Relax, once more.
We always have nature as our earthly guide.
We always have our ancestors as spiritual guide.
We always have love as our moral compass.
We always have intuition as our sensual compass.
Following these guides, we can together overcome all adversity.
Life is a precious gift not to be passed up lightly.
As I look out this bright mid-afternoon in this middle of the dry season, Lake Atitlán is in its gloriously shimmering element, all abuzz with dancing movement and vibrant light. As is normal, the winds swept a front across the lake south west to north east around noon, erasing the calm serenity of the morning. Whenever at the lake, I like to take a swim, straight off the dock if possible, bathing in the clear cobalt-blue waters, with the deep blue sky reflected on the surface.
It would be nice to think that the pristine-looking waters of this mesmerizing 1,100-foot deep caldera lake will always remain as clear and clean as they have been historically. But sadly, Lake Atitlán already faces immense ecological pressures.
Bacteria counts are on the rise, especially at certain pressure points, where effluent of sewage and chemicals enter into the lake in increasing volume. Water quality is continuously monitored and anaysed by organizations such as Amigos de Atitlán (www.amigosatitlan.org), AMSCLAE (www.amsclae.gob.gt), the government authority for the sustainable management of the lake basin of Atitlán, and Save Lake Atitlan (www.savelakeatitlan.com).
Amigos de Atitlán reports: "After years of contamination, the lake has presented signs of severe environmental stress."
"The lake is going from oligotrophic – crystalline and potable waters - to mesotrophic – turbid and green – and if this degradation continues it will go on to become an eutrophic lake impossible to recuperate."
"The principal threats that must be addressed in short term are:
The use of the soil, which includes three principal factors: the expansion of the agricultural frontier, erosion, use of fertilizers, and use of agro chemicals.
"AMSCLAE, the authority responsible for the protection of Lake Atitlán presented in 2015 an initiative to develop a Master Plan for drinking water supply and wastewater treatment. This plan includes technology options, institutional framework and community consultations for the introduction of drinking water supply, sewerage and sewage export outside the Basin. Wastewater treatment plants installed in some municipalities are only part of the solution, treatment plants alone fail to remove pathogens and nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus that feed the cyanobacteria."
"Since the start of the Master Plan development, Amigos de Atitlán allowed for dialogue and has spread information of the plan at a national level. The association has gained support at all levels to stop wastewater from entering the lake. Additionally Amigos de Atitlán has promoted the comprehensive drainage system as the only feasible economic and environmental solution to preserve and restore Lake Atitlán."
Raw liquid sewage draining into the lake
"There are not enough wastewater treatment plants around Lake Atitlán to treat the ever-increasing amount of raw sewage produced by the area’s growing population. Most of the existing plants operate well below full capacity. They simply remove solids and do little to reduce the volume of pathogenic bacteria entering the lake. Only one of many planned new facilities has been built so far, and municipal authorities do not have the resources they need for maintenance and upgrading.
As a result, thousands of metric tons of raw sewage or improperly treated wastewater from households and businesses in more than 20 towns enter the lake each year. The ecosystem is under constant siege from putrefactive bacteria and other pathogens."
"Since the 1950s, local farmers have been pressured to abandon natural farming and instead use chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides. These toxic products are highly subsidized, and poor farmers are strongly encouraged to use them copiously to boost their production. The fertilizers, which are particularly high in phosphorous, run off into the lake during the rainy season. Waste water from coffee processing is also acidic and high in natural effluents."
"Lake Atitlán is a ‘Protected Area’ under Guatemalan law, but commercial tilapia farms are being allowed to operate on a massive scale, even though all the nutrients that they leave in the lake are accelerating the destruction of the lake’s ecosystem."
A perennial problem is the lack of consensus as to how to proceed that often leads to paralysis, inertia, foot-dragging. Locals are understandably reticent to throw support behind large infrastructure projects, given the checkered history of granted funds being utilized as mandated. And where does the funding come from? How much control will municipalities and communities have over their own precious and finite resource - water? Who 'owns' the project? The future fate of the lake is far from clear, but bold concerted action from all stakeholders is called for.
San Lucas Tolimán
Our visit to all twelve towns and villages around Lake Atitlán is now complete. And we think that with the last on the list we have found our Shangri-la! After Panajachel, San Pedro la Laguna, San Juan la Laguna, San Marcos la Laguna, Santa Cruz la Laguna, Jaibalito, Tzununá, San Pablo la Laguna, Santiago Atitlán, Santa Catarina Palopó, San Antonio Palopó, we finally disembarked the lancha at the tranquil backwater of San Lucas Tolimán. What a magical day we spent there!
It was like a dream - Sunday in the Country meets Picnic at Hanging Rock. We took advantage of a new 3-times daily public boat service, departing Panajachel at 8.30am, returning from San Lucas Tolimán at 4pm. The cost of the half-hour trip (for, sadly, just three passengers each way), was 20 quetzals, or $3, each.
As our boat rounded a headland, we left the open waters of Lake Atitlán behind and entered a bay with clear blue water, flooded tree trunks and weedy rim. The park that takes up the waterfront is shaded by big trees and lined with thatched bars serving simple fare and beer. Tuk-tuks were conspicuously few and the locals, while exceptionally friendly, are not perturbed by stray visitors. The whole town is paved with broad streets. A walk up the hill takes us to the vibrant central square. Off to our side are several streets taken up by the twice-weekly market. The vendors are mostly women dressed in an bright array of traditional weavings and offering their family's fruit, vegetables, flowers, meats, fish, dried goods, eggs, cheese, weavings, carvings, and household utensils. The scene is lively and convivial and, even as rare tourists, we cause no undue attention beyond welcoming banter. We asked a couple of locals for a place for a good coffee and they directed us to the sweet little Cafe Jade, which served the best lattes, 'fuerte' as requested.
After sidestreet meanderings taking in several species of tropical trees in extravagant bloom, we strolled down the hill to the tiled-roofed communal outdoor lavadero, where many women were doing their laundry, using water channeled from the mountains, in ancient large concrete basins. The grey water is filtered through sand catchments before draining into the bay. A crew of men was hauling out thick weed mass from the bay, piling it up for removal and making into compost. With wet, cold hand outstretched, Marlon introduced himself. Out around the bay, the pavement finally gave way to dirt. Here a quiet, mixed community of homes from the grandiose to the humble sits quietly looking out over the water. Small coffee plantations grow shaded by banana trees, single farmers prepare and plant fields of corn, beans, peppers, tomatoes, celery. We decided we could quite happily live here, cultivating our own little backwater just outside this pueblo, with a small self-sufficient garden beside our simple home, making our way into market to purchase fresh local organic goods, with a boat ride to Pana once week to top up on supplies. On our way back into town Marlon and a mate awkwardly asked for 10 quetzals (75 cents) to buy tortillas as they were hungry.
Having worked up a hearty appetite, it was time to visit the elegant Hotel Tolimán (www.hoteltoliman.com). Set in beautiful landscaped gardens, the hotel offers luxuriant accommodation with local character. The kitchen makes full use of the most complete and impressive organic market garden that takes up half an acre adjacent to the hotel. The views over the bay and lake beyond from the covered terrace dining room are jaw-dropping. Our prix fixe three-course lunch, which included a day pass for swimming in the pool and a tour of the market garden, was very reasonable at 150 quetzals ($20) per person. The food and drinks were fresh, delicious, tastefully presented, and service from our server Lionel came with a smile and affable chat. This was a fine dining experience.
Back to the waterfront to await our return boat, we passed a beach designated for boats, another for baptisms, and another for bathing. Bathed in afternoon sun, teenagers, girls and boys, stripped down to shorts and swimsuits and joyfully, loudly dived in. A young couple doffed tops to splash around playfully and wash hair and body, innocently oblivious to the world around.
And then our boat launched us three passengers back onto the open waters, across the volcano-rimmed lake, out of daydream, back to Panajachel, thence onward home on a second boat, this one crammed full and heavy with well over twenty tourists, luggage, and locals, sprayed liberally with water on a choppy ride. We feel blessed to have enjoyed this memorable travel day soaking up such a rare traditional, vibrant, happy culture set in harmonious surroundings.
Luna Moon Rising by Mara Friedman, www.newmoonvisions.com
Martín Prechtel writes: "Every individual in the world, regardless of cultural background or race, has an indigenous soul struggling to survive in an increasingly hostile environment created by that individual’s mind."
I have always struggled with the notion of a "soul", and the attribution of an adjective such as "indigenous" makes the grasping even more intangible. The word "spirit" is more appealing, less dogmatic. I appreciate that historians, anthropologists, writers, philosophers, healers, shamans all derive deep meaning from cultural and earthly connections, given the rich evidence unearthed by study of civilizations and cosmologies such as those formulated and perfected by Persians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Chinese, Aztec, Toltec, Incans, Greeks, Romans, Mayans, Moors, Ottomans (and more) at the zenith of their Empires. Who wouldn't sense an innate "soul" underpinning such powerful displays of human ingenuity and grandeur? But do Empires derive build on a collective Indigenous Soul, do they imbue it, or do they depend on manipulation of such a Soul as a means of exercising tight central control?
Do we - born English, Irish, Canadian, American, French, Russian, German, Spanish, Australian - have a "soul" that is attributable to our homeland? Most of us are certainly proud of our nationality that bestows us with part of our personality. Yet these modern states are surely but fabrications, transitions drawn on a map and evolved from deeper, more indigenous entities, like the Vikings, Native Americans, Aboriginals, Celts, Slavs, Iberians that preceded us, and that we subjugated with our "guns, germs, and steel"! Yes, some of us are direct descendants of these proud peoples, but many of us - in North America, for example - are not. Some of us are unwillingly uprooted refugees, some live in self-imposed exile. Our "civilization" attempted to tame, even wipe out the "indigenous soul", so that our morality could take its place. And the battle is ongoing around the world to this day, as native peoples are threatened, marginalized, and have their "soul" (their homes, their lands, their very means of survival) stripped away from them by violent force. The soul is laid bare and goes underground, is exterminated, or co-opted by the conquering culture or religion.
Many of us try to seek a connection back to where we came from, whether it be through our family tree or the histories of our heritage. I am readily reminded of my own indigenous spirit when I recall (buoyed by nostalgia) endless playtime in the woods, bluebells, country walks, seaside holidays, chalk cliffs, folk music, Morris dancing, church choirs, village pubs, Saplings, Mill Lane, Chalfont St. Giles, Buckinghamshire (the physical soil into which I was born and became rooted), football Saturdays, cricket Sundays, foggy mornings, rolling countryside, downlands, grey drizzle, light and bitter ales, mischievous banter, a laugh and a giggle, Mum & Dad, my sisters ..... Childhoods anchor us to a semi-mythical past. Now my world has been flavoured by Canadian, Chilean, and German influences. Stories written, visual, and oral help us in filling out our sense of self as we pore over books, art, sculpture, symphonies, faded photographs, utilitarian objects, myths, legends conjured up by ancestors of ours. And we go gallivanting around the world in search of meaning in exotic and far-flung cultures alien to our own. There is, perhaps, after all, "soul" everywhere, whether indigenous or not, and we end up picking up smatterings from all over. Modernity, mobility, mutability have blurred the lines and created a soup of ever-changing mores and cultural practise that is richly entertaining and edifying, yet ultimately unsatisfying in finding a new home for our soul. We are in large part the creation of where we came from; we have set down roots in places along the way, and we know not what the future holds. It is up to us to seek out our spiritual home, dig in, nourish those roots, plant more seeds, tend our garden, and keep looking. The perpetual quest for love, beauty, connection, and perhaps even "soul" continues and deepens.
Francis Weller writes: "The indigenous soul lives close to the ground, to moss, river and loon. It moves in springs and wind, is close to the breath of coyotes. It is scratched on rock walls around the planet, is seen dancing around firelight and is heard in stories told under the canopy of stars. The indigenous soul is the thread of our humanness woven inextricably with the world. Where all things meet and exchange the vitality that is life, there is soul."
If we strip away human depredations of war, greed, conquest and overreach that are poisoning and collapsing our societies, we are left staring at raw Nature, true Earth soul. This is the foundation for human or "indigenous" soul.
Weller continues: "The recovery of the indigenous soul is imperative. We are in serious trouble as a people. Nearly every biological system is in peril: our watersheds, oceans and topsoil are experiencing rapid deterioration. We face a future that will be seriously impacted by radical changes in our climate. We are also witnessing the daily loss of the wild as we encroach ever further into wetlands and forests. We have forgotten our place in the world. And this woe is not confined to us alone; it extends to the others with whom we share this world. Many species find themselves threatened by these changes: grizzlies, blue fin tuna, spotted owls, coral reefs, Atlantic salmon, autumn buttercup, golden-cheeked wood warbler, Baker’s cypress. This list goes on and on. There are 2,269 endangered species in the United States alone. They are caught in a cascading net of sorrows, powerless to change or adapt. We must reconnect with this ancient ground of being that is our indigenous soul and recall that we are all of the earth."
Martín Prechtel likes to incant a blessing common among the Tzutujil Indians of Guatemala: “Be blessed with long life, honey in the heart, no evil, and thirteen thank you’s.”
"Water has escaped the rocky prisons of the Moon's springs in the Mountain Stronghold of the Sun's sky, and in love with the sparkle of the Ocean, seeps secretly through the Mountains, gathering in hopeful streams, to rush as a long swollen river to the Ocean, where dismembered by the electric heat of the sky, she lives on in a massive diversity as all the world's plants, whose tree and plant breaths become the clouds carried on the back of the Southern Hummingbird Wind back to her origination in the mountain lake. Inside the pot (the lake) under the Moon's bed (the night sky) she is then "cooked" like the wild greens that the Mayans love and depend on daily for their food, and it is here that water finally goes from plant form to become all the animals hatched from eggs and born from wombs."
Martin Prechtel, The Disobedience of the Daughter of the Sun
Can you afford to travel to your dream destination?
Can you afford not to?
Can you afford to eat organic?
Can you afford not to?
Can you afford to let Nature carry you away?
Can you afford not to?
Can you afford to act according to your values?
Can you afford not to?
Go on, treat yourself.