Letting loose with mezcal in Mexico

mezcal 2A year ago I moved to Mexico to make some desired changes in my life, among other ambitious goals that required traveling beyond the familiar borders of my native country (the US). A year later, after consuming many delicious tacos and Corona beers, shacking up with a Mexican man, and enjoying countless hours of siesta in a hammock, I now consider myself to be more Mexican than American, a conscious choice of which I am proud. Here in Mexico, we live happily amidst colorful fiestas, piñatas and miles of Pacific coastline, but what is overlooked by most non-Mexicans is that we earn pesos, which means we must live frugally.

People find all kinds of creative, resourceful ways to save and scrimp their pesos, which often means cutting corners where they shouldn’t necessarily be cut. As incisive as this observation may be, the fact is that I live in this community, and I must therefore be exposed to the often negative consequences of budget-wise prudence. For example, a few months ago, I inadvertently inhaled toxic smoke fumes from my neighbors’ yard, where they were burning a huge pile of trash instead of paying for it to be hauled away and handled properly. I stubbornly stayed in the vicinity despite the noxious fumes wafting over into my bedroom window, and I breathed in the smoke for longer than I should have.

For a week I suffered from a persistent sore throat, a body-wracking, hacking cough, nausea and a hazy mind that couldn’t focus, not to mention the exhaustion. I took to my bed and rested as much as possible until I finally stopped hacking after several days. A friend gifted me her organic eucalyptus essential oil inhaler that she had brought down from north of the border, where such specialty products can be readily obtained, unlike here in not-so-convenient, yet exotic places like the Oaxaca coast of Mexico.

Mexico’s Oaxaca [Wah-haw-kah] is a popular tourist destination for its impressive culinary delights, not excluding the famous mole sauce, stringy Oaxacan cheese and tlayudas, to name a few, as well as mezcal—the richly sweet, alcoholic beverage made from the agave plant. Mezcal is traditionally served in a shot glass with lime slices and chile powder for the equivalent of about two US dollars, a small price to pay for the flavor sensation that it delivers.

Upon sharing my respiratory distress, many people told me I should drink a mezcal, the regional panacea of fermented cactus that rids you of all your problems in one sip, as the local saying goes: Para todo mal, toma mescal. Para todo bien, también. (For all disease, drink mezcal. For your own good, drink mezcal.) And it’s true. The plant medicine worked magic on me in no time. “It will loosen the phlegm in your chest,” they told me, “and you’ll feel better.” I forgot about the mezcal for days and resorted instead to sufficient bed rest and water, but in retrospect, I should’ve just gone straight for the cure-all mezcal. Every Mexican casa in Oaxaca has at least one bottle of it in the cabinet.

As a resident of Mexico, I enjoy the benefit of the traditional hours-long afternoon siesta in between my morning and evening work shifts. Walking past the neighborhood tiendita (convenience store) on my way home, the shopkeeper, a middle-aged, round-faced, loud-mouthed Mexican woman with dozens of grandchildren, called out, “Krista! Ven acá!” (“Come here!”) in a voice I’d never heard her use before. I walked into the veranda and saw her sitting there with two other Mexican ladies gathered around a small table strewn with half empty glasses of vodka mixed with maracuyá (passion fruit) juice, an opened bottle of mezcal and a radio blasting traditional Mexican music that can only be sung along to while getting drunk. These women did not hold back from bellowing out the lyrics that I could only pretend to know and appreciate the same way they seemed to.

Somehow it all fit together: the drunken ladies, the corner store, me taking my afternoon siesta to escape from the intense heat of the midday sun in June, and then the shopkeeper poured me a shot glass full of mezcal infused with the local fruit, nancé, a tart, yellowish berry that sweetens as it ripens in the sun. “Toma un mezcalito,” the grandmother said, “y ya no regreses a la escuela” (“Have a little bit of mezcal, and don’t go back to work”), she said laughing. I paused and considered it for a moment, then took off my backpack, pulled up a chair and thanked her. The other two women, neighbors I’d seen but hadn’t met before, introduced themselves and got on with their vodka. I settled in for an entertaining social hour with the drunken women—all of them grandmothers.

Loud, raucous laughter and shoulder slaps, table thumping and belly rolling ensued as we emptied the bottles and told jokes. In keeping with the theme and tenor of the day (healing from toxic smoke inhalation), I expelled years of accumulated phlegm with each deep belly laugh and then, to really make the scene perfect, one woman started to cry. The other one grabbed ahold of her shoulder, leaned in toward her and murmured, “Sácalo, todo. Hay que sacarlo todo” (“Get it out, all of it. You have to get it all out”.) I sat there quietly, sipping my mezcal and witnessing the woman shed tears of stuff that she seemed to be trying to hold inside. No one bothered to ask why she cried, the other woman just held her hand on her shoulder and let her cry, and I sat there with my mezcal watching the scene like some kind of telenovela (Mexican soap opera), yet I could see myself in the protagonist, all hunched over her glass of vodka, covering her eyes with the fold of her shirt, embarrassed to be so vulnerable and still so able to cry. I considered getting up at that moment with the excuse that I had to go back to work, but something told me to stay, to be a welcomed part of this glorious emptying of years of pent-up emotion.

I sat there in silence and emptied the mezcal bottle for what seemed like an eternity until the shopkeeper produced the next bottle, a pinkish cream mezcal that reminded me of Pepto-Bismol, and I remembered a friend’s recent advice: “Go get a mezcal. Just one,” and at that moment I got up with a polite smile and thanks, bought myself a few unripe bananas and left for the sanctuary of my tiny little room in a thatched roof cabana by the sea, where I now write and listen to the crashing waves and wonder how I got myself here, after everything I denied myself, everything I’ve given up, lost, all the places and people I’ve met, how did I end up here, pleasantly buzzed and having just given myself exactly what I needed—an afternoon of rest and the palpable presence of my Aunt Rose, the one who worked hard all her life, lived alone, refused to do anyone else’s laundry and kept mostly to herself unless she was visiting with a few trusted friends.

We get exactly what we deserve at the precise moment we need it, the Maya shaman, Grandfather Jaguar, once taught me, and I’ll never forget his words. Even my students are the gifts I need now: When I thanked them this morning for their efforts in class, one of them said, “Thank you for you,” and it filled me.

“Enjoy the independent life you live,” my father had written me earlier this week, “a lot of people wish they could be as free as you.” And yet, I wake up startled in the middle of the night, I hear the tumult of the surf, and I drown myself in fear that I might someday die alone with no partner, no children… What then? What happens when I get old and sick? Who will take care of me then? A wave of nausea bowls me over at the thought, so maybe better not to entertain such thoughts. Maybe better to treat myself to a mezcal more often, to surround myself with friends, to sit with boisterous women who cry and laugh, because they’re here and this is where I am.

As soon as I’d decided to give myself the afternoon off to rest—an indulgence of which I rarely partake—the ocean invited me into her cool, calm water, gentle waves that lapped instead of crashed, and today was the first time in days I’ve been able to float and bob atop a tranquil sea at low tide.

I luxuriated in the soak of warm seawater for longer than normal, stretched out like a starfish into all directions and thought about the Mexican women, my students, my empty office at work, the house I built in Belize that is now lived in by a young couple and their newborn. I sighed at the thought of things and people I’ve left behind. I want to give birth, too, I know, to create something new that only I can create, and maybe better for it not to be an infant, but something more freeing for my spirit, fulfilling for my soul. Like the mezcal that cured me, my Aunt Rose’s blood courses in my veins, reminding me that I am complete within myself. I already have everything I need to be as happy as I want to be, and here in Mexico, the land of miracle mezcal, happiness is easy to find.

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No machismo en mi casa: My man does the housework

Unlike most women, I am childless by choice at age 42 after a decade of traveling solo in Central America. I am an intensely independent woman who loves her freedom and gets off on an insatiable thirst for adventure. I don’t want to be tied down, which means I probably don’t want to get pregnant. After moving a year ago from tropical-wet Belize to the tropical-arid Oaxaca coast of Mexico, my sensual wetness dried up almost entirely when I looked around at the paucity of potential suitors. I told myself that I’d given up on having a Mexican boyfriend, as much as I’d given up on the Belizean men: all they wanted were babies and a dutiful housewife. No, thanks. I’ve got other plans.

Like one in four women, I have been the target of physical and verbal abuse by former male partners, ranging from near-death by strangulation to invectives and subtle manipulation, leaving me with many dramatic stories to tell. After two decades of downright failures and otherwise mere approximations at shacking up with a good guy, I am now partnered with a peaceful Mexican man who is not abusive. He is far beyond the “machismo” male typically associated with his culture, as depicted in the recent drama film “Roma”, which illustrates the plight of two Mexican women partnered with machismo Mexican men. Things don’t go swimmingly for either of them, as they are relegated to single motherhood and shouldering the heavy load of daily housework, not excluding the task of shoveling up dog poop from the driveway, and, to top that off, being abused and disrespected on a daily basis. On the contrary, my Mexican man is not at all like these “pendejos” (jerks), although there seem to be plenty of them to go around.

With my preference for long hours of voluntary solitude, meditation, yoga and constant travel to new places, I simply don’t fit the profile that most Latino men seem to prefer—kitchen-bound and pregnant. A year after making the bold move to live and work full time in Mexico, I am delighted that these cultural norms don’t apply to my current partnership with a strapping, middle-aged Mexican man, a fisherman and lover of the sea, born and raised on the Oaxaca coast. He owns and operates a coconut palm tree-shaded hotel and restaurant that he built himself on the beach. He has an impressively full range of useful, practical skills: lifeguard, construction worker, landscaper, plumber, electrician, cook, housekeeper…. This dude defies the stereotypes about Mexican men: He’s not into soccer, and he seems happy doing the housework—cooking, cleaning, shopping, and more. Don’t get me wrong; he is a straight male with a healthy, intact libido. Again, don’t get me wrong; this guy is by no means an opportunist, using me for a green card to the US, a place he says he’d be crazy to go, unless he were to be overcome by his own death wish. Neither living nor visiting the US interests him in the least bit, and I join him whole-heartedly in our shared preference to live and work south of Trump’s hostile border wall.

I’m a white Caucasian American transplant to this rural part of Mexico, where smiling, brown people in sombreros abound in a land of delicious tacos and Corona beer. Needless to say, my whiteness stands out in our small community, especially when I’m arm-in-arm with my handsome, dark partner. We capture the attention of our neighbors, mostly divorced Mexican women who stare as we stroll by, silently stewing in jealousy and wishing they too could find a “good man”, as I hope someday they do. Maybe then, we would get fewer envy-laden glares from the local women. We are the “chisme” (talk of the town) in our newfound cohabiting happiness.

Evidently, our relationship is fascinating to these women, because they can’t imagine a man voluntarily doing the chores. My guy knows he’s under the watchful eye of our catty neighbors, but he doesn’t care. At sunrise he takes out the trash and sweeps the front walkway, while I don jogging gear and enjoy a half hour jaunt up and down the length of the beach with our dog before heading to work all day. As soon as I return home, he (and the dog) are there to greet me at the door with a resplendent smile, dinner already cooking on the stove and the laundry done. He has folded my clothes in a neat pile by my bedside. I have gotten into the habit of showing up with a cold bottle of beer at the end of the day to “reward” him for his domestic triumph and show my appreciation for his readiness to rebel against his own culture’s norms.

We live (and sleep) together in biracial bliss, but our daily paid work obliges us to fill very different roles. Every day, while he stays home, tends to his hotel guests and handles the housework, maintenance and repairs, among other odd jobs; I earn a steady paycheck in pesos. He does the heavy lifting and sweats profusely in the intense tropical heat, while I take on a more “intellectual” role in our dynamic duo. I enjoy the privilege of a Mexican version of the ivory tower of academia, comfortably ensconced most of the day writing and reading in my cozy office whenever I’m not teaching Mexican university students how to read, speak and write as fluently as possible in English or teaching yoga classes.

We have achieved a collaborative effort to earn a respectable, decent living in a part of the world where the average household income is around $500 US dollars. (Yes, you read that correctly: five-hundred US dollars. Per month. And we live comfortably on that amount). Even if I were not here, my man would be financially stable without me, and vice versa. I have a Master’s degree and a diverse, marketable skill set; he has his own thriving business in a popular tourist destination. And he definitely wouldn’t miss my help around the house. I tell him half-jokingly, “you cook the food; I’ll buy the groceries.” Mostly, I’m serious about that. I don’t take to the kitchen very readily, and if I do, it’s mostly to clean the dishes. Occasionally, there are exceptions and we reverse these roles, depending on our needs and those of the people around us; but for the most part, we stick to a mutually agreed upon division of labor with the goal of staying in love—and keeping separate bank accounts.

To make our partnership all the more countercultural, he doesn’t even get jealous when I put my hands all over other men’s bodies, which I enjoy doing several times a week. (Seriously!) As a licensed, certified massage therapist, I have butt-naked men in close quarters regularly, and I deliver up what I know to be a wallop of professionally delivered relief from stress and tension, with absolutely no sex involved or solicited by neither me nor my clients. Most working class people in Mexico—myself included—rely on more than one skill set and find ways to live resourcefully. In addition to my daily work at the university, I enjoy my side gig as a massage therapist in this small community, where rumors spread quickly. If I were not entirely professional in my therapeutic services, everyone here would know within an hour or two. My partner actually encourages me to keep rubbing on his friends, because he knows it helps them, and he knows how much I love to help people with my unique style of therapeutic massage. Eventually, he says, I will be able to open my own business here. I can help you, he tells me. While I am grateful for his help, I know I can do that myself. I’m fluent in Spanish, highly skilled and not afraid to go out and get what I want.

I moved to Mexico as a single woman on a mission to find my man (among other personal goals), and within a month or so, I knew that I didn’t want a typical Mexican male as a partner. That’s why I chose this guy. He has already fulfilled his biological imperative to procreate: He has two grown sons and a five-year-old granddaughter, in addition to three thriving businesses. So far, he seems to need nothing from me other than my companionship. As a career-oriented, ambitious woman who spends over an hour every day in advanced yoga postures and eschews the ephemeral, I need a man who isn’t afraid to sweep or do the laundry. When I clock out of my full-time university gig, I want to come home to a happy partner, a clean house and a cooked dinner. (I sound like such a misogynist…. Wait. I’m a woman!) Achieving such an atypical domestic arrangement is my own dream come true, and it stretches the limits of what I thought were possible with any man, let alone a Mexican.

Last night when I got home late from work, he had an enormous plate of oysters on display with sliced limes that he picked from the backyard, and the oysters?—well, they are plentiful here in the Pacific Ocean along the Oaxaca coastline, and he is happy to do the precarious work of maneuvering the rocks and dangerous current to select the best ones, pry them open and clean them out. Oysters can only be eaten by sucking and slurping, and yes, they definitely get you in the mood. Loaded with milky white juices rich in vitamins and minerals, oysters are a natural aphrodisiac.

Today he’s going fishing, and for dinner, he says, we’ll have fresh fish with steamed vegetables. After dinner, I’ll give him a massage on the veranda under the coconut palm trees. I’d say I’ve got it made in a tropical paradise with the man of my dreams, and I know he’d say the same about me—in Spanish. After all, we live on Playa del Amor (Beach of Love), and there is plenty of love to be made every day.

https://youtu.be/rs6Y4kZ8qtw

Enjoy the ferris wheel ride of your life

ferris wheelI received a request for a Life Reading from J.J., who asked the following question:

I am here on a mission and I wonder if you get any impressions on that. I feel unsure as to what I am here to do. I do so many different things, I can’t seem to pick just one. I survived a near death experience, at which time I was told that I was here on a mission. I wonder if you can help me to more clearly define the mission. I have many natural talents, including the fact that I am psychic. 

Will I find a man who will love and be loved? Someone who cares about the spiritual aspects of existence like myself? Someone to laugh with and teach with?

The Ferris Wheel

Throughout our evolution we’ve become experts at wrapping ourselves around belief structures, socially constructed concepts and patterns of behavior. Some people are born with the gift of seeing beyond these rigid structures to a more expansive, evolved point of view. These are known as our shamans, our healers, our psychics. We are attuned to a more expansive energy that goes beyond our limited egos and we perceive time-space as a complex, interconnected matrix in which all possibilities exist at once, because we are multidimensional beings. The select few of us who incarnate with the gift of psychic perception are endowed with the capacity to uplift humanity at a time of urgent need for everyone to open their hearts and recognize universal love, compassion and forgiveness. This can often “feel” like an impossible mission, maybe too overwhelming, because so many people are in need.

The mission is realized each and every day in the way that presents itself effortlessly. You do not need to “look” for how to realize your mission, because life naturally presents it to you in each and every moment, through the people you meet, your daily interactions, right down to the conversations you have with yourself in your own head.

Imagine yourself as the center point of an enormous ferris wheel. Each cart holds one aspect of your personality, like a holographic self, that keeps going around and around this wheel of life—your life cycle on this earthly plane. All your little selves, all the parts of you, combine to form a whole and your real self is always at the center, observing it all from a place of full realization, without judgment, just simply there. Each aspect of you keeps going around – sometimes enjoying the ride, sometimes fearful, frustrated, or bored… All ages of you from infant to adolescent to adult to elder: Each one has its time and place on the ferris wheel and each one has a different perspective at each moment. The center point sees and knows all. This is who you are. Pure consciousness.

When your soul was ready to incarnate into this life, you signed up for your own ferris wheel ride and so the best thing you can do is enjoy it. Love it. Self-love is essential for the ones who wish to experience life fully without imposing limitations in the form of judgments, negative thoughts, and even so far as harboring a rigid opinion about oneself or someone else. A healer can help people move beyond self-limitation by facilitating an awakening into a more expansive consciousness.

You will attract your partner to you when your soul is ready to share your unique gifts. There is no need to go “looking” or to feel pressure to find that special someone, because he or she will appear when the timing is right in your life. In the meantime, enjoy your life and find richness deep within yourself.

“Grow a Beard”

Wizards grew long beards because they wanted their words—their wisdom—to tumble out of their mouths across their hearts and down into the earth, where the vibrational frequency of their words would be grounded into manifest reality. This is the same reason for long dresses and skirts—to allow this wisdom to flow through and around oneself, to receive from the earth and allow it to flow down as a giving back.

campfireAccept and honor yourself as a healer in your community. Allow your style of clothing to be an expression of your gifts: Find one that is all your own; your favorite colors, fabrics, patterns and textures. Take time every day to sit quietly in nature and receive. Find a balance between alone time and social time. Do not sacrifice yourself to social pressures or expectations of others. Take time for yourself to find your voice.

Campfire Stories

Be a story teller. Find people you can sit with in a sacred circle—a campfire—not a party atmosphere, but rather, a kind of ceremony where the intention is to listen and express oneself authentically from the heart. Tell your story. Let it flow freely and try not to censor what you say. Don’t be afraid of other peoples’ reactions: surprise, tears, laughter… because they are on their own ferris wheel ride and can  only understand your ferris wheel relative to their own. So, their reactions should not deter you from telling your story and letting it flow like the words of a wizard tumbling down to the earth.

We need your story.

If telling stories heals you, then it will heal the world. It is a possible mission, simple, really. Just keep showing up. Don’t hide. Your minor health problems will subside because you will stop repressing yourself out of concern for other peoples’ opinions and reactions. This has been holding you back and this has been the source of your discomfort.

Grow a beard and let it flow.

If you would like to request a Life Reading, please click here. Find me on Facebook @ParamaWilliams

Things seem to get better with age

“Just because something is old and used doesn’t mean you have to go out and replace it with a new one.” — Sodaiho Harvey Hilbert

When I was in graduate school I joined an order of Zen Buddhist practitioners who gathered twice annually in the snow-covered mountains of New Mexico for a silent meditation retreat. Our beloved abbot, a PhD professor at the university, guided the retreat and gave the kind of wisdom-laden, spiritual “dharma” talks that had us all sitting with straight backs on the edges of our buckwheat-filled zazen cushions, eager students wanting to be filled to the brim with new insight and green tea on Japanese style trays.

I must have been ready to hear what my Zen master had to teach, because over a decade later, his wisdom-filled words still resonate like the sound of the metal gong that is struck throughout the day to signal a shift in attention.

My master was a perfect one for my twenty-something body, as I was (and still am, to some degree), an avid runner. During my graduate school days, I didn’t feel quite right unless I ran at least 3 miles daily. In keeping with Zen Buddhist teachings, this of course could not remain permanent in my now 40-something-year-old body, though I have managed to live up to my master’s behest: “Decades from now,” he said to me, “I want you to come back to this monastery and do yoga on my porch.”

(I couldn’t respond to him at the time, because we were in a silent retreat). Let’s just say his words made a deep impression on me, and I wished very much to live up to it.

Sodaiho had us all running together for miles and competing in regional competitions where we sported our Zen-consciousness t-shirts that said “Stillness in Motion”. He cheered us on at the finish line because he always finished first, to our amazement. We were proud to be his students, and I’m sure he inspired me to keep striving for … well, come to think of it, nothing.

I mean, that was the whole point of running. To be in a state of motion without getting anywhere at all. To realize that the finish line was no different than each footfall during the race to nowhere. To be here… now.

So, I suppose that’s why I still go jogging years later, to practice stillness in motion, which is why I keep practicing yoga postures. It’s all a metaphor for life. No matter what the circumstances, don’t identify with your posture (attitudes, beliefs, opinions) and definitely don’t expect it to stay the same forever. (Have you ever been in a headstand posture before?)

Things change. They break, fall apart, go away, reappear, and get repaired. People. Things. Relationships. Jobs. Every. Thing. Changes. Constantly.

This morning, by the end of my jog, I discovered that my running shoes had worn out completely. I jogged the rest of the way home with my toes sticking out, socks getting soggy in the puddles. I smiled and remembered Sodaiho’s wise words during our retreat: “Just because something gets old doesn’t mean you have to go out and replace it with a new one.”

I’ve been using the same pair of old sneakers for 5 years and I’ve literally run them into the ground. I think they’re beyond repair. But I held onto them and used them until I couldn’t anymore. Why replace them with a shinier, newer brand? Like wine and cheese, most things seem to get better with age.

I’m learning to consider how this teaching applies to my significant relationships. I might be better at keeping sneakers than partners. I think that’s worth some deeper introspection. I’ve been discussing this with my neighbor, a wise and respected elder in my community. He’s taught me things that are more valuable than all the gold in the world.

In the folly of our youthfulness, we can forget the value of spending time with our elders, listening to their wisdom. When we know it all, pride could prevent us from appreciating the good that comes with age and experience.

This post is dedicated to my teacher, Sodaiho. (It’s because of you that my running shoes got so worn out). I’m still practicing. What else is there to do?

The Craboo Man

I sat on a wooden bench—the kind you can’t seem to get comfortable in—waiting for the bus. I heard a man mumbling behind me. He sounded crazy, like he was talking to himself, which I think he was. Then he sat right beside me on the bench.

My first impulse was to grab my backpack and move. Far away. He smelled funny. His shirt, just a cheap t-shirt, was streaked with dirt and damp with sweat. His pants barely fit him; he had some kind of twine as his belt and the extra fabric bunched up in the front where his thin belly was showing.

I smiled and offered him a plantain chip from the bag I was munching out of, mostly to pass time while waiting for the bus. Something told me to just talk to this man. Just see what he has to say.

He politely declined the chip, sticking a finger in his mouth to reveal that he only had one tooth left. He spoke Spanish and so I asked, “De dónde es Ud?” (Where are you from?) although I could’ve guessed. Guatemala, he said. I’ve lived here (in Belize) since 1980.

I was only 4 then, I told him. To get the conversation going.

I asked him what he does for a living. I assumed from his ragged appearance and the dirty, worn bag he carried that he could be homeless. Especially since he’d sat beside me on a bench in the bus station.

I offered him the rest of my water. Again, he politely declined. He smiled and told me he was a farmer.

A farmer? What do you grow?

I live in a village south of here, he said. I grow avocados and nancé.

Oh, I know the nancé fruit, I said. Here in Belize they call it craboo. Tiny yellow berry-like fruits with a tangy-sweet flavor. They get sweeter if you leave them to ripen in the sun.

I have hundreds of fruit trees, he said. Every day I pick the ripe ones and sell them in the market. Today alone I already sold everything. 40 dollars worth. He smiled. I saw his one tooth and noticed his gritty fingernails, weathered hands. He seemed to be fulfilled. Completely at peace with everything.

I’m Roberto, he said. He added his last name. His dignity and pride overtook his downtrodden appearance and in that moment I realized I was talking to a man of great accomplishment.

I was humbled. Put to shame. What could I do, how, with what ingenuity and sheer willpower, I thought, could I just walk into this bustling marketplace and earn myself $40? It was only 10 in the morning. This guy had already earned a day’s worth of work. Selling fruits that he had grown, harvested and hauled in buckets to market.

Roberto, the guy I’ll remember as The Craboo Man, woke me up out of my slumber of privilege, only thinking I was comfortable on that bus station bench. He reminded me not to pass judgment based on appearance. To look deeper.

The Craboo Man has accomplished something most of us can only dream of. Contentment. Self-sufficiency. A simple, happy guy.

Happy homesteading in Belize

 

Nothing worthwhile comes easily. After dedicating the past five years of my life to steady, focused work; I now have my own thatched roof hut on a fenced acre of fertile land, two puppies, a garden, and what’s beginning to look a lot more like a farm here in Belize. It hasn’t been easy, but it certainly has been worthwhile. I’ve discovered the happiness of homesteading.

Recently, I’ve delighted in the happiness of homesteading alongside my happy homesteading partner who happens to have been born and raised here in Punta Gorda, Belize, a tiny town where fishing and farming are still how most people make their living.

The indigenous Garifuna, known for their rhythmic drumming and lively dancing, are skilled fishermen and farmers, as these traditions have been passed down through the generations. “My father used to go out and fish all day,” he told me one night as we shared a pot of fresh caught fish that he’d brought me from the Caribbean Sea, just a ten-minute walk down the dirt road from my house. “My father used to catch so much fish, he would hand out fish to everybody.”

When I first arrived over five years ago in Belize, I spent the first two years volunteering on friends’ farms before I decided to start my own. I learned about Belizean culture and made friends with many local people, including the Garifuna. While visiting a friend, I saw a framed picture hanging on his wall of a black Jesus surrounded by black disciples with dreadlocks flowing down to their waists. I stared at the photo and re-evaluated my white Anglo-Saxon upbringing and the photos of Jesus I had seen in church: you know, the ones that make Jesus look like a blue-eyed surfer boy. As I stared at the picture of the black Jesus, I knew in my heart that Jesus must have been a black man, and his disciples probably were, too.

When I first met the Garifuna people of Belize, I was overcome by their beauty, grace, strength, simplicity, and depth of spirit. I decided that Jesus must have been Garifuna. I didn’t know that years later, I would meet my beautiful Garifuna partner at the local ice cream shop, of all places, fulfilling my wildest dreams of making a happy homestead here in Belize. One year after the completion of my thatched roof hut, I’ve planted my roots and essentially kissed my former life in the US goodbye, as returning to the States presents more obstacles than benefits to my happy homesteading life, as it is now.

I am home. Here in Belize, I have my hands—and my heart—full. I live simply and enjoy the bounty of a good harvest every day, in the midst of the most skilled fishermen and farmers on the planet. It has been a lot more enjoyable to share the joy with a homesteading partner, especially considering that he is the son of a fisherman and grandson of an herbal medicine wisdom keeper of the indigenous Garifuna culture. This morning he served me a steaming cup of freshly brewed jackass bitters, the leaf from a tree that grows on his ancestral farm. “My grandfather used to drink jackass bitters every day,” he said, “It will fight off any infection in your body.” I’ve found this to be true: At the first sign of the sniffles or a sore throat, a cup of jackass bitters usually nips it in the bud.

Last week, with the help of my favorite building contractor (the esteemed Mr. Jose Bo, a Mayan man from the neighboring village), we surrounded my acre property with a barbed wire fence and over one-hundred sapodilla posts. Sapodilla is a hardwood tree harvested locally that will allegedly last over fifteen years without succumbing to the elements, which here include termites, heavy rainfall and tropical humidity.

During the entire first year of living in my thatched roof hut, I lavished myself with plenty of leisure time to get used to being a homeowner. I spent an inordinate amount of time relaxing in my hammock, dreaming of all the awesome projects that I would one day accomplish. I made detailed, ambitious lists and stared longingly at them while lying in my hammock. One year later, I am now sufficiently motivated and courageous enough to put on my work boots, don my straw hat, and grab a shovel. I drop an inordinate amount of sweat under the hot Belizean sun in so doing, but like I said, nothing worthwhile is easy. I can always look forward to the coolness of evening, when my partner and I cook dinner with herbs and vegetables from our farm, light the kerosene lantern and gaze at the millions of stars visible in our unprecedented starlit sky.

 

Chaya, a highly nutritious, leafy green that is similar to spinach when steamed

There’s nothing like the feeling of eating a home cooked meal with vegetables from your own garden. Nothing. It’s the kind of satisfaction that can only be understood by someone who has had the same kind of experience, which is why I’ve learned to share homesteading success stories with other happy homesteaders who can relate to my hard-earned payoff.

I was most proud of my successful installation of door handles to my wooden door, which I’d grown tired of awkwardly grasping around the frame. I realized that I could only install the handle after purchasing a Phillips head screwdriver, the first one I’ve bought specifically for the purpose of making home improvements. As I happily wielded my new screwdriver and door handle, I smiled at the thought that only a strong, determined woman could move across two borders, build herself a house, and cultivate a happy homesteading partnership here in Belize. Only someone like me could handle what it takes. Our two puppies agree.

 

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Vintage winemaking in Belize: turning chocolate beans into wine

Did you know that the beans used to make chocolate can also be used to make a delicious wine? At Cotton Tree Lodge in Belize, Central America, we are turning cacao beans into wine every day!

Cotton Tree Lodge is an eco-lodge nestled deep in the tropical jungle of southern Belize beside the flowing Moho River, where guests can experience a unique adventure with sustainable tourism to local Mayan ruins, waterfalls, underwater caves, as well as a variety of cultural activities. Not only is Cotton Tree Lodge a destination for tourists seeking a peaceful getaway surrounded by pristine nature — it is also the site for some of the world’s most unique, locally sourced products; namely, Cotton Tree chocolate bars and a new product currently in development: cacao wine.

Cotton Tree Lodge’s sprawling hundred-acre property has dozens of mature cacao trees from which we get the beans for making our award-winning Cotton Tree chocolate.

Our experienced farmers harvest ripe pods and break them open to reveal a hidden jewel: white beans surrounded by a juicy white flesh. Historically, the ancient Maya once used these cacao beans as a currency, and today, farmers still strive to sell the best quality cacao beans for the most competitive price on the market.

The cacao beans are extracted and placed into burlap bags, delivered to our processing facility, where we collect the fruity-tasting juice. It is from this deliciously sweet, fruity juice that cacao wine is then made through a fermentation process that our resident food scientist intern, Hali, a recent graduate from Pennsylvania State University, is currently researching and developing at our processing facility at Cotton Tree Lodge.

After earning her Bachelor of Science in Food Science with a minor in International Agriculture, Hali knew she wanted to gain some valuable work experience that would set her apart from others. “I didn’t want to go get just any run-of-the-mill internship like everybody else was doing,” she related in a recent interview inside the thatched roof facility where she has been perfecting the fermentation process daily through trial and error–and a lot of patience, persistence and research.

Hali had traveled to Belize in 2014, where she bought a Cotton Tree chocolate bar in the airport. “I had to spend the rest of my Belizean dollars,” she said, “and I remember how good the chocolate was. So when I graduated, I emailed the owner and asked if he needed an intern in food science.”

It just so happened that Hali’s bold, back-door approach gained her entry into the world of bean-to-bar chocolate making in what some call the “chocolate center of the universe” — the southernmost district of Belize, Central America, where the rainfall and soil content are ideal for cultivating cacao saplings into mature, fruit-bearing trees within 3 to 6 years, depending on the variety.

Once Hali completes her three-month internship researching and developing cacao wine in Belize, she will return home to work as an assistant winemaker in Pennsylvania. “Since I interned at the winery back home,” Hali said, “I was invited to take on this project here in Belize.”

The cacao fruit juice is a by-product of chocolate making that–were it not for the creativity, resourcefulness and commitment to zero waste at Cotton Tree Lodge’s farm-to-table restaurant and resort–the cacao juice would simply drain off and go unused.

Hali works alongside a local Belizean farmer who is responsible for fermenting and drying the cacao beans, which will then be used to make Cotton Tree chocolate.

“Fermenting cacao juice into wine is like making any other fruit wine,” said Hali, who can be found avidly researching online whenever she is not busy testing out her process inside the facility. “You have to make sure the sugar is at a high enough level so you have enough alcohol for it to be classified as wine.”

Hali, with the help of her skilled assistant, a local Belizean farmer, is able to turn the cacao juice into wine through a fermentation process that takes about 4 to 6 days, depending on the ambient temperature, which is typically 85 degrees Fahrenheit or more on most days of the year. “It’s been cold here lately,” said Hali, “so some of our recent batches have been taking longer to ferment.”

The winemaking process represents Cotton Tree Chocolate company’s dedication to wise, sustainable use of local resources, because the cacao juice that is used to make the wine would otherwise go to waste.

“Normally, when farmers sell cacao, they harvest it the day before it is sold, put it into a burlap bag, and all the juice drains out,” food scientist Hali explained. “Whoever buys cacao isn’t buying the juice. They’re just buying wet cacao beans and whatever pulp is still around them.

“What we’re doing is buying wet cacao, putting wet beans into a perforated bucket and collecting the juice.”

After a month of trial and error, the process has become more productive and successful. Each week, the facility receives 30 buckets of wet cacao beans. Out of that, Hali is now able to produce about 6 buckets of cacao wine.

“By the time we get the beans here, the juice is already draining off,” Hali said, “so we get what we’re calling the first day juice. We let them sit overnight. It’s better, when you’re fermenting beans for chocolate, to have them kind of dry. You don’t want all that moisture. So we’ve been collecting the second day juice too.”

While the process is still in the research and development phase, the most recent guests at Cotton Tree Lodge who have been fortunate to taste test the first few batches of cacao wine gave it a thumbs up with helpful suggestions for improvement. Hali commented, “In the future, we hope to try and add something to sweeten the wine so it’s not quite so dry.”

“The cacao juice itself tastes sweet and slightly floral,” Hali said while the small, stingless Mayan bees hovered nearby, pollinating the nearby cacao trees and making honey. “The wine kind of carries that flavor over. Normally you want to let a white wine age 6 months to balance everything out. Right now, a lot of our batches taste acidic because the flavors haven’t had enough time to mingle. We are still trying to iron out some details about how we are going about filtering and letting things settle out.”

Good-tasting cacao wine will be a new, unique product for Belize. Some other cacao wines on the market taste too much like vinegar, according to the latest market research. “I hope that with a set process and standards of cleanliness and sanitation, we will produce a good fruit wine. It will be the first of its kind in Belize,” said Hali.

When you come stay with us at Cotton Tree Lodge, be sure to order a glass of our cacao wine from our friendly bartenders, and be on the lookout for our delicious, bottled cacao wine on the local market!

Click here to book your stay at Cotton Tree Lodge and try our new cacao wine!