I break free of the Mayan shaman’s hands as he’s working me over on a slender wooden table in the jungle and stumble, naked, toward my crumpled pants. The shaman, Daniel Pool Pech, stares as I pull on one leg and hop, shoeless, out of the white tent and onto a jagged stone.
“There’s been a mistake!” I yelp, crab-walking down the path toward the van where my guide, Adriana Arriola Mora, awaits. “What’s wrong?” she asks, looking up from her cellphone as I emerge, crazy-eyed, from the narrow jungle path on the Mexican Caribbean coast near the town of Tulum.
What’s wrong is my perception, a common hazard on the road to enlightenment. When we travel, things are not always as they first appear.
We’ll return to my predicament with Daniel, but let me explain. Two weeks earlier, I’m leaning forward while holding a spatula up to my left eye as a white-jacketed lab technician at an eye clinic in Calgary asks me: “What do you see?” I read the letters on the elevated chart: “T…L…F,” the letters getting smaller until they’re like ants crawling across the other side of the room. I look as hard as I can until I can’t properly see anymore. This strikes me as instructive for how some people—me—live their lives. I often concentrate so much on the daily details, I miss the big picture.
A few tests later and I learn I’m at risk for glaucoma, an eye condition in which the optic nerve can suffer damage. At its worst, it causes blindness. I leave with medicinal eye drops to help regulate the fluid pressure in my eyes and a new perspective, mainly that seeing is a gift and I’ve taken it for granted. So, when I get the chance to go to Cancun and the Riviera Maya in Mexico, a lengthy stretch of sandy beaches and jungle at the edge of turquoise waters, for the time that I’m there, I constantly ask myself: What do I see?
After touching down at Cancun International Airport, one of the first signs I see reads “Welcome to Paradise.” It is nighttime and the taxi follows a river of red tail lights past a meridian of palm trees to a luxury retreat called Le Blanc Spa Resort. I am dumped on the hotel’s bold marble staircase. Sliding glass doors open and attendants wait to assist me to my seventh-floor room above the whispering sea. I have a butler. His name is Roger. He wears gloves so white, they glow like phosphorous.
The next day, I travel a few hours north to the town of Chiquila, where I take a 10-minute ride on a small ferry to the secluded island of Holbox, the polar opposite of Cancun’s glitz. On the pier, I watch a dark bird fluff its wings until I realize it’s a garbage bag twisting around itself on a jutting piece of pipe. The sky unleashes a blast of rain as everyone hurries onto the battered blue boat, then the engine throttles up with a sharp smell of diesel.
The ship gasps for breath as we plow ahead. An old guy in a white cap with a red bulbous nose opens part of the cabin window to admit the howling wind, so we bash through choppy seas with plumes of spray stinging my eyes. It’s the beginning of a three-day November storm. At my side, oblivious to the weather and rolling easily along with the waves, a Mexican mom has her sleeping baby son draped over her shoulder like a silk scarf.
I close my eyes and loosen my grip on the blue vinyl cushion that’s oozing yellow stuffing and slip into the power of the present moment (thanks, Eckhart Tolle), enjoying the orchestra of locals shouting over the engine’s high whine as the sea splashes.
The island is a throwback to simpler times. There are no cars, no traffic, only white sand, palm trees and boutique hotels such as Casa Las Tortugas, my brightly coloured hideaway for a few days. It’s here that I meet Bruce Langille, a self-described skater-dancer-choreographer-actor-singer and clothing designer originally from Halifax, who is the bartender serving me a cold beer.
After fighting colon cancer, he decided to upend his life and move here. “My friend told me to visit for a week, and that was five months ago,” he says, sitting at the bar counter. “I got here and I went, oh my god, this is amazing.” What’s amazing? He swivels and points over his shoulder to the waves crashing on the beach. “That!” While we talk, he pulls up the sleeve of his sweater and says, “The hair on my arms is coming back now.” He asks me if I want another beer, before adding: “I wonder if it’s because I’m living here?”
Ah, yes, the healing powers of travel. We disconnect from the workaday world to reconnect with ourselves and with others, let our bodies breathe the sea air as we stand at the shore of something wide and deep and teeming with life, and watch it all. Travel inspires us to trust and surrender, so when plans begin to pitch as if on roiling seas, we can roll with it and enjoy life as it happens. Sometimes, to try and capture the moment, we shrink it to a photograph.
Which brings me back to Daniel, the shaman and healer.
A week after Holbox, I climb the Nohoch Mul Pyramid at Coba in the Riviera Maya and look out over the green canopy of trees to a giant lagoon. Beside me, a multi-tattooed guy with bleached-blonde hair stretches his arm and pretends to hold the scene in his hand as his goth girlfriend snaps a photo. When I return to the pyramid’s bottom, I haphazardly meet a woman who tells me about Daniel the shaman and his potentially healing powers. She tells me how to get an appointment at a Tulum hotel where he’s working, and I do so. I get excited because the spectre of losing my sight, even a little of it, haunts me. Maybe this guy can help.
Daniel uses his hands to seek areas in your body that are blocked by bad energies and, like a surgeon, extracts the darkness so you radiate with healing light. But I didn’t know his method involves massage. So when I climb onto his table and he starts manipulating my limbs, I bolt. Not because it’s freaky, but because I think I’ve been wrongly booked for a simple massage. I fear my time is being wasted.
After Adriana, my guide, explains that all is okay, I return to the table and complete the treatment, which has elements best described as psychedelic. My eyes squeezed shut, I see etched figures appear as if on a wall of brown clay, rising from within me.
Daniel explains to me that I am cut off from my spirit, causing darkness to obscure my vision of myself and of the world. This is a common problem, he says, and he advises me to work less, relax more, stop worrying so much about money and, instead, open my heart to the light that shines within and throughout the world to gain insight.
He says my initial distrust of his healing abilities is hampering his work with me and it is only near the treatment’s end, when I see the figures that he says are Mayan spirits, that I surrender. As I leave, I lean in the direction of believing in Daniel’s power and I vow to do what he says, though it requires faith. Choices are not always black and white, and it’s tricky navigating life’s grey terrain.
Coming home on the jet, as I jot down notes—yep, I’m already back to the habit of working—a quote from the poet John Keats surfaces: “What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? … Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all Ye know on earth, and all Ye need to know.” Of course, it’s all in the eyes of the beholder.
Travel ignites a lust for life deep within us, and the challenge is to keep it burning brightly when we return. On this trip, I learn the best medicine for bearing the weight of the world when days seem dark. Lighten up.
This January, WestJet flies to Cancun 49 times weekly from 16 Canadian cities.
Mexico’s Magic Towns
There are 111 pueblos mágicos in Mexico, each one designated as such for its enchanting beauty, architecture and centuries-old culture. Here are five magic towns—Sayulita, Todos Santos, Tulum, Isla Mujeres and San Sebastián del Oeste—that are easily accessible from major cities and resorts.
Five Things to Do in Riviera Maya and Cancun
Steeped in Mayan culture and surrounded by crystal-clear Caribbean waters, stunning lagoons and a vast jungle landscape, the area around Cancun and the Riviera Maya is begging to be explored. Go swimming in the sacred Gran Cenote, search for turtles in Akumal Bay, visit the pyramid of Chichén Itzá and eat at highly acclaimed, Mayan-inspired Hartwood Tulum.