Tag Archives: Mexico

Paul’s Left Brain Takes a Mayan Holiday

Paul has been reflecting on what he likes so much about travel – about being in “vacation mode”.  He’s not one to sit around the pool with a margarita, but can usually be found on an all-day walking tour, or working on a new foreign language.  He observed that his favourite principles of good vacations apply just as well to “everyday life at home” – although we don’t always remember them:

Paul's not above trying the local beer, however.

Paul’s not above trying the local beer, however.

Here’s something he wrote on the subject a couple years back…

Ah, to live life in vacation mode every day!  What does it take?

I explored the texture of that question on a recent trip to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

For sun-chair reading, I’d packed a copy of Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight.  Neuroscientist Dr. Jill reports “from the inside” what it felt like when a massive stroke shut down the left side of her brain, and put the right side in charge.  As I understand it, the left brain manages linear reasoning and language functions;  the right brain fills a more intuitive, holistic role.  In Dr. Jill’s case, for the first eight months of her eight-year recovery, the “little voice” in her head fell silent.  Imagine!  She used her experience to reflect upon her life in general, and in particular, the relationship between her two different aspects.

Dr. Jill observed that “vacation mode” derives from the right brain.  So simple, I mused?  The question hovered over me like an iridescent Yucatan hummingbird.  Meanwhile, I did the usual holiday things.

Even plain, the best tortillas ever!

Even plain, the best tortillas ever!

One of my travel activities has me strike up conversations with strangers for no reason.  I dusted off my knowledge of Spanish, German and Portuguese to talk to almost anyone I found myself next to, even tried to learn a little Mayan.  Bix a bel, tz’unu’un!  What’s up, Little Hummingbird?  Yet my wife and I both found it hard to start conversations at the resort.  Our fellow vacationers seemed reluctant to connect, as if locked in their tour buses with the windows up.  I felt frustrated.  After this mood settled over me, something startling took place.

En route to climb the great Mayan pyramid at Cobá, we pulled of the road at a corner store in one of the small towns that crouch in the Yucatan interior.  We squeezed in to harvest a few nuts and chicharrones to stave of the need for a tourist-priced lunch.

I plopped a couple of bags of munchies near the cash register, while we continued to hunt for more.  Just then, a small Mayan girl of six or seven came in, chose a bag of the pork-rind snacks and took them to the cashier.  As we arrived at the counter with the rest of our purchases, I saw the store owner already totaling our bill.  The young girl stood waiting.  I sensed him directing preferential treatment toward us “gringo elders”

En route to Cobá, the better known Chichén Itzá

En route to Cobá, the better known Chichén Itzá

In my most sophisticated Spanish, I explained that she had preceded us, and that he should look after her first.  Alas, my linguistic abilities failed me.  After a couple of failed attempts followed by puzzled looks, he asked me if I meant to pay for the young girl’s purchase.  Annoyed that my communication attempt had gone so completely wrong, I shook my head and replied, “No, no!  That’s not what I was trying to say.”  Chastened into silence, I let him continue with our order, and we left the store.

While we poked around decaying ruins that afternoon, however, I had my own “micro stroke of insight.”  I saw that I had at least two valid answers to the store owner’s question, “Do you want to pay for hers too?”

My “right-wrong” linear left brain had jumped in and taken control of the situation in the store.  “No, that’s wrong.  That’s not what I was trying to say.”  End of story.

Yet his question had another valid answer, one that my less linguistically adept right brain could only whisper on a quiet trail in a Mayan jungle.  Did I want to spend sixty cents to buy chips for a cute kid who looked as if sixty cents mattered?  Did I crave a chance to make the tiniest human connection, no matter how fleeting?  Yes. I did!  Yes, I had!  Yes, I would have!  And then a wave of sadness and disappointment flooded my soul concerning opportunity missed – not just this one, but for all the little missed opportunities of a lifetime.

Jungle-clad Cobá from the top of its pyramid

Jungle-clad Cobá from the top of its pyramid

Fresh from Dr. Jill’s book, I supplied mental hemispheric interpretation to the event.  My number one priority on this holiday involved connecting to people, just because – I thought that a right-brain function.  Yet I’d let my linear left brain run the whole show with its need to get the Spanish right.

This reflection troubled me.  My troubling in turn shocked me.  My own stroke of insight had allowed me to glimpse how my left brain’s reaction had drowned out my right brain’s voice, leaving my life just a little less rich.  A single thread dropped from an intricate Mayan blanket.  Even after returning from Mexico, I kept brooding.  Intrigued that such a trivial event had bothered me for days, I pulled at the loose thread.

How often had I missed an opportunity like this one because I didn’t want to get something wrong?  Ba’ax ka wa’alik?  Hell-o?  Now I see how many threads I’ve dropped in the tapestry of my life. It’s a good blanket regardless and it keeps me warm, but my stroke of insight showed me that I could weave it even warmer, more colourful.  Sometimes I hush my left brain’s chatter, listening for a second right answer, a fleeting chance to make the human connection, just because.

Is Paul destined for the Sacred Cenote (also known as the "Well of Sacrifice") at Chichén Itzá

Is Paul destined for the Sacred Cenote (also known as the “Well of Sacrifice”) at Chichén Itzá

I’ve watched myself drop a few more stitches since then.  Sometimes I’ve gone back and picked them up again.  I look forward to catching more before the tapestry runs out.  The colours brighten.

Yum bo’otik!  Thank you, Mayan sun god.

For further exploration:

Speaking of vacation mode, here's another lounge lizard from around the pool

Speaking of vacation mode, here’s another lounge lizard from around the pool

What’s “vacation mode” mean for you?

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Travel the World without a Passport

In our previous post, we shared some of our experience staying overseas with Servas and Couchsurfing hosts.  This week, it’s our turn to host.

When Henry David Thoreau wrote that he had “traveled a good deal in Concord”, we don’t think he had his profile listed on Couchsurfing.org.  However, we’ve been able to experience some of the world’s wonder simply by offering hospitality and good cheer to wandering strangers.

We started by hosting a Couchsurfer who we knew from years back

Playing it safe: we started by hosting a Couchsurfer who we knew from years back

We started hosting with a listing in the Servas directory, and more recently added a Couchsurfing profile to our visibility.  In both cases, we hosted before traveling with these networks, but this is not required.  In fact, there is no explicit tie-in between hosting and traveling – save for conscience.

We felt confident offering short-term accommodation to visitors with Servas, knowing that they had supplied references and been interviewed to get their official letter of introduction.  As we gained hosting experience and became comfortable with the concept, adding couchsurfers to our guest list was not much of a stretch.  In place of references and interviews, Couchsurfing profiles have verification, online reviews, and “vouching”.

Do Couchsurfing hosts need to offer a magnificant guest suite as our recent hosts in Provence did?  No, as the name implies, even a couch will do.  Servas listings in Europe often indicate that a sleeping sheet or bag is required.  Our own offering is a little rustic.  We try to make it up by being informed guides and scintillating conversationalists.  We ‘d rather our visitors remember our kindness and wit than the ridge down the middle of the fold-out bed.

Relaxing after a local hike with a young visitor from Spain

Relaxing after a local hike with a young visitor from Spain

We’ve found the average age of travelers we’ve hosted to be younger than the hosts we’ve stayed with.  This is partly by design:  we often choose older hosts.  And youth is a time to “seek one’s fortune.”  For some of the oldest hosts we’ve met, their traveling days are behind them.  Hosting is a way to stay in the game, both by exposure to new people from new cultures, and by sharing past travel experiences with visitors.

We’ve enjoyed all of our hosting experiences over the years with Servas and Couchsurfing.  Each story is unique.  Our first visitor this year was Christoph, a young man from Germany completing his PhD thesis with a study of the North American distribution of an invasive weed species.  He had flown into Montana and was making a large circle tour that included our area.  He had chosen our home because we happen to live near a large infestation.  Who knew?  He explained that he had to pay for accommodation out of his limited research grant.  Christoph could only stay one night before driving several hundred miles to the next infestation, but we spent a great evening over a bottle of wine discussing everything from religious discrimination in Europe to crossing international borders with bags of weed seeds.

Local Renassiance Festival is a crowd-pleaser

Our local Renassiance Festival is a crowd-pleaser

Maud, a young woman from the French Alps, was traveling between long-term WWOOFing engagements on opposite sides of the country.  It was interesting to hear her first impressions of life on an organic farm in the New World.  In return, we showed her around the area, and offered her suggestions on where to stay when her mother came to join her.  Like most Servas and Couchsurfing visits, Maud’s stay was limited to a couple of days.  Servas has a policy of restricting stays to two days barring an unsolicited invitation by the host.  Couchsurfing has no official policy but recommends a similar time limit.

Have we had any troubling experiences?  Not really.  Once we had to exercise our “no” muscle.  A few years back, a young visitor from Prague broke several Servas rules when he asked, “Can I borrow the car?  Can you help me find a job here?  Can I stay longer?”  It is helpful to be able to

One of many local attractions

One of many local attractions

set clear limits without undue stress.  In our case, it wasn’t hard to say, “No, no, and no,” but others might find this challenging.  Our experience with this guest left us a little edgy, but with other positive experiences, we soon forgot this.  Until, months later, we received his unsolicited apology letter in the post.  Traveling is a learning experience for all of us.

Our most memorable hosting experience was non-standard.  Anaid, a young Mexican woman studying English on a student visa had been stranded here for several months by a travel snafu.  Her mother in Mexico had contacted Servas to make sure her daughter wasn’t left wandering the snowy streets.  Our local Servas coordinator contacted hosts with a special request for longer-term back-to-back stays to house the young woman until she could return to Mexico.  We chipped in about 10 days, and together with other hosts within a hundred mile radius, Anaid’s accommodation gap was covered.

As with traveling, hosting is about enjoying the unexpected.  Anaid’s letter of introduction – written no doubt by her mother – sported a grainy black and white photograph of a young woman with pigtails and a traditional school uniform.  However, when we first saw Anaid, she was wearing a backwards baseball cap and carrying a soccer ball – and her beaming smile revealed a tongue stud.  No doubt some of this would have been news to her mother … as would the news that Anaid had indeed spent at least one snowy night on the streets of the inner city.

A young student from Mexico at a local diner

Our young student from Mexico at a local theme diner

Anaid proved to be a delight.  She was helpful and easy-going.  She brought us some Mexican artwork, and our family still enjoys her easy recipe for enchiladas that she demonstrated for us one evening.  She was quite happy to accompany us on whatever we were up to, like spending an hour watching underwater coaching videos from Cheryl’s swim team.  Whenever we were tied up, she’d just pick up her soccer ball and head out, telling us she’d find someone “on the street” to play soccer with.  The first time we heard this, we were doubtful.  But she always found her game.  We suppose the young men in our town also fell under her spell.

A visitor such as Anaid lets us see our hometown in a new light.  Naturally, we took her to some of the local attractions we liked to visit.  We also discovered that her biggest unfilled dream was to see some of the filming locations for a popular TV series.  We looked them up and went on a tour.  Snapping pictures of familiar backdrops, she laughed, “I’m going to sell these for a million back in Mexico!”

Another visitor at the diner

Another visitor at the diner

As we’ve said, visitors are not expected to reciprocate with their hosts.  There is no requirement to offer anything other than a helping hand with the chores.  Couchsurfers can mark their profiles as “no couch available” or “currently traveling”, and even Servas hosts who are “receiving” are always free to decline individual requests without apology.

Still, most of our recent visitors have offered us accommodation back home and we’ve stayed in loose touch with many of them.  One offer in particular, we look forward to accepting before too long.  In a mid-size town in the Mexican mountains – “a place of eternal springtime” says she – a young woman named Anaid still lives with her very grateful mother.  We’ve promised to look them up when we’re in the neighbourhood.