You couldn’t find many women—not sensible ones, anyway—who’d have to argue themselves into going on a beach-and-yoga retreat at a tropical resort. But sense has never been my strong suit.
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It’s not that I have any issue with temporarily running away from home: As a travel journalist, I’ve spent most of the past decade exploring some pretty off-the-map parts of the world. And I’m not averse to yoga classes and sunbathing, either—even though my…asanas are a little droopier than they used to be.
What does freak me out, though, is the idea of traveling with a crowd—even a small one. As I’ve learned over many years of globe-trotting, I am more comfortable sleeping in a tent in the freezing-cold desert, swimming with sharks, or facing down a mock-charging rhinoceros than I am making small talk at the buffet table.
Women’s Retreat: The Waffling
In part, this is because I’m a deep-dyed introvert. I’m okay with my own company. But it’s also that I am—for reasons I’ve never quite grasped—woefully socially awkward. Even at home, among friends, I am forever blurting out the wrong thing, the weird thing, the thing that shuts down conversation and sends everyone running to refresh their drinks. It’s hard enough when this happens at neighborhood barbeques,; but among strangers, in a new place, where there’s nowhere to escape? No thanks.
So when the opportunity arose to join NextTribe’s weeklong Stretch Your Body, Stretch Your Mind retreat in Troncones, Mexico, I hedged at first. Yes, the location—a charming village on a gorgeous, unspoiled sweep of Pacific-coast beach—sounded alluring. So did the planned home base: a cozy boutique hotel called Present Moment Retreat, with palapa-roofed bungalows, an open-air restaurant, wellness treatments, and daily movement and meditation classes in a breezy seaside pavilion. Even the group seemed more promising than usual: Fourteen women aged 45 and up, all who ostensibly espoused NextTribe’s credo: “Age Boldly.”
Still, I waffled until Jeannie Ralston, NextTribe’s editor—and one of the few friends I’ve made while traveling—asked if I’d help to lead writing seminars on the retreat. This idea—of being able to talk about a specific subject I loved, rather than flounder miserably in chitchat—eased my fears a bit. It actually sounded kind of wonderful.
“Okay,” I told Jeannie. “I’m in.”
I’ll be honest: When I met the other retreat participants for the first time in person (at the tiny Zihuatanejo airport, where we’d all arrived from different parts of the country), I was worried. Many of the women were greeting each other with hugs and gleeful shrieks: they clearly knew each other. But even those who didn’t seemed intimidatingly poised and confident, with perfect highlighted hair and fashionably gauzy resort wear.
On the van ride to our hotel, I listened as they spoke about their high-powered jobs in media and medicine, the properties they owned, and the children they’d ushered into adulthood. Having none of these things, and mindful of my foot-in-mouth tendencies, I stayed mostly silent. Later, over dinner at Present Moment Retreat—a decadent spread of fresh seafood, made-to-order guacamole, and fruit-spiked margaritas—I also stayed mum.
But the next morning, once we had all gathered in the thatch-roofed, open-walled pavilion for a breathing and meditation class (led by NextTribe fashion columnist and yoga instructor Kim Cihlar), I felt my anxiety begin to soften. Maybe it was the communal experience of sitting cross-legged in the mild morning light, all of us inhaling and exhaling in unison while birds flitted past and the surf crashed nearby. Or maybe it was the words Kim used as she led us through a meditative visualization.
“Imagine,” she intoned, “what it would feel like to just…let go. Let go of judging yourself, of finding yourself not good enough. What would it be like to be as kind to yourself as you are to others?”
As I discovered throughout the rest of the day, something seemed to have shifted for the other women, as well. Amazingly, I found myself slipping quite easily into conversations with them—over afternoon smoothies at the restaurant, or while walking on the beach—that were far deeper than any I’d had on other trips. Some of the women even confided in me, about the seismic storms that had shaken them in their recent lives. Paula, a radiant blonde medical administrator, revealed that she’d spent the past year recovering after breast cancer and reconstructive surgery. The youngest on our trip, a doctor named Frankie, agonized over the troubles she’d been experiencing with her long-term romantic partner. And Marcellina, a quiet, dignified ad-agency project manager, described her enduring grief after the sudden loss of her teenage daughter years earlier.
That I could be having such discussions—just a day after first meeting these women—was extraordinary for me. But over the next few days, I saw that it seemed to be happening for all of us: this Great Sharing. Everywhere, I noticed members of our group bonding: consorting in the resort’s hot tub, blissing out together between reiki and massage treatments, talking animatedly on their beach towels between boogie-boarding sessions.
In the writing workshops, this sisterhood phenomenon was bumped to 11. What started as a neatly planned series of reading and writing assignments quickly dissolved into a sort of happy free-for-all, where the women read aloud—and exuberantly applauded—the journal entries and essays they’d penned in the downtime between morning yoga and sunset horseback rides. Our photography workshops (led by Amy Kawadler, a special-events director for Canon) had a similarly rousing vibe: Each image we presented for appraisal—even those that Amy politely critiqued—were met with avalanches of praise.
“What a photographer is always trying to do,” Amy told us one afternoon, as she showed us a series of famous images on her tablet screen, “is find the stillness in the chaos.”
The phrase stuck with me. Wasn’t that what we were all doing here in Troncones—seizing a bubble of peace amid the hectic froth of our regular lives? Maybe that was why so many of us had happily let go of our modesty over the week—foregoing our cover-ups and pareos and tramping in to breakfast and workshops in our wet bathing suits, our feet gritty with sand. Or why most of us had stopped wearing makeup and shampooing our hair (Cathy, a bubbly Australian nurse educator, had even asked proudly that we photograph her sun-streaked, unwashed locks). Certainly it must have been why, for perhaps the first time in my life, I felt at ease among my fellow travelers. In the small, contained biosphere of the retreat, even a loner like me could belong.
On one of the last evenings of our trip, Jeannie brought us on a special excursion to EcoT, a small sea turtle hatchery a half-mile walk down the beach. There, we met Juan Carlos Rosas Cruz, a Troncones native who has run the sanctuary for more than a decade, and whose efforts have given many thousands of endangered baby turtles a chance at surviving in the wild. After hearing how he and his volunteers work—by regularly scouting the beach for laying females, then relocating and reburying the eggs in a netted area safe from predators—we donned rubber gloves and were allowed to gently scoop some recently hatched turtles from their sandy nests. Shortly after, we gathered on the beach to release them into the sea..
Some turtles scurried right into the surf (where they’d face many dangers, but where they’d have their best chance at survival). Others, though, exhausted and dazed, flailed in meandering loops before finding the water’s edge. The very last turtle, a Loggerhead hatchling, had the hardest time.
For nearly 40 minutes, our group stood, spellbound, while it struggled toward the ocean. Each wave that didn’t quite reach it made us moan in frustration; each mad scramble it made toward the sea prompted shouts of encouragement. At long last, when an outsized swell surged up the beach and carried the turtle away, we all cheered.
As we started back for the resort, I lagged behind for a bit and watched the others stride ahead of me, their hair catching the wind, the sun setting behind them. I felt flooded with gratefulness—for their friendship and openness, and for the week we’d spent boosting one another, just as we’d rallied for that final, straggling turtle. Once I returned to my everyday life, I’d likely still feel like a dorky outsider. But here and now, I was part of a tribe. That was good enough for me.
A version of this story was originally published in March 2018.