Sunday, 28 December 2008

Finding what you don’t seek

A few years ago, while we were filling in our swimming pool (and that’s another story!), we dispossessed a small iguana, who had, unbeknownst to us, made his home in the interstice between two sheets of roofing material sheltering the pool equipment. I am not sure who was more surprised, the interloper or the tenant, as the iguana launched himself into the air and disappeared into the garden.

He relocated to a much quieter neighbourhood; a pile of unused rocks against the wall in our backyard. Whenever the sun fell on the rockpile, our iguana would sun himself, quickly hiding at any hint of danger. When your house has been destroyed in a flash by two alien monsters, it’s not hard to see why you would become a little jittery.

Each year, I seek out our iguana to see how he is doing. But this year, he was nowhere to be seen. I tried creeping up silently on his home, tried waiting patiently for him to appear, but failed to catch a glimpse of the errant lizard. I gave up hope of finding him again. I thought that, maybe, just like other Baja residents, “The Great Hot Summer of 2008” had caused him to pack his bags.

Yesterday, I was walking through the garden, enjoying the smells of a multitude of different flowers carried on the crisp breeze and the feel of the sun on my skin. I was completely immersed in the experience. As I moved toward the edge of the garden, I turned round and, out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of my Iguana, majestically preening himself in the sun. I had only found him when I was not consciously looking for him.

I have always found it interesting that various parts of the human eye behave in different but complementary manners. The center of your field of vision allows you to examine items in detail, but requires high light levels to operate. In dim lighting, the center of the eye sees little. Peripheral vision, on the other hand, allows for little detail, but operates well in minimal illumination. When you are walking through a dark place, rather than looking straight ahead, you can see better if you navigate using the vague impressions caught at the edge of your vision. I liken central vision to intellectual analysis of a situation, while peripheral vision is more akin to reliance on feelings and perceptions.

Such thoughts led me to a broader context for my encounter with the Iguana. I, like many others down here in this quiet, tumultuous town, am searching desperately for a path to meaning, for some direction to follow. Despite much soul-searching and concentrated analysis, I have yet to find an answer. Maybe I would be better off stopping looking for the answer, just as I gave up looking for the Iguana, and, one day, it may appear?

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Lessons in Transience

If there is one thing at which Todos Santos excels, it is in teaching you about the transience of all things. Overlaid on the seasonal ebb and flow of part-time residents is a surface patter of splashy arrivals and departures of vacationers and day-trippers. And below this surface noise, Todos Santos will still remind you that nothing is forever. Stable relationships dissolve into shattered angry pieces. Long term residents who form the bedrock of the community move on, to other places or from this world forever.

It’s hard not to get disturbed by this churning, to realize that there is nothing to which you can anchor, even as you accept its inevitability and the new opportunities that change can bring.

When I am in danger of being overwhelmed, I find that the ocean can sometimes bring a sense of integration and peace.

Constant liquidity

A draftsman’s horizon demarks perfectly
and constantly
the break between distant desaturated sky
and inky concentrated water

The naked beach is still here
as it was days, years before
Before I came here

All serve to lull the innocent observer
Into dreams of mathematical precision and certainty

But look closer
The placid sea erupts in a tempest of fleeing fish
and is still again
as if they never were
And the sand that I sit on
Is not the sand that was here yesterday

And yet, somehow
With the tuneless whistle of the afternoon breeze
caressing my ears
Somehow, for a brief while
The incongruities resolve mindlessly
And a flicker of peace crosses my consciousness.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Travelling Engagement

In our recent travels, we’ve encountered many young people. Indeed, Antigua seems to be the portal of choice for Europeans and Israelis on the Great Central / South American tour. We met a number whose enthusiasm, commitment to immersing themselves in the culture and sheer adventurousness drew me like a magnet. For them, everything was new, an adventure, full of promise. They were open to any opportunity and feared nothing (probably due to lack of experience, coupled with an age-appropriate denial of their own mortality). Their energy was like a refreshing shower, and I was highly envious. My envy was no doubt exacerbated by my own history – accelerating through school to go straight to Oxford as an immature student, and then headlong into work just after my 21st birthday. I never took time out to grow, partly because it wasn’t thought of in the circles in which my family moved, but also because I saw it then as a waste of time when there was apparently so much more to do in the formal, serious world.

Given my time over again, I like to think that I would be amongst the throngs of such young adventurous and curious travellers, and sometimes I pine for the lost opportunity.

It was therefore somewhat a surprise to me when a young German lady told us that, though she was off on a fascinating adventure through colonial towns in Mexico, she was concerned over the cost and the consequent limitations of her trip, being a student, and she indicated that we, being older, were in many ways more fortunate.

There are, of course, some benefits to adventuring when you are older. You have accumulated a greater context with which to view the way other people live their lives. You can appreciate more the luxury of time to take it in, as compared to simply taking such opportunities for granted. You may have some more money (but, just as likely, you are far more concerned about losing it). On the flip side, though, having context also means that not everything is a brand-new and life- jolting experience, you are very aware of your mortality and you pay dearly for health insurance. Your tolerance of spartan accommodations may also not be as accommodating as that of a young adult. But most galling, for me, is that you don’t feel you have the youthful luxury of an open-ended fertile time of infinite possibilities waiting for you at the end of your travels in which you can grow and harvest the seed germs you collected in your travels. The end of your journey on Earth is visible, brought into high relief by the passing of parents and friends.

Maybe, though, on reflection, the real issue in benefiting from travel is not your age, but the mindfulness with which you travel. We encountered plenty of young travellers who were travelling with minds wide shut, only marginally engaged in the experience of which they could be part. Guatemala, Honduras, San Salvador, Mexico – it really didn’t matter. They were on a time out, and pleasure was their guiding principle. Families jet down to all-inclusive resorts in exotic locations just to chill out in sunshine and never see the country in which their pleasure palace is located. And at the other end of the spectrum, older people can cruise to many different countries and return with nothing more substantive than a few extra pounds and a collection of photographs to prove they were there in body, if not in mind.

I think that travel only broadens the mind if you let it, if you are observant and mindful of the differences and reflect on what that means to your life. You don’t need to travel endlessly to enjoy that dislocation. For us, the deep and colourful divergences in culture between North America and Todos Santos, and the more subtle grey shadings between Comox and life in the bustling city of Calgary, provide rich sustenance for reflection.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Living under the volcano

For most of the time we were in Guatemala, we stayed in Antigua, a photogenic and very small colonial city which contains the highest density of old churches, monasteries and nunneries that I have seen in my travels. Antigua is dominated by two large volcanoes, one active (“Fire”), and the other inactive (“Water”), to the extent that it is quite hard to take a photo without capturing one or other looming above the foreground.

Antigua was the third attempt at a capital city for Guatemala. The second, a few kilometres away and closer to the Water volcano, was wiped out when the crater cracked and created a huge mudslide, just a few years after the city had been founded.

Indeed, it is hard to understand the logic in building and living in such an unstable place, where, even recently, there have been major earthquakes and other seismic activity. Today, life and commerce just roll on to the accompaniment of random puffs of smoke and fire from the Fire volcano. Perhaps because the volcanoes have been there for so long, people just accept them, though many locals still carry scars inside from personal losses in the devastating 1976 earthquake and are aware, at a deeper level, of the precariousness of their existence.

So why has Antigua been a locus for people? Part of it is probably the flip side of the danger, in the incredible fertility of the volcanic soil. With great risk comes the possibility of great reward. Add to this the wonderful ability of the human mind to discount older experience and bathe in the light of the moment, and it becomes easier to see the pressures that lead to this abstractly illogical place.

Although I revelled in the spectacular vistas that the volcanoes created, I found the omnipresent dark backdrop somewhat foreboding, for reasons that, at first, I couldn’t quite grasp. And then it hit me. Over the last year we’ve all come to see that we have all been living in the shadow of a fulminating volcano, which is finally beginning to erupt. A volcano built on years of rampant and unbridled capitalism, fed by greed and ineptness. We’ve all built our houses at the foot of this abomination, enjoying some of the rich fruits that come from fertile soils and, for many years, we’ve gone about our lives barely conscious of the structure that towers over all of us and has become much larger than any human can comprehend.

Now that the first eruptions have occurred, it is as if the clouds around the summit have cleared and we can all see this monster for the first time. And, to one degree or another, we all cower paralysed in the anticipation of what happens next. The devastation will take apparently random paths, just as in the tragedy that obliterated much of Ciudad Viejo, but spared houses just a kilometre away. In Comox, the significant population of Air force workers and retirees may see their lives continue as before. Locals who drifted into construction because it was the only place to make decent money are already finding that the hot spring of opportunity has dried up, just as the mineral springs in towns around Antigua dried up in the last major earthquake. The long shadow of the volcano has already stretched its probing tentacles to sleepy and sunny Todos Santos. There are fewer tourists, and certainly less people who want to spend serious money. I am sure, whatever path the lava takes, the blight of stalls all selling the same genuine Mexican “made in Indonesia” serapes will continue, much as, even after a nuclear blast, cockroaches will thrive. But the more innovative businesses, already feeling the pinch of increased rents due to landlords’ na├»ve belief in extrapolation of the past, may not survive the onslaught of this unnatural disaster.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Speaking in tongues

We’ve just returned from a trip to Guatemala where we attended an immersion Spanish language school for two weeks. For the first week we lived with a Guatemalan family to enhance our learning and get to understand the culture a little more.

My Spanish language skills have certainly improved. The most interesting part of the trip for me, however, was experiencing what happens when you are required to communicate in a foreign language. At first, you can only catch snippets of others conversations, and can’t join in. As you improve, you can converse simplistically and communicate enough to function in life. However, I and my fellow international students never got past the point where we conversed about anything but stories, requests, likes and dislikes. Our interactions with each other and with locals never got beneath surface exchanges of practical information. I found this to be excruciatingly frustrating.

There is one obvious reason for the monomolecular depth of our interactions. We simply didn’t have the vocabulary, or the practised command of the language, to make ourselves understood. But on reflection, deeper than that, I think, lies the issue of cultural differences. To be able to communicate fully around foundational beliefs and feelings I think you need some form of “cultural resonance”. Far greater than the language gap, the cultural dissonances between Mexico / Guatemala and the societies with which we are familiar limit the extent to which we can truly understand each other.

The use of the Spanish language in both Mexico and Guatemala hints at the culture gap. Both countries use subjunctive tenses pervasively to infer uncertainty about future outcomes, to be less direct about requests of others, to allow that you yourself may not have full knowledge and to avoid, at all costs, having others lose face. Perhaps this (and the easily observed reluctance to ever say "no" to your requests, even if they have no intention of taking action) comes from a history of oppression. Whatever its source, the cultural attitude permeates society. In England, the use of subjunctive is almost dead, and in North America, the “no holds barred” approach to business hardly allows for the existence of such a form of language.

So there were specific reasons for the challenges in communication in Guatemala. My frustration with the narrative flavour of my interactions was, I suspect, however, magnified by echoes of some challenges when interacting with English-speaking people in both Todos Santos and Comox. In these cases, the lack of depth of interactions can hardly be blamed on linguistic dexterity. Leaving aside those cases where we simply don’t like each other, I am led to ponder whether more subtle cultural disparities are often at play. We have found it strange that we often seem to “click” more easily with Canadians in Todos Santos than with some others. Although Canadians and Americans share the same continent (and are immersed in the same onslaught of media), the longer we spend together, the more fundamental the differences in general belief systems appear to us. As a simple example, Canadians may complain about taxes, but most of us do expect to be taxed in order that at least some of the inequities in society can be addressed. We have been surprised to see that many American friends, though delightful people and models of integrity, compassion and charity in their personal lives, see nothing wrong in evading taxes. Such core differences in beliefs can make it difficult to communicate heart to heart.

And why would I have problems in Comox? After all, there are few “foreigners” in Comox, so surely we have a common cultural base? Of course, part of the issue is that my expectations are often unreasonable. Some people just don’t like to open up quickly to others, while I demand instant connections. In other cases, though, I wonder if it is still cultural differences that are pulling the strings. We moved to Comox from Calgary, Alberta, a hotbed of belief in personal initiative and in the ability for anyone to do anything, given an idea and commitment. British Columbia has a long history of belief in benevolent government and organizations to protect people against the (admittedly real) ravages of rampant capitalism. Such core attitudes do not always mix well and allow effective sharing of feelings!

All this would suggest that the safe approach to life is to surround yourself with locally-bred clones. That may be safe, but it isn’t life. Exposing yourself to different world beliefs and different people may be uncomfortable, but it forces you to challenge your own beliefs, to think about who you are, and therefore to grow. But I suspect that I may still be left with an unresolved thirst for connection.