The Eye of the Leopard

“When you look in the eye of a leopard or a jaguar it is an invitation to transport yourself to another frequency or dimension to be able to understand the mysteries of creation.” Miguel Angel Vergara, Maya scholar

By Cathleen Johnson

When I left my career as a full time travel marketer at Edelman about four years ago, I knew that I could never get travel out of my blood. I also knew that it was time to do something more purposeful than PR and marketing (no offense to my PR family!) Like so many of us Baby Boomers, I have lived a successful and exciting life so far, but I had come to the time to give back.

I was at a loss how to do it. I have always been passionate about helping kids to travel because I believe so strongly that a travel experience can open their lives, so I did some work for the Student Youth Travel Association. I want to help women be successful in the professional world, so I volunteered for a non-profit cooperative called Bridges to Success. I want to be a writer, so I started a memoir and wrote some travel stories. I consulted for travel companies and associations. All this time I was restless as a “semi-retiree,” looking for that magic “thing” that would give me the same spark I had when I discovered that I could make a career out of travel and built a travel PR practice at Edelman.

And then I went to Africa.

My friend Ed had been urging me to go on safari for years. Of course, we wanted to go for the animals, but even more for the experience of seeing Botswana and Zimbabwe through the eyes of his venerated guide, Nic Polanakis with African Bush Camps. I was keen to go for the “ellies” – the beloved African elephants that I have wanted to see my entire life, but had only experienced at Lincoln Park Zoo and National Geographic documentaries.

In the end it was indeed the nurturing of Nic, and an experience with a leopard we named Lola that reignited the spark I was searching for. They put me on the path to Buddha Travel, and what I hope will be my journey to give back to others through travel.

Nic and Lola taught me what it truly means to live in the present. I’ll start with Nic, because it was he who found the lithe cat at the center of my story. Nic is the epitome of a nurturer. He has been an African Bush Camps ambassador and guide since he was in his ‘20s, and more than 20 years later, he maintains the joy and sense of excitement and awe that Ed tells me he has always had. When you are a guest on one of Nic’s safaris, you never, ever go untended. He is there at 4:30 in the morning outside your tent door with a bright whistle and smile and a hot pot of coffee, exactly the way you like it. He is beside you in the jeep or in front of you on the trail, watching, watching, watching –for the animals and for your comfort and joy. He is a master at delivering it all.

It was one of those early mornings, well before 6 a.m. that Nic spotted Lola. She was up in a tree with her freshly caught impala, and to Nic’s trained eye, just a small shift in the pattern of the leaves caused him to stop the jeep. Our cat leapt soundlessly to the ground, and we all froze as she languidly sauntered in our direction, most likely to look for water after her meal. Her gait, her beauty and her nonchalance left us no option other than to name her Lola.

To quote Leon Russell, “I’ve been so many places in my life and time,” but I have never had my heart stopped like I did that morning. After taking a few photos, I set down my camera, my binoculars and surrendered to the sheer majesty of sharing the air with a wild animal as near to me as my fellow jeepmates. Lola circled our vehicle, showing off her silky coat and rippling shoulders and thighs on her own provocative catwalk in the just risen sunlight.

She was veering off to the bush when she changed my life. It was just a look, but she turned, stopped and gazed directly at me (I’m sure it was all of us, but in that moment she was all mine) and I looked directly into her glowing amber eyes. I heard my own breath shudder, I felt my heart stop for just a minute, and I was just there, with her, in the bright light of a Botswana morning in a magical universe, in the moment.

When she finally turned away, and we could all breath again, I cried – for the joy of that moment, for the beauty and light of Africa, for the gift that Nic had given us all that morning by finding Lola, and for the camaraderie and love I felt among our group because we had experienced this wonder together.

It was almost a year later that I learned the significance of my encounter with Lola. I was told by a Mexican shaman, on my first visit to Sotuta de Peon in the Yucatan, that Maya culture teaches that when one looks into the eye of a jaguar, the cat imparts wisdom to the beholder. They are also associated with prescience and knowledge of things to come. I now believe this is true for leopards too. Shortly after returning from Africa, I was relating my experience to an old (well, he’s not that old) and respected friend, Michael Hallé, with whom I worked nearly 30 years ago promoting Mexico. When I shared the story of Lola, he just said, “It’s time.” And he meant it was time to fulfill a dream that he and I shared – to create a company that would help people find a more conscious lifestyle, more meaning and purpose, and use travel as a path to get there. So we created Buddha Travel, to bring together a community of people who can share their own wisdom and learn to be more conscious travelers and human beings.

For us as co-founders, Buddha Travel is completing a circle – we learned to love and respect indigenous cultures while working in Mexico and we learned that to provide a rewarding travel experience, you have to nurture your guests, educate them about their host country, and enable them to go home far richer than they arrived — possibly just because they had a moment like the one I had with Lola.


Upcoming Retreats

Yoga and much more: Mindfulness, Meditation and the Chakras

With Yoga Master Antonio Elugardo, Michael Hallé, Cathleen Johnson and Maestro Te-Moo (Eutimio) Sosa