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.

Love Thy Country

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“A wise traveler never despises his own country.” – Carlo Gordini

I came across this quote today and was caught up in a whirlwind of memories of anti-capitalist, anti-democratic, and anti-American sentiment.  A nostalgia of hatred for my country was relived in one sentence.  I used to hate my country.

It all started in college.  I had been abroad once before, but it was more of a spectator sport rather than the real deal.  In college, I had a professor who opened my eyes to other cultures.  I explored Latin America and ventured my way to Spain.  There I stumbled my way into various European cultures and formulated my general despise for the States.

What I hated was ignorance.  I saw the United States – or even my old self – as an ignorant body void of the cultures of the world.  The US was a bully who didn’t care for other ways of life and explicitly showed this through its political agendas.  The US in fact destroyed cultures through globalization and intense acculturation.  I had all sorts of reasons to dislike my home land.

I carried this sentiment for a while.  It was not until I learned to accept who I was that I began to see the beauty of my home.  Yes, maybe all of these negative qualities existed and the US really was the global antagonist.  Maybe all the negative claims I made were true.  What started my journey to finding the positive was accepting the negative.  It was from here that I could really enjoy the wonderful culture my country had to offer.

Freedom is so often thrown around meaninglessly, but I have seen places where freedom is taken for granted.  When I speak of freedom, I do not mean freedoms promised by the government but rather the freedom of thought.  This type of freedom is established in the confidence of a population’s right to creativity and a voice.  Although this voice may often times be suppressed through jargon and politics, it is nevertheless there.  Many places in this world lack a strong voice.  America does not.

I also fell in love with opportunity for personal growth.  I have come to enjoy so many enlightening ways of life in the states.  Of course, one could choose a diet of hamburgers while living life on the sofa, but one can also choose any spiritual practice under the sun, a vegan diet, and a life of accomplishment.  The US is a place of choice and even though there exists a universe of negative options, there still exists a choice.

What I think Gordini was alluding to was that the traveler who hates his country in fact hates himself.  The transformation into a higher level of consciousness begins with acceptance.  In this case, I had to accept all the parts of both myself and my country to find out what it was that I loved about them.