What does one think about when lying awake all night—huddled under 4 heavy blankets but still not quite warm, taking only shallow breaths to avoid the stench of bodies and smoke embedded in the pillow and blankets, watching the curtains puff out from gaps in the window seals, and covering one’s ears to muffle the nonstop “WREEK-ERR, WREEK-ERR” screech of something metal swinging back and forth outside the window?

I found out on a recent stop in the mountain village of San José del Pacifico, located about half way between Oaxaca City and the Pacific Coast in southern Mexico. My traveling companions from Oaxaca had chosen this place. With a nice wooden façade, visibly clean interior, two double beds, and a bathroom, the room had seemed like a bargain at U.S.$18.
Sleep, however, eluded me. The combination of unusual smells, sounds, and textures elevated my sensory receptors to “high alert.” So I laid there in the semi-darkness for hours, waiting for dawn.

After I got beyond my initial thoughts of, “I wonder if that wind is going to blow the roof off” and “Why oh why can’t I just fall asleep?”, resignation settled in, and I found myself in a zone. A zone of gratitude.

I entered that zone via the thought that things could be much worse. For example, the room could be full of bugs. Spiders would be the worst for me, but cock-roaches rated a close second. So when I flicked on the bathroom light around 3:30 a.m., I was grateful not to see streams of small dark shapes scurrying across the floor, diving into the drain pipes and wall cracks.

And while I was in the bathroom, I gave thanks that the room even HAD a bathroom and that I didn’t have to slip on my shoes and coat and run outside to a communal toilet (or a bush).
I also gave thanks for the water flowing from the faucet. It wasn’t hot, or drinkable (to me), but there was plenty of it, and I didn’t have to carry it from a stream or a public well.

Back in bed, listening to the wind pummel the walls, I gave thanks for the strength of those walls, as well as the weight of the blankets on top of me. Even though the blankets were smelly beyond anything I’ve ever experienced in my extensive travels, I would have been a lot colder without them.

Buried under her own set of blankets across the room was my friend Chris. I gave thanks for the trust and love that flows between us, and for the way we can laugh at ourselves when we make mistakes. (I was also a bit envious of her ability to sleep tonight, although I would find out in the morning that she had only managed a few 5-minute dozing sessions.)

The night stretched on and on. My mind savored each of the blessings I have—a caring husband, happy children, good health, the freedom to travel, more than enough food to eat, the ability to make choices in my life. The list continued. Every now and then, a sentence with the word “miserable” would start to form. But, like a fluttering red cape before a bull, one more reason to be grateful kept diverting my attention.

The room gradually became lighter, and the night slipped away.

As I lumbered to the car with my small suitcase, a friend who had slept in the next room groaned, “I only got about 5 hours of sleep.” I laughed, “Hey, no bragging!”

Our car backed out of its parking spot, and I gave a final note of thanks—for the new day, the adventure ahead, and, most of all, that we wouldn’t be staying here a second night.

K Hensley

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