“Oh, lago de Atitlán, eres orgullo Nacional, eres la Perla más linda que Dios nos brinda.”
“Oh, Lake Atitlan, you are a national pride, you are the most beautiful pearl that God gives us.”
-Teachers in Guatemala
As a former public defender, thoughts of Guatemala once conjured images of shy, metal-toothed smiles beneath confused eyes. Images of clients who might speak or read only elementary Spanish, who had to face the might of the globe’s Super Power staring down at them from a federal bench. Generally, I loved the Guatemalan clients. They tended to be warm, friendly (though often shy), and very honest and hardworking. They would come to this country to create a life with clean, running water, education, and reliable housing for their children. It’s just that they didn’t have permission from the authorities to do that. As I now sit marooned in Guatemala City after a flight cancellation, my respect for the people of this rich, colorful, textured country has only grown.
I came to this crossroads of Mayan history, Catholic heritage, and Western growth to lead a seven-day yoga-and-meditation/mindfulness retreat
on the shores of Lake Atitlan, Central America’s deepest lake, which sits almost a mile above sea level. The lake breathes beneath ancient volcanoes and rivals Hawai`i in beauty. For the guatemala yoga retreat, I stayed with a small band of American yoga practitioners at a Western-style retreat center focused on sustainable practices, natural healing, and contemplation. In the course of the retreat
, we split our time between the internal practices of yoga, mindfulness, and meditation, and the extroverted practices of experiencing intentionally the world in all its gradations. On the Feast of St. James, the patron of the nearby village of Santiago, we soaked in the abundantly colorful and musical religious procession. Women wound sixty feet of red webbing around their heads to create a sort of halo, and then covered this halo with a handwoven cloth to symbolize the sun overhead. In a local home, an effigy of a local Mayan saint, Maximón, sat guarded by men smoking a cigar. We watched children in traditional dress play on cellular phones and received a ceremonial sprinkling of flower petals from a local shaman.
After three and a half hours in a shuttle and the silence of contemplating a catharsis, we arrived at La Aurora, Guatemala City’s airport, on our final day. In perfect harmony with the mindfulness and cultural exchange of the week, the airline canceled my flight and left me with the choice of how to react. Feeling some consternation, I heard a Guatemalan woman behind me telling a Colombian gentleman in a gentle, understated Spanish how she’d been a publicist for over a decade and simply left that work to become a holistic healer. She explained how warm she felt toward the milling crowd in the terminal because we seemed to handle the frustration of the flight cancellation with aplomb. We could do nothing to change the cancellation, she reminded her listener, and we seemed to accept it with grace and harmony. Listening to her completed the trip. Stranded with Mexicans, Colombians, Guatemalans, a Finn, Dominicans, and a couple other Americans, I felt the fibers that bind the human community and the call to introspection that will allow all of us to face kismet’s little pranks with grace.