When you travel, how much time do you spend learning about local culture, history? The plight of the people? Class relations & socioeconomic conditions? Do we have an obligation to do so even when we’re “getting away from it all”, “escaping reality”, off for some R&R? A recent travel experience made me think about these things.
The three days I spent in Mazunte, Mexico in January were some of my favorite days in all my time in Mexico. It is a tiny beach town on the southern coast of Oaxaca known for surfing, yoga and incredible sunsets. Less crowded than neighboring Puerto Escondido, but arguably more beautiful, the vibe here is relaxed, chill, introspective. Yoga retreats, meditation & vegan food options abound. It’s no wonder that Mazunte has become such a haven for hippies.
And while mindfulness, introspection, and self-care are all things I support in general, I have to admit, it was a bit much for me.
I met one guy who had done a ten-day silent retreat. Where no one was allowed to speak for ten days. Yikes.
My first night at dinner in a falafel joint I got to witness the girl at the table next to me hovering her hands over her food in blessing, saying a quick prayer and taking deep breaths. Before leaving the restaurant she and her male companion looked deeply into each other’s eyes, not in the loving kind of way but in the “I’m looking into your soul to try to find life’s answers” kind of way. There was face touching and embracing and I tried hard not to judge while also trying not to puke. The other table in the restaurant was three more white people speaking in soft, sing-song voices about their travels in India. I had people meditating and stretching next to me on the beach, which was especially interesting the day spent at Zipolite, the nude beach just up the road.
I want everyone to be happy, I really do. I appreciate wokeness and support living an authentic life. But places like this provoke a lot of questions for me. Seeing a Mexican town full of white faces and long, lanky white bodies. All soooo relaxed from their yoga and meditation, while the locals are generally not stretching their balls all over the beach, but instead are working. These are questions of privilege. Of who gets to live this way? And who does not.
“But Toni, tourism spurs economic growth!”
Yes, I know. And it is a vital source of income to many, many millions of people. It’s also something I personally enjoy a lot.
“But Toni, meditation and yoga are good for you. AND this crowd is more environmentally conscious than the typical traveler.”
And this honestly is probably true. But nonetheless, my questions persist.
Extend your self-awareness outside yourself,
And you will be the best kind of traveler.
Despite these ``questions,`` Mazunte remains one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.
My friend Carina, the first friend I made in Mazunte, who has many years on me and probably wisdom too, shared a story that illustrates what I’m talking about better than I’m able to.
Carina, in her 70s, had spent months traveling all over Central and South America on her own. Just forming her plans as she went. (#goals) I liked her instantly when I met her, and we ended up hanging out every day I was in Mazunte. One of the places she visited, before meeting me in Mazunte, was San Marcos La Laguna in Guatemala.
A similar vibe to Mazunte, with yoga retreats, vegan food, mindfulness, all set in incredible natural beauty. This destination in the jungle of Guatemala has been made home by settlers seeking a slower pace (and more value for the dollar if we’re not being naïve.) Anyway, as Carina tells me, in this place in Guatemala there exists every type of healing service. Massage, yoga, meditation, life coaching, peyote-induced discoveries. You name it.
As the story goes, one day while my friend Carina was visiting this place, there was a large demonstration by the (native) locals in town. It was a protest in the streets, she said. Almost the whole town attended and all in their absolute Sunday best. It was very clearly a big deal.
Carina is from Sweden and doesn’t speak Spanish, so she tried asking the English-speaking transplants who lived there “What’s going on?”
She asked person after person, trying to understand what the cause for the protest was, how it would turn out. And as she says, time after time, each person she asked simply shrugged their shoulders. They were living here in this Guatemalan town, healing themselves from the inside and cooking up vegan delights, but had no idea about what was happening in the lives of the locals. Something as important and as big as this event appeared to be.
Read more about my trip to Mazunte HERE.
My Mazunte mate, Carina
It is just one anecdote from one Swede. But this is where, as much as I’m a supporter of self-care, I can’t help but feel uneasy. Who gets to have which experience?
Privilege seeps through the cracks in bamboo walls of yoga studios in the jungle. This privilege that allows us to take our strong American, Canadian, and European dollars into places of natural beauty and cheap living. The privilege of being able to escape the rat race and live comfortably on our savings. Of a simpler life, focused on inner healing and connecting to the universe.
None of these things are bad in and of themselves. But it’s important to take a look around and realize that the people of these places haven’t escaped the rat race. They’re working to feed their families, less time to spare for freewheeling introspection. And they’re doing it in local currency.
“But Toni, you’re part of the system.”
And it’s true. I’ve spent long stretches of time in both Colombia and in Mexico, taking advantage of the low cost of living to settle for longer. I’ve considered making a permanent move to one of these places, while keeping my job, and my salary, in US dollars.
Is it the same?
The important bit of nuance, from where I’m standing, is where you are looking. Are you meeting natives, immersing yourself in local culture? Learning about the history of the people and places you visit? Are you concerned with their plight, good fortune, social situation?
I look around me and I do my best not to judge anyone. But somehow, I can’t help feeling skeptical when people seem to be only focused on themselves. On looking within.
So, what to do?
I can’t be sure, but here’s what I think:
Do your yoga. Meditate in the morning. Eat your vegetables and enjoy every possible moment. Take time to be selfish. But make sure while you’re healing inside, you are also looking around.
Take care of yourself, but don’t stop there.
Learn. Lend your hand. March where feet are needed.
Share your good energy.
Extend your self-awareness outside of yourself,
and you will be the BEST kind of traveler.
Please don’t take this post as a negative view of Mazunte. It is truly one of my favorite places, and I encourage you with all my might: GO!