What does paradise mean to you? Where would your paradise be? A few days ago a friend texted me on a particularly windy day that “the wind may catch me under the ears and move me to paradise.” I cautioned her to be careful; paradise is not always what it seems.
A few years ago I took a break during a rough time in my life. I went on a yoga retreat to a place in Mexico called Yelapa. The retreat was wonderful. We practiced yoga every morning and evening on an outside terrace that overlooked the small town and its beautiful bay. The sky was always a dramatic blue. As we lay on our backs during the ending Shavasana, large frigate birds circled overhead. The trees that rimmed one side of the terrace buzzed with the wildlife that lived within. The bougainvillea draped dramatically over the railing; it’s deep pink contrasting radiantly with the blue of the sky.
After morning yoga ended, we gathered for breakfast on an open portico. Homemade corn tortillas, fresh eggs, avocado, and tomatoes played starring roles most mornings. The middle of the day was filled with hikes, exploring the small town, relaxing on the beach, and late afternoon naps. A few of us even had a Watsu massage with an expat American who had lived there for many years.
On one of the days, the leader of the group arranged for a local boater to take as many of us who wanted to go to another small beach further along the shore. There were a small village and a few residents, but the beach was mostly deserted and was reported to be a great snorkeling site. About five of us decided to go. What could be better than spending an afternoon lazily laying on a beach, or playing in the surf and snorkeling? We landed on the beach during exceptionally high tide, the waves crashing on shore made navigating the boat in difficult. We decided that we would keep the vessel away from the shore and swim in, ferrying our gear and a cooler we had brought with food and beverage along our human chain. We managed to keep everything high and dry as we all crash-landed into the sand. We made a collective decision that snorkeling was not on the menu for the day. Instead, we set up towels and blankets on the beach and settled in for the afternoon. A local man drilled a couple of coconuts for us to sip on. A gentle breeze blew through our hair as we watched the ocean waves. As the palm trees bent in mild submission, we began to talk of paradise.
Behind us was a large house, surrounded by a low wall, made of round glass blocks and concrete. From our vantage point, it looked like a grand palace. The house rose to two levels. Soon two women emerged from the gate and made their way toward us. We talked for a bit. The woman who owned the house was an American, probably in her early fifties. She and her husband had worked hard and saved to be able to retire early to move to this area and build the house of their dreams. The other woman was a Canadian who had a house a few miles away. With them was a small dog who frolicked at their feet as they talked. We could tell by their actions that they were half smashed, but a little alcohol on a sunny afternoon in paradise with friends is no big deal. As they wandered off down the beach, they told us to feel free to go up and see the place.
We eagerly took her up on the offer. We all dreamed of living in paradise as well someday and wanted to see what we could expect. When we got to the gate, her husband was there in his underwear. He politely excused himself to put on some pants and just like his wife, told us we could wander around the house and property. He then staggered away. The lower level of the house was the kitchen. The upper level consisted of the master bedroom, and maybe some other bedrooms for guests. The house was round, and the side facing the ocean was open on both levels. The walls of the house were made of the same glass blocks and concrete as the surrounding wall. The opening was about a third of the radius and a stone patio extended from the kitchen, which seemed to functions as the primary gathering area. In the working part of the kitchen was a rounded countertop. An elevated bar with stools on the outside was adjacent to the countertop. The first thing we noticed as we walked inside was that the countertop and bar were completely covered. Half-eaten bags of chips, cookies and other packaged foods spilled onto the counter. There was no fresh food in sight; no fruits, no vegetables. At least thirty bottles of every kind of liquor and wine available littered the space, some empty, some half full, all opened.
We declined from visiting the upstairs, fearful of running into the man in his underwear again. Instead, we wandered along the garden path the extended from the patio. It meandered along another low stone wall and to a couple of guest houses and a bathroom with an open shower. Again all constructed of the same materials. As we got to the end of the wall, I noticed that it was about a ten inches thick, and that the opposite side was made up of small round holes. It slowly dawned on me that these were not glass blocks. Every wall consisted of liquor bottles set in concrete. Thousands of liquor bottles. How much liquor must they have had to consume to build their paradise? I spun around in total disbelief as the realization of that set in. The sight we had encountered in the kitchen was not a once in a while activity with friends. It was their daily life in paradise.
We left the property and returned to our little spot on the beach. The two women were still playing with the small dog further down. We watched as a pack of larger dogs descended upon them and attacked the smaller dog. We rushed to help them fight them off. One of the women jumped into the middle of them and grabbed the little dog, but in the fray was bitten herself. A man came out of the brush behind us with a stick to drive them away. She saved the small dog, the others ran off, and the women staggered back to the house crying and bleeding. We had seen and even petted the pack of larger dogs since we arrived. We learned from the man who came to help that these dogs were mostly pets who had been abandoned by their owners and had learned how to survive on their own. Most of the time they were harmless but would attack and kill anything they could for food. The women seemed to know the dogs as well, one of them pleading as she passed us that she didn’t want to see them hurt and that she was sure they didn’t mean to hurt her. I couldn’t understand why, if they knew them so well, they had decided to take the smaller dog with them to the beach? They surely knew their habit of attacking and killing small animals. Our group was left sickened by the event.
We left the beach shortly after. Getting off was no easier than getting on. I returned to Yelapa that day with a new understanding of paradise. For the most part, aside from that one afternoon, I loved my time there. The beautiful days, the yoga, the hikes, the downtime, the food, the friendships I found, the quiet, the time for reflection all created a paradise in my mind. But, I realized in that one afternoon that my life at home was mostly a life I loved. I couldn’t live my days without structure, without purpose, without community. I wondered if the people we met that day had pictured their life in paradise playing out as it was. I wondered if they were happy. I couldn’t see the happiness there. It was not visible to me. I couldn’t feel it either.
Even now, years later, when I start to become weighed down in the messiness of everyday life, I think back to that day. It helps me appreciate what I have. It helps me clarify what I need. Visiting paradise is a powerful and necessary diversion. Living in paradise may not be all it’s cracked up to be.