Getting Lost in Oaxaca

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The first thing I noticed about Oaxaca was its streets: imperfect cobble-stone pathways paved the way from order to chaos as one moved from the city center to the peripheral. The layout began in squares, but it ended in hopeless circling zigzags.

As the flatness of their beginnings gave way to the steep and curving hills, the roads could no longer hold their ground. Instead they erupted with the mountainside in a frenzy of dismay. In their hopes to conform nature to civility, a natural conformity took place.

These paths were meant to connect lives. They were strewn together long and far in the most awkwardly and amicable ways. They navigated obstacles, rerouted traffic and ultimately delivered people to their destinations.

One of Oaxaca's proudest exports: mezcal.

One of Oaxaca’s proudest exports: mezcal.

It was during a stroll on one of these streets that I realized the adaptivity of Oaxaca. The place itself is an enigma of clashed cultures. One of the only remaining Mexican cities that has successfully retained a large portion of its heritage, Oaxaca is orgullosamente Oaxacan. Food, language, music and dress are proud areas that point to the rejection of the hispanic conquest.

Oaxaca may seem resilient, but what keeps its culture alive isn’t its stubbornness. Instead, it is Oaxaca’s ability to bend. During the Spanish conquest, instead of seeking to fight, Oaxaca chose to negotiate. This standard of attitude kept Oaxaca on the post-hispanic map. This liveliness can be seen in the high tourist attraction rates, which rival some of the most popular Mexican beaches. This is all due to Oaxaca’s ability to adapt.

The wind does not break a tree that bends -- Sukuma proverb

The wind does not break a tree that bends — Sukuma proverb

When traveling the number one quality to have is adaptability . Backpacking through countries with unreliable bus systems, sketchy border crossings, and a money hungry police force can result in a few unforeseen changes. That’s why when I came to Oaxaca I instantly fell in love; change is an openly and widely welcomed part of life in the Land of the Seven Moles. Change is a part of life and when traveling it is important to adopt a flexible mindset.

My personal practice of letting go of the known is simply by getting lost. Taught to me by an exceptional traveler, who took a day job as a Spanish college professor, the act of intentionally losing myself in another country has been the most instructive practice I’ve ever been taught.

Getting lost is the best way to find yourself.

Getting lost is the best way to find yourself.

Disorientation and venturing into the unknown are two concepts that are usually avoided at all costs. Most people would think that engaging in these uncomfortable situations would be even more ludicrous while abroad. Yet, the practice of getting lost has brought me more insight than confusion.

What I usually do is pick a street. I walk as far as I can until I find a fork. It could be a 4-way intersection, a park entrance or a simple right or left turn. I take the turn. I usually walk uphill. I always walk away from my orientation. And I make sure to take the longest route possible; no shortcuts. I do this for about an hour— sometimes longer if I have time. The length of my walk isn’t important because it’s not a destination I am looking for. I am searching for a feeling.

There is no name for this feeling. It is a mix of childish giddiness and supreme satisfaction. It is a liveliness that only a place can give you. It is a feeling of knowing nothing and being ecstatic about it. I imagine it must be a tenth of what the first explorers felt when they discovered new lands.

This is how that feeling looks.

This is how that feeling looks.

The symptoms of this feeling are outbursts of random cheers, an embarrassingly uncontrollable smile, and a new set of eyes that place a glaze of spectacularity around everything in sight. This feeling is the metric I use to measure how well I am living my life.

When a space is carved out inside of you, it may feel empty. In most cases, this emptiness follows an uncomfortable change. It could be losing a job, getting a new one, meeting a new person, moving cities, or simply traveling alone and getting lost. What I have come to realize is that, yes, that emptiness is very uncomfortable and it is the unknown quality behind it that creates fear. Venturing somewhere new—both mentally and physically—is sometimes scary, but what follows the emptiness is worth every moment spent in fear.

When you carve a space out inside of you, you also create a space to be filled. A vacuum-esque effect takes place and what once was empty is now full. They saying “build it and they will come” doesn’t just apply to casinos and Roman empires. It also applies to the fulfillment of your Self. What once was unknown becomes known and feeling of comfort is expanded. Clearing space is the hardest part. Letting the powers that be find a way to fill it is effortless.

Clear the space and it will be filled.

Clear the space and it will be filled.

As for finding my way back home, I usually feel out a general direction. Also, being up high helps me find landmarks and other identifiable objects. Speaking to people is also very helpful. But most incredible is that the high I obtain always leads me in the right direction. I reach a certain harmony and that flow guides me out of my geographical confusion.

On a daily basis, getting lost and going with the flow are the most valuable things you can do for yourself. These things can be done any time and anywhere. It could be talking to strangers, taking an uncertain financial risk, signing up for an art class, or just walking a new path. Doing these things in other countries only multiplies the effect, increasing the risk but also the reward.

Life is a journey, not a destination -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Life is a journey, not a destination — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Oaxaca offered me a chance to experience her beauty and I took it. I had to sacrifice my comfort zone to understand the true offerings of the culture and the people. I had to get lost, losing track of myself in order to carve out a space larger enough for the splendor of the city. On my walk under the Oaxacan sunset, I sought out my spiritual terminus. And although I was completely lost, the promise of the windy Oaxaca streets delivered me to my destination.

Understanding the Hard Road

My father used to tell me, “Matt, there are two roads you can take: the easy one or the hard one.  And son, you always choose the hard one.”

What he told me when I was a child, still somehow seems to fit as an adult.  Although much of the content has changed—thank god—I still seem to forego comfort to seek out challenge.  Even in times where I wish I had it easy, my gravitas lies in taming difficulty.  For me, the feeling of accomplishment outweighs the risk. And even in failure, the lessons learned warrant a deserved reward.  It was not until this re-examination of my philosophies, had I begun to grasp a greater understanding of mankind.

I recently finished BBC’s “Human Planet” series, which explores the variety of lifestyles man.  Most of the documentary takes place in ‘the wild’, where existence is less of a race than it is a cooperation.  However, what BBC would have you think is that life in these wild places is a dangerous battle where each day man fights to steal food from the earth, as if it was bent on extinguishing humanity.  It is cruel, cold, and unpredictable.  And only the poor, weak, and exiled live beyond the city walls.

They look thrilled.

Much of the commentary contradicted the actual footage.  Example: although the villager, grinning ear to ear, was enjoying his day’s catch of fresh fish, he was, according to BBC, deeply troubled by the unsurmountable stress looming overhead about finding tomorrow’s dinner.  At first, these inconsistencies didn’t catch my attention, but as I watched all 7 installations, I started to see the over-usage of certain negative elements such as fear and threat.  I started to get annoyed and eventually decided to cut short the last episode.  All this ‘triumphing over nature‘ and ‘struggling against earth’ was starting to give me a headache.

What I honestly believe is that these people, in tune with locales much closer to raw wilderness, understand and embody cycles closer to nature.  In this proximity to true models of sustainability, these civilizations have learned to cooperate rather than fight.

I think this requires at least a smidgeon of cooperation.

With that said, I started to wonder why was BBC so bent on making life in the ‘wild’ seem so difficult.  I started to hypothesize a theory of reversal: BBC, and all of us living an urban lifestyle, tend to brutalize life in the wilderness because of the current degree of extensive difficulty within our lives.  If you think about it, we spend on average 40 hours a weeks slaving away just to make ends meet.  A lot of this time is directly subtracted from family, sociality and simple relaxation. Debt is the number one stressor of our modern world.  It has become so paramount that people are working just to stay out of it.  In fact, the US has been dubbed the “credit-card nation”, with over 80% of the population in debt and 20% of that figure without hope of ever breaking even.  Add this to traffic commutes, pollution, disease, contaminated food outbreaks, war, politics, religion, and an array of other stressors and you can see why it’s tempting to head for the hills.

“F@&% it, I’m outta here!”

With all this stress, one would ask why?  If in the name of progress we have created such things as art, science, technology, and ‘civilization’, but have destroyed our happiness, what is the point?  And my answer to why BBC—and the rest of us—continue to believe that living with nature is impossible is because we are in a cultural denial.  Our civilized culture, separate from the culture of the earth, has brought us no closer to true fulfillment than logic does to love.  We continue to put hope into our sciences and technologies and believe that they will free us from our suffering; that one day man will triumph over nature, conquering the forces of earth.

Meanwhile, billions suffer at the hands of a few, while we continue to use outdated technology and repress natural solutions such as free energy (I highly suggest you read up on this if you haven’t already).  We deny the powers of natural healing in support of our ineffective man-made medicines.  We live in an earth that is willing to give us the answers to all of our problems, but we are not listening.  We continue to swim upstream, when floating down would bring us to where we want to be.

Be kind, little one.

It is here, that I made the connection to what my father pointed out to me so many years ago.  The hard way, my path of choice, is a counterintuitive path of difficulty and stubbornness. However, when I completed my journey, I was always satisfied.  I knew that the path I chose was my own personal and creative choice. And I discovered what the worst had to offer, knowing that I could surpass its challenges.  I had survived the unknown and lived to tell the tale.  By recognizing personal motives, I am starting to reconcile my aversions to man’s nature.

We are a young species—just like I am a young man—exploring the extent of our creativity.  We have indeed gone one way, and will surely go the other.  In the end we will find balance and as we grow, we’ll learn to live in harmony.  For now, we are like babies left to feed on our own eating dirt, rocks, and sticks.  Soon we will learn the flavor of greater things, developing our palate and changing our diets.  There is plenty of time to grow.

The Alchemist: Learning to Following Your True Path

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Finding a great book is like discovering a new language, it puts everything into a different shade of perception.  A truly excellent book can travel beyond all the limitations we think we have.  It will expand the mind in a manner that has not been achieved before.  Its creativity is marvelously genuine and honest, in such a way that it can speak to a million people is a million different ways. Finding a book like this, for me, is like enjoying a really long home-cooked dinner.  The only difference is their means of ingestion: body or mind.

The last time I came across such a book was in November.  I was in the middle of finals and I really needed an outlet that could take me away from all my research.  Call me 20 years late, but the book I finally discovered was The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.  I had always heard rave reviews from both professionals and friends, but I had never got around to actually reading it.  For some reason or another, it never crossed my path.  In retrospect, I see that my consciousness was not in the right place to absorb the lessons the novel had to offer (more on this later).  However, once it came my way, I devoured it in the span of two nights—if I had not needed to sleep that first evening, I would have finished it in a matter of hours.

I think this is the best cover of all his editions

This novel was, for lack of a better word, awesome.  Purely awesome.  It begins slow, but the detail-rich descriptions and personal tidbits of life-learned lessons kept me turning pages with enthusiasm.  Something about the way Coelho so honestly writes connected me to every word. Beyond just the story—as many books are capable of achieving a plot—Coelho weaves in thematic dispositions that speak to much higher universal concepts.

One of the most intriguing themes was that of love.  Whether we accept it or not, love is something we all want.  Coelho provides a completely original context to explore the depths of love as a reality.  Through a few examples, he shows that love is neither defined by romance, attachement, or desire, instead transcending all and is embodied in one’s true path, or in this case one’s treasure.

As children we understood the concept of passion much clearer than we do as adults.  So many external factors blur the ideas that keep our inner fires lit.  Soon these ideas fade and are covered by mind-numbing suppression.  Responsibility, pride, denial, and fear keep us away from our true desires, our passions.  Often times, the avoidance will cause physical harm, manifesting in disease, depression, and ultimately the surrender of life.  I know because I have come close to surrendering to my passion.  In fact, it was only because I chose to follow my path that I was lead to this book, which served as a reaffirmation of my decisions.

You’ll always know if you are following your path

The same problem I was facing was exactly what was going on in the book: the dilemma between love and Love. In the Alchemist, a young shepard is faced with choosing between his familiar experience of love, one of comfort and romance, and the unknown outcome of following his passion, his interior self Love.  Through out the book, he meets people in all stages of this exact dilemma.  In the end, he chooses to follow his personal Love, for without that, no other love could exist.

It was this idea that expanded my consciousness.  Love without the self is not love.  Love for a girl, a dog, a father, or anything in the universe is incomplete unless it emanates from within.  This means if I don’t love myself, I cannot love another.  If I cannot do what I want to do, what I am here to do, my dharma, then I cannot learn to love anything else.  Love will never stand in the way of one’s true path.  If it tries to, then it is not love.

The Alchemist poetically orchestrates these timeless lessons of Love, dharma, and passion with a clarity and simplicity so often under-utilized in the literary world.  This is the reason this novel has sold over 60 million copies in over 150 countries.  If you haven’t already read this book, or if you haven’t read it in a while, I strongly suggest you pick it up.  This book has so much to offer that I know the next time I read it I’ll learn something completely new.

Coelho is a huge fan of “pirating” his book as he thinks all should have access.  He has even shown that by giving it away on the internet, his sales have risen.  So here’s a link to his pirating blog where you can download a version of his novel for free.  Enjoy!