A Sudden Couple of Months

There have been many moments I have wanted to stop and write over the past couple of months. (And several times I have started…) But time is passing quickly out here on the road. Aside from the occasional photo posted, I realize I have not shared much of my adventures since the day I left Northern Ireland. So here goes… 

My first stop in Scotland was Roslin, just south of Edinburgh. I caught up with an old friend I had not seen in more than fifteen years, Andy, staying with his young family and exploring the stunning countryside there. I was pleasantly surprised by the geology along the River North Esk. I also stopped in to see the spooky and beautiful Rosslyn Chapel (made famous by The DaVinci Code). Following this visit, my days in Scotland slowed considerably, at times becoming somewhat uneventful. I got sick – a heavy head cold that descended into my chest. Yet I was nonetheless blessed in my recovery. After briefly catching up with family friends in Edinburgh, Bob and Sheila generously opened their home to me as they left for ten days in New York. I suddenly had a base in the same home my family had lived in twenty-seven summers before. It was a walk down memory lane (and up a few familiar hills) in the gorgeous and historic city of Edinburgh. I even bought a phone in Edinburgh, realizing in the absence of one what a support it could be to my journey. I am also gladly taking photos now.

After posting the above panoramic photo online, I discovered that a Swedish friend I had met in Rome years before, Sanna, was now living in Edinburgh, and we had a chance to catch up and hang out a couple of times. That was good fun. Otherwise, I rested a fair bit and tried to get over my cold, which proved especially pesky. A doctor prescribed me antibiotics if it worsened any. Even with a week of wonderful weather, I was often home-bound, watching movies and feeling a bit lazy and low at moments, yet randomly laughing at my good fortune in others. I did enjoy a few quality Skype visits with friends and family, which stand out as highlights.

Later in the week, I got a call from a dear friend, Franz, who had frequently hosted and employed me on his family farm in Tuscany over the past several years. He suggested I join he and his wife, Molly, down in Greece to help them run a few yoga retreats. He offered to fly me down, put me up and pay me a decent stipend for a few weeks work, supporting the yoga groups throughout their excursions and other day-to-day activities. Though unexpected, and entirely changing the course that had been gradually developing, the offer proved too good to pass up. 

I first headed south to London (which I had somehow missed in all my travels) and spent a couple of days exploring widely, often walking with an umbrella and raincoat, the English weather performing as advertised. I caught up with another old connection, Adrian, from my days working at Trinity College School. We shared a good visit and a tasty meal, and I saw another slice of London (aside from the touristy bits I had already exhausted). As impressive as much of London obviously was, it was not doing a lot for me. The weather may not have helped its case (nor the museums filled with incredible artifacts stolen from their homes).

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‘Tourist Proof’ I was in London.

I much preferred Cambridge, where I spent a day and a half before flying from London’s far north Stansted Airport. Hosted by a generous friend of friends, Gwen (whom I had met once before), I was given great guidance and found myself walking all over town, popping into churches, museumsand parts of the University campus, also watching rowers on the River Cam. I even found some fresh homemade hummus in a little local market. 🙂 I absolutely loved the calm pace of life in Cambridge, especially relative to London. I could easily imagine setting up shoin a spot like that. It likely helped that the weather had turned for the better by the time I arrived.

Once in Greece – happily reunited with Franz, Molly and their daughter Giulia – I found myself in the peaceful seaside village of Epidavros. Having passed through only briefly years before, I learned much more this time about the heritage of healing in the region. Myths of Asclepius – a hero and god of medicine, with his serpent-entwined staff (still a medical symbol today) – place him as a local. The sleeping volcano of Methana is also renowned for its healing power. Nevertheless, shortly after my arrival, my slowly-mending chest infection seemed to reassert itself, morphing and spreading into my throat and swelling my tonsils. On the first day of our first yoga group, sufficiently aware of the upcoming demands on my energy, I decided it was time to take the antibiotics that had been prescribed to me more than a week before. They seemed to take effect swiftly, enabling me to focus on my work with the group. 

I was quickly swept up into the energy and activity of the ‘yoga vortex’. As smooth and easy a program as we endeavoured to present for our clients, it took a good deal of background work from us. I was glad to be a part of the team. We created an interesting schedule and a supportive space for the twenty-six American college students on retreat, most of them coming to Europe for the first time. We had some truly awesome people in the mix, whom I will not soon forget. (I hope I never do!) We saw ancient cultural and archaeological sites, took dance classes, learned about farming and processing olives, went snorkeling and scuba-diving, cleaned plastic from beaches, and met with historians and mythology experts (also learning of the curious intersection between history and mythology which many subscribe to). I was basically just on board to support a pre-existing framework that my friends had developed over years of running retreats in the area (aside from their other retreats in Tuscany, Amalfi Coast, Portugal, Patagonia, Cuba, and Nepal). It was a lively time. With slight alterations to fit each group, we basically repeated the program one retreat after another. Before I knew it, three weeks (and three yoga groups!) had come and gone. I had driven back and forth from the Athens airport (about two and a half hours away) numerous times by then, picking up and dropping off new faces and fast friends.

I also had moments of frustration in Greece, feeling as though I wanted to write something of value, but not quite having the time, energy or impetus. Knowing my body was still in recovery, I usually took spare moments for rest instead of creation. Having set out on this adventure with an intention to reflect on my path through writing, I had thus far felt either too busy, tired, lazy or sick to begin. I sensed there may have been some connection between my illness and my lack of writing, as though I physically had ‘something to say’ lodged in my throat. As I watched my mind frequently composing ‘something to say’, I gradually acknowledged that it was still somewhat invested in becoming ‘someone’ in the world. The effect of this desire was a freezing up of my natural expression, caught up instead in a search for ‘perfection’. Part of me wanted everything to be all figured out before I began. How many times must I face this same hurdle? I continue to remind myself I can only truly be myself, not effectively plan and present myself. In this light, any form of presentation can only reflect our past, not our true presence.

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Random stone Buddha.

Receiving a few acupuncture treatments from Molly (a doctor of Chinese medicine), my body began releasing some of the conflict it was going through. My perspective also clarified a bit, seeing that the body – in its own intelligence – was clearing space for purposes of its own. Whether that would translate into some sort of growth or deeper healing, I had to admit I simply did not know. Around the same time, I began reflecting on a pattern of illness arising on the road. Looking back at past travels, I saw a long string of illnesses emerging while I was away from home. It seemed I never let myself fall so fully apart at home as on the road, whether physically, emotionally or mentally. Strange though it may sound, I value these opportunities to fall apart a bit, to ‘peek through the cracks’ and glimpse more stable ground beneath everything else that comes and goes.

I started viewing illness as a storm, realizing that storms bring new ingredients into our environment, ingredients often essential for growth, healing, release, or re-calibration. A storm is not always enjoyable. (Healing often hurts.) But there is something of value to be uncovered in its wake. Aware that storms eventually clear our atmosphere, I figure there is wisdom in weathering them. We can surrender that which is otherwise clogging our space, opening ourselves to receive whatever other elements life may be ready to offer us. However speculative, these images at least inspired in me a renewed commitment to vigilant awareness and a deeper openness to falling into alignment with life’s will. My sense here is that by listening more intently within, I can speak more freely, fully and surely from my very centre, a source common to all. Speaking from life’s heart. Hardly about being heard, this is about sharing what comes from most deep within. The essence, not surprisingly, is love. And it resonates outwardly. 

Amidst this (ongoing) inner work, supporting the yoga groups was an enjoyable and fitting setting. I loved being tucked into such a pretty little aquamarine cove – a slice of paradise – eating good food that I did not need to prepare, sleeping beside the sea, practicing daily yoga and sharing adventures in and around various Greek islands with fascinating people.

After facilitating our three groups in Greece, I took a van-load of fun folks to the Athens airport (listening to the Grateful Dead much of the way) and then jumped on a flight to Naples, set to lead a retreat at a convent in nearby Sorrento. Shortly after arriving at Convento San Francesco, my illness made a serious resurgence. My tonsils swelled up like golf balls. Though I would love to have weathered it without meds, I had committed to more responsibility for this final retreat (Franz and Molly busy leading another retreat in Greece). So I went for my third trip to the hospital in just over a month. I was prescribed a much stronger course of antibiotics than the first, and after a couple of days, the swelling receded. Fortunately, working alongside Franz’s cousin, Mario, the retreat carried on with only a few ‘learning moments’. It seemed somewhat easier on me perhaps because the group was from Toronto, which offered a sense of familiarity. We even found a few common connections between us. It also helped that the structure of their retreat left me little gaps to sneak away and nap during the day.

After the group fanned out in various directions (some bound for trains, others planes, and still more hanging around the area for further exploration), I picked up Franz’s son, Gabriele, from the family summer home up in the hills overlooking Sorrento and we headed north to Ebbio, the farm in Tuscany. We, of course, stopped for lunch in Naples, enjoying a couple of ridiculously delicious pizzas at Antica Pizzeria da Pasqualino. It was a perfect day for driving and the journey was smooth (though not quite as fast as if Mario had been behind the wheel). We reached the farm as the sun was about to set and I was grateful to be back at a place that feels a lot like a spiritual centre for me. I greeted several friends, human, plant and animal. The horses and donkeys seemed pleased to see me, as I was them. I visited a few of my favourite trees, walking the grounds and stopping to soak in the views. I even saw some day old puppies. 🙂 But after a month in the yoga loop – spinning in Franz’s orbit – I was feeling keen to keep moving, so my stay this time was brief. Franz found me a ride north to Milan with a friend of his and I hopped at the chance, with just under an hour’s notice.

Like many of Franz’s friends I have met before, Angelo was quite a character. Our journey to Milan was full of fascinating stories from a life thoroughly lived. I stayed a quick night in a youth hostel (realizing I was pushing the boundary of ‘youth’ now, as 35 is often a cutoff in some hostels) before hopping a bus to Munich, riding for the first time through Switzerland. I was excited to be dropping in on three good friends in the Munich area, catching up after a few years.

I spent a few quality days with a friend from Toronto, Win, who was now living in his wife Julia’s hometown about an hour west of Munich. They have a sweet setup in the countryside there, and a happy dog, Blue. We walked around and talked about a lot, listening to good music (mostly the Grateful Dead) and eating well. One afternoon, they took me on a ‘health’ walk inspired by a famous local priest named Sebastian Kneipp, where you walk through a circuit barefoot, encountering various elements intended to balance your health. I especially liked the mud pool and the multi-textured labyrinth.

Win drove me to my friend Bart’s place in Wörthsee, where I got to meet his fiancée, Hannah, and their beautiful baby girl, Emma (just freshly one year old). Sweet, smiley little Emma did not take long in warming to me. This was a very meaningful stop on my journey. Bart and I, since we met cycling in Spain in 2011, have a strong bond that calls for little maintenance. We pick right up where we left off every time we connect. I loved my time staying with his family in picturesque Wörthsee. Both nights I spent there coincided with World Cup matches, where we gathered in the beer garden with many from the village to cheer on the underdogs.

Heading into Munich to see my friend Robert (who, coincidentally, also met Bart while cycling in Spain), we similarly carried on without missing a beat. I spent a quick couple of days with him, getting into deep conversations as we always do, having plenty of laughs, and enjoying a bike ride around town. We also stopped into Tollwood Festival to drink in the summer fun of the popular local alternative to Oktoberfest. We also ran into Win’s wife Julia and her friend, also named Julia. It was a nice way to connect the dots and sew up my Munich visit with the same thread it began with. Though the time with my Munich friends flew by, it felt great to share energy with each of these old friends.

Arriving in Salzburg to our dear family friend’s home, no sooner had Edda welcomed me than I headed out to Mondsee to join my friend Ralf for a sunset sail. (Edda had told me she would be leaving right after receiving me…hence my other plans cued up.) Getting to know Ralf when I lived a few months in Salzburg years before, we also have a strong bond that suffers nothing from years between visits. Ralf and his friend Christian, both capable sailors, tended to the needs of the vessel while I enjoyed the breathtaking views, savouring the wind, the clouds, and the mountains surrounding the lake. I also chipped in with a bit of musical support, cheerfully strumming away on Ralf’s mini Cordoba guitar. As Christian prepared to head back to Salzburg later that night, I could not have been happier to hear Ralf suggest we stay at the lake and spend the night on the boat. After the stars came out and the air cooled, we cozied into our bunks below deck and shared tales of the life we had each been living, eventually falling asleep to gently rocking waves. A quick, brisk morning dip woke us up and following a bit of breakfast and writing, another day of sailing began, this time just the two of us. Ralf had me helping out as much as I could, even trying my hand at sailing for a stretch. The conditions could not have been better. This brief window together at Mondsee was an amazing way to reconnect with a dear friend.

From Salzburg, I moved quickly to Bratislava, staying only overnight before hopping a bus for the day’s ride to Krakow. The annual European Rainbow Gathering is happening in south east Poland and I am eager to drop in and see what is going on, connecting again with some friends I got to know when I joined the 2012 summer gathering in Slovakia. That was a potent and positive experience, which was at least thoroughly affirming if not somewhat formative. I am only about 200 KM away now and intend to leave either tomorrow or the day after.

Leading up to this celebration of love and light, it felt somehow fitting that I visited Auschwitz today, reflecting on humanity’s capacity for darkness. It impacted me more than I could have anticipated. It was as though I could feel tiny waves of the suffering echoing there. Seeing the potential for such madness still alive in some corners of our globe today motivates me all the more to share widely the love I feel so clearly.

This is what brings me to writing now. This is what I wish to express from most deeply within. On what has become very much a circuit of visiting friends (and unfortunately missing out on catching up with several others), I can see my core drive at work – sharing love. This is all I want to do here in this life. I hope you can take a moment to stop and breathe it in. 🙂 It is here in abundance, if only we can allow ourselves to feel it amidst everything else that so easily captures our attention. It is so vital to prioritize this love, this peace within, thus strengthening and enabling us to share it more freely in the world. We are capable of creating a unified, loving world, but if we fall blind to our role in this process of co-creation, fear can take control and sweep us up in dreams of division – nightmares of us and them. Understanding our true ground is a clear path to radiating peace in the world around us. We cannot try to control much beyond that. I pray we have the courage to lean out love anyhow and trust its transformative power.

I suppose I will sign off there. I could go on. But silence has far more to say than I could ever put into words, so I will return there for now, from where I came. 🙂

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Rainbow Gathering Theme.

ps…I will likely be offline for a couple of weeks while I am camping in the woods. I look forward to catching up with you once I return! Until then, be kind – to yourself and others! 😉 

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My Time on the Emerald Isle

It’s been a lovely stretch so far. Far more sunshine than I had anticipated. Now I sit on a boat bound for Scotland, saying farewell to Ireland. We just began floating, slowly making our way out of Belfast port. It feels like a nice moment to update folks on my journey so far. It’s not yet been two weeks, but it feels like a lot has happened. We’ll see how much I cover before we reach land.

I arrived tired to Dublin, not having rested much on the night flight from Toronto (via St. John’s). I found a hostel a couple hours before check-in time and crashed on a couch in the basement. Having told friends where I was, they awoke me three hours later and we headed out for lunch. We were coming for a retreat at Corrymeela, a reconciliation centre in the North of Ireland. They have been doing difficult and powerful reconciliation work since the mid-60s, even before the tensions broke out in ‘The Troubles’.

We learned a lot about the history of ‘The Troubles’ in museums and on walking tours, especially up in Belfast. But we began down in Dublin. After a hop-on, hop-off bus tour through the city, we (Maya, Sarah, Karen, and I) grabbed a pint of Guinness atop the brewery in the Gravity Bar. (Sarah helped finish mine.) We enjoyed a great view of the city from up there.

The next morning, Maya, Sarah and I arose early to see The Book of Kells at Trinity College (far more interesting and engaging than I figured), hopping a bus to Belfast just before noon. We then hurried through the Titanic museum before meeting up with our group at a hostel outside of the city centre. We got oriented and had time to get to know one another. After a simple dinner together, we watched a fascinating documentary by a popular local comedian; ‘My Dad, The Peace Deal and Me‘. We all quite enjoyed learning about some of Ireland’s struggles alongside characteristic wit and humour.

We visited a local museum the next day which had a section devoted to ‘The Troubles’, also grounding us in much of the historical underpinnings. It was intentionally set to the side of the museum with a warning to locals that it might stir up difficult memory and emotion. Even for those of us who were not Irish, it was very emotional. So much conflict and death, all so close to home. Coming from Canada, where the distinction between Catholic and Protestant is not all that pronounced, it felt shocking to me.

We had a walking tour through the city later that day, with Dead Centre Tours. It was both intense and sensitive, honouring both sides of the conflict in content and geography. Walking along the ‘peace walls’ and seeing the many political murals, the conflict felt very fresh. We walked through one gate around 3 PM only to see it close behind us, two cars screeching to a halt in the nuetral zone and having to turn around. Two confused tourists (on foot) were allowed to pass through. Our guide said that you would have to make a long detour around the gates at this time of the day. It has real impact on things like routes to hospitals, sometimes with life or death implications.

Making our way to Corrymeela’s Belfast office, we met with a theologian and mediator, beginning the formal portion of our program. It feels safe to say that our group was all on board from the beginning. The calibre of speakers and teachers we encountered was consistently top shelf. After lunch, we drove out into the country (some of us dozing off on the bus ride), arriving at Corrymeela later in the afternoon. The beauty and spaciousness of the property, sitting right on the coast, was very welcoming.

Our time at Corrymeela was impactful for each of us. We had an incredible facilitator, Paul Hutchinson, who led us through a lot of growth and difficult exploration. He used poetry, stories, movement, therapeutic exercises, games, questions, songs, deep listening and even random excerpts from Justin Trudeau’s ‘Common Ground’ to reach us. One among us dubbed him a ‘Jedi Master’ of therapy and mediation. He was astonishingly sensitive to our group dynamics, responding to the needs of our group in the moment, artfully shifting his program to suit us.

The week was somewhat of a beautiful blur of being largely in session with Paul (or ‘guest’ speakers and facilitators), punctuated with tea and biscuit breaks, good meals, good company and walks along the shore. We got out to the pub on two nights. We had a group trip to Derry (or Londonderry) one day. We saw where Bloody Sunday had taken place, guided on a walking tour by a man who had been there in the thick of it all. 13 Catholics dead at the hands of the supposedly ‘neutral’ British Army. Our guide, Michael, shared how busy he still was as a mediator, the conflict alive in Derry. He also shared that as a Catholic, he was not neutral, though unequivocally committed to peace and reconciliation. Spray paint on walls told us the IRA was still active, even if not actively or outwardly violent. Even more sharply than the divide in Belfast, neighbourhoods in Derry showed the strong contrast between their loyalties; some areas with strong green and orange colouration, posters and murals praising IRA freedom fighters; other areas waving the Union Jack and more ‘stately’ loyalist murals. Curbsides were red and blue in these parts of town. Here in Derry (what the Catholics call it, refusing to mention ‘London’ – or even defacing signs that include the British capital), there are dividing walls and gates also. They close at appointed hours and nobody can pass until the next day. Residents largely report a sense of peace and security associated with these divisions. Most fear their removal.

Back at Corrymeela, we dug into our inner work, encouraged to be considerate, curious and confidential, also keeping an eye on any inclination toward comparison, competition or controlling urges. Paul drew on so many helpful quotes I could hardly keep up, yet his delivery was always calm and accessible. “Don’t speak of judgement until you know infinite love” comes to mind as particularly meaningful. We were also shown a way to avoid all conflict – never engage in relationship, not even with yourself. As that does not sound the least bit attractive (or viable), Paul asked us a powerful question about our interpersonal intentions, something that has been replaying regularly in my mind since hearing it, something which we can draw upon when in conflict, however intense or subtle; Do you want to be right or in relationship? I absolutely love this one.

Overall, we were encouraged to encounter ourselves in greater depth, in greater complexity, acknowledging and embracing our multiplicity and contradictions. Rumi’s poem, The Guesthouse, was referenced as such an invitation. Have a read. Seamus Heaney mentions a “glimpsed alternative”, a place of encounter, where we can see things we are carrying around that may not be true, or no longer serving us. We were also urged not to miss the epic by looking for it.

I hosted a couple of morning meditations in the Croí (‘heart’ in Irish), which is Corrymeela’s place of worship and contemplation, folded into a hill behind two rough walls of rock. (There is a picture below.) I also joined in several morning and evening prayer times hosted by the community, enjoying some very potent sessions of silence and song. One night in particular, after some Taize devotional chanting, I experienced an especially powerful energetic connection. Its implications remain unclear, but it felt good.

One of the week’s major themes was singing across borders, reaching the sensitive places in our lives, places we may not even be welcome, and speaking our truth or singing our song despite the difficulty or conflict. This theme grew out of the story of Paul Robeson, a musician who was blacklisted as a Communist in the 50s, thus unable to leave the States (yet also unwelcome). He found a place up at the Canadian border and put on a concert, himself on the American side, his audience in Canada. He found a way to sing across borders, encouraging us to find ways to do the same.

After the group left, I headed off to spend a few quiet days walking along the coast. I wanted to see Giant’s Causeway and the surrounding area. It was gorgeous. The weather could not have been better for these days of walking. My feet were sore, but my heart was often filled to the brim. Feeling the ‘end of summer camp’ blues to some extent, this quiet time with nature – often staggering and powerful – was just what I needed. Traveling without a camera (yet inexplicably with a laptop), I was unable to capture any images of the beauty, so for your benefit I found a few photos of the area online.

I headed back to Belfast yesterday morning and had a quiet day walking around in the soft rain, more what I expected Ireland to be like. I hung out with friendly folk in the hostel, which was back by the Corrymeela city office. I recognized the area as I walked into it, having come this time on foot from the bus station.

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It’s hard to imagine a year has passed since I last posted. A year to the day. A lot has come and gone. I got home from India shortly after my last post, preparing for my first year back at school in over a decade. I still managed to get out to Nova Scotia with family for a week, and down to Nebraska for some more family visits (and the total solar eclipse), but I was mostly in and around Toronto, gearing up for school. It was a wonderful whirlwind of a year. I was challenged and supported, inspired and exhausted, and often at peace, also connecting with some really great folks throughout.

I’m grateful to be taking some quiet time to wander about this summer, unwinding and listening deeply for inner guidance. I have my tent with me (though I have yet to use it) and will find further opportunities to be absorbed in nature and silence. We’re about to dock here, so I’d better sign off and wish you all well. More news to come at some point! 🙂

Finding Sanctuary in Nepal

After a crazy week of travel through the stinking heat of north India, I found myself seeking refuge up in Nepal. Though the air was cool in Kathmandu, I quickly found myself choked by the oppressive pollution. I got pretty sick for a few days and didn’t get up to much. Once I had recovered sufficiently, I made a break for a quiet village in the middle of nowhere. I’ve been here in Bandipur for nearly two weeks now, loving every simple day, passing each peacefully.

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My days crossing India from Rishikesh to Bodh Gaya were packed with action. I slept on trains two nights in a row and burned the candle at both ends trying to cover ground. Stopping for a day in Lucknow and wandering around in the hot sun was nice in some ways – enjoying a lot of impressive Mughal architecture – but it was an assault on my body. I had only wanted to stop there because my Grandfather was born in a small Canadian town of the same name. Perhaps a silly reason, but why not? After a full day in the heat, and more than a four-hour delay, I boarded my train around 2 AM and continued east.

I pulled into Varanasi early in the morning and decided I would stay a day. It was a beautiful visit. I found a friendly hostel near the train station and rested a bit before setting out to explore the ancient, fabled city by the holy river Ganges. Learning about the cremation traditions was especially powerful. Hindus from all over India travel to Varanasi to cremate their loved ones by the banks of ‘Mother Ganga’. Not all can be cremated, though. Some are simply put in the river to be cleansed. Children are too innocent for the fires of cremation. This also goes for pregnant women. Others are kept from the fire for the safety of the living. Lepers and those bitten by cobras could spread their illness through the fires of cremation.

After watching an old woman in the funeral pyre gradually reduced to ash (a young man poking her bones with a bamboo pole), I noticed a body bobbing along the banks, apparently slipping free from the rocks intended to keep it below the surface. Nobody seemed to think much of it. As I set out from the area, I was annointed with ashes from the sacred fire which has been burning for 3500 years (and then I was given a small parcel of them to bring home). Before leaving town, I took a sunrise cruise on the river, watching the morning rituals along the ‘Ghats’ of what many consider the spiritual centre of India.

I took a local bus (the only one I could find) to Bodh Gaya. I surely would have sprung for air conditioning had I had the chance but I couldn’t do much about it. The dusty bus ride ended up being more than ten hours of slow moving on flat terrain as we covered a mere 250 KM. I felt a bit tested at times, though knowing I could only embrace the journey. I rose early the next morning and explored the temple grounds where the Buddha became a Buddha. The massive Bodhi tree there is something to behold. Cameras are not permitted on site so all of us there were ‘forced’ to be more present in our shared experience of the immense beauty and serenity. I felt an incredibly potent peace there, resting in meditation for a couple of hours. But the heat picked up and pressed me onward, reminding me why I wanted to head north to Nepal.

I caught a rickshaw to the train station, a train up to Patna, another rickshaw to a bus terminal, where I had a bit of dinner before my bus to the border. That arrived the next morning around 5 AM. I joined some guys from the bus in a horse-drawn cart to the border-crossing where I waited a couple of hours for the customs office to open. I took another rickshaw looking for a bus station, now in Nepal, and ended up hopping in a crammed jeep for passage to Kathmandu. That was another eight hours of bumping around on winding roads climbing higher and higher, wondering how secure some of the soil was beneath us. I had heard talk of recent landslides and couldn’t tell if some of the damage on the road was that recent or perhaps still remnant from the massive earthquake that hit exactly two years earlier. I had entered the country on a somewhat tender anniversary. We made it to the busy city and I was guided by one of my fellow riders to a part of town that had been recommended to me, Boudanath. That was another hour on a few different buses and by the time I arrived and found a room for the night I was ready to collapse.

I looked around the neighborhood the next day and could see why it had been recommended to me. A massive Buddhist temple stood in the centre of the area and many charming shops and restaurants surrounded it. I spent another day there before moving to the very different neighborhood of Thamel. This place was packed with little hotels and guest houses catering to western trekkers. I found a cheap spot and set up shop in a dormitory. I ended up spending more time there than I would have imagined, as I became quite sick, the terrible air quality catching up with me and compounding whatever else I had going on.

I bid farewell to Kathmandu (vowing not to return until they effectively address their air quality troubles) and set out for the quiet little mountain village of Bandipur. After resting for a few days and nursing myself back to reasonable condition, I began enjoying some exploratory hikes through the surrounding countryside. This is a little slice of heaven and I am grateful to have stumbled upon it.

A few days ago was the Buddha’s birthday and I was invited to join my hosts for the annual parade through town. It was quite an event, full of sound and colour. I didn’t have much of a clue about what was going on through most of the day but I carried on with a smile. There were a few monks among us carrying various instruments – drums, horns and cymbals – keeping us in rhythm. Kids and grandparents alike marched along, descending from the temple on the outskirts of town right through the heart of the village before turning around and returning. I had no idea when or where we might stop, so I was kept on my toes, lugging a bound scripture on my right shoulder, which seemed to get heavier as the afternoon progressed. But I was not alone, as most everyone was carrying something. Besides several bound scriptures, we had different kinds of flags, banners, and a small Buddha statue sitting in an open carriage. Villagers would often stop to pay their respects to the tiny Buddha, leaving offerings of snacks or money.

I felt honoured to be the only non-Nepali in the procession and I occasionally caught the curious eye of other travelers watching the parade go by with a tall white guy sticking out in the middle. There were two elders who kept chants going throughout the parade, call and response, and I caught on before long, beginning to fit right in. I was welcomed in to the beautiful Tibetan temple for a feast afterwards, which was accompanied by a short discourse by one of the local teachers. All around us were statues of the Buddha and offerings of rupees, fruit, crackers and even sleeves of digestive biscuits. The Buddha doesn’t discriminate. 

Just last Sunday my dear sweet Grandmother turned 99. As it happened, with my family back home at church celebrating her birthday, I came to a ‘life decision’ on the same day. Saying it that way makes it seem like a big deal, when it didn’t feel like that at all. I didn’t even feel like the agent of this decision. I simply noticed it. But I had been considering this particular possibility for some time, and suddenly saw that it was always going to happen. I felt an immediate peace about it, which seemed funny after watching my mind flip-flop over the past few years (and especially the last couple of months).

So, as I return home to Toronto in a few weeks, I’ll be preparing for a return to University in the fall. After a decade mostly out on the open road, I’ll be shelving my wandering shoes (for a time) and digging into a Masters degree in Pastoral Studies at Emmanuel College, focussing on Spiritual Care. It’s a definite change of pace but I’m excited about it. I trust I’ll continue to have many new opportunities to share the simple joy of life through this next chapter. 🙂

So that’s about all for now! I’m heading back out on the road tomorrow, soon returning to India. I will leave you with a selection of photos from my time up here in beautiful Bandipur, “Where Heaven Meets” (this is a somewhat funny ‘catchphrase’ printed on pamphlets, posters and t-shirts around town):

Popullution (…and Easter in India)

This place is absolutely crazy. I love it, but it may also be trying to kill me. So many people, so much garbage, set ablaze daily. Rushing through fumes to youthful tombs. Sewage flowing openly in the streets, often stalling, sitting in the sun baking, caking. Wild animals blocking traffic to nose through each other’s fresh faeces. Smiling men selling samosas and potato pancakes. Flies swooping relentlessly, spreading everything to everything else. Stylishly dressed women balancing heavy loads on top of their heads. Cars and trucks, buses and rickshaws, motorbikes and scooters blaring a steady staccato of horns. Bicycles ringing little bells. A small bearded man in orange robes, somehow untouched, chanting his mantra. I stop in awe to watch it all, breathing it in, then get choked up by a sudden stench and start coughing. My lungs suffer the brunt. I’m amazed they can take it. Some days, waking up is simply a chance to clear out whatever gunk has been cluttering them.

After sharing my first post from ‘Indescribable India‘, I have felt like showing another side of life here, a sort of balancing account. It’s a part of India I haven’t yet mentioned. Or maybe I just glossed over it.

My body seems to be deeply affected by the pollution here. In under two months, I have already burned through two courses of antibiotics. (And I’m the reluctant sort when it comes to that stuff.) It often feels like my body is at battle.

Aside from the quick bout of ‘Delhi Belly’ – succumbing to drugs for the sake of returning to work for our tour group – I have just recently been treated for pneumonia. Though I remain not entirely convinced, the doctor at the Christian hospital (trained in the west) told me that was the cause of my stabbing chest pains, mild fever and cough.

While my chest pains have significantly diminished, I still wonder if I simply tore some muscles doing yoga. That’s what a local ayurvedic doctor figures. Seems reasonable. We took a holistic approach and just finished a week of full-body detox; dietary adjustments, thorough daily massage (not that sort of thorough), oil therapy, steam treatment, ear, nose and throat cleaning, plenty of rest, and three days of warm oil and herbal enemas. I was simultaneously pampered and trampled. It was great. But I couldn’t trust farts for a few days.

Riding in cramped little rickshaws back and forth between my ashram and my treatments, it felt like I passed through dozens of worlds at once; chaotic markets, dusty streetside cafes and food carts, skinny kids rummaging through garbage, others begging for foodscraps or cash, shabby makeshift shacks packed with families, grimy auto garages, sudden palatial temples and freshly-painted ashrams, a father and four kids riding a single bicycle, traffic slowing to pass cattle in the middle of the road, sleepy fruit vendors trying to stay in the shade, wiry monkeys scavenging for anything they can grab, homeless folks with eyes full of life hanging begging bowls from missing limbs, boldly advertised adventure tour companies, a quick glimpse of the Ganges hosting rafts and bright flowers floating along, colourfully-dressed women carting large loads of who knows what, robed rununciates sitting calmly amidst the buzz. At once stunning and mundane, I continue to watch it all in passing.

As I move through my days here in India, I see how population amplifies every challenge facing the nation. And there are no shortage of areas for improvement. Pollution is an obvious one to focus on. Aside from the carpet of garbage casually laid out all over the country, waste is actually collected in some places. But most of it just ends up being burned. Once bins are full, they tend to be emptied where they stand and set aflame. A bit of pleasant incense is usually added to the mix for a more palatable blaze, but it all goes up in smoke just the same. I pass by several fires of various sizes every day. On cloudy days people seem even more keen to cushion the grey plumes gliding by in the sky. (Much like smoke stacks back home – notice they spew more waste on grey days, as though trying to go unnoticed.) One cloudy day last week, I could literally taste the waste in the air.

And yet amidst all this, life carries on. I am daily amazed to see real joy on the faces of impoverished children, living in conditions most of us would shudder at. Their joy is whole, if only in the moment. They don’t seem to be lacking anything. It’s so clear that the attitude of lack is learned, not naturally occurring.

I sense that the cultural belief in karma and reincarnation help people to bear difficult circumstances with a smile. Yet this value doesn’t seem limited to the Hindu faith; I see it also among the local Muslims, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs and Christians. It’s as though this sense of trusting one’s path is so deeply ingrained here, no matter how it manifests. I see people taking responsibility for their lives and working to address their highest calling. Everything else is secondary. I feel an inspiring depth of devotion in this attitude toward life.

I recall during my first week here, down in the south of India, seeing streams of people pass by my window early on the morning of Ash Wednesday. I was impressed to hear that almost the entire village attended church that morning before starting their day. ‘Incredible‘, I thought to myself, ‘so many people living with such commitment‘. I have been moved again and again by the level of devotion I see in India. Whatever the faith, people here are living it deeply.

*****

Having enjoyed a variety of Hindu gatherings here in Rishikesh, I was curious if I might also find a church to visit this Holy Week. I have encountered several Christian communities throughout India so far, though they don’t seem as common up here in Rishikesh. I asked around and walked around, not having much luck.

I did recently hear, however, that Christ himself apparently spent time in the north of India. He was known here as St. Issa. (Obviously not all historians agree on this.) During the so-called ‘lost years’ of Christ’s life, it is believed that he traveled east and studied with Buddhist monks and Hindu sages. And why not? After all, the wise men from the east had followed the stars to Jesus’ birth. These wise men, themselves, may well have been Buddhist or Hindu sages. Clearly the trade routes were well established between Nazareth and the near east. Why wouldn’t the young Christ want to explore other cultures and spiritual paths? It seems so natural to me. It even has a poetic sort of balance to it, Christ eventually journeying east, perhaps to see what the lands of these wise men had to offer.

It’s exciting to consider Christ having traveled here. It actually makes a lot of sense to me. His words echo a lot of what the Buddha taught, values also long held in Hinduism. If he were still here today (in person) I think it’s obvious that Jesus would continue to foster interfaith relations. He would challenge the walls we place between communities. The more I marinate in Jesus’ teachings, the more I see the unity of earnest followers of any faith. Beyond that, even the faithless are held in this wholeness Jesus points us to. He wouldn’t care about the mountain of petty distinctions we draw. He didn’t come here to convince or convert anyone. Jesus came to shine light and help us see that we’re already free. Heaven is in our midst. Let’s not miss it.

So, after a good bit of searching around town (online resources proving a bit thin), I ended up finding the only church in Rishikesh just in time for Easter Sunday worship. It was an Indian Catholic church and the whole service proceeded in Hindi, with only a word or two of English. It was quite an experience. We all sat on the floor on little mats, old folks and young alike, men on the left, women on the right, and the priest sat at a small altar at the front of the sanctuary. There was incense burning and candlelight being shaken by oscillating fans. There was a good amount of responsive singing and prayer, and some hand drumming. The communion was classic Catholic. There was even a baptism. I followed along as best I could, focussing mostly on the energy of the space.

I felt lifted to picture a nation full of souls connecting with the divinity within, each in their own way. And instead of seeing the massive population as an obstacle of any kind, I realized that there are simply more doors here for love to come through. And the countless challenges of life in India give everyone a chance to help out. It’s no accident that, despite the apparent insanity, there is such a special energy here. It calls us back to our hearts.

I came to Rishikesh about a month ago with a spiritual focus. After sitting in the powerful presence of Mooji – a teacher doing the same work today as Christ did in his time – I feel like wrapping up this ‘Rishikesh chapter’ with two short excerpts from a book of his teachings (White Fire):

“Many have long believed in the second coming of Christ, but why only second? Why not the third, the fourth, the thousandth, the ten thousandth coming? For each one who trusts in his words and is absorbed in his spirit becomes a door through which he comes.”

“You are not here to cope. You are not here to survive. You are here to bear witness to and shine as the glory of God.”

I guess that will do for now, friends. 🙂 I’m feeling about ready to press on, after a decent stretch here in Rishikesh. Except for a few days visiting a nearby friend and his wife up in the mountains (just outside of Mussoorie), I’ve been laying low here, healing, resting and meditating. Rishikesh has been a fine host. My simple Ashram home has beautifully supported this quiet time of recovery and continuing discovery.

I think I’ll hop on a train tomorrow and cast a slightly wider glance around northern India. First I’ll try my luck in Lucknow and then probably check out Varanasi. It may be a brief stop as I hear it’s getting pretty hot. I’ll likely continue east from there to visit Bodh Gaya (where the Buddha ‘achieved’ enlightenment). I may even slip up into Nepal. We’ll see how it goes. I’ll keep you posted once in a while…

In the meantime, keep breathing. I’ll do my best. ♡ And moment to moment, as life dances all around us, let’s see if we can notice what doesn’t fade away.

Indescribable India 

There’s simply no way I can put India into words. Countless writers have tried, succeeding only to degrees. I have enjoyed various reports – in poetry, prose, scripture, song and travelogue – but none can touch what is felt when you come here. And I’ve only been exploring for about a month. Many have immersed themselves for years and come up short of ‘getting it’. Fortunately I am not trying to figure out India. I am simply wandering along with an open eye, keeping my head, heart and hands as open as I am able. I am grateful that there is so much here to support this effort.

I am grateful for a culture that seems to prioritize a sort of ‘spiritual longview’ over shortsighted political whims. Although this also leaves a lot of projects on pause indefinitely – allowing considerable chaos, waste and decay – the general momentum is toward truth, a focus on that which doesn’t fade away.

I began this journey with nearly three weeks of group travel. Eighteen of us were guided from the southern tip of the subcontinent all the way up into the Himalayas, discovering some of the varieties and subtleties of Indian culture along the way. 

In Kerala we were hosted by a Christian family on the backwaters of a quiet fishing community outside of Cochin. 90% Christian, many in the local area were still practicing their faith as it had been introduced by the Apostle Thomas, others through the much later influence of the Dutch or Portuguese.

The weather was hot and humid as we visited churches, temples, mosques and even a synagogue. We were especially touched by our sharing with a Christian seniors group and an orphanage for young girls run by nuns. We shared songs, gifts and food, along with wide, heartfelt smiles. On one of our last nights there, we enjoyed a boat ride taking us through the ‘backyards’ of locals as we weaved our way towards the sea. Once out on the open water, we cut the motor and floated peacefully as the sun set, listening to our host’s story of his arranged marriage and how well it was working out (his wife and kids are incredible…and he’s pretty great too).

Staying with Ben and his family was a blessing. But even with our calm home base (Ben’s Homestay), it wasn’t hard to stumble into noisy crowds and blaring horns as we set out on the roads to various surrounding areas. One such adventure was a visit to a nearby elephant sanctuary, which we all deeply appreciated. It was a humbling feeling laying our hands on these mighty creatures.

Leaving Ben’s, we had a long and wild ride to Varkala Beach, getting caught at a pair of railway crossings for nearly an hour as vehicles lined up and jockeyed for position. Incredibly, heads remained cool. A major recurring theme throughout the journey was our amazement that there wasn’t any sign of road rage in India. Somehow traffic just kept flowing, however thick, as though there was a subtle understanding that we were all in it together. We eventually made it through the traffic and after spending a restful day at a cliffside resort, we flew up through Mumbai to Jaipur, in Rajasthan.

Suddenly I noticed a different India, with slightly lighter skin tones, more turbans and moustaches, some more piercing eyes and obviously more lavish architecture. This was the India many from the west would picture in their minds. The Muslim influence was unmistakeable. One of the major impressions I took from our time here was the inherently inviting nature of Hinduism. Throughout history it has generally welcomed visitors and invaders with similar generosity. Our guide, Sher Singh, told us about several pivotal Hindu intermarriages with Muslim rulers coming from the northwest, thus avoiding bloody conflict. The state of Rajasthan exemplifies this religious and cultural blend beautifully. I even learned that the Sikh faith was born of a blend of Hinduism and Islam.

There doesn’t seem to be much fear here that other cultures could weaken their own traditions or connection to the divine. This strikes me as a confidence that God can not be lost or watered down. Simple wisdom like this seems commonplace in India. I find it inspiring.

After a lot of shopping and checking out a few forts and palaces (even staying in an opulent hotel that was a former Raj Palace), we drove up into the madness of Delhi. My stomach was beginning to feel a bit tender and I ended up in bed with a full-blown case of ‘Delhi Belly’. I blasted through it in a day and was back on my feet early the next morning (thanks in part to the antibiotics I took half-reluctantly). Everyone told me I picked the best day to miss, as it was pure insanity on the roads. I’m sure I could have appreciated the experience, but I was grateful for the day of rest at the retreat centre. We then set out for our flight up into the Himalayas, heading for Dharamsala.

All of a sudden, the air was cool. What a change from only days before and the sticky heat of the south.  Four white van taxis and our new tour guide, Vikas, met us at the airport and drove us further up into the mountains to Mcleod Ganj. Apparently the British set up shop here to escape the hot summers down below. Especially the Scots among them found it a lot like their highlands, feeling right at home.

Much later, the Indian government gave a hefty chunk of this land to Tibetan Buddhists escaping Chinese oppression. This continues to anger the Chinese, but Tibetan culture is thriving in this setting very similar to their own homeland. I liked the feeling of life up in the mountains. The air was crisp and people seemed quick to smile. We thoroughly embraced the Tibetan cuisine, enjoying warm soups and momos, and plenty of honey, lemon & ginger teas.

We even had the great timing to witness Tibetan Uprising Day (the national holiday) and the great honour to see the Dalai Lama speaking on some Buddhist precepts. He has such a warm, affable nature, even in the midst of his deep contemplations. Our days sped by up in Dharamsala and it was soon time to return to Delhi and head our own ways.

A few of us were keen to come up to Rishikesh, where one of my favourite spiritual teachers (Mooji) was giving one more week of Satsang before finishing the five-week season. It was a true blessing to be with him and to have his very direct pointings towards what is important in life. He is here to remind us that we’re already free, loosening the apparent grip our minds have on our lives. The whole Ashram was continually permeated with very subtle and supportive energy, two-thousand people squeezing in daily for his teachings, which were live-translated into more than a dozen languages and broadcast around the world.

Rishikesh is undoubtedly an auspicious place. There are countless Ashrams and yoga schools here. There is a great tradition of people coming here to live by the River Ganges and centre their lives more deeply in spirit. I could imagine staying a while.

So that brings me up to the moment. 🙂 Here in Rishikesh, freshly settled into an Ashram after a week sleeping in a hostel dorm, meeting good folks. I’ve got some months ahead here and no rush to get anywhere. I’ll keep on taking it all in one breath at a time.

Sending love to all my family and friends all over the world…and anyone else stumbling across this post.

Keep it simple, friends. We’re not here to figure it all out, just enjoy as best we can day to day…and try our best to share whatever good comes our way.

Wherever we see Division, There is Truly Union

We have never really been apart. We’re all a part of the same life force, the same dance of creation. My being is entirely unified with yours. And so with all existence. There was no process that led to this unification. It has always been. It is only our awareness of this reality that wavers. Some of us may seem to get caught in momentary ignorance of our unity, but it doesn’t change the fact that all is one.

It’s easy to focus on the lines appearing between us, especially in times of conflict and upheaval. We foolishly reinforce these divisions by taking them so seriously. But we can eventually come to see that these lines actually bind things instead of dividing them. Diversity doesn’t equate opposition. We can be different from others without there being a ‘right side’ and a ‘wrong side’. Such a polarizing mindset keeps us from building bridges or middle ground.

If we ever feel like some people ‘just don’t get it’, it means there is a part of ourselves that doesn’t yet get it. Instead of demonizing others, maybe we can encourage them to explore more deeply. Seeing beyond the various ideas or beliefs we may hold, we can focus more attention on the undeniable reality of our very being. Vague as this may sound, it has incredible power. We can only discover it by trying. We find guidance when we seek truth in our own hearts. In time, we realize that seeing ourselves as ‘better than’ anyone else limits our sense of joy and connection, building walls within us.

Isolated diversity tree hands

But even if we do catch ourselves comparing with others, considering ourselves ‘more awake’ or ‘more evolved’, perhaps our work could be gently ushering others along their own paths of growth. Our insights aren’t necessarily relevant to anyone else. Each person has to ‘connect the dots’ from the inside out. Instead of imposing our vision of progress on anyone, we can let people have their own breakthroughs. We can let them feel whatever they are feeling without trying to correct them. Without any trace of condescension, we can support people in the often sloppy and lopsided process of healing and growing.

This is obviously a lot harder when we sense a big difference in our beliefs and behaviours. We might even wonder if we should try to be kind to those who seem so full of hate. But it is all the more important for us to see with the unbiased eyes of love in these instances. This doesn’t mean we should avoid the issues that seem to divide us – these are perhaps most important for us to discuss – but we should enter these conversations with our inherent unity in sight. We can explore others’ ideas with earnest curiosity and a desire to understand them.

This doesn’t mean we won’t stand up in the face of abuse or tyranny, but we will stay in touch with our inner harmony as we speak out. We can keep eternity in mind even as we endeavour to address the temporary. And our voices will be stronger as a result.

Words spoken from the heart will be received by the heart. This kind of sharing has greater impact than trying to convince or convert others to seeing things ‘our way’ (usually with a not-so subtle implication that one is right and one is wrong). Eschewing duality, we can seek that which holds each of us equally. This is how bridges are built. This is how we foster openness and authenticity.

Without a specific agenda of our own, we can encourage others to become more of who they truly are. As we look deeper into our own hearts, sensing our collective interconnection, we see that love is at our very core, and thus must be for one and all, no matter how rigid or twisted anyone’s outer shell may seem.

Eventually we’ll discover that those who are hardest to love are those who need it most. So keep on loving. Watch the walls fall.

🙂

I Feel the Earth Move

Most of you have likely heard at least a little bit about the deadly earthquake that hit the coast of Ecuador this April. It was a 7.8 magnitude quake that killed more than 660 people and injured nearly 30,000. Having lived in Cuenca since January (in southern Ecuador), I have been keeping fairly well informed about the quake and its aftermath. Not long before I left Cuenca, I even took part in a benefit for one of the areas hit hardest by the powerful quake, the beach community of Canoa. It was reported that 10% of all deaths from the earthquake happened in this small town. No other area lost such a large proportion of its inhabitants. Recently, I had the opportunity to spend time in Canoa and help with the ongoing relief efforts.

Arriving well over two months after the quake, I was surprised at the extent of lasting damage. The need for continuing help was painfully obvious and I felt grateful that I could offer some time and energy to the cause. Many lots around town sat vacant, littered with scraps of lives and businesses lost. I could feel the wounds in these spaces. Various buildings stood in shambles, some leaning, propped up with bamboo beams preventing unplanned collapse. An Army Colonel claimed shortly after the quake that 98% of Canoa’s buildings had been destroyed. Although locals told me it was probably closer to 90%, the once-bustling resort town was nonetheless decimated. Even many of the remaining structures were simply waiting for more organized demolition.

A three-tier inspection system had combed through town in the days following the quake, declaring which buildings were safe and which ones had to come down. As I walked around, I saw stickers posted on the front of all remaining buildings; green stickers indicated structures that had been declared stable; red stickers indicated unstable structures that had to come down; and yellow stickers indicated the occasionally ambiguous middle ground between safe and dangerous. Meanwhile, people had been stripped of their livelihoods in the matter of an evening.

As I arrived, many locals had still yet to return to Canoa, having rushed inland fearing a tsunami, seeking sanctuary in the hills. Some were too scared to come back, others unwilling. In the midst of this chaos, various health issues seemed to get overlooked, or at least diminished in priority. When simply surviving the quake was already such a gift, otherwise serious health risks suddenly lost their apparent severity. A handful of severe mosquito-borne viruses are still ravaging the area and little is being done to address them. With the often oppressive heat and humidity, it’s hard to ask people to dress in pants and long sleeves, and many locals can’t afford the perpetual investment of bug spray.

On my first night in Canoa, I ate at a small local restaurant and noticed a regional newspaper claiming that 77% of people in Manabí province had been infected with at least one of three viruses; Zika, Dengue or Chickungunya. Word from the volunteer camp was that between a third and a half of volunteers were getting hit by one of these. Even after taking more vigilant precautions than most locals could afford, many volunteers still got sick and had to be quarantined during their recovery in an effort to limit the spread of these viruses. Few knew for sure what they had, as accurate diagnoses proved difficult. Medical professionals were in short supply and not highly motivated to deliver speedy or complete test results. Simply knowing which virus you might have wouldn’t change the fact that you could only ride it out through plenty of rest and water.

I was a bit nervous when I heard about this, and skipping town did cross my mind, but I remained determined to help. So despite my reservations, and a shallow sleep after killing a couple of mosquitoes in my bedroom, I hopped aboard ‘the big red truck’ I had been told about and was carried twenty minutes inland with a bunch of volunteers to the encampment at Rio Canoa. Sitting in the back of the pick-up as we bumped along a winding dirt road, I happened to find myself beside Sarah Coppler, who I had yet to meet but had actually house-sitted for in Cuenca during the first two weeks of June. We recognized one another through photos and common friends and got chatting along the way. It was a very warm welcome. Following a few decades of disaster relief work (primarily with Habitat for Humanity), Sarah jumped up from semi-retirement in Cuenca to respond to the need in her recently adopted nation after the earthquake.

Sarah was pulled in as the senior advisor to a project I first heard about through friends in Cuenca – Proyecto Saman. This project was born in the wake of the quake’s devastation (essentially arising from Colectivo Madre Tierra). I was amazed to be welcomed into the fold so effortlessly. Proyecto Saman is coordinated by Diana Moscoso and another Sarah who I met through friends in Cuenca (Sarah Hanen Bauer). I was excited to show up and jump right into the project, having my energy directed to the needs of the camps’ 30 families. Alongside the coordination of local resources and donations that flooded the coastal area in response to the quake, Proyecto Saman has been focused on building long-term housing for displaced families. The project was named after a large tree native to the area, the beautiful and broad-canopied saman tree.

In the week I spent on site, we finished building a long water table for the community to clean their clothes (including drainage and piping), we built eight private showers and finished off the awnings to several new tents, bringing the total up to 50 sturdy bamboo dwellings large enough for families. We also made a big fence to protect the land from grazing cows. The locals living in camp are also busily working, many trying to recover some sense of purpose and pride. I smiled as I saw a couple of industrious young kids collecting supplies to help their parents build a bamboo fence around their tent, outfitting their home in a more personal way.

In the early days of the project, the Saman team built a large open-air community centre with a full kitchen and seating space under a high and sturdy roof. We met there each afternoon as some of the residents prepared hearty lunches for us. We usually had about 12-14 volunteers on a daily basis, half of them coming from a nearby camp of All Hands volunteers that rotated through several different work sites in the region.

Right beside the community centre stood a large supply bodega that was built to hold tools and other donations which were being rationed and shared as needed. I was particularly impressed with the compost toilets that had been set up. They operated on a two-week cycle, separating liquid waste from solid, eventually producing dry odorless compost (with the help of a few scoops of chalky sawdust).

Even with the progress of cleaning up and beginning to rebuild, the area remains very tender. Tourism is obviously down considerably, despite many locals feeling ready to receive guests. The hotels that survived the quake are in good shape and awaiting opportunities to host. Local restaurants are also hoping vacationers will soon return. Even with a number of businesses reopened, the streets still seemed sparse to me.

Nevertheless, I appreciated people’s inclination to interact, even just in passing. I was told this effect had diminished since the quake, but it was noticeable to me (even for a small community) that many people were eager to respond to my nods and glances as I wandered about town. When I stopped to talk with folks in the street, almost everyone seemed keen to share their survival story. I sensed that this helped them process their pain and allow them to move on, making way to rebuild and work towards new dreams.

Despite the sense of optimism, the earth has continually been reminding residents of their vulnerability through a string of aftershocks. In the week immediately following the initial earthquake, there were three aftershocks each measuring at least 6.0. Even as recently as last Sunday, the night before I left for Quito, there were two significant aftershocks, ten minutes apart, measuring 5.9 and 6.4.

I was just leaving my second-storey room when the first one hit, and I felt the bamboo structure sway as I rushed toward the stairs. The earth continued shaking beneath my feet for almost a minute after I made it down onto the ground. Feeling mildly dazed, I stood out in the back alley behind my hotel with various locals who looked far more scared than I felt. I quickly realized that this relatively minor quake was not the source of their fear, but it had stirred up the all-too-recent memory of devastation they were only just recovering from.

I consoled the family who owned my hotel as best I could and then headed around front to the beach. I was trying to connect with some friends I had spent the previous week volunteering with. As soon as I got to the beach, spotting a young Belgian couple I had befriended on the Proyecto Saman site, the earth began shaking again. This time I had my feet in the sand and had no fear of anything falling on me. I think this allowed me to feel the quake all the more fully, not trying to run away from it. It was a deeply humbling experience. I could directly sense the reality of our earth as just another organism living and growing, changing day to day.

Looking out at the sea as the earth groaned beneath me, my instinct to live life simply was both clarified and reinforced. I felt the wisdom of investing energy more in people and dreams than in places or things. Nonetheless, there are a lot of people in this place who need new dreams and few basic things. Helping them can be pretty simple.

If you feel inclined to support this volunteer work (or if you’re even halfway curious), please have a peek at some of the links I have shared above (or here) and ask yourself if you can do something to help. Even though there is no shortage of opportunity to help people in our occasionally aching world, there is also no obligation. I sense that simply being ourselves is a great service to those in our orbit. So I hope you won’t feel any pressure. Maybe you can just feel your breath in your nose and your chest and follow your instincts. I trust love to lead.

* * *

After just over six months living in Ecuador, I am now on my way back home to Canada. My flight is due to leave in less than ten hours. While I am eager to see family and friends and have a fun last half of the summer, I will also hold close the people and experiences I have been exposed to here. Maybe I’ll even be fortunate enough to inspire others to lean a bit further out of their normal courses to explore more of what life is offering and asking of us.

With love and gratitude,

James

🙂