Great artwork is flawed. Beautiful is not nice. True journeys never end.

...and other profound insights from walking across Spain on the Camino de Santiago.

“Would you call this landscape beautiful or nice?” the French woman asked me.   “Usually, we refer to landscapes as beautiful. The weather we could call nice. In this case, the weather is not nice, which makes this landscape beautiful.”   She seemed to get it.
There is an attractive quality to rawness. To experience it can make us feel uncomfortably alive; to see it in others kindles a vulnerable connection. There is an aura of mystery and depth surrounding those who wear substance over surface on their sleeve. Beauty is not synonymous with aesthetic perfection. The French expression jolie laide (“beautiful ugly”) describes unconventional beauty, especially for women with atypical and sometimes an asymmetrical inner and outer radiance. The Japanese term wabi-sabi (侘寂) adds to this the notion of transience in which beauty is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.” Beauty is present in that which is dynamic and adapting. I learned to appreciate the winds of change while walking the Camino de Santiago during my 900 km pilgrimage across Spain from St. Jean Piedad de Port in France to Finisterre on the west coast of Galicia. Change was the only constant through the motion of seasons, terrains, and faces. Each day was a completely new adventure. Day 1: Thunder, lightning, and blinding rain through Pyrenees Mountains. Day 13: Windswept highways and lack of shelter through the high Central Plateau. Day 35: Redwoods and fern forests and the invigorating breeze of the ocean breeze. I would curse the rain and howl alongside the wind: stop! And it did. Rainstorms do sometimes lead to rainbows.
Si deseas el arco iris tienes que soportar la lluvia. /If you want rainbows, you’ve got to put up with the rain.

Si deseas el arco iris tienes que soportar la lluvia. /If you want rainbows, you’ve got to put up with the rain.

I learned to embrace the winds of change. I also learned to accept the imperfections of my own body and confront the flaws of my personality. Never before have I been so acutely aware of my strengths and vulnerabilities. Some days, my monster pack felt like a hundred pound weight; my feet, heavy as lead. I fainted from exhaustion. I came down with a fever, walked eleven days with a twisted ankle, and had moments when I question everything and wonder: Is this really worth it? They say you carry your fears with you. I carried my insecurities: You’re not pretty enough, smart enough, strong enough. When people past age sixty sped past me, I couldn’t help feeling incompetent. Until, at one intersection, a retired Australian couple turned to me and said:

“You have a beautiful stride.”

Really? Cause all that I felt was ugly inside.

“Keep at it. You’re steady and seeing that in young people gives us hope.”

They helped me realize that it is okay not to be at the front of the pack. Each of us follows our own pace, our own rhythm in life, and we have the choice to slow down or speed up according to our bodies and internal clocks. IMG_0414 The way in which we walk is more than an external expression. It is an amplification of our internal state and the way in which we interact with others. It abruptly removes us from our daily routine and forces us to discover who we are in our most authentic, unadulterated state. There were no pretences or cover-ups to impress. We were all one, together and individual, pilgrims walking the Camino. We learned to lighten our packs. All those unnecessary items—books, blankets, shoes—and the emotional baggage left behind, made room for discovery. One young woman had taken leave from her daytime job in Paris to switch her high heel shoes for hiking boots. She said the hardest adjustment was getting used to seeing herself without make-up on every morning. An American woman who had married her high school sweetheart said that the hardest thing about her divorce was realizing that everything about her past life, hobbies and social network, had involved her partner. She was walking the Camino to re-discover herself, without the need of anyone else to make her happy. IMG_2372 Reaching Santiago was not the “end” of the Camino. Rather, it was more like the beginning. I have greater appreciation for a different form of beauty: that which is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. Our lives are works of art in progress.


The week following the Camino I visited the Harvard Art Museum. This sculpture made me stop dead in my tracks. The dancer in motion is working toward the arabesque position. It is not your typical sculpture of a ballerina: She looks clumsy. Ungraceful. And yet, beautiful.
The sculpture depicts the arabesque, a classical ballet position in which all parts of the dancer’s body are fully extended. It captures a sequence of movement and the physical complexity of movement. Beauty as motion is impermanent.

The sculpture depicts the arabesque, a classical ballet position in which all parts of the dancer’s body are fully extended. It captures a sequence of movement and the physical complexity of movement. Beauty as motion is impermanent.

Memorable artwork, as with life-changing experiences, have a quality of openness. There’s this beauty in the art of process. The following day I met with a Eric Parkes of Somerville Chocolate. He is a chocolate maker and artists unto himself struggling with the imperfections of bubbles that surface in his chocolate molds. These blemishes literally melted away when I popped the chocolate in my mouth. It was perfect. And that’s when I realized:
No great art exists. No good chocolate exists. There is no perfect human being. We all have our imperfections. Yet, we ignore this reality and go around searching for the impossible, which only leads us down the road of disappointment. If instead we choose the more difficult path to experience the “good” or “beautiful,” that comes too with having experienced what is “bad” and what is “ugly.” Great art comes after we have learned to make mistakes. It speaks to us on a different level, arousing our soul and sometimes most sinful desires. Good chocolate comforts our vulnerabilities, nurturing us like a mother who loves us just the way we are.
Great art, like good chocolate, is beautiful when raw. True journeys never really end.
Doña Olga the Rockstar

Doña Olga the Rockstar

Rocja Pomtila, la Chua, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala

Doña Olga is a rockstar. She wields a machete like a warrior in the field and attends evening church services dressed like a queen. She is a cacao farmer, community leader, and a mom to three teenagers. The best way to describe her attitude is “¡vámanos!” (let´s go!). Do you want to go visit the cacao farm? ¡Vámonos! Nor the heat nor distance fazed her. We strolled through the corn field and I observed how she paused, keenly attuned to the natural surroundings with ears perked for the sound of howler monkeys. We bonded out there on the farm. Usually that´s my chance to ask farmers about technical aspects of cacao farming, like how often they prune and whether they graft or plant from seeds. Visiting the farm with Doña Olga was different. We talked about the plants. We talked about people. We talked about relationships, personal journeys, and aspirations. “Do you remember the first time you tasted cacao?,” I asked her. Oh yes, she said. It was five years ago when she planted cacao to supplement the income from corn and cardamom. She remembers tasting the fruit for the first time and falling in love. I nodded in agreement. Cacao for both of us is a love story. She pulled out a bag to collect the seeds that we had sucked. Her resourcefulness reminds me of my Chinese grandmother, a petite yet a mighty force of nature. Everything has a use. Doña Olga gathered cardamom pods, corn mazorcas, even the bird-picked cacao seeds on the ground. She walked—or more accurately glided—with wild instinctive grace over the slippery leaves, perfectly at ease through the shadows of the forest. Her enchantment is the ability to transform. While not so uncommon for women to work alongside men on the farm, women are still in charge most household activities. Doña Olga cooks for the family, washes the clothing and dishes down by the river, and tends to the backyard chickens. Her work extends even beyond the household. For the past couple years she has served as a member of the Junta Directiva committee represent the cacao farmers’ association. She can be quite opinionated too, and I like that about her.

This is a traditional Q’eqchi’ huipil (top garment) and corte, with a characteristic waistband around the skirt.

That evening we attended the Evangelical church service together. I had nothing to wear but soiled jeans and boots so she lent me her daughter´s corte and huipil, the traditional Maya skirt and loose tunic still worn by women in indigenous communities. Wearing the huipil can be a marker of both class and identity, according to my friend Callie who is studying Guatemala’s textile tradition. Both for everyday use and special occasions, the huipil is an example of the living and dynamic Maya heritage. Doña Olga was the first woman I have met who identifies herself as a cacao farmer. Even among men this identity is rare; being a cacao farmer takes tenacity and dedication. It takes an attentive eye to subtle shifts in the balance of nature, a soft touch to pick the cacao pods when ripe, and the endurance to keep going when the weather turns sour. It’s not a matter of male or female capabilities. Rather, it’s about the core character strengths that make farmers like Doña Olga truly different. Plus, she is adorably in love with cacao.     forest olga

Final interview question: What about cacao makes you happy?

Me gusta porque da frutos, es bueno el jugo, se siente uno sano. I like that it gives fruit, the juice of the pulp is delicious, and it is good for the health.
Belize Part II: Bush Stories

Belize Part II: Bush Stories

“The bush” is what people in Belize refer to as the jungle, or what I more generally describe as living in “el campo” (the countryside) where modern amenities like flushing toilets and electricity are hard to come by. It is less comfortable. It feels raw. My first shock was the darkness. When the sun sets around 7 pm the reality of no electricity really sinks in. At my first homestay in San Antonio the family relied on hand-held flashlights to illuminate their evening activities like cooking, washing up, and helping the kids with homework. We ate in almost complete darkness, taking turns on wooden stools and huddling by the fire. There was no feeling of needing to rush off to check email or phone because the only thing to do was enjoy each other’s company. Darkness is conducive to storytelling. We chatted about the Mayan rituals that, more common two generations ago, are fading over time. Generations before cacao was sold as an export commodity in Belize (since 1986), it was more commonly a household drink and cultural emblem. Cacao was the beverage of nighttime ceremony. It could fuel worship during the pre-harvest dance or keep people awake during periods of vigilance. Sudden wealth could incur a jealous neighbor’s curse. A bushman would prescribe a three-day fast of sleep to watch for evil spirits. Others believed that before planting cacao it was necessary to sacrifice small animal like a chicken. These and other stories are part of the mystic that shroud the invisible value of cacao. Imagination too takes hold in life sans electricidad.  On the second night of the homestay, the kids and I stood outside under the stars telling stories of the bush. I told them the Slavic folklore of Baba Yaga, a version of Cinderella in which the beautiful heroine Vasilisa makes a journey through the woods to bring back oil for her evil step mother and step sisters who await in darkness. Vasilisa is condoned to visit the ferocious witch woman Baba Yaga lives in a hut with sticks that look like chicken feet. Cinderella makes it back home, bestowing the light so pure and bright that it blinds her evil step sisters and step mother. As I told this story the children while sitting under the stars in the cacao lands of Belize--where houses really do look like huts on stilts—the distant fairy tale of my childhood came alive. Some families, whether through their own innovation or the fortune of external assistance, have light past dusk. At my third homestay in Santa Elena the family had a solar-powered battery that provided light and even powered a small television. This family was both modern and traditional. They had a gas stove but preferred to use firewood in preference for the smoky taste. For them, wealth was this freedom of choice. Solar power meant that Mr. Choc could stay up later at night and help out his son with schoolwork. But it also meant that his son spent more time in front of the television watching movies. He told me this, shaking his head that sometimes he couldn’t stop when these movies exposed his son violence and profanity.  He wanted to teach his son things that could only be taught on the farm, like how to maneuver the machete, how to forage for wild plants, and how to chop up sugar cane to suck when you run out of water. Mr. Choc too was a storyteller. He told me the legend of the farmer who swapped places with a turkey vulture. This farmer was too lazy to weed the bush and sow his corn. He gazed up at the sky and saw a turkey vulture circling around, diving, and within a matter of seconds capturing prey to eat. The farmer made a wish that he could have an easy life and swap places with the turkey vulture. His wish was granted, but soon enough the farmer—now a vulture—realized that he did not know how to fly or hunt for food. Soon he became hungry and wished he were a farmer again. Pausing so that I could contemplate the message of this story, Mr. Choc turned to me and said: “You’re not really here for the cacao, are you?” Somehow he knew. He could sense my interviews with the farmers are part of something bigger, part of a deeper personal journey. Farmers, too, are travelers and wandering spirits. We share a quiet anxiety and drive to go out and explore the natural world. At the same time, we hold a healthy respect for her capricious nature. We are painfully aware of our small position as human beings in the world. At the same time, we are not afraid. Some farmers, like Mr. Choc, carry a special object like a secret stone or clove of garlic to protect them wherever they go. This stone protects them when they travel alone through the bush. It keeps them safe from harm´s way, be it a venomous snake or a biting insect. Should the farmers become lost they only need to take out their secret stone, turn their shirt inside out, and find re-direction from within. Do good and good will come to you. That’s my secret stone. We were finishing up the farm tour when a hummingbird whizzed past us, so quickly that she stopped us in our tracks. “That is a sign of good luck, especially for females and travelers” said Mr. Choc. I nodded in silent agreement. Aren’t you afraid of the darkness at night? No, I tell them. Being out there in the bush is part of finding the path.
Getting around the bush in Santa Elena, Toledo, Belize

Getting around the bush in Santa Elena, Toledo, Belize

Belize Part I: Taking the Leap

Belize Part I: Taking the Leap

The following blog describes my personal journal as I "take the leap" in the lands of cacao, volunteering my time with Maya Mountain Cacao (MMC) in Belize and Cacao Verapaz (CV) in Guatemala, conduct interviews and homestays with cacao farming families,  and indulge in my creative side to unveil the hidden nature of cacao.

Punta Gorda, Belize

February 1, 2016 Belize City "So I hear you're into medicinal herbs." Wink. " I study cacao, not coca." The absurdity of the situation continued. Here I was, my first night in Belize, getting my Tarot fortune read by the quasi-chiropractic quasi-manioc hostel owner. I could smell weed wafting through the window as I watched a man with a pirate bandana give a massage to a young Belizean girl with a stutter. I had not originally planned to stay overnight in Belize City. Then the opportunity came to volunteer my seat for a later flight and a voucher that would cover my flight back home. I viewed it as a small and worthwhile delay. Plus, the Tarot reading may have been the right sign. My keyword "Creativity" accurately describes the skill I’ll need to employ, both to absorb and describe the experiences of chasing this crazy dream of mine.
 "Anything can be creative – you bring that quality to the activity. Activity itself is neither creative nor uncreative. You can paint in an uncreative way. You can sing in an uncreative way. You can clean the floor in a creative way. You can cook in a creative way.   "Creativity is the quality that you bring to the activity you are doing. It is an attitude, an inner approach – how you look at things." (Osho Zen Taro)
  February 2, 2016 Belize City to Punta Gorda Things work out for the better. It would have been a long trip without the overnight in Belize City. The following morning I took the six-hour James bus down to Punta Gorda. My stream of good luck (or nine lives) continues. First, the bus nearly left without me at one of the rest stops. I went chasing after it—and my luggage—just as it was pulling out of the driveway. Second, I avoided having to hitch-hike my way to Punta Gorda. The bus driver dropped me off at the Maya Mountain Cacao drying station about 15 miles along the highway away from the actual office downtown.  There I was, waiting at the side of the road, until the next bus could passed. One day and an hour late, I finally made it to the Maya Mountain Cacao office in Punta Gorda. For the next couple days I shadowed the MMC team to learn about everything, from the history of the chocolate industry in Belize, the chocolate production process, and the dynamics of buying and selling cacao across different levels of intermediaries. There are layers upon layers of politics and cultural nuances that I can only begin to describe (and these will be written up as guest posts in the future). Every conversation, every moment of observation, had something to do with cacao.   3 February 2016 San Antonio, Toledo

The interior of a typical cacao farm house in Santa Elena, Toledo, Belize

Back in the field. The countryside lifestyle feels like  familiar territory in this foreign land. It’s been over a year since I lived out on the farm, the last time goes back  my Fulbright of living  with the coffee farmers in Mexico. Actually there’s a lot in common when it comes to traversing a coffee and a cacao farm: steep slopes, leaves and organic compost on the ground, shade trees, and the background melody of insects and birds. The lifestyle too has similarities: the staple foods are beans and tortillas (here, both made of corn and flour), which are  supplemented by chickens, bananas, oranges and anything else the household  produces. I did a five-night  home stay with Mr. Antonio Coc and his son Daniel who live in  two adjacent houses. It’s more like a mini village of  fifteen family members all living together. During the first two nights I slept on a hammock above a basket of drying cacao beans. The image is romantic. The sleeping quality is,  however, not exactly restful. Though I have tolerance for small spaces, the tight quarters of a single room shared by six people to cook, eat, and sleep together lost its charm by the second day. I no longer take for granted the luxury of personal space and a bedroom of one’s own.   4 February, 2016 San Antonio and San Jose, Toledo

Wet cacao (the seeds with the pulp directly removed from the pod)

  The day begins early, usually around 5:30 am when the sun rises. Miss Delfin served a hearty breakfast of eggs, chicken stew, and flour tortillas. The children ate first so that they could get ready for school. There  is no kitchen table, only a small stool for two people to crouch beside the fire, so by necessity meals are served in rounds. Daniel and I headed out on his motorbike to visit a handful of the cacao farmers. Daniel is a “buyer” for MMC, meaning that he is responsible for purchasing the cacao from farmers in different buying zones. Today we visited the largest buying zone, the community of San Jose, which has an estimated 500 families, or roughly 3,500 people given that the average family size is seven. One hundred of these families sell to MMC. Before cacao, this village was mostly subsistence based off corn and rice. Today, households still grow beans, corn, and rice for their own consumption and more recently pumpkin seeds for export to Guatemala. Only a small percentage of the families have electricity made possible through  a solar panel project a few years ago. For the most part, families do not have electricity or refrigerators and a large portion of their food is subsistence-based. We were invited to lunch at one of the households. They fed us a  big plate of rice with black beans, chicken, and lettuce on the side. Sweet tea—not cacao—is the beverage of choice. We were joined by a teacher who is also a part-time cacao grower. He told me that life in this village is simple but the people enjoy an overall good quality of life. “Do you see starving children?” he asked. No. “Do you see people with sickness and disease?” No. People may not have much income but their land and culture are fertile. The literacy rate is around 60-70% and most people speak at least two languages: English and Mopan Maya or Q’echi. Yet, there are still discrepancies when it comes to access to basic resources. Cacao is enabling families to gradually advance, though progress is not just about the economics. Sometimes it’s the chit-chat that matters most when it comes to success in the chocolate industry. Done right, buying cacao is a multi-step process to build relationships over time even if that means going against the economic logic of efficiency. Business can be brutal. But that does not mean it can cut corners or shortchange the people who make chocolate real.   8 February 2016 Punta Gorda (back from the farm) Shower. I could not feel more grateful to have water running over my body. While on the farm I had bathed in a wooden hut using a plastic cup and bucket of cold water to rinse off the sweat and dirt. Nothing felt so good as the small luxury of hot water. Light. That is the next gift. The miracle of light past sunset seems so much more precious after having spent the past few nights without electricity. Morning coffee. The smallest big indulgence to start the day. Ironically, since arriving here in Belize I have missed out on both morning coffee and chocolate. I cracked today and bought a cup of cheap stuff off the street. Papaya. I have an obsession with fresh fruit and vegetables, which are not usually part of the farm diet. At the Punta Gorda seaside market I bought a whole papaya and started eating it right then and there. Some American tourist passed by and I heard the wife whisper “Poor girl, she must not have a lot of money.” Damn who cares. I am happy looking like a fool with the papaya in my face.  
Taking a break to enjoy fruits of the farm

Taking a break to enjoy fruits of the farm

Humanity in the Face of Crisis

It is hard to put into words all the emotions that describe the November 13th Paris attacks and subsequent reactions. The horror was beyond imagination. In many ways it is hard to believe that such could have been an act of humankind; which is why, in a paradoxical sense, the events also give me great hope for the spirit of humanity. I had been living in Paris for nearly three months leading up to the attacks and had grown to call Paris my new home. So much of about this city of lights enchanted me—and still does today: the slow culture of eating, the beautiful architecture and countless cultural sites, and the amalgamation of socio-economic classes and nationalities. Not surprisingly, I feel quite at home in a place where chocolate is a food group unto itself. Coffee with pain au chocolat for breakfast is a normal yet extraordinary way to start the day. Things changed not only for Paris but also for the world on November 13. Within instants, confusion turned into fear, and fear turned into rage. But there was another powerfully strong emotional reaction: love. Social media helped string together friends, family, and loved ones in words reassuring their safety. My inbox was flooded with messages. I am one of the fortunate who was out of harm’s reach. That day, I happened to be home on a return visit to California celebrating my Chinese grandfather’s 99th birthday. Seeing him again and being back with family put me at a loss of words and instead filled me with laughter—the kind that makes you want to cry—to see him and distant family again. The events in Paris only intensified our emotions. I felt overwhelmed by the amount of grief, compassion, and deep gratitude for life all at once. Now back in Paris, I am appreciating the simple pleasures of life with an air of melancholy. The morning ritual of coffee has a different note of sweetness. The autumn air feels an edge sharper. When people ask: “How are you?” it seems they more genuinely mean it. Trying to place what seemed different, I turned to neuroscience for the answer. What parts of the brain are activated when we are confronted with traumatic events? Why do some people react with love and compassion; and others, with fear and rage? Disasters are times when people have intense, often irrational feelings. These times can bring out the best and the worst in people. So I did a quick search on neuroscience behind emotions (get ready): The amygdala, located in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex region of the brain, is known to control emotional reactions, decision-making, and memory.[1] It sends off an ‘alarm system’ when we experience threats, including perceived threats, of harm. On the flip side, when we feel extremely socially connected, this taps into the very same part in the brain.[2] Pretty cool, right? Now, I do not claim to be a neuroscientist but there seems to be a link between our ability to cope with these traumatic events and the strength of our social networks. Additionally, those neurophysiological processes will play out in our physical health and interpersonal relationships, like how nicely or aggressively we act toward one another.[3] To put things more simply: there’s feedback between our behavior on the outside and our feelings on the inside. None of this comes as a surprise and yet we sometimes forget about the basic nature of the human spirit. We can re-wire our brains to help cope with trauma. Social support may be the path to resilience. Steps so simple as telling someone “thank you” or giving a cheerful “bonjour!” may not only brighten their day but also yours.[4] In times like this I hope that we may turn to forget past resentments to embrace instead the beauty of humanity. We can overtake the fear with love. Then, if that triggers a positive neural emotional response, fostering connectivity over fear and anxiety, we can light back up this city with compassion.   References [1] Good old Wikipedia. [2] Eisenberger NI, & Cole SW (2012). Social neuroscience and health: neurophysiological mechanisms linking social ties with physical health. Nature neuroscience, 15 (5), 669-74 PMID: 22504347 [3] Swencionis JK and Fiske ST. (2014) How social neuroscience can inform theories of social comparison. Neuropsychologia 56: 140-146. [4] Zak, Paul. “The Science of Generosity.” 22 November 2009.

The Secret to Happy Productivity: Eat a Chocolate Frog

What’s the secret to happy productivity? Swallow a chocolate frog first thing in the morning. That’s right, a chocolate frog.

For most of us, there is something looming on our To Do list that we need to get done but keep putting off. Whether it’s the paper to write, the email to send, or the grant application to submit, these activities take us away from what we may more enjoyable, like frolicking in the sunshine, spending time with friends, or sometimes even staring at the wall. But alas, those less pleasant tasks will not disappear instead only grow bigger-- and uglier--the more we put them off.

At the Cambridge EnterpriseWISE conference, we were advised to think of these unpleasant tasks as frogs. You probably have a box of frogs. Some of them are bigger and nastier looking than others. The key to happy productivity is to start the day by picking the biggest, ugliest frog, staring at it meanly in the face, taking a deep breath, and gulping it down.

Didn’t that feel good?

Now everything else will seem sweet in comparison. Of course, practically speaking sometimes frogs are so large that you cannot handle them in a single gulp. You’ll need to break it down into parts and swallow a little piece every day. (Apologies if this has turned into a revolting metaphor.) Then sooner than you know it, that frog will be conquered.

That may last for a couple weeks, months, years, or even an entire lifetime. If you can keep it up, I applaud you. But sometimes we all crave a little sweetness and cannot bear the thought of an ugly frog first thing in the morning. One approach is to look at the chocolate lining, so to speak, of the unpleasant circumstance. Be grateful that you have Internet connection to send that email. Think long-term about the potential payoff from making that grant application today. Attitude change is one approach. Another is to insert fun activities like listening to music or treating yourself to coffee, while doing the activity. Whatever strategy works for you, there are ways to make that frog seem less unpleasant.

Follow this Harry Potter recommendation to eat a chocolate frog first thing in the morning. You will spend the rest of the day bouncing happily from your morning burst of productivity.