Fair day in Panajachel, a pueblo surrounding Lake Atitlan, replaces the usual gringo crowd with Guatemalan families drawn by the old carnival rides and the towering Ferris wheels. Above the crowded square, a man and child climbed into the bell alcoves of the Catholic church for a better view of the masked dancers in the square performing a folk dance that told the story of a Maya myth.

This Is the Ceremony: The Search for Maya Spirituality at Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

by Meg Brauckmann Dec 21, 2012
This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program.

Donde esta Dios? That’s what I think,” says Luis.

The bursting of raindrops on the stone streets lulls, then furies. This is the third hour of the second storm of the day and we pull our sweatshirts higher around our necks in the open café, cupping our hands around our hot beverages. Outside, the rain tramples through the thick bushes releasing the spicy and sweet scents of Jerusalem sage, wild purple basil, and delicate white blossoms I haven’t learned the names of in Spanish, or English. A lightning flash reflects off the corrugated tin roof next door. Here, miles from my own family and the religion of my youth, I hesitantly confess I have the same question. Where is God?

He shrugs. “Aqui. Quizás.” Here. Maybe.

San Pedro La Laguna, one of the larger pueblos of the lake, has 10,000 people and at least 18 churches. I didn’t expect to encounter an agnostic Guatemalan here. Luis teaches at the school where I am studying Spanish. We originally planned to meet for coffee so he could practice English, but the conversation has continued in Spanish as we discuss our spiritual journeys. He confirms that he knows few locals with a similar philosophy. Restraining excitement for my cliché curiosity of Maya spirituality, I tell him about the Maya fire ceremony I am planning to attend the following week. He laughs and only comments that San Marcos, a neighboring pueblo across the lake, is an interesting place for spirituality.

I’ve come to Guatemala to find things: new words, new names for God, new avenues to experience the presence of God.

I wonder at what that term — spirituality — means, or if anyone means the same thing when they say it? Still, I nudge all of my conversations about Lake Atitlan in this direction. The storm softens and I pay my check, deciding to try my luck before the next surge of rain. I wind my way home on the maze-like alley of 7th Avenue, attempting to avoid the gutter spouts that cascade in the narrow passageways. As I turn off the footpath onto the long stretch of road along the lake, the lights flicker, and I am bathed in a darkness that stretches over the entire pueblo. Across the lake the other pueblos reveal themselves in dashes of gold, white, and blue light. Above San Marcos, a soft flash illuminates a peach cloud of distant thunder.

I freeze. How will I get home? Then as my senses adjust, I continue to walk. I have already been lost enough times to find my way. Only a minute passes before the lights crackle back on, but I am impressed by the heightened sense of location in the dark — as if my awareness of my body stretched to the outermost reaches of my fingers and toes to locate where I was in space.

Later, lying awake in my room, I listen to the nightly ritual of neighborhood dogs barking, tuk-tuks rumbling up the road and sounding two short beeps before turning the corner, and mumbled conversations of foot traffic. The radio from the Astrid Tienda across the street preaches through my open balcony windows. I wonder if the search for God’s presence is like sensing your way through a darkened street, intuitively trusting a path you cannot see.

* * *

I’ve come to Guatemala to learn a new language, in part hoping that Spanish might unlock new ways of seeing. As a graduate in peace-building and community development, I chose to study in Guatemala because I was curious about the Indigenous culture and their continued struggle for land, cultural, and human rights. Perhaps counterintuitively, I’ve also come to leave behind language, to spend time on organic farms and use my hands in the earth to work out the knots in my soul.

The daily rainstorms here remind me of a wet autumn a few years past that I spent in a little brick home in Virginia. My roommate Addie and I shared a bedroom converted from a porch with ten windows that thinly separated us from morning light and the growing chill. At night we bargained between the comfy bed or having the heating blanket with the floor cushions. It was the autumn I fell in love with a boy when he apologized for referring to God as a “he,” and with a priest in a book who said, “God will break your heart.”

This Maya altar lies alongside the trail in Tzan K’util. Many of the mountains in Guatemala are considered holy places for the Maya and hold sites for offerings. It is not uncommon while hiking to hear rhythmic chanting, multiple voices crying out in prayer, or the squawking of a chicken as it is carried toward a ritual. When we hiked past a group kneeling and supplicating in the grass, we averted our eyes and tried to move past in respectful quiet, sharing in the sense of awe Lake Atitlan provokes.

The year before that, I had been in Uganda doing development with a Christian mission when I began to realize I didn’t believe Jesus belonged exclusively to Christianity. For me, He was a symbol of a God without religious boundaries, of a transcendent, liberating love that was radically hospitable and healingly unafraid. Addie had spent time in Sudan, and we spent the fall tugging on the strings of our experiences and unraveling ourselves in the process.

I’d return from class and shed my composure in a tearful grieving I couldn’t quite name. I was mourning multiple things: the loss of a self-identity, the loss of a spiritual map, the death of a version of God. I cut a paper bag and taped it to the wall over our collection of candles and a carved wooden cross she’d brought back from Sudan. It became our altar. We scribbled fragments of our prayers. Hush, it’s ineffable and Mama God… and mercy on my memory. The scent of Earl Grey carries my memories of our afternoons drinking tea and reading aloud from Nietzsche, Alice Walker, and Addie’s books of feminist and African theologians.

I was losing words like misplaced keys, like notes and directions scribbled in margins that are impossible to relocate. Word by word I lost a vocabulary for my faith. I was afraid to resort to the weightiest language, feeling there would be nothing left to anchor me against the immense absence of words. Growing up, we weren’t allowed to say “that sucks,” and I was reverent; I hadn’t said “damn” aloud till I was sixteen. Later, curse words remained an arsenal; the less I spoke them, the more significance they carried. Yet that autumn, fuck worked its way into the vacated spaces in my vocabulary, my thoughts, even my prayers.

Somehow these things never made it into my letters home. The weight of expectation and the fear of disappointment made containing my spiritual seeking easier. There was always the looming dread (and injury to pride) of being put on “the prayer chain” — a telephone chain to spread prayer requests throughout the congregation. How to explain to my family that my search for Jesus was leading me past the borderlands of Christianity when this was seen as apostasy? I feel that part of being loved is being known, but how can I be known if I conceal myself?

During that Christmas break, my mother found me curled in the chaise lounge with a book of poems. “You used to read your Bible every morning,” she said wistfully, as if reminiscing on the golden years of childhood while she handed me a cup of coffee. “Do you ever read the Bible anymore?” It felt less like a question than an accusation. I tried to explain that I think the Bible is a collection of a people’s understanding of and search for God; a story parallel to mine, an important, beautiful story. This did not ease her worry that without its guidance I couldn’t know truth. A line of a poem I’d written that fall whispered to me: No, I never told my mother that I laid my Bible in a grave heart howling, shaking, finally exhaling. I didn’t know how to explain that in loosening the grip of a meta-narrative, I felt closer to a mysterious God. Instead, I offered a less complicated truth: “Yeah, I still read my Bible.”

My mother has always been willing to read books or watch documentaries that I recommend, though I often preface them with, “I don’t agree with everything this says,” as a future escape route from conflict. For her birthday, I gave her Love Wins, a controversial Christian book that challenges interpretations of the Bible and a literal hell. One morning I found her sitting at the dining room table where she often has devotional time in the mornings. She was tearful and distressed. She asked me, “What do you do when you read something that shakes the foundation of everything you believe?” As I thought of my own process of deconstructions and resurrections, she closed the book. “I can’t read this right now.” I wondered at her strength to lay aside questions; mine call to me, nag me, haunt me until I explore them.

* * *

Now, in Guatemala, I pry at the edges of Maya spirituality, trying to learn from my teachers the cosmo-vision of the past and the present. Tragically, almost all of the Maya books were burned by the Spanish conquistadors in the 14th century. Because of the historic repression of the Maya religion, many Guatemalans do not know the full cosmo-vision or closely follow the calendars; however, the ritual practices and religious symbolism have endured and are a vibrant part of the culture.

Though I tried not to, I felt a growing expectancy that this Maya ceremony would be a transformative event.

Gradually, many aspects of Maya spirituality have been incorporated into the Catholic church, and the cluttered world of spirits mingles with the saints. They believe the universe is layered and complex. Everything has energy and every energy has a counterpart, similar to the idea of yin-yang. One of the multiple Maya calendars consists of 20 days and 13 numbers that correspond to the energies of particular birthdates. In Guatemala, the nahual or astrological sign you are born under depicts the influence of your energy in your life, your soul companion (usually an animal), and your destiny or characteristics.

The Maya religion believes that God (Ajaw) is manifested in all things, that each lake, plant, animal, person holds a representation of God. There are rituals, offerings of flowers, incense, specially prepared foods and drinks, and liturgies that connect the physical world and the spiritual. There are rituals to connect to God, to connect to ancestors, to cleanse your energy or the energy of a space. It is a religion intimately connected to the land and the natural world. The practice of rituals, prayers, and ceremonies accomplish the harmonizing of the energies of God, humans, and the natural world.

I’ve come to Guatemala to find things: new words, new names for God, new avenues to experience the presence of God. But I am afraid, too, because everything I find becomes a piece in a kaleidoscope, rearranging who I am. I become a new image formed from these pieces, one that I struggle to relate back to home. And what if there is no translation?

* * *

It was still early when Rachel and I watched las primeras rayas del sol rise beyond the bowl of volcanic ridges. We were the only extrañeros aboard. The lukewarm water splashed our arms and faces as we leaned over the bow of the lancha as it bounced across Lake Atitlan toward San Marcos. We were both eager to explore this pueblo because of its reputation as the spiritual center of the lake.

Rachel and I bonded as solo travelers when I told her how a few days before my departure to Guatemala my mother worked up the courage to ask: “I know you and your friends try to live like the gospels. But…do you still believe in God?”

Rachel’s eyes widened as she laughed incredulously. “Seriously? Yeah, I’ve had that conversation…with every member of my family. When I was telling my mom about San Marcos she warned me to be careful not to open myself to a dangerous spirituality.”

I laughed too, but when we both sighed I sensed that she carried a similar tension. When I think of my mother’s fearful question, I want to dissuade her worries and be released from the guilt it left me with. I think of Luis, how when I asked if it were difficult for him, he said, “Not for me. I can’t believe something I don’t feel. But it’s hard for my family.” We are seeking our own paths, but not without snagging ourselves in the nets that have carried us. De-tangling is delicate and perhaps impossible without ripping at the fibers that have brought us to where we are. The catches tear both our skin and the nets.

Rachel and I walked up the path from the dock, hurrying through a group of Maya women spreading their blankets to sell bolsas, bufundas, and other intricately woven handicrafts. We returned the greetings of “Buenas Dias” and “Buenas” but avoided eye contact and being drawn into a sale. San Marcos, with some 3,000 people, is the largest of a string of small pueblos along this part of the lake. Here the buildings grow between gardens, avocado, oak, and coffee trees; there is no real road through the shoreside section of town.

When we met Carlos, he was perched on a low rock on the narrow stone path that emerges from the San Marcos dock. He wore a colorful pair of calzones, an orange t-shirt, and an olive fedora with a turkey feather tucked into it. Beside him, jewelry made of precious stones, thin silver wire, and exotic feathers was spread over the table. He smiled broadly as we passed and asked where we were from. Without realizing it, I stopped walking and began returning the questions. I learned he’d recently come to San Marcos from the El Salvadorian coast to study under two Tatas.

I walked past this spot within Tzan K’util ecological reserve a few times before realizing “trampolin” in Spanish also means a jumping point. We exchanged greetings with the fishermen who had paddled nearer to the shore to chat and share food in the early morning and to watch our small group dive into the lukewarm waters of Lake Atitlan. As we jumped one by one they cheered and clapped.

My Spanish maestro and I had discussed these Maya spiritual leaders, and I smiled at Rachel; we were both intrigued. His was a personal journey, he explained — an interest sparked from reading old books on Maya culture. Now he had traveled to invest in this spiritual path.

I asked him what he was learning from the Tatas and his deep eyes shone as he reached to rub the rim of a leaf. “This. This…it’s all connected, the natural world and our bodies. I want to learn how the plants teach us. These are older ways of seeing, you know?” I wobbled my head in a chorus of “Si, si, si,” both in agreement and to the poetry of his explanation.

“What is your nahual?” I asked.

“You know this?” he asked. Animated by our interest, he rifled through his backpack for a book he was studying. He asked my birth date and I leaned over his shoulder as he began calculating and flipping through the book to explain the significance of my own birth nahual — my animal is el gato de monte (the mountain cat). He pointed to a line in the book: You are governed by the soles of your feet.

He said, “It signifies…you learn…you must travel to learn…It is a symbol of the wanderer. And here,” he pointed again, “you are a spiritual person.” I was instantly won over to the accuracy of Maya nahuals.

“What do you think of the end of the world?” I asked.

“It’s different than people understand. Time is a…” With one hand he formed a spiral.

“A cycle?”

“Yes. You can move forward but it may be along the past.” Then he moved his finger from point to point. “You can jump…December 21st. It’s a portal…to another spiritual dimension.”

“Like what?”

“You’ll be in the same place but you’re…” He pointed to his head and heart. “Your mente and your corazon will be open. It’s…able to reach a higher dimension. People will be able to see clear. People will see the connections.”

At the end of our conversation, he told us about a Maya fire ceremony to cleanse the karma that was happening the following week, and invited us to come back. Another round of animated “Si! Si!” followed as I scribbled the date and time in my notebook.

Rachel and I continued exploring, passing the message boards that advertise a host of yoga classes, energy healing, massage, alternative psychology sessions and trainings, and personal retreats. In the small bookstore named Tik Nam, a Maya woman worked at the loom while the Amélie soundtrack spilled piano and accordion into the bright wooden space. We browsed the selection of new and used books and purchased freshly baked chocolate chip cookies.

Across from the gymnasium where multiple games of basketball were sharing the court, the stone structure of the Catholic church rose behind the wide spread of a calypso tree. We entered the space quietly. Along the right wall were statues of saints painted and dressed in traditional Maya clothing; an intricately carved black crucifix hung on the left. Above us thin drapes of hunter green were decked with bright clusters of plastic flowers, and delicate paper designs dangled from the arches. Five votives burned at the altar, and a young Maya woman knelt barefoot. I sat in the back row and added my own prayers of gratitude to her audible, passionate appeals.

After we left, Rachel commented, “I don’t think you can have a lot of cross-cultural travel without questioning that one culture can have an exclusive manifestation of God.” We were both quiet for a while as we circled back on the higher road, traveling within our own thoughts. I thought of the words of Thomas Melville in a book of essays I’d been reading. He was an extrañero who served in the Guatemalan Catholic church. He wrote:

I gradually came around to the view that we were confusing differences in culture with differences in essence. For instance, I would raise my hand over a penitent’s head, make the sign of the cross, and pronounce a Latin formula — and I believe that man’s sins were forgiven. For an [indigenous person] this same spiritual miracle was accomplished by burning a fistful of tiny candles or by confessing his sickness to a chiman (shaman). I wondered if there was only a thin line between many psychological and spiritual realities. God, after all, is infinite and is not to be bound by the particulars of our Greco-Roman symbolism.

I wondered what it meant to find God outside the Greco-Roman symbolism I grew up with. Rachel said, “Have you ever felt like some place is going to be important? I feel that way about here.”

Though I tried not to, I felt a growing expectancy that this Maya ceremony would be a transformative event. Carlos didn’t tell us what the ceremony entailed, but I imagined shadows dancing in the flickering light of a bonfire, and resonant chanting. I could almost feel the drumbeat moving through my body and the cool night dissipating in the warmth of nearby bodies. I craved the tangibility and physicality of a ritual as an avenue to the spiritual.

* * *

Throughout the week in San Pedro, when we take our breaks from Spanish class, students flop on the warm grass in the garden and stumble through a few sentences of Spanish before giving in to the expediency of English. Our maestros gather around the tables and eat an early morning snack while returning to the normal speed of their Spanish. I begin to sound like a tour guide among my classmates, eagerly telling everyone about Carlos and the Maya ceremony.

Attending the ceremony feels like the discovery of a code for how to interpret my body’s ability to touch, hear, smell, and taste reality as a spiritual experience.

When I return to class one afternoon, my teacher Clara — an eighteen-year-old Guatemalan — and I begin to discuss religion. She attends an evangelical church in town most nights of the week. She tells me that in Santiago Atitlan and throughout the country, the Catholic church includes much of the Mayan culture. After I tell her I grew up in an evangelical church, she confides to me that the Catholics actually worship multiple gods. I say I don’t think so but she assures me it is true. My stomach is tightening in response. I want to express the experience of spirituality that whirls inside me broadened by questions and thoughts. I want to respect the sincerity of her beliefs. The acidic taste of fear seeps around my tongue, as I ponder a well-worn contemplation: If I express my opinion, will my voice, and my faith, be questioned and discounted rather than heard?

“Those statues of the saints?” she says, nodding as if this confirms her suspicion. The three cups of fresh Guatemalan coffee I’ve had this morning conspire against me. This sensation of panic mirrors younger versions of myself — flushed of words when I felt the pressure to evangelize. And the fear of it. The dread of impending judgment, a mix of fear and resentment, feels like walls collapsing inside me. Why is it so easy to ask others to listen and convert to ourselves, yet so difficult to hold open spaces in ourselves for others’ beliefs?

In my pause she continues on the topic of religion, and I release the breath I realize I’ve been holding, though as my heartbeat slows I can’t resist the nagging sentiment that I’ve again betrayed myself in some way I can’t quite pinpoint. She is telling me that in Santiago Atitlan there are brujos (wizards) and shamans that know how to use their power for good or bad, who can cure or send curses. She says most people aren’t even aware of these practices. I don’t tell her that I would love to encounter such a person and know what they think about the spiritual world.

Gaspar, a teacher from the neighboring pueblo of San Juan, is a young Catholic and proudly asserts that the Maya culture is not separated from his church. Gaspar also works at a coffee cooperative, and after our first day of class together he brings his French press and fresh coffee from his family’s farm. When I tire of attempting to use the subjunctive correctly, I distract him by asking questions about Maya culture. He begins to explain the Maya beliefs: “There are many secrets in the Maya culture. There are things you can’t explain. But I’ve seen them with my own eyes.” He adds, “There are reports in all of San Juan of strange sightings.”

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Naturally, this leads to a long discussion of cast healers, midwifes, shamans, and Tatas — people who are born with natural gifts of healing, knowledge of midwifery or medicinal plants, and connection to the spiritual world. When I tell him my nahual is “E3,” he becomes excited and commences a lesson on the significance and repetition of three in Mayan culture. There is the connection between God, humanity, and nature. There are three creations of man that represent different stages of humankind. He explains that the end of the world symbolizes another epoch, a new season of humanity.

But when I tell him about the fire ceremony I hope to attend in San Marcos, he is wary. “For me, San Marcos is very strange. It has an unusual environment.” He tells me a year ago there was a national stir over strange practices there. Of course this only increases my confidence that the Maya ceremony will help me find something I am looking for, will be a word in my new vocabulary of connection to God. I am still searching for the paths that lead between who I was and who I am, for ways to be all the versions of myself.

That night as I walk home from dinner with the grandparents of my host family, I pass the Catholic church. The doors are open and the singing is carried out into the warm twilight of evening. I pass. Then I circle back around the statue of St. Peter with the infamous rooster that signaled his third denial of Christ. I find comfort in this representation of faith inseparable from doubt. The doors are open.

I consider entering and feel the eyes of people watching me as I pause at the bottom of the steps. Their eyes hurry my decision. I walk up the stairs buttoning my shirt higher and unrolling my sleeves. I duck into a wooden pew near the back and study the thin veils of blue fabric. All of the women wear scarves over their heads, and I lower my own gaze to incline my neck downward. The building is long and wisps of incense rise in the front. I loosely follow the sermon on rosaries, but it is in the collective movement of our standing, kneeling, repeating that I lose myself. When the lines form for communion, I leave, repeating in my mind the Spanish words of the Lord’s Prayer. I feel a sense of home in the pronunciation; after all, even God only created order from chaos through language.

* * *

The night of the ceremony we arrive in San Marcos a few hours before it is supposed to take place. Carlos never told us a place, but we — myself, Rachel, and a fellow Spanish student named Holly — figure it will be easy to locate. During our boat ride, Rachel talks to another extrañera who is currently doing a Moon Course at Las Piramides and is practicing lucid dreaming. This is a four-week course with classes in metaphysics, meditation, and yoga. By the time we reach shore, Rachel has made an impromptu decision to join the course, and once we arrive she immediately books a bed in a small pyramid-shaped room.

I have arranged to stay with a Couchsurfing host for the night. I pull out my journal and follow the two lines of scribbled directions: Unicornio Alley. Last house going down to the lake. Right corner. I scan the hand-painted placards for Casa Arcoiris. Without a cell phone or map, I have come to trust the smallness of these pueblos, the helpfulness of locals, and walking in circles.

We meet each other shyly; Andi greets me in Spanish and then English but seems distracted. I sit on a stone wall outside the yard and wait while he wanders up another alley calling, “Greez-ly.” I am feeling out the situation as this is my first time Couchsurfing. I am unsure who or what he is looking for. A moment later he returns and invites me into his home. The courtyard is full of beautiful tree-trunk tables, and I learn he is opening a juice bar in the coming weeks. The home is a simple room with a beaded curtain separating the kitchen and bathroom corner. A dream catcher dangles over the bed. A high-powered blender still in its box occupies the highest shelf, and a collection of books decorate the lower.

I relent to my stomach’s emptiness, though I know the sudden hollowness I feel is more disappointment than hunger. God will break your heart.

I ask if he knows where the ceremony will be held and am surprised when he says he hasn’t heard of it. I expected it to be well-known. He suggests asking at the holistic centers. I discard my backpack in the corner and tuck my journal and a pen into my purse. After a few weeks of discussing Maya spirituality with my Guatemalan teachers and friends, I am eager to finally encounter the practices for myself.

Outside, I follow the alley as it meanders alongside buildings, moving between cemented stone and a dirt footpath, crisscrossing between the scattering of hostels, restaurants, and alternative centers. I meet up with Holly and we make our first inquiry. The woman agrees that something is happening. However, she doesn’t know where. She directs us to Ix-Iim, the Maya cultural center.

We enter through the gate and scan the activity board in the courtyard, but it only lists the classes offered for the week. There is no staff around or in the office, but I hear voices from a building further back. Holly waits in the courtyard. I approach confidently and greet the young man and woman in Spanish. He beckons me into the doorway, asking what I need.

I ask if he knows if there is a ceremony. He thinks for a moment, and then says, “Si. Si.” I glance back at Holly and cast her a thumbs-up. Finally. We are on the right trail. I feel relieved. The Maya connection to God through the soil, the clouds, the leaves of a taro plant, is a connection I feel too. Attending the ceremony feels like the discovery of a code for how to interpret my body’s ability to touch, hear, smell, and taste reality as a spiritual experience.

Then the man at Ix-Iim says, “Es una ceremonia del corazon.” It is a ceremony of the heart. But he doesn’t know where it is occurring either and suggests we head to San Marcos Holistic Center. My disappointment is dissipating and returning. Are we going to find this ceremony? The urgency to discover it competes in my head with the general Central American vibe of going with the flow. I recount what he’s said to Holly while combating the deflating balloon of hope in my chest.

As we move around town asking for information about the ceremony, we pass by Andi once, then again, as he continues his evening routine. Each time I feel silly and awkward, like meeting a friend of a friend whom you already know more about than he would’ve told you himself. This is the strangeness of being hosted by a stranger. We hear numerous rumors: The ceremony is happening in a home somewhere in the pueblo. The ceremony is happening in a remote village near the pueblo. The ceremony is happening in the mountains far away.It’s already nearly dark.

We run into Andi for the third time and he tries to help. He gives us directions to the general area where Carlos lives if we want to try to find him. I imagine knocking on Carlos’s door and wonder if that would be a gross intrusion. Holly and I decide to walk back toward the less-touristy side of town that Andi described. At this point, I’m trying to reconcile with the feeling of loss, but I am secretly hoping fate will lead us to Carlos.

Coming around the bend, I see a group of students from the school walking towards us, and I know they are here because of the stories I’ve been telling them all week about this Maya ceremony. My first impulse is to duck behind the Catholic church or dart down an alley to avoid them. But there’s no time to pull Holly off the path. I resign to face them.

Their faces brighten when they see us, and I’m sure they’re expecting to be led to the ceremony. I greet them sheepishly, feeling responsible for everyone’s presence here. Holly and I recount our wild goose chase and learn they’ve been crisscrossing the pueblo in the same manner. An old man told them the ceremony is happening in the cornfields with candles. Another person told us we could look for and follow the smoke. We gaze at the surrounding hillsides punctuated with inclined fields. I imagine us “following the smoke” and walking into a woman’s backyard while she looks at us strangely, stirring her family’s dinner or clapping out tortillas.

I’m reluctant to give up the search. We stand immobile in the street. No one suggests moving. The shadows have grown long and bleed together into darkness. We shift weight on our feet. No thick curls of smoke suggest bonfires, no chanting or drumbeats stir the evening air. There is no path. Eventually, resignation settles on us. Someone braves the question, “Should we go find dinner?” I relent to my stomach’s emptiness, though I know the sudden hollowness I feel is more disappointment than hunger. God will break your heart.

As we eat at Café Fe, our stories of travel slip out. Ben and Leanne, an Australian couple, have been “heading to Cuba” for two months, but each place along the way steals their interest. Oak wears his shoulder-length blond hair in a ponytail and practiced yoga in Northern Thailand; he has no itinerary. Stevie recounts her time at Burning Man while we all listen engrossed by the novelty of the gift-giving system. We eat and talk for three hours as the owner brings a multiple-course meal he’s invented for us. I begin to feel deeply awake as I listen to our journeys. These experiences of being fully present to life are what I seek as a traveler.

Around 10pm I return to Andi’s house. We sit on the cool cement floor and play with Grizzly, his three-month-old puppy. Andi lived two hours from the lake most of his life but moved to San Marcos only a month ago. He says he felt it was a time in his life to be grounded. He asks about the Maya ceremony and I explain our wandering without luck. I wonder at what I missed or if at that moment it is still occurring, somewhere in the night-shrouded cornfields.

“So what do you think is happening in the world right now?” Andi asks.

“The end of the world,” I joke.

Our conversation cycles around politics, alternative systems, and San Marcos.

“One thing I don’t like,” he says, “is that all these centers are here but they are inaccessible to the local people.”

“Don’t many of the centers do projects here?” I ask.

“Yes, but the teachings. They could do it differently if they wanted. Work-trades or barter.” He’s confident in his critiques of the capitalist-consumer model. I am surprised how even when traveling you find your own. He reiterates Gaspar’s lesson on the end of the world as the end of the age. “I hope it is the end of this period, then people will find more creativity and imagination.”

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

He continues, “But I think all we have is the present. I don’t follow a particular religion, because they always are saying this is good or this is bad, but I think all the life we have in our body is good.” He explains that he agrees with the Maya belief of the balancing of energies and connection to the environment; he tries to live holistically. He wants his juice bar to be both the work of his hands and his spirit.

As we fall asleep listening to the night birds and the slapping waves rolling to shore, our whispers slip between Spanish and English. Andi grows thoughtful. He says, “I think that is the ceremony, the embrace of living.”

The next day, the students who have stayed in San Marcos eat breakfast together. The day feels magic. This day we believe in serendipity — you’ll encounter who you need to, you’ll learn what you’re meant to learn. And it works. Throughout the day people turn up as we think of them. We plan to hike to a waterfall Andi told me about. After I receive my share of playful ribbing for my dubious tour guide skills, we begin the ascent.

Leaving the trail, we climb over rocks upstream. Looking back from here, the sprawl of the pueblo disappears into the thick forests that carpet the mountains decorated by maize fields set on impossibly steep slopes. Volcan San Pedro rises serenely behind the lake. We dream up possibilities of walking out of the lives we will return to. “Let’s pick out one outfit for each other and wear it for a week.” “Let’s give each other new names.” “Let’s paint our faces.” “Let’s buy a tuk-tuk and drive it around Guatemala. Around Central America. Buy a chicken bus. Buy a house.” The sky is cloudless and the sun intense. We soak our feet in the cool mountain stream and sit without talking. I remember Andi’s words. This is the ceremony.

* * *

Now I am living with a family in Chukmuk Dos, a community of resettled families. Stones in the road mark the need for patching, and the trucks and tuk-tuks swerve around them, honking when they enter the wrong lane. I ride back and forth from Santiago Atitlan in the back of an old Toyota with 12 other passengers and ask others where to get off when I need to find new locations.

Chukmuk Dos is one of four pueblos outside Santiago Atitlan where the government built houses for the people who lost their homes in hurricane Stan. It is like a pueblo-suburb of identical houses with chicken coops and coffee plants in the backyards. I remain filthy the whole week because the shower is cold and the yard consists of a fine dust that sticks to my sweaty skin as I play futbol, hopscotch, or chase with the children. There are sons and daughters and cousins. Four three- to five-year-old boys — Nico, Ricardo, Jonathon, and Noah — are my constant companions. Nico, the youngest, repeats himself in Tz’utujil slowly when I don’t understand. He wears a look of incredulity at my incompetency.

My host mom, Ana, and I have no languages in common, but we often smile as she watches me play with the children from her seat beading necklaces with adult members of the family. Their work is incredible, an unfathomable burden to me — they have begun before I wake up at 6am and are still working when I retire to my room around 8:30pm. Walking to school, I pass men carrying huge nets of avocados or firewood on their backs. The nets must weigh almost half as much as the men.

One night, the boys and I help de-cob the dry corn to grind for tortillas. The whole family slowly gathers to watch and laugh as I learn the technique. Telma, the nine-year-old daughter, starts the cobs for me by using another cob to grind off a few rows. My host father calls for a camera and takes pictures of us. I work for an hour, earning blisters on my thumb and index finger. I tell them it was like praying the rosary, and my father smiles at this idea. “Una semana mas! Una semana mas!” my family says, asking me to stay another week. I think of Luis’s amused smirk as he quoted me a line from Ricardo Arjuna: “Jesus es un verbo, no substantivo.” Jesus is a verb, not a noun.

While we are de-cobbing, there is sudden singing and guitar strumming in the street. The children run around the side of the house and from the front door, Ana waves to me to come quickly. It is the procession of the Virgin Mary moving from house to house. This month the statue visits families from the Catholic church each night, especially those who are sick or experiencing a hardship. The candlelight procession sings as they walk slowly behind her, led by the two guitarists.

Ana and I stand hip to hip after it passes, watching the moon and the children playing. The street has fallen quiet, still listening to the fading song. We share the moment without the need for language. Maybe it is the end of the age. Maybe we are awakening. Maybe these moments of transcending ourselves to share an experience are all we are ever trying to find. Maybe one day my mother and I will stand like this, hip to hip, listening to the song as it fades into the quiet of the street, within a wordless shared language. Quizás.

[Note: This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which writers and photographers develop long-form narratives for Matador.]

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