Saturday, April 24, 2010


Time in Guatemala passes like a dream...

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."

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