By: Daniel Behn
Growing up in Panama was a bit like living in a bubble. Not only because it was always heavily humid outside, and one always sought refuge in air-conditioned closed spaces, but because of the social composition. My dad worked for a large transnational, we lived on a twentieth floor, with a view on the ocean and were chauffeured to school. I never really learned Spanish, because I was born in the US, my classmates were diplomat-offspring and the church we went to was in the "Canal Zone", an area mostly occupied by Americans. I’m not complaining, I had a loving family that taught me humility. Also, what childhood isn’t a bubble in a way? Nonetheless, everything changed when my dad was mal-diagnosed with cancer.
Being a teenager, I only aloofly experienced what must have been a soul-twisting year for my father receiving one medical opinion after another. The end result was more of a soul-search and life-style change. Having been seventeen years with the same company, he decided it was time for something else. Both my parents were born in Mexico to European immigrants, and we visited once a year. When it came down to decide upon a new life venture, both my parents happily agreed on returning to their "home country" twenty years after leaving. Being a Sophomore in high school, with ambitions of becoming Secretary General of our school's model United Nations, and a master paddler in Panama's yearly cayuco race, I was, to put it mildly, less excited. Looking back, I recognize that it gave me the chance to deeply fall in love with a country, a culture and a Project.
My mother grew up in the countryside. Close to her home town there was an old hacienda, refurnished as an open-air public bath with thermal-mineral springs named Agua Blanca. When my uncle found out the place was for sale, he immediately thought of my parents, who had always thought of having a small hotel as a retirement plan. That's how we came to be hoteliers. We moved to a city two hours away from the hotel, so my siblings and I could finish an international degree program we had started already. My dad moved full-time to the hotel, and I appreciated the greater autonomy of being the "man of the house" at sixteen during the school week.
Natural born hosts, my parents (high-school sweethearts, by the way) relished at the idea of designing a comfortable, attractive and homely stay for guests. The natural habitat was and still is spectacular. Located in a small canyon in the Sierra Madre, in the impressive state of Michoacan, the hotel and its guests enjoy a sub-tropical climate, very close to the Monarch Butterfly Reserve. Blessed by an abundance of water, Agua Blanca, with the vision of my parents, became a dedication to nature. From freshly-picked flowers in the dining room to water channels that flow next to the rooms. Careful not to manipulate the ecosystem, a lot of it was just opening a path to the waterfalls, allowing the coffee beans to naturally sprout in the shade and passion fruit to crawl up the trunks of guava and zapote trees.
Gradually I heard my parents' shop-talk change from administration and business to permaculture, nutrition, and well-being. From crunching numbers to observing butterflies; from a stiff dark suit to a flowing guayabera; from board meetings to taking care of sheep. I can't say I took it all in stride. I have always been a book worm, and in my younger years had a certain disdain towards the outdoors. Visiting my grandparents had always implied long walks, and our family vacations invariably included a national park or some type of natural attraction, but my own attraction to the "outside" took a little longer to instill its persuasion in me. The gradual, insistent but not pushing call of Nature has grown on me.
I used to joke that over-night my parents became "new age", but the more I empathize with them, the more I admire them. My mom, who most of my life had been a full-time mother, began to pursue her dream of becoming a professional midwife, and now gives several intense-course retreats a month. My dad took advantage of his business background, his interest in Covey's Seven Habits of the Highly Effective Person, and is now an executive coach and offers integration workshops at the hotel with a focus on biomimicry (or lessons learned from nature). Both of them became interested in Enneagram, and now apply learning from a greater empathy with others' personalities. The hotel has become a melting pot of different perspectives, but something about the encompassing nature always leads conversations back to genuine wellbeing.
Finishing high school ten years ago, I knew I wanted to dedicate my life to causes, to give back the fortune I had experienced. Perhaps because of the social inequalities I only somewhat perceived growing up. Maybe a bad conscience of being privileged, maybe a gloated sense of what is fair, perhaps a generational discomfort with the current ways-of-things. Either way, I had always felt more drawn to social causes, and seen the ecological as separate, but that has changed as well. I now know that anyone seeking to preserve or improve our surroundings is an environmentalist. Seeing ourselves and others as an intricate part of all around us, adds a systemic and spiritual dimension to thinking (and feeling). But how did I get there?
My first sweat lodge experience was on a trip with friends to Xilitla - magical, surreal Genesis garden in central Mexico. The experience was just so: mystical, hippie and enchanting. I fell in love with the powerful and deep sense of commitment the ceremony awoke in me. Anyone who has been in a sweat lodge knows the feeling of becoming sensitive and empowered at the same time. A refreshing renewal, a warm opening of the senses. It was something I knew I had to share with my family and with others.
Around the same time my dad began to frequent a temazcal (sweat lodge) in the area. Jacobo, the temazcalero, had an ecological focus for the ritual, he spoke of our direct relation with nature, of how we care for our surroundings, and what we do to perpetuate a healthy environment. He initiated my father and I as temazcaleros, and helped us build one at the hotel. Mud triangular bricks, with donkey manure and pine needles as adhering material, we ended up with a beautiful construction-tribute to Pachamama. For those not familiar with the ceremony, the sweat lodge symbolizes the womb of Mother Nature, and the ceremony seeks to rekindle that relationship.
The more time I spent at Agua Blanca showing people which tree was the mango tree, which herb was good for repelling flies, the more I became intrigued with the nature surrounding myself. “A Last Child in the Woods” and Satish Kumar's books became additional inspiration to the sweat lodge ceremony. I actually lived the process of only being able to value what I learned to know. Now I invite guests to look for a tree they don’t know the name of when they go back home. Once they learn the name of the tree, they can recognize, and salute it, only then really being able to appreciate all their living neighbors.
Thinking of a certain tree in times of distress for example, remembering its texture and energy. Following the levity of a butterfly, embracing the migrating Calandria, building into and never against the current. These are all example of how I revel in nature's basque, sometimes no longer finding myself, but knowing that that's a good thing, and that my/our voice will emerge.
The hotel business is one of creating experiences, emotions. Curtailing to the well-being of others, one adapts a fine-tuned sense of what is special, what becomes significant in the absence of day-to-day chores and preoccupations. Intentionally or not, this has been the path of our eco-resort. Realizing the power of a beautiful and inspiring natural surrounding with the right kind of stimulus or suggestive conditions my father became a Life-Cycle Celebrant, to help design experiences. Reuniting team-building skills, intrapersonal empathy, and personal transformation he has birthed wedding ceremonies, funerals, anniversaries and separations. The power of nature in itself became evident to me in others, and in myself. It allows for accepting and surrendering. Accepting how connected we are, and how trivial our "problems" are when put in perspective. Surrendering to the conclusions that arise in us through the acceptance.
Now-a-days I co-design workshops with my dad. Integration, symbolic and emotional commitment, environmental education, and meditative acceptance are the pillars of our endeavors. Our highlights in 2015 were a colloquium linking efforts by academics, activists and environmental educators, and a seminar dedicated to an emotional and rationale understanding of the Pope's enciclicus.
For those of you wishing to follow our undertakings (and practice your Spanish) you can Like us on Facebook (www.facebook.com/haguablanca). Or if you'd like to experience the magical Monarch Butterfly migration, or spend a spiritual retreat at our beautiful spot, check out our website (www.aguablanca.mx).