Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Ten days in to describe?

Thoughts from Ricardo

The meditation hall
Why does one want to take ten days in noble silence, eliminating all electronic devices and any news from the outside world? This is a big question that I have asked myself both before and after our Vipassana retreat experience.

Now that we have completed this experience I feel a special type of joy that is very hard for me to describe, however I will try my best. First of all I want to say that this is not a recommendation but my personal reflection. I have been what I call a "light meditator" for many years always trying to understand more about the quiet mind that would bring some added joy to what I already call a picture perfect life. I have always enjoyed this process but was very surprised when I put myself into this Vipassana situation sitting for 8 to 10 hours working on this technique that was developed 2500 years ago and taught by Buddha himself. This is not a light form of meditation like I practice at the Kadampa center in Chiapas but something very different.

I won’t get into the details of the 10 day practice but would like to say that I’m very happy and honored to have had the time and inclination to take on this challenge. Basically it’s like putting yourself in a jail setting with 100 plus other people in search of a deeper human experience. I know that when it was over and we had the chance to talk I discovered that I was present with the best of the best people in the middle of a forest and far from civilization and outside my usual comfort zone.

The goal was to deepen one’s abilities to love and foster compassion for all life. This is done by an understanding of detachment and the impermanence of the always changing life.

I don’t know if we would do it again but as we talk more about what happened we are entertaining the idea. Susan will write more details on her summary. Once again, thanks again for traveling with us.

And from Susan...

I loved my little room
Here we are after our 10 day Vipassana meditation retreat that took place in a little mountain village about 2 hours from Mexico City. It would not have mattered where in the world we would have done this as it was internal "travel". Having nice scenery for my circular walks around the property, however, did make for a beautiful visual experience for a short time each day.

I am not sure how to explain this experience but I have certain vivid thoughts that I want to capture for my own memory for I know that as time passes, I will forget the details that seem important to me today. Perhaps if I write again about this in 10 days or 2 months, the experience will have a different meaning so here goes.

Having little preparation from our various friends who had done this was good as we did not have preconceived ideas. We knew that we would turn in all our technology, writing pads, pens, etc. at the beginning and that we would be in separate quarters - men/women. There were approx. 40 men and 40 women along with the dedicated volunteer servers and support people who worked and meditated with us when not giving service. As "new" folks, we were not expected to do any of the chores to maintain this totally volunteer program. This is an important memory for me as the serving staff was always pleasant and seemingly happy to give to us. It was their form of "metta" service for others - a philosophy of this program.

Each day we arose at 4am (!!!) and began our meditation program at 4:30 going until 9:00 at night with breaks for meals at 6:30 am and 11:00 am and a fruit/tea at 5pm. A rest period for a bit of time after each meal for tending to ourselves (showers, rest, walking, thinking). All in all about 9-10 hours of sitting silently in the large meditation hall each day. There were many rules to follow related to time, silence, acknowledging each other when passing, etc. As a usual "rule follower" this was not a problem for me.

This style of Vipassana meditation is handed down from Buddha and follows a particular method for getting in touch with one's sensations to control the craving vs. aversion thoughts connecting to the subconscious of both this life and lives before. For me it was a bit of a stretch to understand it all but I will say that I was able be in the present moment for longer periods of time in meditation than I had ever been before. I personally enjoyed the long silence and in fact when we were able to begin talking on the 10th day I found myself very quickly uncomfortable and had quite a physical reaction feeling dizzy and overwhelmed and wishing to go back to the quiet. It took me a bit of time to ease back into the world of communication. Also (much to my surprise), I never missed my computer, facebook, kindle nor my writing or drawing pad. Makes me realize how much time I spend thinking something important will be in a machine waiting for me and how little of importance is there really is. My world became an inside world in the community of women washing their face or brushing their teeth at the communal sinks of our dorm of 20 rooms. Thankfully I had a private room as there were several with 3 people/room. There were 2 women and 2 men's dorms.

The dining hall. Women enter in front,
men on the right behind the trees.
Lessons along the way....
There was a woman on day 2 or 3 who began coughing in the dorm as well as the meditation hall. My immediate reaction was personal - what if I get sick too, and what if all the others do as well.  Soon I went from that thought to caring about this young woman who was clearly suffering. Since no one could talk to her I was trying to figure out what I might be able to do for her but there was really nothing I could do. After about 4-5 days her coughing seemed to subside. I really saw myself change from caring about myself to compassion for her. On day 10 when we were able to talk, she was the first person I talked to as we walked together outside the meditation hall. We quickly discovered a connection - she was born in Frankfurt, Germany, the place of birth of my father. It is not an easy task to explain in writing this powerful connection and change that I felt in myself but I want to remind myself as I hope to carry this with me always.

I realized how much I missed Ricardo and wanted to speak with him, mostly to know that he was OK. We were in the same meditation hall but on opposite sides of the room and not always able to see if he was there or not as the layout of the room made this difficult. After a few days even that became somewhat easier. We found a 5 second moment almost every night after the discourse on video when we walked out of the room at the same moment and quickly whispered "Are you OK? Yes. Are you OK? Yes!"

I realized how "what is, is" and that acceptance of the ever changing life around me is the only way to live. I think we have done a good job over the years at not being too attached to "things" but there is always more to realize.

The link to all of us during the ten days was powerful. I could feel the strength of the community during the meditation sessions and the need to communicate with each other on the last day. We all seemed to want each other to know that we had witnessed each other during the time in one way or another. As the elder to the group, I heard from several that they noticed my strong commitment and were happy to see me sitting in my spot by the wall every morning at 4:30. (I chose to sit in a chair alternating with sitting on cushions on the floor along a wall with support for my back). We always sat in the same place and I felt a strong connection to the woman who was directly in front of me all of the time. I knew which shoes were hers outside the room and was always happy when I saw them there when I arrived as I felt like she was "my" special person as our proximity was so close. We felt a kinship when we were finally able to talk. She lives not far from San Miguel so maybe we will see each other one day.

I began the time with a strong dislike of the voice of Goenka, the teacher of this program which is provided by loudspeaker at the beginning and end of each of the meditation sessions with instructions and chanting in Pali. The sound of the chanting was very disharmonious. By the end I was much more accepting of the sound but I never understood why it was necessary. Acceptance, however, does not mean that I liked it.

So all in all....I am glad I met this challenge in my life. Will I do it again? Not sure right now but would not say no. Would I recommend it? I think that it is something each person would have to decide for themselves - I would certainly think that some of my "peeps" would like the experience and others not.

I feel tremendously grateful for our lives and the luxury to have the time for our internal and external travel. As I write, we are getting packed and ready for our next two month travel to Ecuador and Colombia. Thank you for sharing your time with us as you read this post. We love you.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Meanderings in Tepotzlán, Toluca and Valle de Bravo

The pyramid is up there somewhere!
How lucky we are with an extra week in our lives to visit places around CDMX (Ciudad de Mexico or Mexico City). A one hour bus ride from the city brings us to this valley surrounded by mountains called Tepotzlán, a pueblo mágico. Somehow we managed to get 3 days of rain so missed the important pyramid above the town called El Tepozteco. We never even saw it from below as the mountains were covered in clouds most of the time.

This didn't stop us from enjoying walking around, having a decaf coffee here and there and favorite pastime was eating delicious vegan food in the stalls of the Mercado. We found several prehispanic vendors with a variety of options so that we had to go back each of our three days. Seems to be our street food week as we also found a vegan taco stand in Mexico City called Por Siempre Vegan Taqueria. Surely a place we will return to. We are making up for the many outdoor markets and stalls we have ignored in our 8+ years of Mexico travel, always passing them for not having items we would like.

This town was hit very hard by the earthquake in Sept, 2017 damaging the large church as well as many buildings in town. We visited the Ex-convento and the exhibit about the earthquake as well as a museum collection of prehispanic artifacts from the area.
Here is Richard reporting....
Toluca, just two hours outside of Mexico City, was described to me as semi-modern and so it is. It is the capital of the state of Mexico and seems to have a thriving population. We met our dear friends there from San Miguel, Tomy and Maria Elena and our main reason to go was to visit Cosmovitral a place of great wonder and beauty. The incredible building was once a marketplace and now is covered with huge panels of stained glass telling the story of creation and the ongoing battle where good wins over evil. Inside the walls are gardens and each one is a jewel. It is a place I recommend as a once in a lifetime visit.

Maria Elena and Luz
Our friends have a cousin Luz living in Toluca who wanted to enhance our time, which she did to our  great appreciation. The first night she prepared a feast for us travelers made with her loving hands and catering to our individual dietary specialities. Together with the rest of her family we had a time to catch up and hear many stories of the cousins and their lives growing up in San Miguel. As no one spoke English, it was a chance to see how our Spanish comprehension has improved over the years. 
A view of Nevado de Toluca
from San Andres

The following day she took us all to see a view of Nevado de Toluca, a volcano covered in snow which we saw from the small village of San Andres. In my youth I would have liked to climb it but now it is a mountain to admire. Then we traveled to a another "Pueblo Magico" called Metepec where we climbed up the  
stairs  to visit the church with a great view of the town below. We shared a delicious meal in town and we headed back to Toluca to say goodbye to our new friend Luz.  
overlooking Metepec
An important memory for all of us was our morning coffee in a little cafe called Huitzi Café which in Nahuatl (indigenous language) means colibri or hummingbird. We were entertained each morning by great music of the 60's. We are grateful to have M E and Tomy as our travel companions and look forward to our next trip.

Valle de Bravo
Our balcony in V de B
And now the very last leg of this trip before we go off technology for the next 10 days. We are in another Pueblo Magico - Valle de Bravo on the shores of a very large man made lake. Having only two nights before our 10 day Vipassana silent retreat, we are enthralled with this very beautiful town with much more to see and do than our two days will provide. Another place to return to (only 2 hours from CDMX). 

Once again we follow our usual search for the best vegan food and found it once again at a small spot run by two lovely ladies - Maria and Elina. They have only been here for one month so if your travels bring you to V de B, please visit them.
Today we went to Bridal Falls for a walk in the woods with the sound of waterfalls surrounding us. We took care of a few errands as we will not have the opportunity to do any extra "stuff" during the next days. FYI, we will be in separate quarters with no eye contact, nor communication with each other nor you....our friends and family. I will write my thoughts and comments on this experience later this month.  
At Bridal Falls

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

A successful fifth year of Libros para Todos with Reyna Grande

It would be hard to describe the week with author Reyna Grande for the fifth year of Libros para Todos. Most of you who are reading this post know that it started small in my Spanish conversation class and now is reaching epic proportions. During the Thanksgiving week in and around San Miguel de Allende she spoke to nearly 1000 people and signed 600 books and many more bookmarks. Reyna's ability to express herself with candor and openness drew us into her story like a magnet. Both young and old were able to experience her journey as if it were our own. THANK YOU REYNA.

As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words so I will post many here and highlight the major events along with a few stories that happened.

Tuesday night was a concert of Cuban pianist Fidel Leal to a standing room crowd. This was a benefit performance for Libros para Todos and special guests were Reyna, her husband Corey, their two children and nephew.

Wednesday was our first rural community event in Banda. This is a very small school where 30 read Reyna's memoir "La Distancia entre Nosotros". We always wonder before the first event how things will go but she was very well received by these young adults (age 13-16) who were moved by the sad and difficult stories of her childhood. This is the class where Richard taught English over several weeks this past fall and so he felt very connected to all these young people.
Each person in Banda wrote their own book
based in each chapter of Reyna's

Here are many of the books written by
the students in Banda.

Here is a review from her website of the book.

"Born in Mexico and raised by her grandparents after her parents left to find work in the U.S., at nine years old, Reyna enters the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant to live with her father. Filled with hope, she quickly realizes that life in America is far from perfect. Her father isn’t the man she dreamed about all those years in Mexico. His big dreams for his children are what gets them across the border, but his alcoholism and rage undermine all his hard work and good intentions. Reyna finds solace from a violent home in books and writing, inspired by the Latina voices she reads. After an explosive altercation, Reyna breaks away, going on to become the first person in her family to obtain a higher education, earning a college degree and then an M.F.A. in Creative Writing.

At a time when immigration politics are at a boiling point in America, Reyna Grande is an important public voice for Mexican Americans and immigrants of every origin. The Distance Between Us has the power to change minds and hearts."

Wednesday evening Reyna was invited to the PEN lecture series and spoke to an audience attentive to this timely story of immigration as she spoke in English with a complete translation and pictures on a large screen. She was introduced by colleague Sandra Cisneros, author and longtime supporter of Libros para Todos.

Thursday began a full day with three events - Los Rodriguez, Naciones Unidas and Pantoja (with students from Don Diego). Each event was well received by the schools and communities that invited us. Common denominators of all the events were gifts and letters handed to Reyna as well as large posters and drawings related to the stories in the book. Bouquets of flowers covered her table as she patiently looked into the eyes of each student as she signed their book addressed personally to each one. 

Friday was spent in Delores Hidalgo - first at a large event in a Secondaria (Middle School) where 200 had received the book however the event included all the school - seats and bleachers were filled. After her talk and Q&A a young woman came with her mike and sang acapella in the most glorious voice I have heard in a very long time. I spoke with her afterwards to find out that she has never had a voice or music teacher. I hope that she encounters someone like Reyna did to help her in the world if she chooses music as her future. 

After a fun few hours in Delores Hidalgo including delicious tacos for all and ice cream at a shop of the family of one of the students, we were off to a very large event of close to 300 people. These were students of local book clubs as well as many parents. Here again the students shared special programs that had been planned for her, gifts and a second song by the same young woman. 

Saturday was a special breakfast for Reyna and her family and our many volunteers and supporters at the lovely Posada Corazon. After a few words from me and Daniela, Reyna spoke and again signed books. A surprise for me followed with all singing "Las Mananitas" along with a birthday pancake and candle. I cannot think of a better way to celebrate a birthday.

And probably the most emotional of all came on Saturday afternoon. Students in the school at Don Diego were moved by her story and the caravan of asylum seekers passing through Mexico and decided to raise money to buy items of necessity for these people. We took 3 carfuls with bags of goods to ABBA House in Celaya - a safe house for these people. We were given a tour, met some of the refugees and witnessed with our own eyes the reality of this situation. After these many days with Reyna, listening to her story of immigration and realizing that this is a very real life for so many people here in this part of the world and in many other parts, now was the opportunity to actually witness it. The emotions were overwhelming for me and many others.

And lastly on Sunday morning Reyna spoke at our local Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of SMA on the topic of writing for therapy. Once again, well received by an overflow crowd.

A short summary of my thoughts after a week of Libros para Todos....

  • I am very proud of all our accomplishments to reach so many with a special book. Thanks to the whole team of Libros para Todos and especially to Daniela Franco. It would not happen without her.
  • I would not be surprised if this might be a book that changes the lives of some of these young people. Reyna told us that she received so many personal letters during the week with young people reaching out to her with stories of their pain and suffering.
  • I have hopes that LpT will add a writing program in one or more schools. The students in Pantoja each wrote a personal story as part of the reading of La Distancia entre Nosotros.
  • I am more connected in a visual way to the pain and suffering of so many people escaping difficult situations with the hopes of a better world for themselves and their families after bearing witness to this firsthand at ABBA House.
  • I never doubted the value of writing to work through difficult personal issues but am now even more aware of how it can help change one's inner struggles.
  • I hope that Libros para Todos can make a small difference in the world of some people.
  • I was deeply connected in a personal way knowing that my parents who were Jewish refugees left Germany to come to a better place. Here I am many years later thinking about them and their lives. I have written much in my life about this but am even more connected than ever before. Thinking about Reyna and her family and her ability to understand her parents better after years of writing helped me to realize how I have finally understand a bit more about my own parents and my past.
With our LpT intern, cousin Noa Bearman
Thank you to all our family and friends for following our Libros para Todos program and for supporting us with contributions as well as moral support. We love you all.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Studying and enjoying Guanajuato (GTO), Mexico

I can't believe it has been almost one year since I wrote on this blog. It doesn't mean we haven't done anything or been anywhere. I don't really know what it means.

Steps at the University
Anyway, we had a few weeks free and decided to spend some time in this young and vibrant city - a university town with the U of Guanajuato occupying the attention of all. The city is alive at all hours of the day and night with young people studying, drinking coffee in the many coffee shops, eating and just "being students" as they are all over the world.
Typical scene in our "hood"

There is lots happening for adults as well - a large educated Mexican population and a very small expat community makes a different feel than SMA. We've been to both theaters attending the GTO band concert (at Teatro Juarez) as well as the GTO Symphony (at Teatro Principal). We were lucky to be at the Symphony the night Alfredo Muro (world famous guitarist whom we know from SMA) was playing as a guest musician.

We attended Escuela Falcon for 2 classes/day for 2 weeks working again on the Spanish challenge. We are both far ahead of what we once were however there is always a need for much improvement.

Steps in Museo de Arte
Our small apartment is shared in a house with other students - one from Turkey and one from the Philippines with her husband from the US. I feel like I am back in a college setting of the past - one way to keep us "young".

We are enjoying the many museums, parks and walking up and down the steep cobblestone alleys. The street and several surrounding our house are car free as they are too narrow to accommodate vehicles. It makes for good daily exercise which we were used to in San Miguel where we have been for the prior 3 months.
Diego and Frida at the museum

The city with the cathedral and university in the middle.

E-Hacienda San Gabriel
de Barrera
There were several excursions from school including a walking tour of the city and a visit to the Ex-Hacienda San Gabriel de Barrera which was built in the early 18th century and was taken over by the government after the 1910 revolution. It consists of a museum, the house with period furniture and numerous gardens.

Delicata Mitsu

I would be remiss if I didn't talk about our favorite activity - eating at restaurants that cater to our style of food and Guanajuato has numerous to choose from. Favorites included Habibitee (Middle Eastern), Delicata Mitsu (Japanese) and all time best - Los Campos which serves an eclectic menu of well presented and tasty food. Having a kitchen at home allowed us to eat meals at home many evenings while enjoying our nightly habit of watching Spanish speaking soap operas (listening in Spanish with subtitles in English).

We are headed back to San Miguel tomorrow to partake in the "big read" event for Libros para Todos. Author Reyna Grande will visit the rural communities surrounding SMA next week. From then we will begin our 4 1/2 month travel adventure in Mexico, Ecuador and Colombia. Look forward to posts as we travel once again.

Words from Ricardo...

We have returned to Guanajuato for the fifth time since our retirement nine years ago. This is the capital of the state in Mexico, the same state in which San Miguel de Allende resides.  It is a very picturesque university town that at one time was the richest town in the world due to silver and gold mining. Guanajuato is known for its largest vein of silver.  Because of its past wealth many things were constructed such as underground roads, theaters, plazas, haciendas and magnificent churches.  Beside enjoying life here we are attending Spanish classes (Escuela Falcon) which rounds our days along with our usual touring. This is a young town in contrast to San Miguel de Allende which has an older population. 
Richard's favorite expression -
Belly full, heart content!
I would like to recommend visiting both places just to experience the contrast. The prices in Guanajuato are much less than San Miguel de Allende and the ambiance here is faster, younger and more colorful however our great community and many social action projects along with the beauty of SMA make it important for us as well. Guanajuato is historic not just for the mines but due to the 1810 revolution when Mexico fought for its independence from Spain. 
Come and spend some time here that you won’t regret, I’m sure.