Radical reform: Why I quit my teaching job in the U.S.

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Over the course of my adventurous and unconventional life of self-imposed nonconformity, I’ve been able to discipline myself rather well, at least in terms of my diet and exercise routines. I suppose it’s something I learned from my industrious, multi-talented father, who completed every project he ever started and got up before sunrise every day without an alarm, like clockwork, to read the newspaper and start his workday as a geeky computer engineer.

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I was born into the privilege of hearty New England stock and raised in an upper middle-class Boston suburb where I was given an excellent education, graduating as valedictorian of my high school class and again four years later as valedictorian of my college class. For my krista-and-shawn-copyvaledictory speech, I braided my hair in corn rows, dressed in a traditional African style gown and quoted the transcendentalists, urging my classmates to live a life of nonconformity. Both my parents and my grandmother taught me to not only refine my intellect, but to also be conscientious of my diet and to take good care of my physical body.

My grandmother collected innumerable glossy magazines with color images of slim women eating salads and promoting the latest diet trend. She kept scrupulous recipes of everything she cooked in a categorized file system with notes about nutrition content and caloric intake. Grandma frequently baked oatmeal cookies and bran muffins and brought them to our house when she visited. She’d point out the merits of her specialty baked goods: “I didn’t use much sugar. Too much sugar’s not healthy for you, you know.”

Years later, when she was too old to live by herself, she would move into my parents’ house in Florida and keep up her healthy diet routine. When I visited for what I suspected would be the last time, she said, holding her salad bowl and munching, “See, Jen, I still eat my salad every day.”

“That’s good, Grandma,” I humored her.

She said, “When I went to see the doctor, he told me I must be doing something right. To keep doing whatever I’m doing.” She chuckled.

krista-nmsu-student-copyAs an educator, I assumed that teaching my students about how to keep their bodies healthy with a thoughtful diet should be an integral part of their education. Luckily, as an educator in a private school, I was granted enough freedom by a relatively progressive administration to start a small organic garden in large plastic tubs I obtained from a farmer friend who donated the materials to help me get started.

In the classroom I would share a little something from my own snack bag, like raisins or trail mix or fresh fruit. Apparently I had this freedom before the time when kids were stricken with rampant nut allergies. I attempted to make a positive influence on my students’ lives in the same way my parents and grandmother had on mine. Sharing healthy food and commenting about healthy diets.

In the U.S., I had established over ten years of a successful career in special education as a consultant in public and private schools; in addition to earning certification and practicing professionally as a Licensed Massage Therapist and yoga teacher. I earned a Master of Arts in Education and gained a wide range of experience working with children and adults who were diagnosed with developmental and learning disabilities. I enjoyed working in the field of education, but I felt deep dissatisfaction with what I deemed to be a restrictive, top-down model that limited my creativity and freedom to design my own curriculum.

I became disillusioned with the public school system in the U.S. and envisioned an innovative approach that involved outdoor, experiential education on an organic farm. I published two books that instantly became bestsellers in “Experimental Methods in Education”—a good sign that I have the support of people I’ve never met but, nonetheless, they must share my radical ideas about education.

Absenteeism due to sickness—a cold, sore throat, flu, stomach issues—was all-too-common over the course of my years as a schoolteacher. It seemed to worsen as the years went by. I noticed the same ill fate of my colleagues, who seemed to suffer from carrying too much weight, lethargy, fatigue and general malaise. It appeared to me that physical sickness and the concomitant complaints about said sickness were part of the everyday fabric of the school day, an obvious problem that was rarely addressed in ways that would make a significant difference.

When I proposed to the director that we start every day with physical fitness that included exercises, breathing and maybe a few minutes of silent meditation, I was given a cordial smile, told thank you, yes, but we already have PE, and besides there are more important things to talk about at the beginning of the school day. Morning meeting consisted of boring talks where the kids sat in a huge group, fidgeting and listening reluctantly to two men, the director and assistant principal, set the tone for the day by reinforcing the rules and generally reminding everyone who was in charge. And, oh, by the way, your tiny physical body in need of movement can wait till after lunch to move around in any satisfactory way. Until then, stay still and listen to the boring lecture.

If I had been in charge of the school, things would have been a lot different. A lot of things. But the differences I wanted to see were forced into under-valued, under-paid, after-school offerings to a small percentage of the student body who were corralled into taking my yoga classes because they didn’t want to play other competitive sports. I would have preferred to make yoga a daily part of the school day for both my students and my colleagues.

Years later, teaching full-time as a special educator at a similar private school in California, I would propose similar ideas to an even more progressive administration. But still, there were more important, pressing matters, like stuffing mostly useless information into the kids’ heads.

Never mind the scientific literature indicating that kids’ brains and circadian rhythms are wired in a such a way where academic, rote learning doesn’t come naturally to them until well after mid-morning. The healthiest, most natural thing for young bodies to be doing is what agrarian families in a homesteading situation would do at the start of the day: take care of the animals, work in the fields, shovel dirt and poop, haul heavy things, get dirty…. Yet, in our schools—places where we are supposed to be teaching people basic skills—we seemed to be ignoring the things that mattered most and forcing our kids to be dutiful, unthinking automatons following arbitrary rules that they would prefer not to follow, if my observations were at all accurate. It seemed like the kids were always breaking the rules, anyway. So, why were the adults so determined to enforce rules instead of giving the kids an opportunity to discipline themselves?

In my opinion, self-discipline can only be taught by example. It can’t be forced on anyone. People need to discipline themselves of their own accord. It’s not my job to dumb anyone down with rules and useless information that they will soon forget as soon as the exam is over. But it is my job to take care of myself and be the best person I can be, which might have some kind of positive influence on the people around me.

Parama w students

Although my ideas for radical reform of the education system failed to take root in the country of my birth, I haven’t given up on my ideas, yet. I doubt I ever will.

Parama w guitarists at ComitanI quit my last teaching job at a public school in the U.S. over five years ago, gave up the comforts and conveniences of my privileged lifestyle, and took my innovative ideas with me south of the border to the tiny country of Belize, where I purchased an acre of fertile land and started building an off-grid homestead in the company of like-minded neighbors.

I published a series of books in 2014 that have been on Amazon’s bestseller list in “Experimental Methods in Education” since their publication date, indicating to me that people seem to support my ideas for radical reform of methods in education. You can check out my books here, and if you would like to visit me in Belize and participate in an interactive workshop where we explore these ideas, you can find out more and register for our next workshop here.

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Cotton Tree Lodge in southern Belize

 

Fumbled attempts at building my off-grid homestead in Belize

5-armando-mr-bo-and-me-holding-claySince moving to Central America five years ago, I’ve learned that paying the local men to do meaningful, productive work other than trying to marry me or get me pregnant can be met with cultural resistance: Here in the third world, I get the impression that most of the men are unaccustomed to having young, single women tell them what to do and for how much money. (I’m not talking about sex, though that’s an important topic worthy of discussion, not including the two photographed men). I’m talking about an equally important topic: building my own house and growing my own food, both of which I’m attempting, with fumbled trial and error, to accomplish here in the third world country of Belize as a solo woman.

The indigenous Belizeans, many of whom I have managed to turn into trusted friends, have commented about my unique situation: “La chica tiene huevos,” commented one astute observer in Spanish slang. (“The woman has balls”)…. And another observation by a Christian missionary friend of mine: “When you don’t have a husband, you have to wear the pants.” (No comment…. Well, okay, one comment: I wear pants whenever the hell I want to. It’s much more practical than a skirt most of the time).

Parama harvesting bamboo copyIf I had it my way, I wouldn’t have to pay skilled workers to do a job that I would much prefer to do myself. However, since I’ve hammered a nail into a piece of wood only a couple times in my life, I am obliged (for now) to hire my friends and coworkers–indigenous Mayan men–who’ve been building houses with materials straight out of the surrounding jungle since they were old enough to walk.

Mr. Bo, a Mayan elder and respected member of his community, lives in a tiny village within miles of where we work together at an ecolodge deep in the jungle of southern Belize. Over a year ago, I hired him to build my off-grid house, a humble 16×16 foot hut made from locally harvested wood with a rooftop made from the leaves of a local palm tree. I envisioned a structure that is somewhat different from what the Mayan people are accustomed to building. If you visit any of the Mayan villages in Belize, you will notice a homogeneous quality to the houses.

Being a nonconformist, I insisted that we try something new and different: I sketched a blueprint of exactly what I wanted and handed it to Mr. Bo. He puzzled over it for a few moments, placed my sketch on the table in front of us, rubbed his strong, weather-beaten hands together and said, “Okay, ma’am, you’re the boss. Whatever you want to do, we can do it.”

I thanked him for his vote of confidence. And for giving me the satisfaction of being called “boss” for the first — and hopefully last time in my life.

Parama's houseAll I knew was that I wanted my house to be built at least nine feet off the ground with a wrap-around porch from which to enjoy the view of the surrounding jungle. The height serves a threefold purpose: (1) to keep me away from the pesky sand flies that would otherwise bite the hell out of me, leaving itchy, swollen, red welts that last for days; (2) to catch a nice breeze off the nearby Caribbean Sea; and (3) to give me some sense of security while I sleep at night as high off the ground as possible, with a ladder that I can pull up into the house, rendering it difficult for anyone to enter from down below.

I don’t know; maybe I’m paranoid. Or maybe it’s just that I’m a single woman in a third world country where most men treat women like mere objects to be bossed around and/or baby factories. Mostly the latter. In Belize, most women have at least three kids. And not all from the same man. The locals are … prolific. Biologically speaking.

Here, I am an anomaly. Not only am I single at forty years of age, but I do not have kids. The local people, especially the women, frequently ask me why I don’t have kids. I am always reluctant to explain fully why I’ve carefully, purposely and conscientiously chosen not to be a breeder in my lifetime. It is a combination of philosophical, environmental, biological and spiritual reasons that I care not to expound on in this blog entry. My point is that being an anomaly within a homogenous culture that expects women to fulfill certain societal roles leaves me feeling at a loss for how to proceed here as a single woman. I find few role models worthy of my respect and admiration in this department. If you have suggestions, kindly share your thoughts in the comments.

A little more than three-thousand US dollars after hiring Mr. Bo and his talented crew, a lot of work still needs to be done. I have an unoccupied house lacking in infrastructure that would make it reasonably habitable: There is a frame but no walls, floorboards that still need to be nailed down, and a beautiful thatch roof that my neighbors, also off-grid homesteaders, attest is well-done. I wouldn’t know the difference.

A great segue to my next point: I am an intrepid, determined woman in charge of a job that I know little to nothing about. I have entrusted my hard-earned money and vision of a habitable home in the jungle to Mr. Bo and his chosen crew of workers, mostly his own sons and personal friends, who I can only assume must know what they’re doing. I know that I don’t know what I’m doing, other than what seems to be a good idea.

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My house is fully self-funded with money that I have earned through work done by my own two hands as a massage therapist rubbing tourists on vacation in Belize. I live frugally and simply here, so I find it easy to save money and invest in things that I think matter most, like having my own house and a small garden of vegetables and fruit trees on my one-acre property.

I wish that at the end of the day I could bask in the satisfaction of having gotten my hands dirty by doing the work myself. But the honest-to-God’s truth is that I pay people to do it for me. I mostly stand by and watch or get busy chatting with people on Facebook while the boys’ foreheads drip with sweat and their heartbeats quicken from the physical effort. My heart is still broken. Abandoned by my partner and most of my family members who would agree that I must have lost my mind, I am without a companion to share in the adventure. At least for now, I carry on with staunch self-reliance.

I go to bed clutching my pillow to my breast, dreaming of a day when I can rest, nestled in the arms and warmth of kindred spirits who are as passionate and dedicated as I must be about living life of service to the calling in our hearts. For me, it’s been a lonely endeavor, as it is for most people who choose to follow their own path instead of the one laid out for them by the mainstream.

Since I was a child, I’ve been a misfit. I spent most of my teenage years, thankfully before the age of Internet and Google, with my nose buried in books, including the gargantuan set of Britannica encyclopedias that my father bought and shelved in my bedroom. “These are for you,” he told me, and whenever I had a question about anything in the world, he told me, “Go look it up. Tell me what you learn.”

I learned from my brilliant father to not only be stubborn and self-reliant, but to love books and book learning (Thanks, Dad. I know you’re reading this. Thank you)…. I graduated valedictorian of my high school class and had the nerve-racking privilege of rehearsing and delivering my valedictory speech, in which I quoted the transcendentalists, encouraging my classmates to lead a life of nonconformity.

I didn’t know at the time that my radical views would take me to such faraway places on a journey motivated by ideals that I had only begun to formulate in my young mind, influenced by poets and philosophers who I imagine also suffered from the same torturous sense of isolation that I’ve felt every day of my adult life, as I fail to find many people with whom to share my radicalism. Yes, they’re out there, but usually, they are too focused on their own missions to bother with mine.

Today I had planned for Mr. Bo and his workers to go nail down my floorboards, deliver more topsoil for the garden that is now drying up, and to spray a toxic poison to kill the relentless termites that would otherwise chew up my house and turn it into a collapsing deck of playing cards within weeks, if left unsprayed.

I was looking forward to having a house with an actual floor where I might be able to walk around, do yoga, … hell, maybe invite a friend or two…. So, I called Mr. Bo on his cell phone. (Yes, poor Mayan villagers use cell phones … in remote jungles, no less. And Internet. In remote jungles). “Yes, ma’am?” he answered. “Where are you?” I asked him. He snickered. “I’m out in a di bush,” he replied in a Belizean Kriol accent. (This means that he was out working in the jungle). With excellent cell phone reception. “Are you going to work on my house today?” I asked him.

I interrupt here to inform you, dear reader (Hey, thanks for reading!) that this conversation with Mr. Bo was the inspiration for writing today’s blog entry with the title, “Fumbled attempts at building my off-grid homestead in Belize”. Incidentally, as I look below my writing desk just now, a fuzzy tarantula is slowly crawling beside my feet. I should put a leash on him, give him a name and tie him up next to my bed at night to protect me…. (But that’s no way to treat your man).

Let’s get back to my cell phone conversation with Mr. Bo: “Are you going to work on my house today?” to which Mr. Bo replied, “Not today, ma’am.”

“Not today? … When?” I asked him, suddenly feeling an uncomfortable feeling of frustration and (as usual)… isolation.

He went on to explain that he had gone to work on his farm instead. I put the phone down and thought about it for a few minutes before … reacting. Mr. Bo is a skilled tradesman in high demand for his excellent work and trustworthiness. He works hard at low-paying jobs five to six days per week with precious little time off. He also supports a wife and eight children who depend on him to not only bring home fiat currency but also to cultivate and harvest corn, rice, beans and vegetables from their family farm.

Today was probably the first day in weeks that Mr. Bo had available to take advantage of the dry, cool weather: ideal time here in Belize to work in the field. A magnificently beautiful country where only 20% of the land base is inhabited by humans, the Belizean government issues land to all Belizean residents, most of whom still know how to work the land, grow their own food and live sustainably with minimal carbon footprint. The Belizeans are blessed with fertile land, bountiful natural resources and a warm climate that makes growing food year-round possible, if you can handle sweating profusely in the sometimes debilitating heat.

So, I took all of this into account and forgave Mr. Bo for working on his farm instead of on my house. I reflected on it all day and took it as a lesson that if I am not willing or able to do the work myself, I just have to be patient and wait till somebody can do it for me. Or pick up a hammer and start slamming nails in myself. But I always seem to have excuses, like, “I have to work” … or… “I have to go check my emails…” or…. (the latest one) “I have to write my novel”. Maybe the latter is a reasonably good excuse. Few people can write novels. I happen to be able to. People like Mr. Bo happen to be good at other things, like building houses. So I pay him.

I only pretend to be an off-grid homesteader. The reality is that I’m a poser. (Really, I do lots of yoga). I own an acre of land and I pay people like Mr. Bo to work for me (while I do yoga). I have a long way to go before I can honestly claim to know anything useful about maintaining a productive homestead or a garden. I would like to believe that someday I can get there….

In the meantime, I offer therapeutic massage and spa services as well as daily yoga classes at a charming ecolodge in southern Belize, a forty-five minute ride south of the nearest town where my house sits, waiting for me to call it home.

“Myth” by Delerium

It’s a weird game
I’m lonely without skin
No end to begin and only
your mind to hide in
I nudge life
like an unborn child

A dream inside but now I live behind your eyes
I’m uninvited

I’m only a memory that comes through

I’m living in your dreams
I’m where you cannot be
I’m way out of your reach

I’m living in your dreams
I’m where you cannot see

Is it you or is it me?

I can’t protect what you can’t forget
but now I live behind your eyes
You recognize me as only a memory
that comes through

I’m living in your dreams
I’m where you cannot go
beyond everything you know
I’m living in your dreams
You won’t find me anywhere
I’ve vanished in the air

Boat Pose: “Whatever floats your boat!”

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Tally ho, yogis and yoginis! Don’t we all love how a good Boat Pose (Navasana) feels from head …. to buttocks … to toes? What’s not to love about Boat Pose? Arr! Come on, let’s get stronger abs!

img_7832Boats have been a significant part of my life for the past five years, since I left the U.S. and moved to Belize, a tropical country just south of Mexico. I can hop on a motorboat and arrive at the northeastern shoreline of Guatemala in 45 minutes, after a pleasurable trip across warm Caribbean waters and occasional sightings of enormous, brown manta rays leaping into the air.

With easy access to ideal conditions for sailing on crystal blue waters, I’ve been invited to be a crew member on many memorable nautical adventures: I’ve driven a 40-foot sailboat up a winding river, swabbed the deck (while sipping piña colada), pulled up anchor (albeit with vociferous complaints about the weight of said anchor), driven a tugboat in tropical waters, and made passionate love on said tugboat….

I savor the freedom of being on an actual boat: the sensation of buoyancy, surveying a clear, expansive horizon of sea; the excitement of dolphin sightings, the rocking of the waves, and the pleasure of a good captain who knows how to expertly handle both the boat and me, the latter of which requires … special skill.

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As one experienced captain pointed out, “When you’re on a boat, your body is always working.” While on boats, I’ve experienced this to be true: The muscles must constantly adjust to the persistent rolling to and fro, back and forth of the boat; especially the abdominal, lower back and leg muscles — which is why every good sailor girl should regularly practice Boat Pose.

Here’s how this butt-balancing posture can benefit you:

  • Strengthens the abdomen, hip flexors, and spine
  • Stimulates the kidneys, thyroid, prostate glands and intestines
  • Relieves stress (now, who doesn’t need that?)
  • Improves digestion

Parama w clay body wrap 2I currently offer daily sunrise yoga classes at Cotton Tree Lodge, an ecolodge nestled deep in the rainforest of southern Belize alongside a magnificent, emerald green river. For centuries, this area has been home to the Mayan people, who live in off grid, thatch roof huts in tiny villages, where nearby ancient Mayan ruins can be explored. This is a remote, isolated area: I imagine there still remain many ruins deep in the jungle that have not yet been discovered.

I’m a spoiled yogini. I can’t imagine going back to teach or practice yoga in a climate-controlled yoga studio enclosed within four walls. Here, I practice yoga outside, surrounded by some of the purest, most pristine nature left in the world.

Suffice it to say that I am blessed to practice and teach yoga in a magical place, beside one of the last remaining rivers on the entire planet that has not been polluted by industrial inputs. Here, the Mayan people live simply and self-sufficiently. I have had the privilege to become friends with the local Mayans, whom I find to be hard-working people with strong will, tremendous patience, endurance and a mischievous sense of humor.

Living in the jungle has a way of teaching you to be patient and to honor the rhythms of nature: Here in the rainforest, nature will take over and kick your ass if you’re not … capable and willing to work in harmony with the land, the fertile soil, the animals, and the lush plant life. Not to mention harmonizing with the spirits who protect the land, but that’s another topic, perhaps worthy of a separate blog entry….

This morning I encouraged and guided my students to courageously hold Boat Pose for five full breaths, intentionally eliciting giggles when I exclaimed, “Whatever floats yer boat!”

For anyone who’s done Boat Pose, you know how it gives your abs a good, steady burn and makes your hip flexors work hard. But it’s so worth it…. You never know when an actual boat will show up in your life, at which time you’ll be better prepared for the adventure after having practiced your Boat Pose.

canoe-floatingThe unexpected arrival of a boat into my life is precisely what transpired after this morning’s yoga class: I was sitting at my desk overlooking the Moho River, when in the corner of my eye I spotted a large floating object that I thought at first must be a log* …. I stood up, got a closer look and realized it was actually a wooden canoe floating upside down, drifting slowly downstream, as if being delivered straight to my door. (Thanks, spirits of the river and the land!)

I dashed outside and called for Mr. Bo, my coworker and foreman at Cotton Tree Lodge. I found him knee-deep in mud beside the river, tending to the motorboat that we use to take guests out on snorkeling adventures — just a half-hour ride down the Moho River to where it meets the Caribbean, where crystal clear waters of offshore island cayes can be explored to your heart’s content. (Yes, I am reminded that I live and practice yoga daily in a veritable paradise. Thank you).

“Mr. Bo!” I said, catching my breath, “There’s a canoe coming our way! Will you help me get it out of the water onto shore?”

mr-bo-martin-lasso-canoeBeing the helpful, cooperative Mayan elder that he is, Mr. Bo immediately jumped to action: He retrieved a long rope, ran to meet the canoe just as it was passing by, waded through the water and lassoed it so that he could haul it up (with help from Martin, a fisherman who happened to be passing by in his own canoe) onto the nearby embankment while I stood by and watched, cheering the boys on.

Again, I’m such a spoiled yogini. I have a whole crew of able-bodied men who do all the dirty work for me. I have to make a concerted effort to go out into “the bush”, as we call the jungle here, put on my boots and sweat while I swing a machete. The Mayan men–and women, for that matter–are much better at manual labor than I’ll probably ever be, though I do at least make the effort to learn basic survival skills.

img_0930When I’m not busy offering therapeutic massage and spa services here at the riverside Wellness Center and Spa at Cotton Tree Lodge, I am building my own off-grid, 16×16 foot thatch roof hut and cultivating a small garden on an acre of fertile land on the outskirts of the closest town. I had been picturing how cool it would be to make a couch out of a dugout canoe and put it in my living room, like the one we have in the main lodge here at the resort.

Well, my wish for a canoe couch came true. Within hours after this morning’s yoga class, the Moho River gifted me my very own handmade dugout canoe … and all it took was me holding Boat Pose for 5 focused, meditative breaths, and –bing!– there was my very own boat!

village-boy-in-cayucoLike all dedicated yoga practitioners, we must sometimes practice the art of “letting go” and “detachment” … Later that afternoon, two village boys paddled their canoe to shore and stopped to inspect mine, now drying out in the sun. I greeted them and asked if the canoe belonged to them.

“Yes,” they said, “We came to get it for our father.”

My heart sank (pun intended). “There goes my canoe couch,” I thought. I practiced deep yogic breaths and resolved in my mind to … let go.

I thought to myself, “If you love it, let it go. If it comes back to you, it’s meant for you.”

This maxim proved to be true for me today. After inspecting the sides and bottom of what I thought was my very own wooden dory, the boys abandoned it and headed back home, telling me that my boat was leaking from too many holes. In the end, it would make a perfect … couch.

village-boys-inspect-cayuco“Why do you want this dory?” Mr. Bo asked me. “It’s no good. You can’t use it for anything” (an astute observation from a self-sufficient, practical man of the jungle).

“I want you to deliver it in your truck to my house!” I replied. “It will make a great bench!”

My friend and coworker Mr. Jose Bo, a well-respected, lifelong resident of nearby San Felipe village, laughed at my proposed idea of turning the now useless canoe into anything other than a vehicle for doing work.

Then, he launched into what I thought was an interesting story, which I was careful to catch (again, puns intended)….

“I used to haul 200 bags of rice in my dory down the Moho River from the village of Boom Creek all the way to Punta Gorda town three times a week to sell rice at the market,” he told me.

“Each bag of rice weighed 100 pounds.”

Wow, that’s one sturdy dugout canoe!

I was impressed and interested in Mr. Bo’s story, so I asked him to tell me more (keeping his native Kekchi Maya dialect intact in his quotes)….

“I learned to be a dory maker when I was 20 years old. The full story, I make 40 feet in length and 4 feet wide. It took me one month to carve the dory with five guys to help me.”

Skilled at the art of canoe-making, Mr. Bo has taught his five sons how to make their own canoes from the logs of local hardwood trees (namely, Santa Maria and emery).

“It was my belief that if I could somehow pass this skill to the younger generation, they could also practice dory making.”

“Today, it is a tradition of Maya transportation for farmers to cross the rivers to work on their farms. We still use dories to haul materials from the jungle that we use to build our houses.”

Now, that’s what I call sustainable living with a minimal carbon footprint.

[A side note: We have a lot to learn from the indigenous people, if we privileged elites can get over our hubris long enough to let them teach us, instead of the other way around.]

The nearest town of Punta Gorda used to be a tiny, remote fishing village accessible only by a dirt road, until a highway was built within the past two decades. Three days a week, Punta Gorda hosts a bustling market where local farmers can sell fresh food grown and harvested from their own land; including rice, corn, beans, and plantains, as well as a plethora of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Before there was a dirt road connecting the surrounding villages to the marketplace in Punta Gorda, farmers like Mr. Bo traveled via dugout canoes via the Moho River and Caribbean Sea.

The market, which is still active to this day in Punta Gorda town, was one of the most compelling reasons why my used-to-be-husband and I chose to buy an acre of land and settle here 5 years ago, until he left me to revert back to a more civilized living arrangement (that’s another story).

Years later, I’m still thriving as a single woman, living as frugally and simply as possible, paying skilled workers like Mr. Bo to help me build my off-grid homestead and plant cash crops like coconut, cacao, and bananas. One day, I might be selling my organic produce in the local Punta Gorda market. I’ve gone from a successful, lucrative career in the U.S. to a much simpler, more enjoyable life in a third world country where I can own land and grow my own food: the culmination of my dream to be self-sufficient and walk lightly upon the earth. Living my yoga.

Mr. Bo continued to share more details about the art of canoe-making: “We used many different tools to build our dories: axe, adge and drill bit.

“The adge is used to fall the tree. The drill is used to maintain the thickness of the dory. You have to drill the dory carefully so it keeps the same thickness all around.”

“Do you still grow rice in Santa Ana village?” I asked Mr. Bo.

“Oh, yes, I’m still a rice farmer, along with many other villagers” he said. He paused to think about the details, then continued, “Land clearing starts in the month of February. That is slash and burn. The planting time is May 15th before the rain, and then the rice will be harvested in the month of September.

“We have to flog the rice and then bag it. You have to make sure it’s not too moist so you can get a good price.”

I asked him, “Do you notice climate changes in recent years? How is that affecting your rice yields?”

“Oh, yes,” he replied. “The climate changes are causing us to get a high yield sometimes and sometimes a low yield. There is a time when we get hurricane or flooding. It damages the crops. This year, we are getting a lot more rain than last year. A lot. It is flooding the crops. That will make us get less grain this year.”

For now, the Moho River area is virtually untouched and unadulterated by the impact of human civilization. Maybe I can help keep things in balance by practicing my butt-balancing Boat Pose regularly beside the river, deeply meditating on gratitude for the life I’ve been given. After all, if we can’t stop runaway climate change, as the science indicates, then at least we can practice yoga postures to get stronger abs and to stay calm, which makes for better, longer-lasting lovemaking and resilience in general.

Don’t miss the boat: Live fully! Laugh often! Love all of it (even the ab burn). After all, love makes life worth living.

I’m in love and always will be….

Thanks to Boat Pose and other core body strengthening yoga postures, I will surrender and go down (peacefully) with this ship.

*For readers who care (hey, thanks for reading!): There is both legal and illegal logging going on regularly in the Moho River area, for which the local Mayan people lament. When I brought up the topic of nearby logging in the jungle to my friend Mr. Jose Bo, a well-respected, lifelong resident of nearby San Felipe village, he commented, “Oh, we are so sad about that going on. It’s too much. They are cutting down all the old trees — the trees that our kids will need to build their houses. Soon there will be none left.” (Now, this is another topic, about which I probably won’t get the chance to write a blog entry. I don’t want to rock the boat too much).

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***

Parama K. Williams is a published author with a Master of Arts in Education and fifteen years of international experience as a U.S. Licensed, Certified Massage Therapist and Yoga Teacher. Five years ago, she left her career in the U.S. to purchase an acre of fertile land in Belize, Central America, where she currently lives in an off grid, thatch roof hut. She offers yoga classes, therapeutic massage and retreats internationally.

Check out her latest published books here.

Join Parama on the next wellness retreat (March 11th, 2017) with live drumming, yoga and dance on a white sand beach overlooking the Caribbean Sea in tropical Belize!

 

Scorpion Pose: The “don’t fuck with me” yoga pose

img_4060Since I live in the tropical jungle of Belize, Central America in the company of many men and scorpions of various colors and sizes, I remember to include the “Scorpion Pose” in my yoga practice.

Scorpion Pose is the master “don’t fuck with me” pose: It has a distinct quality of self-empowerment and focused intention that reminds me to assume an intimidating, protective posture when necessary, as it often is in life (off the mat), especially here in the jungle…

Don’t mess with me, or I’ll strike back. So don’t even think about trying to knock me off my center. Even when I’m upside down, I hold myself strongly, firmly and closely to the earth, stable, and I will rise above anyone and anything that would try to take away my life force.

Fortunately, in my five years living in the tropics, I’ve never been stung by a scorpion or killed by a large feline like the spotted jaguar, though I do come across live scorpions on an almost daily basis. I hear from my friends that being stung is a painful experience, as I would expect, for such a gruesome looking creature.

scorpionOne morning, I woke up to find a large, black scorpion in my bed inches from my nose. I know I’m not like most girls because I didn’t emit an ear-piercing scream like I would expect most girls to do. Instead, I did the practical thing: I swiftly killed the scorpion, before it could sting me. The common household method for dealing with such situations is to grab a nearby machete (long sword-like knife carried around by farmers like me), slice off the end of its tail, and squash the now defenseless creature beneath your shoe. I’ve done this countless times, fortunately, without feeling the sting.

Luckily for me, I’ve also managed to assume the Scorpion Pose countless times. I hope I can continue to practice this pose for many years, as I hear it has anti-aging benefits. Maybe if I practice it enough, I’ll become immortal. And then nobody can ever fuck with me ever, ever again: The power and proof of a good, solid yoga practice.

Vrishchikasana (Sanskrit for “Scorpion Pose”) is an inverted pose and an advanced yoga asana that should only be practiced after mastering the classic headstand (Sirsasana) — which could take years — but it’s never too late to start. In the final position, Vrischikasana resembles the scorpion with its tail lifted upwards, ready to strike.

Vrishchikasana gives all the benefits of the inverted asanas like Sirsasana. It reverses the effect of gravity on the body:

  • Increases the flow of blood to the head and brain
  • Nourishes the pituitary glands and improves the health of all the endocrine glands
  • Alleviates piles and varicose veins
  • Tones the reproductive organs
  • Stretches and loosens the muscles of the back and spine
  • Strengthens the arms
  • Sends out a telepathic message to the world: “Don’t fuck with me” (which is good for yoga girls in the jungle)

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***

Parama K. Williams is a published author with a Master of Arts in Education and fifteen years of international experience as a U.S. Licensed, Certified Massage Therapist and Yoga Teacher. Five years ago, she left her career in the U.S. to purchase an acre of fertile land in Belize, Central America, where she currently lives in an off grid, thatch roof hut. She offers yoga classes, therapeutic massage and retreats internationally.

Check out her latest published books here.

Join Parama on the next wellness retreat (March 11th, 2017) on a white sand beach overlooking the Caribbean Sea in tropical Belize!

Discovering a nest of baby mice in my yoga mat

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When you visit southern Belize for vacation, or in my case, when you come here to live and thrive, you join the lives of jungle animals and plants in this lush, vibrant habitat — where biodiversity can be seen, felt and heard every day by anyone lucky enough to come in contact with it. Close encounters with species that make this jungle paradise their home are common experiences for guests and residents of the Toledo district of southern Belize.

Five years ago I left my career in the U.S. to move to Central America and purchase an acre of land in tropical Belize (a tiny country just south of Mexico with coastline along the Caribbean Sea), where I’ve launched myself into the adventure of a lifetime building my own off grid home with the company and help of my neighbors and friends, many of whom are also ex-pats like me who share the common dream of living unconventionally and sustainably in a place where we can grow our own food year-round amidst fertile soils and a pleasant, laid back culture of beautifully diverse animals, including the people.

house-from-inside-copyWhether it’s a blue morpho butterfly fluttering from tree to tree, a turtle slowly making its way across your path, or a fuzzy tarantula lumbering across the walkway, I am thrilled and fascinated every day to see and interact with teeming jungle life. I think the local Mayan villagers, who are my friends and neighbors, agree that Belize is unique for its pristine, intact natural resources.

We lucky residents of Belize are accustomed to finding enormous spiders, rodents of unusual size and frighteningly large insects taking up residence in our thatch roof homes made of wood from trees harvested locally and sustainably. Forget about hermetically sealing your home in layers of toxic paint, sheetrock and wallpaper: Here in the tropics, the houses are made of natural materials that can breathe, which means here we let the air in and by default, the animals and insects often find their way inside and share space with us. I can personally attest to this common, everyday occurrence, as I am currently in the process of building a 16 X 16 foot thatch roof hut in the middle of second-growth rainforest on the edge of a mangrove creek.

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Yesterday morning I awoke to find a gargantuan spider inches from my face. The day before, I absentmindedly pulled on my leather cowgirl boots without first shaking them out, only to discover that a spider of similarly gigantic proportions had found a comfortable haven in the dark coolness of my boot, and luckily I spared her life by feeling her wriggling against my foot, swiftly removing the boot and sending her on her hopefully merry way.

Back to the spider in my bed… Since I’ve lived here for five years now, I was unfazed. (I’ve had stranger bedfellows, namely a scorpion inches from my nose)…. I greeted my eight-legged arachnid brethren with a hearty “Good morning!” and calmly proceeded to corral him into a jar, which I then sealed and carried outside, where I promptly freed this exquisite creature to continue living. Why should I kill a spider? He eats insects that could bite me. I am thankful for the intricate web of life that naturally stays in perfect balance (well… if it weren’t for the cumulative detrimental impact of humans on the natural world, but that’s another story)….

Parama hugging tree at Palenque copyAs the Manager of the Spa and Wellness Center at Cotton Tree Lodge, an eco-lodge located deep in the jungle of southern Belize, I offer therapeutic massage and unique spa services in a thatch roof spa overlooking an emerald green river as well as daily morning sunrise yoga in a charming riverside gazebo decorated with the large carved wooden faces of the Mayan ancestors, in honor of Belize’s history as an empire of the Maya heartland. While you’re visiting, you can visit the nearby Mayan temples and ruins, which I highly recommend: Here in Belize, there’s little regulation or restriction on how close you can get to the actual stones and sacred sites. Here, you can immerse yourself in the beauty and wonder of the land, the people, and the thousands of other species that share a home in the rainforest.

img_0907At 6:00 AM this morning, a pleasantly warm and refreshing breeze beckoned me to my yoga mat, and just as I entered my riverside yoga studio, I heard intermittent squeaking noises emerging from … somewhere. I searched the room and discovered that the sound was coming from a wicker basket that holds my yoga mats. When I opened the cover of the basket, out popped a rather large and frightened gray mouse with round, black beady eyes and a look of terror. She leapt out from the basket, pounced to the floor and ran away faster than my eye could see, disappearing from sight.

img_0906I can imagine how reluctant Momma Mouse was at that moment to have abandoned her brood in order to save her own life: I peered into the basket to discover the family she’d left behind. There were three newborn baby mice nestled in a mound of shredded material–some of which consisted of yoga mat bits–at the bottom of the basket. Upon closer inspection, I surmised that Momma Mouse must have spent hours diligently nibbling away at not only my yoga mats, but also the basket itself, to construct a plush and comfortable nest for her babies.

I could have let myself fall into a state of upset at the inconvenient loss of a precious yoga mat, not to mention the urgent clean-up job left to my hands, but that would not have been very yogic-like, nor could I blame Momma Mouse. I would have done the same thing if given the opportunity. I had been out of town and away from my yoga studio for four days, giving her a perfect chance to find an ideal birthing place and nest for her new family in a quiet, undisturbed place. What momma wouldn’t want that?

In anticipation of the imminent arrival of humans wanting to take my yoga class, I quickly set to work on the important task of removing the tiny bodies of three terrified baby mice from my yoga mat basket, all the while wondering where Momma Mouse had run off to, and if she would ever return to retrieve her now very vulnerable babies. I thought about the plethora of predatory snakes and vultures surrounding us, eager to find such tasty morsels for breakfast. I contemplated whether it would be compassionate (and therefore yogic-like) for me to kill them with a fatal blow beneath a heavy object, but I instantly opted to spare their lives, assuming that their mother would run back to them and carry them off to another safe nest as soon as possible. It was my hope and morning yoga intention, anyway, to give three baby rodents a chance to live.

img_0905So, I carried the yoga mat basket outside the yoga studio, tilted it on its side, and carefully reached in to extract the three squealing creatures one by one between my fingers. Their hearts were beating rapidly, their eyes still unopened, a thin layer of gray fuzz just forming over their bodies. I put the nest their mother had made for them on the ground beneath the nearest walkway (out of the sight of hungry birds) and tenderly deposited each one of them in hopes that Momma Mouse would run to their rescue as soon as I was out of the way.

My heart sank when I realized at that moment that there may have been a better way for me to have extracted the babies: Maybe I should not have handled them in my bare fingers. I remembered the time my father found a nest of baby robins that had fallen from our oak tree in a quaint New England suburb, where I was born and raised. He had donned gloves and attempted to return the nest to the tallest branch, informing me that if he touched the nest with his bare hands, the mother bird would reject her babies because of the human scent left behind.

img_0913I wondered if the baby mice would be abandoned by Momma Mouse for the same reason and berated myself for impulsively lifting their tender, fuzzy bodies in my fingers. I could have used a tool or a large leaf … but maybe it wouldn’t have made any difference. The jungle can be harsh, life isn’t fair, and babies don’t always get to grow up to become adults. Many obstacles can be found along the way. Most of them fatal.

Being a yoga teacher, I found myself softly chanting a mantra, not only to soothe the baby mice, but to honor and appreciate the precious gift of life, its vulnerability, the opportunity I have to be alive, here, right now…. I breathed deeply and listened to the baby mice squealing, imploring their mother to come for them….

I did my hour-long yoga practice, occasionally stepping outside to see if the babies had been rescued. They squealed softly the entire time, their desperate cries an ambient background noise for my morning yoga and meditation routine, which took on a new dimension in the context of this life-or-death situation: I was steadily reminded that everything is temporary, including my body and my life upon this Earth… that I can be deeply thankful for being alive in this moment, to be breathing, because it can all be taken away at any instant.

img_0910Deep breaths. Deep belly breaths….

As usual, I ended my yoga routine with several minutes of seated, silent meditation. When I opened my eyes, I looked down and noticed a tiny lady-bug-like insect with a polka-dotted exoskeleton sitting at my feet, as if waiting to speak with me.

I spontaneously composed a poem:

 

I was born into this world tender and vulnerable

Every day of my life, yearning for the same things:

to eat, to be clothed, to be soothed, to belong

to be well fed and taken care of

to know someone is there to hold me and keep me safe

to make a soft nest and be close to the warm body of another;

To love.

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***

Parama K. Williams is a published author with a Master of Arts in Education and fifteen years of international experience as a U.S. Licensed, Certified Massage Therapist and Yoga Teacher. Five years ago, she left her career in the U.S. to purchase an acre of fertile land in Belize, Central America, where she currently lives in an off grid, thatch roof hut. She offers yoga classes, therapeutic massage and retreats internationally.

Check out her latest published books here.

Join Parama on the next wellness retreat (March 11th, 2017) on a white sand beach overlooking the Caribbean Sea in tropical Belize!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guided meditation for the new year

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img_4233In this morning’s yoga class, I led my students in a guided meditation for the new year.

Studies show that a regular practice of quiet meditation provides many benefits. Check out this article with some fun infographics about what will happen to your body and mind if you start meditating today…. Try it and see for yourself!

Join me daily at 7:00 AM at beautiful Cotton Tree Lodge in southern Belize for an hour-long class — before your jungle adventure begins!

At the end of every yoga class I teach, I invite my students to join me in a guided (or sometimes silent) meditation to bring closure to our practice, to integrate the benefits of the active poses, and to end with internal reflection.

meditation-om-2Meditation is ideally practiced in a seated posture that allows the chest to be open and the spine long. As a certified yoga teacher for the past twenty years, I include seated meditation in all of my classes, because according to the ancient yoga classics, it is one of the eight “limbs” of the complete yoga system, which is comprised of eight branches.

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Sit with your spine tall and straight in your preferred meditation posture:

  • Easy cross-legged pose (Sukhasana)
  • Half lotus pose (Ardha Padmasana)
  • Full lotus (Padmasana)

Lengthen your breath. Try to breathe deep into your belly and exhale fully. Do this a few times.

Focus your mind on the sensation of your breathing. Notice the inhale and exhale, the sensation of the air as it passes through your nostrils, the expansion in your chest and belly as your diaphragm moves. Let yourself be fascinated with the mechanics of your breathing.

Reflect on the past year. Let your mind review 2016 in a movie-like sequence. Maybe images will appear in your mind’s eye. Maybe feelings. Sensations. Whatever arises, let it come up as you think about the past year.

Notice what is there.

Now imagine that you can gather all of these experiences–the people, the places–into a bundle. Imagine wrapping it all up in a golden-colored wrapping paper and surrounding the bundle in pure, white light. Really see it glowing in bright light.

Now imagine that you can physically place the bundle in a special place. Make it a specific place, whether real or imagined, where you know it will be safe, valued, protected. See it there.

In your mind’s eye see a passageway–it could be some kind of doorway or an opening–and see it opening for you. You can walk through the passageway into the new year.

Walk through and notice what is on the other side, in the new year 2017. You might see images, or feel sensations, emotions, peoples’ faces, maybe specific places. Whatever you perceive, just let it be there for you.

Now send a radiant beam of white light straight from your heart into the new year 2017. Imagine that this light is surrounding and blessing the people and places you will experience. Keep sending this light into the new year.

Take a few deep breaths. Feel your body from head to toe. When you are ready, open your eyes.

How do you feel?

Parama K. Williams is a published author with a Master of Arts in Education and fifteen years of international experience as a U.S. Licensed, Certified Massage Therapist and Yoga Teacher. Join her on the upcoming wellness retreat in tropical Belize!

 

Meditation in Lotus Pose for health and wellness

img_4231I value meditation on a daily basis as a form of contemplative practice to start and end my day. At 4:00 AM I sit in Lotus Pose (Sanskritपद्मासन, or Padmasana) and meditate for at least a half hour, then I fall back asleep until just before sunrise, when I get up to practice a vigorous, dynamic sequence of yoga postures (asanas).

At night, just before falling asleep, I again take Padmasana and meditate until I feel too sleepy to continue, then I lay back and drift off into a typically deep, refreshing sleep for the entire night. For about the past five years, this has been my preferred routine for personal health and wellness.

Padmasana is a cross-legged pose originating in meditative practices of ancient India, in which the feet are placed on the opposing thighs. It is an established asana, commonly used for meditation. The asana is said to resemble a lotus, to encourage breathing proper to associated meditative practice, and to foster physical stability.

img_4064Traditional texts say that Padmasana destroys all disease and awakens kundalini, the vital energy at the base of the spine.

Benefits of Padmasana:

  • Calms the brain
  • Stimulates the pelvis, spine, abdomen, and bladder
  • Stretches the ankles and knees
  • Eases menstrual discomfort and sciatica
  • Consistent practice of this pose throughout pregnancy is said to help ease childbirth

Important note about Padmasana:

Padmasana pose is the ideal sitting asana for meditation, but it’s not for everybody. Experienced students can use it as a seat for their daily pranayama or meditation, but beginners may need to use other suitable positions. In the beginning, only hold the pose for a few seconds and quickly release. Gradually add a few seconds each week to your pose until you can sit comfortably for a minute or so. Ideally you should work with a teacher to monitor your progress.

Parama K. Williams is a published author with a Master of Arts in Education and fifteen years of international experience as a U.S. Licensed, Certified Massage Therapist and Yoga Teacher. Five years ago, she left her career in the U.S. to purchase land in Belize, Central America, where she currently lives in an off grid, thatch roof hut. She offers yoga classes, therapeutic massage and retreats internationally. Check out her latest published books here.

Farm to table freshness and food security in Belize, Central America

IMG_9122 copyWhen you go on vacation, or (if you’re lucky enough) to live in the tropics, you will discover an impressive variety of unique, delightful fruits and vegetables that cannot be found anywhere else but (ah, yes!) … the tropics. Cassava, the starchy root of a shrubby tree, is among them.

Cassava root, being high in carbohydrates and nutrients, has an illustrious history as a major staple food in the developing world, providing a basic diet for over half a billion people. Extensively cultivated as an annual crop in tropical and subtropical regions, cassava (also known as yuca, manioc, and arrowroot) is starchy and rich in vitamin C, phosphorus and calcium. When dried into a powdery, pearly extract, it is known as tapioca.

When I first came across an actual, in-the-flesh cassava root (before it was ever processed, packaged, and displayed for sale on the shelf!), I had just moved to tropical Belize, a tiny country just south of Mexico and east of Guatemala, with coastline along the Caribbean Sea, where cassava grows abundantly year-round, as the climate offers ideal growing conditions.

img_0789I was volunteering and living with a host family in southern Belize, where my friends have been cultivating fruit trees, corn, rice, and vegetables on their sprawling organic farm for the past thirty years.

As we were working in the garden one (hot, humid) day, my friend Jack said to his wife, “Looks like the cassava is ready….” He bent forward, grabbed onto a branch growing low to the ground, and in one forceful heave-ho, extracted a dark brown, foot-long tuber.

“You can eat that?” I asked, bewildered.

“Aaah, yea, mon,” Barb replied in “Kriol” (Belize’s unique variation of English), as Jack pulled up a few more roots and handed them to her. “It’s delicious,” she assured me.

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Later that night my host mother showed me how to prepare the cassava, and we enjoyed a nourishing, satisfying dinner together. From that day on, I’ve been hooked… It wasn’t long before I bought an acre of fertile land, became a resident and started planting my own garden of fruit trees, herbs and vegetables. (Thanks, Jack and Barb!)

The beloved hero Robinson Crusoe of the 1719 novel by Daniel Defoe, in a desperate attempt to survive on a tropical island after being shipwrecked, sets out first in an earnest search for the cassava root, as he describes, “which the [indigenous], in all that climate, make their bread of, but I could find none”….

Cassava is the third largest source of food carbohydrates in the tropics, after corn and rice. Cassava is a highly productive tree with roots that grow faster than other staple crops, making it an important survival food in developing third-world countries, including Belize. Cassava is a traditional, staple food for the indigenous Garifuna, who use it to make flatbread, sweet pudding, and hearty soups.

Parama Williams with Garifuna drummers in Punta Gorda 2016A couple years after I became a proud land owner in the Toledo district of southern Belize, I discovered Cotton Tree Lodge, a special place where I would become the Manager and Certified Massage Therapist at the Wellness Center and Spa. Nestled deep in the jungle beside a pristine, emerald green river, Cotton Tree Lodge offers visitors all the rustic authenticity of an environmentally conscious eco-lodge, including tours to local Mayan ruins, waterfalls, caves, and snorkeling in the nearby Caribbean Sea.

As a guest at Cotton Tree Lodge, you get the pleasure of meeting a staff of friendly, helpful locals who take pride in both their work and their unique culture. My friend Maria Cal, one of the most dedicated and experienced members of our staff, has worked full time at the eco-lodge for eight years as the Food and Beverage Manager. She is a notably detail-oriented, conscientious and experienced manager and chef, having honed her craft over the years, carefully planning the menu for each week and serving up a noteworthy array of international fare.

img_0808Maria is a resident of San Felipe, a Mayan village just a few miles down the road from Cotton Tree Lodge. Early in the morning, like clockwork, I hear the rumble of the motorcycle as Maria’s husband drops her off daily at the Lodge to start preparing the breakfast buffet at 6 AM.

This morning Maria greeted me with a smile as she donned her apron, tied her long black hair in a neat bun and said, “Today I’ll be making cassava pudding.”

Maria Cal, mother of three children, was born and raised in San Felipe village in southern Belize. Her mother is of Kekchi Mayan descent and her father of Spanish descent, originally from Livingston, Guatemala.

Belize, for such a tiny country, is surprisingly diverse in culture. Like many residents, Maria speaks four different languages: her native Kekchi Mayan, Spanish, Kriol, and English. Unlike the surrounding countries where Spanish is primarily spoken, English is an official language in Belize and all the locals speak fluent English, making international travel to this tropical, sun-kissed paradise comfortable aimg_4506nd convenient for North American tourists.

“I started cooking when I was thirteen,” Maria says. “My friends taught me in the village and I also taught myself how to cook because I really wanted to learn.”

The village of San Felipe is one of a cluster of tiny Mayan villages where residents live mostly in simple, thatch roof huts and learn from a young age to grow their own food, raise livestock, chickens, and cultivate their own gardens. Located in relative isolation, these villages offer few job opportunities beyond selling produce from one’s own farm in the local market.

Maria takes pride in being one of a handful of fortunate residents who enjoy a steady, reliable income from her work at Cotton Tree Lodge, which is dedicated to sustainable tourism and supporting local families by providing opportunities for talented, hard-working people like Maria.

“I love working at Cotton Tree Lodge. It’s a nice place — an eco-lodge in the jungle, in nature. Here we serve fresh food from our garden….”

img_4529As the Manager of the Wellness Center and Spa at the Lodge, I enjoy helping out with the planning and preparation of healthy, delicious meals for our visitors and guests. All of the meals at Cotton Tree Lodge feature fresh, organic fruits, herbs and vegetables from our very own garden and fruit trees.

“We have a great staff,” Maria says, “We all get along and work together to make the best meals possible for our guests.

“Cotton Tree Lodge is a nice place to stay,” Maria says.

eating cashewAlthough I am originally from the US, five years ago I chose for many reasons to abandon the modern conveniences and privileged lifestyle in which I was raised to embark on the adventurous journey of homesteading in the rural tropics of Belize. I am at least attempting to blaze my own trail here, deep in the jungle. It’s… not for the faint of heart.

Instead of shopping in the climate-controlled, fluorescent-lit aisles of a commercialized grocery store like the vast majority of my fellow Americans, I enjoy the unparalleled satisfaction of frequent forward-bending and getting my hands dirty in the wet, fertile soil as I harvest fresh food for my daily consumption from a garden that I am learning to cultivate….

Today, Maria was generous enough to patiently teach me step-by-step how to make sweet cassava pudding using fresh cassava tubers from our organic garden at Cotton Tree Lodge.

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First I accompanied Mr. Marcos, our gardener, outdoors to harvest cassava from a shrubby tree that is native to tropical America and cultivated throughout the tropics [for you ethnobotany geeks: Genus Manihot, family Euphorbiaceae].

After Marcos and I filled a bucket with a bunch of fresh cassava tubers, we delivered it to Maria, who thanked us and immediately set to work scrubbing the soil off of the long and tapered roots. She chose three of the largest ones for today’s pudding.

Cassava root has a white flesh on the inside, encased in a detachable rind that is rough and brown on the outside. Maria showed me how to take a knife and score the outside rind and peel it off to reveal the starchy, firm, white interior.

Then, we grated the caimg_0815ssava into a large mixing bowl. (This is hard work! I started sweating!)

Next, toss the grated cassava into a blender until smooth.

Mix ingredients into a large bowl:

  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 sticks melted butter
  • 1 1/2 tablespoon vanilla
  • 1/2 cup Carnation cream
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Optional: grated ginger root

cassava-puddingGrease baking pan (14″x10″)

Bake in oven at 250 degrees for 45 minutes

(Serves 12 people)

Cassava pudding is sweet with a gooey, gelatinous texture… When you are in Belize, enjoy our farm to table goodness…

Nourishment that’s been here for generations. Thanks, Maria!

 

 

 

 

 

Why I moved to Belize, Central America

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When I left my thatch roof bungalow early this morning for my daily workout, I noticed an enormous snail that had suctioned itself to my front door, lazily plugging along, its delicate fingerlike antennae searching the warm, moist morning for something, a sign, a vibration on the air….

snail-on-doorI noticed him there all day long, as I welcomed my three clients into the “riverside spa” … (“We have a gorgeous view of the river!”) … (“Hey, wow! This is great!”)

And so I rubbed three people and discovered the magic of whatever that snail must have been searching for, his sensitive membranous skin like the moist surface of my drum when it got wet from the rain after this morning’s yoga class, where I chanted the mantra to Ganesha, the elephant God who removes all obstacles.

“This mantra,” I told my two ladies in class, “is from the ancient tradition of using sound vibration to heal the body and mind and to harmonize the energy around and within us.”

I think the snail could hear me and was swaying his antennae to the rhythm.

At the end of class, I suggested, “Feel your connection to the Earth. Then take a moment to consider your connection to the plants and animals in this jungle. It’s a special place… feel the presence of the river, the trees, the insects, the birds… Breathe.”

As the snail breathed through its thin layer of skin….

jaguar-on-trail“What made you move to Belize?” was the resounding question asked by all three of my clients as they first laid down on my massage table today. I notice myself bracing for the answer, not quite sure how I should — or if I even want to respond. I get the question often enough….

These friendly, “getting to know you” kinds of curiosity-motivated questions have become a daily ritual, albeit slightly annoying (only because I feel obligated to answer, and usually my answer is not so simple. It required a thoughtful response….)

After dodging a few of the more superficial niceties so typical of human interaction, I learned that one of the women I massaged today happens to be a schoolteacher with the very school I recently interviewed for a teaching position that would start in September of 2017.

“It’s nice to have options,” I found myself writing to a friend. “Most women down here don’t even have the choice to work anywhere but at home or doing the dishes at some local restaurant for very little pay….”

(I remind myself to be grateful for what I have, for where I come from, for what I am able to do….)

“You should be thankful that you have fully functioning limbs,” one of my too-smart-for-his-own-good friends told me with severity, after I had lamented to him all the ways I feel so sorry for myself. “You don’t have any problems compared to a lot of the people I know.”

I suppose it’s all relative. The teenager living in the garbage dump.

I asked one of my clients, a middle-aged man from Anchorage, Alaska, about his opinion on climate change. “Are the polar bears wandering into the towns and terrorizing people?”

He had the conservative viewpoint that in the grand scheme of things, we really don’t know what is causing climate change (“Is it just natural cycles or is it manmade? How can we really know?”) … rub, rub … I think he was reeeeally relaxed by the time he made that comment. Like, hell, what do we have to worry about? We’ll all be fiiiiiine. 

I know other scientists and researchers who hold a very different opinion on climate change. Like, we’re all gonna die in 10 years. That kind of urgency.

That’s part of the reason why I decided to move to Belize. Maybe my then-husband and I could have a shot at survival while the shit hits the fan and everyone living in industrialized nations are suffering from heat waves, natural disasters, unprecedented chaos and breakdown of society (especially the economy) … Was it a good idea to move down here?

Parama's houseNot a bad idea, it would seem. Food security, self-sufficiency, tiny house movement … These are all buzz words in the alternative media and the fringe communities of weirdos like me who want to take a shot at living an alternative lifestyle — Hey, why not? Before the shit really hits the fan.

The ceiling fan swirled and circulated the air in my thatch roof bungalow riverside spa while my clients received their massage, until a surprisingly pleasant and refreshing wind blew itself through the room, finding its way without obstacle through the screen windows and against the oily limbs, backs and necks of those three people, tourists from other countries, coming to the tropical jungle of southern Belize for vacation, to explore, to discover… to heal….

Just before bed, I looked outside for the snail. He had released his grip on my front door and was meandering across my Welcome mat. Welcome home.

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