Jalcomulco with Girls at Play


I had no idea that when my good paddling friend, Leila, convinced me I should sign up for Anna Levesque’s Girl’s At Play Intermediate Mexico Trip, I would return with a completely different outlook on life. I had paddled with Anna before and expected stellar instruction, but didn’t realize I would return with lifelong friendships, stories of adventure on and off the river, and a newfound confidence.

The trip began upon arrival at the manageable Veracruz airport where the warm sunny breeze quickly wiped away my pasty February chills and energized my spirit. Anna greeted me with a sun kissed smile and warm hug, helping me drag my large bag to the group of women sitting in the cafe chatting. We all introduced ourselves casually and loaded up our bags stuffed with pfds, helmets, dry tops and booties: joking about who packed the most. All twelve of us eager travelers filled two large white vans. I was in the van driven by Mil, Anna’s right hand woman and other lead guide who immediately revealed her lively, infectious personality. Full of life and energy, she looked in her rearview mirror at us and cheerfully exclaimed, “ I hope you don’t mind loud music”.

During the two-hour ride to the fishing village of Jalcomulco (Jalco), where we will be residing for the next week, we all announce where we are from, what we do and how long we’ve been paddling. I explain to them that I had quit my job as an art director at an ad agency a month earlier in Birmingham and was taking some time to figure out if I wanted to continue on that path. In my thoughts, I was dreading the return to the States where building my portfolio and interviewing at agencies awaited me. Everyone commended me for making the decision to leave a job that wasn’t feeling right: reassuring my decision.

Jalco showed us the true spirit of Mexico as we arrived in the small town. The bumpy roads, street vendors, colorful doors and sound of salsa music all welcome us. Mil and Laura, our third lively guide for the trip, waved at the folks as we drove by, saying, “there’s Yair” and “isn’t that Carlos’, car?” They know the people who live here, and the town knows them. After a tour of the quaint hotel with terra-cotta tiled floors and courtyard adjoined rooms, we pair off with roommates and peal off the layers that remind of us the cold back home, dressing in appropriate clothes for the 65 degree climate. As we tour around the town with Anna, we see again the friendliness and warmth of the locals. Women sitting in doorways turn to wave at us, and each person we pass sings politely “Buenos Dias”, many using Anna’s name. The town is familiar with incoming groups of paddlers and makes them feel at home each time they arrive. Anna lets us know that we are in a good place; we are safe and welcome at any hour of the day or night. She should know, she has been coming here for 15 years now, paddling and teaching. She had grown up with many of the now men and women, and knows them and their families the way we know our friends and neighbors back home.

After we familiarized ourselves with the town and had an idea where we would eat in relation to where we would sleep, we were instructed to rendezvous shortly for happy hour and then dinner made by the Bertas: two women with the same name who made the most delicious and perfectly seasoned traditional Mexican cuisine for us daily. At happy hour we meet more of the young friendly Canadian staff who’s vibrancy filled the air of the building and made me want to live there, ride bikes, serve food and have tousled sun drenched hair in February. As we lounge around and get to know each other a little a more, doubts creep into my mind. Will I be able to keep up with the other ladies on the river? Will I hit my roll after three months off from paddling? Will everyone like me? And when will Anna expect us to start “working through our fears”? Well, whatever, if I just had a cool trip paddling in Mexico that would be enough.

We headed back to our breezy, friendly hotel after a delicious meal, to drink tea and check our emails, and announce on facebook our arrival in sunny Mexico to all our friends in our chilly homes. “Loving it in Mexico!!”, hoping for a few jealous comments and “likes” to show up by the time we checked it again tomorrow.

The following morning, we met for breakfast and talked about the noises we heard in the night: a donkey braying, a dog barking, birds chirping, a rooster crowing. Anna and Mil assured us the first night would be the only night we noticed the sounds; after that sleep would come easily from full days of paddling and yoga. We played a “getting to know you” name game where we went around the circle, said our names and goals for the week. The goals ranged from experiential goals like having fun and being in the moment to more technical goals like boofing and hitting an offside roll.

With breakfast finished, we outfitted our boats and Anna, Mil, Laura and Cailyn, our fourth guide and photographer/videographer, loaded them up while we piled in the van with our new friends: heading to the Antigua. After a short twenty-minute drive, Mil backed the van and the large trailer of boats towards the river, maneuvering around a corner and down a dirt road while a donkey, a man and a chicken stoically observed. We all helped grab the boats and gear and started getting dressed. Anna led us through a stretching routine based on her thorough study of yoga, and talked about the benefits of each move. The donkey, the man and the chicken still with their eyes glued to us, but now a teenage boy holding his little brother watched amusingly.

It was now time to show our skills on the water. We practiced our strokes, rolls and ferries with Anna, Mil and Laura interspersed amongst us and Cailyn on the rocky shore capturing the moment. At my first attempt to ferry, insecurities flooded my mind. I paddled to the eddy line, where the current caught the bow of my boat and I flushed downstream into an eddy below the group. I masked my nervousness with laughter. Man, I had learned this a year ago and done it a hundred times, why couldn’t I perform now? What if I don’t do well this week? Once we were all warmed up, Anna and Mil split us into two groups, six with each of them. I was in Mil’s group. What did this mean? Was I in the less advanced group? No, they had split us up by boat color. I realized I had all these unnecessary worries going through my head, when all I needed was to enjoy the warm water, rocks peppered with local fisherman or their handmade baskets, birds and mango trees lining the river. So, I followed Mil and my fellow ducklings down the first rapid shakily and made it fine. Landing in the eddy, I let out a celebratory “wahoo!” where I was greeted with supportive cheers and smiles. In the eddy, we talked about the clean lines, rolls and the swims some had just experienced.

During the next rapid, one of us flipped and the moment she was upside down Mil was beside her boat ready to T-Rescue her. This would be a reoccurring scene for others and myself. The second anyone flipped, Anna, Mil or Laura magically appeared next to you to give you whatever support you needed, whether it be a T-Rescue, hand of God or big smile once you emerged from the water. I had never seen such carefree, strong women like this. It was becoming clear why my friend Leila had loved being on the water with these ladies. They had the ability to make you feel secure and supported while having the time of your life.

After banging out some drills and cheering on combat rolls and swims, we were met at the end or our run with a spread of fresh fruit, pasta, cookies and drinks to satisfy our hunger. We then loaded up the boats, stripped off our wet gear and headed back to town to enjoy one of Anna’s restorative yoga classes. We inhaled fresh air into our chests, backs, and hips, while exhaling the kinks from traveling and nerves from our first day in a new place and on a new river. I relaxed and embraced the moment I realized this really was going to be a spectacular week. It was not only going to be a week to improve my kayaking skills, but also a time to rejuvenate and become inspired.

That night several of us practiced the local tradition of puenting, or hanging out on the bridge, socializing and drinking beer. We chatted in our spot, noticing further down the bridge local couples getting to know each other in new flirtatious ways. While we may have looked out of place, we never felt unwelcome.

Each morning after that, we met at 7:30 for yoga class with Anna, in a rooftop, open air room where sun salutations lived up to their name for the first time. Each day a new person would show up to breakfast declaring her roommate had been up all night with traveler’s sickness, sitting on or kneeling in front of the toilet. Of course this is a common challenge when traveling to new places, but most of the women managed to keep positive attitudes and stay strong enough to get on the water.

The next day the Actopan boogied us all down in groups of four as we practiced our new boof stroke. I loved it, I had spent the past two years avoiding rocks, working tirelessly to steer around them but today, I saw each rock as an opportunity to develop this new skill. Anna, Mil and Laura practiced their rock spins, while Cailyn sped past us to capture our excitement on camera as we cruised by. I had now let go of my worries of my level on the river and embraced the new found confidence I felt. Each day we approached a more challenging river but our guides armed us with new strokes, skills and confidence so that we could either make that boof, ferry or line down the drop.

Now that we had spent several days working hard on the water, it was time for the legendary salsa night where the locals joined us for a night of salsa instruction. The bonds we had formed on the river were alive off the river and we were celebrating our successes with high fives, cheers, beers and tequila. Anna and Mil set the tone of the night by showing off their dancing expertise and carefree style, inspiring even the quiet ones of the group to shake it loose on the dance floor. Four hours later, covered in sweat, I had danced the salsa with every boy in the room, shimmied the limbo and kicked my legs around while linked up in a train. It seemed like the entire town had come for the fiesta. I couldn’t have asked for a more exciting Mexican style night with drums, singing, dancing and toasting with all of my new favorite friends.

The next morning eight a.m. came quickly, but most of us made it to breakfast, despite feeling sick from bugs or from the previous nights events.  Following our meal, we hiked to a paradise-like eco preserve with a platform where Anna lead us through a mellow yoga class. My joy, excitement and adrenaline must have been counteracting any lethargy or illness because I found myself in frog pose with everyone else.

That afternoon two women revealed their strength and unwavering love of paddling when they, one fighting traveler’s bug and one running on little sleep after a wild night, joined Anna on the Pescados to run the first class IV river we had the option of doing. I opted for a more mellow run with two other ladies, but felt inspired and impressed by those two women who were taking on the new challenge of the Pescados. I knew I needed to take advantage of every opportunity to paddle, do yoga, and dance while I was here – I could sleep later. This really was proving to be a once in a lifetime opportunity. The rest of the week continued with rich opportunities in top-notch instruction, unique culture and friendships with other vibrant and adventurous women, .

As one might assume, I left Mexico rejuvenated, inspired and with expanded paddling skills. I also gained a deeper understanding and personal interpretation of Anna’s words, “working through fears”. We often create stories in our heads of how others perceive and judge our actions; letting that shape who we become and making us feel like our decisions have not been our own. However, I learned that these are only stories, created to help me deal with fear, whether it is fear of a rapid or fear of a career change. By embracing responsibility for our decisions on and off the river, we take the first step to “working through our fears”. The wisdom and skills I gained during the trip help me daily to make confident decisions that guide me toward living a fulfilling and authentic life.