Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Fasting for Funds

"Meaning is a side effect of the transcendence that we experience through selfless acts of creative engagement and contribution." - David C. Korten, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community

Today is our first day back on solid food after a 7-day liquid fast. Ginger tea for breakfasts, fruit juices/smoothies for lunch and liquid veggie soups for supper. And water, of course. (Oh and a few liquid cacao ceremonies were sprinkled in too.) I will also start by saying that I can't remember a time in my life when I felt any healthier, happier and more vibrant!

We were inspired to participate in this local fundraiser by fasting and collecting donations from friends and family. The funds raised will all go toward an organization in San Marcos la Laguna called Konojel. Konojel means "all together" in the local Mayan language. The name really says it all. 

We went to Konojel this afternoon for a great tour of the facility, which is housed in a former school building. Climbing up the steep cobbled street, you would see this beautiful rainbow mural adorning the front of the center.   

We arrived at lunch time to see dozens of Mayan children (and some adults) enjoying fresh vegetarian meals, most of them with big smiles on their faces. 
A team of local Mayan women, some of them mothers of the children enjoying lunches, were working away in the bright kitchen preparing about 60 meals of rice, potatoes, eggs and salad. Some children take meals home with them to share with their hungry siblings. About 400 meals are prepared each week to feed the 60 people in this community who are determined to be in the greatest need of nutritional support. Ages of the participants range from infant to elderly. This community has one of the higher  levels of malnutrition around Lake Atitlán, and Guatemala as a country ranks in the top five in the world. Many of the people here are much smaller than average Mayans and the children appear to be much younger than they are because of this. The adults are often in the opposite situation, some smaller but appearing much older than they are from poor nutrition and chronic dehydration. In this community, most families spend the bulk of their income purchasing firewood (or collecting it by hand from the mountain forests) to make tortillas and on the corn to make tortillas with. They don't have the means to grow fresh fruits and vegetables themselves and can't afford the prices at the local mercados. Sadly, they also rely on cheap, packaged snack foods that are stomach fillers, but void of any real useful ingredients. This has also led to the modern issue of lots of litter. Foil chip bags and plastic pop bottles line the rain gutters. 

We were taken out back of the main building to one of their five community garden plots that have been cooperatively built by local volunteers and permaculture students. A medicinal herb spiral grows lush and green next to two rocket stoves and a traditional plancha stove, which is much less fuel efficient and much higher in smoke pollution. The implementation of the rocket stoves has cut the consumption of firewood dramatically. Deforestation and smoke pollution, as well as respiratory troubles are common environmental and health concerns in this region. The other wonderful contraptions on the property are a solar oven and a solar dehydrator. Both solar designs are used to support Sabor del Sol, or Taste of the Sun, which is a retail food branch of Konojel. The ladies create sun-kissed snack foods such as seasoned squash seeds, banana chips, sun-dried tomatoes and beef jerky. They also bake vegan cookies in their solar oven. Yum

We learned that many of the local people don't have access to freshclean drinking water. So instead they put a pot of water on the already hot wood stove and boil it, add instant coffee and some panela, raw cane sugar. Every member of the family has this as their "hydration" for the day. It was confirmed when I went to sit with some of the children who were coloring at a table. They were telling me the names of each color of crayon. Instead of the typical word for brown, moreno, they call anything from beige to dark brown "cafe". Everything close to brown in color is coffee. 

The children snapped quite a few photos of the staff and of other children with my old trusty iPhone. The group has a handful of tablets that the kids use to learn about new and exciting things. Today they learned about animals, volcanoes and inequality. Seems quite appropriate. After lunchtime each day, the children "pay back" to the community by staying to learn. They have made agreements with Konojel that they will promise to stay and broaden their education through art, songs, games and participating in the production of veggies and medicinal herbs in the community gardens. I was asked not to use photos of the children, so I have tried to capture their essence in a few of these images. 

The staff is so dedicated to the people and projects that are developing each year. It's so inspiring. The Mayan staff are paid for their skills and many receive basic work skills training for a month and then are placed in stable, long-term jobs in the community. The foreign staff are mostly volunteers, with just a couple of staff getting small stipends for their time and knowledge. 

At the wrap-up party for the week-long fast, the organizers (and myself) were brought to tears by the hard work and generosity of the fasters, volunteers and donors who have helped to fund another year of healthy meals for these people who are greatly in need. Their ultimate goal is to empower local people to grow their own backyard garden plots and to help people to take their health back into to their own hands. 

Most of us can't imagine what it might be like to live a life of malnourishment. Chronic digestive trouble, hair loss, stunted growth and premature aging to name a few side effects. These people do not currently have the means to help themselves. In time, with the support of a global community, we can make little changes into huge ones
If you feel that you can open your heart to helping out, just click on the link below to donate whatever you can spare. All together we will make the world a brighter and healthier place to be.



Note: donation collections will remain open through May 22, 2015. Thank you!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Cacao y Agua

A large part of the attraction for us to reside at this lake is to work with and learn from the cacao shaman, his partner and the team of cacao wizards. 

We have been attending two to three cacao healing ceremonies at the school each week. There can be anywhere from a dozen to upwards of forty or fifty people sitting and reclining on small cushions, scattered around the porch and gardens overlooking the lake and volcanoes. Each one sips cacao and delves into the depths of their hearts for healing and wisdom. At their own pace of course. 

We have also really been enjoying assisting in the bagging of the liquid cacao paste. It used to be a once weekly event at the school of cacao's on-sight packing facility, but the demand has grown so great in recent months that it's now twice weekly. The beans are peeled by hand by a team of local Mayan women who are paid by the pound prior to peeling and quality control thinning. Sounds pretty fair! Next, some of the beans are packed whole. Others are ground into a thick paste by another team of local Mayan people.  A team of six of us scoops several hundred pounds of cacao paste into bags. The bags are precisely weighed into one pound blocks. The bags are sealed and then laid out and pressed flat with wooden boards until they harden overnight. Then they are shipped worldwide. All of our hard work and love comes sealed inside at no extra charge.

At the same location, one morning each week, there is an acupuncture clinic. I just finished my second session. Acupuncture is so powerful and can be quite uncomfortable...but WOW IS IT EFFECTIVE. I highly recommend it to anyone and everyone who needs some assistance with physical, emotional or energetic healing. This particular location is very serene. A gentle breeze flows through a covered porch with spots of sunshine peeking through the foliage. Something about the mixture of the neighborhood chickens happily clucking and the native tropical birdsong is so soothing. The woman across the bamboo fence makes a constant patty cake sound as she makes what sounds like hundreds of tortillas. The sounds of chanting, drumming and singing bowls creates a background sound for wellness. Tears mixed with huge grins create a feeling of wellness spreading from my head to my toes. 

The word tears leads me into my next topic which is water
We lucky individuals who have lived our lives solely in first world, developed and sanitary environments have no idea what it's truly like to go without water for extended periods of time. Even if the power is out or a water main breaks...darn that inconvenience...Bottled water to the rescue!!! This is not the case everywhere. 

We have gotten an up close and personal taste of what it's like to try to live a week of life in rural Guatemala with a very limited water supply.  For nearly a week, the block we were living on, as well as other areas of the community were without water. On occasion, a hose bib across the yard would yield a bit of the liquid gold. We each had one shower this week, courtesy of hostels in town where we paid to get clean. We hauled many pails of lake water up the hill to our little casa. We needed some for things like flushing modern toilets (which could and should be composting) and for heating up (using natural gas in a bottle that was piped out of the earth) to use for dish washing, hand washing and cleaning.  

One afternoon we were sitting in the house in a women's circle. Two little Mayan girls came to the front door, so I went to say hello. They asked for water to wash their hands and faces after what they told me was a lunch of frijoles, or black beans. The little one, who looked about two years old, had a full beard of them. They normally come through the gate and help themselves to the hose bib. But today I brought them a small wash basin and a bar of soap since the pipes were dry. They lit up like I did as a kiddo on Christmas morning. They more or less had head-to-toe baths, including some hair "washing" right then and there. They included me in the celebration by splashing me with plenty of soapy bean water. They then asked me to climb up and pick them some limes from the big citrus tree. So I shook a branch and down two came. I offered them a snack and they were so excited. I finally told them I had to get back into the house. They said ok see you very soon. About 20 minutes later they came back to the house with three friends all toting empty water jugs. I explained that the only reason I could share water with them is that we had to haul it up from the lake in buckets. They soldiered on together in search of some agua. 

We are still spoiled even here to be able to afford to purchase a large blue bottle of drinking water for about $3. That may not always be an option though. We must take any steps possible to conserve and clean up our planet's waters. It's all one big connected system and we each play a role. Like one little drop in a vast ocean of consciousness. 

In closing, I would like to paint a picture of something that I witnessed that has stuck with me for days. We took a tiny taxi to the neighboring village to visit an organic permaculture inspired farm. We arrived midway up a mountain, where the proper road ended. We continued on foot from there to a bridge. I stopped and stared in complete awe of the Mayan women of all ages, from small girls to elegantly aged abuelas, in their colorful garments. Some were on their knees, washing clothing in the fresh mountain stream that came pouring from the jungle-covered mountain peaks. Others were hauling baskets of laundry piled high on top of their heads. I smiled and waved and they all stopped and gave a big grin and a Buenos Dias!  They were so happy. To know nothing different than washing their clothing by hand in a fresh river in the beautiful sunshine was seemingly perfect. I wanted to join them and take some photos, but out of respect, I chose to just smile and carry on up the steep, washed out mountain trail.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Nuevas Fronteras

The highlands of Chiapas and Guatemala are breathtaking, filled with endless colors, sounds and aromas. The air on Lake Atitlán is fresh and the sun is intense. The birdsong here is a wonderful soundtrack from dawn until dusk. Bananas, papayas and numerous flowering trees seem to grow everywhere that there is free space. Many of the indigenous Mayan people wear the traditional weaves of their villages in beautiful rainbow colors. 

The volcanoes remind us they are alive by releasing little puffs of ash every once in a while. Their stature is majestic, rising thousands of feet above the lake and surrounding villages. 

The journey to arrive here took two full days in the car. She was packed to the roof and our friend was sandwiched between piles in the backseat. Our first day took us from the northwest tip of Yucatan down through Campeche along the west coast of the peninsula. We then cut southbound into the heart of Chiapas in the southernmost tip of Mexico. The jungle gradually grew greener and thicker and the trees towered above us, much older and wiser here than along the coast. Coconut palms slowly morphed into banana and coffee forests. 

We climbed up through the mountain passes for several hours. As dusk settled in, in the dim sunlight we watched the corn-covered patchwork mountainsides pass us by, dotted with small villages. The steepness of these hillsides was remarkable. No modern machinery has touched those crops. Seeded by hand, harvested by hand. In the darkness of night, we wove through numerous highland villages. As the elevation increased, so did the fog. Thank goodness that a headlight polishing angel approached us in a grocery store parking lot the night before our departure! Our aged headlights were in desperate need of a facial! They helped us to safely navigate the dozens and dozens of nearly invisible speed bumps, or topes (tumulos in Guatemala) and the Friday night pedestrians on foot. 

Throughout the two days on the road we noticed many areas that had experienced recent mudslides, likely from exceptionally heavy rains. Men worked to haul away piles of rocks of all sizes. Heaps of sandy soil lined the road in some villages. Huge chunks of road were collapsed and washed away and there was no shortage of potholes, some half the size of our car. 

There were a few obvious differences that I noticed in Chiapas as compared to the other Mexican states we have traveled through:

One: the population seems generally happier. 

Two: the population is generally exceptionally well-dressed and tidy looking. 

Three: the villages and buildings appear very well-cared for, with fresh paint and virtually no garbage to be found.

Was their secret to success in their rebellion and refusal to follow along with the rest of Mexican standards? Was their desire for pride and equality that motivated a collaborative community energy? It felt like a completely different country! In a really good way. Wow!

The Zapatista movement has quieted down in recent years, but the spirit is still very much alive. Many people proudly sported cheerful grapey-purple tee shirts that said "Mover a Chiapas", meaning something like change Chiapas or shift Chiapas. 

We were so happy to see the lights of Ocosingo as we descended out of the darkness of the high peaks. We found a remarkably pristine hostel and the three of us settled in for the night. I awoke at 4am to a chorus of what sounded like a hundred roosters. I managed to fall back asleep until sunrise. We headed out very early to make the most of the daylight hours on the roads. The days and nights are approximately equal length here, about 12 hours of dark and 12 of light. It remains pretty much steady year round, as we are so close to the equator. The morning fog hung like scarves around the green mountain peaks. So lovely
One thing that I had read about in Chiapas is the occasional road block, set up to make a few pesos off of the unsuspecting foreigners passing through on these roads. We encountered this on our second morning as we traveled into the forested hills outside of Ocosingo. Two men had a pair of neatly cut branches laid across the road. We stopped and they said that they were collecting money to pay them for keeping the roads cleared of brush, which it did appear was really happening. They asked us for $20 pesos and we obliged. They were very friendly and thanked us with a smile, wishing us a nice day. We encountered a second stop a little while before the Guatemalan border. Three men had a rope across the road. One of them was shoveling a small heap of sand and they said they were collecting money to pay for their work on road repairs. We were skeptical. They asked for only $5 pesos. We said no problem and they thanked us and lowered the rope. That's one way to make some money. Something that would never fly where we come from!

As we approached the border of Guatemala we prepared all of our paperwork. We did our research ahead of time to make things smoother. We had to pay a fee to exit Mexico. We had to have the bottom exterior of our car sprayed with some kind of fumigation spray. We made sure to stand upwind. Two women approached and notified us of the grand fiesta happening mere meters from the fronterra gate.

The small village at the border just so happened to be celebrating their yearly festival that weekend. There were people and horses lining the Main Street. After making our rounds and filling out paperwork at several buildings, we watched the riders performing on their beautiful horses dazzling the crowd with amazing tricky footwork. We were granted our 90-day visas and as the parade finished we crept slowly along the street in our car. It was intensely hot so we had all widows rolled down. Hundreds of people still lined the streets in full celebration energy. They asked where we were from and encouraged us to dance along to the music as we rolled slowly along. One little boy yelled to me "what is your name?" in perfect English. I told him and he turned and told his little friends and they laughed. About 10 blocks later I heard someone yell my name. It was a different boy and as I looked his way, he and his friends giggled. Then two men leaned in the car window to have a chat with us. They spoke very good English and one told us that he lived in Seattle for a while. At the top of the hill at the edge of town, where the horses and cowboys were all convened, two men asked in Spanglish where we were from. As we slowly drove onward we told them Canada and one of them yelled in English "LOVE YOU!!" We laughed and felt like we were part of the parade. 

As we exited town, we couldn't help but notice that there was red and green paint scattered along the road covering nearly every telephone pole, boulder, cliff and bridge. The green paint often had the word UNE stenciled on in white paint. The red often had a white hand symbol and the word LIDER. We saw signs in some towns that said "Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza". These were all political campaign signs. They made everything look so bright and cheerful, despite the underlying discord of politics. 
In Guatemala there are many brilliantly painted "chicken buses" zooming past us going at breakneck speeds, honking and billowing clouds of black exhaust. They are usually packed full of humans looking like sardines and piled high with luggage on the rooftops. 

As the sun sank lower in the sky, we came through more villages and mountain passes. At the top of one pass we noticed that the sunset was absolutely remarkable. We pulled over to take some shots. It was one of most beautiful sunsets I can ever remember. It looked as if God was smiling down on the city of Quetzaltenango. 

As we very slowly wound down the extremely steep and often sketchy road to Lake Atitlan, we could see the lights of the villages surrounding the shores. We encountered a broken down chicken bus on one dark corner. The police were very friendly and helped us through. We finally arrived at our destination and we unloaded our gear and parked our car in the center of the village near the well-used basketball court center. After the first few days, we have seen something like reverse vandalism, where our bounty of bumper stickers has been slowly disappearing. They must be making room for us to add some new ones from our fresh bunch of adventures. 

Our casa for the week. 

Much more to come... my eyelids are heavy after a very full day and the combination of howling dogs and cricket songs is calling me to bed. Buenas noches. 

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Home is Where the Heart Is

We have made so many wonderful connections in Mexico in our first two months. The time has flown by and it already feels like one of our many homes. Especially the lovely hostel. We knew we wouldn't stay forever and as the universe began to send us subtle (and then some not-so-subtle) signs, we knew we would be departing soon. Where, we didn't yet know. However, the yoga instructor training begins on March 21, so we have that much figured out. A deadline to meet...for a change.

One man that we enjoyed getting to know at the hostel asked how things seem to flow so smoothly for us. I said that we simply do what feels right and when something feels difficult or unpleasant or forced, we step back to reevaluate and change direction. It's a fairly simple system. Intuition guides us when we listen.

While at the hostel, we enjoyed reading Discovering Your Soul Signature: a 33-day path to purpose, passion and joy by Panache Desai. It's a brilliantly written spiritual instruction manual to guide us through our thoughts and beliefs about ourselves and to peel away the layers of old dense energy to become our true selves. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to heal old patterns and beliefs and to move upward and onward in their spiritual journey. We have just started to read it a second time to dig a bit deeper.

We ended up hosting four Saturday night Cacao Ceremonies for peace and healing. They were so wonderful and the connection and heart opening that comes through the cacao plant medicine was profound for many of us. This has lead us to feel inspired to go meet the cacao shaman who inspired our cacao teacher. He resides in the mountains of Guatemala in San Marcos la Laguna on Lake Atitlan. It is a remote, two day trek from Progreso. We should have about 10 days at the lake. Then we will make a two to three day trek back up through Chiapas and Oaxaca to the Om Shanti Comunidad in Mazunte, Oaxaca, Mexico. We set our intentions and made arrangements to journey onward.

We said our goodbyes to all of our new friends at each of the mercados where we sold our vegan energy balls. What an outstanding bunch of people. We said adios to the vendors that we got to know at the local mercados where we shopped for fruits and veggies. A local couple made me a beautiful ring with a stone that was given to me back in September on the day of my Canadian citizenship ceremony. What a lovely creation with lots of beautiful memories inside!

It was bittersweet to say goodbye to our new family and yet exciting to welcome new adventures. After almost six weeks at the beach in Progreso, Yucatan, we packed up our little blue car, with a new Canadian friend in tow, and headed south for Guatemala.  A dear friend has been there for a month, and awaited our arrival.  Tonight another sweet amiga will be meeting us here, arriving via bus, shuttle van and then boat.

We made it to the lake! It was the most amazing two days that I have ever spent in a car. I will write about those two days in my next post. I'm feeling like it will be very difficult to express that experience in words and photos. I will do my best. 

PS. This little neighborhood perrita is playfully tugging on my towel as I lay in the yard enjoying the sunshine, breeze and birdsong at San Marcos. Hasta luego amigos.