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There is powerful, freeing beauty in this world that transcends any travel show or guidebook if we open to it and are ready. Mexico is full of that for me.

Well before the violent troubles of the last decade, I first camped on beaches near Ensenada with my parents, all of us sleeping in a big canvas tent. One summer we drove far south through Mazatlan, Aculpulco and past the glamorous fountains of Guadalajara, which I studied while sick with tourista from the back seat.  We devoured bags of fresh pastries from corner Panaderias, lobster purchased on the beach from local fishermen and fresh tortillas made right before my eyes. I always longed to return but life intervened.

Decades later I gasped at my first glimpse of the pyramids of Teotihuacan. There was just a giant snake’s head in stone, broken steps and a bit of sky but something resonated. It was part of an email invitation to visit the place where traditions say, “Man becomes God.”

I knew I had to go but had very little income or freedom to travel. My son was still a toddler and his father was on the road with work. How could I ever swing it? In less than a month the money came in unexpectedly. I felt so grateful and found the courage to make plans. The trip came together – five days on my own in a country where I didn’t speak the language with a group I’d never met – but soon I was on my way.

Teotihuacan lies about 40 miles outside of Mexico City.  Upon arrival at the airport I rendezvoused with the group just outside of customs. My first glimpse of the Pyramid of the Sun, was from a van, the pinnacle dodging between roadside trees as we sped towards the Villas Archaeologicos, our home for the week.

Our loose-knit group was led by an elder from the tradition of don Miguel Ruiz, author of the Four Agreements. Victoria Allen led us up the Avenue of the Dead, through simple rituals where we walked or sat in between ancient stone walls on hard earth and cast off “that which no longer served.” The rituals reminded me of something I hadn’t known I missed. My Catholic school days had been very theatrical – full of Latin masses and ceremonies with incense, candles and chanting. I’d missed some of that.

On our last day in Teo we walked purposefully towards the Pyramid of the Sun in focused silence. I kept repeating to myself all the things that I am not and soon added all the things I’d been identifying with: mother, daughter, wife, writer and renounced them as well. There was a shift and instead of emptiness I felt the world expand. There was no me only presence and it swept through the ruins, between the mountains, across the sky. Any sadness, disappointment or lack evaporated. I felt completely present and whole, silent and free. Later I struggled up the Pyramid’s steep, narrow steps to the apex. Butterflies bounced past in the sunlight and my heart soared with them.

I’d experienced a little of what Teo deeply is and has been for centuries.  Tourists still scour the place with guidebooks in hand. Touts offer silver bangles and fill the air with the peals from little ceramic whistles. Through it all Teo remains a power center.

I came home feeling strong and clear, so grateful for the opportunity to inhale that rarefied air and be with others open to the same. My life soon turned inside out. Change isn’t always easy but often necessary. I’ve returned half a dozen times to renew and surrender in that sacred, beautiful place.

Mexico will always be dear to my heart and I now know there are power centers across the globe. They can be monasteries or retreat houses, crumbling ruins or a simply a towering forest. In time I’ll find more.

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The Potters Village

The two-lane paved road rises and falls, twists and turns like a dangling rope through the rugged Chihuahua hill country. “Amazing that one of Mexico’s most famous potters lives out here,” says my friend Dick Davis.
Shimmering in the stark desert light is the village of Mata Ortiz, the home of Mexico’s renowned potter Juan Quezada. In the mid-day heat, the pueblo is deserted except for a few stray dogs roaming the dirt-rutted streets. Old adobe walls and ramshackle wooden fences are laced with clotheslines of brightly colored garments drying against a brown desert backdrop.
Quezada’s modest gallery is on the corner of the main street across from an abandoned railroad tract. As we enter, he breezes in from the side room. Dressed in a faded tan cowboy hat, of medium height and bantam weight, he looks as fit as an Oklahoma rodeo wrangler, despite being in his early seventies. His rugged, suntanned face exudes a quiet dignity and purposeful curiosity.
The pale blue adobe walls in the front room are lined with ollas and vases, glazed in a rainbow of rust-red, brown, and eggshell white hues and painted with intricate, geometric designs. I am mesmerized by their spiral, thin-walled shapes and meticulously painted and etched patterns.
Outside, the heat glimmers over the parched, dust-colored land. Nothing seems to be
alive except patches of creosote and agave clinging to the desert’s emptiness. How could such incredible artistic beauty come to exist in such a remote, hardscrabble place?
The freedom and joy of discovery, I begin to realize, lies not in seeing new places, but in seeing things in new ways. The desert, I soon learn, is not empty but full of beauty.
Quezada grew up poor, leaving school at twelve to gathered firewood and herd sheep in the
hills above the village. While gathering firewood, he stumbled on some shards of pottery in a mountain cave, a burial site belonging to an ancient indigenous people called the Paquimé who had lived in this region from 1200 to 1450 A.D.
“The first time I saw those pieces,” Juan tells us in Spanish, “I said, ‘I have found a hidden treasure.’ I knew that the ancient ones must have found the materials here.” Over many years, he experimented with different clays, pigments, drawing and firing techniques to produce ollas or pots with the ancient culture’s iconography and design.
“Nobody taught me. There were no potters then. The village was poor,ˮ he continues.
The story could have ended here, lost in the buried memory of a poor village, but it didn’t because of Juan’s artistic genius, obsessive curiosity, and an unlikely friendship with the American art dealer and anthropologist Spencer MacCallum that would change the fortune of the little town and shape an artistic legacy whose reach is still unknown.
Like a tale out of the Wizard of Oz, it began in 1976 when MacCallum stopped off at a second-hand shop in a New Mexico border town where he bought three unsigned pots. Intrigued by their intricate beauty, he embarked on an adventure south that would take him to Mata Ortiz and the unknown potter. Over the next six years, MacCallum provided Juan with money to work at his craft full-time, while organizing exhibits in the United States to premiere it. “His arrival was a gift from God, a miracle,” says Juan.
Mata Ortiz today is the center of a bustling ceramic cottage industry. About one-fourth of its 2,600 inhabitants earn their livelihoods as potters—many of them trained by Quezada himself.
The homes, some humble brick adobes and others larger cinder-block buildings, radiate with an infectious warmth and vitality to the craft. Pots and vases line oilcloth-covered tables. I look over the shoulders of men and women as they shape, polish and paint at tiny sunlit work stations. They place a single coil of clay atop a plaster mold, and then by hand work the clay upwards to form their thin-walled bowls, jars, and pots.
A piece of hacksaw blade is used to smooth the surface. Hand-made kilns or just an inverted galvanized bucket buried in dried cow chips are used to fire the pots. Brushes to paint the long flowing geometric patterns are made from children’s hair.
Today, one of Quezada’s pots can sell for thousands of dollars. He now owns the land where he used to gather firewood. It has a rich vein of white clay, which he shares with other village potters. “Everywhere the sun shines is for everyone,” he says.
Walking outside the village, Juan points to a thin seam of chalky white clay; at another location to a pile of cottonwood bark once used to fire the clay. I begin to see beneath the bone-dry landscape, the desert’s possibilities discovered by Juan and other villagers. The Chihuahua Desert’s beauty is in its austerity: the searing heat, the stark desert light, and the rich caches of clay that Quezada recognized as the pueblo’s miracle.

About the Author:
Victor A. Walsh’s travel and feature stories and literary essays have appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, San Antonio Express-News, Austin American Statesman, San Jose Mercury News, Arizona Daily Star, Literary Traveler, Rosebud, Coast To Coast, Desert Leaf, Irish America, Sunset, and VIA. He spends his time when he’s productively unemployed prowling forgotten or unusual destinations looking for stories that connect a place and its people to their remembered past.

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So today was pretty eventful. A black, female lawyer from Yale living in Paris told me who I am. Well. Sort of.

I have been in Mexico City for a week now and it’s not exactly been what I have expected. I had been eagerly awaiting the intense heat of a Mexican desert in summer. Instead I have landed into the dreary puddles of dirty, lukewarm puddles in cracked asphalt that reflect the grey sky overhead, filled to bursting with a blanket of clouds. It has rained every single day. Like winter. But the thing is, it’s June. Anyways, this morning has finally been relatively clear and warm so I decide to head out to El Bosque de Chapultepec, the enormous forest park nearby where I am to meet up with a group of expats for a picnic and a day in the sun. It certainly seems promising, however there was a slight snag in the clean, pressed sheets that are my plans for the day.

I got lost. Terribly, terribly lost.

As per usual. I just seem to get lost everywhere I go. Back in high school I took great pride in my knowledge of the streets of Northern California that I earned of countless excursions that ended several hours longer than they should have. In Japan I managed to get lost on group tours due to wandering off to follow some enchanting sound, some subtle hint of curious noise. I have even been so successful as to get lost a different way each day this past week on my way to work even though it is the exact same route.

So now I am wandering the small walkways of this enormous park in the middle of the most populated city on earth looking for a group of foreigners I have never met. And then it hits me, like the way a large stone drops into a lake with a deep thunk. I was listening to a podcast of NPR’s This American Life while wandering, happy as a clam. The particular episode was on Americans in Paris. In classic TAL fashion, Ira Glass was weaving wit, with honesty, authenticity and light humor while dabbing all the strands in the fantastic dyes of the storyteller to produce a textile of lives that one cannot help but smile as you hold it in your hands. He was interviewing Janet McDonald, a black woman from Brooklyn who graduated from Yale and was working as a lawyer in Paris, about her experiences. Janet said the following,

“I was always an outsider. And I feel most inside where I am now. Outside. Go figure”

Boom. Pause. Rewind. Listen again. Pause. Look up. Close eyes. Yes. Finally, someone had done the impossible; Janet had articulated to me a significant aspect of my identity I was never able to articulate to myself, like walking through a completely dark room looking for a small object when suddenly someone turns on the light for you and you see the object was directly by your foot the whole time. Well I picked it up. And it felt good.

Too white for the brown kids, too brown for the white kids. Too alternative for the smart kids, too smart for the alternative kids. I had spent 20 years being told that I was more Mexican than American because my skin embraces sunlight like an old friend. I finally arrived to the place where I was told I was supposed to belong, the promised land where I would fit it in. Yesterday I met a young woman who asked me if I was from Saudi Arabia.

Why is it I love to travel? Why do I relish being in places where I am undisputedly an outsider? Oh yeah. Because that is who I am, who I have always been and who I will always be.

Go figure.

About the Author: Tomas is a student at Brown University who constantly wonders why he ever left the warm caress of his native northern California. When he is not observing the world around him, he is listening to it.

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Of Love and Libertad

A lazy cat napping on the sofa in the galeria
A stray dog approaching, head down, tail swaying in an anticipated touch
the rooster that knows not the hands of the clock
the unexpected play of dolphins breaking the skin of the sea
this is the melody of Mexican life

-Wanda St.Hilaire, Of Love, Life and Journeys

This February, I sat writing on the periphery of the plaza in San Miguel de Allende with the stunning La Parroquia church as a backdrop. Percolating under the surface was an emotion that was all too unfamiliar in my Canadian day-to-day life. It was joy. I’d been awarded a grant to attend the annual writers’ conference. I was on my thirty-sixth visit to my beloved Mexico.

Surrounded by like-minded “free range humans”¬–artists, writers, photographers, sculptors, and musicians, my body hummed with 1000 volts of happiness. I was electrified with the energy of people doing what they love in a place they adore.

My first taste of Mexico was at age twenty-two in Acapulco with girlfriends. We rode on the back of motorbikes with Brazilian boys and sailed with Italian clothing designers. Two brilliant new friends from Mexico City challenged us to hop off of the plane on our way home for a visit. Both girlfriends jammed out by the time we landed. I stayed, not wanting the adventure to end.

We spent days climbing the pyramid and investigating Mexico D.F, and enchanting evenings out with a multitude of their welcoming friends. It was Mexican hospitality and culture at its finest. The bliss of being young and ripe with wanderlust was unleashed and I was hooked.

In Oaxaca, the moment I landed I felt a deep love of life. Everyday I sat in the zocolo and chatted with renegade lawyers, curious campesinos, and old Zapotec men who spoke with me in a dialogue I didn’t know, yet understood. Sitting for hours writing in cafés over dark Chiapas coffee, waiters befriended me and we shared stories of our radically differing lives.

There in the lazy afternoons, lovers of all ages congregated. Observing intertwined bodies, kisses, and deep embraces, I voyeuristically yearned to join the uninhibited profusion of love.

Living in small barrios in Puerto Vallarta, fluid days sweetly stretched out with chance meetings on strolls or long, delectable lunches at el fresco cafés. Worth is not determined by the size of your wallet or the busyness of your schedule, but by the richness of your connections with family and friends.

While some visitors find the lack of structure disorienting, I find it wildly liberating. There, my spirit can relax once again from the insidious bombardment of laws, rules, and regulations at home. I don’t want to spend my life worrying about being fined for applying lipstick at a light.

When I need to restore my body, refresh my spirit, or calm my monkey mind, Mexico is the cure. Oceanside, I shed the shackles of heavy clothing and the din of traffic to the delight of walking with the sun on my face, the earth under my feet, and the expansiveness of blue skies over the tropical lushness.

Mexico in not a masculine taskmaster who motivates with heavy-handed will. She is feminine. She is free. She gently inspires. She coaxes you to smile, to dance, to laugh, to play, to create, and to love–deeply.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

Field Worker

All morning, bussed South from Mexico City,
I watch Volkswagens and motorcycles-
some with three riders- blur by in a stream of color and faces.
Blue smoke puffs from chrome tailpipes,
the putter and exhaust of worn rings
and neglected metal that will soon seize.

If angels breath, they won’t fly here.

Not where the Sierra Madres
pierce the sky like ghosts armored in beryl-horned caps
as if to readying to march.
Not in this place where a blight falls quiet
from the same slack sky, coating the sugar cane’s electric green.

Jose says the field workers are dying by the thousands
of a mystery kidney disease,
says the newspapers lie,
reporting any pesos for a study would be a waste,

because workers drink tequila
stay out late
say they chew cane pulp instead of food.

I’ve been on this bus too long not to care,
and so I mistake the low-flying crop-duster for something holy
when it glides by,
streaming parathion and paraquat in contrails from its wingtips,
which descends, spreading over the men in a blue cloud
so it looks as if the cane is harvested by the dead.

I think of working McDonald’s weekends,
how I always thought the managers jobs were to care,
that they sat in the office studying Material Safety Data Sheets
as I hunched in a black apron over the grill,
scrubbing it with the scouring acid that looked benign as dish soap
in its clear package that I scissored open,
but would settle like lesions into my hands,
ghosting them for months after.

What my great-grandfather said about working coal seams for scrip-
the stamped-out copper coins they could only use in the company store-
they gave us shit and called it sunshine-
how he emerged from the dark of a twelve hour shift
to the dark of night, exhaling carbon
and wiping black from the creases in his eyes.

I open my eyes again on the fields,
thinking of what we allow settle into us and see many
like my grandfather- the truly working dead,
their leather-worn hands rasping the bead tighter up the bolo
of their straw hats.
I see them in loose pants and chambray,
I see them in helmets with spit-carbide lanterns.
I see them working the field the same as I see them in a hole,
hobbling bundles of cane
to the rusted beds of pickups and longbed trailers
like mining cars doing not what they want,
but what they believe they must.

About the Author: Jonathan Travelstead served in the Air Force National Guard for six years as a firefighter and currently works as a full-time firefighter for the city of Murphysboro. Having finished his MFA at Southern Illinois University of Carbondale, he now works on an old dirt-bike he hopes will one day get him to the salt flats of Bolivia.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence Travel Writing competition and tell your story.
Going to Mexico?  WSGT found these travel books and gear to help you prepare.

Lonely Planet Mexico:  The world’s favorite travel guidebook series.

Travel Hat:  Keep your head and shoulders out of the sun with a great hat.

Medical kit:  Stay healthy in unexpected situations

An unexpected place was where I went.
“Oh my, you’re going? No way!”
“It’s dangerous! Many people sell drugs there, don’t go! Cancel the trip!”
People found it hard to believe when I decided to spend a week at an atypical tourist place—Tijuana, Mexico. But there, I found the inner source that sets people free.

I joined an Alternative Spring Break trip with my school in Los Angeles, driving across the border to help build a house for a family to accommodate its growing members. Scattered Mexican citizens walked back and forth along the border line, looking over to the “free country” of America, hoping to catch a glimpse of what freedom, promised in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, tastes like. To them, it’s a dream, so close, yet so far.

With this surrounding and the mindset that I had left behind my freedom, I entered into the territory of Mexico for the first time.

The main goal of our weeklong volunteer trip was to dig a 44-inch-deep rectangular foundation for a house. By that, I mean literally turning a flat soil land into the foothold of a house, all with our bare hands.

It might be counterintuitive, but it was in this trip and under these conditions that I found myself free. There was no internet connection, no cell phone reception. Free, both mentally and physically. No more bondage, no urge to constantly checking on my notifications; pure enjoyment of nature, and more importantly, of the people surrounding me.

To do a massive task such as this one, it was not without help from people in the neighborhood who came to help whenever they could; soon after dawn, right before they took off for work, prior to dinner. The community came together to help this one family to build a shelter. And the children of those neighbors came to look at how this foundation was built, hoping that one day it’ll be their turn for people to help them build a house. This level of participation is something we don’t see living in a big city where people only mind their own business; it is already a rarity to have known the names of one’s neighbors.

Among those who came to help, there was one boy, Martin, that I particularly remembered. Just a few weeks into his ninth birthday, he already acted like a mature adult with a muscular physique. He brought his three young nieces to visit the digging of the foundation. He managed their needs effortlessly, whether it was changing diapers or feeding them. When asked which country he’d like to visit if he got a chance to, his answer left us speechless. “Haiti. I want to help those who are suffering from the earthquake.” His heart was so big, that no matter how badly his living condition might seem to be, he was thinking of others who were needy. People there also maximized their resources. Using a couple of strings, a twelve-year-old hung a chair under a tree to make a swing for her three-year-old cousin. So simple, yet so profound. There, I was free of language barrier; their actions were all that it took to feel the love around me, for love is a universal language. None of those living in the neighborhood was rich in a material sense, but their love and care for one another was overflowing; no vessel could possibly contain.

We also visited an orphanage. These children, despite being forced to learn the bitter reality at an early age, still kept their innocence. Very quickly, I was already piggy back riding them, playing hide-and-seek and jumping rope. When we left, the whole orphanage thanked our visit with a Spanish song. At that moment, my eyes streamed down tears that I could no longer hold back. There was always thanksgiving, in every corner of this city.

One of the other purposes of this trip was to inform others that Tijuana is not how the media portrayed it. This place is beyond what we heard on TV of hatred and violence; in fact, it is just the opposite. There is freedom, warmth and power. The power of love.

This was a trip where I was free of my preconceptions, of the cacophony in a city, of holding back my emotions, where I could truly express myself. But more importantly, I realized one thing—if you are content, you are set free wherever you go.

Little did I know that when I decided to visit Tijuana, it was already an act of freedom—unchained from others’ preconceived notions. I was already free and had a pair of soaring wings, meeting freedom where I least expected to find it.

About the Author: Farn-Ru (Sharon) Tseng currently resides in the U.S. and enjoys writing and traveling in her leisure time; she chronicles her life experiences at her blog. The fact that she was born and raised in Taiwan by a Cambodian Chinese father and a Malaysian Chinese mother helped cultivate her interest in accepting and appreciating different cultures at an early age. Always curious about the world, she’s traveled to 29 countries in three continents and hopes to continue exploring many corners of the world.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

Sunset at San PanchoIt’s a land I get lost in, emerging fuzzy headed, unsure where the time has gone. One, two, six hours can pass, clicking from one screen to the next, getting sucked ever deeper into a maze of trivia, gossip and stories I can’t say no to. It’s an addiction – something I know doesn’t feel good, but I continue on with nonetheless.

Opportunity for digital detox presented itself in November 2012. After years of saying “not enough time” or “I’m not good enough”, I finally signed up to a yoga teacher training course in Mexico’s jungle beside the ocean.

Four weeks of aches and pains, small triumphs and a path towards more presence. I rose with the sun, shook my shoes for scorpions and made friends with the nighttime creatures – kaleidoscopic moths and preying mantises with tiny red tongues. The world revealed more each day – a new shade of green, the scent of new flowers in bloom. I had time and space to notice it all.

When time came to return to writing, my boyfriend and I decided we’d stay put. The local town had charmed us with the sound of waves, the sight of the jungle and a community we were welcomed into from first breath. We felt a part of something in San Pancho. We belonged.

I started to teach yoga in the local plaza in return for donations – fruit, massages, and chocolate – an economy of give and take. I did use the computer, but my relationship to it changed. I used it to write and to work. I no longer found myself lost.

Those six months in San Pancho were golden, shining with memories of dear friends, daily sunsets on the beach, and the certainty that we were exactly where we wanted to be. We could have stayed forever, we almost did – coming within an inch of buying land – but instinct caused us to pause.

We weren’t ready to put down roots. The call of the world still sounded and unanswered doubts lingered on. We didn’t need to rush, to “lock it down” or make it fixed. San Pancho had shown us we could feel at home in a world far from the place we were born. It was a planetary experience and not one that needed to be grasped at.

A year later, and the lessons of San Pancho live on. It taught me the importance of community, of support and friendship beyond the screen, and of the power of nature to refresh, revitalize and heal. It made me revel in the details – the sounds, the scents, the sights. As Eden Philpotts so beautifully said: “The universe is full of magical things waiting for our wits to grow sharper.”

My wits did grow sharper in Mexico and they have strengthened ever since. Old habits still fight on and time sometimes slips into mindless moments, but less so than the time before. This work is a process not a pill.

Time is teaching me that happiness comes from gratitude, noticing and appreciating each moment, and being mindful of how you live your life. Of course there will always be things we like less, but those moments are balanced by their necessity and the moments of things we love.

Those halcyon days in San Pancho were rich with happiness and mindful moments – time I knew was beautifully spent. When you taste that experience – that possibility and potential – the opposite becomes ever more acrid. I still sometimes get lost in my computer, I sometimes even choose to, but I always come back to the sweetness and the pursuit of being present. It’s a new addiction. It’s mindfulness.

About the Author: Victoria Watts is a writer, blogger and nomad from London. She lives to explore the world and the many paths (and cakes) within it. Read about her adventures on her blog Bridges and Balloons.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter our next Travel Writing competition and tell your story.


Xcacel iguanas“This is the womb of the world,” he says, looking out at the sea which forms into waves so clear I can see the silver fish carried inside them.

Water churns around our shins in foamy currents, threatening to destabilize our footing.

“People are re-born here,” he continues, his gaze firmly on the sea.

Daniel is a short, stout, middle-aged man, strong in the legs and wide at the waist with that distinct Mayan nose, reminding me of the toucans living in the tangled jungle behind us.

His words tumble around in my mind, insistent as the waves.

The womb of the world.

People are re-born here.

It had taken me a while to warm to Playa del Carmen, the ever-expanding tourist town on the Caribbean sea. “Too developed,” I’d thought at first.

But it soon grew on me. When I discovered the spectacular stretch of coastline around it, known as the Riviera Maya, I decided to stay for a full year. Time now stretched out before me as wide as the expansive silvery horizon.

The sky, a hazy grey-blue, is invaded by thick clouds. A steady wind whips my hair around into such a mess I give up trying to tame it into a knot and let it trail behind me, facing into the wind to coax it from my eyes.

Xcacel beach, the most natural and beautiful of all the beaches in the Riviera Maya, is also the most rugged and unpredictable.

So much so that I’m not confident enough to tackle the waves like my friend Ariel. I watch as she dives diagonally underneath a rolling, cylindrical wave, her strong body carried like a twig in a stream. She invited me to Xcacel with along with Daniel, her Qigong teacher from the healing center she is staying at. We flew down the highway in his small, beat-up car after yoga class this morning.

We didn’t anticipate the wild weather, though I suppose there are worse ways to spend a blustery Caribbean day than shin-deep in water with a Qigong master.

The iguanas continue their slow, deliberate crawl along the sand, past empty green coconut shells, unperturbed by the imposing grey clouds looming overhead.

A group of twenty-somethings arrive in a flash of colorful bikinis and high-pitched squeals. They strip off and bound into the water, volunteering themselves to the strong waves which tumble them around like flimsy lingerie in a washing machine.

They emerge with twisted swimsuits contorted around them; their mouths full of hair, salt water and sand.

“You don’t want to go out?” Daniel teases me, his dark grey eyes shining with watery reflection.

“No thanks, it’s too rough for me,” I explain. I love to watch the waves crashing, tumbling, rising and falling, just not on me.

“It’s too rough for them also, no?” He asks, motioning to the group now collapsed on the sand like today’s catch, their stomachs heaving as their lungs reclaim lost oxygen.

He maintains a knowing smile as he turns to the sea again, extending his arms out wide as though taking in the water, the waves and the wind in an open embrace.

The rain hits. We flee from the beach, ducking pointlessly through the inescapable downpour. The three of us huddle under the open trunk of Daniel’s small hatchback and eat avocado sandwiches out of a cooler box, our arms and legs dripping with ocean and rain.

I eat hungrily and smile at the novelty of it all; sandwiches, new friends, Mexico.

After the rain clears we walk along a damp path through sand dunes covered in a blanket of verdant green. Rain pools in cup-shaped leaves of meaty tropical plants, containing the whole world for the tiny bugs who live on them.

The dunes give way to thick mangrove forest. A wall of vegetation rises on either side of the path as my flip-flops carry me along the slippery wooden planks through the jungle. We emerge at a natural pool known as a ‘cenote’, derived from the Mayan word ‘dzonot’, meaning ‘sinkhole’.

This isn’t just any cenote, though.

“It is a secret cenote,” says Daniel with a cheeky grin.

Birds flit between branches as I take to the water, peering down into the submerged world through my mask. The cenote’s secrets are revealed to me like a lens coming into focus. Fish dart under huge algae-covered limestone rocks for shelter and food. Around the perimeter, small, dark fish huddle in the mangrove as though whispering to each other.

I revel in the prospect of more secrets being revealed to me over the coming year, wondering which of my own will be carried away by the wind and dissolved by the waves, swept along ancient underground river systems and lost among overgrown jungle.

About the Author:  Sarah Chamberlain is an Australian writer, traveler and dreamer, currently residing on the Caribbean coast of Mexico.

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DSC07508Sometimes I dream of destruction and those dreams led me here. I ended my career, left friends and family and moved to a foreign country. Months of bad luck in my new home only added to my sense of loss. One day felt like the last straw. My mountain bike broke on a trip intended to make me feel better. Looking at a twisted derailer, I screamed and cried to no one.

The next morning, I sit on the beach. At least the Sea can’t be taken from me; it’s not mine. None of the people walking by me see my tears. I feel invisible.
My phone rings. It is E. Do I want to do something today? We could go hiking. E has made a lot of friends and had been hiking and climbing a lot. So we head for Canyon Tripui.

When we arrive, E has forgotten his hiking shoes. He has only flip flops! No matter, he has been here before. E finds the trail ascending to the canyon rim. It is steep though not difficult. Long velvet green stems with spines have brilliant orange flowers for heads. Bushes of menacing cactus with needles stand ready to skewer anything that falls on them. Trees squeeze themselves upward through layers of rock. Some trees are nothing but brown sticks, reaching out like hands to the sky. Everything that lives finds a way to endure here.

We are near the canyon entrance when the Gigantas get lost in an oasis. Green trees, shrubs and cactus frame a river of lumpy white and smooth red sandstone, like a sheet on an unmade bed. A small stream comes from somewhere under the rocks onto the red stone and down into a crack in the earth. A large fly with white eyes on black feathery wings alights on the rocks near us. We watch orange dragonflies circle and drop like helicopters near the water, their wings collecting the light. Something starts to shift in my consciousness.

Pressing on, we seem to be going down: it is greener and the sun isn’t so harsh. Eventually, narrow walls open up into a large basin where huge rocks and entire trees are frozen in their plunge along the walls. The stream we follow sometimes forms large pools and gives life to wildflowers. As a light breeze moves the air around us, E speaks of canyon breath. He shares an exquisite lunch of smoked goat and cow cheese and crackers with dark chocolate for dessert. He tells me a story of how his mom would get exasperated with him coming home wet and muddy after a day at who-knows-where. But muddy and wet is still his measure of a perfect day.
To prove the point, E trods through water at every opportunity. With shoes and socks, I try to be more cautious. But it becomes useless. We come to a sudden drop and I see a rope. E offers to let me go first, but I want his example to reference. He contemplates flip flops or no, then without word tosses his sandals into the pool below. They carelessly spin and turn in the current. He descends effortlessly in a matter of seconds.
I step on the last rock but freeze for a moment in fear. I will have to step from certainty, requiring a mental and physical leap of faith that I am strong enough. I swing leftward, grab the top knot and feel the rush of trusting without knowing. Everything is easier after the first step. I am much stronger than I thought. I drop into the cool water and we laugh at what would be a good day by any measure.

On our way out of the canyon, we pass the top of a palm tree that can be seen from the rim above. It is only the top of the tree, cut off and growing where it lay. Or maybe the whole trunk was buried by rocks and debris and it still lives, growing depsite the obstacles around it. Another tree – a palo blanco – stands suspended in the canyon wall, its roots half-gone and what remains stretches horizontally, exposed from the surrounding rock that fell to storms or earthquakes or volcanoes or whatever fury Mother Nature threw at it. It is clearly growing with green leaves and branches, perhaps not as tall, perhaps weakened. But it lives displayed like art. I have no doubt that it is more beautiful than it ever was.

My consciousness has shifted completely by the time we reach the end of the canyon and the two-track road back to the car. Not a single problem of mine was resolved. But Canyon Tripui gave too many examples that, out of destruction, something more beautiful can remain.

About the Author:  Leslie Castro is a recovering lawyer and aspiring writer.

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ko 210“Las Pozas and the Eternal Now.”
By Kathleen O’Connor

My traveling companions and I take our first steps onto a mossy, grey cobblestoned pathway in the midst of an impossibly green rainforest. Flashy red, yellow and orange tropical flowers demand our attention amid the sea of green surrounding us. Straight ahead is a ring-shaped entranceway and just beyond that, I catch a glimpse of massive concrete structures, standing strong against the pervasive jungle determined to overtake them. For now they seem to be holding their ground. I breathe in the warm heavy air and can’t help but smile. In a few brief moments, I’ll pass through the “Queen’s Ring” (as the entranceway is called) and enter Las Pozas: a dream-like world created by a wealthy British gentleman artist who followed the beat of a different drum and found inspiration in the middle of a Mexican jungle.

Edward James first came to this place from West Sussex in 1947 while scouting for a spot to create his own personal escape from the privileged, highbrow society he was born into; a place where his love of art, orchids and exotic animals could thrive. He found his Shangri-La near the small village of Xilitla in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosi. Named after the surrounding spring-fed pools and waterfalls (one as high as 80 feet), Las Pozas became the escape James so longed for. Already a generous patron of the Surrealist art movement, James began construction on what would ultimately become a Surrealist’s dream: a sculpture garden where M.C. Escher’s mathematical aesthetics meet a Seussian architectural design straight out of Whoville.
In all, there are thirty-six unique structures made of concrete and whimsy to discover here. Most have quirky names like “House With A Roof Like A Whale” and “Temple Of The Ducks.” Others are simply “Parrot House” or “Ocelot House”, which I assume is where Mr. James must have kept some of his favorite exotic animals. According to the locals, he was known to walk around the grounds with his favorite red and blue Macaw companion riding atop his shoulder. I almost expect to bump into them at any moment.

As we continue walking along elevated pathways and climb up corkscrew staircases leading nowhere but to a state of heightened vertigo, I begin to feel what I call the “travel giddiness”; that state of mind you enter when you are completely immersed in the present moment. Suddenly you feel an overwhelming sense of love and wonder. Writer David James Duncan referred to this feeling as “melting into the Eternal Now.” As Duncan points out, “Sometimes it happens in pristine wilds, but sometimes it happens in airports or city streets. And who cares which?”
Perhaps Las Pozas, with its secret rooms inside massive towers and giant concrete flowers in perpetual bloom, is here to remind us of that very thing. Perhaps Edward James hoped that those who visited this beautiful place would find themselves reawakened to those feelings and take a bit of its magic back home with them as they returned to their daily lives.

As we start our journey back to the “Queen’s Ring”, one of the smaller sculptures of Las Pozas catches my eye. I look around and see two strong and oversized concrete hands. I can’t help but stare at them for a while, perhaps in an attempt to memorize every detailed line etched upon them. They are beautiful in their humanness and I begin to wish photos captured more than just images.

But today was a good day. We unraveled a few of the secrets of Las Pozas, we stood bravely atop a jungle fortress and we mingled with the Eternal Now. I think Mr. James would be pleased.


*Information about Edward James came from here:

*Quote by David James Duncan came from a Grist Interview

About the Author: Kathleen O’Connor is a biologist, Mom and bibliophile living in the beautiful mountain town of Durango, CO. In her spare time, she enjoys writing, caving and cycling. She occasionally blogs about life.
She hopes to return to Las Pozas someday.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter our next Travel Writing competition and tell your story.