Güera in Wirikuta: Meeting Don Juan

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The path to Don Juan’s Ranch

The road began to narrow and the dirt changed from beige to the rusty hue of ocher. We hadn’t seen a house for over an hour when we arrived at a crossroads where a cluster of some six or seven buildings sat. I figured we must be getting close to our destination because two of the buildings were decorated with colorful murals of Huichol imagery. One was a portrait of a shaman next to a blue deer, on top of which many smaller images of peyote and other plants were painted. The shaman was recognizable from his characteristic sombrero adorned with eagle feathers and tassels along the outside edge. A second smaller building bore images of the ocean and the Huichol name for the ocean spirit “Tatei Haramara,” meaning Grandmother Ocean, in bright red.

IMG_20150307_083141At our shaman Lupe’s request we stopped and Victor, Joel, and I got out to stretch our legs while Lupe went to look for someone. I quickly surveyed the area for a bathroom just in case. To my great consternation there was none that I could see. We took the obligatory tourist shots of one another in front of the larger mural before we were herded back into the van by Lupe.

From here we turned left onto a side road that shot straight up the side of the mountain. The road narrowed and the terrain became more severe: cliffs rose steeply on our left and fell away dramatically to the right, the tops of trees growing below just barely reaching the road’s surface. In places small waterfalls cascaded down the dark grey cliff faces and gathered in small pools on the side of the road.

Before long the terrain flattened out and we were surrounded by stands of tall pines, whereas previously the forests were dominated by deciduous trees. Massive walls of beige and grey rock jutted proudly out of the surrounding terrain. Next thing I knew the van bounced and creaked into the diminutive village of San Jose Escuela. True to it’s name, a school (escuela) sits at the center of this gathering of ten or so homes and public buildings constructed of low-fire red brick. We parked next to one of the small single-story homes. A couple of wooden benches flanked the short central doorway. Behind the house several small pigs snorted and tousled in a rough dirt area fenced by gnarled wooden posts. Next to the house sat a smaller one-room building the size of some Americans’ walk-in closets. This was the general store.

Don Lupe, his son Memo, and Victor disembarked from the van while the rest of us waited. I assumed it was Mario they sought, the other shaman who was already in the sierra having arrived several days before. The men returned and loaded back into the van. Some words were exchanged in Wiratika and Victor fired up the van. I normally would have asked what was happening and where we were going, but between being up all night and my intestinal woes, I was uncharacteristically passive and decided to just go with the flow. We continued heading northeast on what resembled a rough track more than a road. Uneven and littered with large sharp rocks, it was only wide enough for one vehicle. I wondered what we’d do if we met someone coming the other way as there was no shoulder to speak of and in many areas where the side of the road ended the land dropped off precipitously. It wasn’t long before we met a couple of locals utilizing the preferred mode of transportation – burrows (donkeys). It occurred to me that this was the ideal way get around in the region and as our van creaked and swayed over the uneven, rock-strewn road I became convinced we’d either get a flat tire or a break an axle before long. As concern gathered as stress in my body, I felt my shoulders creep towards my ears, while held tight to the molded door handle. When I finally voiced my concerns about the van’s ability to sustain the abuse, they were dismissed offhand.

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The rough track of a road and the surrounding mountain landscape.

“You worry too much, Güera,” was Victor’s patronizing response. This became his mantra any time I expressed misgivings about something.

The countryside surrounding San Jose Escuela is dotted with small ranches where the Huichol grow corn, squash, and tomatoes, raise pigs, chickens, a few cows, and horses, mules, or burrows for transportation and plowing. The small clusters of buildings comprising each ranch, with their grey thatched roofs and stone walls, were hard to make out against the identically colored rock-strewn landscape. But at that time of year a gentle haze of purple and pink flowers adorning peach and apple trees planted along bordering stone fences helped to define their boundaries. I wondered how they were able to grow anything in such a rock strewn landscape.

IMG_0924Eventually we ran out of road and when that didn’t stop our progress, a stand of trees finally did. It wasn’t quite noon, but the sun had gathered appreciable strength by the time we all tumbled out of the van and began hiking down a narrow foot path.

My sandals turned out not to be the best footwear for the hike, so when we reached a particularly steep section in the descent, I took them off and walked in my bare feet.

“Careful Güera,” warned Lupe’s daughter Angela. “There are spines and stickers on many of the plants here.”

In response to her warning, I increased the care with which I picked my way over the rocks. Nevertheless, soon a sharp sticker impaled the ball of my foot and made me cry out. I pulled up short to remove the offending spine. It turned out to be a very reticent seed head covered in so many spines that I couldn’t grab it with my fingers. I tried to use one of my sandals to flick it off, but after several painful attempts, I gave up and decided on another approach. Meanwhile Angela, her mother Olivia and Marianna looked on with concern.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll get it out.”

I looked around for a stick or a rock with a sharp edge. A thin piece of rock did the trick and I was soon on my way, choosing my path with even greater care.

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Don Juan’s ranch sits among the bright green trees in the valley below.

As we reached the bottom of the valley, the terrain turned to sparse grass and sedge meadows dotted with low spiny trees, bushes, and the occasional nopal cactus. In the distance I could see the bright green canopy of a Mesquite tree and the deep green tops of a couple other tall trees. I stopped to put my sandals back on and take a few photographs. As I did Don Lupe, his son Memo, Angela, and Victor all passed me and continued on ahead.

Rancho Ciudad Juarez is where Olivia, Lupe’s wife grew up. Her parents, Don Juan and Leocadia, and her younger brother Juanito were there to greet our party. By the time I got there, however, everyone but Olivia had scattered, busying themselves with one thing or another and Victor was deep in conversation with Juanito.

Juanito exuded strength and confidence. He was dressed in traditional Huichol clothing – white cotton smock-shirt and pants with colorful piping along the edges. He wore an especially ornate shamans sombrero covered thickly in eagle feathers with a red fringe and blue tassels. Olivia sat on the ground with Jonathan, Marianna and Mario’s 18 month-old son in her arms. The others were off greeting their cousins, aunts, and uncles or making themselves busy with I knew not what.

The ranch consisted of two main structures – one larger than the other. The larger was a round-walled building with a stone foundation and grey low-fired brick walls with a roof that consisted of wood poles crossed with finer sticks and thatched over that with thick layers of long grasses greyed by the passage of time. The second building just beyond the first was a smaller rectangular affair made of the same type of grey bricks, but with a simpler pitched roof of large wood shingles. In the middle of the clearing that seemed to define the center of the ranch was a patch of earth grey with the ashes of many fires. Next to this were several flat rocks on which pots and pans sat. The soil next to these was stained burgundy, I presumed from the blood of an animal recently sacrificed.

IMG_0949Aroused from their temporary slumber by the hike down the mountain, my intestines began once again to communicate an urgent need that I had no choice but to heed. I walked off into the desertscape, looking for a little privacy, ever watchful for snakes.

I returned feeling weaker yet and looked for somewhere to sit near Olivia under the wide-branched Mesquite tree. But before I could find a place to rest, Angela was at my side inviting me to join everyone in a circle around the now lit fire. This would be the first of many cleansing ceremonies to prepare us for our journey to Wirikuta.

Each of us was handed a small stick from one of the nearby trees. One at a time the shamans, Juanito, Lupe, and Don Juan, went from person to person and with chants and their muvieris (their power arrows to which eagle feathers are affixed) blessed us. But as Don Juan moved on to the next person after conducting his blessing of me, my stick seemed to jump out and grabbed onto his shirt. He pulled up, looked me sternly in the eye, and backing up slightly, unhooked himself before moving on again. I was mortified and wondered just what had happened. It seemed as though my stick acted of its own accord. Granted I was not feeling well and my stick was covered in little barbed hook-like projections, but I couldn’t help but think, as I knew the Huichol would, that this was not an insignificant occurrence. I couldn’t fathom what it could possibly mean though and wondered if anyone else who might be able to tell me had witnessed it.

The blessings completed we each rubbed our sticks over our bodies to cleanse ourselves of negative energy and then offered it to Tatewari, Grandfather Fire, who would purify it and us. Once we’d all put our sticks in the fire, the circle of people broke up and everyone returned to their business. My head spun slightly with weakness and confusion and I turned to find somewhere to sit down.

Before I could sit down though, Angela approached me once again.

“How are you feeling Güera?” she asked, genuinely concerned.

“A bit weak,” I admitted, “but I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

“You know, my grandfather is a highly respected shaman. Would you like him to do a healing for you?”

From my previous experience with her father Lupe, I had an idea of what a healing consisted of and figured that anything that might help rid me of the demon that was tearing at my insides was worth a try.

“Yes, please,” I responded, “that sounds like a good idea.”

Momentarily, Angela returned with her grandfather and introduced me as “La Güera.” In response to Don Juan’s curious expression, she laughed and admitted she didn’t know my real name.

“My Mexican friends call me Alba,” I said, holding out my hand in greeting.

Don Juan is a man I estimated to be in his mid to late fifties. Like the rest of the men, he was dressed in traditional Huichol clothing. On his head he wore a relatively plain, but new-looking straw sombrero with three colorful pompoms affixed along the upper portion of the brim where they were barely visible. I was surprised by the simplicity of his sombrero, that it featured neither eagle feathers nor the tassels that adorn most shamans’ hats. Similarly, on his feet, in contrast to the heavy-soled, woven leather sandals (called huaraches) that most Huichol wear, he wore beige construction boots. His physical appearance was one of contrasts as well – I detected both a softness exemplified by his light brown skin and an edgy sharpness expressed in his intense dark eyes and long hawkish nose. Among the Huichol, shamans are considered to be the embodiment of the eagle spirit, able to sore high with vision that extends around the world. Interesting then that in many ways Don Juan resembles an eagle.

The incident with the stick, while I knew was not forgotten, neither was it acknowledged nor did it stop him from his task. In short order, he invited me to lay down on a blanket that Angela placed on the ground under the Mesquite tree and told me to relax and breath normally. I lay back, the dark branches of Mesquite spread out above me, and closed my eyes.

Stay tuned for the next installment of Güera in Wirikuta.

Güera in Wirikuta: Cathartic Purgation*

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The following post is the second in a multi-part series. To begin reading at the beginning click on THIS LINK.

The basic difference between an ordinary [person] and a warrior is that a warrior takes everything as a challenge, whereas an ordinary [person] takes everything as a blessing or a curse.                           Don Juan, Tales of Power by Carlos Casteneda

Gradually the roads we traveled became narrower and more isolated, the way was dotted by checkpoints manned by state and municipal police. When we began the climb into the most isolated part of the mountains our progress was halted by a band of rifle-touting men in plain clothes. My pulse quickened as I wondered if they were banditos after our valuables, but then I saw among them a woman in traditional Huichol clothing. I relaxed, knowing they meant us no harm. Each time as the van rolled to a stop and I lowered the window to answer their questions, “Where are you going?” and “Where have you come from?” the inquisitioner’s expression changed from one of seriousness to surprise when they saw who was behind the wheel.

As the clock ticked past 3AM, my eyes began to strain and the road to wind up and down in steep hairpin turns.

On cue, Lupe’s voice cut through the low rumble of the van’s engine, “Are you hungry Güera?”

“Hungry?” I asked. “Well, no, uh, I’m not hungry…maybe a bit tired.”

He laughed good-naturedly at my misunderstanding.

“No,” he said, “not that kind of hunger…”

There was a pause after which he continued, “Here, give me your hand.”

I reached my right arm back, palm facing upwards into which he placed a small soft object. I wrapped my fingers around it and bringing it forward felt with my fingers the slightly moist texture of a small piece of peyote cactus. I smiled and wondered, did he read my mind just then? I placed it in my mouth and chewed it down to a pulp, knowing it would provide the stimulation to let me drive on deeper into the night, same as a cup of coffee, but without the jitters. The subtle effects of the small wedge of cactus came on about twenty minutes or so after I’d swallowed it and I realized an additional benefit of peyote over coffee was that it sharpened my night vision.

Slowly but surely we drove higher into the sierras of Narayit. The route reminded me of many drives I’d made in the Laurentian mountains of Quebec where my family has a summer cottage and led me to consider, once again, how in hind sight often our lives turn out to be a series of lessons and experiences that lead up to and support some higher purpose, like how in John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany Owen insists that he and his buddy practice the basketball shot over and over again, we know not why…until the book’s zenith.

Night still cloaked the surrounding countryside in darkness when the rumbling in my intestines began to compete with the narrow strip of winding road for my attention. Before long I winced and gripped the steering wheel tighter with fingers already cramped with fatigue as sharp cramps joined the rumbling. I wondered if the peyote and quesadillas were having a disagreement. But no, I reminded myself, Hikuri and blue corn quesadillas get along just fine. It’s only when you eat non-Mexican food that it protests. I pulled over when my discomfort made it nearly impossible to concentrate on the road and Victor took took my place. Our extreme isolation meant I no longer worried about him driving without a license, but road conditions and my discomfort made resting in any significant way an impossibility.

The sky had brightened with impending dawn when the cramping in my gut became too much to bear.

“Pull over,” I said, my teeth and anal spincter correspondingly clenched.

“Huh?” Victor replied, his focus on driving and oblivious to the seriousness of my condition. “What do you…?”

I didn’t let him finish. “Just pull over Victor! Pull over now! I need to go to the…” A cramp seized me, rendering me temporarily speechless until the last two words came out in a gasp, “…bathROOM NOW!”

He quickly located a wide area of graded dirt off the edge of a wide curve in the road and pulled off. I jumped out of the van before it came to a full stop and scoured the surroundings for somewhere I could squat out of sight of the 12 or so bleary-eyed people who came tumbling out of the van behind me. We were perched on the side of a mountain, the land dropping steeply away from the patch of dirt the van sat on. Spectacular, yes. Forgiving of someone looking for a quiet spot to take a crap, no. Thankfully, the grader left a pile of dirt at the far end of where we parked that I decided might just be large and high enough to provide the necessary cover. Once I got over there I realized it was not as high as I’d hoped, but my anus told me I would have to make due.

I squatted for so long that soon I heard the telltale murmurrings of impatience. Another minute and I decided I’d done all I could do. I stood up, knees shaking, and surveyed the results. Astounding. Bovine in proportion even. I said a little prayer that I’d purged whatever it was that ailed me and joined the restless crew who’d already loaded back into the van. We needed to make time. Lupe was expected at a ceremony begun the previous night and we still had a long way to go.

Less than half an hour later, where the pavement ended and the ocher-tinged dirt and scattered sharp rocks began, I begged Victor to stop again. This time there was no pile of dirt to hide behind and I found myself choosing my footholds carefully as I traversed the steep hillside looking for somewhere to squat. In places I prayed as I grabbed the branches of low-lying bushes to swing from one section of the path I was on to the next. I imagine the path I was on was cut by the hooves of agile goats and I was not feeling particularly fleet footed at that particular moment in time. I found a slightly wider section of worn dirt and, grabbing onto the branches of another small shrub, squatted.

From where I crouched the steep mountain plunged vertically, the bottom invisible. I thought again how this could be the end of me and pictured myself tumbling backwards, ass over tea kettle with my dress up over my head, underwear like hobbles around my ankles, full moon exposed to the first hawks and song birds of early dawn. I was startled out of my nightmare vision by Victor yelling at me to hurry up. Later he would tell me he thought I’d been taking my time “sightseeing.”

“If only,” I replied, torn between amusement and annoyance at his utter cluelessness about the suffering I’d endured.

When I finally arrived back at the van, a fine layer of sweat had gathered on my upper lip and a glance in the sideview mirror at my pallor proved I’d left most of my color back on that mountainside along with the remaining contents of my intestines. I said another prayer that I’d passed whatever evil presence possessed me.

~~~~

*Author’s Note:  The title “Cathartic Purgation” comes from a botanical description of an arctic plant in a book I stored away before moving to Mexico. I don’t recall the name of the plant, but its description included a warning that the result of eating a specific part of the plant would be “cathartic purgation.” I had to look the meaning up and was tickled to discover that purgation is the act of purging or purifying, and shares the same Latin root as the word Purgatory. Addition of “cathartic” as a an adjective describing the kind of purgation is all about the degree of purification you’re likely to experience.

Güera in Wirikuta: The Pilgrimage Begins

IMG_20150307_083544You may recall the series of blogs I published here about my first peyote ceremony. Two years and several ceremonies later, I found myself taking the next step on a spiritual pilgrimage that began with that ceremony. This is the first in another series of posts describing that journey.

Every year in March the Huichol begin the process that takes them to the most sacred sites in their spiritual cosmology. It’s the annual pilgrimage that leads ultimately to Wirikuta, the sacred land where peyote grows. Every year they travel thousands of miles to fulfill their spiritual commitment and to collect peyote for ceremonies in the year that follows. The pilgrimage period encompasses four full months beginning in March with preparations that include cleanses and sacrifices and culminating in late June with a closing ceremony.

This year I joined the shamans Lupe and Mario, and their families on the pilgrimage. During the 10 day period I shared with them we traveled first to their home in the mountains (la sierra) for the intial cleansing period, to the Virgin of Guadalupe Basilica in Mexico City to leave offerings and ask for safe passage on our voyage, and then on to the five sacred sites visited annually, including Wirikuta.

Our journey started in Guadalajara where my follow journeyer Victor and I rented a large passenger van. Our first stop was to pick up Joel, another “mestizo” (Mexican of mixed race), who carried with him large bags of pepitas (pumpkin seeds) and chia from his family’s ranch. For both Joel and Victor, this was the second time they would join the Huichol on the annual pilgrimage. From Guadalajara we drove North to Tepic, Narayit, where Guadalupe, our shaman, lives with his family – Olivia his wife and their two children, Angela, 18, and Guillermo, 13. Angela and Memo both speak Spanish fluently, unlike their parents and Mario’s wife, and proved to be excellent guides and interpreters, as well as positive upbeat companions, throughout the journey.

In Tepic, while we waited for Lupe to return from Puerto Vallarta where he’d gone to sell some artwork, Olivia, Angela, Memo, Victor, Joel and I walked across the street to Tepic’s annual Easter fair, one of the largest in Mexico. The Huichol have their own area there where they set up booths to sell their artwork and a kitchen area with several wood-fired barbecues on which the women turn blue corn flour and cheese into quesadillas. The Huichol consider blue corn the most sacred of the five possible colors of maize. In their colorful traditional clothing surrounded by vast collections of beaded and embroidered artwork, the Huichol created a festive feast for the eyes. In preparation for the pilgrimage, I’d begun to fast that day, but seeing and smelling the blue corn tortillas cooking over the open fires, I could not resist and ate several – two with squash flowers embedded in the fresh cheese, two with nopal (rabbit-ear) cactus.

While we enjoyed the quesadillas, several Huichol ladies and their children bellied up to the table to join us. One of the women in particular made an indelible impression on me – she wore a deep purple shirt with matching skirt with white, blue and black piping. Her straight raven-colored hair was pulled back in a pony tail that emphasized her long neck, decorated with a beaded choker necklace. Her face, with its flawless skin, high cheekbones, large almond-shaped eyes, and thin straight nose combined with her erect, proud bearing gave her a royal air. Her name was Rosa. Leaning against her mother, seven-year old Imelda was a carbon copy down to her garb in the same intense hue of purple, the choker necklace. From what I could tell, the only difference between them was that more often than not Imelda’s face was adorned with an unabashed smile and she would join us on the pilgrimage, whereas her mother would not.

After the quesadillas, we took the children, six in all, on the merry-go-round and a mini Ferris wheel. As we walked about the crowded fair grounds the two little girls each took one of my hands. I was struck by their comfort with me, La Güera [pronounced “wera,” with a soft “e” like “where.” It means “the white woman” or “whitey.”]

Before long though Olivia, Lupe’s wife, signaled to us that it was time to go. Lupe had called and it was time to prepare for our journey to the sierras. Our first stop on the journey to Wirikuta would be the tiny village of San Jose Escuela and on to the ranch where Lupe grew up.

When we arrived at Lupe’s house, he and his family hurriedly packed what they would need for the trip. It was almost midnight and I wondered, when they’d known for days that we were coming, why they didn’t have their things packed and ready to go. On further consideration I realized that this is one of the many cultural differences between this white Anglo Saxon protestant Canadian and the Huichol. I told myself that I would need to go with the flow on this trip. I lay down on one of the van’s long bench seats and rested to the sound of scurrying and chatter in their native tongue, Wiratika. It was just after 1:00AM I pulled the van out of the small yard next to Lupe’s house, listening carefully as soft-spoken Lupe issued directions on how to get back to the highway that would take us to the mountains. Lupe’s son Memo facilitated the process by repeating each of his father’s instructions more vociferously.

I try not to drive at night in Mexico. Roads and obstacles are poorly marked and other drivers’ condition uncertain. There’s a lot of drinking and driving in this country, which makes Sundays an especially treacherous day to be on the road. I was comforted that we were traveling on a Thursday. I insisted on driving because I was the only one insured to drive the rented vehicle and I suspect may have also been the only one with a valid drivers license.

The only other vehicles on the highway at that time of night were transport trucks trying to make time. They drove fast and didn’t let up for anything. In contrast, Victor admonished me that we’d never get there at that rate I was driving. Against my better judgement I pressed the gas pedal further to the floor, picking up considerable speed on the good quality two-lane highway.

It was only an hour or so into our drive when we came over a hill and faced a transport truck coming straight at us as it passed another rig. The older highways in Baja rarely have anything resembling a shoulder and there is often a drop of several feet from the edge of the pavement to the ground below. So my first thought was that we probably had nowhere to go. Confronted with the transport truck bearing down on us and the knowledge that if I were to leave the lane we’d likely fly off into a rough landscape and likely roll the van, I could have frozen with panic. Instead, time slowed to a crawl and I had time to consider whether this would be the end of our journey, only just begun. I didn’t want to believe it. I looked right and discovered there was in fact a shoulder there. I purposefully angled the van towards the white line that defined our lane from the shoulder, at the very same instant that the transport swerved back into his proper lane, missing us by, I believe, mere inches.

From the seat behind me, Lupe’s voice came quiet and reassuring, “You handled that well Güera.” I breathed a sigh of relief and gave thanks that we were all still alive. I couldn’t help but think Lupe had as much if not more to do with us still being in one piece and the weight of the great responsibility I’d taken on by agreeing to chauffeur such precious cargo about the Mexican countryside became more tangible and heavy on my shoulders.

Rats in the Barbie

Mickey MouseI’m a little high on caffeine as I write this. In fact, I’m so high on caffeine that my computer can’t keep up with the rate at which I’m typing (or at least it didn’t for that first line, now it’s apparently figured out that I’m hepped up on speed and it needs to put it in hyper-drive). I’m not supposed to drink coffee or caffeinated beverages of any type. They are too hard on my body, I am too sensitive to their effects, and my adrenal glands can’t keep up with caffeine’s adrenaline-induction demands. I tax my adrenals plenty with long surf sessions and an unnaturally high degree of self-induced stress and anxiousness.

So despite all that sensitivity and taxed adrenals, I’ve had two caffeinated beverages today. I’m allowing myself these normally forbidden drinks because I was up late last night. I stayed in town later than usual so that I could enjoy an incredible gourmet meal. I’d gone to town in the first place, to buy much needed groceries and to hit the hardware store where the following items were purchased: a rake, a brass hose bib, a large plastic rat trap, and three little sachets of red rat poison pellets. I find it interesting that unlike the brand I’m used to which is light blue, this rat poison is blood red. It’s like they are sadistically illustrating the fact that the little bugger is going to bleed out when he eats those things. I hate using poison. I know it is cruel beyond measure, but the reality is that I live in a place where the rats and mice will take over if you don’t keep them in check, especially after the rains we’ve had two summers in a row. All that rain means lots of grasses, grasses mean seeds, and seeds are the delectation of rodents.

Here’s the thing: for the second time in a period of less than two months, a rat has moved into the barbecue. It’s a big rat, measuring between six and eight inches long, head to butt, twice that measured head to tip of tail. It’s coat is the color of coal, its eyes jet black. I know this because it doesn’t run away when I open the lid to the barbecue. It scoots under the grill and lies there thinking I can’t see it. And I didn’t see it the first time I opened the grill. It’s almost exactly the same color as the char-encrusted grill under which it squeezes, but on closer inspection my eyes register what they are seeing and I invariably and instinctively jump back a bit and feel my heart clench in my chest.

I can’t have a rat living in the barbecue for so many reasons: Hantavirus, rabies, neither I nor my guests like the flavor roasted rat shit gives to meat, and the aesthetics of the situation, including the fact that the bugger is tearing up the barbecue cover to add to the nest s/he is building inside. Then there’s the whole potential for a family of rats to result from this single individual and the chaos they could wreak in a very short period of time. So no, no, we cannot have a rat living in the barbecue or anywhere else on the property for that matter. No matter how cute s/he is.

It’s worthy of note that not one of the dogs have taken matters into their own paws. They’ve done bupkis about this or the previous rat despite three of them being expert mousers. At the height of the mouse outbreak we had this spring, I found at least one mouse, dead, but intact, with fur soaked in slobber, left by the pantry door much as you would expect a cat to do. I think Millie was the most successful of the bunch, but I know she had help from Peanut and Friday corralling the little buggers. So with that in mind, I lifted Millie up to see the first rat that moved into the barbecue. I figured as soon as she smelled or saw it she’d go nuts and that she would hold vigil by the barbecue until that pesky rodent showed his face and she could bound in for the kill. It was only a matter of time, right? Well, she didn’t go nuts. She didn’t respond at all. It was like she had no idea what I was showing her and couldn’t smell it either. Like she had no experience whatsoever with anything bigger than a field mouse. That’s when I realized, with great disappointment, I was going to have to take matters into my own hands.

The first course of action was to borrow a live trap from a neighbor. I’d looked into that rat’s eyes and wasn’t comfortable killing her. I figured it was a her because she appeared to be making a nest and that is pre-natal behavior. Another neighbor, Dave, admonished me for referring to her as a “her.”

“How do you expect to kill it, if you assign it a sex? What next? Are you going to name it?”

He had a valid point, but I couldn’t help myself. I’d looked into her eyes and saw the soul within. She meant no harm. She was just doing what rats do. And she was kinda cute. Nothing like the sewer rats in the 70s horror movie Ben or the paper mill rats in a city near where I grew up that surely inspired Bowie’s Future Legend lyrics “fleas the size of rats sucked on rats the size of cats.”  I’m pretty sure that the image of Mickey Mouse was inspired by this particular species of rat, so cute are they with their big Mickeyesque ears.

The next time I checked on her, hoping beyond hope that she’d moved on, she rammed her head between the grill rungs trying to dive beneath, did her best to wriggle through the small space, but couldn’t. She backed off and tried diving under a couple more times before giving up. Then she just sat there and looked at me with those big black eyes. That’s when I realized she was getting too fat to fit below the grill and her death sentence was commuted.

Rather than kill her, I decided to relocate her. I hatched a plan that involved grabbing her with tongs and putting her in a bucket to be transported several miles down the road.

I got my tools together: leather gloves, a towel to throw over her, tongs to pick her up with, bucket with lid. The next morning I stood there tools at the ready, psyching myself up and visualizing how it was going to go down. Lift lid, throw towel, grab with tongs, plunge into bucket, place lid on bucket. I took a deep breath and opened the lid.

She wasn’t there.

Later that same day I went back and looked again. This time she was there and she didn’t even try to run away. She was lying on her side, panting.

The thought flashed through my head, Jesus, she’s in labor.

I pictured little rattlings falling out of her as I grasped her with the tongs. I shrugged, and picked her up anyway. To my great relief, no little pink, hairless rodents spewed forth from her nether regions. I placed her in the bucket and put the lid on.

Off we went for a ride on the ATV. I found a culvert and carefully dumped her inside, figuring that here she would at least have some protection from winged predators. I continued on down the road to surf, feeling a pulse of good karma wash over me.

On the way back from the surfbreak, I stopped to check on her and half expected to find her there, tending her brood. But I also had a sneaking suspicion she might be dead. I’d begun to wonder if perhaps her “labor” wasn’t in fact a sign that she’d found some of the poison I’d placed carefully around the property in places frequented by mice and rats. My conscience demanded that I determine the end result.

Nada. Nothing. No rat in sight. I figured she either crawled away to a hole somewhere to give birth or was eaten by a predator. Either way, she was no longer in my barbecue. I breathed a sign of relief and within a couple of days stopped torturing myself with the lyrics to that annoying UB40 song that goes, “There’s a rat in ma kitchen, what am I gonna do?”

Three weeks later, I had a group of people over to my house for an impromptu dinner party. A couple of the guys took a bunch of meat out to the barbie and out hopped another rat. I’m assuming it was another rat because I don’t think there are homing rats and I doubt whether one could find its way back from a little over two miles away. (Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.) This one does, however, bear a striking resemblance to its predecessor.

I’ve been trying to extirpate the little bugger ever since. It’s been a couple of weeks. This time I’ve resorted to traps, figuring it’s the most humane killing method and allows me to feed the corpse to the local vulture or owl population. But it springs the trap without getting caught every time regardless of what I bait it with. I’m at a loss. How do I get rid of it without using poison? There’s got to be a solution. One friend suggested I pour myself a good shot of Don Julio Añejo and wait by the barbie with a BB gun. Based on my experience with Angeles’ cat, I’m not convinced a BB will do the job. And furthermore, how do I prevent this from becoming an ongoing issue? I can’t be exterminating rats with regularity. The karma’s too heavy. And UB40 playing over and over in my head is gonna drive me crazy. What can I do to prevent this from continuing dear readers? I need your help!

Stuck in a Moment?

"Rock, Hard Place" Road Sign with dramatic clouds and sky.I’m feeling that prickly sensation of mild sunburn on my forehead and the backs of my legs. After two weeks out of the water and away from Baja, it’s good to be home. I wasn’t so sure that I’d be feeling this way though. I wasn’t sure I was going to want to come home.

I’ve not only been MIA from this blog for a while, but I’ve been feeling MIA from life a fair bit too. I’ve been struggling, depressed and lonely. I’ve been fighting with the realities of my lifestyle.

I’m pretty sure I can hear you thinking where do I get off feeling this way? Believe me, I’ve been told many times and am usually very aware that I have every reason to be content, that I live a life most people would give a few fingers for. My ex, in his eloquence, is fond of saying I’ve “got it dicked.” And I usually can convince myself that’s true and find a reason to be content, if not outright happy. But there’s something missing and so much of what is obvious from the outside looking in just masks the difficult realities of my lifestyle. To compound the problem, I feel a tremendous amount of guilt any time I feel dissatisfied. Feeling guilty about how I’m feeling does nothing to help the situation.

When I find myself in this place, I do my best not to wallow or let it drag me down into a pit of self-pity. What I do instead is gratefully acknowledge everything I have, eat right, drink less and try to figure out what fundamentally is making me feel like crap so I can fix it. The fix is always one of two things – an attitude adjustment or something external I can change. Typically the former approach is enough to turn things around, but when the depression is the result of too much partying and surfing, and not enough sleep, changing my external circumstances can work wonders. This time though the only cause I could come up with was that I had been living in isolation for eight months and needed to get out. Getting out, however, requires funds, which are in short supply (for now, she optimistically writes), so I turned to my ex who’d been asking me to come help him with a landscaping project on Maui. He’d fly me to Hawaii in exchange for help with his project, some baking and home cooked meals.

The remarkable thing is that as soon as I booked my tickets, I felt better. Instantly. Days before my scheduled departure. I woke up early, enthusiastic for what the day would bring and looking forward to what lay ahead. I thought, “!s that all it takes? Something different to look forward to?”

As the plane took off and banked North in the direction of San Francisco, I felt a elephantine weight lift and my mood shifted skyward with the plane. Less than 24 hours in San Francisco and I started to think, “Maybe I should move to California and get a real job, get involved in some kind of community work…rejoin civilization.” Yeah, I can barely believe it either.

And then, rather than laugh at myself, leave it at that unbelievable thought, and return to my unreal life, I said out loud to three well-connected people, “So if you know anyone who’s looking for someone to house sit, a writer or editor, or anything really, let me know.”

On Maui, I began the process of formulating a plan that would make my new dream come true. I even came up with a way I could have my cake and eat it too. “I’ll get a writing job that only requires that I be in the office periodically.” And there were thoughts of landing a regular house- and animal-sitting gig.

The time on the island went fast. Too fast. I kept thinking up reasons why I should stay longer. “We didn’t accomplish enough on the project.” “I should go to this writing workshop that’s scheduled on the Sunday after I’m supposed leave.” “I didn’t get to have good pizza.” “I really should go see friend X.” But I had responsibilities back home that couldn’t wait and some disturbed weather off the coast of southern Mexico suggested a tropical storm might form sooner rather than later. I kept to the original plan and promised myself I’d return to the City by the Bay this fall or winter.

The flight from Maui to San Francisco, via Portland is not short. I had plenty of time to get caught up on my reading. I’d packed my Kindle in my checked baggage by mistake, so I read the only thing I had handy – Volume 24.3 of The Surfers Journal. And as I read from front to back cover, three quotes in three separate articles resonated with me, revealing a theme that shed light on the source of my dissatisfaction.

It’s easy to feel isolated when you’re no longer part of mainstream life.”

Day after day, no matter how perfect the waves get, there is a feeling of remoteness here, a sense that the rest of the world is moving along, more engaged, more connected, and more interesting.”

I felt a pang of recognition delivered with the pointier end of a stick as I read the last one:

If every day is a holiday, there are no more holidays.”

There they were, hard, sharp, and undeniable on the page – the three main reasons I was feeling down, along with their remedies:

Isolation, remoteness, and monotony versus engaged, connected, and interesting.

I feel, often, like I am on another planet or could be, for all the interaction I have with people. The little bit I have is limited in scope and time. What I’m struggling with, bumping up against, is the need to feel connected, deeply connected, to other members of the human race and to feel engaged in some cause that benefits others. But I’m scared by what that means. Really scared. That ache-in-the-pit-of-your-stomach scared. It’s the changes I’d have to make implied by this realization that scare the living shit out of me. And then I think, “What if this feeling is something that will pass and I end up regretting it for the rest of my life?” After all, we’re talking about walking away from what, for the most part, is a pretty amazing lifestyle. Then I worry that I’m looking in the wrong place for a solution to my dissatisfaction – external conditions. Maybe I just need to “do the work” and everything will turn rosy again. Maybe, just maybe, I’m “stuck in a moment and can’t get out of it.” But the memory of the epiphany I had on that plane tells me that’s just wishful thinking. The prospect of leaving this surfers’ paradise is daunting. But if at the other end I find meaning and fulfillment, the choice seems pretty obvious. Nevertheless, I don’t know. I just don’t know. Do you?

Mystic in Mexico: Synthesis

peyote raysThis is the last in a series of blogs I wrote about a peyote ceremony. To read from the beginning, click on this link to return to Part I.

My peyote experience occurred last November and yet, I’m still processing much of the information I received. Every time I sit down to meditate on the rising sun or even if the sun has been up for an hour or so, the portal appears after several seconds of concentrating on it. I’m very conscious of the energy at my solar plexus chakra being blocked, but must admit that I began actively working to unblock it only recently. I’ve been meditating and working to release the old stuck energy that I understand now is layers of emotional pain going back generations.

My intention for writing about my peyote experience was not to inspire others to try it or any other mind-altering substances. I personally would not use peyote carelessly and, based on a discussion with the shaman’s assistant, Mario, and further research, I believe that most people do not experience much of anything when it is used outside of the context of a spiritual ceremony with a proper guide.

I struggled with sharing what I learned while under the influence of peyote. I know much of what I related is probably pretty hard for many to believe and I don’t blame you. But I felt compelled to relate some of what I learned of the existence of realities alternative to those that churches, governments and mega-corporations spoon-feed so many of us from cradle to grave. I personally feel as though I’ve spent the last decade working to undo the brainwashing I received under the influence of schools, governments and media for the first several decades of my life. I’m encouraged to learn that there are so many interesting and exciting things about the way the world and our Universe work.

I found it interesting to discover that many anthropologists studying the Huichol and other indigenous people who use peyote in spiritual ceremonies dismiss the resulting visions as culturally induced hallucinations – the result purely of combining psychoactive compounds with religious indoctrination occurring over a person’s lifetime. Anthropologists maintain that people see the Blue Deer because they’ve grown up hearing how it’s the vision that appears as the messenger. I find it interesting then that my first vision was not of some white-bearded, flowing-haired old man sitting on a throne in the clouds. Or Santa Claus! Because my dad took me to the ice rink to play ringette on Sundays instead of dragging me to church. But I didn’t see Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny or John Travolta. My first vision was of the head of a blue deer despite not knowing anything about the connection between the Blue Deer and peyote, nor the Huichol interpretation of it. Similarly, how is it that I saw a portal through the sun and the matrix, both visions of which I’ve since learned are spoken of by the Huichol? I’d wager a guess that the same anthropologists who dismissed peyote visions as nothing more than culturally-dictated hallucinations might find it difficult to explain how peyote induced these visions in a whitebread Canadian woman with no prior knowledge. So much of what I learned over the course of that three day period were things I’d never heard of or even imagined. Can what I saw and heard be explained or rationalized scientifically? Perhaps the greater question is why do we so often feel the need to try to explain or disprove the mystical source of such a powerful and illuminating experience?

I’ve come to believe that some things in life cannot be explained. I prefer to leave the mystery of peyote’s power intact and wonder, for all that it taught me about myself and the Universe, if peyote might not be the fabled “Tree of Knowledge.”

Mystic in Mexico Part VII: Cosmic Resonance

peyote_portal_nierika_hikuriThis is the seventh in a multi-part series. To read from the beginning go HERE. If you’ve read the other parts, then you’ll recall that at the end of Part VI, I was sitting on my ATV, meditating on the beach when Death took my hand.

No sooner did I shudder and consider pulling my hand away, than a being of white light took hold of my other hand. I realized then that Death was there as a symbol of the Other World reached via the Sirius-Sun portal and of the darkness that’s necessary for there to be light. Hikuri began to speak again and this time it was about my dog Zee, who’d just passed away.

Zee had to die so that you could have this experience and become a link between this and the other worlds. Zee is from Sirius. She is home again and waiting for you there to guide and protect you on your journeys through the portal. Just as you guided her in her last days when she could not see, she will be your Spirit Guide when you return to Sirius.

Demur Zee

Zee before she lost her sight

I pictured Zee waiting for me and began to cry. It made so much sense. She was such a patient, peaceful dog. She never fought with the others, was the Omega, the most submissive, of the pack, and accepted her blindness with grace. And she was waiting for me? She was always waiting for me. When I would leave the property she would amble up the driveway and lay under one of the palm trees there and wait. Sometimes I was gone for weeks, but she would lay there patiently and wait for my return.

Now I understood that our connection had some purpose beyond the giving and receiving of comfort and companionship. I tried to imagine what it would be like to meet Zee in the Other World, on another plane in the cosmos. It was easy to see she would make a natural guide. It comforted me to know that her death on Earth was not the end of her existence. And I wondered when I would see her again, when I would once again have the opportunity to pass through the portal. I would be prepared next time and accept the invitation.

* * * * *

Upon returning home I was surprised to discover I wasn’t exhausted from staying up all night. I pulled out a big hardbound artists’ sketchbook with a black cover that I’d had for many years, but used only once to draw some architectural ideas in. When I brought the book home originally, I impetuously wrote “Dawn’s Big Book of Big Ideas” on the inside cover.  I smiled now as I opened it and saw with new eyes the title I’d chosen. I began to record my recollections from the beginning of the peyote ceremony, what I’d heard and seen. I filled five 14” x 11” pages before my hand tired. Finally, knowing my memories were saved, I allowed myself to relax, ate a light meal, and lay down to rest.

The next morning I awoke uncharacteristically early, well before sunrise. I gathered my meditation cushion and a blanket, and organized myself on a flat tiled bench that overlooks the sea where I could watch the sun rise. To my astonishment, when the sun rose it again took on the appearance of the Sun-Sirius portal, spinning and pulsating. I concentrated on it and began to hear the voice of Hikuri. This is some of what I heard:

You had the visions and hear us now because you are clear. We can only communicate with you if you remain clear. To remain clear you must eat a diet that is mainly vegetarian and when you eat meat, it must be blessed by the manner in which it is raised, killed, and prepared. To remain clear you must not drink alcohol in excess. You may drink small amounts, but never to excess. Your vessel is too sensitive and drinking weakens your solar plexus chakra.

I’d been doing a cleanse when Crystal invited me to participate in the ceremony and had not been drinking or eating meat as a result. I fasted the day that we gathered, so had not eaten for 24 hours when we ate our first piece of hikuri.  I learned from research weeks later that the Huichol recommend fasting for several days before participating in a ceremony. The voice continued:

The grid you saw when you lay down and covered your eyes is the manner in which we communicate and travel over great distances. Time and space have no meaning in our world. You can use the grid to receive from and send energy to the rest of the Universe. As you sit and meditate, picture yourself connected to the grid. This is one way you can help the rest of the world – by sending positive energy out to them on the grid.

I got a very clear picture in my mind of the energy grid and how I was at one point among billions throughout the Universe and how I could thereby send loving, healing energy to the rest of the planet and connect to the energy and higher wisdom of the Sirian system.

Try to greet the Sun and Sirius every morning – it will cleanse you further and allow us to communicate with you throughout the day. This is how we connect. Any time you need us – look to the Sun, and at night the Moon is your connection to us because she reflects our light energy. The Sun is good – that is why you were drawn to Baja where the sun shines most days. Surfing is good because it exposes you to the Sun and puts you in touch with Mother Ocean. This is very healing.

You may do peyote again, but it must be under very strict conditions. You must always have a guide who is strong and clear. You must be clear, so cleanse in the days leading up and then fast for several days. Always be in nature for the ceremony. Guard against arrogance and always thank Hikuri for the guidance he offers.

At the end of my meditation, I gave thanks for the wisdom shared and asked that I continue to be guided on my journey.

* * * * *

X-Ray image of Sirius B

X-Ray image of Sirius B

Once I’d written everything down that I could remember from the ceremony and afterwards, I turned to the internet to see if there were references to anything Hikuri had shared. I was blown away. There it was. The very same information and more. I began to record what I was learning in the Big Book. I found that as I scribbled additional information would come to me through my pen, in much the same way it had as a voice. I found an image depicting Sirius B emanating pink-colored energy and recollected that the sky was pink during the second part of my portal vision. The symbol for Sirius is a triangle and suddenly triangles were appearing everywhere, in the world and in my life. But then I stumbled onto a website describing something called The Sirius Mystery, and here I learned how Sirius may have influenced humans in the past:

“Inspiration may even come to Humans on Earth from the Sirius system by harmonic resonance articulated by the (still undefined) Anubis Field.”

I suddenly made the connection and understood that the Anubis Field of which they spoke was in fact the energetic grid I’d seen in my vision. The whole thing was something that, prior to this experience, I wouldn’t have believed and may have dismissed as being the stuff of science-fiction.

I took note of numbers that cropped up about Sirius and our Sun, like the fact that their mass ratio is 1.053. Now I intuited that the energy grid or the “Anubis Field” operates on a frequency equivalent to the mass ratios of Sirius and our Sun. The voice of Hikuri interjected once again.

Peyote allows humans who are clear to achieve the harmonic resonance necessary to enter the Anubis Field.

The next leap came quickly. I scribbled in my book, “Peyote has a harmonic resonance of 1.053! The image of peyote is a sun surrounded by triangles, the symbol of Sirius! Though subtle, it is there to see for those open to observing it.”

My mind raced and I began making connections. Next I penned, “Regarding harmonic resonance and love – and the answer came:

Love is much more than a feeling – it is a frequency, a key code vibration necessary to achieve the higher levels of mastery.

Next to this I wrote: –> harmonic frequency? 1.053??

I speculated that love has the same harmonic frequency as the Sun-Sirius portal, peyote, and the energetic grid/Anubis Field.

“We feel love when we are in harmonic resonance with another person. When two people meet who are vibrating at the same frequency, they feel that “zap” that some describe as “love at first sight.” Presumably, there are different love frequencies, with “True Spiritual Love” having a specific frequency that reflects one of the energetic constants governing the cosmos.” Again, I wondered if 1.053 might not be the key constant connecting humans to a higher field of existence.

* * * * *

My experience hearing the wise collective consciousness of Hikuri continued for almost three days. I heard the voice regularly throughout that time, always explaining how the Universe works, sharing a vast store of knowledge. I could always discern when the voice was not my own thoughts. It consistently had an “other” quality to it. Gradually, it began to disappear briefly during the day and always when I went to sleep at night. I don’t recall having any particularly enlightening or visionary dreams during this time, but I believe that is because I was receiving so much information during conscious waking hours.

The portal was visible each morning when I greeted the sun. At the end of the third day though I felt the effects of Hikuri dissipate rather quickly and the lens through which I viewed the world shifted. Nevertheless, I was left with the consciousness expanding effects of learning things I never dreamed possible, a new understanding of how the cosmos works, and of my role in it.

Next – the final chapter of “Mystic in Mexico.”

Mystic in Mexico Part VI: Light and Dark

3d_dolphin_skyThis is the sixth in a multi-part series. To read from the beginning go HERE. If you’ve read the previous posts, you’ll recall that Part V ended with me lying on a bed doing a chakra cleanse to ground myself. I’d been told by an authoritative voice that my solar plexus chakra is blocked and that surfing will help me to open it.

I breathed in deeply, thankful to hear that surfing was something that would help open my sacral chakra and thereby aid my spiritual development. I’d always intuited that surfing was good for me in ways that go way beyond developing my trapezius muscles. I’d always known surfing can be a deeply spiritual pursuit when approached with that intent, but it was comforting to get confirmation from the voice of Hikuri.

I checked in briefly with my heart chakra and saw its energetic connection to my blocked solar plexus chakra. I vowed to work on opening those important energy channels and then moved on to my throat chakra.

When I checked in with this chakra, it was the same cotton-candy pink I’d observed the sky to be that morning. Normally, the throat chakra is blue though. Nevertheless, its energy was healthy and strong, but I cleansed it by visualizing white light coming down through the top of my head and polishing the pink light. You are directly connected to Sirius through your throat chakra. I understood immediately that the color pink represented Sirius and that my throat chakra was currently glowing pink because at that moment I was intimately connected to Sirius’ energy. You are meant to communicate your experiences with the rest of the world through this chakra.

Throat = Communication

I understood that it is my Purpose in this lifetime to use the gift of communication for the benefit of others and the planet. Sharing my experiences and any insight given me by this energetic connection to a higher wisdom is my dharma. This was not the first time I’d received spiritual confirmation of that, but it was comforting to have it reaffirmed by Hikuri.

My third eye and crown chakras were weakened the same way my heart chakra was and I cleansed them and again vowed to do the work to get the energy in my solar plexus chakra unblocked.

As I lay there, I suddenly felt moved to go swimming in the sea. At that very moment Hikuri piped up again, You need to immerse yourself in the sea to rid yourself of the stagnant energy around your body.

I took a narrow path down the steep embankment to the water’s edge. My head was still buzzing with the energy of Hikuri and the sun’s reflection dazzling off the water’s surface seemed particularly bright after laying with my hands over my eyes for so long. How long? I had no idea. I also have no idea how I ended up in my bathing suit, but I did.

I carefully picked my way around the rocks in the near shore and entered the sea, feeling the warm water envelope my legs in a sensuous caress. A hundred yards or so to the south, a pelican sat on a large rock sticking up out of the water. I felt instant affinity and love for him and thought, “Hello brother Pelican,” and the voice of Hikuri replied, Yes, pelican is your brother. The rock is also your brother. Everything is alive, everything is filled with the energy of the Universe. We are all one because we are all energy.

The reality of that oft used phrase, “We are all one,” descended into my body, into every cell of my being with a power I’d never felt before. It was no longer just a platitude. I knew it to be one of the great Universal Truths.

With the water up to my knees, I plunged headfirst into the water. As I did so, in my mind’s eye, I saw myself as a dolphin, then a Humpback whale, an Orca, on and on through a list of many cetaceans and then finally a Humanoid species that could breathe under water. I saw an underwater city filled with similar people who could communicate telepathically and were technologically and spiritually more advanced than our own society. Atlantis, I thought. I once lived in Atlantis.

Yes, you were once able to spend long periods of time under the water. This is why you need not be afraid when you are held under water by a wave. You have a great capacity to hold your breath and remain calm under water because it has been your home over many lifetimes. You must remember this when you surf. Before you enter the water, especially when the surf is big, you must pause to ask your ocean dwelling brothers and sisters and the sea to protect you. Listen for any messages – they will tell you if you must not enter.

I played in the water, submerging myself to feel the water run over my body. I felt elated and youthful. I watched as Crystal, dressed in a loose white Oaxacan dress, came down to the beach, undressed and joined me in the water. Seeing her comfortable in her nakedness, I got out and removed my bathing suit, and returned to the water again. I told her about the voice I was hearing and the information it was imparting.

“Yes, I could tell you were having a deep experience. I knew you needed to be on your own for a while to let the process continue. Being in the water is good. It will cleanse you and allow you to continue the journey.”

We shared more of our insights and played like children in the water until I felt it was time for me to gather my things and head for home. I felt moved to write down the experience and record the details.

I said goodbye to Crystal, who in parting told me, “Guadalupe blessed your ATV before they left.”

I smiled at what I thought a peculiar thing to do – blessing a four-wheel motorcycle made of metal and plastic – but then I remembered what Hikuri said. We are all energy. I mentally gave thanks and hoped the ATV would take me where I needed to go on the next stage of my journey.

* * * * *

I drove slowly towards home, taking in the colors of the landscape as I went. Everything seemed to glow and vibrate with life-force energy. The warmth of the sun felt good on my arms and back.

Closer to home, I came to a place where the beach widens and huge sand dunes covered in scrub vegetation loom along the western horizon.  Just past a lone house recently built on the beach, I looked up and saw a flock of pelicans circling high in the sky. Their behavior was not normal and I stopped to watch them.

Pelicans normally like to fly in V-formation just above the crest of the waves near shore, using the lift of the updraft coming off the face of waves. They rarely get very far from the water, preferring to rest on rocks surrounded by water or on the beach right next to the sea. These pelicans were flying inland and very high. I’d never seen pelicans flying so high. And they were not flying from Point A to Point B as they normally do either. I watched as they flew in a clockwise circular motion, and then, to my great surprise, turned 180 degrees and flew along the exact same path counterclockwise. The tips of their wings flashed silver in the sunlight. I was astounded! Then they broke formation and a group of five or six of them swooped down and flew directly over my head.

Look at the sun and meditate with us, came the message as they passed by.

I turned the engine off, swung one leg over to sit side-saddle on the ATV and looked again at the sun. The portal was still visible, but the sun was strong now and hurt my eyes, so I closed them. That’s when I heard the ravens calling from their perch on the beach house roof.

I’ve always had an affinity for ravens. I love how intelligent and playful they are. Ravens figure in many of the world’s mythologies, often as a creator and bringer of light, sometimes as a trickster or divulger of secrets. I’ve seen them all over North America – their distribution is vast – but my respect for them was solidified one winter’s day on Baffin Island.

Raven 2I was in the town of Iqaluit working with the federal government to assess the impact of several World War II military dump sites on the local environment. A local colleague and I drove over to one of the dumps so he could show me how they’d fenced the area off to control unwanted waste disposal there. A deep ditch ran between the dump and the access road, its three to four foot depth necessary to accommodate heavy Spring melt water run-off. There, in the dusky light of an Arctic winter day, I watched a flock of ravens playing in the ditch. “Playing” is the only term for what they were doing for it had no evolutionary purpose, no edge of competition. They looked like an energetic gathering of small, feathery children. From where they were gathered at the top of the ditch, they jumped, two at a time, and slid on their backs down the snowy embankment to the bottom. Then back up they would go, using a combination of hopping and flying, to take their place at end of one of two lines where the other ravens stood waiting their turn. Yes, waiting their turn. I couldn’t make this up. The playfulness they displayed, combined with their seeming “polite intelligence,” solidified my fascination and respect for these birds.

I do a pretty mean raven imitation, if I do say so myself. And I like trying to communicate with them. So when the pair on the beach house roof started to call, I listened intently and discovered I could understand them.

You are Raven, they said. You are to be an intermediary between our two worlds. I understood, again on some universal knowledge level, that they meant I contained some spirit of the raven within me. The same way Native Americans describe someone as having “bear” energy or “eagle” power.

While I was contemplating what the raven had said, a dark figure suddenly appeared to my right. I knew instantly that it was Death. I shuddered. And then, Death took my hand.

Return to read Part VII of Mystic in Mexico and discover what Death has in store for Dawn.

Mystic in Mexico Part IV: The Portal

Sun PortalThe following post is the fourth in a series. To read from the beginning click here for Part I.

As the night progressed, one by one, people laid down to sleep, but Crystal, Fernando and I remained awake. I sat upright, avoiding the temptation to lie down, knowing it would induce sleep. Each time I felt sleepiness descending upon me, I’d eat another wedge of peyote and the it would lift. I did not experience the nausea some people describe, but I also did not experience any far out visions beyond that first subtle one of the Blue Deer. I’d forgotten my watch at home, but the constellations, as they rose and gradually made their way across the sky accompanied by the bright moon, served as a timepiece. Gradually Orion appeared, followed by Sirius, the Dog Star, the brightest star in the night sky.

I have a particular affinity for Orion and Sirius, hailing from when, on still winter nights in my youth, I often lay in the deep snow blanketing our yard to gaze at the night sky. Aside from the Big and Little Dipper, the only constellation I knew was Orion. We’d learned a song in school about Orion and it played over and over in my mind’s soundtrack as I looked skyward. What other thoughts I had lying out there wrapped in my snowsuit, I don’t recall, but even then I knew there was much more to the Universe than my young mind could possibly comprehend.

Orion-in-Oct-1024x805As the night of the peyote ceremony progressed, I grew impatient for sunrise, feeling night would never end. The moon had arced its way across the sky and sat above the western hills behind me, shining down upon us like a huge flashlight. Orion tilted towards the hills laying on his side just above the moon, while faithful Sirius remained, as always, to left of and below his foot. I turned my gaze back to the fire and tried to concentrate on Guadalupe’s chanting. Something told me that sunrise would be a significant time in the ceremony. I bided the time.

After what seemed like another hour, I again looked over my shoulder to check the progress of Orion, Sirius, and the moon in their descent toward the hill. What I saw left me befuddled. Orion and Sirius had disappeared below the hill, but the moon remained in the position I’d last seen it. How could that be? I looked back at the fire, thinking it must be a trick of my vision and Orion and Sirius must still be there. I turned again to check and saw that indeed they were not. I nudged Crystal who sat quietly next to me.

“Did you notice the moon,” I said, gesturing with my head. She shook her head no, so I asked, “Look at where it is now. Please take note and then let’s look again in a while.” She agreed, noted the moon’s position, and we turned our attention back to the fire and Guadalupe’s chanting.

A while later, Crystal got up and left. When she returned, I thought it was a good time to check on the moon, time having been tangibly marked by her departure. I couldn’t believe my eyes! There it sat, in exactly the same place, a short distance from the top of the hills! When I pointed it out to Crystal, she smiled the same mischievous grin that Ayax had exhibited when I mentioned seeing the blue deer.

Finally, the sky began to brighten. As dawn approached, Mario instructed us that we should take our last piece of hikuri. Once again I chewed the strange cactus up into a mash. Having swallowed it, I prepared myself mentally for what I thought would be a sunrise ceremony, but rather than gathering into a circle and chanting as I’d expected, everyone began gathering their things while they chewed their last piece of peyote. Convinced that I needed to see the sun rise, I stubbornly ignored the others and sat cross-legged on my blanket watching the eastern horizon. Every few minutes I looked over my right shoulder to check on the moon, which remained hanging above the hill. I now knew for certain that it hadn’t moved for hours.

As I sat and waited, I remembered that people report seeing a green flash at the instant the sun breaks the horizon, so I focused my attention on the brightest spot, only breaking my glance briefly to check on the moon. The activity of the others around me was getting boisterous – they were talking, gathering their belongings, walking between me and the where the sun would rise. I wondered why they would ignore the most important moment of a new day and tried to stifle my annoyance. Eventually, I felt I had to stand up, or I might be swept up in their activity. So I stood, continuing to stare at the horizon. When the sky got so bright that it became clear dawn was imminent, I decided to ignore the moon and kept my eyes focused eastward.

In a flash of whitish yellow light, the sun suddenly appeared above the sea and the sky filled with an intensity that contrasted sharply with the many hours of darkness I’d just experienced. As it rapidly rose, I began to feel the pull again of the moon and turned my whole body to face it, half expecting it to be gone. But no, there she was hovering in exactly the same position. I turned to look at the sun, then again to the moon. Back and forth I went, conflicted about which body I needed to gaze at. I wanted to combine their energy somehow and felt as though I was a link between the two. After several minutes of trying to look at them both, the sun morphed into a strange rotating silver disk, so I focused my attention on it. Then I realized it was not a disk at all, but a hole, a portal of some sort. Beyond the portal the sky turned golden, the sea became lavender and a perfect right-hand wave broke continuously. Behind the wave rose a steep volcanic mountain covered in lush vegetation. I realized I was being beckoned to pass through the portal to visit the idyllic scene.

Despite feeling incredibly drawn to go ride that perfect wave, a different kind of wave, one of fear rolled through me instead. What would happen on the other side? Where would I go? Was this some cosmic trick? Find out in Part V of Mystic in Mexico: Sirius Wisdom.

Mystic in Mexico Part III: The Blue Deer

Venado AzulThis is the third in a multi-part series. Here is where you’ll find Part I and Part II.

We were then instructed to stand before Guadalupe so that we could be blessed. The sky was dark now, but a soft orange light glowed on the eastern horizon. As Guadalupe blessed the other participants, I kept my eyes on the horizon as the light grew stronger until finally the moon crested. Gradually, it rose to cast a long shaft of soft orange and then yellow light across the sea’s smooth surface. It appeared enormous so close to the horizon, powerful, and surely blessed the occasion with its presence. The full moon happened to be in my astrological sign, Gemini, that night. I watched it rise to the sound of Guadalupe’s soft chanting behind me. Crystal called me when it was my turn and I stood quiet and still in front of Guadalupe as he moved the feathered wand first to my left, then to my right, placed it between my hands as he brought them to my heart. Finally he held it to my forehead. I closed my eyes and said a silent prayer for guidance.

Now that we had been blessed, we were permitted to eat our first piece of peyote. Mario had carefully cut a golf ball-sized button into wedges. He showed us how to pick the small prickly hairs off the outside skin before eating it and explained that they made the cactus taste bitter. I imagined they also didn’t feel very good stuck in the roof of your mouth and tongue! I cleaned my piece thoroughly and put it in my mouth. I’d heard that peyote can be so bitter as to make you want to vomit and that some people do indeed. Mario instructed us to chew it down to a pulp before swallowing it. As I did so, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it tasted much better than I’d expected. It was not bitter at all and had a texture and taste a bit like a cucumber, but with fibrous strings mixed into the soft meat. Next I noticed it also had tiny hard pieces in it, like sand particles.  When I’d chewed it down into the texture of baby pablum, I swallowed the pulpy mass down.

It was time to enter the temescal. Crystal invited me to enter first. I removed all my clothing except for my bathing suit and a light cotton sun dress I wore over it. The night air was fresh and humid, the sand soft and cool on my bare feet. The sweat lodge is a low structure constructed from PVC tubing and boughs of a local shrub called Palo de Arco (literally “bowed branch” because, like willow, it is easily bent and shaped into bows). The PVC might seem incongruous, but it is practical. The dome-shaped skeleton of soft branches and plastic tubing is covered with many blankets and tarps all the way to the ground.  The result is a pitch black cocoon-like space that retains the heat and steam of the hot rocks. There is a hole in the ground at the center of the tented space that is about three feet by two feet wide and almost three feet deep. This is where the hot rocks are placed. I squatted down low and, duck-like, entered the lodge where the tarps and blankets were thrown back to create a low doorway.

One by one, my fellow travelers joined me, gradually forming a circle around the pit. Once we were all inside, Crystal asked each of us to say our name and tell the spirit of Hikuri what our intention was for being there that night. One of the participants asked to be helped in his quest to quit drinking. As the other participants spoke, I turned inside to see what intention I carried in my heart. When it was my turn I shared what I’d found there, “I seek knowledge of the spirit world and to open my heart.”

Fernando began to bring in the now white-hot rocks one at a time. As each rock was dropped into the pit, we all chimed, “Bienvenida abuelita! (welcome little grandmother).” As the rocks were placed, I could feel their heat snaking up out of the pit and across my legs. After seven had been delivered, Fernando came back into the lodge with a bucket of water and the door was closed tightly behind him. Crystal took the bucket and after chanting something I didn’t understand, poured the water onto the rocks in a constant slow stream. A strong blast of steam rose and enveloped us. Outside, Guadalupe continued to chant his mysterious prayer songs.

The first thing I noticed was that the steam did not burn the inside of my nose when I inhaled, like it had the first time I participated in the temescal. Others were breathing quickly, as though under stress, but I settled in and felt the heat enter the cells of my body. Crystal began to sing a spiritual song. I closed my eyes and began to move slowly side to side in time to the beat of her song.

Once the steam dissipated, Fernando left the lodge again to move more hot rocks from the fire into the pit. Again, we sang out, “Bienvenida abuelita!” as he dropped the rocks from his shovel blade, one by one into the pit. This time he brought 13 rocks in total and I felt the energy in the small space rise as we all anticipated the stronger heat they would create. Another bucket of water was brought and, once the door was sealed, poured over the rocks. The intensity of the steam was acute, yet I felt remarkably comfortable and hummed along as Crystal sang. Someone began to chant Om and I joined in. Mystified at how comfortable I was, thinking I had not even broken a sweat, I reached up to feel my face only to discover that I was, in fact, sweating profusely.

I guess this is an effect of the peyote, I thought and was grateful that I was more comfortable in the sweat lodge this time around. I closed my eyes and appreciated the feeling of the humid, heavy heat.

At one point I opened my eyes and saw an oblong blue light above our circle. There were two dark spots at the top of the shape, where it was widest and a dark line running vertically down the lower three quarters. I knew it hadn’t been there earlier, but guessed one of the blankets on top of the lodge must have blown back to allow the light of the moon to glow through a blue tarp. But when I listened for the wind, I heard nothing.

When the sweat lodge ceremony was over, we crawled out of the small sandy space one at a time. I removed my dress and, as instructed, poured cool fresh water from a 50 gallon barrel over my head and body to cleanse myself of the toxins I’d just sweated out. The water was quite cool, but I enjoyed the sensation of it washing over my body.

I dried off and put on warm clothes. One by one, we gathered around the fire while Fernando busied himself adding fuel.  Blankets were laid out around the fire to sit or lie on. I joined Crystal on one and wrapped myself in a heavy blanket I’d brought to guard against getting chilled. The heat from the fire felt good and I turned slowly in a circle so it would warm my whole body and help dry my hair.

Guadalupe and Mario remained seated on the white plastic chairs on the South side of the fire pit where they’d been when we entered the lodge. Guadalupe continued to chant quietly and I wondered if he would do it the entire night. We chatted amicably amongst ourselves until I heard Mario telling Mauricio, “Yes, you may take more Hikuri.” I looked to Crystal for guidance. She nodded and said, “Yes, you may take Hikuri as often as you want. Let your intuition guide you.”

Mario added, “It will help you if you find yourself getting tired.”

I took another wedge, cleaned it, and chewed it to a pulp.

Guadalupe paused from his chanting, got up and stretched then. He looked around and asked no one in particular, “How was the temescal?”

Ayax, the cardiologist, replied, “We were visited by the venado azul.” (the blue deer)

I looked at him in surprise and repeated what he’d said, wondering if I’d misunderstood, “Blue deer?”

Guadalupe looked at him intently and replied, “That is an auspicious sign.”

Ayax continued, “Part way through the second round, I saw a line of small blue deer prancing around above the heads of the people across from me.” As he spoke he pointed away from himself and motioned with his hand up and down. “A line of four small deer trotting around the circle.”

Guadalupe said quietly, “El Venado Azul is the messenger. It is a good sign.”

I turned to Ayax and asked, “So it was not the moon shining through one of the tarps that I saw?”

He smiled mischievously at me and asked, “What did you see?”

I described the blue light I’d seen and turned to Crystal to ask her if the moon had shone through the roof of the lodge, but even before she answered, I suddenly realized I’d had a vision of the head of a blue deer.

The Venado Azul is the guide, messenger, and guardian of the sacred land the Huichol call Wirikuta, where the peyote cactus is collected. This spirit deer also symbolizes peyote and their names are sometimes used interchangeably. The Huichol refer to “hunting the blue deer” when they go on pilgrimage to Wirikuta to collect peyote.

I sat and questioned what I’d seen. My mind, the product of years of scientific and western dogma struggled to accept what I knew on a more visceral level to be true. Ayax’s vision was so similar. I felt a wave of understanding pass through me and acceptance of their explanation seemed to make me feel lighter. I felt my chest open and expand as I decided that the vision of the blue deer was a sign that my quest to know Hikuri was not misguided.

In Part IV: The Portal Hikuri extends an invitation to travel to another world. Will I go?

Mystic in Mexico Part II: Meeting Hikuri

bonfireThe following is the second in a series of blogs. To read Part I, go HERE.

In November 2012, I was on the beach packing up to leave after a surf, when my friend Crystal happened by. We chatted briefly, and then, out of the blue, she invited me to participate in a temescal. A temescal is a ceremony that takes place in a small enclosed space with a hole dug in the ground at the center into which burning hot stones are placed. Water is poured over the white hot stones to create lung-searing steam, which causes sweat to pour from every pore in your body such that you are transformed into something resembling a fountain. It purifies your body and, purportedly, your spirit. I imagine if you’re impure enough, you might vaporize entirely, leaving behind just a shell of skin in a pile on the dirt floor.

I’d participated in a temescal with Crystal a couple of years prior and found the intense heat overwhelming, the result more exhausting than invigorating. I’d barely managed to remain in the little enclosure and, desperate to get some cool air into my lungs, had to lie with the side of my face in the dirt near a flap of the tarp covering the lodge’s frame. This time though I was three days into a juice cleanse and thought her invitation rather serendipitous. All that sweating would help me take the cleanse to another level, if I could only withstand the claustrophobia and intense heat.

As I ruminated over whether to accept her invitation, Crystal continued, “If you decide to come be sure to bring a blanket and warm clothing…oh and a candle.”

I looked at her curiously, not understanding.

“The Huichol may be coming too,” she said, almost as an after thought.

Padre! (cool!)” I exclaimed.

With her mention of the Huichol the decision was made easily and If it weren’t for the fact that my meaning would be totally lost in translation, I would have said,  “I’ll be there with bells on.”

IMG_8816The day of the temescal three skinny dogs announced my arrival as I pulled up to  Crystal’s boyfriend’s house on my ATV. Fernando’s property sits perched on a hill overlooking the Sea of Cortez and as the sun set behind the ochre hills, the sky and its reflection in the glassy sea slowly turned shades of soft pink and lavender. Crystal emerged from one of several small buildings on the property to call the dogs off. The atmosphere was positive and inviting. We embraced in greeting and chatted briefly when a car pulled up the driveway. Four people emerged – two men dressed in the characteristic garb of the Huichol, a third man and a woman, both dressed in modern western clothing. Like the man from the gallery years ago, the Huichol wore loose white cotton shirts and pants with brightly colored embroidery around the bottom, across the chest and around the wrists. On their feet they wore huaraches woven from narrow strips of leather. The younger Huichol had a rectangular, red bag embroidered with deep purple flowers slung diagonally across his shoulder. He would keep the bag slung there throughout our time together – only later would I learn its significance.

We made our introductions and I hugged each of them in turn. The shaman, Guadalupe, hugged me stiffly and kept his left hand clenched at his heart. To guard it, I thought and wondered if perhaps hugging a shaman was inappropriate. I turned to the woman named Mio and we chatted while the others got organized. She was attractive with fair skin and brown eyes. I noticed immediately a gentle, loving energy about her. The man, Ajax, with whom she’d come was of small stature with a short, manicured black beard. He quickly disappeared after we’d been introduced, helping with the preparations. I was surprised to learn I was the only foreigner taking part.

As the sky began to darken, we built a pyre of wood and stones from a large pile of driftwood Fernando and Crystal’s sons, Mauricio and Tonatui, had gathered earlier that day. The stones, about the size of a large grapefruit or pomelo were full of small round holes like lava. As we worked, Guadalupe began chanting a blessing over the wood and stones. When the pyre was several feet high and the stones, twelve in total, were carefully nestled within, Fernando lit the fire. We all took several steps back as it grew and the heat intensified.

Mario, Guadalupe’s assistant, laid out a small altar, low to the ground between the fire and the white plastic chairs he and Guadalupe would sit on throughout the ceremony. The altar consisted of a burgundy cloth laid over a platform only a few inches high onto which sacred objects were placed. Guadalupe prayed over them in a low rhythmic chant. I could not understand the words as he spoke in Wixárika (pronounced wee-rá-reeka), the Huichol language. He held a stick with large feathers tied to it, waving it up and down, back and forth, gesturing to the four compass headings as he prayed quietly. Crystal had instructed me to bring two candles and ribbon with me. I placed these on the altar alongside the others with a small box of sandalwood incense. According to Huichol mythology, candles represent the illumination of the human spirit and hold the sacred gift of fire from the sun and fire gods. Along with the ribbon tied around it, the candle served as my offering and payment to the deities for the opportunity to be there that night. Both the candle and ribbon I’d brought were green, which symbolize the Earth, Heaven, healing, the heart, and growth in Huichol mythology.

It seemed understood that Guadalupe shouldn’t be disturbed as he went about his incantations and Crystal’s older son, Mauricio, asked his assistant Mario about something on the alter.

I listened as Mario gestured at several small, round, grayish green cactus buds and explained, “Before eating, first you must remove the small hairs from the skin of Hikuri. This is where some of the bitterness comes from. Then chew it well before swallowing.”

He turned to me and gnashed his teeth together to demonstrate, not realizing I understood Spanish.

Peyote_Cactus“We will eat the cactus?” I inquired of Mario.

“Yes, if you want to,” he confirmed.

I looked at the pile of small buds Mario had removed from the red bag he carried over his shoulder and placed on the altar. Peyote! I felt my pulse quicken. This was completely unexpected. Should I eat it? Was I in the right frame of mind and spirit? But what an opportunity to eat peyote under the supervision of a Huichol shaman!

Looking for clarity, I asked Crystal and she explained that yes, we could eat the peyote if we chose to. No one was required to do anything they did not want to. She explained now why she’d asked us all to bring blankets and dress warmly.

“We will stay up all night, if we can, and watch the fire. It is part of the ceremony. Guadalupe and Mario will stay until after sunrise.”

All night?! I felt my excitement mount along with a hint of trepidation. Where would this adventure lead?

Here is the link to Part III of Mystic in Mexico.

Mystic in Mexico Part I: Connection

handicrafts-huichol-design-thumb21793453I visited Mexico for the first time in 2001. It was the trip that led me to move to Baja California Sur in 2002. Before I arrived in Baja, however I flew into Puerta Vallarta, on the other side of the Sea of Cortez, and traveled North to San Blas in the state of Nayarit, to a hotel claiming to operate one of Corky Carroll’s surf schools. I use the work “claiming” because upon arrival I discovered there was no surf school and I was on my own.

In between surf sessions undertaken on a yellowed surfboard with La Sandia (the watermelon) painted across its ample width, I explored the area around the tiny village San Pancho. One day, I stumbled across a small art gallery filled with brightly colored tapestries made of yarn and objects covered in brightly colored beads depicting different animals, suns and moons, plant life, and a symbol I was not familiar with that appeared in most pieces. It looked like a flower, with tear-drop shaped petals, but it’s coloring was always green and I sensed that while it may have been a plant, it was not a flower.

As I stood looking at the artwork, a gentleman working in the gallery approached me. He was dressed in loosely-fitted white cotton clothing with a brightly-colored woven belt around his waist made of the same material used in some of the tapestries displayed on the gallery’s wall.  He had a friendly, round face, dark skin and even darker, deeply-set eyes. He struck up a conversation with me in Spanish and although my knowledge of the language was very rudimentary, I discovered that we were able to make ourselves understood quite well. He explained that he was a member of a tribe of native Mexican Indians, the Huichol (‘wee-choll’), who made the unique art that surrounded us, depicting a culture of nature worship. He patiently explained what each of the symbols meant – that the Sun is father and master of the heavens, and the Eagle, Werika, is his wife, mother of the sky and goddess of life; that the deer, Kauyumari, is a spirit guide who leads the shamans on their visionary pathways. The strange symbol that I thought was a plant he explained was peyote, or Hikuri.

My ears pricked up. I’d always been curious about this plant and it’s reputation as a hallucinogen and spiritual teacher. I’d read Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan and was intensely curious about plant-derived psychotropic compounds as a means of evolving spiritually. This despite the fact that I’ve never been much into recreational drug use.

He said, “Peyote is powerful medicine. Peyote is a gift to the Huichol from the gods. It shares wisdom and is a way to connect to the gods.”

As he spoke I felt a slight shiver run through my body. With this we began discussing religion and things of a spiritual nature in general. It was an intense conversation in which I felt a strong level of understanding and connection to the man. I left the gallery feeling energized, buoyed up. I’d just engaged in my first spiritual conversation in Spanish! Later the same day I was struck by the realization that I didn’t speak Spanish well enough to have the kind of conversation we had and again, a shiver ran through me as I wondered if perhaps there hadn’t been some magic involved.

One of the pieces I ended up buying.

One of the pieces I bought.

The next day I returned to the gallery to buy a couple of pieces of Huichol art. The man greeted me warmly. He went into the back room of the gallery and returned with something in his hand.

He said, “I want you to have this. My wife made it for you last night.”

He placed a round shell, a little larger than a silver dollar, in my hand onto which the peyote symbol was carefully laid out in tiny beads.

“It is hikuri,” he explained, “peyote.”

I looked down at the tiny symbol.

“I remember,” I said feeling my heart swell in my chest.

I’m a plant biologist, but there was a time when I wanted to be an anthropological botanist – a scientist who studies the plants used by indigenous cultures for curing illnesses, imbalances, and for spiritual purposes, like the character Sean Connery played in the ’90s movie, Medicine Man. I wanted to, that is, until I realized that almost every indigenous culture in the world is patriarchal and their shamans don’t generally share their knowledge with white chicks like me. When I discovered that the entire Huichol spiritual doctrine is centered around a plant, I felt connected to them somehow. There seemed to be some kind of grace or Divine connection inherent in our meeting, like I was being contacted on some level, told that I was on the right path. That first encounter with the Huichol and peyote left me wanting to know more about them both. I’ve been drawn to them ever since. For whatever reason though, I haven’t had the chance to interact with them much. Once in a very little while I run into someone working in a gallery much like on that first occasion, but my interactions with them have not led to the same level of connection.

More than ten years later, in November 2012, that all changed.

Find out what happens when I meet a Huichol shaman and his apprentice in Part II: Meeting Hikuri.

In Mexico Taking Care of Business Bites

la mordida todavia existe en MexicoBribery and political corruption are hardly unique to Mexico. According to Wikipedia, both are perceived to be greater issues in countries like Somalia, Angola, Sudan, Chad, and much of the Middle East than in Mexico. Yesterday’s blog, however, touched on the problem of corruption in Mexico and how it almost invariably supports big business interests. In the course of my morning online surfing (the wind is up, I’ll kite later), I happened across the following op-ed piece by Mexican poet, environmental activist and United Nations diplomat Homero Aridjis, illustrating the challenge faced by a nation to rein in what has become an accepted part of their culture.

La mordida,” the term in Spanish used for bribe literally means “the bite.” If, like me, you wonder where all this backroom dealing and monetary massaging started, Les Shulman, Mexico editor for Bellaonline, explains in his excellent article on the subject:

Although this institutionalized form of bribery dates back to the Spanish Colonial era (and wherever the Spanish colonized in the Americas), this insidious practice became entrenched in Mexico from 1929-2000 during the Partido Revolucionario Institucional’s (PRI) near monopolistic political control of the country. The PRI’s long, virtually unopposed reign created a national culture which allowed for and perpetuated a lack of oversight in public life which permitted the widespread corruption to become, at all levels of government, the traditional and customary way of getting things done.

When the PRI’s reign ended in 2000, there was nation-wide hope that it would mean an end to what amounts to a 240 billion-dollar-a-year tax-free industry. The case of the Cabo Cortez developers receiving environmental permits through bribery is not all that unusual and reflects that described by Aridjis below. These and many other less notorious examples receiving little or no coverage by the media prove that 12 years have not been enough to change a culture entrenched from 71 years’ practice. It is, I believe, the challenge and the responsibility of the current generation of young Mexicans entering the workforce and political arena to change the face of their nation to one less blemished by corruption.

The Sun, the Moon and Walmart

Walmart bribes it's way into nationally significant Mexican lands

by HOMERO ARIDJIS

Translated from the Spanish by Betty Ferber.

From New York Times op-ed, Monday, April 30, 2012

A child in Mexico soon learns that corruption is a way of life, and that to get ahead in school, work and politics, “El que no transa, no avanza” — loosely, “You’re not going anywhere if you don’t cheat.”

When I was in junior high school, my history teacher sold us lottery tickets, promising that the more we bought, the higher our grades would be. The winning number, he said, would coincide with the National Lottery winner. I happened to buy that number and received the highest grade, but because he kept the tickets, I never got the money.

Years later, as president of an environmental activist organization called the Group of 100, I was offered visits to Las Vegas (chips provided), cars (drivers included), cash and even prostitutes in exchange for staying silent. But my most uncomfortable experience was in 1988, when I met with the secretary of Fisheries to protest the killing of dolphins by tuna fishers. He asked me, “What’s your problem?” “I don’t have any problems,” I replied. “How can I help you?” “Make the tuna fleet stop killing dolphins.” He reached for his checkbook. “Let’s talk money, how much do you want?”

So the news that Walmart may have paid $24 million in bribes for permits to open stores in Mexico was no surprise to me. When President Felipe Calderón declared he was “very indignant,” I thought of Claude Rains in Casablanca: “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”

Walmart already had a history of controversial behavior in Mexico. Most notably, in November 2004, despite widespread opposition, the company opened a 72,000-square-foot store within the boundaries of the 2,000-year-old city of Teotihuacán, which features the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon (“the place where men became gods” — or consumers?). Walmart has also built a supermarket on forested land in the resort town of Playa del Carmen, in Quintana Roo — though the permit for the building later turned out to have been granted for another site, on the island of Cozumel. The question now is who allows this, and in exchange for what?

Will the federal investigation discover how many Walmarts were built on the quicksands of corruption? Marcelo Ebrard, the mayor of Mexico City, is carrying out his own investigation, but considering that his brothers have been Walmart executives, I don’t have much hope that the truth will emerge. The other day I visited a Walmart, and one of the teenage packers, who are unsalaried and work for tips, confided in me that they had been forbidden to say anything to the press about their employer. They were told to consider themselves lucky to have a job at all.

In this country, corruption exists at all levels, from magnates to street vendors. It seems easier to get something done with a bribe than to fill out myriad forms and wait in lines to confront evasive civil servants. According to a recent study, companies shell out approximately 10 percent of their earnings to corrupt officials. In the last 30 years, the Mexican economy has lost more than $870 billion to corruption, crime and tax evasion.

The consequences of this corruption are clear. When devastating earthquakes hit Mexico City in 1985, an alarming number of shoddily constructed public buildings — schools, hospitals and government offices — were destroyed. Our school system has been hijacked by the politically powerful teachers’ union, and around 90 percent of the budget is eaten up by teachers’ salaries, though many on the payroll work for the union or hold political office instead of teaching.

Extortion and protection rackets flourish alongside drug trafficking. President Álvaro Obregón, who was assassinated in 1928, once said that “no general can resist a 50,000-peso cannon blast,” a precursor to today’s “plata o plomo” — silver or lead, the drug cartel’s offer to officials of a bribe or a bullet.

Clearly, putting an end to corruption — to kickbacks and nepotism, to crooked judges and policemen, to delinquent bureaucrats and drug lords — is Mexico’s greatest challenge. In 2000, when the left-of-center Institutional Revolutionary Party lost the presidency and its 71-year grip on power, there were hopes for reform, but it remains to be seen whether increased democratization will lead to lessened corruption.

This January, when a 341-foot-tall quartz-clad tower known as the Estela de Luz was inaugurated to commemorate 200 years of independence from Spain, Mr. Calderón called it “an emblem of a new era for Mexico.” And yet, the tower was finished 16 months late, at three times its planned cost. An investigation has begun; public servants have been charged with criminal offenses; protesters call it a monument to corruption.

The truth is, we have created a corrupt system that preys on both Mexicans and foreigners — how can we be outraged when an American company exploits it? At the same time, how can we hope for Mexicans to put an end to corruption when one of the most powerful and allegedly law abiding companies in the United States gives in to the same temptations? As a former governor of Chihuahua once said, after being accused of corruption, “If we put everyone who’s corrupt in jail, who will close the door?”

This essay was encountered on author Dick Russell’s website

Driving East Cape Roads: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

This post was originally published on the East Cape Blog of the Baja.com website.

Rain rutted road

The unpaved roads in Baja are nothing like those you are used to if you live in the States, southern Canada or most parts of Europe. They are narrow, pot-hole and washboard-riddled tracks of earth that snake through the desert, up and over rocky mountains and down through washed out seasonal riverbeds. They are poorly and infrequently maintained.

Maintenance consists of running a grader over the rough surface to break up the washboard and fill the holes, but the effects are short-lived, lasting only a few days depending on levels of traffic. With each pass of the grader, the road is cut a little deeper into the desert’s fragile surface and the dirt piles a little higher along the sides. No one applies gravel or removes large, sharp rocks that are uncovered by the grader.

Occasionally the local ranchers will fill in a particularly large sink hole that appears in the middle of the road or a washout that makes it impossible to proceed, but these are rare events indeed. The roads are so narrow in places and often bordered by severe drops on either side that you have to yield to oncoming traffic.

Most of us who choose to live here on the East Cape, however, recognize that a blessing accompanies the cursed road conditions – they keep the maddening crowds at bay.

Most of the folks on the East Cape have a solitary disposition or at least aren’t interested in the type of nightlife Los Cabos is famous for. Stargazing and fires on the beach are more our style. The roads do however wreak havoc on our vehicles and make us keep trips to town to a bare minimum.

Boca de las Vinoramas, where I live, is located at the end of the road. It sits at the crossroads of the Coast Road and the Palo Escopeta Road, which traverses the desert from San Bernabe near the San Jose International Airport out to the coast. From Vinorama, it’s a little over 20 miles North, East, and South to the pavement. But that is no ordinary 20 miles—it’s a dusty, bone-jarring, filling-loosening, neck-wrenching stretch of road, no matter what direction you go.

So we go to great lengths to reduce the number of trips we make to town. We bought a second fridge to have greater storage capacity. I store all our produce in special “green” bags that preserve them longer. I eat broccoli for several nights in a row so it gets eaten before it goes bad. And we keep a large supply of gasoline in jerry cans in the garage.

The East Cape requires adaptation. It challenges one’s resourcefulness and ability to tolerate what has to be one of the bumpiest roads on the planet. I need a chiropractic adjustment after I make the trip to town, but what’s the point of getting one while I’m there if I’m just going to get all shook up on the ride home?

Nevertheless, when I get home, shake the dust off and walk out onto the patio as the sun sets behind our house, I am greeted by the spectacular view of the sky and Sea of Cortez turning various shades of pink, coral, turquoise and indigo, and I am reminded why I choose to live here.

View of a Baja sunset from the patio

How about you? Have you got a good Baja back roads driving story? I’d love to hear about it! Post them in the comments section below.

Costa’s on the Coast

The following article was originally posted in the East Cape section of the Baja.com website. I hope you’ll visit me there and give the website moderators some feedback.

The male Costa's in all his glory. Note that his perch is 1/4" doweling.

There are at least ten Costa’s Hummingbirds feeding at the two feeders hanging from the ramada on the patio.  I’m not sure exactly how many there are because they move so fast they’re hard to count. They flit back and forth across my plane of vision, tiny forces enveloped in feathers, wings beating at upwards of 90 beats per second, too fast for the human eye to perceive their individual movement. Instead I see a blur of wings that suggests where they were and will be, but like an atom, it’s just an approximation, impossible to see the wing in real time.

They chatter and scold one another, fight and dive bomb like World War II flying aces, going up, up, up and then banking and falling back towards Earth in a tiny mass of blurred feathers. Their size belies their identity and sometimes I imagine I’m seeing a large beetle or tarantula wasp and then am shocked by the fact that I could mistake a bird for an insect.

The female Costa's

Their metallic chit-chit call warms off interlopers looking for the same sweet sustenance, but their softer gentler whirring call suggests something more soothing. The bird books don’t distinguish between the two calls, but when they make the whirring song from atop a perch I cannot imagine it’s anything but an attempt to attract a lover.

The sun catches briefly the iridescent green of their feathers, the brilliant tyrian purple and indigo of the male’s gorget, but it is the briefest of glimpses because he’s off again, charging after a competitor, or a female in an attempt to impress her with his speed. The gorget resembles long sideburns giving the males the appearance of tiny winged Elvis impersonators.

The nest measured less than two inches across.

The nest was lined with downy feathers

A pair will build a tiny nest together, less than a couple of inches in diameter and wrapped around the netting of the palapa. A few short days later two tiny white eggs appear.  The wait to see if they will hatch is short, only 15 to 18 days. The hatchlings appear one day suddenly, hideous black leathery things with just a dusting of straggly downy feathers. They are smaller than a quarter with surprisingly short, yellow-edged beaks. Their eyes are closed bulges on bobbing heads supported by weak necks. They look frail and unbelievably helpless.

Mother and father share the responsibility of delivering sweet nectar to the nest and day by day the chicks expand and grow, their beaks begin to elongate. Sooner than I would have thought possible based on their appearance only a couple of weeks earlier, pin feathers appear, fill in and fledging is imminent.

It was hard to imagine those beaks belonged to a hummer!

One day the nest sits empty. I feel an empty space open in my gut and I realize I’d felt some kinship to these little creatures. I miss them and wonder if they fledged or met some other less glorious fate – as a late night snack for a Coachwhip Snake perhaps?

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More information on Costa’s Hummingbird