sour pishe from Gakyi while I was craving the veg fry thenthuk from Tibet Kitchen and we passed a family of monkeys munching by the trail while we debated. As we walked under rows of tattered and unbleached prayer flags, it began to drizzle and we reached out for one another's hands and smiled. Whatever we ate, it would likely be by candlelight tonight.

Once While We Waited

The 25x45 square foot courtyard was lined with low-slung plaster and concrete buildings designed in the way of government buildings everywhere, drab, just a little dowdy, and smacking of red tape and delay. When we arrived in the courtyard, spare passport photos and ten rupee notes in hand, there were approximately 15 people already there waiting, pressed along the shady edges to avoid the warm midday sun. Each offered a brief acknowledgement with a smile and nod as we took a place against a wall, knowing that we had another hour before the office issuing passes to foreigners for tomorrow's teaching with the Dalai Lama would open.

We'd been in McCleodganj, home to the exiled Tibetan government and the Dalai Lama in India, for a week at this point. We'd already grown to love its muddy streets tucked into the Himalayan foothills and the incongruous sight of red-robed monks with iconic white earbuds protruding from their ears or gathered around a computer screen in a small coffee shop. We loved the mix of Indian and Tibetan culture and the dreadlocked, backpacking travelers who came to pray or meditate or learn yoga or simply be in this fascinating (and extremely inexpensive!) place. We loved watching the stray dogs sleep against murals and get their heads patted by passing nuns or small morsels tossed to them by pink-cheeked shop owners. We even loved how there were constant intermittent power outages and how we could be in the middle of dinner at a restaurant, the power would go out, and someone would simply go around and light the candles on the tables while no one, diner or server alike, blinked for even a moment.

Mostly, we loved that every day brought someone new into our life with a captivating story of how they came to be there. We met more than one Tibetan exile with a story of fear and Chinese oppression and beloved family left behind in a homeland forever lost to them. We met an Indian couple who gave up their rather glamorous life in Delhi to open a restaurant there in the mountains, searching for quiet and peace and a different rhythm to their days there in the thinner air. We met an art student from the American middle west living in an adjacent town studying the ancient art of thangka painting under a master. 

On this morning, we'd walked into our favorite coffee shop (with the best banana cake and masala chai) only to find it full. After scanning the room, we found a booth with only one man at the table and made our way over to join him. After a quick hello, he went back to his journaling and we ordered our tea, discussing our plans for these last days before beginning our journey home. As our teacups emptied, the man closed his journal and asked where we were from in a British accent and this is how our acquaintance with Mr. Julian Bound began. Toward the end of what would be the first of many good conversations with him, he asked if we were planning to attend the Dalai Lama's teaching the next day. We corrected him…the teaching wasn't for another few days and we were devastated to know that we'd miss the experience by so little time. Julian corrected us in turn, informing us that, no, indeed, the teachings began tomorrow and he knew that because he had a press pass and would be photographing it. As we absorbed this news, Julian went on to walk us through the process of getting passes and told us where to go, assuring us that we still had time.

So here we were, awaiting the office issuing passes to open and giddy with excitement and anticipation. As the minutes passed, the courtyard filling and then crowding, that giddiness faded a bit and we began to look around at the people waiting alongside us. There was one other American that we noticed, a girl in her early twenties with a Farm League trucker hat looped to her backpack. Otherwise, the crowd around us was formed by a few Israelis, a couple of Australians, a girl from Argentina and her companion from Uruguay. There was a girl from Hong Kong and a guy from Chile along with the small girl from France that I found myself nose-to-nose with as the crowd grew ever more pressing.  This little group immediately surrounding us was all young travelers, none of whom seemed to be older than about 22. English was the language that they all had in common, so their accents mixed as they discussed where they were from, where they'd been traveling, and where they might be heading next. To a person, they were all on epic travel adventures, most of them having been on the move for 6-8 months at that point and most having made their way to India from Asia, usually Thailand or Cambodia or Laos. They were backpackers, traveling as cheaply as possible- staying in hostels, eating cheap street food, hitching rides- more interested in who they could meet and what they could experience than five-star cuisine or high thread count sheets and concierge service.

Eavesdropping on their conversation was more than fascinating, it was bolstering.  They were open and inquisitive and interested. They grilled each other, not in competition, but in genuine curiosity and enthusiasm. As the hour that the office was scheduled to open came and went with no sign of action, their patience and conversation was unwavering. The French girl (whose nose I had the very bizarre urge to kiss), I learned, had been traveling for just over 7 months, came to India via Cambodia, had just retained the services of a local monk to teach her Tibetan, and planned to just hang out in McCleodganj until she learned it. When I asked what other languages she spoke, she rattled off nine others. NINE languages. She was 20 years old.

Eventually, after almost three hours of being packed into that courtyard like cattle, the office finally opened its doors. We expected chaos to ensue since there was nothing even remotely resembling a line and the press of people was suffocating. But it was nothing like that. There was calm and courteous consideration almost uniformly shown as people who had arrived later graciously made room for those who had arrived earlier to go ahead with a smile. It was perhaps the most shocking experience we had during our travels, this display of patience and community despite the heat and wait and the office administrator's tardiness and brusqueness. We walked away from the office a mere 15 minutes after the doors opened with our passes in hand and our hearts soaring from the entire experience.

The next morning we made our way to the temple and joined the throngs of people waiting to hear the words of one of the world's great teachers. Justin prodded my side and pointed out where, about 30 yards from where we'd placed our own cushions, the group of travelers from the courtyard were all seated together, smiling and laughing as they waited. As the Dalai Lama entered the temple, passing within feet of where we stood, it truly felt as if a wave of love that was tangible and material passed over us, and we listened over the next hours as he spoke on the topic of compassion, of seeing commonalities instead of differences. I couldn't help but glance over at the group of early twenty-somethings who, despite various and distinct backgrounds, had so immediately connected, had so quickly supported and encouraged one another. 

As the monks came around the crowd offering tea, Julian found his way over to where we were seated and we shared in his excitement over his first (of many!) experiences photographing such an exceptional event. He snapped a shot of the two of us and then went back to work, his warmth leaving us smiling.

Over the next few days, we began the journey home, one that included more than 40 hours of combined taxis, overnight trains, oddly timed layovers, and seemingly endless flights. But despite weariness and the grime of train stations and airports clinging to us, we made our way toward home with the lightness of the best of what travel can gift us with. We felt unspeakably connected, not just to the people we'd met and had conversations with, but to all people, everywhere. We walked through airports and squeezed into tuk tuks and ambled down packed streets and waited in lines and all the while felt a kinship with everyone we passed. With the words of the Dalai Lama ringing in our ears and the curiosity and enthusiasm of everyone we'd met singing in our hearts, we squeezed one another's hands and smiled broadly.

THIS is why we travel.

Photo by Julian Bound

Photo by Julian Bound