Life and Love – Paisa Style

Medellin: Former capital of cocaine, crime, and kidnapping.  Now, home to bike lanes, amazing public transit, beautifully rotund Botero statues, and Paisanos – the hardworking and friendly residents of the city.

We came to the city with big expectations.  Colombians LOVE this place, and I  can see its appeal.  It’s a progressive city, nestled in the huge Aburra mountain valley.  It’s hard to think that just 20 years ago this city would have not been on my radar – that people were murdered at random in drug-related violence, bombings, and at the hand of the city’s most notorious resident, Pablo Escobar, and his cocaine cartel.  Progressive reform, efforts to reduce corruption, and to improve the safety and well-being of the city’s residents were often cut short when leaders were killed.  In fact, one of the leaders of Medellin who began to implement the improved transit that eventually helped to turn the fate of Medellin was killed as a result of his efforts.

Thankfully, the violence of Medellin’s past is no longer still an issue in the city.  Though the city is not quite like Cartagena, which feels like Disneyworld, it is safe and very easy to travel in.

Yesterday, though we have both been under the weather, Rick and I decided to rent bikes and explore the city.  I wanted very badly to check out the Museum of Antioquia and to see the Botero statues in the plaza near it.  I also wanted to head to the Botanical Gardens, because Medellin is known as the city of eternal spring and I’d heard good things about their gardens. I also thought that Rick might benefit from some exertion because he has been suffering from all kinds of bugs over the last several days and hasn’t had the energy to get out running like he was in Cartagena.  It was a bit of an ambitious plan to undertake by bike, but Medellin has a really cool policy of turning Carretera 43a, “El Poblano”, into a bikeway each Sunday.  They shut down two lanes of traffic and open it exclusively to bike and pedestrian traffic. The road is a busy one which cuts through the heart of the city, making a Sunday ride a very efficient way to check out many different spots.  It’s an amazing policy that I wish was more common in the US!

We rode across the city for about 40 minutes on the bikeway, barely having to stop for cross traffic, under the friendly supervision of a crew of young people at intersections and on bikes who make sure that everything is going smoothly.  The crowd out venturing around the city on bikes had to be a pretty good cross-section of Medellin – from families with little ones, to serious cyclists decked out in loud spandex. Everyone looked like they were having a great time, and so were we. We made our way to the Botero Plaza where I proceeded to take photos of every statue, with me in the foreground mimicking the statue’s pose – like a mature adult.  (I think my imitation of the full-breasted Sphinx was probably my crowning glory.)  We then made our way back to the Poblano and continued on toward the botanical gardens.  At one point, the bike traffic seemed to shut down as we headed towards a tunnel.  I looked at Rick, skeptical, and asked “Do you think we should go in this dark tunnel on bikes without anyone around?”.  He shrugged that it was probably fine, the guards had seen us entering and hadn’t stopped us.  So, we entered, biking fast, and hoping we weren’t making a mistake.  Well, shortly after we exited on the other side, we saw a few more of the bikeway volunteers riding towards us.  They shouted that the bikeway opened to traffic at 1 pm – which is exactly what time it was, so we quickly turned and followed them back the way we had come.  As we were riding through the tunnel, out of nowhere a truck came barreling up behind us and veered around us.  “Oh my god!” I screamed at Rick and we started sprinting on our pathetic rental bikes, at about 6,000 feet of elevation.  It wasn’t pretty!  We all were busting our butts to make it out of the tunnel, and just as we did, traffic began tearing through at high speeds.

Collapsing on some grass nearby to catch our breath, we re-evaluated our situation.  We were both wiped out, and now our route home was a superhighway so we needed to figure out how to get home.  We tried to follow the route of the road we had come on, but the frontage roads sort of meandered in and out of neighborhoods, through shopping areas, and across very un-bike friendly areas.  It took us over an hour and a half to make it back to the El Poblano neighborhood where we were staying, and on the way we found ourselves on more that one occasion in places where we should NOT have been.  It was actually kind of scary to me, and I don’t scare that easily.  6,000′ of elevation has had both of us wheezing and struggling, which didn’t make me feel any better about being in some rough parts of Medellin.  Clearly, our acclimatization from our Denver days has worn off.

Anyway, we ended the night watching some good old American football, in an Irish Bar, in Colombia. Odd, right?  We even started up a conversation with another couple there, and (crazy small world) the guy had graduated from UVA in the same December grad class as Rick. Together, we gave aguardiente (Colombian brandy that tastes like black licorice)  a fair go, and decided  shortly thereafter that we had made enough of our night so we headed home a bit early.  We came home, nursed our sick bodies, and we have continued to do that through today.

Sharing sickness in a foreign place is certainly never comfortable, but together we have been making it a bit more manageable.  I packed all sorts of meds and have been able to keep us well-tended to.  He has made sure I get enough sleep (which I often don’t) and we both keep each other’s wellness in mind as we plan our activities.  Though it is a bit of a downer to not feel like ourselves, there is certainly nothing that brings people closer than jointly commiserating over unfortunate maladies.  And, honesty, we found the perfect place to be sick.  Our current hostel is quiet, with peaceful lounge areas and gardens, we have a giant room with a king size bed, floor to ceiling windows, our own bathroom, and a walk in closet area! (Gran Hostel Medellin in El Poblano)  Tonight we hope to cook dinner in (our first in weeks!) before taking off to check out some areas outside Medellin including Gautape, and the coffee-growing haciendas around Manizales.  We will keep writing as we go!

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Yoga Bitch

I’m in the middle of my yoga immersions. On my bedside table is a workshop manual covering all the stuff we discuss in class, my notebook for notes, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, and what I’ve heard to be the most easily-readable translation of the Bhagavad-Gita. Heavy stuff. So, when I was buying these, I allowed myself a fluff book too: Yoga Bitch.

I have to admit that when I got my shipment of books, Yoga Bitch was the first one I opened. I have seen it in circulation amongst my yoga teachers, and from the moment I saw the name I knew the book was for me. Its premise is exactly what I have struggled with as I have walked this yoga path – how to reconcile a wry, sardonic persona with the authenticity and vulnerability that yoga demands.

I’m not yogic on so many levels.

From a young age my mom referred to me by one of two names: Grace, and the Princess.    I was called grace due to my lack thereof.  No bandying around that one.  Though I have managed to cultivate bit more physical grace with age, I can’t really hang my hat on a graceful physicality, or nature in general.  Strike one against Kat the yogi.  I was also known as both “the Princess” and, even better, “the Adorable Child.”  These were both tongue-in-cheek references to my ability to play the role of a sweet daughter while actually bossing my sisters around and manipulating them like puppets.  Cute stuff. So, there’s a testament to my authentic nature.

I note these because they underscore the fact that, hell, I am no yogi.  From childhood to now I lay no claim to being sweet and sincere. I like to drink beer, enjoy the occasional cigarette, get a little wild, and have been known to exhibit a bit of temper.  I’m sarcastic and occasionally snarky and judgmental.  I struggle to cultivate inner peace – and I’m not always sure I want to.  That’s the rub.  That’s why I love Yoga Bitch. I get this chick. She’s like me.

From her musings on her inner conflicts regarding her need for freedom in her first serious relationship, to her ambivalence about becoming someone who “drinks the kool-aid” (or her own urine, as the case may be), I relate to this author wholeheartedly.  She embodies my personal dilemma with yoga in so many ways.  How do you embrace yogic principles without giving up the identity that you have created for yourself? (Answer: release your attachment to that identity.) But why?  And by what proof do we know that this path leads to the enlightenment we seek?  Are we just drinking the kool-aid like we would from any other organized religion (that my inner cynic (and Marx) tells me is simply the “sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions… the opium of the people?”

Ay.  This is too much thinking for me right now and I haven’t finished the book. Perhaps she addresses these questions further in.

Anyway, I think her memoir works because so many people come to yoga from a place of inner conflict and/or confusion.  So many people find that yoga’s integration of the body and mind in the quest for enlightenment simply…works.  It works better than a lot of other things.

Last weekend I got a massage; a Valentine’s gift from Rick.  It was probably the best massage I’ve ever received and I know this because I started crying in the middle of it – which as I’ve learned from yoga means they dug up something juicy deep in the flesh around my kidneys and lower back.  I could tell you more about the juicy bits, but let’s just say it’s awkward crying through the hole in a massage table and leave it at that.  It was a snotty experience.

I bring it up because the author of Yoga Bitch, and I, share the common experience of finding that yoga answered (or helped to answer) something existential that our souls sought.   It’s a tool that has helped fill a bit of a void in my comprehension of myself as a relational being amongst a world full of ’em.  It’s a path that has brought me to a new understanding of myself, my pain, my past, and even more so, my present.  My massage last weekend reminded me of where I was with yoga just a couple of years ago – crying on the mat and feeling every hip opening take me a little deeper into a dark place that I, frankly, did not want to explore.  It reminded me of what yoga has done to make a wry and sardonic creature like myself into a bit more of a well-rounded, authentic person in just a few years.

Yoga Bitch, in closing, is a book that I have not finished, but that I’d already recommend.  It’s good stuff.

Adventures in Ayurveda

As I have mentioned on here a bit, I have been working for the past 5 months or so with an Ayurvedic doctor here in Brisbane, who also happens to be a friend and amazing yoga teacher.  I went to a workshop she put on months ago, and was inspired to learn more about ayurveda and how it could help me improve my own health and wellness.

It’s been an adventure delving into this.  First, I learned about my dosha, which in ayurveda means your constitution. There are three; kapha, pitta, and vatta.  They all have very specific qualities that make them unique and reflect elements of the natural world like fire, water, air, and earth.  The way these elements interact together helps to explain the way your body and mind work; your energy levels, your mindset, and many elements of your physical and mental health. Most people are a mix of all three doshas – often the way the three interact will change with the seasons.  But each person has their own unique mix, which is something you’re born with and can’t really change.  You can, however, manage the way the doshas work within your body to attempt to achieve balance and improve your health.

In my case, I didn’t come to Heidi, my doctor, with any specific health issues.  I basically had a host of small things that had bothered me for a long time.  I could hardly eat a meal without being doubled over in stomach pain shortly thereafter.  I had skin rashes, inflammation, and my mind often felt foggy and tired.  I was also extremely moody.  But I took all of these things to be normal – and assumed that most people dealt with the same health frustrations.   I just wanted to see if ayurveda could offer me an alternative to it, and after hearing Heidi talk about it, I thought it might .

When Heidi sat down with me, we had a talk. A serious talk. I walked away feeling like I had bared my soul.  She knew about my mental state, the way I felt about my friends and family and their health issues, my relationships, my stressors, my libido, my sweat, my exercise habits, and every last details about my excrement.  She looked at my tongue and drew pictures of it, and she looked into my eyes and furrowed her brow.  She looked at my fingernails and my skin, and by the time I was done I felt there was nothing Heidi didn’t know about me (and she probably knew things even I didn’t).  It was all a bit intrusive at first, but as we went on I could help but wonder why no doctor had ever asked me some of these questions.

I learned from her, that I’m a pitta.  A pitta pitta.  Where most people are more of a mix of three, I’m pretty much all pitta.  In short, that means I have a fiery nature, a strong metabolism, a strong desire to work and stay busy, and I’m prone to skin and stomach issues.   There is a LOT more to that – but that’s the quick and dirty.  It felt oddly validating to be deemed super pitta.  I’ve been told on more than one occasion, by more than one person, that I am the most intense person they know – which I have never fully understood.  But, Heidi saw it too in my “crazy eyes”, so I’m just accepting it as fact.  I’m intense, apparently.

So, to help balance out the pitta in me and bring me to a more healthful place, I have been going heavy on bitter foods like rocket, kale, broccoli, pomegranate, berries, and other “cooling” things like coconut water, coriander and fennel.  I’m laying off some of my favorite foods like tomatoes, anything salty, all nightshades, and sour things like lemons and oranges.   I also take all sorts of tinctures (not the sketchy type…) and potions.   I meditate and do breathing exercises.  I feel like a witch.  And, I like it.

The end of summer here in Australia is a hot, and extremely wet time of year.  It’s a hard time to be a pitta.  Things go all out of whack – and my body has.   I got a serious infection which I tried to treat with ayurveda – and which was working pretty well until guests arrived, I went traveling, and drank a lot for my birthday (which I do not regret!).  The inability to keep a routine and follow the rules I needed to follow to heal myself totally backfired on me.  I ended up in a lot of pain, upset with myself for failing ayurveda, and in a doctor’s office getting myself some antibiotics – which I try to avoid like the plague.   I am wiped out from battling nasties for weeks now, both with ayurveda and with western meds.

But despite that, I’m pretty hooked on the benefits of ayurveda,  It’s amazing to recognize that by observing my body more closely and recognizing what my symptoms mean, I can figure out how to be healthier and happier by making dietary adjustments.  I don’t have pain after my meals now, because I have worked on cultivating the right flora in my digestive tract.  That has helped my moods (because eating without pain is always a good thing!).  My PMS is less intense, my temper flares less easily, and I don’t feel that inner sense of hardness that I did for so long, which made it hard for me to cultivate empathy for other people.   I feel (more) comfortable being vulnerable. My skin has cleared up so I barely have a hint of skin rash or inflammation.  And I wake up feeling refreshed and ready to work rather than groggy all day and alert in the evening when I want to sleep.  My whole life seems to make more sense and feel more aligned with what is healthy and right.

I know some people might think ayurveda is a bit wacky and out there, but to me you simply cannot argue with results.  I feel amazing. And even though I have been unwell recently (during a hard wet season with LOTS of rain, heat, and humidity – all which really throw off my dosha), I know that I am on a course towards much better health than I have had ever before.  It feels so, so, good.

I want to encourage everyone out there to learn more about ayurveda and improving your health in a natural, diet-based way – because health is so much more than the absence of disease.  The goal is feeling vibrant, alert, and whole.  And I’m finally feeling that way!