When we sailed into a little bay in the center of Mexico’s Pacific coast, we came to meet old friends. But because we stayed in this town for a couple weeks, I found myself facing some of the uneasy questions of development in Mexico. I didn’t figure it out until much later, but this little town helped me start to grapple with privilege, research, and just how much I don’t need to beat up myself or anyone else for not seeing the whole complicated picture.
So, we ended up in this town because I have some excellent friends. Among them are Mark and Briana, whom I have known for 15 years now—we climbed and biked together in my Moab days. They’re great adventure buddies, from bike rides to wine drinking, and to my extreme delight they wanted to meet us somewhere easy enough to access, but remote enough to get a feel for Mexican town life.
After wisely concluding that four humans, a dog, and one toddler on our boat might spell disaster, we sailed in perfect conditions (good wind on the beam and gentle seas) from San Blas to Chacala, a tiny cove before the tourism madness of Puerto Vallarta and Banderas Bay. Here, Mark and Briana rented a casita for ten days.
Chacala is a tiny beach town nestled into the valley between two steep hillsides. On the knobby hill to the north, brightly colored homes bubble out over the cliffs and peer down into the water. The southern slope exposes cultivated guanabana trees to the sunset every evening. Chacala is just far enough north of Puerto Vallarta to see some tourism traffic, but not yet feel the pulse of overdevelopment. The picturesque half-moon bay, dotted with palms and bougainvillea, is exposed to western swell, but a stern hook kept us comfortable and faced into the surge every day and night. (This was, amazingly, one of the first times we used a stern hook, which is another anchor off the back of the boat. Since then, it has become a constant sleep-saver; we use it all the time, and we’ve become adept at dropping it without having to launch the dinghy.)
Mark, Briana, and their son Asher arrived a day after us, fresh from the horrors of traveling on a plane with a two-year-old. Just to help them really feel the stress, we asked them to bring a new drone to Mexico for us. Of course, the shiny plastic case flagged them immediately, and they spent forty-five minutes in customs – with said two-year-old – as they tried to help us avoid paying an import fee. Just imagine – cold white room, high-speed Spanish, screaming son. They finally paid a low fee and left, grabbed a rental car, and drove a couple hours north to their temporary Mexican home.
For the next ten days, we would pad about this quiet little town and learn about it’s development. And we all shared one of the ills of travel together – a stomach bug.
Mark and Briana found a two-bedroom apartment half a block from the beach, close enough to the shore that forgetting shoes wasn’t a problem. Between two tiny markets selling produce and the fresh produce truck (whose schedule we never quite figured out, but whose loudspeaker made itself apparent,) plus the fish market across the street, we could eat in at the casa or head back to the beach for fresh food.
The beach is the classic Mexican beach – covered in happy, languid people on the weekends, complete with dogs and kids riding inflatable sharks in the (sometimes big) surf. The town and beach are downright sleepy on the weekdays. The tan sand slopes steeply rom the densely packed, thatch-roofed, sand floor restaurants, into the water. When the swell rolls in a little bigger, it’s endlessly entertaining to watch people play in the massive beach break that looks like it explodes onto the shore.
Before anyone fell ill, I convinced Briana to go with me to a rare yoga class. I manage to do some yoga on the boat, but I rarely have enough time in one location to find a class on land. Briana and I walked up and over the cobblestone-clad north hill of town and through huge, guarded gates into a private community. We had told two young Austrians anchored next to us and they were stopped at the gate – profiled by the guard as perhaps too scruffy for the community. Briana and I, gringas carrying yoga mats, were able to waltz through. As soon as we greeted the Austrians, the guard let us all proceed together. We walked down the wide, perfect cobblestones to a serene palapa overlooking a tiled pool and white shore.
It was an interesting way to start a yoga class. Peace, serenity…and exclusivity. It reminded me of a moment in Mazatlán when a Mexican professor drove me through the gate at the resort where our boat was docked. I expressed surprise that we didn’t have to stop at the guard station, and he turned to me and smiled: “It’s because I’m with you.” Light skin and eyes gain access in Mexico. Yet I was riding in the car with a PhD leader in his field, not to mention an incredibly kind person, and he would be stopped at the gate. Profiling is no surprise to me – but it hits with an awkward thud.
Our experience walking into the exclusive gated community in Chacala also brought up one of the struggles of yoga for me: women in the US, many with insanity-causing stress levels, flock to yoga classes in exotic places. But does the spiritual uprising really happen if it’s behind locked gates? I have spent most of my adult life practicing yoga, and I have seen, in myself and others, the health and wellbeing benefits. Yoga makes possible the integration of mind and body so often lost in frenetic Western society. So this experience made me think: how can yoga be more accessible for the Mexican mothers who aren’t allowed to come through that gate, who can’t afford a yoga mat?
It could be argued that a Mexican mom doesn’t need, want, or have time and energy for this practice: the support structure of family buoys Mexican mothers more than those from the US, and minimum wage in Mexico works out to be about seven dollars per day. Yet multiple successful Spanish-language yoga studios exist in La Paz, Baja, and a Mexican friend from my yoga teacher training teaches in Mexico City. I think the benefits of setting aside time to stretch the body, a practice proven to simultaneously stretch the mind, are universal. Exclusivity is not the individual fault of the guard, the yogini, the teacher, the gate builder or even the community developer. This class was donation-based, so someone could attend for free, provided they could follow in English.
So why did I still feel so uncomfortable about all these questions swirling around yoga?
It wasn’t until months later speaking with Kendra McSweeney, a professor from Ohio State University and leading researcher on adaptation to climate change, when one of the benefits of yoga practice clicked with me: self-reflection. Kendra has spent twenty years working with rural Indigenous communities in Honduras, and she published a paper that clearly shows how people’s lives improved after the devastation of Hurricane Mitch. When I asked her what surprised her most in her research, her response bowled me over:
“One of the things that surprises me, which I think is not endemic to Honduras but also to other poor countries, is that people give themselves no credit for what they have accomplished. With Mitch, [the Honduran community] not only said nothing had changed, but repudiated the idea that they had good skills. Instead of their skill set being something that they cherished, they said, ‘I’m this nobody that has to live by my wits and machete, and I want my children to live by pencil and computer, so I’m just a failure.’ And I thought, ‘You manage to coax harvest after harvest out of a devastated landscape!’”
I have heard this repeatedly in my interviews: I ask people if and how they have adapted, and not one person, not one, has recognized the ways in which they adapt in their lives. Yet the signs of clever adaptation are clearly everywhere in their lives, homes, and communities – but only to an outside observer with the good fortune to grow up in a culture that trains people to identify resilience. Examples of adaptation: people form cooperatives, they support each other with elaborate financial networks, families develop new and flexible small businesses, they value their boats over their homes, individuals move deftly from a commodity (fishing) economy to tourism, all the while self-teaching the necessary skills or embracing education…and the list goes on and on.
What Kendra helped me realize is that everyone can benefit from introspection and moments to slow down, connect with the body and the breath, and find empowerment there. This time and training to reflect starts on the individual level, and right now it’s way more accessible for people with money, who need this as well, but yoga is a simple and powerful way that anyone can allow their mind to do this. In self-examination, yoga allows the brain and body to find the beauty in the self, and there is, harshly, so little of that in poor and rural communities. So yoga, and other methods of empowerment, could help to change an entrenched cultural narrative.
Shame and lack of empowerment also happen in gated communities, so the benefits of self-reflection await here as well. So in answer to my own question if a spiritual uprising can happen behind closed gates: of course.When I found myself expressing my discomfort with this formerly-public-now-private beach community with the owner of a successful local restaurant in Chacala, he raised his eyebrows and I remembered, mid-sentence, that he and his family live there. This is a person who cares deeply about bringing art and culture to his town. He talks about music, about sharing the beauty of jazz with people who have only been exposed to Mexican pop country music and its frequent message of violence and degradation. He wants to share the fruits of the broader world and culture from within Chacala. So I have hopes that these imperfect practices and aspirations can crack open the gate. Yet the push and pull of developing a small town for tourism remains complex and in the larger shadow of Mexican history—a history that has told poor people that they are worth nothing. This is the possible potential of meditation and yoga—the ability to realize, on the individual level, just how incredible people are.
So flows the undercurrent of coastal development: the heavy crash of culture and levels of privilege. And, fascinatingly, Chacala seems to have withstood some luxury development yet maintained a down-to-earth, local Mexican quality and lifestyle. Mexico is good at this on multiple levels, whereas the shores of other countries (such as Costa Rica) are more frequently given entirely over to wealth (except for the Osa Peninsula, but that may change soon too as plans roll out for a new marina in sleepy Puerto Jimenez. More on that in a future blog.) The locals with whom I spoke in Chacala expressed gratitude for the tourism – everyone could earn more now. They could see a busier future. But their thoughts on this were divided like any town facing development: jobs are good, but the erosion of community is bad. Chacala walks daintily on the edge, waiting to see what happens when tourism brings jazz and banda (country) to the same narrow beach.
Small towns everywhere experience similar issues, and we confronted another one personally while in Chacala: disease. Illness travels like lightning through little towns slow to catch up with sanitation needs, and kids are the best vectors. At five in the morning only two days after Mark and Briana arrived, I hopped out of bed and beelined for the toilet. Turns out the illness hit Asher at exactly the same time. While I felt miserable, curled around my trusty green bucket (which unfortunately has seen more than its fair share of contents returned from my stomach,) I could only imagine the agony of dealing with a sick child.
Within 24 hours, Mark was down for the count. Briana stoically cared for Asher and Mark, but after another 48 sleep-deprived hours her immune system finally gave in too. Somehow, Josh managed to carry through.
Gradually, everyone recovered and could move away from their respective toilets. I felt like we finally started to find our flow just as time was up. We met some great people, including a couple from Colorado experimenting with life abroad more permanently with their young daughter (they have since extended their year abroad to stay after falling in love with the town.) The crews of Oleada and Prism became experts at landing and launching our dinghies in the swirling nighttime surf so that we could spend dinners with our friends. Mark, Briana, and Asher all hopped aboard Oleada for one afternoon and Asher swam in the deep water with his parents, giggling and splashing. Sure, the afternoon might have ended in a complete meltdown for Asher (and almost a complete meltdown for Jon of SV Prism, who I think hadn’t heard a kid crying at that close range for a while.) But the second time we got them out we all went sailing, and Asher went to the bow and spent a few hours with his wild mane of hair blowing from the sea, screaming “faster! faster!” as he took his first trip on the open Pacific Ocean. The sea mesmerized his growing brain; he couldn’t be torn away from the bow.
And, just like that, the time was gone. The rental car was loaded up, and everything was re-secured in the boats. With big hugs on the dusty, cobbled streets, our friends disappeared in the vortex of busy life away from the shore.
The sailing life is full of the highest and lowest moments, often in surprisingly quick succession. But one of my greatest challenges is missing our friends. Without a doubt, the trip wouldn’t be nearly as fun and rewarding without having Prism with whom we can share it. And having visitors gives us a chance not only to share our lives with old friends, it gets us into a different, novel routine.
It takes a monumental effort to get a two-year-old on a plane and to a foreign country—there are a million reasons not to do it. Mark and Briana not only made it happen, they made it happen in style. We hope to carry that dogged spirit with us, wherever we go.
Sailing, parenting, living—they all have their challenges, and Mexico will be happy to help you find the rough patches. But Mexico also reminds me of what community can be, even an international one that I try to maintain as we carry our lives south over the seas. Living in Mexico and Central America inspires me for a future where I can keep my community, my research, and my adventure together. Build it, perhaps. But it’s only by seeing these places, and familiar faces in unfamiliar places, that I can begin to imagine what that life will be.
But it’s the incredibly wholehearted people I meet, the grounding and introspection from a yoga practice, and the vulnerable and unforgiving sea that remind me that it’s not enough to have this just for me. Reciprocating, to the towns and friends and oceans that give us so much, is the best of what I can offer. This is and will be messy, imperfect, and a lifelong struggle. But yoga teaches that falling down is necessary if we ever want to find balance—and that a person may never find balance at all. But after a while, the student sees the value of the effort—and the value of herself. That value is the same for everyone—and everyone deserves to see it.