Landing

On August 6, 2009, I boarded a plane in my hometown, Austin, Texas, and took a flight into the unknown. Destination: Guatemala. I was 29.

Ten years prior, the international travel bug had bitten. At age 19, prompted by my irrational fear that Y2K would cause global chaos and planes would fall out of the sky at the turn of the century, I’d flown to London to spend a semester abroad. I arrived at Gatwick; my two gigantic suitcases didn’t. A lesson in letting go. How I sobbed. I was so alone, on the other side of the pond, empty handed. Later I realized how lucky it was that I didn’t’ have to lug the luggage through the streets as I walked in frustrating circles searching for the big creaky Victorian house in Notting Hill Gate where I would live with a bevy of fellow college kids, mostly from the northeast US. Plus, I got money from the airline to go out and buy clothes.

Since there were two Michelles living in the house, some of the guys took to calling me “Texas.” Yankees, I called them. I took the tube, studied art and architecture, Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes. We went out for Halloween and I was so mortified to be on the tube with these rowdy, drunken Americans, my roommates. I was dressed up as a zebra but nowhere near drunk enough. I spent hours one long November day at a recording studio listening to Nik, my slightly-older British crush, and his band sing “In-Between Days”, over and over and over again, for a Cure tribute album. The one night I stayed out with him until after the tube stopped running, I slept at Nik’s place in north London. Zero romance occurred, and I was so disappointed. I visited Dublin, Barcelona and Paris for long weekends. Life was not as glamorous as it sounded, though. I was only 19 and largely a clueless, privileged American girl.

Living in London in the fall of 1999 was my coming of age. My first stab at “adulting”. Learning to cook actual meals. Managing my life abroad, alone. When I went back to work in Austin post-London, my good friend and boss at the ad agency noted how much self-confidence I had grown through the experience. I held myself differently, she said.

Back to the summer of 2009. I had a perfectly happy life in Austin, Texas, seriously. I was single and mingling. I’d become a school teacher three years prior, having left my first career in advertising. On a whim, I went to an international teaching job fair in Bethesda, Maryland in late June 2009 and landed a job in Guatemala. I chose it over Brazil for its proximity and Spanish language (although Portuguese is beautiful, I’m not inclined to learn languages and my brain can only seem to handle English, Spanish and the handful of Sanskrit and Kaqchikel Maya words and phrases I know). I chose the job in Guatemala, despite the fact that I became violently ill immediately upon accepting. Immediately. My body broke out in hives and my stomach ached and I threw up. I knew then that I had made the right decision.

For the next six weeks, I packed up my life: checked off endless to-do lists, condensed my funky little south Austin cottage into two 50-pound suitcases and stored the rest at my folks’ house. I brought along with me my best fur friend, a four-pound black and white teacup Chihuahua named Lucy. I left behind a loving community, two cats, a cottage, a mortgage, a car, a lot of material possessions, and my comfort zone.

There was turbulence on the flight as we approached our landing. When the plane touched down in Guatemala, all the passengers burst into applause, and I burst into silent tears laden with both trepidation and joy.

In retrospect, it seems as though I was fleeing, escaping from something when I left home. If so, I really wasn’t aware of it at the moment of departure. I didn’t leave home because I was disillusioned. I was rather happy. Perhaps too content, even. Comfortable. I wasn’t running away from anything, I was running toward something different. For the sake of shaking it up. Nothing was keeping me in Austin: I hadn’t had a meaningful relationship last more than a few months, much less come anywhere close to finding a partner with whom I’d want to share my life. My job was good but I had been at the same school for three years and was getting bored. Spending three weeks in Mexico in the summer of 2007 for a Spanish immersion had planted the seed. I could do this; I could live here.

Soon after arriving in Central America, I had a gut feeling that this would become my lifestyle. I didn’t know whether I’d stay in Guatemala after my initial two-year contract at the school was up, or try my luck in another Latin American country, or maybe take a leap and move to Asia or Africa like so many of my teacher friends. But I felt pretty certain that I wouldn’t be returning to reside in the States for a long time, if ever.

I was immediately free—the opposite of busy. I was liberated. Even in an oppressively dangerous, dirty and foreign city, I was free. I’d been busy in Austin. Lots of work, both during and after school hours, family visits, dinner parties, chores, errands, grocery shopping. Suddenly, I had no obligations (other than work, and my job was a lot less demanding than it had been in Texas), no plans and no expectations.

Moving to Lake Atitlan in the middle of 2012 was another total rebirth. If happiness is a place, that place, for me, is right here: Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. It is my chosen home, where I belong. Its powerful magic magnet drew me here to live, as permanently as permanent can be, in the middle of 2012. Life has unfolded and consciousness expanded in wonderful and unexpected ways ever since. Having my daughter Jade has been the greatest blessing. I’m grateful to witness her growing up here in this natural paradise, far from the hustle and bustle and polluted culture of city life. Being in a stable, committed relationship with a loving partner is a revelation.

In front of me, I see a striped hammock. I see the patio roof covered in morning dew. I see coffee trees down below, their green leaves verdant, their lime green berries silently growing plump. In November, they will turn red and be ready to harvest. I see two redheaded woodpeckers in one of the shade trees, trying to find a place to peck and make a hole for their new home, or maybe just looking for breakfast. I see a hummingbird pass by in a blur, buzzing like a bumblebee.

There is the grandmother and grandfather lake, calm and steady. There are the three silent massive volcanoes, shrouded in light foggy cloud coverage, beaming their incredible staying power out upon us. There’s the woodpecker again, directly in front of where I sit on my meditation pillow and bolster. The bolster I brought with me from Austin in my suitcase is now faded by the sun and years but it’s still useful. It’s one of the few things I still have from the initial luggage. Maybe the only thing? I guess the black polka dot dress I had too, and maybe a few other garments. Not much has lasted. Things come and go. Disposable possessions.

I hear the first boat, its motor whirring, creating waves. More hummingbird wings flapping. One small hummingbird about the size of my thumb sits for a brief five-second repose on a thin branch, her Pinocchio nose jutting out in front of her. Actually, buzzingbird or chatteringbird would be a more apt name. They don’t really hum.

This morning meditation is happiness. The inner peace and happiness I feel beneath all the other emotions that visit each day are there thanks to years of devoted practice. I know, deep down, no matter what happens, peace and presence are available. Joy and sadness, pleasure and pain, attachment and aversion are inevitable. What is “evitable” is the grasping, the constant seeking of entertainment in its ubiquitous forms, with its insidious way of pulling us away from this specific moment of life, here and now.

Perhaps I have misconstrued the lake to be sacred. To be somehow more spiritual, pure and blissful than other geographic locations. It’s just because I have known more happiness here than anywhere else I’ve lived. Could I be this pleased residing anywhere else? This lake is sacred to me. So is the cozy bedroom where I first learned yoga as a young teen in a suburb in the hill country of central Texas. So is this moment, regardless of location. This life is a gift; every breath, a miracle.

May all beings be happy and free.

Top 5 Things I’ve Learned in 5 Years in Guatemala

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{Read the full version here.}

1. I am sensitive and resilient.

In my three long years in Guate (a.k.a. Guatemala City), I was never robbed at gunpoint, as many of my friends were, but I was lied to, judged, cheated, rear-ended, side-swiped, overruled, manipulated, hated, loved, used, ignored and more. I experienced homesickness, loneliness, anxiety, listlessness, confusion, rejection, grief and frustration. And yet, no matter what, I kept sitting, kept stretching, kept breathing, kept going.

2. We are all running and seeking.

I had the duty and privilege of working with some of the wealthiest and some of the poorest people in the capital city. I was surrounded by a large and lively community of fellow foreigners and teachers. Although at times I struggled to find compassion for our rich, often “spoiled” student body, through my experience as a high school academic counselor of sorts, I saw that the rich kids suffer, too. Many had bodyguards, mansions and helicopters but no nurturing from their parents, no compassion, no self-love.

I experienced the first Noble Truth of the dharma firsthand in a deeper way than ever before. Everybody—the rich and the poor and the middle class—is running away from suffering and pursuing happiness. Though our circumstances vary widely, we all experience pain and bliss, attachment and aversion. We all want to be happy.

3. It’s cool to be alone and single.

It wasn’t cool, in my mind, to be single in Austin in my twenties, watching with envy as my friends and acquaintances coupled off, married and started families. I was always striving for true love, lacking meaningful romance and settling for what I could get.

For my first year Guatemala, I had no exes, no friends-with-benefits, no personal history whatsoever. I basked in solitude. I got to do whatever, whenever I wanted, aside from going to work at a country-club of a school every weekday from 7:30 to 3:00 sharp. I read for pleasure, wrote professionally, practiced solo yoga and meditated more than ever before. It was nothing short of brilliant.

4. A broken heart can be transformational—if we let it be.

A few months into my life abroad, I came home for Christmas and had my heart broken twice—by a guy I’d convinced myself I loved and belonged with, and by one of my best girlfriends who ejected me from her life. Those experiences were painful and not transformational at the time. I felt angry, wronged, judged, stupid, dejected.

A year and a half into my time in Guatemala, my sweet dog, Lucy, my constant companion for nine years, died suddenly from a tragic, accidental fall from my friends’ penthouse apartment. My heart was shocked open, broken, devastated. Yet even from the first night without her, I could feel Lucy’s loyalty and love permeating my being. Even now, if I focus on it, I still can.

5. The right doors will swing open at the right time; it is our choice which to walk through.

My third year in Guate was a struggle. I wanted out. I was dreaming of a life at the lake yet too scared and financially unstable to take the plunge. I stayed and struggled every damn day, attempting to teach unruly 8th graders who denounced mindfulness, stressing over when and where to make my next big move.

Then, within the span of a few months, I met the man who became my life partner, got pregnant with my precious daughter, moved from the city to the magical Lake Atitlan and started a new job at a splendid little place called Life School.

I discovered that time trumps money and a high quality of life is way more important than having a big salary and health insurance. For me, that means being surrounded by nature and like-minded souls. It means trusting in the natural unfolding of life. It means having faith in change, embracing the unknown, loving the diversity and oneness of my own self and all beings, simultaneously.

Gracias, Guatemala! Te quiero mucho. (Translation: I love you very much.)

The Borderline Day.

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One of the (few) drawbacks to living abroad is having to deal with immigration issues.

Ever since high school when I relished in skipping classes and not getting caught, it has been in my nature to rebel against authority. In line with this rebellious mentality, I believe that borders between states and countries are fictitious lines decided upon by historical conquests.

But they are a fiction that we all subscribe to. If we want to travel, we have to have a passport. To have a passport, we must be a citizen of a country. To work in a foreign country, we must have a work visa.

One of the many perks of my teaching job in Guatemala City was that the school provided us with a work visa and handled all the necessary paperwork involved. Not so at my school here in Panajachel. Although Life School has been around for 25 years, we teachers are officially “volunteers” who receive a stipend. Without a work visa, we are given mere tourist visas which must be renewed every 90 days.

This can be done at the Migracion office in Guatemala City twice a year. The other two times per year, one must leave the country of Guatemala—officially for 72 hours, though luckily this detail usually isn’t enforced—and then return with a fresh 90-days. Overstaying a visa incurs a Q10 ($1.50) fine per day.

All this is to say, my husband and I had to make a run for the border by February 17, the day our visas would expire. We, along with our one-year-old daughter, headed to Mexico on February 15, last Saturday. Our destination was Tapachula, Chiapas, followed by two nights at Playa Linda on the Pacific Coast.

After about eight hours of travel via various transports (a van we luckily happened to hitch a ride from, two chicken buses, another small van, and finally a bicycle taxi), we arrived at the border.

A word on chicken buses (las camionetas in Spanish)—they are repurposed U.S. school buses, repainted and usually donned with plenty of decals promising passengers that Dios and Jesus and Santa Maria are guiding the bus. They are called chicken buses because apparently people used to bring their chickens along for the ride… though I’ve never witnessed a chicken on the bus. They are a sight to behold, full of mostly indigenous Mayans in their colorful traje and other rural Guatemalans, plus the occasional backpackers.

Camionetas are the cheapest, most readily available form of transit throughout the country. And they inevitably seem to get packed to the gills with people. There is evidently no limit to the number of people allowed onto the bus. And no matter how full it gets, the ayudante (helper) always manages to squirm through the aisle and collect the correct fare from everyone.

On chicken bus #1 last Saturday, I was standing near the front of the bus with Jade strapped to my front in a baby carrier. Somehow, at one of the stops, my glasses flew off my head. I watched them fall down the bus steps and onto the street. We yelled for the driver to wait, and luckily no one unwittingly stepped on and smashed my glasses before I was able to pick them up and return them to their proper place. I was extra grateful for the rest of the day and weekend for intact glasses and the clear vision they enable.

We were on chicken bus #2 for what felt like an eternity as it took us along winding, narrow highways from Xela to a town called Coatepeque. We took a brief bathroom break and diaper change, then were on our way to Tecun Uman, the border town on the Guatemalan side.

Once inside the tiny immigration office at the border, we stepped right up to the window (no line) and handed over our three passports. My husband is Colombian, I am from the U.S.A. and I had brought the brand new Guatemalan passport of our daughter. She does have a U.S. passport as well, but I hadn’t brought it along, as it’s been accruing a daily fine since November and I wasn’t about to pay that fee.

Little did we know: Guatemalans require a visa to enter Mexico. My husband was livid that I hadn’t brought Jade’s U.S. passport. I was irked about this stupid visa rule, even for a one year old child, and then I got stressed and upset, at which point my normally fluent Spanish abilities plummeted.

The agent suggested that each parent go separately to Mexico to get stamped while the other stayed with the baby on the Guatemalan side. I rejected this idea and wanted to believe the taxistas outside who were telling me a whole different story. No, you don’t need a visa! Oh, you can just go to Mexico and pay them 300 pesos and they’ll stamp her in.

Turns out, what they meant was that we could bribe the officer on the Guatemalan side and then bribe the Mexican immigration officer. Well, the Guatemalan guy wouldn’t even take the bribe on our behalf from our new best friend the taxista, so we were left with no choice but to each go to Mexico separately.

We found a restaurant nearby and I sat with Jade and wrote furiously in my journal and ate fish and tortillas with beans and salad. The phrase “Guatemalan cuisine” is an oxymoron. Every single restaurant near the coast offers the same choices of fried pollo or mojarra (fish) with refried beans and questionable salads, plus the ubiquitous tortillas which are, sadly, not nearly as delectable as Mexican tortillas. There might be shrimp and ceviche on the menu if you’re lucky. La comida mexicana, of course, is delicious and diverse.

After my husband left in a huff, I saw that he’d left his wallet behind accidentally. But it was too late to catch him.

He came back about an hour later. Turns out he’d gone to lunch on the Mexico side, not realizing he had no money. When he’d eaten and went to look for his wallet to pay, and realized he didn’t have it, he waited for the waitress to leave the room and made a run for it. Fortunately, he didn’t get caught, though he was paranoid all the way to the border.

I then walked to Mexico and strolled around for 15 minutes. As frustrating as it was not to be allowed in with our whole family at once, the walk helped improve my mindset, as walking and breathing always does. I got stamped back into Guatemala by the same officer who’d initially ruined our weekend vacation plans by enforcing the silly law that even cute little Guatemalan babies need a visa to enter Mexico.

With the coveted stamps in our passports, we then moved to plan B: procured a few provisions and hopped into yet another van to a nearby port town called Ocos.

We arrived at the Pacific Ocean just as the sun was setting. Checked in to the Bella Vista Hotel, where we seemed to be the only guests. Our room had two giant king beds. The hotel featured two giant swimming pools side by side and was situated about 100 meters from the beach.

After getting settled in, we donned our swimsuits and headed to the sea for a quick dip. Funny thing is, Jade had been a perfectly angelic and amazing traveler the entire day, in all the myriad automobiles we’d boarded. The drama at the border naturally hadn’t phased her in the least. But the moment we arrived at the seaside, she started bawling.

The ocean can be intimidating, especially at night. She wasn’t too keen on it in the daytime either. She liked it the first time we took her to the beach, back in August in Ecuador when she was just seven months old. We’re hoping she’ll have a change of heart the next time we go to the beach.

En fin, it was a crazy borderline day that tested my marriage and my typically mindful, compassionate mentality, followed by a lovely, relaxing beach weekend—only on the Guatemalan side of the border instead of the Mexican side.

Confessions of an Expat Yogini: 5 Reasons I Live Outside the U.S.A.

As a kid, I was never proud to be a Texan. I despised all things ¨country.¨ As a young adult, I was not proud to be an American. Spending a semester studying abroad in London in 1999 with a pack of obnoxious Yankee college students didn´t help my image of the ugly american loudmouth tourist. I wished I was British or at least Canadian. In all my travels during the Bush administration, I had to disavow my allegiance to the flag and remind folks that W. was actually born in Conneticut, and, no, not everyone from Texas loves him.

Having lived abroad in Guatemala for almost four years, I am acutely aware of my White Privilege and duly appreciative of all the karmic factors that led to my precious human birth in Texas, USA, 33 years ago. I know I am blessed to be a passport-holding U.S. citizen and so is my six month old daughter. Her father will become my legal husband in a civil ceremony on July 20, thereby skipping to the front of the immigration line and getting permanent residency (better known as a Green Card). Although we neither plan to move to the States nor believe deeply in the institution of marriage, this is the most efficient way for my love, a mostly undocumented Colombiano, to be allowed to visit my home country.

For now, I am incredibly happy residing outside the borders of what many consider the greatest country in the world for the following five reasons, in no particular order.

1. Low Cost of Living, High Quality of Life.

I currently earn about as much money per hour as I did in my did in my first job as a restaurant hostess. In other words, I make, mas o menos, the 1996 minimum wage. And yet, since rent is next to nothing, fresh inexpensive food is abundant, and I can walk or bike pretty much anywhere I need to go, my quality of life is higher than ever. Personally, living in a place of natural beauty, whole foods (not the supermarket chain but rather whole unprocessed produce) and a tranquilo pace of life is worth more to me than all the conveniences of home.

2. Shelter from the Consumption Storm.

Gringos are champion consumers. Living at a lush, lovely lake, I am somewhat sheltered from the storm of unnecessary products and superfluous services. In my neck of the woods, lulu is a fruit, not a lemon, and not overpriced yoga pants. Most importantly, choosing to live without TV and with minimal doses of internet, we can somewhat, maybe, kind of protect our daughter from the girlie-girl princess culture that permeates the Americas and beyond.

Yes, you can find shelter in the States, too, but it is easier to unplug when wifi is not ubiquitous. It’s tough to revert to consumer therapy when the nearest Old Navy is thousands of miles away.

3. The Freedom to Teach—and Learn.

Everybody knows the public school system in the U.S. is broken, and nobody seems to know how to fix it. Rampant emphasis on standardized testing scores and the disrespectfully low pay of teachers in Texas led me out of my teaching career in Austin after just three years. In Panajachel, Guatemala, at LIFE School, I have found a wonderful learning community in which the incorporation of yoga and mindfulness is welcomed, standards are flexible, assessments are creative, and children and teachers are excited about coming to school every day.

In addition to having more autonomy as a teacher, I have learned so much by living abroad. I have improved my Spanish immensely. I have learned how to be alone and happy. I have learned how to be in a relationship. I have learned how to navigate Guatemalan traffic and bureaucracy. I have learned how to mother. I have learned how to be more compassionate.

I have learned how to let go and live in the present moment, and that is, eternally, the best lesson of them all.

4. Accessible and Abundant Travel Opportunities.

So many exotic places to explore, in Central and South America and all across the globe. Living in Guatemala, I can easily and inexpensively get to Mexico, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador. Living in Austin, I could feasibly drive myself to Santa Fe or New Orleans or.. Oklahoma?

5. Buen Provecho.

When I first moved to Guate, I was thrown off by their custom of saying ¨Buen Provecho,¨before, during and-or after meals, which roughly translates to “may you benefit from eating this food.” Now, it´s one of the things I love best.

One of the best practices I have picked up in living abroad is mindful eating. It simply means pausing and feeling gratitude for our food before chowing down, eating slowly, chewing with awareness, and taking conscious pauses between bites.

For a girl who had been accustomed to eating fast food on-the-go, often while driving from one work or social commitment to another, mindful eating was revolutionary. It’s still not something that I do at every meal, but I try to eat at least one meal mindfully per day.

As with everything, practice helps immensely.

Read it on Elephant Journal.