Top 4 Moments of Burning Man

Top Moment #1: The Playa

The playa is the area at the center of this temporary city of 70,000 attendees. Exactly at the center is a 40-foot tall statue of “The Man” (see cover photo above).

The playa is like a blank canvas: vast, flat, and monotone, contrasted by the hills in the distance and the sky as a backdrop. Artists showcase their creations here – statues, structures, and music. By day, these creations seem to sit still, blending into the playa as they become covered in its dust.IMG_7061 Some of my fellow campmates, biking around the playa together.IMG_3168Remind you of an old fairytale?
IMG_7066This piece is called “REvolution”.IMG_7060Robot Heart. They play music.IMG_7067Many people loved this piece. At night, the adults disappear, and the children glow.IMG_5469(^ photo credit Dev Mishra)IMG_3185Jumbo beetle. People tell me this is like something out of Mad Max.
IMG_7064Sometimes there were “whiteouts”, sandstorms that greatly reduced our visibility. One sandstorm was so strong we had to walk our bikes back to camp.IMG_3350By night, the plays transforms as all these creations come to life through colorful lights, some emitting flames. The best way I can describe the playa is Disneyland-meets-Vegas; the duality of fun creations to experience, but at night if also feels like a club, with EDM blasting from colorfully lit art cars.
IMG_3192Check this out: Simons Says, Burning Man style.

IMG_3193Following an art car.

IMG_3204 Interactive light art.IMG_3319 IMG_3320“Stairway to Heaven”. There 4 staircases, only one makes it to the top.IMG_3321Everyone is lying down to enjoy the view of the changing patterns above. (should have made a video)IMG_5432  (^ photo credit Dev Mishra)

“Totem of Confessions” – there was an actual confession booth inside.IMG_7063White Ocean, where you come for music and dance…IMG_7065…and fire of course.IMG_3247The beauty of it all is that there aren’t any lines for most things. I would ride around with my campmates and experience a series of serendipities. Moments like:

  • Biking behind a giant art car, which is like a club on wheels. The car will randomly stop somewhere, and then everyone gets off their bikes and a dance party ensues. No money/cover, no lines, no pretentiousness. Just music and dance. This is a gift.
  • One night we were biking and saw a a small table, with a red-checkered tablecloth in the distance. As we got closer, we got off our bikes and took a seat at the table. A group of people were making pizza, in the middle of nowhere. Joy ensues as we receive a warm slice of pizza. Nothing expected in return, this is a gift.
  • Another night we biked to the “deep playa”, considered to be far from where most of the action is. My friends and I found a movie theater at 2am. Upon entering we were given free candy from the concession stand, and walked inside to watch an old B&W Western film, in theater-style seating, with about 30 other people! Someone actually created a small movie theater on the playa. No money, this is a gift.

The fact that the playa is so vast is also freeing – no boundaries, no walls, no enclosed space. Being in such an open environment made me feel very open – playful, creative, silly. The community helps foster this feeling as well, as there is no judgement – it didn’t matter how I dressed or looked. When I met people, there was no fear, because no one wants anything from you; they’re usually doing the opposite by gifting you food and drink, or a creative experience.

At some point, my friends had a saying, “The playa shall provide”. Despite being in the desert and off the grid, there is an abundance of energy, and we began to trust that we would be taken care of by the community.

Top Moment #2: Tycho at Sunrise

Catching a sunrise while at Burning Man is a must. On Wednesday night, we decided to go hear DJ Tycho play a sunrise set at 5am the next day. We debated whether to stay out all night, or sleep in and wake up really early; we decided on the latter. At 4am I woke up, and then woke up the others while it was still dark and chilly.

Dev decided that he wanted to ride the chai cart out to the playa to serve chai during sunrise. This ended up being a special moment for all of us.

We rode out onto the playa around 5am, not really knowing where to bike to, but somehow we found the Dusty Rhino (name of the art car) with DJ Tycho playing. Surrounding the art car were hundreds of people dancing, many who had probably been up all night.IMG_3267The sun had just started rising, and over the next hour, I watched the sunrise and the beauty of the desert environment transforming with the sunlight. I felt grateful to be experiencing this unique moment, surrounded by a crowd of people crazy enough to be partying in the desert during sunrise. I imagine for the DJs, there must also be a special feeling to play a set during sunrise at Burning Man, out on the playa. It’s magical.

A fire twirler.

DJ Tycho on top of the Dusty Rhino art car.IMG_3279 IMG_3282 IMG_3283Initially I thought we weren’t going to be serving chai, as somehow our ingredients had fallen out of the cart on the way. While the group was enjoying sunrise, Dev decided to bike all the way back to camp to replenish the lost ingredients. He surprised the group when we found him by the chai cart, making the first batch of chai.IMG_3288This moment ended up being filled with joy for our entire group. The joy of watching the sunrise on the playa, listening to Tycho’s sunrise set playing in the background.  On top of that, people were eagerly lining up for a warm cup of chai. Four of us had worked on the creation of the chai cart – Dev, Raj, Anand, and I – spending weekends before Burning Man in the design and construction of it. Now here it was, in its fully glory on the playa.IMG_3295While people were waiting for hot chai, conversations started. It was interesting to meet a variety of people, young and old. The most serendipitous moment: I was talking to two people, and one of my friends saw me talking to this woman. After a few moments of uncertainty, he realized it was his ex-girlfriend from 6th grade, who he hadn’t seen in over a decade; now re-united at Burning Man. The playa is a series of small serendipities.

Top Moment #3: The Temple of Reflections

IMG_7068Most of Burning Man is fun and smiles. The temple however, is not. The temple is the spiritual center of Burning Man. On the temple walls are intimate stories. Some are pinned on, others written directly onto the wooden temple wall. The kinds of intimate stories people shared on these walls:

  • tributes to a family member who had passed away
  • inspirational quotes or poems
  • traumatic stories, mostly involving the subject of rape

IMG_3366 This person just conquered cancer, and had her last chemo treatment 20 days before coming to Burning Man.IMG_3362 Tributes to family member who had passed away.IMG_3361A beautiful poem written on a column.IMG_3363IMG_3365I, along with many others, walked out of temple teary-eyed after reading so much about the suffering of others. I wondered how it all felt for those that had shared their intimate stories on these walls. They knew their stories would be read by thousands of fellow Burners, and it could feel comforting to be able to share your suffering with the community. On the last day (Sunday), they knew that the temple would be burned; their stories would vanish into the ether. Perhaps this whole process feels liberating. There’s something spiritual about fire.

Top Moment #4: The Man Blowing Up

This moment was the culmination of everything, the last night we were to spend at Burning Man. What the festival is named after. There was a special energy in the air that night, standing with a crowd of 70,000 others as a community, all waiting for The Man to burn. The moment didn’t feel like a spectacle, but a tradition; even a ritual.IMG_5496(^ photo credit Dev Mishra)

I stood there and witnessed the best fireworks I’ve ever seen in my life. The result of a community that loves fire and doesn’t care about money. The amount of fireworks that were being launched was astounding; I don’t even understand how there was time to reload.

IMG_5513(^ photo credit Dev Mishra)

The ultimate moment came with a Hollywood-style explosion, which took all of us by surprise. We continued to watch for another 20 minutes until The Man fell over.IMG_7062There’s something about watching fire that feels innately mesmerizing for me. I feel connected to my ancestors, who also watched this fire, and formed ancient rituals around it which are still practiced today. In a world of smartphones with endless distractions, I find fire slowing my mind down, creating a relaxed presence.

Burning The Man was a spiritual moment for me on the playa, where we as a community were making a statement: to shun the powers in society that create suffering, and impede our progress as a civilization.

Here was a temporary community where we came together to enjoy freedom for a week, to express our creativity and love. Then at the end, we burn The Man.

Leaving Burning Man

On Sunday morning, after spending a full week in the desert, we deconstructed our camp and packed our van, to go back home, to go back to our normal lives. All the experiences throughout the week passed through my head, and created a feeling I couldn’t describe. Until a week later:

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Getting Inked in Pai

It’s been a while since I’ve been thinking about getting a tattoo. Perhaps more seriously in the past 2 years, when I went on my backpacking trip across Southeast Asia. The problem is finding something that I can be confident that I will like – forever.

The first thing that popped into my head is the Om symbol. I’ve been fond of this symbol for most of my life, usually wearing Om necklaces in my teenage years. But getting an Om tattoo seemed too obvious, so common. I kept searching for another symbol. Perhaps my name written in Hindi? My name is a permanent part of my identity. Or perhaps another spiritual symbol, like the Hamsa. I kept thinking of other options, but none connected with me.

In the more recent months, I had a shift in perspective. The Om symbol is still near and dear to me, so it shouldn’t matter how many others also have a tattoo of it. It resonates with me. Om it is.

From previous experiences, I learned that in Thailand one could get a tattoo by the method of bamboo, rather than the modern-day machines. I decided to have it done via bamboo. Why? The Om symbol is ancient, sacred. The bamboo method itself is ancient and sacred, and many people get Sak Yant tattoos from Thai Monks, like below:

Sak Yant Tattoo

Image attribution

Thus having it done with bamboo felt like the right alignment of energy. My mind was made.

I searched the Bay area for a shop that could do tattoos via bamboo, but I didn’t find one. So I decided to wait to have it done in Thailand, whenever I was there next.

The next problem was thinking where to get this tattoo. Wrist? Inside of my arm? Bicep? Chest? Back? To try it out, I purchased a temporary Om tattoo kit from Inkbox. Their ink lasts for about two weeks, so I felt like I could get a good idea of simulating actually having the tattoo in a specific location. I also particularly liked the design, the simplicity of it is timeless.

I start by testing it on various spots on my arm.

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I end up finding it to be too distracting to have the Om on any spot on my arm. So I chose to try various parts on my chest – the idea being I would see it in the mirror, and be reminded of Om daily. After trying out a few locations – my shoulder,  my upper chest, my heart – I decide that near my heart is the best spot; again, it feels like the right alignment of energy.

On my two-week vacation to Hong Kong and Thailand with friends, I have a few days alone in Pai, a small town 4 hours north of Chiang Mai. Pai is known for an interesting population of Muslims, Rastafarians, and hippies. There are many tattoo shops around town – I settle on one called Space Bamboo, a shop that only specializes in bamboo tattoo, while others also provide the options of getting inked with machines.

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I walk into Space Bamboo tattoo at 11am. I meet the artist, who is a nice, smiley Thai man. I show him the stencil of Om tattoo I’ve been using, and I tell him where I want it. He tells me to return later in the afternoon at 3pm, so he can prepare everything for me, and sterilize all the equipment.

I return later in the day. I take off my shirt, and lie in the sterilized chair. He asks what music I want to hear. While I pause to think about it, wondering if I could request Krishna Das, or some other spiritual new age artist, he asks me if Bob Marley is ok. “Sure, why not”, I reply. Just flow with the energy of the place. Reggae is so Pai.

The bamboo needle doesn’t hurt as much as a machine I’m told. I lay in the chair comfortably, and while being poked by a needle isn’t exactly a massage, it easily feels like a bearable level of pain.

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Here’s a short video so you can see the bamboo needle in action:

45 minutes later, my tattoo is done, and here is the end result:IMG_6542

During the first week I am instructed to rub Vaseline on it to help with healing. After a few hours of getting the tattoo, I no longer feel any pain, and within a week the area is completely healed.

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And with that, I finally have my long desired Om tattoo! In the weeks I’ve had it now, it feels so natural, like its always been there. Loving it.

Now…I’m beginning to think of the next one. I don’t even know the design of it yet, but I have an idea of what it should mean.

The Big Buddha, Hong Kong

After landing in Hong Kong, I go straight from the airport to see the Tian Tan Buddha, aka The Big Buddha. Getting to the Big Buddha only requires a ten-minute ride from the airport, followed by a twenty-five minute cable car ride.

During the cable car ride, I am surprised to see a lot of empty, green land. I had imagined Hong Kong to be an urban jungle.

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The temperature drops as the gondola gains elevation, providing relief from the humid summer heat. I initially see the Big Buddha in this distance, shrouded by fog, creating a mysterious ambiance.
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I learn that this is a new monument – gifted from China to Hong Kong in 1997, as a symbol that Buddhism would be accepted as Hong Kong was returned to China from the British.

I sit beneath the grand 112-foot statue to meditate, but it proves difficult. Ironically, at the top where the enlightened one sits, people are relentlessly taking photos with selfie sticks, disrupting the tranquil energy.

So I sit with my eyes open, admiring the large statue while listening to Baraka in the background on my headphones. Listening to Baraka inspires me to make a short hyper lapse.

Later I walk down the steps to Po Lin Monastery, built in 1906. I didn’t take any photos inside, but there is a lot of gold, and ornate carvings in the wall and ceilings.

After spending 2-3 hours admiring the area, I’m excited to find a vegetarian restaurant by the monastery. Perhaps too excited, as I bought more food than I could eat.

And with that, my first milestone of this trip is complete. The next milestone requires going to Thailand, to fulfill a desire I’ve been holding for about two years.

To Be Free

What does it mean to be free? Three conversations I had in Guatemala with three women provoked this question.

Yoga Instructor – “Busy but Simple”

I attend a yoga class in the morning on New Year’s Day in San Marcos. I have a conversation with the yoga instructor after class. I tell her about my desire to explore other spiritual places like San Marcos in the world, and ask her for recommendations. She says, “there’s nothing quite like San Marcos.”

“What about other places? There must be places just as spiritual (if not more) than San Marcos?” I say. She replies that she’s heard of many similar places, but none are quite like San Marcos: good weather, good people, easy to manage living. Other spiritual places in the world don’t have all three attributes.

“San Marcos is small. Do you ever feel its too slow?”, I ask.

“No. I’m always definitely busy, but my life is simple, and I’m happy here” she tells me.

I learn that she has been living in San Marcos for three years now. She lives at the zen center with her son. In exchange for accommodation, she does chores at the zen center, like farming. She earns income by teaching a few yoga classes a week, and occasionally teaches at retreats. The remainder of the time she spends with her son when he is home from school. While she is busy, stressed out she is not.

Our conversation ends as she needs to head back home. I walk back to my hostel and sit down to have my morning breakfast in the nice patio area. Initially I’m sitting alone, but then I am joined by a woman named Gloria.

Gloria – “Not Being a Slave to the Machine”

I learn that Gloria is from Belize –  a country adjacent to Guatemala.  But she didn’t grow up there. Gloria tells me how she has lived in many places, most recently moving from New York to Belize.

“I’m now free”, she says.

We begin talking about society, and she describes how society is crazy, “It makes you a slave to the machine.” I agree with her, it does feel like a rat race at times. We talk about greed, consumerism, mass production, GMO crops, pollution, robots and technology displacing jobs. Scenes from Baraka run through my head as we talk, particularly this scene (don’t worry, it’s not gory):

Gloria shares how we are out of tune with nature, how New York is this urban jungle; she juxtaposes this with Belize (where she lives now), which is largely undeveloped, even compared to Guatemala. Belize is mostly jungle, lush, green.

Gloria tells me how she lives off the grid – solar energy being her electricity source, living off water from the land. I’m impressed that she was able to make such a leap.

“What do you do now?” I ask. “To make people come alive.” she responds. Whoa. I wasn’t expecting an audacious response.

Gloria is working on a business to have retreats in Belize where she can help coach people to find their life passion. While she is building this business however, she does take a lot of time to enjoy the present moment. This caused some friction with her business partner, who happens to be her brother. Initially, her brother would be working non-stop, whereas she would be taking breaks to enjoy the present moment, enjoying silence, enjoying nature (if you live a fast-paced life, this may be hard to fathom, and confused with being lazy). Even her brother was irritated with her, feeling she was taking it easy. They had a discussion that yes, the business was important, but so is enjoying being in Belize, and enjoying their lives, and the sacrifice they made to be there. Now her brother is learning to slow down and enjoy the present moment as well.

As I’m listening to Gloria, I feel that she is…too free.

“Don’t mind me saying this, but do you feel like you’re running away from society, living in Belize?” I ask. She replies, “I used to feel that way too. When I wanted to leave New York, I felt it would be running away, and so it made it hard to do it. But now I think it’s the best decision I ever made.”

It took her time to muster the courage to follow her heart to live a simpler, truer life.  She mentions that it comes with adjustments (or sacrifices as some may see it) living in an eco-friendly manner; simultaneously though she feels she is now living more sustainably and in tune with nature. I’m surprised that she has made this leap at the age of 27 – she is wise beyond her years.

As we reach two-hours of deep conversation, she has to leave to meet a friend, and we bid each other farewell.

After Gloria leaves, I question myself – am I a slave? Do I feel free? If not, what would I do to be free? Would I be ready to make a big trade-off in lifestyle, leaving San Francisco for a small town like San Marcos? No, not yet.

The Italian Woman  – “I am free”

A few days after meeting Gloria, I have a similar conversation with another woman about “being free”.

I arrive a bit early to the cacao ceremony. I sit on one of the steps by an older Italian woman. She asks me how long I am staying in San Marcos, and I ask her the same. “I live here” she says. We start chatting about our lives, and at some point in our conversation she makes an interesting statement: “waking up everyday to go to work is insane”, her voice rising. She says it so confidently that I immediately think that maybe, I am insane.

Before you begin to think of practical questions like, “well, how else would you make money to survive? Rent, food, etc.?” If you step back and look at many people’s lives, there is a feeling of being obligated to wake up in the morning, to arrive to work at a certain time, and other expectations. At the end of the work day there is the commute and the errands. Many things compete for a person’s time – errands, family and friends, events, your hobbies. In this sense, you’re not in control – many factors control you. By the end of the day, your energy is depleted – and then you have to wake up early in the morning and do it all over. Thus the term, “rat race”.

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I ask this woman how she makes income. “I own an apartment in Italy, and I am renting it. The income I make off of it is all I need.” As I begin to think of the risk of how her income is not diversified, solely relying on a single tenant for income, she says, “If I don’t get rent from the tenant, or something happens to my apartment, I’m not worried. I don’t need it, I will find other ways.” She says it so confidently that I don’t doubt her; the way she speaks and the vibe I’m receiving from her, I feel she truly is free.

I didn’t have time to probe deeper on the details of her situation, as the cacao ceremony was beginning. But I got a lot from our 20 minute conversation.

My Thoughts

These stories aren’t about escaping life at home to go to Guatemala and live happily ever after. Themes I see across these three women’s stories:

  • The feeling of being enslaved back in their respective homes prior to Guatemala/Belize
  • Seeking a life of simplicity, of meaning, and to be free
  • Their solution was to relocate to another part of the world that allowed them to live in a way more aligned with their needs

Has society in some parts of the world become too complex, too stressful, too fast-paced, that many are barely coping? Does the structure of our society need to evolve so less people feel this way? Have we lost being authentic and genuine with each other? I’m not going to try to answer this question here; this a discussion you can save to explore around a campfire. Maybe you already have.

The conversations with these three women and learning about their stories have planted seeds in my head. Questions for how I see my future – for which I currently have no answer. Yet.

Questions, questions. Reminds me of a favorite quote of mine:

“Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Hobbling Around Antigua, Guatemala

Antigua is the most popular town amongst tourists in Guatemala. For many, it’s probably the first place they visit in Guatemala after landing at the airport in Guatemala City, as it’s only an hour away.

I saved Antigua for the end of my trip. This works out well, since I now have a freshly-sprained ankle from the day before. Antigua isn’t too big or busy, so getting around by foot is manageable for me.

I walk around with a walking stick, hobbling as I walk. I notice a lot of stares from locals as I’m walking around; I must be an interesting sight. A beneficial side effect is that less people approach me to try to sell me things.

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Antigua is popular for its beauty – the Spanish Baroque architecture, the ruins of colonial churches, the mild climate, make for a town that many tourists can enjoy. It’s also safe, and maybe this is thanks to armed police with shotguns every other block.

Below is the Santa Catalina arch, the icon of Antigua.

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La Merced church. The clouds look amazing here. Though I couldn’t capture it with my camera, three volcanoes command the horizon around Antigua.

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Random shots of buildings.

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Below is the entry to the market – where I bought gifts for friends and family back home.IMG_5005

Antigua is modern, but the architectural style is well-preserved. A great example of this is seeing American fast-food chains blending into the environment.

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The most gorgeous McDonald’s ever.
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Yes. This is the inside of a McDonald’s.

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Many expats also live here, mostly from their mid-20s to 30s. As a result there are a lot of classes for learning Spanish; and conversely, there are many classes for locals to learn English. In this respect, its a melting pot between different cultures.

My favorite place in Antigua is Cafe Samsara – hip, progressive, healthy. I wouldn’t be surprised to find it in San Francisco! The place has a great vibe – there are books about philosophy, consciousness, meditation. The food is also great – I had a kale crepe (in Guatemala!). Along with it I had a warm drink – milk, turmeric, maple syrup, and sesame oil drops. It tasted good, and its good for you!

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I had to try another drink that caught my eye. Amaranth Atole. I’ve never had this before. My epicurean-vocabulary isn’t good enough to describe its taste, but this is a drink I will try to replicate in my kitchen back home. (Recipe from Epicurious here)

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My two evenings in Antigua were mostly quiet. I stayed in my hostel room, giving my sprained ankle a break – and thankful I could walk around as much as I did.

I felt like I had done a lot over the two weeks I stayed in Guatemala – seeing the ancient ruins of Tikal, hiking San Pedro volcano, spiritual adventures in San Marcos. I found the trip to be stimulating on multiple levels – intellectual, physical, and spiritual. I needed this, and I would leave Guatemala fulfilled. Limping, but fulfilled.

A part of me is already looking forward to the next Christmas break – I think it will be good tradition to take advantage of the holidays to go explore other South American countries – during this time there are affordable flights from back home (California), and good weather in the southern hemisphere. And so much waiting to be explored!

Yoga Forest, Cacao, & a Scorpion

– Friday –

I check out of Circles Cafe and prepare to head to Yoga Forest where I will be doing a 3-day yoga retreat. There is no road to Yoga Forest; one has to find it through a trail. I was given directions to find the first trail marker, a rock with “Yoga Forest” written on it. Once I find this rock, I begin to follow the trail into the forest.

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Following the trail is easy, thanks to the pretty painted rocks along the way; walking in the intense Guatemalan sun is a bit harder, especially with my 20 lb. backpack.

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I’m delighted when I find the door to Yoga Forest about 20 minutes later. It’s made of branches, and gives it a “natural” feel, blending in with the environment around it.
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I’m slightly dismayed when I open the door and find 50 steep steps up. Almost there…

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Once I reach the top, I’m greeted by Emily, who checks me into my cabin, Cabana Rama. I’ll be sharing this Cabana with three others; no one else is here yet. There’s two floors; the second floor kind of feels like a tree house since you need to climb a ladder to get to your bed.  In front of the bed is entirely windows, for the scene is epic: a view of Lake Atitlan and volcanos in the distance; I feel overwhelmed by the beauty.

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Yoga Forest is ecologically-friendly. To give you an idea of what this means:

  • No electricity from the grid – each cabana has a solar panel to power a small light at night. No electricity also means no fridge – so only fresh food!
  • No electricity also means no WiFi – though the point is to disconnect while you’re here
  • No flushing toilets – which means you have to be open to using compost toilets
  • The stoves are are powered by wood
  • When the sun heats up the water tank enough, you can have a warm shower. Another plus is being able to shower under the sun while naked – a rare treat (can you see the showerhead in the picture below?)

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After settling in, I have a light salad for lunch. I meet Phil. He tells me how he has done Vipassana and other kinds of meditation (which I had done the previous year in Thailand – ten days of silence). Unlike me however, he continued a strong practice, and meditates two hours a day – an hour in the morning, and another hour in the evening. He describes how the first year he had to take care of the practice, to be disciplined;  and now the practice takes care of him. I’m impressed by Phil, because while I know a handful of people who have done Vipassana, the challenge of meditating two hours per day is an even more extraordinary feat after ten days of silence.

After my conversation with Phil I attend a relaxing yin yoga class from the shala (a giant platform with a thatched roof where we do yoga & meditation). And yes, it has a scenic view of Lake Atitlan.

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The remainder of the afternoon I spend meditating and reading a book by Thich Nhat Hanh. In the evening, another person checks into my cabana. I find out Melanie is from Oakland, right next door to me back home! As we talk, a woman comes from the next cabana overhearing our conversation. It turns out she also lives in the Bay Area, and lives only two blocks from me in San Francisco! These encounters remind me what I love about the Bay Area – the people – who love to travel to all parts of the world.

That evening I get to know more people over dinner, where we all collectively make pizza in wood-burning ovens.

— Saturday —

I spend Saturday doing what I came here for – yoga and meditation. I wake up at 5:45am, meditating in the shala for an hour with a small group. Afterwards, I do yoga for an hour with a larger group. I spend the remainder of the day meditating on my own, reflecting on 2014, and reading. A quiet, introspective day.

A highlight came during dinner, when a new arrival, Jason checked in. He had just done a 12-day trek through a jungle in Guatemala to see El Mirador – another large Mayan temple shrouded in the rain forest. Many of us gather around him as he tells us of his adventures through the jungle. What a challenge! I imagine the difficulty of carrying all your food and water for 12 days, avoiding certain creatures (snakes) and parasites (ticks).

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Later I learn that Jason is from Marin – another fellow from the Bay Area.

– Sunday –

Today would be  a big day. Bigger than I had planned.

After doing yoga in the morning, I prepare to go down to town to participate and learn about this Cacao Ceremony I’ve been curious about.

I arrive at Keith’s place at Noon – they are still setting up when I arrive (Keith is the cacao shaman). While I wait, I end up having a deep conversation with an older Italian woman.

The cacao ceremony is ready. I take a seat in Keith’s patio on a cushion. I look around, there’s about 30 of us, people are overflowing from the patio to Keith’s front yard. Keith said he has expected a larger crowd since its right after New Year’s. And here it is, the moment I’ve been waiting for. I’m handed a cup of hot cacao – just raw cacao in hot water. We are invited to add sugar or hot pepper; sugar for taste, hot pepper to give it a warming quality. I add both. It’s served warm, not hot. It tastes a little bitter, but not an issue if you like dark chocolate. The texture is a little clumpy.

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As I sip my hot cacao, Keith is slouched in his chair, giving us an introduction to cacao. He kind of looks like Dumbledore with his white beard, though not as reverent. I can’t quite tell how old he is, maybe 60-70? His wife silently helps to prepare the cacao, her long gray hair tied back. Keith describes how his wife is the strength, and he is the mouth. And indeed, he does all the talking.

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Keith begins telling us about how he became a cacao shaman. It started with the cacao spirit that spoke to him in his dreams. It was telling him to go find cacao. Later, he then drove a pickup truck, being navigated by the cacao spirit, turn-by-turn. He would be led to a location where he would haul back 600 lbs. of fine cacao, which he would then dry and roast for these ceremonies. That was the early days. Now he has distributors he calls, and goes through six tons of chocolate every year. You can learn about Keith’s story in this 2-minute video below.

While Keith is a Western cacao shaman, there are local Mayan cacao shamans, but they are private and isolated. It also helps that cacao shaman are a lot less popular than the shamans from Peru who brew ayahuasca, an hallucinogen. Thus we know a lot less about cacao shaman and ceremonies. Keith explains the cacao would not give us hallucinations, but it would be increasing the blood flow to our brains by 30%; cacao is the only natural substance that can do this. It was up to us what do with this increased blood flow to our brains – as Keith said, “Cacao opens the door, but doesn’t push you through it.” So if we cling to our rationale mind, we would just feel the buzz; for others who walked through the door, this would be an exercise of inner reflection.

As Keith continues his talk, I began to feel the head rush about 20 minutes after finishing my cup of cacao. I imagine my sahasrara chakra opening at the crown of my head. It was a bit overwhelming at first to feel so much more blood flowing in my head; a sensation I haven’t felt before. I look around at others. A couple to my left had their eyes closed, solidly meditating. Three of Keith’s students sit against the wall; based on their expressions it seems like they are high, in a trance.

As Keith continues his spiritual talk into the second hour, a few people cry. What Keith is doing here is creating an environment of vulnerability, and I expected that for some, this was a rare moment where the emotions bottled up inside were free to come out and express themselves, in the form of tears.

Unfortunately for me, my buzz didn’t last more than 30 minutes, and as it wore off, I felt the onset of a headache. I apparently didn’t get the memo that cacao dehydrates you so it’s important to drink a lot of water. Regardless, I sit there for 3.5 hours, listening. I didn’t feel any deep emotions arise, or any new introspective thoughts. I had opened and walked through my door when I had done my ten-day silent retreat in Thailand last year. Also for the past few months especially, I have already been doing a lot of introspection on my own.

I wasn’t sure when this cacao ceremony would end.  Keith just kept talking; the format is unstructured. Around 4pm I decide to leave – but not before I buy 5 lbs. of this cacao. I definitely want to try “cacao meditation” back home.

I begin my walk back up to Yoga Forest, and the headache makes the hike more challenging, causing me to walk slower and take more breaks. Eventually I arrive back to my room. I find some Tylenol in my backpack – Tylenol that I had bought in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, about a year ago. After briefly reliving some memories from Phnom Penh, I take the 2 pills down with some water and climb up the ladder to my bed for a short nap.

I wake up around 6pm, having napped for a bit. It’s almost dinner time. I feel happy that my headache is gone. I put on my shoes, take my headlamp, and begin to walk to the kitchen area.

Five seconds later I roll my ankle and find myself in a lot of pain. As I lay on the grass, I fear that I might have broken a bone or torn a ligament. Here I was in this remote area, far from a paved road, far from any medical help. After a few minutes the pain subsided enough so that I could inspect my ankle – I tapped around the bone, moved my ankle in circles. No excruciating pain. I feel lucky, I don’t think I broke anything. So I hobble over to the kitchen, looking for ice – oh yea, but there is no ice here! Because there’s no fridge. My friends advise me to keep my ankle elevated.

Later in the evening I prepare for bed – I climb up the ladder, I crawl over to my bed, to find a nice black scorpion on my pillow.

Shit. What to do? There are two others asleep in the room…should I wake them up? No, no need to wake them up in panic. I want to grab the scorpion with my hand, but that seems like a bad idea; I then thought about using a t-shirt, but can it pinch me through that? The scorpion begins to approach the edge of my pillow…think fast Ankur! We don’t want this thing loose around the cabin. Wait, who is this “we”? No time to be introspective. Focus!

So I quickly open the window next to my bed and throw the pillow out. I then hobble down the ladder, out to the grass, and carefully lift the pillow. It’d be lame if I got bit by the scorpion now, but I need visual confirmation that its not in the cabin. And there is the scorpion, struggling to crawl though the grass. After staring at it for a minute, I decide to leave the pillow outside for the night, not wanting to imagine the scorpion crawling on my pillow.

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I go back into the cabin with my red headlamp on. I hobble back up the ladder, crawl to bed, and I then notice a giant spider on the window.

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Shit. Spiders move fast, so I couldn’t catch it and throw it out the window, I’d have to whack it. And as I began to contemplate how I would go about doing this, I again looked more closely at the window and feel relieved; the spider is outside the window. *Deep sigh*

Finally I prepare for bed, scanning the cabin with my headlamp, looking for any other critters to deal with. All clear. Now I can rest and let my ankle heal.

– Monday –

On Monday morning I wake up around 7:00am, rather than 5:45 am, having skipped yoga and meditation because of my sprained ankle. It’s quite swollen, my foot looks fluffy.

I meet my fellow cabin mates for breakfast, and tell them how there was a scorpion in our cabin last night. “Oh yea, I saw a few scorpions in Nicaragua. I have bad luck with running into scorpions, maybe it’s because my husband is a Scorpio”, Terry jokes. Her daughter also seems pretty chill about it. I was expecting them to be a bit more freaked out, but they were nonchalant. Terry commended me for handling it all quietly without waking them up.

Today is my last day at Yoga Forest, and I am faced with the idea of either walking with my 20 lb. backpack down the hill with my sprained ankle, or asking someone to help carry my backpack. I decide against the idea of trying to rough it out and do it myself – one more roll and my ankle sprain would definitely be more serious. It was already difficult to walk. So I ask for help. I was given a wooden walking stick. A local man who works at Yoga Forest is heading down to town soon, and will help to help carry my backpack.

After I bid my friends farewell, I walk down the trail with the local man, feeling bad about him having to carry my backpack. Now 5 lbs. heavier since I had bought cacao yesterday. I wish I knew more spanish to be able to chit-chat with him, but we end up having a fairly quiet 20-minute hike.

Eventually, slowly, we reach the dock. The local man bids me farewell after I carefully get into the boat. I’m grateful for his help.

I begin my three-hour journey to Antigua, the last place I will be visiting in Guatemala before heading back home.

San Marcos La Laguna

As I prepare to leave San Pedro, I decide to check out one last place for breakfast – Zulu Cafe & Hostel, which offers a beautiful view of Lake Atitlan. I have Shakshouka for breakfast (Israeli eggs with tomatoes) – so simple but so good!
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Afterward I head to the lancha (Spanish for “dock”) and embark on a 20-minute boat ride to the other side of the lake.

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As soon as I get off the boat, I begin to feel the tranquil vibe of San Marcos. I check into a hostel – Circles Cafe. The owner, Becky, has cheerful vibe. The hostel is new and beautiful, its lush greenery reminds me of Bali.

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I meet a couple, Will and Laura, who are also staying here for the night. Laura tells me about a yoga class she is going to in an hour, to which I reply “great!”, eager to practice. First hour on the island and I’m already going to a yoga class. I’m loving San Marcos already.

An hour later I meet Will and Laura in front of Kaivalya Yoga – and we all stare at the locked door. It seems that yoga is cancelled due to a three-day spiritual festival around new year’s called “Cosmic Convergence”, and most of the spiritual community in town has gone there – which happens to be at another town in Lake Atitlan. Someone does come unlock the door for us, so we can walk around and see the place. It would have been lovely to do yoga here with an amazing view of the lake!

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Laura tells me about an area called the “Trampolina”, which is a wooden platform built on the edge of the cliffs. I decide I will go watch the sunset from there. On the way I check out Hotel Aaculux. It’s serene and quiet.

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I reach the trampolina, revering the sun set behind the volcanoes surrounding Lake Atitlan. Simultaneously, I watch people jump off the platform to the lake (its about 20-fee to free fall). If only I was a strong swimmer, I would have done the same!IMG_4889 IMG_4891

Later that night I go to hostel Del Lago (the most happening place in San Marcos in the evenings), and attend my first drum circle. Will and Laura are already there when I arrive. For an hour, I sit around the campfire with twenty others, and lose myself in the process of making sound through the drum.

Afterwards Will, Laura, and I, all head back to our hostel, conversing about a variety of topics, talking for two hours non-stop. We don’t stay up too late though, hoping to check out the 9am yoga class at Del Lago tomorrow. Which happens to be New Year’s Eve!

New Year’s Eve

Laura and I head to Del Lago at 9am – to find a beautiful platform over the lake. Unfortunately, the yoga instructor cancelled the class. Dammit, 0 for 2. A handful of us stay anyway, and practice yoga on our own for a bit.

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After I’m done, Laura and I head over to Keith’s home, a man who is famous here for his cacao ceremony. A few people have recommended this cacao ceremony to me, but beyond, “It’s great, you should check it out!”, I don’t know anything more about it. So I’m very curious. Arriving at Keith’s door, I find that the gate is locked; I figure he must be at this Cosmic event also. I feel a bit annoyed – why no sign or information? When will he be back? When are the ceremonies normally? I’ll have to come back later and check again…the old-fashioned method, where information is not at your fingertips.

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Afterwards Laura and I head back to our hostel. After having breakfast together, Laura and Will leave for San Pedro. I’m sad to see them leave, since they are cool people that I would have enjoyed spending more time with. I spend the remainder of the day reading books I had brought with me, and doing some reflection on 2014.

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There’s always so much to see and discover. I walked back to Keith’s place, and I found someone standing out front. I asked him about the Cacao Ceremony, and he told me it happens every Sunday and Wednesday at 12:30pm. Yes! I will be back on Sunday!

I walk a bit further and find another beautiful dock.

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New Year’s Eve itself turns out to be low key. I mostly spend it alone, first walking to Del Lago hostel. There weren’t many people there, the crowd mostly younger than 21.

I head to an area where the locals are playing loud music – but no one is really dancing, though people are hanging around. At midnight there are fireworks – but not in San Marcos. Instead I watch fireworks happen on the other side of the lake at San Pedro. Bummer. Oh, and I’m by myself. This is the less glamorous side of backpacking and traveling solo. I try not to feel alone and enjoy my solitude – but New Year’s Eve is one of the tougher moments to be solo.

By the way, the local kids in the region seem to sporadically ignite loud fireworks (M-80s) throughout the day, and bottle-rocket fireworks at night. This happened for a majority of my stay in Guatemala – the kids start at Christmas Eve, and go until January 2nd. As a result I mostly became immune to the M-80’s bomb-like sounds throughout the day.

New Year’s Day

I wake up in the morning to go to a yoga class, not knowing whether it would be cancelled or not. And…the third time is the charm! It is an interesting yoga session – the experience of practicing while being in a spiritual town, intermixed in the context of the Guatemalan culture. In this case, it’s doing yoga while local Guatemalan kids are popping M-80s in the background; as I attempt to practice silence within, my mind begins to drift among thoughts; the sudden explosions bring me back to the present moment.

After yoga class I walk around, admiring different places. Below is a garden at Las Piramides, a meditation center.

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There are flyers throughout town, advertising free meditation classes or courses one can take; these flyers exemplify the energy of San Marcos. If I had more time here, I’d try to take a course on Reiki.

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I spend the rest of the morning and afternoon writing in my gratitude journal, my travel journal, reading, and talking with random people, having a deep and long conversation with one of them.

This would be my last night in town. I am excited for tomorrow, when I will head up to the hills of San Marcos where I will be staying at Yoga Forest for a three-day yoga & meditation retreat.

San Pedro La Laguna, Lake Atitlan

After completing my adventure at Tikal, I take an overnight bus to Guatemala City, a shuttle to Antigua, another shuttle to Panajachel, and a boat ride, to arrive at San Pedro – a 16-hour journey.

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I chose to skip seeing many other sites in Guatemala, wanting to spend most of my time around Lake Atitlan. What is special about this lake?

The lake basin is volcanic in origin, filling an enormous caldera formed in an eruption 84,000 years ago. It’s 5,125 ft. above sea level.  It’s surrounded by three volcanos, with the last eruption in 1853. One traveler I met described this as “an area literally opening up to the heart of the earth”, giving the lake its spiritual ambiance (mostly in the town of San Marcos).

Aside from the geological significance, there is a lot to explore – ten towns surround the lake; I would be exploring at two of them.

San Pedro

The first town I decide to stay at is San Pedro La Laguna, a laid-back town popular with backpackers and tourists, having a reputation for being the party town among all the others.

Upon a friend’s recommendation, I check into a hostel called Casa Felipe, which used to be called “Yo Mama’s Casa” at some point in time. I chose this hostel primarily because it has more of a laid back vibe vs. being a loud, obnoxious party hostel. The hostel itself is simple and pretty (and cheap, 30 quetzals a night which is about $4).

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After I check-in, I see a circle of people hanging out in the patio (mostly in their early 20s), rolling their own cigarettes, listening to music. For my next two days here, it seemed that these people would always be hanging out in the patio. I learn that some had been staying here for 2 weeks, just hanging out. As a result I wasn’t surprised when I asked the group if anyone wanted to hike San Pedro Volcano with me, and no one was up for it.

I venture out for lunch after my 16-hour journey. I find a restaurant called “Shanti Shanti”, whose name lures me in. And with a name like that I would be shocked if they didn’t have vegetarian food. I ordered the fajitas, and initially I was surprised to have such a healthy serving of guacamole – before remembering that I’m in a part of the world where avocados are abundant. Excellent…

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I explore the town after lunch.

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Later in the day I book a volcano hike with two American girls from my hostel who had just checked in – Miranda and Gabby. They are eager to do a volcano hike. All our tour operator told us is that the hike would take 7 hours – begin at 6am, back at 1pm.

Hiking the Volcano

I wake up at 5:20am. Along with the two girls, a Canadian guy, Jacob, would also be joining us. We meet up with our tour guide to begin our hike.

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The trail reveals itself to be difficult early one – it’s steep. Unlike most trails I’ve done in places like California, the trail here doesn’t bother with switchbacks – it just goes straight up. As a result, its more strenuous.

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About a third of the way up, Gabby decides to give up, her face red from all the exertion. I learn that she’s never really hiked before, and here she is trying to hike up a strenuous volcano trail.

The remaining three of us continue up. Time passes slowly, as we split up, and I walk alone. There is a stretch of the trail where at first I see a lot of white scraps of paper – but then I see it’s actually white leaves!

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About another third of the way up, I met some other friendly hikers, Becky and Jamie, from the UK. We joked about how we are all having a difficult time, it must be the altitude, right?

I learn that Becky had quit her job back in Oxford and had just moved to Antigua, Guatemala. From there she is planning on working for an NGO. Overall it seems she will be staying in Guatemala for at least six months. I admire her adventurous spirit. Her friend Jamie is visiting Becky for two weeks, and he jokes how he would soon be back in London, sitting at his desk, and feeling sad when he would be remembering adventures like going up this volcano. The last third of the hike went by quickly thanks to good conversation and laughs.

Eventually we reached the peak to enjoy a panoramic view of Lake Atitlan. In the distance (far far away) we could see another volcano, actually spewing out smoke. A well-earned view after 5,100 ft. of elevation gain at an average 37% grade.

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After we make our way back down came the moment to say goodbye to Becky and Jamie. I ponder whether I should invite them to connect with me on Facebook – in that moment I felt it was perhaps sweeter to not do so. In hindsight, I should have since we had a good connection and energy.

I rest the remainder of the day, feeling quite beat from the volcano hike. My energy level is down as well because of a minor cold. I check my Jawbone app for the number of steps I took, and I am astounded – 60,000+ steps!

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In the evening I go to Buddha Bar with people from the hostel and enjoy live music from a band in the region, who perform Spanish hip-hop music.

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I don’t stay out too late, wanting to rest up and prepare to leave San Pedro – tomorrow I would leave for the spiritual town of San Marcos.

Christmas in Flores, Guatemala

Why Guatemala?

I originally didn’t have any plans to travel anywhere for 2014, having backpacked for 5 months in 2013. As the end of the year approached however, a part of me was hungry, needing an adventure. Where should I go?

My friend Amit had been spending some time in Guatemala, particularly in a spiritual town called San Marcos, located in the region of Lake Atitlan. He wrote a very positive blog post about how magical San Marcos is. I was intrigued. Initial research quickly led to a decision, being inspired by:

  1. Ancient ruins – I love ancient architecture, and Guatemala has a popular site called Tikal, which contains ancient Mayan temples.
  2. Volcanoes – Having done a volcano hike in Bali, and being inspired by numerous volcanoes  throughout Indonesia, I was looking forward to exploring one of Guatemala’s volcanoes.
  3. San Marcos – A small town known for yoga and meditation, seemed like it would be a good place for me to spend a few days and do a yoga retreat on my own. Spiritual rejuvenation.
  4. Lake Atitlan – The lake basin is volcanic in origin, filling an enormous caldera formed in an eruption 84,000 years ago. It’s also 5,125 ft. above sea level. That sounds epic to me!

I booked a ticket for a two-week vacation, leaving on Christmas Eve. Learning from my previous backpacking trip, I decided to create an itinerary that focused more on traveling slowly, rather than creating a checklist of all the “must see” things in Guatemala and then trying to compress seeing it all in two weeks. It was a difficult exercise to decide what l would skip and possibly miss out on; simultaneously, I felt gratitude for even being able to go at all.

Another concern I had was that I was going over the holiday season – Christmas and New Year’s. Would it be packed with tourists since this would be the high season? I was mostly nervous about not being able to book rooms in advance – online reservations weren’t possible – and ending up having to stay in undesirable hostels. I reminded myself that it would all be easier once I was there, and to give up control of wanting to plan it all out now. Sometimes the beauty of such style of travel is being serendipitous. Just live and let things fall into place.

Just Live

Tikal

I landed in Guatemala City on the Christmas Day, and from there I took a small plane from there to Flores. The plane was mostly filled with retired Americans on vacation.

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Flores is a popular place to stay when visiting Tikal, as it’s a small and charming island located 1.5 hours from the ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal.

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When I arrived at my hostel, I debated between booking a sunrise tour (that leaves at 3am) or a sunset tour (leaves at Noon). A part of me wanted to be optimistic about seeing sunrise, but speaking to others at the hostel who had gone described it being too foggy to see anything. So I booked the sunset tour, reminding myself not to overanalyze such things as I tend to do. Just live.

The next day I embarked for the sunset tour for Tikal. Here are some quick facts about Tikal:

  • Tikal was the ancient Mayan capital which used to be one of the most powerful kingdoms in its time
  • An area of 6.2 square miles contains about 3,000 structures, but most haven’t been excavated. Most attention is given to the six temple pyramids
  • The tallest temple is about 230 feet high, completed around 700 AD.
  • Up to 90,000 people may have lived in this area

Upon initially arriving in Tikal, I saw my first exotic creature of the jungle – a wild turkey. The turkey is beautiful, and I could have mistaken it for a peacock.

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As our tour guide led us into the jungle, he told us we would possibly see other jungle creatures, specifically spider monkeys, howler monkeys, wild turkeys, maybe tarantulas, or a jaguar. It didn’t take long to spot spider monkeys and howler monkeys, easily attracting the attention of tourists as they swung around trees (or even walked around).

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I didn’t learn much from the tour guide as I would have hoped – how were these temples built? When were they built? What function did they serve? His explanations around the various sites usually concluded in “Nobody really knows, it’s all a mystery of the Maya.” Thus I mostly focused on appreciating the aesthetics of the temples and other structures, and the sites of the jungle. In my head I made a note to google for a National Geographic documentary about Tikal to learn more about it.

Below is the Lost World Pyramid; part of a larger ceremonial complex.

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View from the top of the steps.

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The Great Plaza, containing two great pyramid-temples on the east and west side, an two acroplis’ on the north and south side.

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Temple I, 154 ft. high. Tourists are not allowed to use the stairs to get to the top – I imagine it would be quite scary and difficult to do so, given how steep and narrow the stairs are.

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Being in Tikal also took me back to an area I was about a year ago – Ankgor Wat. While a part of me didn’t want to compare Tikal to Angkor Wat, emotionally, I feel spiritually connected and mesmerized by Ankgor Wat, its roots being in Hinduism and Buddhism. Just on a visceral level however, Ankgor Wat is on a grand scale, needing 3 days to see it all; Tikal can be seen in about 4 hours.

I stood admiring Temple I, its long staircase to the top. The shape of it reminded me of Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai, Thailand (picture below) – another favorite temple of mine.

Towards the end of our tour, I watched the sunset behind the mountains in the distance, admiring the vast jungle, hiding many of the secrets of the Mayan civilization that used to live here.

Sunset photo from the top of Temple IV.

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Next stop: Lake Atitlan

The Return

The moment has come. It’s time to fly back home to California. Feeling fulfilled from the past five months of travel, I’m excited to return home and see my family and friends again.

I have one last adventure on the way in Japan, thanks to a nine-hour layover at Narita airport. Researching my options before the flight, I decided to visit a nearby town, Narita. I had the option to go to Tokyo, but with a 90-minute commute via train each way, and Tokyo being so big, I preferred to spend more time relaxing in the smaller town of Narita.

Once I land in Narita at 7am, I learned about a program they were testing for people with long layovers, which is a common event at this airport. An attendant takes me into a lounge and presents me with several packages to choose from. I sit in the chair sipping coffee while my host is on her knees showing me brochures. It feels awkward to be treated so nicely.

In the brochures there are several guided tours to choose from, with several permutations including a sake brewery tour, visiting a temple, and shopping at a big mall. I’m not in the mood for sake or shopping. I opt for a package to get a free massage and free lunch. After my relaxing 45 minute massage, I take a train to Narita, a small town I will explore on my own.

I was prepared for December weather in Japan, it being in the 40s during the day. I get off at the Narita stop and begin walking into town. I haven’t felt cold weather like this in six months! It’s a quaint town – cobblestone streets, small shops, no traffic. Orderly and clean. As I pass shops, there are no aggressive peddlers asking me to buy their merchandise. No loud motorbikes. Clean, crisp cold air. So different than Indochina.

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As I explore the temple, the feeling that I had seen it all after traveling for several months is no more –  my mind is being stimulated again by new architecture, art, and culture. A humble reminder that there is much to see in this world.

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After two hours of exploration, I make my way back to the airport to head back home.

Twelve hours later, I land at LAX. I smile seeing Obama’s face as I pass through customs. I’m back home! I expect to be questioned by the customs officer about why I had been traveling for five months, where I had been, and then have my bag searched. Instead he says, “welcome home!” and waves me on.

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I’m delighted to see my family and this loving poster they had made for me.

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After five months, numerous sights and experiences, my backpacking adventure comes to an end.

And so the process of re-integrating back into society begins.