I’ve come to Tulum for my birthday, and I’ve come alone.  The occasion is Tulum’s first art and culture festival, Art With Me. I’m only alone in theory because I’m going to be with the HABITAS crew, which means family I just haven’t met yet.

Art With Me: The Legacy of HABITAS

By Erin Granat
Jun 26, 2018

I’ve come to Tulum for my birthday, and I’ve come alone.  The occasion is Tulum’s first art and culture festival, Art With Me. I’m only alone in theory because I’m going to be with the Habitas crew, which means family I just haven’t met yet. There’s something important brewing with Habitas. They’re tending the seeds of a movement that were planted in the 1960s, seeds that are now in full bloom because technology allows us to share ideas like never before, and Habitas gives us the places to gather and make it so.

It’s 4pm on my day of birth, and I’m exploring Art With Me’s central gathering place called the Pavilion, a nest of trees decked out with pillows a few yards from the beach. The concept of Art With Me is important and festivals around the world should take note – it’s your usual four days of music, art, and food, but centered around meaningful conversations on environmental issues concerning Tulum. From artwithme.org: “The mission of Art With Me is to enrich the local community, preserve the natural environment and strengthen the artistic development of Tulum through conscious and sustainable practices. Art With Me has chosen solid waste management as the central environmental topic for its’ first year. We have united over 25 local businesses for a common cause: to bring awareness and blue solutions to the infrastructure and environmental challenges we face as a community.” 

Habitas founders Eduardo Castillo and Kfir Levy helped launch the festival, which makes sense because Habitas offsets its carbon footprint at every major event by working with a Mexican reforestation foundation, and Habitas was recently awarded a carbon free certificate.

I listen to a panel discussion in the Pavilion, then explore the grounds with a beer in hand. Trinkets hang from trees, swaying in gusts of salty ocean wind. Food vendors offer iced chai, tacos and ceviche. Three women paint a mural. An open-air gallery displays photography and sculpture. At the entrance to the Pavilion is a giant installation by South African artist Daniel Popper. The sculpture is a person fabricated with wood and rope, their chest filled with greenery. You literally walk through the heart of the sculpture to access the Pavilion.

I’ve made a friend. His name is Jared and he’s the chef at the Habitas NYC clubhouse. We met a few hours before when I was feeling slightly sad (those birthday blues). It’s an odd thing to be sad in paradise. Like you’re committing a crime. Especially somewhere like Habitas, which is all chic black hammocks and mezcal by the beach and the blissful feeling of being relaxed but still in creative productivity because the aesthetics before you were curated to deepen your connection, your vulnerability, your inspiration.

Jared was reading in one the aforementioned black hammocks when I introduced myself and explained that it was my birthday so he should hang out with me. He agreed, all dapper and tattooed and British, so we pulled tarot cards for a while and traded war stories about love.

Jared and I hopped into a taxi to explore the festival, and this is another reason why I love this Habitas family. You’re never the new kid for long. And a woman here alone can approach a man and know he’ll offer her respect and friendship. Women in this community are celebrated as sisters with sharp minds. This is part of that aforementioned paradigm shift Habitas is ushering into being.

A woman here alone can approach a man and know he’ll offer her respect and friendship. Women in this community are celebrated as sisters with sharp minds. This is part of that aforementioned paradigm shift Habitas is ushering into being.

“At its core, Habitas is a platform for global and social movement,” Zach told me before my Tulum trip, when I talked with him and Eduardo at the Venice clubhouse about what makes Habitas tick. We’d all just spent a weekend at the Esalen Institute for RETURN, a salon series created by Zach. We were reflecting on that weekend’s theme, “Currency.” The air was thick with spiced candles and as I relaxed onto the stylish midcentury furniture I thought (not for the first or last time) – Habitas knows how to create a good vibe. I say as much to the guys.

“The curation comes from creating a sense of discovery,” Eduardo tells me. “With everything at Habitas, we want to create this intrigue and curiosity in people, which leads to creativity. It’s inter-combined with Habitas. Part of the curation is going beyond what you would expect to experience, be it sound or healing, or food. It has to be the people creating it who are passionate, and working off nothing else but passion.”

I ask the guys about the larger vision for Habitas. On the surface level it’s hotels and clubhouses, concerts and a “lifestyle brand.” But what does the future hold? What’s the connecting point to these esteemed institutions of social change, like Esalen?

“Because there was Esalen in the 60's and 70's, then there was Burning Man, now there is something bigger happening globally and we see Habitas as part of that,” Zach responds. “There's a cultural impulse that started in the world in the 1940s that moved into a big expression and culture in the 1960s. A large amount of that happened at Esalen, where a generation was defining new stories and how they wanted to live their lives, their values, their religion, their spirituality, the things they believe in, and how they conducted their relationships, and the people that they trusted. They pushed a worldview into play. But the Esalen of the future will be everywhere.”

“We did a RETURN dinner a few years ago with the founders of Burning Man and the founders of Esalen. A bunch of super interesting folks, and we were trying to name the new movement. Aldous Huxley talked about infinite possibilities in human potentialities. Which became the Human Potential Movement, which is the philosophical independence of the '60s. What we think we're experiencing today, and what was named that night at RETURN, is the Collective Potential. We have a society of people who've been individually actualizing for many, many years. Now it’s time for the Collective Potential, and that’s what Habitas is creating.”

Back in Tulum, I’m experiencing this Collective Potential by way of my birthday dinner, shared with Jared and Zach himself, and a handful of other new and old friends that drift by our table at the lovely hotel Be Tulum.

Ideas and plans zip through the conversation like hummingbirds. Everyone in this crew is doing something groundbreaking with their lives. People talk of their non-profits, their climate change projects, the recently launched Habitas philanthropic effort RISE that will be setting up cultural infrastructure and helping rebuild and inspire areas that need it most around the world, starting with a trip to Nakivale this summer, Uganda’s oldest refugee camp.

With everything at Habitas, we want to create this intrigue and curiosity in people, which leads to creativity. It’s inter-combined with Habitas. Part of the curation is going beyond what you would expect to experience, be it sound or healing, or food. It has to be the people creating it who are passionate, and working off nothing else but passion.

Sometimes I imagine how Habitas appears from the outside looking in. To someone who’s forming an opinion based off social media or the myriad of articles throwing out descriptors like “hippie chic” and “stylish millennials,” not to mention the supermodels and other famous, beautiful, hashtag happy visitors – I understand how we could be easily dismissed. Everyone is attractive and good at yoga poses. We’re always hugging. We seem successful. We seem happy.

I get it. It’s annoying.

What gets lost in the shuffle are things like the RISE initiative. And the personal stories, like my visit to Tulum the previous spring when I was helping my father through the process of getting a liver transplant. I was emotionally taxed, exhausted, worried. I felt horrible for leaving his side, even though the trip was only four days long. One of our excursions was to a cenote, the mystical underground caves Tulum is famous for. When the group formed a circle in a pool of crystalline water, someone suggested we chant a group prayer for my father. Collectively, we sang his name, the sound vibrating off the sparkling stone in every direction. It was a simple gesture, but it meant the world to me.

Or now, I’m sitting here on my birthday at Art With Me as Heather Hansen does a live painting on the deck below our table (“live” as in she’s literally using her body to move black charcoal across a giant canvas), and I’m ordering chocolate cake and the group is listening as I explain why my birthday can be tough for me. Because it’s always on or near Mother’s Day, and my mom and I used to celebrate together, until she passed away when I was 20 years-old, and so instead every year my birthday gets dwarfed by all the Mother’s Day regalia and the reminder that she’s gone. I say this to relay how meaningful it is for me to be surrounded by good humans this time of year. And now we’re going back to Habitas for that night’s Art With Me featured performance – Eduardo’s musical project Mardeleva.

“The definition of Mardeleva is when three currents in the ocean collide,” Eduardo had told me back in Venice Beach. “The energy of that powerful force, the single energy that comes out of that trifecta, that collision of tides, is exponentially more powerful then when it is one.”

It’s a fitting name, as the group is most often comprised of three musicians. At times, different musicians will sit in, like the show my birthday night in Tulum, when Eduardo and sitar player Leonardo were joined by a woman whose mesmerizing vocals might best be described as the haunting wails from a long lost tribe of gypsies.  

I ask Eduardo how he explains what Mardeleva is, because I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. Is it a symphony? The show is almost entirely improvised, and they’ve never rehearsed.

“I don't think it's definable really. It is an opportunity for three musicians to show how much patience they have for each other, how much trust. I'm not directing it. I’m maybe the guy who understands how the rapids are going in the river. The other guys are rowing really, really hard but if I let go, the river is still going to take us and those guys are still going to do their thing. Metaphorically in that way, we're on this ship together.”

And I’m on the ship too, dancing barefoot on the Persian rugs that serve as a stage as Mardeleva performs in the center of the crowd. The stars sparkle overhead and white whiffs of the scared smoke of burning copal drift by and I dance to release the burden of birthday sadness. This isn’t a concert, this is a “happening,” the new movement toward self-expression born in the Summer of Love, reborn today on the wings of a global citizenry armed with information, technology and plant medicine.

I’m on such a high, feeling connected, feeling healed. And then I lose the entire crew as they head to Casa Jaguar for an Isaiah Martin set. And I’m alone all over again.

Until I’m not. Because I ask a stranger what their favorite Art With Me installation has been. They name Alejandro Duran’s piece at Nomade – a collection of plastic pulled from the ocean, painted red and arranged like a river spilling down the sand –a poignant reminder of how we use plastic in our lives. I name my favorite as the collection of intricate drawings by Miguel Cortés I saw at Papaya Playa Project, in which the artist never lifts his hand from the page so the whole image is a single line. The stranger and I part hug and part ways, better for having been in conversation for a moment in time. As always, art is the connecting point between two minds.

And then I’m meeting Leandro from Argentina who works at the Habitas restaurant, and he and his friends are going to a different dance party at Gitano, and do I want to go with them? I remember that everyone in the Habitas family, from the guests to the staff to the beautiful Mary Elena who gives massages at the wellness center and has given me some of the best advice in my life, everyone in the family is just that – family.

So I go with Leandro, and his friends are funny and warm and I proceed to have one of the best birthday nights of my life dancing for seven hours straight in the heavy jungle air. And I mentally thank the whole of Esalen and thus Burning Man and thus a legacy of thought leaders that trickled down to form Habitas, to form a new way to be alive.