As a writer, finding inspiration is your lifeblood – it goes without saying. It’s not always easy, however, to find the right kind of inspiration and hold on to it tightly, all the while producing something that you don’t immediately want to crumple and burn. It’s also easy to convince yourself that you’re working on something that you actually are not (or not at the moment). A writer’s head is full of ideas; often unrealized or half-conceived. Essentially, it amounts to your kitchen being full of fabulous ingredients but still sometimes ordering pizza instead. I’ve had that feeling many times and it can eat away days and weeks like nothing else. Fortunately, there are places in the world where the feelings of pressure and stress seem to melt away and inspiration is on draught. These places are hard to find. Some people, of a more new-agey persuasion, might say that if you have found one, you have crossed over one of earth’s ley lines, and that all energy is intersecting and giving you a cosmic/mental enema. I’m not sure I subscribe to that kind of notion, but it does sound suspiciously fun. My personal stance at the moment is that there are locations on the planet where you simply feel a connection to the space and place and it causes you to feel relaxed and natural. For me, that place is a volcanic lake in Guatemala called Lake Atitlan which lies about 130 km west of Guatemala’s capital city.
I first visited Atitlan in 2018 in pursuit of an interesting life-story about an ex-pat who lives there on the lake. I went with some friends to meet this person and fell in love with the lake and its inhabitants. There are are two categories (well three I suppose) of people who live in Atitlan. The first and the original indigenous are the Mayans. They have lived there for millennia and some of their traditions and style of dress have endured as long. I was totally humbled by the way the locals cart items around without cars or other mechanical tools. In fact, many of the construction projects are done by carrying in materials and using very basic tools and by using tried methods of stonework and masonry. The second group of inhabitants are ex-pats. Many American, Canadian and European residents have been living in Atitlan for at least the last 40-50 years or more. There is a distinct advantage in trading your first-world currency for local Guatemalan Quetzals. For example, 100 Quetzals currently gets you about 17 bucks Canadian or $13 USD. In reverse, taking out a couple hundred bucks CAD at a local ATM will get you 1500 or so Quetzals with which you can travel, shop and wine and dine for quite a while. This considerable capital gain tempts many into property acquisition, of which many ex-pats have taken full advantage. Some have built impressively sizeable properties for less than the price of an entry level condo in Toronto. It’s an attractive prospect (but not without issues – perhaps for another blog) The third and least tenacious group are the tourists who inhabit the many hostels, resorts and Airbnb listings. One might even sub-group these into two levels – one group being very temporary and looking to party or snap instagrams – and the second more interested in part-time habitancy and usually some form of catharsis. I definitely belong in the latter category and it is there where I found a volcano of inspiration, both literally and figuratively.
My second trip to this oasis in Central America was this past April, where I again visited my ex-pat friend and stayed for two weeks. Waking up to the sight of volcanoes reflecting on the still water of a giant lake is not only impressive, but very humbling. In the morning, the water is cool but refreshing and great for a swim to start the day. I found the pattern of waking up to a swim much more invigorating than slamming as much coffee as possible to get the neurons firing. Although, I’m not trying to mislead you my readers! Coincidentally, the coffee that comes from the dormant volcanoes, picked by the locals and roasted nearby, is probably the best java I’ve had in my entire caffeinated life. One cup will send you running up a mountain. The lake has several villages, each with its own level of amenities, attractions and social caste. My friend’s residence is in a small cove on the north-east end called Paxanax (pash-a-nash) which abuts the decent-sized village of Santa Cruz La Laguna. Santa Cruz is pretty fun, and a good workout if you decide to walk up from the lakeshore. Me, being lazy and overheated, mostly took tuk tuks for 10 q or $1.50 to the village where there is a quaint restaurant that provides a spectacular view of the entire lake from a bird’s-eye perspective. San Pedro tends to be the party centre and full of tourists (unfortunately a few bros) and lost backpackers who stumbled in. San Marcos is clearly where all the hippies went after Woodstock and brought their LSD with them. You can find just about anything you want there if you so desire. San Juan is less touristy and more traditional with some great street food and festivals during religious holidays. I had the pleasure of seeing the streets decorated with elaborate designs in preparation of a good Friday procession. Apparently Christmas is even more epic – who knew? There are several others I have yet to visit, no doubt equally as interesting. As you can tell by the names, the Spanish Catholicism that long ago invaded this area of the world is still very present and blended interestingly with local Mayan traditions such as the women’s dresses which are adorned with images of the volcanoes. A long civil war from the 60s to the 90s was fought between the Guatemalan government and the Mayans. I can’t speak expertly on this at all, but I understand that the Mayans pretty much won that war and are now left alone to their ways, though some prejudice still exists. I met many locals, even made friends with some and had a wonderful time learning about customs and language idioms. Coincidentally, my nearly non-existent Spanish is totally crap which I plan on upgrading before my next visit. The locals, however, have an impressive way of getting their message across which typically involves an elaborate combination of patience, waving hands and facial expression reading – and when those fail there’s always an app.
As you drink in the culture and the atmosphere, you can’t help but feel intoxicated by the mystique of this strange and unique place. At the risk of sounding like I suffer from exoticism, there is something very old-world about the lake, its history and its inhabitants. In a way, Atitlan is like a country within a country on its own time. If you spend much time in the capital, Guatemala City, you’ll see what I mean. Maybe a good example is like how I feel when I’m in NYC versus anywhere in the Midwest. Atitlan is also a reminder of what nature once did there and can do again (The active volcano Fuego 40 km nearby erupts occasionally and last year killed 18 people leaving many other injured). But the lake is special. It has very real moods that exist as an isolated weather system. It can be calm and serene, it can be playful and it can be violent and angry. I think it is this character that speaks to me when I have my writing tools in front of me. Even now as I look out my window onto the relatively banal streets of Waterloo, I imagine the energy of the lake and I am brought back there. I don’t know what my future in Guatemala might be, and I suspect that I’m just starting to understand what is available to me there. My last night at the lake, one of my ex-pat friends looked me in the eye with an ironic grin and reminded me of Lao-Tzu’s famous words “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step”. Funny enough, I wasn’t at all surprised that our conversation had ventured into Buddhist philosophy since deep discussions of life and the universe are fairly ubiquitous in Atitlan, especially among ex-pats and aging hippies – and I am certainly not the first curious person to ask questions there. I did, however, reflect on that moment and I think his comment sums up well how I feel about writing and life in general. It’s simultaneously frightening and wonderous, the concept of putting words on paper the way we take steps forward – at times reluctantly but also necessarily.