When I first came to the University of Colorado at Boulder, it was 2004 and I was dead set on becoming a history professor and convinced I would change the world. In an attempt to find myself and a place where I belonged, I put myself out there attending campus events and bouncing between student groups. I likened myself to a farmer- scattering seeds for the first harvest, unclear as to which seeds I should plant, where to plant them and unsure if any would bear fruit. Nonetheless, I was a hard worker, idealistic and convinced that with the right community, something would surely take root. However and despite my fiery nature, I realized early on that the hardest part of college wasn’t the tests or papers, but finding myself on a campus of over 30,000 students.
I remember the day that changed everything. I was in the Duane Physics building for my macro biology class, when a spirited young woman approached me afterwards to introduce herself. Her name was Sarah and she worked as a volunteer coordinator for the Environmental Center. After a brief conversation, she came right out and asked if I knew about the Environmental Center and hinted that they were looking for an environmental justice coordinator. Long story short, I applied for the job and joined the Environmental Center Staff in the Winter of 2007. Within a few weeks, Sarah had me pouring over replays of Majora Carter and Van Jones podcasts. And like the farmer who is thankful for the rain, I watched as a series of unforgettable relationships and invaluable experiences watered the seeds I had planted two years earlier.
Over the next year and a half working at the Environmental Center, I learned more about the environment and who I really wanted to be than at any other time in my life. I poured over Bioneers replays, read magazines, journeyed to my first farmers market, learned about composting, and found a community I belonged to. I started hiking, biking and recycling. I took better care of myself, added powerful concepts such as social uplift, sustainability and intentional living to my vocabulary. I spearheaded an environmental justice roundtable and worked alongside inspiring students to organize concerts on climate justice, teach-ins on climate change and participated in the Bioneers conference. During this time I also volunteered at the Recycling Center and with Wildlands Restoration where I discovered my lifelong passion for conservation and waste management. By now, the seeds I planted earlier had taken root and begun sprouting. I was no longer the naive farmer. My soil was rich with new skills and powerful relationships. Most importantly, I had a rhythm, a calling, and I was more alive than I had ever been in my entire life.
College went by fast. By the time I graduated, I focused my studies on environmental history and planned to go to graduate school after joining the work force. Compliments of the environmental center job posting board, I landed the most amazing internship as a Naturalist with the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies where I spent 4 months in the mountains leading interpretive tours and taking care of a gold eagle and red tailed hawk. But after my internship ended, I felt trapped by the economy and wasn’t sure what to do with my passion for environmentalism. So I did what many eager college graduates did during the recession- I scattered a couple more seeds out there and applied for jobs that would provide me invaluable work experience.
A few months later I started working for Hewlett-Packard and moved to Arkansas. While it wasn’t part of the plan, corporate America was where I discovered my knack for community organizing, interest in corporate social responsibility and learned the ins and outs of business. Five years after leaving the environmental center, I still found myself coordinating Earth Day Events for Hewlett-Packard. Even after I was promoted to the field and moved to Texas, I found myself pitching technology reclamation and data center efficiency services to my clients. But working in sales was stressful, and I was alone again in a corporation of over 300,000 employees. And even though the harvest I worked so hard for in college was growing a deep roots system founded in years of deploying data center services and managing a multi-million dollar pipeline, the plants that sprouted while working for the Environmental Center stalled. So while working in IT I pursued my Masters in Sustainability at the University of Texas at Arlington, and later quit my sales job to move to Washington, D.C. with nothing but my savings and commitment to re-assert myself in the environmental field.
It’s been over 10 years since I worked at the Environmental Center and I am still reaping the benefits of my work as environmental justice coordinator. When I first moved to DC, the skills gained doing volunteer work and organizing environmental justice campaigns landed me a job with American Rivers managing the National River Cleanup. In fact, Sarah provided the winning reference that landed me the job. I was later offered a job as Civic Engagement Manager for a company called Justice & Sustainability Associates, where my time served on the Environmental Justice Steering Committee and volunteer work at Bioneers gave me the skills needed to run large scale civic engagement programs with diverse community stakeholders. I even briefly worked with a recycling and waste management company dedicated to helping clients increase their landfill diversion rate and was able to tell my clients I worked on projects such as Recycle Mania and know how to coordinate a zero waste event.
Now I work for the DC Office of Planning where I work to support place based community planning initiatives that support revitalization, community building, historic preservation and sustainability. And while many things have changed, a lot is the same. While I no longer feel the calling to change the world, I know instead, that my personal mission is to be of service to it. I also have the pleasure of being part of an office that cultivates my passion for social uplift and sustainability and provides me countless opportunities to take on new challenges and gain yet another set of valuable skills.
And like the seasoned farmer whose crops withstood famine and flood, the soil in my plot is now rich with experiences and my seeds have become fruit bearing trees. Now I do not worry if my crops will make it, or if I will have to start from scratch. Instead, I have learned to be thankful for the shade the trees provide me and grateful for the plentiful fruit that nourishes my passion for life daily. Most of all, I am thankful for the Environmental Center and the skills, people and experiences that have influenced the person I am more than any other organization I have ever had the pleasure of being a part of. Like the tree with roots deep enough to weather any storm, bearing more fruit than any man, women or child could eat in a lifetime, the Environmental Center is the gift that keeps on giving- and I am eternally grateful.
It was early when I woke- maybe just a little after 6:00 in the morning. I was more excited than nervous to see how I would handle leaving my hotel room. Would OCD get the best of me? Only time would tell. As usual, I gave myself too much time. Being the Type A person I am, I was already pretty much packed the night before. All I had to do was change into my bathing suit, find my dress and grab some cold bottled water from the fridge. With about 20 minutes to spare, I left the door with what could only be called sympathy checking (I felt bad about this being my first BIG trip alone in Mexico so I gave myself permission to perform some minor rituals) which only took about 60 seconds. It was a relief to be walking away, the no turning back rule has been strictly enforced for months now.
Breakfast is the only meal at the all inclusive hotel that I don’t have to force myself to eat. After a couple days of trying different things, I settle on my usual- French toast, eggs, sausage, fruit and an orange juice. Some days when there are strawberries and whipped cream, I treat myself. I stuffed down my food, too nervous to enjoy eating, but smart enough to know that if I don’t eat I will regret it later.
At 7:05 I arrive at the lobby. I’m greeted by a small white van and a man who introduces himself as our guide, Miguel Moo. I am the first person to arrive at the plan and I immediately I pick a window seat in the front, hoping we won’t have a full tour and I can have some space. Eventually we make our last stop and pick up a young, cheery Brit named Steph who asked to sit next to me. Without hesitation I invite her to sit next to me, excited for some company.
Our guide begins talking about the Mayan people. He has a confident, but humble and playful heir to him. He switches between Spanish and English with ease. Everyone stops when he speaks because his presence commands respect and attention. He begins by addressing all of the common stereotypes of people. He begins with pointing fun of Americans, Mexicans and the many travels from all over the world with their hats, ball caps, strong accents and speedo swimsuits. Afterwards, he asks us to share some stereotypes about Mexicans and then challenges us to re-think what we think we know, about the Maya- the idea that that they suddenly disappeared after the invasion of the Spanish, that Ancient Aliens came and showed them how to build the pyramids or that human sacrifices were unwilling captives.
He talked about how the Mayan culture and people are alive and well and that many of the hotel staff and guides are the direct descendants of the Maya. He went on to explain that the Maya are a shorter, dark skinned people with little to no body hair, black almond shaped eyes and round faces. The further North you go, the more Spanish looking Mexicans with lighter skin, and more oval faces you will find. Often time their names being traditional Spanish names Martinez, Rodriguez than the traditional one syllable last names of the Maya. He told us that there are over 3 million Maya that live across Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, 80% of which speak Maya as their first language. He also told us that later today, we would have the chance to meet some of the Maya and visit on of their cooperatives where their way of life, religions and language are still practiced.
But first, we are given the standard history of the pre-Spanish Mexico, which includes an explanation of its unique topography, which consists of entirely flat terrain with porous limestone rock which allows groundwater to flow through underground rivers and pool into Xenotes (pronounced senotes), or sink holes. As a result, there are no above ground rivers in Mexico and any topographical changes are likely ruins which have become overgrown with trees and vegetation. After a 2 hour ride, we arrived in Tulum, one of the oldest and best preserved of the Mayan ruins, which lays just 130 kilometers south of Cancun on the Caribbean shore.
Upon exiting the tour bus, I was greeted by a dusty street and a slew of vendors. Before entering the ruins, Steph and I stopped for a quick bathroom break where I discovered the strangest and most unsanitary faucet system I have yet to see. To activate the flow of water when washing your hands, you nudged a small stainless steel pin, the size and shape of a short pencil you’d use to jot down your lottery ticket number or the number of sushi rolls you want to order, with your fingers, while washing them. I wish I had a picture because the design made no sense to my OCD mind. I made sure to squeeze a normal size amount of sanitizer on my hands upon exiting, ignoring the urge to sanitize again, and quickly met up with Steph and the rest of the group to enter Tulum.
We walked a little less than 100 meters into where stone walls mixed with dense jungle greeted us to our right. After navigating along a limestone pathway we made a sharp right and scuffled through a small stone arch way with a pack of 10 other tourists. On the other side was what can only be described as a beautiful beach side estate with views of the nearby beach and a stone wall encircling you on three sides. Ruins, green grass and sun basking iguanas greeted you wherever you looked. Dots of tourists floated around the cleared land like busy ants weaving in and out of the ruins with cameras, sunglasses and hats in tow.
Our guide tried his best to keep us in the shade while he pointed out several of the structures dedicated to the Spring and Fall Equinox celebrations. He explains that 20 is the basis of the Mayan calendar (10 hands and 10 toes) and that daily life was closely tied to numerology and cycles of the Sun, moon and planets. He also discusses the basics of the Mayan social system and how they were separated by building and religious activities. Miguel pointed out the largest of the structures with huge plazas and Ocean views, which were occupied by the rulers and their immediate family.
Immediately surrounding those large estates were more modest, but intricately designed buildings occupied by lesser nobles and skilled aristocrats (astronomers, priests, architects). The remaining city inhabitants lived in stone and straw homes outside the boundaries of Tulum.
It’s hard to explain how open and vast, but cozy Tulum feels. The Ocean is comforting and every where you look there is something more to see- intricate buildings with pillars and windows and hints of where color use to be. Statues honoring various Gods with iguanas poking there head around and often hissing if you get too close. And the jungle, slowly creeping over the stone walls, surrounding the Ocean like a silent gate keeper to the ancient city.
Hands down the best part of Tulum are the views. One of my favorite views was the private beach front and cascading rocks. The waves near Tulum were smaller than Cancun but more tumultuous. And unlike the beach at Cancun with its shell crushed sand, the sand at Tulum was finer and whiter. It’s easy to imagine what it would have been like to wake up near the beach and stroll around this city walls, passing through beautiful bright buildings and eventually ducking under the archways as you entered into the nearby jungle.
It’s crazy to imagine being one of the Maya, looking out onto the shore and seeing a strange ship with sails huge the coast. And how strange would it be to have sailed across the big Ocean from Spain to see beautiful buildings on the coast of a blue Sea. Okay I total stole that from our guide and one of the information signs, but check out the pictures and you will see what I mean.
Miguel gave us an hour to wonder Tulum on our own. Steph and I took turns taking pictures of one another. I found out that she too was a blogger and hoped to quit her job someday, travel and write until her money runs out. I admire her for that and was delighted to share Tulum with her. It made me even more excited about my own journey, and all the other places I would visit and all the other travelers I would meet.
After Tulum we stopped at a Mayan cooperative to swim at a Xenote and eat some lunch. Before entering the Xenote, we were treated to a Mayan smudging ceremony so that we could enter the village and the Xenote. Afterwards we met a young Mayan mother who was making tacos fresh on a kern. Our guide invited us all to try some with a pinch of salt. The taste of the fresh corn taco muted any doubts I had about the unsanitary handling of food by lots of sweaty tourists. It was definitely worth it.
Lunch wasn’t so bad either and swimming in the xenote was amazing. Steph had an underwater camera and we took tons of photos. I can’t wait to share them with you because the xenote was probably one of my favorites in retrospect. Some areas of the water spewed warm air trapped from beneath the ground while deep caves running 150 feet deep and one mile long ran were connected to the sides of the xenotes.
Scuba diverse surrounded us and little kids floated in life vests while Steph and I swam in circles around the xenote. We even took turns taking pictures of one another jumping off the bridge.
After a quick pit stop and swim, we were on the road an hour or so to head to Coba- our final destination and the 2nd to last of the Mayan ruins I would see that lay deep in the Mexican jungle. My cell phone was nearly dead and I accidentally left the charger chord plugged in the backup charger, which drained the battery. Luckily our guide let me plug my iPhone into the car console. 15 minutes lent me nearly 20% of a battery- just enough to capture the rest of my day if I played my cards right.
It was nearing 3:00 when we arrived at Coba. A zip line tower and a small gift shop greeted us at the entrance. Coba was a lot less crowded than Tulum and we didn’t have to walk long or maneuver through too many other groups before arriving at one of the ruins called “La Iglesia” or simply the Church. Our guide spends the next 30 minutes talking about Mayan religion and the confluence of Christianity. He explains that many of the ruins are actually stacks of pyramids from previous rulers, and sometimes previous Indigenous groups who conquered the city. Jesus Christ and many of the Christian Saints were worshiped by the Maya, who were told they were the same Gods as theirs, just known by another name.
We moved onwards to a large passageway with two tilted stone walls with large hoops to our right and left sides. This was the site where the game called “Pok a Tok” by the Maya was played to help priests make predictions about future affairs involving upcoming battles, the fate of crops or weather patterns. Select members of society were chosen to bounce a nearly 8 pound rubber ball through a stone hope using only their hips, elbows and knees.
The game seems complicated and hard to imagine, with the passageway being so narrow, teams being able to win and lose points, and the dimensions of the passageway way and height of the hoop.
Most significantly, was the fact that it was the captains of the winning teams who were sacrificed following this religious game. According to our guide, it was an honor to be sacrificed because it meant you would bypass the underworld and go straight to heaven. Apparently this game was practiced in various forms by the Toltecs, Olmecs and Aztecs. It is also still practiced today by the Maya people on special occasions at Chichen Itza, where it is commonly referred to as Ulama.
The last part of Coba was a treat. We had the option of taking what our guide called a Mexican limousine (really just a pedicab), or walking a little under a mile to the base of Nohuch Mul, the tallest pyramid in Mexico. We opted to walk and hear a little bit more about the Mayan people from our guide Miguel who was constantly spewing useful information. If you look over there you can see the termite nests. Because it rains so much in the wet season, they build their nests up in the trees. If you ever get lost in the jungle you can poke a hole in their nest and eat them to survive he says-Miguel is definitely my kind of tour guide. He also points out another amazing feature I had never heard of. The Maya constructed perfectly straight roads that connected their cities. They used stucco and limestone to make paths that could be followed under the cool light of the Moon for religious travelers and traders. In fact, the very paths we were walking on were the original paths laid out by the Maya thousands of years before.
We had an hour or so to walk around Coba and climb the top of Nohuch Mul. Being the adventurers we are, both Steph and I blazed ahead, water bottles in hand and descended the steep steps to the stop without a single break.
When we got to the top we were huffing and puffing and overwhelmed with a breathtaking view. The ruins stood over the landscape, it’s rocks and paths giving way to building foundations and walls covered in jungle growth. It was majesty in the truest sense.
After a few brief photo opps, many moments staring off in the distance questioning the meaning of life and checking our phones to make sure we gave ourselves enough time to make the mile long trek back to the bus, it was time to head back down. I told that I would meet up with her at the bottom in a few minutes. I brought my crystals with me to charge in the Sun and needed just a few minutes to steal away and say some prayers.
The tourists at the top of the pyramid thinned a little and I was able to find a quiet spot to utter prayers for gratitude and for loved ones back home. I breathed slowly in and out, being mindful of how my body felt before opening my eyes and taking in the vast scenery that surrounded me. My heart melted and I felt a heaviness leave my body when I looked to my left and saw that someone had left an offering of beans, cacao and corn. I closed my eyes again and leaned my head back towards the sky. I felt so big and alive and aware of myself and my surroundings. I was exactly where I needed to be, content to share the Maya’s passion for the Earth, Sun and Moon and in awe of the precision, execution and expression their pyramids exuded.
Offering of cocao, corn and beens
My crystals charging in the sun
Getting up the pyramid was the easy part. There was a slow line of travelers easing their way down with the safety ropes, and they were taking their time. I opted for the lean and step down approach for a quicker descent and quickly met up with Steph. We had run out of water and once again were running late to the bus. Steph treated me to some cold water (my hotel atm wasn’t working that morning and I had run out of pesos and cash) which was an absolute treat. I literally jogged to look at two ruins hidden just beyond the pathway to the bus and snapped a few quick shots- so much to take in and so little time.
Steph and I exchanged information, promised we would stay in touch and follow each other’s blogs. If you’re interested in reading about Steph’s adventures check back here later for a link to her site. Hopefully by the time you’re reading this, she has already quit her job to travel the world and blog for 6 months until her money runs out. Steph if you’re reading this- hello future you and safe travels my friend, I hope we meet again soon.
It was 7:15 when the bus dropped me off at my hotel. I had 20 minutes or so to shower and meet my good friends from Los Angeles for a special dinner at the hotel restaurant that requires reservations (fancy shmancy I know). Dinner was awesome. Tequila shots were awesome. The company was amazing and our service was on point. It was one of the worst tasting, best dinners of my entire life and I will never forget how sweet, kind and tolerant our waiters were of drunken banter. One positive thing to note is that my Spanish is excellent when I drink.
One shot turned to two and we braved our fear of ice cubes and tried the hotel’s margaritas. Afterwards we headed to the dance floor for the cupid shuffle, the Macarena, the electric slide, the wobble and pretty much ever other group synchronized party dance you can think of. In a rather rare moment, I also got caught up dancing bachata with one of the hotel staff for an entire song. By myself. Because everyone magically left the dance floor. And for a moment in time, I pretended I was on dancing with the stars only really it was dancing with OCD ‘cause it was sticky and sweaty and awesome and amazing and the best kind of ERP ever.
More dancing, more drinking, lots of bottled water and a skinny dip in the Ocean commenced for some time afterwards (don’t worry mom, there were no boys involved). It was a day to remember and a night bucket lists are made of. One helpful word of wisdom I wish to impart for future beach vacationers- don’t sit on the beach and let the waves hit you on the sand to exfoliate your legs, unless you are committed to spending a good 10 minutes cleaning out sand from inside your lady parts.
But it was all fine and dandy. I enjoyed every second of it, knowing full well I would feel it in the morning regardless of how much water I drank.
I woke up early and immediately felt at ease. Today was going to be easy-lavish breakfast on the beach while someone sells me on a time share opportunity followed by trip planning and some outdoor excursion. I had an itch to get out and experience the water and that beautiful, brilliant beach sun.
Breakfast by the beach was AMAZING-minus the birds that ate your food when you returned to the buffet. To distract myself and avoid a run in with them, I ordered a coffee, a mimosa and an orange juice all at once, then treated myself to waffles, sausage, eggs and fresh fruit. It was absolutely divine. Every morsel of food expressed itself in a delicious array of colors, textures and flavors. For instance, the sweetest, lightest, smoothest agave nectar you’ve ever had, drizzled over perfectly prepared waffles; rich and savory sausage from a culture that embraces pork; and only the freshest fruit, some you’ve never tasted, radiating sugary hues of red, yellow and orange. The whole experience was extremely satisfying and a delight for the senses. 20 minutes later and I was done. Done questioning whether I made the right decision to come to Mexico alone and sold on returning to Cancun again this year.
Then came the tour. The well-traveled and personable salesmen. The perfectly executed sales pitch. The beautiful view. The selfies by the beach. The bait. The hook. The toggle back and forth. The excitement of possibility and the reality of resource constraints and timing. The polite “thank you, but no thank you”. The sales manager, then pretty sales girl number two. Then FINALLY, “the deal of a life time, take it or leave it”. And one last, firm “I just arrived yesterday. I need some time to think about it.” In just over 2 hours I was out of there, bathing suite in tow and planning my first excursion.
It’s hard to explain how extra fresh the beaches of Cancun feel. The crystal clear blue of the Caribbean, the perfect glow of the Sun, the sandy white beaches, are all so beautiful. In fact, everywhere you look is beautiful. And people are beautiful too, because they have deliberately given themselves permission to relax on vacation. And for a moment in time, on an eight miles Island in the Yucatan peninsula, everything around you is beautiful and everyone around you is happy, and you realize how magical and wonderful and overwhelmingly vast and beautiful the world is. You ask yourself why anyone would subject themselves to the confinement of a cubicle and 9-5 and only get away once a year if they are lucky. I have never felt so inspired in my entire life. I have never felt more connected and present with Mother Earth and my own journey. I realized I had gravely underestimated the capacity to be truly moved by the sight, smell and touch of the Ocean and the sensation of being so present in my own life. For the first time in a long time, my body, mind and spirit where in perfect alignment. I was free.
This is the experience I had while parasailing-truly breathtaking. I highly recommend it.
After receiving my official parasailing Girl Scout badge (mind you I spoke Spanish the entire time), I realized I underestimated my enthusiasm for athleticism and pushing the envelope. I absolutely loved riding on the wave runners, hopping up and over huge waves, often experiencing zero gravity. I decided I wanted to spend some more time connecting with the water and so after swimming in the ocean (for the first time in my life) and chatting with a couple of friendly gals from Los Angeles, I headed over to aqua world for a speed boat tour and snorkeling trip on the nearby Laguna.
This is when I first discovered that being a single traveler meant I always coupled with the odd man in travel parties. For the lagoon tour and snorkeling, I was paired with a young millennial from China who was living in Los Angeles. She didn’t have a license, so lucky me, I got to drive. It was very obvious we belonged to two different cultures. Imagine me trying to explain what a crocodile is? The theatrics only made it worse. But the Cancun Kumbaya effect was still in full effect, and there were many moments when we glanced at one another and gave each other that ‘this is awesome look’. I’m pretty sure we shouted exuberantly in unison at times as well.
The magic of the boat ride in to the Laguna was matched equally by the rush I felt after realizing I was about to knock snorkeling off my bucket list after arriving to Mexico a mere 24 hours ago. The snorkeling gear was awkward. I didn’t like that the goggles were reused but I pretended the salt water and sun would kill anything icky (or so my Mom tells me). It felt good to be able to see underwater and breathe. I felt so supported by the waves. They were blunted by the surrounding coral reef which made each wave feel like a gentle lullaby.
One thing is for sure, humans are super awkward in the water. Plus it’s terrifying as shit when you realized you are so exposed in the open water. I had flash backs to watching that movie (I think it’s really called Open Waters) where the divers where left in the ocean for like 4 days and didn’t make it, because SHARKS ate them. Then I realized that more than likely, there were sharks nearby. Our guide didn’t say any
thing and no one else mentioned so I just assumed that they wouldn’t come inside the reef where fish were smaller and scarcer, and the water levels dropped low to the sand bars during low tide.
Amazingly, checking out my back side every 5 minutes or so was enough to tame the shark fear and I pushed myself to venture out to the edge of the reef. I wish I could describe how it felt-almost like being weightless and time stopping because you are underwater, but still breathing and moving so slowly and deliberately. I can’t wait to share the underwater pictures with you all when I get them developed. For now, just know that apart from sometimes swallowing sea water when a wave rushed over your snorkel, and water occasionally rushing into your mask, snorkeling was pretty sweet. I enjoyed touching the coral reef, watching the fish swim so close to me and dart off at the last second. I even peeped a couple of really large coral fish and some sea urchin.
I wondered if any of the sea weed or vegetation around me contained some unknown medicinal qualities. I thought about an article I read about the potential to transform the way we eat with ocean agriculture-there being so many undiscovered fruits and vegetables under the sea and all. I wondered if I would ever be brave enough to swim out in the open sea with sharks. I wondered if my underwater camera selfies would come out good. I wondered if anyone would ever see the pictures or hear about how I felt snorkeling in the Caribbean by myself. Clearly there’s a lot to think about when you are snorkeling.
By 6 or so I had finished snorkeling and decided to walk 2 miles back to the hotel to dry off. In all the excitement of crossing off my bucket list item, I realized I jumped into the ocean with my shorts and tank top still on. You can see from the pictures though that it didn’t matter because I looked so cool! By the time I arrived at the hotel I was exhausted and sun kissed.
I took a quick shower and headed to the Mexican night celebration where I ran into the two gals from Los Angeles. We decided to dine together and watch a show celebrating Mexican history, music and culture. The lavish buffet was full of fruits and dishes I had never heard and was too tired to make note of. Mostly, it was a relief to be eating food with flavor again-the all you can eat lunch options at the hotel tastes like the Mexican version of Golden Corral. Plus watching the costumes, listening to the music and learning about the traditions and history of the Mexican people through song and dance, was the perfect finish to an intense day.
By 10 pm the show had ended and I was exhausted. I had to take my hiney to bed. The next day was a 12 hour visit to Tulum and Coba, two of the oldest and best preserved of the Mayan ruins. I wanted to be well rested.
The humidity hit me as soon as I stepped out of the plane. It was like a thick wet cotton ball that made me want to shower and fall asleep at the same time. What followed was lots of sticky sweatiness as I stumbled through the Cancun airport through customs in my sweat pants and light Spring jacket. Customs was long but I didn’t mind the wait- there was so much to take in. I began scanning my environment, immediately overwhelmed by the humidity, the smell of salt in the air, the sound of Spanish and broken English and the sight of the many Americans and Asians around me with that intense as soon as I get out of the airport I can start my vacation look.
I was in and out of customs and had picked up my bag in less than 1 hour. Once outside, I was greeted by the Mexican jungle, an even heavier humidity that had me peeling off layers and a huge mass of airport employees, sunburned tourists departing and eager travelers with tired children and straw hats.
Something funny happens when you travel to beautiful places like Mexico- people that usually wouldn’t talk with you are suddenly friendly and welcoming. Admittedly, it was contagious. When I first left D.C., I was annoyed by people taking too long to pick up their tickets, irritated at people who walked on the wrong side of the escalators and generally not wanting to talk to anyone. I was in my usual I am invisible and you can’t see me mode I adopted while living in the East Coast.
But when I stepped off that plane the humidity did something to me and even I had this silly childlike glow that oozed from my pores and shouted, hey I’m on vacation, let’s be friends, let’s kumbaya in Cancun! Other people were feeling it to and before I had left the airport I exchanged information with several other travelers who invited me out with them later that night.
The ride to my hotel was too easy. I was greeted by incredibly (and genuinely) friendly staff that seemed very appreciative of the fact that I spoke Spanish and was travelling alone. I arrived at my hotel in less than 20 minutes and what I will refer to as the Cancun kumbaya effect was in full force by the time I met Vilandy, my personal concierge. I was given tons of info about my all inclusive hotel and invited to learn about a time share in exchange for an awesome breakfast and some sweet discounts– again all too easy. I headed up to my room, dropped off my things and immediately headed poolside to check out the entertainment, the food options, grab a beer and of course, say hello to the Caribbean.
Along the way I met and spoke with a lot of the hotel staff. I think I literally spent 2 hours speaking with my concierge who studied ecological tourism and wanted to open up a private ecological resort of her own one day. Another staff member Nelly, who worked at the jewelry shop became a good friend and somehow managed to explain all of Mayan and Aztec history to me (maps included) in less than an hour with nothing but a piece of paper and a beautiful Spanish accent. Before I go any further, I have to thank Senor Duval and all my other Spanish teachers for all the cheesy Spanish homework I had- this conversation with Nelly and the ease of the first day would have been impossible if it weren’t for their well thought out lesson and passion for the language.By 8 ‘oclock I was already bored with the hotel. Free beers and the sounds of drunk Americans can only hold your attention for so long.
I immediately began hitting up the folks I met on the plane AND managed to meet another hotel staff member who was selling tickets to Coco Bongo and invited me to meet up there for drinks. Fast forward some 4 outfit changes and 4 hours later and I was walking what I can only refer to as the strip in Cancun. For those of you who haven’t been to Cancun, just imagine Las Vegas only with 18 year olds who can drink. Definitely not my scene.
On the plus side, I did get to meet up with the Coco Bongo guide for a beer and some great tacos on the strip. He paid for my meal and we walked along the Ocean for a bit alongside many other travelers who preferred the splashing waves to the sound of drunken laughter. My belly was full of tacos and I was so happy to be in Mexico. After a short stint at the beach, I thanked my friend for the great food, grabbed a bus back to my hotel and pleasantly drifted off to sleep after perusing through my photos.
So how do you kumbaya in Mexico with the locals? Speak Spanish, smile big and laugh loud! The humidity and beautiful beach will take care of everything else.
Mexico. Was. Amazing!! It opened up something in me that can never be taken away. There was a quiet freedom that followed me everywhere and buzzed in my ear like a sweet hummingbird. My original plan was to blog every night, but between visiting Chichen Itza, snorkeling in Xenotes, and parasailing over the Caribbean, I found myself utterly exhausted at night. I have so much to say and so much to share, and I promise that in time, I will give you all the juicy details of my trip!
In the meantime, there are some bigger things bubbling under the surface that long to be heard. Early on in my travels to Mexico, I realized that there were two trips happening at once-the adventures and pictures I shared with you all and the random tourists whose paths I crossed and a rich, complicated and sometimes dark inner journey I experienced daily. I am conflicted about sharing it though… do my followers want to hear about the significance of this trip or do they prefer pictures with witty captions? And what is the purpose of my blog anyways? Am I blogging to capture my travels and experiences or is it also about sharing impressions from my deep inner world? What if my co-workers stumble upon this post? How much do I share, how much is too much?
In the absence of certainty, I suppose the only thing one can do is take the leap and try. My hope is that when you read this, you will gain a more complete picture of my journey and find it in your heart to replace any judgments you may have about me, my journey and mental health in general with compassion. Many of you either know or gather that I have battled mental illnesses for much of my life. I have tried to exercise some caution when sharing the details, so as not to scare away any tender readers, but this is something I have to share. So, I am going to be completely transparent and incredibly vulnerable with you all.
EXACTLY a year ago to date, my grandfather’s funeral services were held in Los Angeles. He had been battling cancer for more than a year, a recent amputation from a diabetic related infection, and then a massive stroke. It was a horrible time for my family. My grandfather, George Evans, became somewhat of a patriarch after my Grandmother Na Na died. We all quietly, and often not so quietly, watched in agony as he suffered- coming in and out of consciousness, calling for his mother in his sleep when he crossed to the other side and silently holding onto hope when he held his great grandchildren in his arms.
And then there was me. I was battling the worst bout of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Depression I had ever experienced. I had recently cold turkeyed off a cocktail of very powerful medications I had been on since age 14 for the treatment of bi-polar II disorder. Despite visiting dozens of psychiatrists and therapist every month for 13 years and trying a host of medications with unimaginable side effects, the cyclical depression and anxiety I experienced only increased from the time I was 14. By the time I came to Washington, D.C. , I was 26 and fed up with a 2 year bout of depression that I thought would never end. And so with intuitive guidance, I stopped all the medication-something I tried unsuccessfully 4 years prior after having enough of the drug seroquel. Then the craziest thing happened- I lost 60 pounds, my hair grew back, I experienced colors and tastes completely differently, the glow returned to my skin and I didn’t get sick anymore. And it was amazing– that is until I experienced protracted SSRI withdrawal and my brain went haywire.
Rather than go into all the details, I will try give you just the highlights. Read carefully because this is the only time I am going to write about what I experienced, cause it’s pretty depressing and heavy and I am still processing the trauma of it all…
Within two months of getting off the medication, my thyroid became overactive. I broke out in an itchy rash all over my body, I lost control of my bladder and bowel movements, I suffered chronic pain all over my back and arms. Strange knots appeared in my back that flared up when I became anxious. Sometimes I couldn’t feel my fingers or toes for hours at a time. I suffered migraines for a month and experienced electric shock sensations throughout my head and arms. Sometimes my muscled stiffened so bad it was painful to stretch my arms out. I woke up every morning for six months with extreme fight or flight that lingered the entire day. But the worst of it was the emotional roller coaster that accompanied the discontinuation syndrome and the fact that none of the psychiatrist or neurologists I visited believed it was from stopping the medicine abruptly.
The emotional roller-coaster was never ending, and the scariest thing I have ever experienced. I lost the ability to feel anything for days at a time, I experienced disassociation and cried for no reason several times a day. First there was the depression unlike anything I had ever experienced, then came the fight or flight feeling that woke me in the morning at 5 am and stayed with me until I went to bed. And then came the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, constant checking of locks, doors and windows, fear of food being contaminated, fear of contracting and spreading HIV and Hepatitis C, fear of touching dirty things like trash cans, fear of body fluids, intrusive thoughts, obsessions with morality and false memories.
I did everything I could during this time to survive. I visited a psychiatrist who said I looked alive off meds and told me my brain had to learn to process emotions again without medicine and reset itself. I created what I call a “prescription for life”, a daily check in system with friends and family alongside a schedule of weekly activities. I took vitamins and exercised and practiced special breathing exercises to help with the anxiety. I did acupuncture weekly and met with a therapist twice a week. I dragged myself out of bed every morning to go to work because I had no more sick days and needed the money to pay for my behavioral therapist appointments which cost nearly 650 dollars a month out of pocket.
But it wasn’t enough–my best wasn’t good enough. When my grandfather passed, I made myself get on the plane with my hand sanitizer, a head scarf, long sleeves and pants in the middle of the summer and boarded the flight because I was afraid I would become house bound if I didn’t and I was afraid I would regret not paying my respects to a man was so instrumental in my family legacy. While I was there I didn’t touch or hug any family members. I could barely leave my hotel room for fear I would leave the door unlocked and could hardly leave my rental car without feeling like I was going to have a panic attack. Up until the trip and after, I spent upwards of 7 hours a day washing my hands, showering, cleaning and ritualizing. At my grandfather’s funeral I was terrified by everyone’s tears and was afraid that I would get sick hugging people who touched my grandfather’s body in the casket. My mother came to stay with me while she mourned the passing of her own father. Meanwhile, she watched her youngest daughter descend into madness as I rocked back and forth on my bed crying, overwhelmed with fear. With her grace, selflessness and love, I made it that week. But when I got back to DC nothing was the same. The OCD had generalized, and so instead of certain items being dirty, the whole world was dirty and nowhere was safe.
Nothing was the same when I came back to Washington, D.C. I could barely touch my dog and I was so stressed I stopped eating, and drinking and avoided the bathroom or going outside whenever possible. Within 2 months of returning, I took a 6 month leave of absence, gave away my dog I had for 8 years and attempted suicide. After an unsuccessful attempt I spent the next 3 months in Colorado waiting for a bed to open up at one of the best treatment facilities for OCD in the world. And I went, and for 3 months I put myself through 4 hours of Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy where I touched toilets, trash cans, the floor, leaves, trees, dirty spots, shook hands with people wearing bandaids and a host of other items on my fear hierarchy without washing my hands or ritualizing, Instead I sat in tears with a coach, sometimes nervous ticks making me want to flail my arms and slur my words, until the anxiety went away on its own. I stabilized on a subclinical dose of Zoloft (I was on 100mg and most people with OCD don’t experience relief until around 200mg, which leads me to believe my brain just needed a little help from the ssri to stabilize). By the time I left treatment, I was hugging and shaking hands, riding public transportation, trail running, only washing my hands 3 times a day and got my showers down from 45 minutes to under 10. The doctors agreed my bi-polar II diagnosis at the age of 14 was wrong and that instead I suffered from severe bouts of Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder, which mirrored the rapid cycling of bi-polar disorder. Finally I could return back to Washington, D.C. where my job and life were waiting.
So, two years after stopping my medicine cold turkey, one year after traveling to Los Angeles for my grandfather’s funeral, six months after returning from an intensive inpatient program and three months after deciding to live off the grid, I am sharing this with you from my hotel room on my last day in Mexico-tears flowing and all. I am thinking about all I experienced here and how full of life I felt when not so long ago I had lost the will to live. Thinking about the fact that I tapered slowly off my medicine over the last 6 months and how amazing and scary and resilient my brain is. Thinking about how crazy it is that I decided to make my entire life an ERP by living in my car and camping and how insane I must be to choose to treat OCD without medicine. Thinking about how my doctor’s dubbed my OCD subclinical (obsessing less than 1 hour per day similar to the rest of the population) less than 2 months after returning from treatment. Thinking about how terrified I am that at any time, for any reason despite all my planning and preparation, it’s possible that I could lose my fragile mind to depression and OCD again.
But this is life. And despite the shock from many of my peers about my decision to live a nontraditional life off the grid, and with hesitation from myself, my family and my doctors to manage OCD without pharmaceuticals, I am the freest and most connected to my own experience than ever before. And yes, I mess up sometimes- I wash my hands when I am not supposed to, ask for reassurance when I know I shouldn’t and make hasty decisions when I should be more patient, but this is my life. And in the end, the choices I make, the lessons I learn and any unforeseeable consequences are my own.
You have to know that all of this terrifies the shit out of me. And even as I write this, I can feel the OCD trying to be big again and doubt everything I have said and done and fill my body with fear. But I am different than I was six months ago. I am stronger, and equipped with more coping skills and insights into how my brain works than ever before. Most importantly, this was my choice- to conquer OCD med free and “walk like everyone else” as a friend told me in a beautiful analogy. I may stumble at first, I might walk with a limp, and I might fall on my face and need to go back on medicine again and that’s okay too, because this is what I signed up for when I decided I wanted to live again.
Thank you for reading this. I hope this gives you greater clarity about the significance of this trip and the importance of my tumble weed journey.
For information on the brain’s ability to heal itself, I recommend Bruce Lipton’s youtube video, the Biology of Belief.
Lastly, if you have considered weaning off your medicine, I recommend first viewing Survivingantidepressants.org to better understand protracted SSRI withdrawal syndrome from thousands of others around the world who want to walk like everyone else too.
If you have thoughts of hurting yourself, reach out to friends and family and call the suicide support hotline at 1-800-273-TALK.
All views expressed here are my own. If medicine works for you, go for it! As always, question everything and do your own research!!
I recently had one of those mind blowing experiences that seems to have shaken my reality from its very core. For the first time in a long time, I can’t find the words to explain how I feel. Instead of soaking up the deliciousness of my journey, I have spent the last 48 hours trapped in an ongoing existential dialogue—staring intensely at the emotions, experiences, thoughts and values I am holding in this fragile human body. Struggling to make sense with, or make peace with the complexity and intensity of my life. But this experience wasn’t like the other moments in life when I could pause and reflect at my intense inner world and hold my emotions with tender compassion. No, this feeling was intense and big like a tsunami of clairsentience and clairvoyance. I literally watched as my whole life –past, present and future floated right in front of me. In an instant I was bigger and more powerful than I have ever been, simply because I could feel it. I stepped into my own personal power and it was amazing and inspiring and divine- that is until I had to step back into my body and this complicated life I have manifested. Now I feel all of the space, the emptiness where the bliss of simply being once was, at once. And it’s lonely and freeing and sad and exhilarating at the same time. Mostly though, it’s frustrating. And when I say frustrating, I mean the intense wake up at 2 am every night with big, heavy thoughts that carry into the next day like a spiritually induced hangover kind of frustration.
For the first time I realized that a big part of me doesn’t want to dabble in the art of fine tuning myself for the purpose of building intense interpersonal relationships and finding some assemblage of community. I literally realize that there is nothing more I want to do than experience as much of this beautiful, complicated world as possible without getting bogged down in the complicated web of interpersonal relationships. They’re necessary, but so draining and quite frankly I don’t really have the emotional energy or resilience to deal with other people’s emotions, when I can barely hold space for my own sometimes. So instead of doing what I normally do and pull away and make a big hot fuss, I am going to do the opposite– I am going to dive into my life and throw myself into my work. If I don’t get moving soon, this hellish energy will consume me and all I’ve worked for in the past 3 months will be undone.
Big stuff is happening over here people. The flood gates can’t hold back the storm. So buckle up, sit back or get the fuck out of the way cause shit’s about to get real—as if it wasn’t real enough before.
Living off the grid was was always the plan-my path to self awareness, my offering to Mother Earth, my protest of the system, my end game. But looking back at how this journey unfolded, I realize there was always a part of me that chucked it up to empty threats from a clinically depressed and anxious idealist, turned young sustainability professional. And then somewhere between shuffling through unfullfilling jobs every 18 months, chipping away at $80,000 of student loan debt and re-inventing myself every three years, a small part of me SERIOUSLY started to chuck this off the grid talk as nonsense. I remember telling someone my intentions and then squirming in anguish when they responded, “it gets cold outside”. Maybe they were right. Was this some illusive attempt to exert control over my life? An easy out from the never ending perils of human interaction and interpersonal dynamics? Or perhaps the ultimate solution to ending the cyclical misery I experienced while living in a system that does not serve me, humanity or the Earth?
In truth, it was none of those things, but SO, SO much more. I have just always been a space cadet with my head in the clouds– one of those dreamers with an intense, unquenchable and often times annoying excitement about the world. I’ve always been interested in the bizarre, the strange, the inexplicable, the experience–what lays beyond the boundaries and off the beaten path. And I’ve always admired, and been drawn to people who feel the same way– the people who live and thrive on the fringes of society with full body tattoos, scars and wild stories. The black sheep, the one’s who have that “I don’t give a fuck what you think” look.
So here I was, this free spirited, self declared wild child who reveled in their stories, and aspired to be them, but couldn’t dare take the leap. So, I soaked up stories in between emotional breakdowns, passive aggressive managers and throughout a host of meaningless activities, until one day, my life became something I wasn’t interested in participating in, contributing to or living in. Lot’s of other complicated things happened along the way, but the repression of this dream and all the limiting beliefs tied with it, cost me big time. I hit my all time personal low in May of 2015. And believe me I, have been to some pretty low places. This was the first time I started to lose everything around me –my dog, my job, my family, my sanity– until destiny intervened.
And then BOOM!!! In less than 6 months I lost everything, gained it all (back and then some), AND managed to land in the driver’s seat of my life again. What started off as a rant became a dream. And then during my recovery process, that dream became a vision, and that vision became fused with value and meaning. In the course of a month, I started to integrate this new paradigm into my collective experience. Suddenly I realized I had re-invented myself for the last time. Instead of the usual pack up all my things, give notice and move across the country, I birthed myself anew– only this time when I woke, I stood firm in my path, content with my inadequacies and sensitivities- full of a renewed sense of spirit and an unwavering passion fueled by this cosmic intersection of dreams and destiny.
This is my story, so far…
I started my off the grid journey on December 16, 2015. I had been slowly getting rid of clothes and belongings over the past three years and thought I’d pursue a ‘non’traditional’ lifestyle in hopes of getting out of a stressful living situation and immersing myself in life affirming activities. At the time, a sense of freedom, travelling and financial independence where priority items on the get excited about life again list. So I set my intention to Airbnb, short rent and travel instead of signing a lease. and shortly moved out gifting everything I owned to my siblings in the process. So there I was– moving like a nomad through the gentrified streets of Washington, D.C. in hopes of renewing my sense of life and nurturing my adventurous spirit. To be honest, it worked too well. I spent the first week camped out in the backyard of a girlfriend’s house, praying I could hold my morning dump until I made it to work. Other than that, it was a sweet setup. I had wash station, some nice foliage for the occasional pit stop and I was less than 2 miles from a metro station.
But El Nino only lasted so long and eventually the cold of winter set in. I survived in my friends’ back yard until freezing rains led me to car camp in a National Forest. After deciding that sleeping in my car for $16 dollars a night was a bad deal, I realized I could probably find a chill residential area, sleep in my car, shorten my commute and save around $360 bucks a month. So I did, until a stranger came knocking on my door and freaked me out one night. Plus, public peeing in the rain and those DAMN street lights were killing me. I eventually settled on a private parking lot with 24/7 access to my gym AND a fresh shower. Alas, I had found my ideal location, which I conveniently named headquarters, or HQ for short.
I spent the entirety of January and February sleeping in that parking lot alongside another super secret hospital location that was amazing, but far away from everything. A few #urbanexcursions later to New York, West Virginia, Boston, Philadelphia and Virginia Beach as well as a stay in an AirBnB while winter storm Jonas decimated the DMV and a short stint at a friend’s office apartment that went sour, and I realized that this lifestyle was not only easy and inexpensive– it was incredibly freeing. The awful depression ceased and the anxiety lifted. For the first time in a long time, I was in love with life again.
Today marks three months of cold nights in cars, wet nights in random camp grounds and an array of AirBnB’s. So many times I woke up in the tender hours of the morning to the sound of rain, or birds bustling, or wind whipping my tent and that quiet feeling you get when you wake up and witness your own experience. Living off the grid has strengthened my tool box for self improvement and taught me so many lessons, both big and small. I learned how to brush my teeth without running water, find the best places to shower and the cleanest restrooms to take a shit in. I learned that I can push my body to extremes with little food and water and I have become much more in tune with my own body. I’ve come to understand the true value of a dollar, a favor, a friend and an accurate weather forecast. I’ve learned how valuable time is and how closely my life is tied to the weather, the elements and the seasons.
In short, living off the grid has been a total mind fuck in the truest sense. It’s also taught me a helluva lot about my big, fat, complicated emotional life. It’s also shown me that I am stronger than I think and more resilient than I give myself credit for. I’ve learned the freedom of flexibility and profoundly deepened my gratitude for shelter, sleep and sustenance. It’s also exposed some pretty unhealthy habits, limiting beliefs and thoughts I have about what is right and wrong, and who I am and ought to be.
Of all the things I have experienced and cherished most about the journey, the single most important lesson I’ve learned so far, is that there is NOTHING more exhilarating, fulfilling or life affirming than [walking] confidently in the direction of your dreams and living the life you’ve always imagined.
If you are reading this, I want to thank you for witnessing my journey. I look forward to sharing more with you, as I study the art of the tumbling weed.