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Lions Roar : January 2013
cushions, cojines, with cojones). I told her about the time I led a silent yoga and meditation retreat with my screaming four- month-old son in a front pack, my milk letting down and soak- ing my camisole as I guided the retreatants into savasana. A flurry of emails later, Shawn was sitting at my kitchen table in California—along with her husband, her son, her daughter, and her daughter’s best friend. She was handing me the keys to her house and instructing me on how to operate her Persian blinds and put her cat’s bowl in a moat of water so the ants wouldn’t infest it. Soon I was doing a seated twist on Shawn’s terracotta patio, looking over a valley of rooftops and orange-blos- somed trees to the Mediterra- nean Sea. Teja, Skye, and I were swapping houses with Shawn and her family for the month. TRAVEL WRITER Bill Bryson said that the great gift of travel is that it puts you in situations where you can’t take anything for granted. Like meditation, it cultivates a beginner’s mind in which each experience is fresh. A house swap, in particular, invites the tantalizing fantasy that you’re leaving behind not just your own familiar routine but also your own familiar and slightly annoying self. You’re swapping it out for a new, improved, more fascinating self, with better outfits and a better shot at enlightenment. Dropped into the middle of another woman’s life—sleeping in her bed with her mosquito coil humming, riding her bicycle to the beach while wearing her (only slightly too small) flip-flops, sautéing zucchini from her garden in her kitchen—I felt, at first, as if I’d been reincarnated. Our first evening in Sitges, a friend of Shawn’s invited me and Skye to a fiesta de espuma (foam festival) in a nearby village. It was a giant public bubble bath, in which a cannon mounted on top of a truck fired a stream of soapy foam into a plaza next to a seventeenth-century church, while a salsa band played with no shirts on. Children in bathing suits and goggles, wrinkled abueli- tas hand in hand with their grandkids, and papas with toddlers seated on their shoulders all frolicked in neck-deep bubbles to a Latin beat. Skye danced through the crowd with a corona of bubbles, shaking his frothy hips and waving his arms. The next day, Skye, Teja, and I took the train into Barcelona for a bicycle tour through fifteenth-century streets jammed with honking, fuming, twenty-first-century traffic. We ped- aled through the medieval courtyard where Ferdinand and Isabella greeted Christopher Columbus on his return from the New World. We cruised past the sandcastle-like splendor of the still-unfinished masterwork cathedral of the architect Antoni Gaudí. We paused for power bars and water at a series of memo- rials commemorating religious and political martyrs who over the centuries had been shot or burned at the stake or rolled through the streets in barrels full of broken glass. But it wasn’t just soap bubbles and touristy photo ops that brushed the cobwebs of famil- iarity from my eyes. In a foreign country, ordinary life—buying groceries, doing laundry, driv- ing Skye to and from his beach camp in Shawn’s old VW van— was a constant mystery. I blun- dered through my days, bleat- ing the primal phrases from my introductory Spanish CDs— “I want... I need... Do you have... ?”—and misunderstand- ing the answers. A freeway sign flashed “peligro,” which I knew meant “danger.” But I couldn’t understand the rest of the warning, which, in any case, quickly disappeared behind me. Why was the old woman at the roadside fruit stand so irritated that I’d picked up the melon and set it on the weighing scale? Why were the carts in the Supermarque chain-locked together, and how did I get them apart? For that one, I sent Skye to inquire in Spanish of the white-coated man at the meat counter—who was standing next to an entire pig, skinned and gutted, dangling by its hind ankles from an overhead hook. (We learned that veg- etarianism was a rare phenomenon in Spain when we requested our salads sin carne—without meat—and they came with ham instead.) In the U.S., meat came tidily packaged in plastic, its animal origins coyly disguised. In Spain, it stared right at us and said, Hi, I’m Wilbur and I’ll be your tapas for this evening... Alas, it quickly became clear that I had not been reborn into this new reality as an entirely new person—as, for example, a person who didn’t get snippy when her partner played classical guitar till after midnight, slept in till ten, and then drank strong Spanish coffee from a two-liter measuring cup, even though she had repeatedly told him that the best way to get over jet lag was to get up at dawn and do yoga and meditate with her, and even though she was clearly so right about that! Unfortunately, I had packed my mind along with me—as opinionated and prolific as always. A few days into our trip, I stayed home all morning to practice yoga on Shawn’s patio. A garbage truck groaned up the street, with a sound like a very large animal in labor, but the breeze smelled of salt water and orange blossoms. As I dropped into the pause at the bottom of a long exhalation, I thought, Now I’m finally here. PHOTOBYANNECUSHMAN ➢ SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2013 30