As the day of my 25th birthday draws near, I’ve begun to notice a strange and previously unexperienced phenomena: I feel older.
Every other one of my 24 birthdays has passed with a far more familiar sensation of agelessness. I swear I hardly felt different between 17 and 23, or 7 and 12. I always observed this fact with a vague sense of disappointment. What was the big deal about birthdays if I felt no different on May 15th, as a 20-year-old, than on May 16th, as a 21-year-old? Of course I’m aware that I’ve grown and changed through the years, but hitherto, on every birthday, I’ve felt remarkably unchanged from the year before.
Well. This year is different- I feel old.
Okay, older, not old. Some indefinable part of my mind/body/soul has irreversibly changed and the shift has been monumental (while simultaneously being nothing special at all). I’m completely the same and totally different. I hardly recognize the new lens through which I’m viewing the world, yet it is as old and familiar as dirt. I feel like I’ve walked through fire, or fallen down the rabbit hole, only to return with wider eyes, more questions, less certainty, yet increased knowing of all things unknown.
I’m sharing this because this trip to Central America has been hugely important in this personal revamping. The beauty of travel, as many of you know I’m sure, is in the challenges you face, the removal of self from comfort, and the introduction to new and different ways of life. These elements of traveling offered me a perfect mirror to view my mind and habits in, and this is what happened:
"Marisa!" I said to myself, "You’ve forgotten how to think for yourself where it matters most."
I realized that the opinion of others has long been so important to me that I temporarily lost the ability to gauge my worth based on my own, inner sense of value. Part of this discovery has been coming to terms with the fact that I am an artist (something not valued in this society as much as, for example, a journalist), and as an artist I have a responsibility to forge my own path, to be brave and dare. I’m working on believing in myself- but I’m committed to it now.
I realize that my path may never be conventional from here on out. I realize that I may meet my fair share of failure on the way. But I am FINALLY dedicated to pursuing what inspires and excites me most- regardless of whether or not that is valued by society. The world needs more people who are fully alive.
I came to see this all while I was in San Pedro, on the shores of Lake Atitlán. What a curious place, unlike any other I have encountered in my travels. Picturesque, heavily strewn with flowers in constant bloom (Guatemala is called “the land of eternal spring”), and dirt paths that join uneven stone roads weaving through the steep hills of the town.
Strange characters, such as a slew of international ex-pats, enterprising locals, and ragged permanent travelers replete with dreads and patched-up clothes, frequent the streets. Walk up one of the steep hills and you’ll find a traditional market, with Mayan descendants dressed in indigenous woven clothing speaking their native language, Tzutujil, and selling tomatoes, peppers, thread for weaving, live chickens, mangoes, pineapples, and plantains.
My first observation of this hodgepodge town was that the pace of life was unlike any I have experienced. Things moved 372 times slower (I calculated it using precise mathematical formulas) than what I was used to- for example, having to wait 30 minutes for your bill at a small, sparsely patronized outdoor restaurant. Upon asking Indy, an Israeli ex-pat mechanic I befriended who had been living in San Pedro for seven years, what he was going to do on Sunday, he replied, with a grin, “Sit in this chair and play guitar.” I thought he was exaggerating. The next day, I observed as he sat in the sun, beneath a flowering tree, and played guitar for the whole day.
That same attitude of enjoying the present, spending time with family, and enjoying the day to the fullest is shared by all the people I met in San Pedro- what an uncomfortable shock to an American who has had the idea of “productivity,” “success,” and “career” drilled into their head since birth. After a few days of fighting this languid pace, I surrendered my need for constant accomplishment, and let the current take me where- and when- it pleased.
While in San Pedro, we stayed at El Hospedaje Casa de Maria- a place that quickly became one of my favorite locations on planet Earth. Owned by an Israeli man, Joel, and his indigenous wife Maria (my mother’s name- even stranger is that Maria’s oldest daughter was named Maritza- the Guatemalan version of Marisa), the hospedaje consisted of two small houses for guests and the larger house where the family lived. Sephora, age seven, soon became a permanent fixture in our room, drawing pictures with my colored pencils and bringing us presents of stones, shells, and fruit. I have never met a person as full of love as her. It was a delight conversing with her in my broken Spanish and receiving frequent hugs and kisses from her every day. She would stand next to me as I practiced yoga in the verdant, brilliant garden (full of pomegranate and lime trees, lemongrass, bougainvilleas, and fuchsia flowers) and imitate me as I moved from cobra to downward dog.
Her mother, Maria, spent countless hours teaching us to weave using a traditional back strap loom, which I have to admit, I did not excel at. I was hardly more successful when Indy tried to teach me how to weld in his motorcycle repair shop- I was terrified of the flying sparks and white hot flame.
During our time in San Pedro, it felt more like we were doing a home-stay rather than being at a hotel as we became closer to the family. Every day we would hear Spanish, Tzutugil, and Hebrew being spoken, whether during the sweltering heat of the late morning or the thunderous downpours of the afternoon. While we were there, it hailed for the first time in ten years and I experienced my first two earthquakes, one day after the next (the first was of 6.5 magnitude!)
The magic slow-paced pulse of San Pedro continued to re-wire my brain as I wondered about the lingering energy of the ancient Mayans (there are numerous pyramids, ruins and archeological sites around the lake) and what effect that was having on my nubile brain. Each day passed with the liquid assurance of a long-dreamt dream.
(The mountain in the background is called Indian Nose because of its resemblance to a Mayan profile).
"I don't Believe or Disbelieve- I choose the third door called "Wonder." I wonder what awaits us all in this most amazing Universe, what it all means and where we are all going- yet I have no answers...
... I pray and meditate to the Mystery and I have my own hopes and dreams that aren't in a little black or red book. If such a thing as God exists I am petty sure this is the way She meant it to be...
...On the way though life I like to place little things in that dark empty void that each of us are born with. I place a little love and kindness and joy and humor and courage along with all the other things that creep in. I feel that's how we build our soul and our spirit in this life."
After a week of adjusting to the bustling, colorful streets, visiting markets, hiking through jungles, and only vomiting four times (I knew those mysterious red fruits I was eating from a street market were going to take their toll), we arrived on the shores of Lake Atitlán in the Guatemalan Highlands. Once called "the most beautiful lake in the world" by Aldous Huxley, Lake Atitlán was formed during a volcanic eruption 84,000 years ago. The deepest lake in Central America, its shores are flanked by three volcanos and a multitude of coffee and corn farms.
We took a "chicken bus" packed with school children in uniforms and old women in traditional dress from Chichicastenango down a winding mountain road to Panajachel. After a turbulent thirty minute boat ride in a small lancha across the lake, we arrived at our destination- to our mutual extreme disappointment. Rather than being greeted by a group of smiling people with dirt on their hands, we were met at the small dock by one lone mid-60's man, shirtless and in shorts, tall and wiry, with hair like straw and pale eyes with a flicker of crazy in them. "Where are all the other volunteers?" we innocently asked as he led us past a yurt full of baby chickens. "You're the only ones!" Antonio the straw-man glibly replied. At this news, we began to exchange worried looks, which only continued as he informed us there was no food for us that night and proceeded to digress on an hour long tangent about nitrogen, tomatoes, pesticides, mono-crops, and more nitrogen. I came to the conclusion that this man, while obviously full of knowledge about permaculture, was a total nut.
As soon as he had released us from the verbal restraints of his monologue, I called an emergency meeting in the dilapidated tent that was to be our lodging. This place was a hoax. We had been duped. Where were all the other sun-tanned, earthy-looking volunteers doing yoga together that the website had promised us with numerous photos? And the vegan buffet? Surely that couldn't be referring to the rat-nibbled buckets of lentils and rice? Oh no. This was bad.
When another boat pulled up at the dock, our hopes were temporarily lifted as we thought, perhaps these are more volunteers! Instead, it was Antonio's indigenous wife, who appeared to be terrified of us, and their brood of seven small children. This was only getting stranger. We decided to plan our escape.
Less than 24 hours later, we were on a boat to a neighboring town called San Pedro, laughing at ourselves and the utter ridiculousness of the letdown we had experienced. Determined not to be stopped despite our disappointment, we started looking around for other organic farms with volunteer opportunities, which led us to Michael. An old ex-pat, Michael certainly had his own share of crazy, but it seemed to be the good kind. He filled us in on the real story behind Antonio and his "eco-village," or should I say pot farm. At one point in the last decade, Antonio was the biggest marijuana dealer in Guatemala, until he got shot by the police and driven out of town. Oh, how we laughed when we heard this. We laughed even harder when we met two other "volunteer refugees" who had also gone to Antonio's with high hopes and left within days.
Oh well, we thought. It's hard to complain when you're in a tropical paradise.
We decided to go with the hand that we'd been dealt and see what San Pedro had in store for us. As writer and mythologist Joseph Campbell says, "We must be willing to get rid of the life we've planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us."
Our first few days in Guatemala were spent staying in a tree house at an avocado farm in the hills outside of Antigua, which is about a 35 minute drive from Guatemala City. The crop visible at the bottom of the hill is coffee.
The cloud-covered hills are populated by Mayan descendants wearing traditional multicolored woven clothes and the landscape surrounding the farm is a lush vertiginous mix of delicate flowers and towering aloe-like succulents.
During our stay in Anitgua, we climbed the 8,373 foot active volcano Pacaya, which first erupted 23,000 years ago.
While we were climbing, a tropical thunderstorm broke loose and soaked us within seconds. Luckily, the volcano radiates so much heat towards the summit that we stayed warm despite the chilly cloud cover.
Several days later, we made our way to Chichicastenango, a town famous for its traditional artisinal and food markets.
We also visited a beautiful graveyard full of bright tombs with their paint chipping and peeling in the blazing sun.
Upon leaving the boat, Avalon and I made our way to the capitol of the Dominican Republic by way of bus and hitchhiking in the back of a few trucks. We arrived during the weekend before Easter, and much of the town was closed down due to the holiday.
While wandering around the colorful, trash strewn streets, we happened upon an Easter parade, complete with priests, a military band, nuns, Roman soldiers, and statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, with hundreds of townspeople trailing behind.
We joined in the solemn procession for numerous blocks until it reached the sea.
Gazing out over a serene stretch of quintessential Caribbean water, I was shocked to look down at the beach and see a veritable landfill of plastic bottles stretching from the filthy beach into the pristine water. It was already difficult for me to get used to the trash-strewn streets, but this was even more saddening.
We finished up the night by watching a slew of children flying kites on cliffs overlooking the sea backlit by a florescent pink sunset.
The next day we were back in San Juan, where my adventures began.
We attended a vibrant Easter celebration of Bomba, a traditional Puerto Rican style of music that is derived from West African slaves.
and the 1,000 volume library, Captain Nemo's, where you can find books on every topic from entheogens, to Sufism, to Lord of the Rings:
Well, my friends, I have some news- my plans have changed unexpectedly. The Heraclitus, being an older vessel, requires a lot of maintenance and upkeep. It's become clear that before crossing the Atlantic it will be necessary to repaint the ship. This will require dry-docking the boat and a five week delay in departure from the Dominican Republic. While I was very committed to doing the North Atlantic crossing, I decided that staying in this small coastal town for five weeks and painting the boat wasn't inline with my desire for adventure, new places, and new experiences. So, in a last minute decision, I bought a ticket to Guatemala to join my crew member Avalon volunteering at an eco-village next to Lago de Atitlán. I will be working with their medicinal plant program, helping to establish the garden and nursery as well as facilitating plant exchange with local women. I'm hoping that this means I'll get to learn a lot of plant medicine from the Mayan descendants of the area. Although leaving the boat and abandoning my Atlantic plans was a disappointment, in an odd way, I believe that this new adventure is more contiguous with my true interests and purpose. In recent years, I've felt very called to study plant medicine and learn about permaculture, sustainable agriculture, and botany. Being granted an opportunity to do this makes me feel extremely blessed. I'm a little awed by the mysterious ways of the universe, and how it seems to continuously present me with challenging experiences to keep me on my true path. I'm going to continue sharing photos and stories as this new leg of my journey unfolds. Sending love and appreciation to all of you wonderful people in my life.
Goodbye Heraclitus... thank you for showing me the sea!