Stoking the embers: an ode to growth

Inspiration is often fleeting.

Sometimes it floats in on a bright morning breath, trickles down the spine like wildfire, ignites to the very core. It gets hot, burns through doubts and worries, elates the soul, energizes the body.

But then that heat starts to fade. It’s too hot to handle, we need it to cool. And as it cools, our spirits fade too and we open the doors once again to doubt, worry, fear. The hows, the whys, weigh heavy as they climb each vertebrae, shrinking stealthily over the shoulders, and pulling down the collarbones, curling the head to hover over the heart in protection. And before we know it, we’re clawing our fingernails against the earth, longing for change but immobilized by fear of it.

We go through this process time and time again- sometimes the cycle is complete in a few hours or days, sometimes longer. The higher we get, the deeper the lull appears. We sabotage the high in fear and dread of the lull. Worst yet, we get stuck in the cycles spinning round and round until we lose orientation and start digging down when we mean to go up, losing ourselves in the pit. Our experience in the pit is a powerful one, and those embers of inspiration have trouble catching fire when smothered by the weight of a heavy heart. Subsequent experiences begin to grow their vines around the heart and the lungs, gently and consistently tightening their hold on our creativity, our air, our life. Each strand stronger than the last, we give in, allow them to victimize us, pushing us deeper into the pit- so deep that the flight of inspiration, of freedom, appears to be available only to other beings, and we watch them too. We watch through the peephole of our pit, gazing up, allowing the elations of others to increase the space between us.  We watch the waves of inspiration passing us over time and time again on the winds of change that no longer graze the surface of our skin. We watch ourselves settle, again stuck in the intensity of a craving and filling it with tastes that don’t satiate the palate. Tastes that are ‘safe.’ Tastes like job security. Tastes like a mortgage payment. Tastes like routine, and chores. We continue filling our plate with these monotonous, bland tastes, becoming a slave to them, replacing them with more bland, monotonous tastes the moment we finish so as not to leave any blank space, any inkling of a home for something ostentatious and sweet like creativity or spontaneity, though on some level we are aware that we ache for it.

Fear not the pit, because the deeper we dig down into the earth of the soul, the more fertile the soil for even the smallest seeds. The deeper the darkness, the brighter our smallest ember of inspiration can shine, grabbing our attention and commanding our focus. If we have a breath left beneath the weight on the chest, we have enough oxygen to fan our small embers to flames. These flames are flames of transformation, transmuting that which no longer serves. The fire revolves in the darkness, evolving the dormant edges of the body, asking us to move, to go, to do. Our task is to be open to these flames of initiation, our work is to allow it to move us. It matters little what we do with it; what matters is simply that we do. We follow the illumination of the flame to see through the darkness. We go. We Allow. We accept the cycles and seasons of our spirit and know that the dark is not a place to be ashamed of, it is a place to visit frequently for a humble reminder of the grounds of our soul, those spaces waiting patiently for the light. Each time we visit, a new evolution can begin, setting the next cycle into motion as we break outdated agreements and burn down the walls of restrictions, deepening our roots and expanding through our flaming branches. When we go through the painful, cracking, messy process with patience, peace, and love in our heart, we are growth embodied. Fear not the pit. Fear not the process. Stoke the embers and watch your innate, awesome power move. 

Fear & Other Drugs: El Salvador

Extended travel will teach you a thing or two about yourself. I, for one, never realized quite how terrifying the unknown, the unfamiliar, the uncertain is for me. In fact, I was quite surprised by my discomfort. I always considered myself particularly easy going in the gray areas, I thrive in situations that have unclear endings and am nearly never bothered by worries of the future. I suppose you could say that’s how I got here in the first place. But here in Backpackland (a name so accurately bestowed by a wise soul sista), uncertainty is about the only thing I can count on…and as such, I spend a lot of time in my fear.

Three months in and that hasn’t really changed, even as I grow more familiar with the unfamiliar. I still wake up to panic attacks in new places or just before we move along. I still feel the powerful and looming weight of dread just beyond the horizon in beautiful new cities. I still watch the shifting eyes of passersby as I walk with my massive Gringa backpack along busy streets of foreign lands. But I have also come closer to understanding this phenomenon. I haven’t “conquered” my fear, and that is not what I came here to do. I am living with my fear, drinking tea with my fear, getting to know my fear. I am slowly finding and sculpting and rendering my tools to keep fear from crippling me; learning how to make space for all of it.

You might say that El Salvador was the peak of all of this, and I might be compelled to agree. With a reputation as the most dangerous, drug trodden country in this corner of the world- the epicenter of infamously most murderous gang, MS-13, and its foes- El Salvador was not exactly on my list of adventures this time around. It’s hard to say exactly why I agreed to go; even if it is amazing, why take any risks when there are so many other amazing destinations? I didn’t want my fears to automatically stop me from experiencing a truly unique culture, so I did some research. Lonely Planet, our guide book for most of the trip, insists that ES is the gem of Central America. As it turns out, I have a few credible sources in my network that also gave me some hope. A friend from college even gave me her mother’s phone number in the capital, San Salvador, should I need any help. As we set up our travel plans, I felt that familiar sting of fear in my gut- the seat of my intuition- but also knew that this was a moment of growth, not doom.

See, the thing about fear + travel is that you want, you crave information. You want someone to tell you that everything will be fine. You want someone to give you a definitive idea of what your experience will be. But that simply is not how it goes. You can survey your entire network, trusted and otherwise, but no one will prophesy your future. You scour the internet looking for stories that you think apply to you, but the craving for certainty will never be satisfied by second-hand advice. I’ve come to realize that this is true whether you are traveling or not. Making decisions can be unnerving, whether in regard to destinations, big purchases, or simply getting dinner. The relativism between this decision making anxiety and our FOMO driven culture is not lost on me…but that’s another story.

Bearing our research in mind, we decided to spend a week in El Salvador…and had a wonderfully peaceful time. There was not a single moment that I felt threatened, and quite to the contrary, the people we met were fantastically friendly. I spent a day hiking with a local named Carlos, a coffee farmer and hiking guide in the sleepy town of Juayua on the Ruta de los Flores. In addition to a lovely hike, Carlos provided rich insight to the complex culture of a country riddled with war and gang violence. Up in the mountains where he grew up, there was little to tell about the violent reputation I was familiar with. He is passionate about the land and often volunteers on clean-up crews around the classic 7-Waterfalls hike. He told me about the hope he has for his country, that there are now programs to rehabilitate imprisoned youth through education, programs to help women who have been victims of violence learn and start businesses with micro-loans, and other community-driven support. He showed us some of the murals that were constructed by the young people of Juayua, displays of dedication to peace and community growth. He talked about the civil war, the people that were displaced, and how easy it was to turn to violence. He did not have a bad attitude towards the United States, even though he had once been deported. Like many folks I’ve met here, he was well versed in the political rhetoric of the US (something I’ll never quite get used to when traveling distant corners of the world) and even had some shockingly kind words to say about policies enacted under the current regime. Irony on Irony.

El Salvador is also home to one of my favorite beaches in all of Central America- El Tunco. Nestled among the rocky shores of the pacific coast line, Tunco is a haven for serious surfers. Reputation has it listed as a party town, but we hit it just as high season was coming to a close and found it immensely peaceful. The beaches are rocky, but tide was low enough to expose the black sand beach. The water was crystal clear shades of the deepest sapphire blue inter-spliced with bright turquoise. The fish was infinite, and the pupusas were cheap. It was its own slice of paradise. After one of the best yoga classes I’ve had on the road, I chatted with the teacher about an imaginary future in which I could successfully convince a US studio to have a retreat there. She laughed and said she knows how it can be hard to get people out and over their fear of new places- she leads retreats in India but can’t convince any of her community in San Salvador that it is safe in India. More irony.

If you should take away anything from this story, it is that this is my unique experience- not to be replicated or held as infallible truth. El Salvador certainly suffers from very real violence. The reputation is not one to be taken lightly. Though every country has its pockets, El Salvador is particularly tricky due to the lack of infrastructure available to help should you need medical or legal support. However, (and that’s a BIG however), the danger is largely localized in particular areas that are not difficult to avoid. We spent more money on a private shuttle rather than public transportation and headed all local warnings. As a rule of thumb, whenever you arrive in a new city (foreign or otherwise), the first thing you should do is ask your host what areas should be avoided. In El Salvador, a large percentage of tourist-involved crime has more to do with wrong-place, wrong-time than specific, targeted attacks. Still doesn’t exactly sound like a frolic in the park, but it is an important distinction when comparing relative dangers between different tourist towns. If you choose to go or you choose to skip it, do so on the basis of an informed decision and exercise extra precaution.

As for the fear, it’s getting better the more often I name it. I find that in situations of uncertainty, my brain will be quick to fill in details with “what ifs” drawn from a lifetime of cop shows, sensational news, and murder mysteries. It’s funny- I thought one of my single biggest fears was snakes. Any time we strayed off a well-beaten path my body would literally freeze in apprehension. Though it may sound silly, this is how I really came to understand and work with my fear. I noticed that I was primarily afraid of snakes only if I hadn’t walked that particular path before; once I had been there and sufficiently surveyed the area, I was fine. As if a snake couldn’t break the laws of my certainty and decide to move into my path. As if my quick search couldn’t possibly have missed an expertly hidden, probably terrified snake. If you do the math, it isn’t the snake the scared me, it was the possibility of a snake. I was almost relieved when I did see one, because that way I knew where it was (and it didn’t kill me…amazing). Transferring this conclusion to other instances of fear, I found that I am simply fearing the possibility of something going wrong- another minuscule yet major distinction. Faith and fear are one in the same. The former is belief that things will go well, while the latter is the belief that they won’t. Either way, you are speculating on something completely out of your control. Rather than sitting in fear and anticipating the worst, small little bits of positivity and lots of deep breaths can help you find your faith.

Volunteering Collections: Costa Rica

For those of you that read my latest post, you’ll know that I have been hesitant to share too many of my ‘highlights’ in an effort to keep things realistic in a world full of perfect media platforms. I have forever been a big emoter and find deep value in representing the full gambit of ups and downs in any situation. As Khalil Gibron says in The Prophet, seeking out ONLY life’s pleasures will leave you “into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.” This poem is one of my most treasured, and though it speaks specifically on love, I find that it applies to so many of the dualities we experience day after day. Before I go too far down that magnificent and bottomless rabbit hole, today I would like to share some of the incredulously normal things I’ve been up to- the good, the hard, and the biggest takeaways of my travels thus far (updated as I go!)

Stop #1: Rancho Margot, near Arenal Volcano,Costa Rica

In a previous post (accessible here) I spoke a bit about the mission and processes of Rancho Margot. If you asked me to boil down the experience into a sentence or two, you’d be awfully disappointed because I don’t think I could do it. It is a complex and wonderful paradise off the grid, steeped in the mission to experiment with nonconventional, natural living. The deal went something like this: work 6 hours per day, 6 days per week, and in return we had a place to lay our head and 3 amazing meals, 80% of which was grown on the farm (sometimes by us!).

  • My favorite part was the opportunity to be fully immersed in a natural learning environment- self study, reading, nature, farming, ecotourism, agrotourism, entrepreneurship, culture, language, yoga, sustainability, food cultivation….you name it, I learned it bit by bit each day. Another major attribute was living off the grid. We were about two miles of dirt road from the nearest town and had little to no internet access, cold showers, and the darkest night sky you can imagine. I enjoyed walks into town and occasionally shelled out some cash for a drink and a burrito (the BEST you’ll ever have…amazing), but to do so I had to reallllly want it. On most days, we just read or visited with other volunteers instead.
  • The hardest part of the entire five week stint was the weather. We had RAIN every. single. day. The first 10 days or so it rained with a vengeance, pouring buckets on all of our belongings and chilling us to the bone. Eventually we saw some sun and our spirits were lifted, but our clothes stayed mildly wet (and STINKY) throughout the entire stay.
  • Biggest takeaway? I had a lot of time to be with myself, away from distraction. Busy is a good word to describe the state of mind I brought with me, and though I haven’t quite ditched that habit, I’m working hard to overwrite it. The ranch taught me a lot about cycles, about humans in nature, and how to be a more natural human.
  • Must see/do: Hot Springs river at night! Although the La Fortuna area is riddled with Hot Springs tourism and resorts, there is free access to Rio Chollin (an entire HOT RIVER) just outside the Tabacon. One crystal clear night, 14 of the volunteers and staff pooled (*pun intended*) our resources and rented a shuttle to watch the stars from a hot, rapid river. It was unforgettable- a pitch black night, hot water rushing around you, floating in natural and bubbly minerals and gazing up at the stars. I lost track of what was water and what was air as I watched the trees move like seaweed in the wind agains the backdrop of an endless sky. That night we all slept like rocks as the minerals that were not to be washed off nourished our skin and spirit. Pure Magic.

 

Stop #2: Puerto Viejo (de Limon), Costa Rica

 

Traveling in Costa Rica has been very simple and pleasant, but you have to have the mental chutzpa to handle the bus system if you don’t want to spend all of your money on private shuttles. Generally speaking, you can get across the country for less than 15 bucks per person if you take the public bus system- but don’t expect to have a seat and be prepared for a FULL day of slow, sticky, travel. So, when we found out that a common way to travel from Arenal to Puerto Viejo is by white water raft, we were GAME. The Pacuare River is equidistant from three major cities, so they offer a free shuttle to and from the river. The trip includes breakfast and lunch, plus a full day of rafting Class III and IV rapids on the 4th best river in the world! They keep your luggage safe while you raft, and afterwards you grab your things and take the proper shuttle. Said and done, the trip costs $99/person, which is only about $25 more than a shuttle would have cost. The public bus would have been an easy $20 or less per person, but we would have needed to connect 3 buses over the course of a 10-12 hour trip. Given the circumstances, we splurged a bit and chose Rafting.

  • My favorite part was renting bicycles and staying just outside of town in Playa Chiquita. Chiquita is about halfway between the first beach (Playa Negra) and the last (Manzanilla). It is quieter than downtown Puerto Viejo but a quick 6km bike ride to the heart of the party if you want it. We had quiet nights and peaceful mornings, lots of yoga, and plenty of beach time. It rained a lot while we were here too, but we had at least a bit of sun each day.
  • The hardest part was certainly $$$$$. We spent a week here as a beach buffer between volunteer gigs, so this was completely on our own dime. Having been out in the wild for 5 weeks meant we were a bit too eager to shell out $5-6 for a craft beer. Everything in PV is for sale, and if you like the boho, carefree, surfstyle, you’ll want to buy it all. It took a lot of discipline and an acute awareness of the space in my backpack to avoid spending all of my money here. Oh yeah, and also this is when my two wisdom teeth started to come in, making it extraordinarily difficult to open my mouth and shooting pain down into my neck, ear, and jaw all day. Nothing some beach time couldn’t help!
  • Biggest Takeaway? Fresh food (besides fruit) in PV is hard to come by, so cooking our own meals was key. Find a fisherman (or go to Mopri Market) and get yourself some fresh fish. Make a simple flour/spice dusting on the outside of the fish and flash fry it in a skillet until flakey. All in all, we fed ourselves for a week on five fish (snapper, green jack, grouper), a massive pot of rice and lentils, and lots of fruit and chocolate. One night we went out for a sushi buffet at Chili Rojo….save your money.
  • Must see/do: Honestly, I really wanted our time at the beach to be completely unstructured and unattached- I didn’t want to have that feeling of “should” be doing something all the time…no one needs that FOMO, especially not on vacation. There is certainly a plethora of activities, shopping, and wildlife to experience, but my must see advice is to just CHILL with the PV vibe. Do Less. See Less. But definitely rent a bike 🙂

 

Stop #3: Hacienda Sur- Parrita, Costa Rica

Hacienda Sur is an Artisan Beef farm, specializing in the intersection of top quality dry-aged beef and cutting-edge sustainability. Our first task as volunteers was Cut Day, involving the preparation, packaging, and cleaning of nearly 700 steaks and over 200kg of ground steak over the course of a 15 hour day. Talk about an experience. Watching this small family-run operation work their well oiled machine (spoiler alert, its their own able hands!) is something to witness for sure. As we continue to find ourselves in a world divided by the horrors of factory farming and evangelistic veganism, I am happy to be learning about the good neighbor farms on the forgotten side of the documentaries. One major theme of volunteering on sustainable farms is that just as humans can be wildly destructive to the environment, so can we be supportive.

I have written and rewritten this section a handful of times, but can’t seem to figure out how to say it. The meat and potatoes is that meat and potatoes are becoming deeply divided on the plate- it’s hard to talk about meat production in a way that doesn’t severely offend most of the people interested in sustainability practices. What I can say is this: what is good for the environment and the animal is also good for the production of meat. Businesses that take extra care to take care of the environment are naturally going to have a better product. Though we may disagree and feel an emotional response to referring to and consuming an animal as a product, we also must refrain from generalizing too quickly. Whether or not you agree with meat consumption, you want more farms like Hacienda Sur out there. Even if the farmer’s intention is simply to create a higher quality product, his byproduct (and therefore what affects us directly) is clean and sustainable land stewardship. His deep knowledge of the grass and gentle eco-systems that go along with it will do more for this land than any protest we organize against him. The cows at Hacienda Sur are indubitably the happiest, healthiest cows I have ever observed (and I’ve seen a LOT). They frolic and romp with each other, explore the hundreds of acres of grass selected specifically for their nutritional needs, and live in an environment created to reduce as much stress as possible. They are cared for by three wonderful men and a rotation of eager volunteers life myself.

Though I’m on the brink of once again deleting the above, I’ll leave it for now. Perhaps I’ll write more later, or on its own page. But for now, I’ll open it to your thoughts, questions, ideas, opinions. I want to talk about it! One of the reasons we find it difficult to write on such divisive topics- and indeed one of the reasons they are so divisive- is that we don’t talk about it. So please, you know how to do it: comment below or send an email. The discussion is open.

Stop 4: Nosara, Nicoya Peninsula

If you are dying to see Costa Rica but afraid to be leaving behind your beloved American culture, look no further than Nosara. Playa Guiones, the popular stretch of pristine surf, is a part of a development known as the American Project. It is the only area of Costa Rica I’ve been to that has street names and addresses. Populated primarily by expats and surf tourists, Guiones has everything your organic/vegan/yoga/surf/party soul could want…as long as you’re willing to pay the price. We were lucky enough to be visiting a Nica friend who has been living there for seven years, so we had access to some of the cheaper, slightly more local hookups.

  • My favorite part was the sunset at Playa Pelada, just around the bend from Playa Guiones. There is one little bar and one nice restaurant on the beach, but it is much less inhabited compared to the tourist hotspot of Guiones. Grab a few beers and pony up to a bit of driftwood to enjoy the show.
  • The hardest part, again would have to be the $$$$. The town almost had an Austin-like vibe, full of young active people that do a lot of yoga, except here they also surf every morning. It amazes me that anyone can survive here with that cost of living. Oh, and the roads. Everything is dirt road, so getting there is nothing short of a mother*&^%. The bus from Samara to Nosara, at just 12km distance, takes nearly 2 hours on a hot and sweaty bus. To get here you have to really want it, but you’ll be glad you did.
  • Biggest take away: The vibe here is very laid back. Still a small town with all dirt roads and few cars (most people use dirtbikes or quads), everyone knows everyone…and looks after each other. As eluded to above, it is hard to comprehend how to make ends meet, yet most people seem to be extremely relaxed though underemployed. This combination brings a bit of peace to the mind that we can all survive on much less than we think, and a life that prioritizes peace and play will always trump a life spent worrying about income.
  • Must see/do: If you’re there, and you want a bit of boujeee….check out Bodhi Tree Yoga Resort. A drop in will be at least $15, but it is truly beautiful and well staffed with knowledgeable folks. It’s pretty easy to sneak in to their pool as well, so you can potentially get your money’s worth. We did a lot of home-cooking here too, so skip the expensive food and save your money for the 2×1 happy hour cocktails or aforementioned yoga class. Do not leave the city without trying some of Chocolate Dave’s chocolate at Pura Vida Raw Foods. You’ll also have an endless supply of healthy, organic, raw, vegan yummies at just about any restaurant in town.