Religion, Vodou

A Realistic Prayer About Hurricanes

Photo by Matt Hendrick

Every year our Vodou temple holds a public ceremony for Hurricane season. This is considered a community service, a “turning” ceremony asking Ezili Danto to protect our city from storms. As you can imagine, in New Orleans this is a big deal.

This year I was away in Texas. I held my own version, singing Danto’s songs for the benefit of the city around me. But the words I said are, I’m sure, very different than the prayers of my compatriots.

I’m a priest of many gods, but not a priest in Vodou. It’s not my place to lead the Hurricane Turning, but below you’ll find the words I would say if it was. Many Vodouisants would disagree with my take. But I spend much of my time on the road thinking about faith, and this, I think, is the most honest prayer I could give.

“Danto! Protective mother. You take care of your baby, and today we ask you to take care of us. Enter into our heads, so that may we protect others as you protect your child.

“Danto, the storms are coming. The storms could destroy our lives and our homes and our city. We are scared, Danto, but we are not going to ask you to save us.

“We won’t ask you to save us, because the hurricanes must come for a reason. They are a part of the world just like we are, just like sunny days and warm summers and full moon nights. The living world needs its storms, and we need our living world.

“The storms may be worse this year. They’re bigger these days and they’re fiercer these days and they kill more people than ever before. And if the storms are worse this year, we know it’s because of our own industry, because of oil and gas and power, because we use so much and we give so little. Each of us accepts the oil and the gas and the power, so we have to accept the storms, too.

“But we do pray to you, Danto. We pray because you are older than us, older than oil and gas and power, older than the storms. In your old age you are wise, and we have one simple request for you.

“If the storm comes this way, then be here with us. Be in our heads. Help us to act with courage and compassion. Help us to share our supplies, even when we have little. Help us to look at those beside us and help them, even when they’re strangers. And help us to help the children and the elderly before we help ourselves.

“Remind us, Danto, that however different we may be, we must work together. Because it’s only by caring for each other that we will best survive the storm.

“Danto, we know that prayer will not save us. But we know, also, that in you we find strength and calmness in the storm. It is the calmness that will help us survive. Lend us that calm, that we may lend it to others.

“In the storm, Danto, let us not be the baby, waiting for you to save us. Let us be the mother, saving everyone else.

Ayibobo!

Did you know that you can now ask me anything?

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Lúnasa Days has been called “like Paulo Coelho only darker.”

Available in paperback and on Kindle. Get your copy here.

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Adventure, Bicycling, Texas, The Great Adventure, Travel

Making New Adventurers

Sunday at around 3:00 p.m. our little bicycling group reached the US/Mexico border. I officially completed the US leg of my Great Adventure.

It was also the first leg I did with a group. I can safely say that this trip went as well as I could possibly have imagined it going.

I don’t want to give too much away, because both Pixie and Blake have offered to write up their own accounts of the trip which I’ll share here. But I did promise before and after pictures, so let’s start with those.

Before

Before

After!

After!

I had expected that the two pictures might show a major change. In the “after” shot I thought we’d look dirty, disheveled, totally beat. As you can see, we don’t. I also wondered if my co-adventurers would look a little unhappy by the end. This isn’t experienced cyclists with professional equipment and sponsorship; this is normal people with mismatched gear and no idea where we’d even sleep at night. And yet, everyone’s smiling.

From the beginning everyone seemed ready for a challenge. We worked as a team and we all got along. Neither the rain on Day 1 nor the 100 degree biking weather on Day 3 garnered any complaints and, more importantly, I don’t think there were supressed complaints either. Everyone was mentally prepared for what they were facing.

That’s not to say it was easy. The sun just savaged us. I ran out of water on the second day and had to borrow more from Blake. Pixie’s gears didn’t work. There were more flat tires on one bike than I expected from all three of us.

But none of that really mattered. When there was a problem we just huddled around and solved it. As Blake said, within a very short time traveling together we had started to work like a well-trained pit crew.

More than anything, I’m grateful that we got good rest each night and stayed safe each day. All the concern about heatstroke paid off, with some tough rides but no truly dangerous moments. Between the three of us we always had enough water and the right basic gear to survive in the sun.

I’m sure I can’t expect every adventuring group I travel with to operate this smoothly, but it taught me a great deal about what to plan for and how to lead. That will be important as I plan the Mexico leg. Within a few weeks I hope to announce the dates for each segment so that more co-adventurers can come along.

But what gives me the most heart isn’t what I learned. It’s seeing others get to experience an adventure of their own. By the end Pixie and Blake both came to me and told me they’re tempted to join for Mexico. (Blake’s mom has already told me he is not allowed to do the border region.) They now have memories and achievements of their own—the kinds of lessons from the road you can’t learn by reading about it, only by doing it. When we made it back they positively beamed.

For myself, there’s something like 5,000 more miles ahead. But that road doesn’t seem so long now that I know I can share it.

André's Great Adventure reaches the Mexico border!

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Adventure, Adventure Prep, Bicycling, Texas, The Great Adventure, Travel

On the eve of my first group adventure

Photo by Arturo Sotillo.

Friday morning I take out a bicycling group for the first time. This is the last leg of the US, and the first of my recruit-fellow-adventurers policy. Three days, three people, 125 miles. It’s a weird feeling.

For starters, people now call me “leader.” It’s a role I’m comfortable with, but in the past it was always more formal. As a younger man, the teachers who meant the most to me were the ones who enforced a strict master-apprentice relationship. That was the only way I knew how to lead. But that approach depends on having a lot of authority behind you, and it isn’t well suited to free adults. These days I prefer a partnership of equals, where I may guide or nudge but ultimately everyone makes their own choices. The problem is I have no experience leading that way.

Thankfully, a look at my two co-adventurers says not a lot of leadership is needed. Both seem pretty self contained. I can show them how to change a tire or I can talk about road safety, but for the most part I think they’ll be fine.

I do wonder if they’ll need moral support. On a long bike trip, the beginning and end are fun but the middle is the passage of darkness. That’s when you’re a long way from home and still have a long way to go. On a three day trip, will that still apply? I don’t know. Waking up that second morning, tired and sore but not even halfway done, could be the roughest moment.

Most of my time is spent thinking about safety. On my own, I can abuse myself as much as I want. I know my body pretty well, and I can push it to levels that most people would shy away from. If I want to keep going in the dark, or the rain, or against a strong wind, or with no food—I can.

With a group that’s no longer my right. To some degree I have to think about what my people need, even if they won’t say it out loud. I’ve never so thoroughly considered heatstroke, bike safety or equipment as I have in the past eight weeks. At the same time, I have a commitment to finish this trip powered only by my own muscles. If one of them has a crisis, I not only have to get them picked up and driven to safety, I then have to continue on my own.

It’s been fun to see how different people prepare for a trip. Pixi is organized and planful, asking equipment questions well in advance and demanding checklists for what to bring. This is a quality I really admire and aspire to. Blake’s style has been more like mine: plan it in the abstract but put off the details until crunch time. I’ve forced myself out of that habit: I’m the one who has to be ahead of everything here. Blake has expressed amazement at how much I pre-plan. Heh.

If there’s anything that surprises me, it’s that both of my copilots are totally following through. While I never had reason to doubt them, I’m just used to the reality that most people flake out on most things. Of the three people who wanted to come kayaking with me, zero ever showed up; but of the two who wanted to join this bike leg, both will be gathered around the bikes by the time you read this message.

This is particularly amazing considering both had huge setbacks. Pixi got her bike ready months ahead of time, only to have it stolen our weeks ago. When I read her email I was sure it would end with Sorry, but I think I’m done. Likewise, Blake was gifted a beautiful 1970s Schwinn from his dad, which barely wobbled out of the garage but survived a 30 mile test ride. We took it for routine maintenance and cleaning at a bike shop and 24 hours later it was a pile of scrap.

(Old bike fans: it will be resurrected one day. The head bolt was rusted through and snapped, and some other components were kaput as well. The shop in question isn’t used to working on v̶i̶n̶t̶a̶g̶e superior bicycles, but Blake is dedicated to getting the parts and fixing it.)

This is where a lot of people would have thrown their hands up, especially with the added cost, but Blake bought a brand new aluminum-frame touring cycle meaning he’ll probably outpace us all. Meanwhile Pixi hit the garage sales and successfully combined two non-functional bikes into one functional bike, even rebuilding a back gear cassette together with her boyfriend.

Ironically, while my bike is named The Giant, Blake’s is a Giant brand. I’m going to call it the Little Giant until he comes up with a name that doesn’t infringe. I don’t know what Pixi’s bike’s name is, but it seems like she has good taste in adventuring names, so I expect big things. Of course, there will be before and after pictures of all three of us.

I don’t really know what to expect from these next three days. Even with all the planning, all the new equipment, and two friends at my side, we’re heading to towns we’ve never visited and anything could happen. To me that’s where adventure comes from. Adventure is the unknown and embracing it wholeheartedly.

No one in the world knows where they’re going; an adventurer has no choice but to admit it.

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Religion

It is not so easy to hear the gods

Photo by Felix E. Guerrero

Photo by Felix E. Guerrero

It’s hard to hear the gods.

It’s easy to hear the whispers of our own wants and fears. These are the first voices when we turn inward, and the second, and the third. We’ll gladly give them the masks of gods because we are in love with them. We love our wants because they tell us we’ll get everything we wish for with just a little time, just a little faith, maybe a dash of determination. Our fears tell us that nothing could be different than it is, that it would be too dangerous to change anything—and we love that too. So we live our lives passively, reassured, and if we remain unhappy we whisper, “everything has a purpose.”

What do the gods truly say? Often they are silent, because they know that if they spoke we would simply fail to listen, and gods do not do pointless things.

They are silent, because they see that we prefer the company of wants and fears, wants and fears, and who goes to a house where they are not wanted?

They are silent, simply because they have seen so much. They know that, irrespective of our individual pains, the world remains a glorious place.

When I was younger I was after esoteric practices. I sought visions and prophesies and messages from the gods. This is the most dangerous of all sciences because it is the most enchanting. Pursuing myth means opening up to an endless field of imagination, where every tree talks and every rock has an ancient spirit—each of them ready to tell you the grand significance of your own daydreams. The more extravagant a vision is, the more we like it. But extravagant visions are the ones that mean the least.

I learned to read cards, and spoke with startling clarity (because I spoke of wants and fears). I learned to sense spirits, and choose the right offering for each one, and hear them speak softly in my ear, always of wants and fears. I went through the most demanding and far fetched meditations from the Himalayas and from the Middle Ages, and I got the vision I sought, a vision of my wants triumphing my fears.

Today I rarely practice the esoteric arts. When I do it’s more for the simple joy of it. It’s the way you read an old, favorite book: you aren’t surprised by the ending, but there’s a certain pleasure in hearing the words again.

Sometimes I seem very unreligious. What good is a priest who doesn’t hear voices? Why listen to someone who doesn’t read the stars, the cards, the numbers, the smoke, the crystals or even dreams?

Even here, on the journal of my spiritual search, I rarely write about religion. It gets showy all too easily. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a pastor breathing the Holy Spirit or a Sybil breathing the fumes of Apollo. The gods don’t whisper of fears and wants, they only speak of truths; and most of us, when we seek religion, are there to get away from truths.

There are useful spiritual practices, and those are the ones aimed at the self. The self is the one tool the gods gave each and every one of us, the only tool that is with us all our days and must suffer whenever we suffer. So the self has a level of trustworthiness that visions, mentors, priests and even parents cannot match. It’s dangerous to get to know yourself because there is no room to secretly doubt the things you find, even when you dislike them. You can always find another guru or chase another vision, but you cannot beg another self.

To know yourself is only half of the practice. It may even be the least important part. But whatever little bits you find, you can shine them everyday. Everyday you can polish your true self until it gleams and serves as a light, a beacon past your wants and fears.

If the gods ever speak, that might be when you’ll hear them.

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Lúnasa Days is a tale of finding yourself. It has been called “like Paulo Coelho only darker.”

Available in paperback and on Kindle. Get your copy here.

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Adventure, Bicycling, Texas

And then there were three

As you know, this month I’ll be doing the last 120 miles of Texas by bicycle. I announced earlier that my friend Pixi will be joining me. But in a few recent posts, I let slip the possibility that there may be not two off us but three. I can now officially confirm that we have a third adventurer!

Joining us for the whole three day journey will be my friend Blake. I first met Blake shortly after I moved to Texas, and soon I had rented the spare bedroom in his house two blocks from the bay. Blake is a philosophy student and quick with puns. He also seems to have a natural way with living things, from his many exotic fish aquariums to his hand-built turtle pond and the bonzai and other plants in the garden he grew himself.

I think the three of us are the types who will get along on the road. This is the first section of the Journey that’s truly open to others, and I’m excited that two practical and easygoing people will be my copilots. Hopefully it will give me a chance to learn what exactly it takes to open this kind of trip up to everyone.

Of course, there are still two weeks before the big ride, which happens July 18-20. So if you want to throw your hat in it’s time to send me an email…

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Mexico, Photographs, Travel

One last stop in Guanajuato [Photo]

Today is Independence Day, the Fourth of July, George Washington’s birthday and the feast day of St. Benjamin Franklin! Happy 4th to all my US readers. I arrived safe and sound in the US despite some customs hiccups. Perhaps appropriately, today will be the last of my Mexico photos, at least for now.

I had to seek this one out. One day I was wandering through some new callejones (apparently other expats are scared to do this? Guys it’s just houses!) and I came upon what I call the Alley of the Flores, because every single balcony was hung with flower pots and the whole thing was painted bright colors. I wanted a picture right away but (of course) had no camera on me. I made a mental note to get return another day and take photos.

When that day came, I rounded the corner into Flores and stopped in my tracks. It was every bit as pretty as I remembered, but someone had thoughtfully parked a brand new VW that perfectly matched the trim paint of the alley. It’s like they knew I was coming.

Photo by André

Photo by André

I’m pretty happy with how this one turned out. I took a bunch of photos from different angles, and this isn’t quite my favorite but it has the best colors. What do you think? How could I have made it better?

Anyway, so long Guanajuato, hello beach town. I’m having a cookout this evening with my Texas friends. What are y’all doing?

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Adventure, Mexico, Travel

Thoughts at the Border Crossing

I don’t know what it is about travel days that make me feel like I can spend as much money as I want. Maybe it’s the lack of obligations for a day, or feeling like being on vacation—or maybe the hours of low-grade discomfort just need to be offset somehow.

For the last 25 hours I’ve been on buses. I’m struck by how different Mexican bus stations are from US ones. They’re almost more like airports, minus the heavy security. They have full service restaurants, complimentary wi-fi, a coffee shop and beer. US bus stations are vaguely frightening places where staff eye you like you may be a criminal. I suppose it’s because buses are used by all classes in Mexico, whereas in the US they’re for people who can’t afford a plane.

But then you’d think the price in the US would reflect that. Just a few hours on a Greyound bus cost me $40. In Mexico I crossed over 500 miles on two luxury buses, the kind that have giant airline seats and give you a pillow, a snack and a beverage. The total trip there cost just US $80.

I wasn’t sure what to expect as I left Mexico. When I entered the country I accidentally dodged the proper paperwork and passport stamps. I would have owed a sizeable fine if anyone noticed. But they barely glanced at my passport. The security guard paused for a second as he handed it back, as if considering asking where my tourist card was, then thought the better of it. I make sure to never speak Spanish at customs.
Next we stopped on the US side of the border. I was surprised how different the air smelled: like fresh summer prairies. Im sure the Mexico side smelled just as good—we drove through hundreds of miles of open steppe—but I hadn’t set foot anywhere except crowded cities for months.

Coming back to Texas stirs mixed feelings for me. I’ll get to do a bike leg with friends in a few weeks, and landing here gives me a chance to plan for the months ahead. At the same time, I feel a little rudderless. I’ll spend the next few months organizing a trans-Mexico bike trip, and I’ve never done anything on that scale before.

Mostly though it’s just culture shock. My first meal in any new Mexican town is inevitably at a small local kitchen where a grandma makes everything from scratch. My first meal in Brownsville, Texas, was the same as my last meal there three months ago: a 12″ sandwich from Subway.

Even American dollars feel different. There was a time when pesos felt frail to me, such thin slivers of paper with little transparent parts. But when the exchange counter handled me dollars today they felt like slabs of cardboard. I couldn’t fit them in my money clip, and had a hard time paying for my sandwich with the clothy bills sticking together.

But the biggest difference is my Spanish. Last time I returned from a stint in Mexico, I walked around proudly trying to use it at any chance—only to see that I couldn’t carry on a conversation. Now, “conversation” might be stretching it but I can switch to Spanish with relative ease and get the jist, at least by the second time they repeat it.

I’ve had a hard time remembering to use English. So far this hasn’t been a problem, since almost everyone around me in Brownsville and on the buses has been Mexican American and they knew what I meant. But even with the Anglo border guards I found myself saying “gracias” rather than “thank you.” It’s a hard habit to break, and one I wish I didn’t have to so that I can keep learning.

My Spanish is still nowhere near what I would like it to be, but I have a few months to continue practicing. Ultimately I suppose it will be just like my bicycling skills were when I started out: far inferior to what I needed, but enough to get by and improve rapidly.

 

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Adventure, André, Heroism, Religion

Good and Evil When You’re Just Too Tired

Image by Alba Soler.

Image by Alba Soler.

Crossing Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi I encountered a great deal of trouble. Sometimes it was nature (heatstroke, exhaustion, headwinds) and other times it was the work of my fellow human beings. Always, my own stubbornness in pursuing the Adventure played a part. The suffering would have ended if I had just gone home. Unlike many wanderers, I had a choice.

But had I quit, I also would not have seen so clearly just what humanity is made of. I don’t mean the humanity we’re proud of, the humanity we show friends and loved ones and coworkers and, sometimes, the cause du jour. I mean the humanity we like to forget: the humanity we show strangers.

It’s not that we’re bad to strangers. Not always. But there is a deep, deep divide in the hearts of men over what a stranger is and how we should treat him.

About half of us look at a stranger as someone we’re not sure about, but who is basically friendly unless proven otherwise.

The other half of us view strangers as inherently untrustworthy, as guilty until proven innocent. This is the attitude that prisoners take toward other prisoners, that tramps take toward fellow tramps, that gang members take toward outsiders. And yet it’s also the attitude that many normal, friendly, law abiding citizens take toward anyone they haven’t been introduced to, especially when that person is in their town, on their sidewalk, or approaching them with a friendly wave.

I’m convinced that this particular trait is more than just potentially gruff or off-putting: it’s dangerous. This is the attitude that allows us to treat a stranger as an invader and shoot them or drive them away before we ask any questions.

But even though I was astonished just how many people have this default attitude, I also learned on my trip that humans are essentially good at heart. We are not a sinful species, and for all our wars and crimes we are, in our genes, basically nurturing. We evolved to be social and social is what we are. Whenever we start to see the person next to us as the same as us we begin to care about them. What convinced me of this was not all the spontaneous generosity on my journey, but all the non-spontaneous generosity, the people who were cold at first but then warmed up, the turnarounds.

The truth is that most of us withhold kindness not because we’re selfish but because we’re absorbed in our own worlds. We don’t see the person suffering next to us. Or we see them, but can’t imagine how we could help.

On the road I saw that a small act of kindness has a much bigger impact for the recipient than it does for the person doing it. You may think that you’re doing something inconsequential, but that smile/helpful attitude/dollar bill can completely make someone’s day. And, conversely, there’s the awful truth: you may think the favor they’re asking isn’t worth the effort, but turning them down can leave them in a miserable, even life-threatening way.

It’s that last one that sits at the heart of good and evil. Evil doesn’t come from the devil or a bad upbringing. It comes from a small amount of understandable laziness. It’s when you see the car with the flat tire and you drive right past not because you’re selfish or they scare you, but because you’re in a hurry. Because you’re not sure you know how to change a flat. Because the idea of stopping to help sounds like too much effort.

Almost always, when we turn down a chance to help another person it’s because we’re tired more than scared. We easily come up with stories to make our laziness excusable (“I’m sure they have a cell phone” “I wanted to stop but I couldn’t afford to be late” “I don’t know, they looked a little weird”). But as we weave those stories, we overestimate how much inconvenience a basic good deed would cost us, while underestimating how devastating our lack of help can be.

That’s what I’ve learned living in the wild, making my own way, being both a giver and a person in need of giving—and, all too often, being a person who wouldn’t give.

Ultimately, good isn’t about love or enlightenment. You don’t have to love people you don’t know, you don’t have to forgive those who wrong you, you don’t have to overcome craving and attachment. That stuff might help make you saintly but we don’t need a lot of saints. We just need people who are basically good, who improve the world around them a little bit at a time. And from what I’ve seen on the road, that comes from being giving.

It’s just paying attention to what other people need and going 10% out of your way to help them.

Please share this post with others, and tell me your thoughts below.

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Readers have called Lúnasa Days “like Paulo Coelho only darker.”

Available in paperback and on Kindle. Get your copy here.

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