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sweat lodge at The Land

I’m not one for saunas. I’ve always wanted to be, but there’s something about sitting in hot steam that makes me very uncomfortable. Maybe it’s the difficulty breathing. Yeah, pretty sure that’s it. 

My particular challenge with sauna type spaces began a while ago. I’ve lived in places where this practice is culturally relished. Tunisa’s hammams only really drew me in because of their beautiful architecture of billowy arches and ornate tiles. Yet, I could hardly withstand the hellish heat of these steamy traditional bathhouses. It was definitely not one of my common practices while living there.

Like the Turkish bath houses, Korea’s jimjilbang are also a unique experience. Gender-segregated areas are furnished with hot tubs of varying temperatures, showers, and traditional kiln saunas. I made it a personal goal to try it all, including getting my skin scrubbed off with exfoliating loofahs by a no nonsense ajumma in no nonsense underwear. Hurt like hell, but at least I left with baby soft skin. 

While, I’d sworn off saunas, I recently found myself at my first Mexican temazcal. My friend explained it as a spiritual sweat lodge and while the spiritual part enticed me, the sweat lodge did not. I hesitated. She persisted. There would be a full moon that April night. It would be cleansing. It would be magical. 

A sucker for magic, I said yes. 

Caravanning over with a handful of other expats, I felt more comfortable knowing I was not the only novice in the group. We listened to the experienced ones who cooly shared, “It will be great.” Trickling out of cars, we made our way through a Mexican family’s dusty backyard. Smiles greeted us as we ducked under clothing lines heading towards the small, brick dome in the back. 

Preparations ensued with the men taking off their shirts, women wrapping sarongs around their hips. The ceremony leaders/shamans were a young American woman and a tall Mexican man with long braid hung down his back. Smudged with sage and feathers for cleansing, our incantation consisted of words of gratitude and humility as one by one we bowed and crawled into the dark space. 

I tried to be strategic as to when I entered, wanting to be standing in the open air as long as possible, but not so long that I’d be cramped being one of the last. 

As the fifth one in, turns out I was cramped anyway. It was declared that the turn out was higher than expected which would make for an excellent temazcal! I could feel the enthusiasm of the experienced ones because of this. With each person entering (a couple dozen in all), the small space I’d created for myself in the dirt diminished making it hard for me to share in the sentiment. Skin touching skin, I was sandwiched by strangers and my world became acutely uncomfortable. I started to squirm. The calm of preparations alluded me; my mind began to grip for methods of escape.

The stones glowed as they were slowly and respectfully placed in the center pit. Steam curled upward, still visible as the entrance remained opened during the final minutes of preparation. The stacked pile hissed and chirped like baby birds while a water dipped bouquet of herbs hit them increasing the steam, encouraging the heat. 

We were given warning when the tarp came down to cover the opening. We were told it would be pitch dark and that the heat may get so intense some may feel queasy. We were prepared with words of conviction, ones that linked us to each other as a sacred communal body. We were given coping practices. Breathe slowly. Lower your head to the ground for cooler air. Let yourself be in the discomfort. 

Even with all of this, I was not prepared. Within seconds of the door closing, I honestly felt like I would die. 

A friend once said, “As people, we spend our lives avoiding suffering.” While I like to be challenged, favoring hard situations isn’t a natural inclination. I think most people would agree. Skirting topics that may be divisive in conversation, maintaining the joyless job because it’s what we know, choosing numbing over healing our bodies; these are the easier things to do. Life is already hard, why create more discomfort? But, here I was doing just that. 

My occasional bouts with claustrophobia came on in full force. I strained my eyes to see something, anything, and it was just black. This intensified the feeling of being trapped. I could not move my legs. Knees to my chin, I hugged myself attempting to hide my nostrils from the steam. The heat grabbed hold of my lungs and my uneasy breathing swirled into a form of inner panic. 

I wanted out. 

Seconds away from being the first one requesting to exit only after a couple of minutes in, I found my saving device. The woman sitting to my right (who would later become a dear friend) took in even breaths in a slow, measured way that caught my attention. I decided to mimic her and follow her breathing. My heart slowed down and I felt as if I had returned to the present moment. It was incredible and I felt indebted to her for saving my life in that moment. 

Eased a bit, I pressed my head between my knees seeking cooler air. I tried to be with the discomfort as advised. Applying what I learned in yoga and meditation, I gently ushered negative thoughts away again and again, letting other pieces of the moment come forward.

The evening continued with tribal drumming, call and repeat song, and beautiful prayer. Instruments were shared and we united in sound. An homage to women as creative forces of the world brought me to tears and in a deeply inward moment, I conversed with loved ones who had passed. 

The 120 minutes broke up into segments where the tarp lifted momentarily and air and light brought relief. Isn’t that just like life? Pain + discomfort followed by quiet + relief…and then, repeat. 

The last minutes of the temazcal were the hardest. My mind, which had been silenced for some time, was whispering louder. “Are you getting any more out of this? Haven’t you experienced all you needed to?” I got up and asked permission to leave. One person called out: “Complete your journey, sister.” The others echoed. I considered ignoring them. But completing this ritual meant something. I sat back down and hugged myself again. How often do I do that? Hug myself. I decided to let go those last minutes, to take in this intensely individual and wonderfully bonding experience and leave control behind.

Outside the full moon greeted our sweaty, dusty bodies. We washed ourselves with buckets of water under the night sky. Taking seats here and there, we shared in eating fruit and hydrating with water. When ready, we packed in our carpool, a soft air of calm enveloping. Somewhere along the way 4 Non Blondes came on the radio. And, just like that, we all sang in unison: 

Twenty-five years and my life is still

Trying to get up that great big hill of hope

For a destination.

Why that moment produced such a spirit of “right on”, I’m not sure. Maybe it was the collective energy of goodwill and the intention of hope. Maybe it was being washed in moonshine after being challenged in the dark. Or, maybe it was just celebrating the ease after the discomfort.

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san-miguel-de-allende-wall

San Miguel de Allende came to us like a wish come true. For a bit over a year, David and I had felt the swell of population, the pressurization of inflated prices, the unsettling political demise. My four year return to life in the United States confirmed a lot of things for me:

  1. The Bay Area had lost a bit of charm for me.
  2. Life didn’t have to be this hard.
  3. I thrive seeing the world from new places.

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blackbird in copenhagenThe record player spins on a well worn mid century modern dresser, akin to the cafe’s chairs and orb chandeliers. It’s all intentionally unpretentious with framed Hendrix posters and bathroom graffiti. These are pieces from Danish homes, second hand finds found on every other block. The Beatles serenade this 8AM morning, perfect melodies suitable for the melancholic gray outside, the romantic candlelight inside.

This pure artistry of a place, this mingling of quiet conversations in a foreign language with background latte making, this cozy nook where I write…this will forever, I believe, spoil future cafe moments.

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Here in your alone, you will find yourself, a person you may have never thought you were. A person who is capable of so many things you may have never thought possible. The answer always lies within you; your happiness, bliss, joy and nirvana are within you naturally.

-The Difference Between Lonely and Alone.

Behind the counter, the Aegean attendant smiled at my request to check in two bags.

“Are you traveling in Greece alone?”

“Yes, sir!” I beamed with some pride.

“Wow! That’s brave. I don’t think I could do that!” he shared.

In that moment, I squirmed a little; I wondered if he knew something I didn’t. Was it particularly dangerous for a lone woman to travel through Greece? Was I more of a target for theft? Should I heighten my guard?

Given that I had experienced two weeks already on and off with friends as travel companions, I was sure that was not it. From what I could tell, Greece is like walking into a large family reunion celebrated by tables and tables of delicious home-cooked food in a stunning setting. I felt comfortable, welcomed, and appreciated.

Maybe what he was doing was revealing a moment of raw honesty: that traveling alone is scary because it can be lonely.

This lonely vs. alone comparison has come up for me a lot here. I will be the first to admit that I’ve always struggled with being alone. I consistently surround myself with people, have an active social life, have had a history of always having a roommate (until recently). I don’t see this as a flaw per se, but I have wondered if there’s a reason this is my go-to.

This trip has helped shed light on the matter. There has been a correlation for me between being alone and the questions that emerge.

Am I comfortable in my skin?
Can I be with the quiet?
Do I like myself?
Does it matter what others think of me?

The most challenging moments would come up around dinner. Walking along restaurant lined paths, lit candles on the tables, incredible sunset sinking in the Med, hands being held, sessions of dreamy eye-gazing, the evenings were truly the most romantic times in Greece. At first, sitting across from no one was hard for me. I’d lose myself in my iphone just to cope, texting, uploading photos to be seemingly entertained.

But then, something shifted.

Although there were certainly moments I felt lonely, I began to embrace my alone. I enjoyed the world I was framing in my way as I snapped photos. I rested in my breaths as I rediscovered my yoga practice. I treasured serendipitous encounters with others who shared themselves with me. I sat easily. I smiled often. I liked being with me.

It may seem silly that it took a journey of many miles and days to come to this discovery. But, man, was it ever worth it.

Screen Shot 2014-06-03 at 8.52.11 PMWhere you come from now is much less important than where you’re going.
-Pico Iyer

It’s been three months since I’ve established “home” in Berkeley. People have kindly asked how the re-entry has been. The phases of cultural transition are still the same. I’ve felt all of this before. In America, it’s about getting used to the fact that there are an obscene numbers of cereal rows to consider, that having an app for practically everything really can simplify life, and that knowing what Miley Cyrus is up to is common knowledge.

I won’t lie. I kinda freaked out.

The idea of just sliding back into North American life proved silly. I thought I’d have that ah-ha moment; something like: finally, coming full circle to land in the place I’ve left loving and still love. Finally, home.

Yet, it has not been that simple. I was naive to think so. I’ve questioned over and wondered about and ached a bit for my overseas life. Twelve years is twelve years, after all.

The turning point, however, happened with this easy realization: no place is perfect.

From then on (which has been about four weeks now), I’ve embraced this place. Or, maybe it’s more than the place. Maybe I’ve come to embrace where I am in life and what’s ahead.

I watched this TED talk a little while back. With grace, charm, and introspection, Pico Iyer delves into the relevant question: What is home?

Is it the cul du sac you and your sister rode bicycles in? Is it the city your parents still live in? Is it the place you pay rent or the location with your fondest memories?

According to Iyer, it’s something much, much more.

 

Luang Prabang is a set for so many fascinating story lines. There are people of all walks of life passing through, staying for a time, settling in. There are dreamers, adventurers, lost souls and truth seekers. There are artists, do-gooders, partiers, and floaters. There are entrepreneurs, free spirits, escape artists, and risk-takers. Some kept to themselves. Many congregated in small but vivacious spaces to share in the experience of being right then, right there.

One of these places is the Ikon Club.

I feel lucky to have frequented this place and shared a friendship with it’s owner, Lisa. Watching her creative video of the genesis and character of Ikon makes me smile and wish I was sitting on a stool there right now.

photo 5the shores are still speckled with tiny shells, just like thirty years ago, when collecting those looking like “beach butterflies” were the best souvenirs to carry gingerly home. on weekends caravans park on the sand, vallenatos booming from open trunks, small gatherings of joy under brightly colored tarps, while the waves become everyone’s playground.

high pitched ringing bells and short taps on horns announce the arrival of cool palletas or the presence of a taxi ride into el centro. there, palenqueras adorned in flowing skirts and colorful head scarves call you “mi cielo” as you walk away with a cup full of fresh mango. the plazas host all types of activity, from continuous cathedral weddings to trios playing live music for a night’s wage. one can feast on thick arepas con queso grilling at a corner and take a shot of sweet tintico for an afternoon caffeine kick.

looking up is always a good idea in the old city.colonial style balconies cascade with bougainvillea and the tops of church copulas adorn the sky. the colors loudly  separate one building from another: a striking blue next to a golden yellow next to a deep pink; this vibrancy seeps into the energy inside. with personalities of their own, hotels, boutiques, restaurants, bars draw people in: tourists and cruise visitors, locals and expats enjoying their choice of a fruit juice, a rum & coke, an aguila beer, a happy hour mojito.

magic moments take place, when the ocean breeze cools the tropical heat. lovers slowly stroll on the historical city wall, some tucked in dark corners sharing stolen kisses. lights glow romantically from windows and the sound of horse drawn carriages evokes tranquility.

above, the moon hangs nearly as long as the last rumbero walking home along the beach, shoes trickling sand in one hand, humming the last song played.

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