In my mid 20s, I decided to backpack across Mexico with my partner at the time. I knew very basic Spanish and figured that Mexico would be the best place to go in Latin America as it was used to English-speaking tourists.
We travelled by bus from Cancun, across the country to the Pacific Coast and finally out of Mexico City. Partway through the trip we ended up in a place called Oaxaca City, a haven for all types of artists and cultural tourists. I felt more at home in Oaxaca City than anywhere I had lived in Canada – it fed my poetic nature. Cobblestone streets, 13 Indigenous Tribes that still practiced their pre-colonial lifestyle of 2,000 years ago, and the birthplace of Benito Juarez, the first Indigenous President who fought for democracy and education, were all part of Oaxaca’s essence. I fell in love with the place. Even among Mexicans, it is known as a profound and magical spot, where things appear to move slow but there is so much going on under the surface. Even though it is one of the poorest States in the country, it is soul rich.
When we had to move to our next destination, I made an oath to myself that I would return one day.
Fast forward to Toronto a couple of years later. My partner and I separated. I was working as a temp for the Government. I really couldn’t see myself growing old in Toronto by working at a desk job. I had to make a change but I didn’t know what or how.
Oaxaca called to me, as if through the ethers. I knew I had to go back there if anything but to find my soul. I trusted that Divine guidance would help me make it happen. Sure enough, I met someone in Canada who traveled between Oaxaca and Toronto for business reasons. He hooked up a place for me to live and reassured me that I would be just fine. His advice to me was to memorize three Spanish poems by heart and I would learn Spanish within 2 months. Which actually worked.
I packed all my belongings up, filled my backpack, and planned to live in Oaxaca City for 5.5 months, if not longer.
I also changed the name I went by to Isabel, because Heather is not easy to pronounce in Spanish.
It was a scary, lonely and soul-delving journey as I had to navigate cultural differences, homesickness, learning a new language and being a single woman in a foreign country where Violence Against Women is a huge social problem. Also, a major political revolution broke out – the biggest one in its history – where there were mass protests of thousands of people and cops with tear gas. Buses were being lit on fire, and people were carrying weapons of all kinds.
Sticking out like a sore thumb with very little community support, I had to rely on my instincts and follow my inner compass. Meditation and a traveller’s curious mind were the attitudes that sustained me.
On one particularly difficult day, where I was questioning everything I was basing my trip on, I saw a man doing a Hail Mary in front of the Catholic Church only to turn around and whistle at me with a cat call. The sexual harassment and hypocrisy of religion there was really getting under my skin. I wondered why this Divine Force had led me to Oaxaca City. Was I following all the wrong guidance? I felt abandoned and lost, unsure of what the hell I was doing there.
As the City I loved was being destroyed because of the growing injustices against its citizens, I was standing there questioning the major life dilemmas like: “Why me? Why was I born in Canada with relative stability while Mexicans had to endure so much hardship? Why was I inspired by art, simple living and personal relationships while others were focused on more violent pursuits?
I wanted to fall on my knees and give up. I couldn’t make any sense or meaning of myself or my life and the pain that humanity was in. Then I looked over at the outside orange wall of the art library where I spent a lot of my time. On it was a graffiti message that said “Estoy Contigo, Isabel”, which translated means: “I am with you, Isabel.” There wasn’t any other graffiti on the wall. In fact, this wall was usually quite clean. Why would someone write such a message? “I am with you, Isabel.” The only explanation I had was that it was a sign from the Divine.
Stunned, I faced forward towards the Santo Domingo Church. There are locked gates to keep random people from entering. Wouldn’t you know, I saw a Black man wearing traditional African garb (which was highly uncommon in this part of Mexico) walking through the gate. He looked at me, smiled, then winked. His gaze was penetrating, as if comforting me and telling me that there is a whole other reality that most aren’t aware of, that exists beyond the logical mind. As Mexicans would say: “Todo es una illusion” or “Everything is an illusion.” Part of me wondered if I had indeed lost my mind and went into a delusional state from all the stress. The other part of me knew that these mysterious coincidences were very real.
I started laughing at myself and my anxieties. I immediately relaxed and opened up to being guided by unknown forces. And wouldn’t you know, the rest of the trip went as smooth as ever, aside from the uprisings. As if by magic, in 5 short months, I managed to have an art exhibit at a café, I met a wonderful art teacher who brought out my expressionistic side, and I learned Spanish to the point where I was dreaming about it. By following kindness, beauty and a sense of peace, doors opened in ways I never would have expected.
At the end of my trip, I decided to return to Canada. I couldn’t settle in Oaxaca as a single woman amidst so much political unrest. I also had my own emotional healing to do with my family back home. So, I caught the last bus to Mexico City before the military closed everything down. I prayed to Oaxaca’s well-loved Patron Saint Guadalupe, asking that I sit next to a decent person as I didn’t have the energy to ward off harassment.
As I settled in, an elderly man wearing a simple white-pressed cotton dress shirt sat next to me. He asked me what brought me to Oaxaca. I explained that I was on a spiritual journey and have had all these amazing and strange interactions since I opened up to the Divine. The man smiled with satisfaction and looked at me with a glint in his eye. He knew we were meant to meet. He handed me his business card that said: “El Templo Del Espiritu” (The Temple of the Spirit). Underneath his name it said: “Spirit Guide”. I just shook my head with acknowledgment of the mysteriousness of Oaxaca.
I looked at him and said: “For real? You’re a Spirit Guide?”
“Well you’re the perfect person to sit next to me to finish my travels in Mexico,” I laughed.
“Gracias a Dios,” we both said at the same time, the common Spanish Catholic term for giving thanks to God.
I knew why I was pulled to Mexico and Oaxaca–to give me a sense of greater faith even in the face of danger and extreme poverty. I was to understand privilege in a very real way, and to expand my understanding of the spiritual realms beyond all the divisions and suffering. I truly came to believe that we are part of a bigger fabric and movement of life.
From travelling with an open heart and mind, I realized that every person we meet comes from the Divine whether they are aware of it or not. You just never know who’s been hired to be your Spirit Guide and what roads will open up.
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