One time, we were all nomadic…
Every human living on earth has descended from successful nomadic people, who explored the planet and thrived on it, whether they were the Teutonic peoples of the Germanic North, the Vikings, the Sami, the Gauchos of South America, the Mongolian Kazakhs, the San Bushmen, the Native Americans, the Pan Eurasian cattle herders. Some followed animals, the megafauna prey, or tied to their own domestic breeds, by camel, dog, horse, others went with the seasononal ebb and flow and traced river veins through vast grasslands, or trekked in deserts, and over mountain scapes, while moving from climate pressure, waring tribal tension, the search for resources and indeed a great lure for the unknown and adventure.
At the age of 22, the wild and ancient instinct descended upon me for the need for ultimate mobility and freedom, the wanderlust of travel, enculturation, and raising my being to the highest branches of our species tree of growth. For those who have read this blog since the beginning, or are late joiners to my story, you have vicariously come to know where I’ve been, along with portions and parcels from this expedition through the world as a contemporary nomad. I experience life as an experiment in ontology and a building of a personal mythology, it is a deep and revelatory learning practice, and becomes a spiritual practice when the precious minutes of the hour are embraced. Travel is also a great medicine, as you walk over the earth, and collect the bones, talons and teeth of things that once lived, crawled, slithered, and flew, where you now walk, you come to know the ancient age of being and how it is connected in coexistence.
In the magic of the Northern woods of Canada I learned to yoke the primal awareness of Self with the essence of nonSelf, things like trees, cascades, avifauna, the flux of weather, but also more subtle essences like the tracks of animals, my own sweat, the way a well built shelter feels to the psyche, the feeling of being outside of time. I saw, physically, and metaphysically that there was more to LIFE, a lot more than I became accustomed to understanding, here there was gnosis, and a kind of expansion that even felt overwhelming to the spirit. So much openness, country, culture, and experience that I had not been espoused to. Nature was my bride, and a kind of youthful naivete couple with an organic lust for self-evolution and personal fulfillment drove me onwards, and stretched the sinews of my soul into portions of existence almost too great for the eye of the man. At least, it was the man I was, before seeing the wildness inside the reflected eyes in my skull, and a limited time to be able to explore this ancient push. Thus began four years of continuous travel.
To speak to purpose, and intentionally live, with a mission and a mind fit for new change, one goes into the fray with spiritual armor against anything that may harm his progress. It is important to remember that it is sane, and natural to dream, and long for something better. Our species has been doing this since the dawn of mankind, and our global cousins are not far removed from this archetypal calling of the world upon our imaginations. We are all native to earth, but as a species, we are technically invasive upon every other country outside Africa, in our human timelines, our bodies have changed little, only aesthetically, and we are still the creatures which roamed hundreds of miles through grasslands for woolly mammoths, or following herds of bison and reindeer by estuaries. We have crossed land bridges that took weeks to traverse, and sailed the open oceans in skin and tree bark boats to see what else was out there. We have ascended the highest mountains of Kilimanjaro and Everest to get a new perspective of the lay of the land, and let migratory birds decide our way through immense jungles and swampland. We have used allies to become nomadic, when our feet were too tired, or it was more efficient for us to do so. I have always seen the great wandering beasts as a source for traveling inspiration, the stallions, the bison and elk, the reindeer, kangaroos and the less herdlike fauna that go solo over terrestrial distance, coyote, auroch, mountain line. They all embody the kind of tuned in dynamic with the land and mobile territory that I am coming to intake from my own movements through my natural habitat.
Eventually, people started to ‘settle down’ into specific bioregions, the ways animals adopt a niche environment for the duration of their existence where they can thrive, and engage with their environment. The human ecology is unique in the sense that we have and will continue to live just about everywhere, from the arctic icefields, sandy dunes, humid jungles, and coastal paradises, to other planets and cosmic bodies. We are not a far way from Mars or other planetary moons, that represent the inclination of our kind and our ego to colonize. I don’t aim to say that there is a linear evolution that improves as we stop to claim space, and leave behind a nomadic lifeway as inferior, for surely the damage we do to nature, air, waters, etc. to build cities and box stores, and mine for the metals to run our technologies to keep us comfortable all year round is not an efficient example of a sedentary, ‘settled in’ lifestyle. At this point in my life I am experimenting with having a home base, and after four years of travel began to feel the ancient longing of belonging somewhere, setting roots, and being able to get to know one place really really well.
I didn’t know how long I would travel when I left Montreal in the spring of ’13, it seemed like the best thing to do at the time, and I had my heart set on a rural homesteading life in England, which of course only happened in part, and I discovered how much I liked the times in between places. The movements and liminal times before and after a temporary dwelling spot. As I commenced a journey much larger than myself, transiting between farms in the southern English isles, Roman villas, and Northern Viking territory, I came to my first winter, and took it upon myself to keep going, to see the other side, rather than get ‘normal’ work, or rent myself into a modified living environment while trying to salvage happiness from a domestic existence. I moved three times in my first winter and came out of it with a broad vision of my capability to transcend my own sights of what was possible in travel. For the next three and some years I kept this lunar like nomadism, and would be in a new location or country with each moon cycle, why I did this, I don’t know, but there was an intuitive feeling that guided me, while I dug in to my new setting over a one month time period, took time to explore and open energetically, and hone my being with new perspectives. Some zen masters say it takes 3 weeks to engrain a new practice, and I always experienced this fluctuating timeline to be the amount of time I needed to at minimum become exposed to a place, adapt a routine, and get my bearings, then I started to experience a transition from the virgin, new, vulnerable, and foreign energy of the land into a more grounded, fluid, dynamic relationship with where I was in space and time.
This kind of organic personal growth eventually led me to spend my days involved with people and cultures closer to home, and more like my own. The pan-Scandinavian lifestyles, rural Canadian farm societies, and a North American brand of radical politic, a form of hearkening back to an atavistic way of living. It feels normal to move in this way, in order to uncover more of the deep self in the process. I opted once to go more slowly, and seek land and tribe on the south shores of Nova Scotia, but experienced a kind of transitory limbo, where I knew that big change was imminent but one I was not yet fully matured to adapt to, nor ready to enjoy, it was a kind of dis-ease and I started to feel restless without a road to follow. At this time of my life, I still had not collected enough money from meager work prospects and fill in jobs on seasonal farms to make anything of my wealth, and thus had to keep moving and jump back on the train so to speak. It was too early yet, and I took yet more circuits through the Northern regions of Europe, and south into Central America to feed my lust for travel, it started to became a kind of vice because I could not sustain it, and thus I struggled like any other animal to get by, went into survival mode, and became more humble than I have ever been in my life.
Love kept me alive, and kept me going through the days, and I tried to inject every moment with meaning, while remaining open to awe, novelty, and beauty. It wasn’t until I had lost just about everything, that I was free to do anything, at least, I could start over, if I tried. In Guatemala this happened, and I turned to the one I loved the most at the time, my lover, to seek my wyrd, or a kind of fate. I had almost nothing left to lose besides physical items, and my health was degrading. I shed my ego and asked for guidance from Gaia, love, and the divine feminine which nourished me with soul food, and a reforged will. I returned to my homeland, where I came to manifest a revived life energy and a rerouted path towards where I find myself today. I met my anima in dreamtime, the woman who would then cross my path soon after, my consciousness was instilled with a sense of gnosis, of the deep metaphysical background behind this tremendous re-birthing. It was a much more mystical and beautiful than I could imagine or even expect once the fire had been lit, the way a bond forms between two wolves.
Love again, brought me through the threshes of a nomadic life of four years, into a more refined, focused and slowed down version of the day to day living. From where I write now, I am living and thriving on seventy five acres of wildland, with minimal cultivation, in a bio-region known as the Carolinian forest, marked by deciduous trees, riparian zones, balmy heat, and wet tropical like weather during spring and summer. It is similar to that of Vermont, Maine or New Hampshire, and is ideal for the growth of crops, flowering bushes, berries, fruit and perennial vegetables of all kinds. It is a domecile, a beautiful nest, and therefore ‘domestic’, but one that is off grid, and out of sight from the urban chaos, the industrial pollution, and the altered landscapes of the city. It is a place I see myself staying for awhile now, at least a few years to sink into its gifts, and learn its teachings. There is so much abundance from the land, and potentials for exploration within its boundaries. I have chosen now to maintain a home base, and see the benefits of life in one place. While my former nomadic path is part of every muscle, fibre and sinew of my body, I am now moving my energies wholeheartedly towards the safe tending of this particular place, so that it may serve both my partner and I in ways that life in constant mobility can not. It preserves the ability for me to travel away at anytime and yet return to somewhere where I can feel as king, in my own domain with familiar sights, smells, and sounds. To me there is nothing more beautiful than that, and it is ironic to me to have encountered it at this time of my life, when I least thought I could end up in such a paradise found.
Whether it’s a quiet Gotlandic fishing village, a traditional Mexico pueblo, a trendy American city, or a struggling Indian slum, each gps coordinate of the earth has an attraction from at least a handful of globe trekkers who want to see it, experience it, eat there, stay the night. If you identify with the traveler archetype, it is easy to feel restless, always on the move, never quite satisfied with settling to one place at one time. This
is completely normal, as an inherent recognition of our primal nomadic nature. There is so much of the world to see, and we are intimately aware of our marginal and ephemeral time to explore it. There is always a billboard of another beautiful far away city in every airport, the swirling journey continues. Wherever you live, you can find people who have traveled from distant and remote parts of the world, to spend a short time in the place you live. Being from a small northern Canadian village built on the backbone of mining and fishing, with a few thousand inhabitants where nothing seems to change, and tourism appears to be nil, I would not expect to see internationals who desperately want to find it, but in reality there are.
For those intrepid few who have chosen a more stoic lifestyle, and opted to live minimalistically on the road, there is an unmistakable urge for movement, one feels the unrelenting urge to keep going in order to thrive. This puts you in some very interesting locations, and run ins with some eclectic folk that you would otherwise never meet eyes with. But when you learn to tread with hoof and paw in a slower fashion, you will see that people will come to you. Eventually even the cultured and seasoned traveler needs to put down roots and find a land where he himself is King.
Then comes the stage of integration of seeing your home as your hearth and hall. But this is far from simple accepted sedentism or domestication, it is about seeing your homeland from a perspective that inherits a new bio-regional importance. If these ideals can be exemplified, and valuation can be extracted out of the normal and overlooked aspects everyday life, then chances are someone else will be able to see this, and make an effort to experience it as well. The intimately social creature need not worry, because if you tune into your home, you can probably bring out at least ten things that would attract a traveler to your city, town or whatever. A frozen pond near your house may seem like something you walk passed everyday without giving much mention to, but for someone who may have never seen snow or ice, it is an exotic biosphere, with opportunities for ice-fishing. Likewise for someone from the north who may have never seen palm trees, a trip to the tropics may be one of a great wealth of experience.
There is such a vast breadth of intentional travel in the modern age, that is also goes without saying that there may be several niche reasonings for someone to come your way that would otherwise stay at home. Hunters to stalk specific game in a foreign country where wildlife may only inhabit a small rural area off the beaten tourist routes. Food lovers who may be seeking out gastronomic specialties and exotic dishes, writers looking for the perfect b&b for finishing a book, or researchers looking to study rare plant and animal species in your backyard. More airports are being built and the people living there are crossing paths with new company, knowledge is being exchanged, and the world is becoming more accessible. When you start to think of your home as the culmination of a trip, one gains a new perspective on where you are in the world. It’s the easily recognizable notion of recognizing the significance of a place, and your position in it, the symbol of the arrow on the global map that says ‘You are Here’.
I’m not a tourist, this must be said before anything else. I am entirely uninterested in following the customary gringo trails and flogging to tired and uninspired traveler traps that can be found in any guide book. Traditionally on my journey I will settle down for a few weeks or a couple months in each country and learn the culture, volunteer my work, stay with a family, and live on the land, off the grid, with the world as my oyster. I have made this a signature style of my travels, and have partaken in some amazing experiences, and written many chapters in the saga of my life. Lately I have found myself in the Guatemala cloud forests of Alta Verapaz, co-living on a 1000 acre wilderness farm next to the largest national park in the country and a biosphere for quetzals, other rare jungle avifauna, and primeval creature life. Here I have been trading what I know in permaculture, sustainable living, and bushcraft, whilst living and working with the local Keq’chi Mayan culture.
Owned by a Belgian/Canadian man known as Lorenzo to his friends, who bought this land eight years ago, and has been living between San Marcos la Laguna on Lake Atitlan and the mountains of Teleman in Coban county. Spread across this vast landscape are many cultivated areas of profitable fruit, and spice farming. Lorenzo deals primarily in cacao and cardamom, with local merchants in the nearby town, and a brand new chocolate factory on the plantation itself. He also sells premium chocolate on Lake Atitlan, at several of the healthy food bars, and his treehouse. Part of my job here has been pouring the 1 kilo bricks of raw cacao from the metal drums into molds so they may be cooled or frozen for preservation. I’ve also been privy to the paste grinding, and bean fermenting process, but as a witness only. The work in the chocolate factory is intoxicating as the wafting aroma of theobroma humidifies the air. In the time I have not been working with the chocolate itself, I choose to study into the ethnobotany, history and alchemy of cacao, and read about the
Keq’chi culture, or take plant walks which usually bring great foraging missions. Bananas, plantains, pineapples, zapotes, figs, jackfruit, coffee, cardamom, and macuy are some of the offerings of the land. Next to the cacao work, there has been time to try my hand at curing, stretching, and tanning the large hides of bull cows. This is a difficult undertaking which require many processes of cleaning, defleshing the underside of the skin of gristle and fat, shooing away flies and bees from laying their eggs, brushing off ticks from the fur side, using lime to desicate the skin to dry, and either brain or pig lard for the tanning process. There are other steps besides this which are very difficult in all to engage with in the jungle heat.
This particular exchange is the precursor to future projects and hospitality for international backpackers to volunteer in the future, and there has been some work to renovate the dormitories, adding a Guatemalan uniqueness to the bedrooms, and humbly giving up my own bedspace for a tent spot in the forest. The plantation brings an army of over 60 workers from the local village who sweat and bear the weight of the cacao and cardamom harvesting and most of the labor intensive tasks. The perspicacity of the Keq’chi workers in admirable in their sheer willingness, and strength of ability, they are trained from a young age to work the land.
Abundant avifauna like the quetzal, several species of parrot, toucan, and songbirds reside here, and the volunteer casa has served double as a bird hide to watch these plumed dragons drift through the skies and between the canopy of the jungle. On a short tramp out on the roads or trails, one may come to meet hundreds of psychedelically colored moths and butterflies, their patterns become enmeshed in the visual mind. I was lucky to see on several occasions the tepescuintle, a kind of stout mammal with a square head the resembles the capybara of Australia, as well as the opossum, a silver goshawk, small pigmy like deer, a large Bufo toad, tarantulas, serpents, scorpions, and a host of glowing insects, some with chemical filled thorax that bioluminesce when they fly and others like a cockroach with two headlights that guide it through jungle detritus, and a small centipede like worm with lighted chambers at its front and back. The abundance and variety of Life is astounding in this place.
At night the moonsoon rolls in and encloaks the forest with a wet mantle, while all the green things soak up its cleansing downpour. Vegetation is lush and fractal, life growing on life, each microclimate reflecting the larger ecology. Hanging fibrous moss clings to gnarled branches, while vines of heart shaped leaves like ropes drape down from the tallest arboreal reaches like vintage curtains. Several medicines and edibles can be found on the land, including macuy, a kind of spinach, a smokeable tobacco substitute leaf resembling a large animal paw, and a jungle vine with similar psychoactive properties as ayahuasca. During my stay at the plantation, we have eaten the meat of some of the free ranging
ducks, cows, chickens and pig, as well as tilapia from an in-built pond, and the diet has remained primarily paleo based.
As my time hear draws to its close, it is easy to recall all the felt moments of experience in which I was compelled to make a choice, to stand my ground, and ultimately learn something. Next to this was my evolution and personal growth that draws down all the influence of the day into a single focus of energy and charges me with life. The scars on my body, the relationships made, the memories hologrammed into my brain are all testaments to my time in this part of the world, and now I look forward to returning to the familiar sights of home.
Drive two hours through lush mountain roads from Coban, Guatemala towards El Estor, and you will eventually come to a dirt road, and a lonely sign that reads Lanquin. From here it’s another 30 minutes down the slowest 11 km stretch of trail road you can imagine
until finally you are in the hive of Lanquin itself. From every angle, the words ‘Semuc Champey’, ‘Greengos’, or ‘Retiro’, reverberate in the air. Obviously, coming from Canada, this makes me a tourist in the eyes of the local Mayans, who speak mostly Ke’qchi, and some Spanish, but know enough English to harangue you into their tourist nets. Lanquin is the central vortex for travelers visiting the Semuc Champey cascading pools. So without sounding too much like a Gringo tourist, I will relate my time hiking the jungle trails of Alta Verapaz.
Lanquin is on the active side of the mountain so to speak, on the main route from Antique to Flores, Lake Izabal or Tikal. Amidst lush vegetation, cacao plantation, breadfruit trees, and several rivers, namely the rio Coban, rio Lanquin, and rio Dulce. In a single day you may hear dialect of English, Mayan (Ke’qchi), Spanish, French, Australian, German, and Portugese from the horde of novelty seeking backpackers making their deals and tours with the locals. The mountains of Lanquin breathe with such a pregnant diorama of life. It is simply compounded, and occupying every niche, both plant, animal and human. The scrappy dogs roam the streets looking for a morcel to fill their belly, the men work sweatingly on the roads, while young girls hustle their cacao of many flavors at every turn.
The market is bustling with energy, but one can see the massive importation of American goods that wait to be gobbled up. Meanwhile there is a traditionalist backbone of farming; cardamom, cinnamon, cacao, coffee.. one is bare to the old world as much as the new. They also really love their Jesus here, and Sundays can be an important fiesta for song, and a celebration. I was lucky to stumble into a shrine room where three men were playing beautifully made wooden guitars and a full harp. The music under the influence of cannabis at the time was quite hypnotically beautiful.
Semuc Champey itself is steeped with expectation, and tends to deliver. Once out on the trails, the jungle enshrouds you with tender greenery, like a paradise found especially when you are alone. Hiking here, I headed to the Mirador lookout where one can have a vulture’s eye view of the cascading pools. The mineral crystal deposits on the rocks create fascinating globules of color which adorns the forest on the way up. A foray off trail leads one into more dense machete worthy jungle, where foraging for red bananas, or hunting for rare orchids and butterflies may be possible. On this occasion, a side trail leading off from El Mirador, I found myself in a stand of high canopy, and above crawled five howler monkeys, one of them being only a young kid. I watched them for nearly half an hour as they brachiated through the branches, using their tails to climb and hang while eating leaves, and occupied their nests.
Descending the trail proper from here, they began their howl in full sensurround effect, and their throated syntax filled the forest. Finally reaching the pools themselves, and the chromotherapeutic colors of the cascading water. The pozas, are filled with small minnows that crowd around you when standing in the shallows, and nibble on the dead skin on your feet. According to my partner it is quite luxurious. One can swim from each of the six pools, down river over gleaning rocks, and slimed moss. The call of the monkeys
echoes into the rift. I did not witness any of the rare lizards or geckos, but did catch a sight of some tremendously beautiful moths and butterflies with psychedelic colors and patterns. I felt fulfilled with my time here, and thrilled to see our simian cousins thriving in their natural habitat.
You may have been to Palenque, or Chichen Itza, and even had the privelege of traveling to the other pyramid cities at Giza, but not many travelers seem to go out of their way for the ruined Pyramid city of Toniná in Chiapas Mexico. This acropolis is found near Ocosingo about halfway between San Cristobal de las Casas and Palenque itself, and a serious landmark along the way for those interested in the Mayan civilization that once was. Put in the coordinates of 16°54’4.39?N 92°0’34.83?W on a map, and you virtually be hovering about the central terrace of Tonina. Unlike Palenque, this is not as grand a city, and it is excavated fully, whereas Palenque is only 10-20% uncovered, the rest lying beneath jungle vines, and guarded by howler monkeys. At Tonina, you can also find the Meso-American ball court and several smaller structures, and chambered tunnels within the pyramid itself. I had a chance to visit this ancient site during a foray in Chiapas recently.
What Tonina lacks in structures, they make up for with the sculptures resembling some of those in intricacy from the Olmec civilization, and there are over a hundred of them. Most of these are representative of old Kings, or prisoners in suffering. One in particular near the ball court depicts a man kneeling with his hands tied around his back. Another circuclar tablet looks like two Mayan men trying to instigate each other by pulling the others ears from around their heads. Aerial views of the pyramid complex
itself reveal many interesting patterns, apexes, mazelike walls, and perhaps sacred characters. Many of these have alleys for walking through, and terraces at their summit. A view from the top stone after climbing the acropolis affords a panorama of the Rio Jataté, and the Ocosingo valley.
Tonina was actually is warfare with Palenque during the Mayan rule, and this is a testament to their power as they rose to dominance. The hieroglyphic texts speak of K’inich Hix Chapat as the first ruler sometime in the late 6th century. The second kings rule is depicted in monuments with captives who are bound, and mention specific
names of lords and sites that are as yet unfound in Mexico, namely ‘Annak’. The pyramid city was taken over by a kind of Palenque, K’inich Kan Balam II, and then reclaimed by K’inich B’aaknal Chaak. The ballcourt stucco scultptures are depictions of important captives taken from Palenque. It seems there is a morbid humor involved with the
ball game, and the defeat of enemies. The fourth ruler of Tonina was still yet a child when he came to power, which reveals a fascinating detail about Mayan social life. Tonina eventually fought a battle with ‘Piedras Negras’ a town on the north side of the Usumacinta River, now in Guatemala.
Tonina was not built all at once, and in total had 8 rulers, as other Kings came to restore the pyramids, and install more sculptures. Tonina is also a gravesite, and centre of many palaces such as the Palace of the Frets and Palace of the Underworld, which is invigorating to go caverning through. The late classic era of Tonina is steeped in cultural imagery of aquatic deities, dragons and monsters from the earth, so these sort of divine and bestial beings were obviously playing on the mind of the people of this time. There is also on site museum with most of the sculptures, and there is a central tenet of violence and warfare amongst the captives, while I find in Palenque from a previous visit, more evidence of ceremony and perhaps sacramental use of plants, and shamanistic ritual. The site itself is also told in story through the hieroglyphics of the Mayan calendar, and the depictions found in the various temples; the ‘Prisoners’ and the ‘Smoking Mirrors’ has a mural that describes the legend of the four suns and the Mayan deities.
To visit Tonina I stayed at the nearby cabanas, which were comfortable bunkhouses just 2 minutes from the entrance. Tonina was also free, but accepts donations. There are some rare fruits trees growing near the pyramids, like the Yaca which is more common in Veracruz, and a relative of the Guayabana. Many of the trees host some of the special ‘air plants’ or bryophytes that are common here. There are many Mexicans visiting the site, and less gringos, it is not nearly as busy as Palenque or Chichen Itza. There are also horse drafters offering rides to and from the pyramids from further away. I was thoroughly impressed with Tonina and spent several hours here on the grounds, and climbing the steps or studying the pictures. If going there from San Cristobal or Palenque, make sure to go very early because the travel there takes a long time, and the road is slow, but make sure you don’t miss it if you’re following the pyramid trail.
Travelers on pilgrimage from Chiapas, Mexico to Guatemala will find the route from San Cristobal to Panajachel one of the preferred nomadic routes of transport, for the ease of access, and the one day direct shuttle to and from the lake. It is also on the ‘Gringo Trail’ from Mexico. After spending four nights in San Cristobal, and visiting the Tonina pyramids near Ocosingo, I opted for this route as well, and decided to stay in a cheap backpackers hostel with a wake up call for 4 am. I didn’t need the wake up call in the end, there always
seemed to be a rooster nearby to hearken the dawn, and I was up on time to catch the early bird shuttle direct to Guatemala. From here, we ventured south through Comitan, and past passing several small pueblos with Mayan ruins, before arriving at La Semilla. At the stop on Comitan, our driver cut our dinner break short, because there were protests on the road from the rise in the Mexican gas prices. We had to take a one way dirt road, behind a slum to connect back to the main highway. At La Semilla, I had to leave the bus and get my passport stamped with an exit from Mexico and pay 500 pesos. Everyone was confused about this fee, and I had read this exit fee was already covered in the plane ticket into the country, but apparently not.
Everything went smoothly nonetheless, then we piled back into the shuttle and drove ten kilometers more, to the real frontier at Cuahtemoc. From here, we had to walk across the border and wait at the international office for several other travelers going to and from Guatemala. Men stood around holding huge stacks of pesos, and quetzals, the local currencies, and people took refuge in the shade of the collectivos. After a long wait to have the passport looked over and stamped again with an entry to Guatemala, we met our new driver who would connect us to Panajachel at Lake Atitlan, but first we would drive 5 more hours through the mountain pass, and through dense hives of urban acropolis; Huehuetenango, Chichicastenango, Xela, and finally Panajachel by dark. It was already quite late, and my main concern was finding somewhere to sleep. I was traveling with three other people, two friends from Israel and Germany, and my partner from Sweden. Our clan was quite eccentric to say the least. We asked some merchants where we could camp, and they pointed us in the direction of the playa.
Countless stray dogs wandered the streets looking for scraps, but I enjoyed their company, several of them joined us at the lake as we convened for dinner of tortillas and raw vegetables. Some village kids had been setting off fireworks, while two police officers watched apathetically, they didn’t seem to be bothered by them, and instead came to talk with us, but not for the presumed reasons. The male cop wanted to know where we were from, and said he was trying to improve his English. Fortunately my Israeli friend knew adequate Spanish, and we conversed in our own manner, and exchanged stories until they left us. I noticed that the police seemed to travel in pairs, usually a man and a woman, and I thought this intriguing. Afterwards we found camp in a grove of trees with perfect hammock distance, and I spent a rather chilled night hanging between two trunks, happy to be back in my hammock and my first night in Guatemala.
I awoke a couple hours before sunrise, and wandered along the playa wrapped in a goatwool poncho that I have carried with me on my travels. I only aroused the curiosity of the street dogs, and a few men drinking black coffee. At one far end of the playa I found a mayan circle altar, and the remains of a fire, and then went back to sit on the dock, and made myself a morning burrito, while I watched the glinting sun rise over the mountains and spread its light over Lake Atitlan and its three volcanoes. The morning harangue brought in a ceremonial music event, a rather strange mixed occasion of a baptism and a funeral, side by side, with mariachi music at full tilt. I didn’t really like the energy, and went with my companions for breakfast at a bakery to eat falafels, and cashew coffee. Afterwards I lingered at the Cacao museum and tried several of the artisan products they had on offer, cacao husk tea, dark and milk chocolate, and some of the roasted beans, I spent nearly an hour here reading over the information on the history, cultivation, and modernization of cacao, especially that of the Mayan cultural aspects, then made connections with some local growers that I would meet later.
At mid day, we boarded a boat that would take us to San Marcos, I had heard that people from the Cosmic Convergence festival were gathered here, and upon arrival I was swept by such a positive energy that soon took me captive. San Marcos is an attractor for Bohemian types, hippies, nomads, backpackers, yogis, communities, farmers, and travelers, and I met them all in one day. Every day spent here was like three spent elsewhere, it would take me an hour to walk the camino through the village because the opportunities for conversation and exchange were almost unlimited. Soon I had scribed a few pages of names and contacts of new friends, communes, destinations, and world travel tips, that were soon filling my journal. I spent the diurnal hours in the village or the surrounding mountains, foraging coffee, jocotes, avocados, and oranges, catching some wifi in a vegan cafe, and swimming in Lake Atitlan. By twilight, a warm fire by the dock, trading stories with other travelers, and getting some rest. I went out for some healthy goat cheese and pesto crepes at Shambhala, then caught a film in the back garden lounge which was shown on the projector. Another night there was a concert of folk and ethnic musics at an eco-cafe.
San Marcos seemed to be a haven for a lot of people, and it was here that I met with the most synchronicity and re-uniting with old friends. I had met a young woman from Iran in Palenque a year prior, and here met her again on the street, and only hours before a comrade from Poland whom I met in Canada while picking peaches, long haired and bearded, sitting outside a hostel. There were several other re-unitions during my time here. San Marcos is on the north of Lago Atitlan, and is steeped in dense jungle-like tree cover. It is easy to find wild fruit like avocado, jocote, mamey, coffee cherries, even mangoes in the slopes the encrater it. There is a trail loop that leads to several Mayan altars, and diving cliffs which can be accessed from San Marcos, and the neighboring town of San Pedro and Tzununa, also boast of several ecological communities, yoga retreat centres, even a zen monastery farm where the monks cultivate a lot of local products sold in town. I found it easy to find healthy food here including luxury items I could usually only find in bigger cities like kombucha, sourdough bread, kefir, organic peanut butter, and superfoods. There is a high degree of health consciousness here.
After 6 days on Atitlan, I traveled with my partner to the south side of the lake to Santiago, here we left our pack, and then took a chicken bus to San Lucas, and then a tuk-tuk to the trail-head of the Toliman volcano. The chicken buses are something unique to Guatemala and a surefire way to get some experience and help stretch your budget while traveling. The story goes that Bluebird, one of the big American school bus companies sold several hundred buses to Guatemala to transport the children to and from school, but after the tourism boom, they started importing more and more, while this became a government project, they decided that despite the cost, they must be beautiful. In the beginning,
the farmers would take some of their chickens on board as they went to and from their lands, and this pattern soon got latched on to the name, and it stuck. Today, they are still used heavily by locals and can be just as crowded as a chicken barn, but also are the most economical way for travelers to get from town to town or long distance. They may be confusing to figure out, and look a little bit like the bus from Jack Kerouacs infamous story about the Merry Pranksters acid bus trip across America. They are flashy, but not decadent, and each one seems unique in their design. The same goes for the tuk-tuks, imported from Asia to deal with the flux of tourists. It is cheap, and fun to travel with, and lets you get places you wouldn’t normally be able to access on a full bodied collectivo truck.
We soon started off on the trail, although it was already well into the afternoon. We met with several men on their way back into town, carrying heavy sacks of coffee, with straps around their forehead, as well as youth in their early teens hauled heavy loads of avocados, or firewood stacks in extremely efficient manners. We continued to ascent and stop to catch a whiff of every new flower on the way up. As the vegetation changed from leafy vines, and tropical trees, to coffee and avocado plantations, to corn fields, and finally evergreen near the summits. At one point we came to a thrush of beautiful colored blue birds that resembled jays, though with a more tropical plumage, I felt like von Humboldt in his early days, climbing volcanoes, and studying plants on remote Central American mountains. Toliman is actually a twin volcano, with two peaks, and is within range of Volcan Atitlan. On the other side of the valley is Volcan San Pedro, and within the panoramic view of Lake Atitlan one can also see Volcan Acatenango, and Fuego, the latter of which was active, and was the object of obsession on this particular hike.
We had heard there was a cave where the locals held ceremonies, and played music, and from which one could afford a view of the erupting volcano and on a clear night could easily see the lava flows cascade down its summit. We did not in the end find the cave but did come to a cornstalk built hut with a flat terraced ground close to the top with a perfect view of Volcan Fuego a couple miles away. At nightfall there were murmurs of flute song, and possibly some chanting, which came from a couple hundred feet lower than us, I thought this might be the cave, and it was particularly especial for me to listen to it, while watching an active volcano. The sky was crystal clear and the moon nearly full in its pregnancy, so the lava eruptions were as vibrant against the cobalt black sky as street lights in a dark alley. One particular explosion flowed down the flanks of the volcano several hundred feet, and the whole cap glowed in a vivid neon red for nearly a minute, before turning black in the cool night air. The sound of the volcano and even the sensations of the vibrations could sometimes be heard from our corn field camp on the opposing end of the lake. It was a night that is permanently engrained in my memory bank and had already been translated into story more than once.
The next day would be spent getting back to Santiago to collect the packs, and take a boat over to San Pedro to spend the night. We had an Israeli style dinner in a lonely cabana bunkhouse with some friends, and caught an early bedtime to be ready for the next leg of the journey north to Lanquin, which will have to wait for another time to tell.
Anyone who has put some serious mileage on their body knows already what this dread feeling is. The traveler’s lull, down time, dead days, quiet period. I’m in one of these feared and usually carefully avoided lulls in travel. Something that can’t be ratified for its reason, a traveler feels a sense of duty, a restless wanderlust for rambling. Then you run out of money, time or love, and you just come back to your old grounds, usually because it is the easiest and safest base to launch out of again. Speaking from experience, the prospects of just hanging around in another foreign county while you are trying to just get your feet, is a constant mind game, and struggle. You don’t have the luxury of more travel, because you have nothing left, and if you go searching then you will inevitably get caught tighter in the trap. At the time of writing this I find myself in old town St. Johns’, so called Canada’s forgotten coast. The cheaper living expenses are attractive if you don’t need much to get by, and it’s a way into a society of some very weathered past and people. But there is a fine balance between temperate weather, and a bad day, if you dig what I mean.
Currently I have been ‘down’ for almost two months, a truth that is like vines growing over my inert body, and walls going up around my soul. My sense of space, place and time is skewed, and it is hard to put anything into perspective. Eventually, old vices and downfalls, and problems seek a way in to your countenance. Sometimes they steep in slow, so at least you can get a hand on the strangling tendrils before they get you completely. Or sometimes they are like a drip feed coffee, until the mugs overflows and burns you. The blues just gets you into such a mess some nights when all you have is your own mind and company, with no particular direction to them, just a revolving cycle of old thoughts. Its a gypsy sadness that you never really get used to and a crystallization of stasis then tends to narrow your possibilities and the sun on your horizon always seems to get a little dimmer.
You try to stave off loneliness and wonder what to do, if you’re a man, you pine for the woman of your desires, you think about the women of your past, even come to forgive the ones that hurt you most, you grow in attraction to your closest female friends because they offer a semblance of affectionate relationship, sometimes you even get desperate. Then what happens? When the animalistic tendencies dawn on your mind, you start going over the options on how to either quiet them or fulfill them or in some way move that energy into some other output. Ignoring them completely only brings them back with more fervor. For me, I’ve never found attractive the idea of casually hopping pubs, spending my last reserves on overpriced beer or whiskey to get to a state where I feel willing and probably foolish enough to seduce another intoxicated lonely companion, then with any luck, take her home, potentially end the night with temporary pleasure seeking, close your eyes to a stranger and then find out in the morning you paid more than you want to, found yourself unfulfilled by cheap lust, and find the mirror reflecting back a new and enhanced feeling of longing and craving. If you’re a woman, well, you can figure out that it’s nearly the same, add potential shame and humiliation. For this reason, I have never done this. I could never bring myself to this crossing point, but it still leaves you then holding onto the original loneliness. Well, when you are off from your traveling rounds, then dating is usually the last thing you want to do, it means domesticated and stable relationships, and any real traveler knows that doesn’t work unless your partner is also a vagabond world explorer like yourself, and you just don’t find those fine folks on the internet. The need for company becomes a bitter mode of everyday reality, when a night of revelry on the town, just doesn’t cut it for you. For me, these kind of night usually end with a deep lovesickness with some candles, ephemeral company in books, and some sad old Townes van Zandt or Emmylou Harris tunes.
You start to meet the charlatans, who like to talk about their ‘travels’ to resorts and exotic countries that they paid several thousand dollars for, and experienced nothing of true authentic cultural value or interest. I don’t like running into these people, usually privileged upper middle class who have money and believe that travel is for thrill. They tend to cheapen your whole life story and experience by just supplanting your own real life adventure into their all inclusive paid laziness in another hotel in some tourist destination. They really come out of the woodwork, when you least expect it, and it is remarkably hard to find other travelers when you are not currently traveling. It is a bit disconcerting to feel like even your most valued possession, your story that is, becomes something you can no longer keep peoples attention with. These are good times for reflection of how far you have come though, even if you just tell your story to yourself, replay it through your mind in visual and sensory detail, you were there, transport your memories back to those places and feelings, and you’ll notice something peculiar sneak up in your mood. It is really good to have a partner by your side, it’s easier to travel alone then live in one place on your own, in my opinion, so this has been hard for me.
What about the trappings of money, most travelers I know dislike the system, but love having a comfortable amount of cash in their wallet, including myself. You know it will be gone eventually and it’s meant to be used, so when you earn it, you really appreciate it, you let it stream out slowly and carefully, but when you don’t have anything left, and you need a break from volunteering, then your back in the pathological world of the working class slave system. If you have good connections, you might find work in a trade that you have previous skills in, or some friends that can get you in at a local cafe, and then there is always the bondage and nefarious distractions of selling your soul for minimum wage to make it work. When there are no cows to milk, no plants to harvest, it’s too cold for cabin building, and too wet for hay making, the ground isn’t ready for trees, the farmers are all sitting back for the cold season, and you have your name in at every coffee house in town. You ask yourself, how low you might be willing to submit, and how much you can tolerate conformity. I haven’t worked a ‘normal’ job in almost 4 years myself, I’ve pretty much managed to stake out treeplanting, farming and picking work in between gigs of volunteer community or hostel work, but nonetheless, it has always been extremely hard to keep this flowing when you move location about 12-24 times a year. A stable career is just not attractive to me at the moment, and to quote McCandless ‘its a 21st century invention and I don’t want one’. When I do get pinched in these situations, I usually seek out odd jobs, but those sometimes don’t go anywhere, so I seek a happy medium, something social that will get me by, especially out of my season. Work is still the last thing you want on your mind, and sometimes even being penniless can be its own adventure.
I am continually pursuing travel writing as a means of supplementary cashflow to my journeys, but even this field is extremely competitive, often highly commercial, shallow, and difficult if you have no talent. I am currently working with some Canadian bloggers in BC on a new travel website, a lonely planet, instagram, trip advisor fusion they called it, where I am not censored for my thoughts, edit my own pieces, and can write about just about any experience related to trips, travel, or tourism. I see a lot of dishonesty and this fast consumption type of travel as well, sadly. Though I don’t identify much with being a tourist. For fellow travelers, I advise and feel important for myself, to keep the mind sharp and the body well treated while in your down-time. I have not escaped these conditions and humble reminders, and it is easy to fall when you feel like you just need to. Let your brain be active, even if you are just reading about where you want to head next, I find authentic adventure narratives the best, some I could recommend are Shantaram, Jupiter’s Travels, and Tracks. Your mind will influence your health, and you can’t let your diet slip either. This becomes simple to lose sight of if you gather with a couple friends for a party or gathering every weekend where the food is usually of the highly processed or non-nutritious type. This will make a huge difference when you are ready to get back out in the world, trust me.
When all is said and done, it’s not an easy time, you spend your days waiting for a desperate win, and patiently biding your time, looking for a job to tumble another obstacle out of your way, constantly daydreaming about what you will do next, taking long walks in the streets or in the forest, hard to believe in yourself, and the shape your in won’t let you go. Distraction is a constant factor, and loneliness an unwanted companion, you can find a million ways to remind you how good freedom feels, but are unable to convey it to those who haven’t really felt it, and can’t seem to remember yourself sometimes. You see other people who have stayed in one place their whole lives as a bit insane, and mind-blown how they even manage to find happiness. It may take a month or two of decent luck before you have $1000 and feel rich again and escape, or you may put in some more serious time, a season or two, before setting loose, and it makes you crazy either way, trying to tap into the elusive flow of travels, adventure and experience, while experiencing your place as a literal ghost town of empty excitement, it is the wanderers lapis philosophorum indeed.
Days full of rain
Skys comin’ down again
I get so tired
Of these same old blues
Same old song
Baby, it won’t be long
‘fore I be tyin’ on
My flyin’ shoes
Till I be tyin’ on
My flyin’ shoes
~Townes van Zandt
On exactly this night one year ago, I found myself in Oaxaca Juarez, central Mexico, wandering the streets like a tramp, in awe and revelry of the spectacles I saw there during the ‘Dias de Los Muertos’ rituals. Numerous illuminated altars in infrared light of multi-colored candles, each symbolic of a different energy. The images of the saints being offered food, libations, and prayer. A hurry of indigenous energy down dim streets, the cacophony of Mariachi and mountain folk music beat out on marimbas, strings, and bells. Being there, drunk on dark sublime, a bit confused, poor, excited, also wondering where I might sleep that night. Now one year later, I sit here, writing this journal, carefully stoking my fire, passively listening to some romantic music, and reflecting on the space in between. The countries I have opened my eyes to, the languages sung to my receiving ears in cultures unlike my own, the women’s hearts I have kept and loss, the love I have felt, and the depths I have sunk to seeking a way back above the sinking tide. It’s not important that we try to force experience or event into these anniversarial times, but more-so that we can recognize past life happenings as moments in time to find out where we are, where we are going, and where we have been.
Soon I will leave this cabin, and it will be yet another home that was once… then was. All somatic memory of place being transferred into a slightly altered reality of the new and novel, of the here and now. I am yet a lonely child, ignorant of the future, as we all are, scrambling to prepare for the unknown and planning for what we see on the horizon. There are especial features of prolonged solitude brought on by living in a semi-cut off cabin. The swallowing long hours of contemplation, and mental pools that try every idle hour to yoke the unconscious to the conscious. The way the weather affects the working of the mind, and the chromo-therapy of the forest with its ruddish colors, fading hues of fall, and floating feeling of sleep in complete dark without little light pollution. The smell of wood smoke and ash always lingers and my solar lights mark the boundaries of my porch. My skin starts to make its own oils and there is no need for constant bathing, it takes on the scent of pine sap, earth, smoke, and my own natural pheromones. You have time for simple things, and it is simple things that make me happy. The squaw and fleeting presence of a blue jay, the sunspots that cuts through the clouds, good music in my ears, an hour with a book, the warmth of the fire, and the view over the pond.
Currently I am reading Albert Hoffman’s LSD: My Problem Child, and Timothy Leary’s Exo-psychology, and an e-book on Lucid Dreaming by Dr. Laberge, and just finished reading the famed Yage Letters by Allen Ginsberg and William S. Boroughs. My private time seems to be very heady oriented, I am a bookish person, though I consciously remember to keep a balance by taking walks through the forest, observing forms, patterns, sensually experiencing the ambient sounds of nature, or the music in my cabin, and taking pleasure in enjoying good food. Routine is highly important in a domestic lifestyle, of which I have been choosing to live deliberately to accomplish the steps for my ulterior missions in life. Living intently, and modifying this lifestyle to serve me, in routine, I find an efficiency, and a grounding serenity that takes pressure off the mind.
Sometimes I wonder who reads this and where? What is going through their minds, maybe having empathy from shared life experiences, or indifference, or want to know how to reach out somehow. I encourage those who feel that way to do so. I have always loved exchanging letters, patiently waiting for the next dose of communication to come in from a potential new friend. Has anyone else tried to find these points of reflections? I suppose the most obvious would be coming of age, each year recognizing personal growth, but what about personal days of some particular imprinting. For me, traveling through Mexico, with barely a peso to my name, with no destination, no particular plan, and open to try new things was a humbling and deepening of my own subjective reality and evolving spirit. Now I find relative comfort in a shelter of my own, albeit temporarily, a familiar culture, a mission and a sense of responsibility, and I ponder, if it is worth it. Trading adventure and experience, for a sense of security and comfort. Full employment for full enjoyment. Sometimes, this is needed to re-root, and ground ourselves to our own identity, and place, but there must always be a balance. I like the idea of taking micro-adventures, whether for pleasure or for skill acquisition, thus having a stable shelter makes sense to come back to, at least for now. I continue to add wood to the flames, and think it all over again.
Something peculiar about travel, is the primacy of moving into a kind of instinctual route, towards the places and spaces where you need to be at certain times, or even just those countries and cities that captivate so much of your imagination that you never forget them. This was the case when I came to visit the medieval city of Visby on the island of Gotland. Few ‘cities’ have cultivated such awe and inspiration in the world as this one, and those few that I hold near to my heart have usually a common bloodline of similarity. I have lived and traveled in some of the globes most historic and popular cities and capitals; Copenhagen, London, Oslo, Seattle, to name a few but these really don’t register in my mind as worth my time. I find them dirty, crowded, loud, busy and distraction, but then there are those which I have entered, sometimes by accident that have left an imprint forever in my memory, places I would love to call home; the blue city of Chefchaouen in Morocco, the Faroese town of Tórshavn, north of the polar circle in Ísafjörður, the hamlet of Aberdaron in the Llyn peninsula of Wales, the maritime of Bonavista, Newfoundland, the eco-village of Christiania in Denmark, and this place, Visby, with both a modern and medieval aesthetic.
But aesthetic isn’t everything, from the formerly named place marks on the map, a sort of continuity of community and tradition has existed. In Chefchaouen and Christiania for instance, you won’t find any cars, you are more likely to see donkeys passing you on your way up the cobbled walkways in the former, or eclectically clothed homesteaders with their children sitting on the porch of their unique hand-built houses. There is beauty, and calmness here, multi-generational heritage, old history, and thriving subcultures and organic modes of living. When I leave, I always know there will be a return, because I can not become full of these places. Experiencing them is like living in second, third, and fourth homes. A place where I can really put some roots down.
When I came to Visby, and why I feel the impulse to highlight such a place, is for its modalities of society, its architectural magnificence, and its pioneering nature. The city itself is surrounded by a wall, from medieval times, but not an ugly wall, like you would image at a prison or separating old Berlin from their neighbors, but a rather beautiful piece of preserved history. Instead of razing the wall and building entirely modern infrastructure, the city has kept it mostly intact, and even incorporated the building of small entrepreneurial businesses into the existing structure. I was here during the middle ages week, held every year, and perhaps to say I was impressed would be an understatement. Several concerts were being held in the many church ruins, the townsfolk were dressed in period clothing, and traditional markets were set up all over the millennial age streets. There is an abundance of museums housing ancient relics like the Gotlandic picture stones, and remains from the Iron age, and several plaques around town detailing the background information of different sites and landmarks. You can stay in a hostel converted from an old prison! The level of the city is not on even ground, so it affords great views wherever you go of the surrounds, and the vast ocean that links one back to Sweden. The roads are never straight, one can walk forever in the mazelike alleys and pedestrian ways and never get bored, you can always approach a building in a new way, and in traditional fashion of many early European settlements, the central locus of the city is an open square where people can mingle, or take their rounds of the markets, where you can expect to find dealers selling sheep skins, meat, plenty of useful wares, and several artisan cafe’s. I know I am giving Visby free press by publishing this, but maybe someone out there working in the travel industry will make me an attractive job offer?
From the mainland of Sweden I took a ferry from the port of Nynashamn, where from the same port, one can also choose to go to Poland or Latvia, this time I crossed a 3 hour section of the Baltic Sea by boat which arrives at Visby. Ironically, this was not even my original destination. First spending some time in Stenkyrka, Fårö and Roma. When looping around to Visby, I discovered much of the gems this place had to offer, from the western shore, one can take a hike along the cliffs to a scenic area called Högklint, or in just outside the wall you can walk up to the high point of the land, and get a panoramic view of the sea, and the city in its fullness, with its terracotta tiled roofs, church spires, and crumbling battlements. It also has Scandinavia’s only gallows left standing, though of course not in use. In the nature reserve, there are some wild springs and opportunity for camping in caves, and dense broadleaf forest. Back in the city, and you can wander and see the sites. I found it really easy to forage and scavenge, people often leave their unfinished meals left out in the open air restaurants/cafes, so if you are not interested in spending much money, it is easy to collect some morcels of good food while passing along. From my personal experience, I was also able to forage from a lot, there are several black cherry, pear, apple, and mulberry trees growing that were fully ripened and falling off their branches. During the middle ages week, a food market was set up also selling wild meats from Boar, Moose, Elk and Fish. Though I would not say the average visitor would hold my interest in communication, I found there to be several interesting personalities lingering around, and it was easy enough to strike up a conversation. It’s just places like this that really provide fuel for the fires of my worldly journey, and I have barely touched the core of Europe, let alone the wider vistas of Asia, South America, and the Australian continent. Not even dreams are good enough, I must see and live more!