Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Ecotourism, The Modern Nomad, and the Art of Staying

   Crammed in the back of a colectivo minibus with native women and their children, we bounce heavily in our seats on the road to Lacanjá Chansayab, a small Lacandon Indian village in the remote jungle of Southern Mexico.
   I have hoped to find the inspiration of solitude in which my stories will flow easier, yet as soon as I arrive, my gut tightens with the overpowering sensation that I am too alone, too foreign– alien even–- to feel at peace.
    Wooden arrow signs point into different directions to eco lodges, eco cabins, eco tours, eco everything, but if there are any takers, they are invisible, and for a long while I seem to be the only estranjera, a stranger, in this community.
     Lush rainforest envelops the village; the many nuances of green layer into the distance for as far as the eye can see. Cicadas begin to shriek as evening falls, and in their shrill cries there comes solace. I find my way to a complex of wooden cabins belonging to a Lacandon family, the grass is trimmed low and the landscape is well managed; the wild jungle has been tamed here. A smileless hostess gives me a decent price, and a reserved welcome into a small bungalow.
     Between the four walls of another temporary shelter, a deep sadness of no particular origin overtakes me, the desparation that follows in the lonely tracks of the traveler on occasion, the longing for home, for what is known, for the arms of the beloved, the illusion of stability or permanence. But the morning is wiser than the night. It brings the relief of light. It brings the promise of the river tumbling at my feet, the encouragement of birds calling from the thick bush. I am everything but alone.
     This day I make my first friends in Lacanjá, a family of Lacandon Indians: a blind man, Chambor, his wife, and their young daughter. They have come to the communal area outside my bungalow at sundown, seemingly looking for company, a conversation. The three of them wear the traditional simple cotton tunics, the man’s is white, the women’s flowered. Chambor’s hair, pitch-black and straight like a horsetail, falls freely down to his waist–– in Lacandon tradition men and boys keep their hair long.
    Where am I from? How long will I stay? Will I go for a walk in the jungle? And, inevitably, where is my husband?
     In between, they exchange quickly in the Maya Lacandon language, a throaty flow of near-whispers broken by abrupt raise of intonation and sharp exclamations. This language is still taught at the Lacanjá school; all speak it.
  When I come back with questions of my own, one startles them–– how old are they? Eight, the girl yells, but her father shrugs: “I have been told I was born in ’75. What would that make me?” It would make him 35, but he looks well in his late 40s, fifty perhaps.
“Twenty, I think,” his wife Angelina says for herself, but fails to remember a date. “When Chambor was born they weren’t keeping record. Only now do the children know their birthdays, and some celebrate.”
   Calendar time hasn’t had much importance in the lives of the Lacandon. A mere two decades ago, there were no roads coming here, nor electricity. They hunted tapir, caught fish in the fast rivers, grew corn. Then the state built roads, brought cables and light to their houses, and with that came something these people never had to deal with in their past: bills. And the idea of helping them to better their lives, to “progress.”
    Nothing in the millennia of history of these Indians changed their lifestyles more than tourism. Ecotourism. It was perhaps the village’s strategic location––a bouncing point for a couple of notable Mayan ruins and for crossing into Guatemala––that decided Lacanja’s new destiny. Realizing the enormous tourist potential of this unique system of people and nature, the Chiapas state government has pushed hard in recent years to develop the village into something it has never been––and to advertise it relentlessly for all it used to be.

     Most of the families native to Lacanja received governmental money to build cabins and eateries on their properties, to welcome the “eco” tourists. And in this rapid makeover, there are those, a good number, who shy away from the tradition. Some men have replaced their long hair with short, spiky hairstyles  petrified in brilliantine, and the tunics have given way to jeans with low bottoms. In front of some of the family homes are parked sleek new cars, a strange fit for the simplicity and the remoteness of the surrounding jungle. And all seem suitably aware of the value of a dollar.
     By the following day the picture comes into full focus: Lacanjá is a one–night place on the way to the next Maya ruin or pricey rainforest tour with an “eco” seduction. The minibuses bring a handful of tourists each afternoon and in the morning I find myself alone again, at peace.
    The urge to go to the next place is always present in a nomad, but it has subsided now, and thankfully so, for to truly understand a place– or herself– one needs to stay.
    I sit at the river, walk into the forest and find waterfalls to bathe in, and in the afternoons I go to visit my friends at their home. Their two rooms,  a kitchen and a sleeping room, are crude wooden structures with a bare earth floor, without windows, but I often find them sitting outside, in a pure, unhurried appreciation of being. Chambor’s is one of a few families not involved in ecotourism. They grow a bit of corn and eat simply, (“There is always enough in the forest if one doesn’t need much.”)
   “What did you do today?” I ask each time I visit their home, and the answer doesn't change: “Aquí, no más.” Here, no more.
    On this journey, I have been listening diligently to Eckhart Tolle's recorded teachings about the power of now, “nothing more than here and now, ever”, yet I learn more about being in the present moment from Chambor’s family on those afternoons I return for a visit. Chambor’s eyesight was lost to cataracts when he was already an adult, yet his highs spirits and vitality are sealed with an unchangeable smile. “It is a beautiful day,” he says looking up into the sky, as if he could see it.
  I sit with Angelina at the table where she makes necklaces and bracelets from seeds she collected in the jungle, varied colors and shapes. It is a tedious job to pierce them on both ends with a needle; a necklace she makes in five hours she sells to the occasional tourist for 50 pesos, less then $5.
   “Do you get tired of it?”
   “No. It is my work,” she says simply.
I have detected a quality in her that baffles me. Her serenity, her calm conduct seem to be unaffected by any of the day’s proceedings.
   “Do you ever get bored?”
She shakes her head.
She ponders.
   “No. There is nothing to get angry about.”
She sinks back into silence, focused on her slow needle, and in the almost audible stillness by her side, I practice staying. Staying in this chair, in this village, with this restlessness. In this moment.
   In the life of a traveler the next place is often more alluring than the one now. The nomadic soul keeps seeking– what is around the next corner? What more is there to see, learn and experience? In San Francisco I dreamt of Antigua. In Antigua, I dreamt of Atitlan. In Atitlan, of Mexico. Yet, regardless of where I go, I bring myself, and the issues “packed” within upon leaving still demand my attention. There is no escape from the lessons to be learned in the now.
   In the communities I visit after Lacanja, highland villages of old tradition and slow change, I learn more about the art of staying from those who were born in the motherland of their parents and grandparents, in the same house they will likely never leave. In Capulalpam, a village in the tall peaks of the Sierra Norte mountains of Oaxaca, I befriend another woman of impressive strength and demeanor, Rosa Maria, and soon I am in her kitchen learning to make chiles rellenos, the notoriously scrumptious bell peppers stuffed with fresh cheese. “This house has been here since 1639,” Rosa Maria says, and her old mother nods: “My parents too lived here.” It is a full home, children and grandchildren and great grandchildren under the same roof.
    They are puzzled by my desire to travel; I am struck by their ability to stay in one place. And while Rosa Maria shoves round slabs of newly made dough in a brick oven to bake bread, I wonder  about the many situations in her life through which she has stayed, not left. In this house, in the relationship with the man she chose decades ago, in this village of slow pace and little exposure.
    In our hilltop cabin in Capulalpam, my partner and I, reunited at the last stretch of my trip, have the luxury of nightly fire in a brick fireplace. Cooking on the coals and sitting by the popping flames, I realize that at the end of a three-month journey I long for home. The practicality of it, a house or a room with a bed that is mine, have long ceased to mean what home entails. For a while upon my return, home will be the place where life is easy and predictable: the smell of fresh coffee beans down Valencia, the corner bakery where a midmorning croissant awaits, the bike route that will spit me out at the ocean’s shore, the numbers I will call and the voices that will shout back in exhilaration.
    But then  again I will become concerned with the lightness of my backpack, with the trails yet untaken. And my home again will become the now, the only shelter a nomadic soul knows to be true: the sun rising over the stillness of a new horizon, the call of a rooster from a valley at the skirts of mountains, the eye of a cow locked with mine in the onlyness of this moment. 
 And home will be there, in the making of a slow necklace, in the kneading of bread by skilled hands, in standing by a fast river that is never the same twice.


  1. very nice! so well said, to admit to this restlessness we carry, while 'at home' or on the road.

  2. Absolutely beautiful, Stefana. You are so emotionally present, aware, honest, and expressive. This work should be in print. Glossy. Widely distributed. Welcome home :)

  3. Stefana, thank you for your writing. So profound. I so appreciate having read this and how you observe and reflect and ask questions. And, how synchronistic it is because we were just talking this afternoon about time and the now/present moment and what it embodies. I listened to the first disk in "The Power of Now" recordings just this morning.

    I feel as though you bring that same observing, reflecting and wonder (that's the question-asking part :-) into your teaching. Amazing. Thank you, again.