San Marcos La Laguna, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
After leaving San Pedro, I made the long and arduous journey across the lake, braving the calm freshwater sea couped up in a little boat for all of 10 minutes, finally arriving at the hippy shores of San Marco La Laguna.
Where San Pedro has a reputation as being the party village on the lake, San Marcos is a much quieter, sleepy hippy town. The main part of the village is all just narrow walking tracks, without taxi drivers harassing you every time you try and walk down the street. It's known for yoga, meditation and new age healing, and I figured I would try some new things and see if my scepticism was well merited.
I ended up staying at a place called "La Paz", hidden away in lots of green gardens with little A-frame dorms where I scored the loft at the top largely to myself for the duration I was there.
It also had a great yoga space in the back garden which was mostly only used in the mornings, so I repurposed it as a poi play space for a few hours most days and noticed some large improvements in my flow.
The restaurant at the hostel, and most restaurants in San Marcos, had a vegetarian menu. I'm a big fan of meat, but after being deprived of any real vegetables for 6 months, tasty vegetarian food was a welcome change. The place made an awesome veggie burrito, and had some delicious French toast on the breakfast menu.
I made it along to the hostel's yoga classes most mornings, and was pleasantly surprised with how good the yogi there, Charlie, was. I used to do a lot of Yoga back in my university days and I used to love it, but every other time I've done it since then the yogi's have all fallen short and the classes have felt dull and uninteresting, and usually they seem to have every pose requiring ultra flexible hamstrings (which I don't have), so I usually end up feeling like I'm not stretching/working anything else.
Charlie's classes however were much more similar to what I remembered from uni, a good level of challenge and more varied poses, so at the end of it I would feel like I'd used a lot more of my body. I found out she lived in India for a number of years doing yoga before she'd had her first child, as had my yogi from university, so perhaps that's why their styles seemed more in tune with what I like.
There's a mediation place in San Marcos called Las Piramides (The pyramids) where all the accommodation cabins are pyramids, the garden is full of pyramids frames, and they have a giant pyramid that they conduct meditation course in. The place had a very new-age vibe to it with lots of references to meta-physical this and that, and I figured if I'm going to try it, why not throw myself in the deep end.
They run a four week meditation course where the students spend the entire fourth week not speaking or making a sound. I wasn't about to sign up for that, but it was apparently ok to go along just for the day, so I did. They were up to week 3 of the current course, so perhaps it wasn't the best place to start but I gave it a go anyway.
The big pyramid temple has a strange entrance where you go down steps underground, then back up steps into the temple through a hole in the floor. Once everyone is inside the floor folds over the entrance like a cellar, so you're in a sealed up pyramid. There were some windows higher up letting in light, but there's no chance of leaving early.
In each corner of the pyramid, there were smaller pyramids, and in the centre of the room there was a bigger one covered over by a piece of cloth. Once the session started the cloth was removed, revealing a crystal ball mounted in the top of the centre pyramid. New age mystical!
There were about 25 people in the room, sitting around the edges facing in, each with a little padded mat and a little wooden slanted stool to sit on.
The session started with 30 minutes of silent meditation, where we were told to focus on our breathing. It was quite a challenge for someone who's never tried it before; after about 15 minutes one of my legs was completely numb. I tried to manoeuvre it so the blood would flow again but it just wouldn't wake up. After 20 minutes I didn't care any more and made a bunch of noise switching my legs around so the numbness would stop.
Next up we all lay on our backs, feet to the wall, heads towards the middle of the room, and again focused on breathing. Breathing in 5 seconds, holding for 3, then out for 5 seconds. Then 7-3-7, 9-3-9, 11-3-11 and finally 13-3-13. By about the 9 second breaths, I was really struggling to stretch out my breaths any longer.
Then there was some “ohm” chanting for about 5 minutes. It was kind of neat to hear the room in chorus, with different people running out of breath at different times and starting again, and how it affected the harmony. After a while my face kind of felt a bit funny from all the vibrations.
Then there was some talking about finding your “life mission”, which was defined as the thing that makes you happy. It seemed a bit simplistic to me.
Finally we did 7 more deep breaths, then rolled onto our sides, followed 7 more breaths, then sitting up cross legged again while candles all around the room got put out one by one.
During these last breaths I actually did feel like my mind was a lot clearer than it had been at the start, a lot calmer with less jumping from thought to thought. I can't say I had any life changing revelations, but thinking about such mechanical things are breathing, and “ohm”ing really did seem to clear my mind, for a while at least.
I saw a flyer somewhere for a "meditation for dummies" class that was one while I was around, so I called the number and signed myself up, to see what a more beginner levels meditation class would be like.
It turned out I was the only person who signed up, so it was just a one-on-one class with a woman named Edith. It started off with her telling me about all different kinds of meditation: walking meditation, writing meditation, dancing meditation, humming meditation, heart meditation... it all sounded a bit overwhelming for a meditation noobie like myself.
We did some heart meditation, which was kind of like Tai Chi to music. We started with our hands in front of our chests, slowly pushing our hands forward and drawing them back in time with the music, apparently pushing out bad energy and pulling in good energy. Then out to the sides and back, then pushing out behind us and drawing back. To be completely honest, I felt stupid doing this and didn't feel like I got anything at all from it.
Next up was humming meditation. We hummed to "music" (a seemingly random composition of drums, cymbals and other sounds) for about 40 minutes. This was actually pretty intense on my throat; I was struggling to keep a hum going and my lips were going numb. After humming, we did some more arm movements, pushing out bad stuff like insecurity, jealousy and hatred, and bringing in good things like happiness, confidence and gratitude. Strangely, this actually felt like it calmed me down a lot. Or maybe I was just happy to not be humming any more... who knows?
Then we did some numerology stuff based on my birthday that apparently said some positive things that were vague enough that they could apply to just about anyone. Yep, I'm totally sceptic about that BS.
Next we did some writing meditation, which was basically writing out a bunch of affirmations. I don't doubt that affirmations can be helpful, but this didn't seem very sedative to me.
Finally we talked briefly about my poi and juggling, and it sounds like how I've always said that they felt pretty much like meditation to me really isn't far off. I guess I've been meditating in my own way for a lot longer than I realised, and in a way that's a lot more fun. Go me!
At the end of my first day in San Marcos, Rachel - the Spanish school student I met on my last night in San Pedro, send me a message asking if I wanted to try and walk from San Pedro around the lake to San Marcos with her. I was keen so we met up the next afternoon and gave it a shot, but after asking some people in San Juan about safety on the road between there and San Marcos we were told there were sometimes bandits along there so we ended up getting a tuk-tuk from there instead, along what turned out to be a very hilly long road. I dunno if there used to be a flatter path before the lake level came up so far, but it didn't seem like it would have been a very leisurely walk these days anyway.
We ended up meeting up nearly every afternoon to go exploring somewhere new, giving us lots of time to talk and get to know one another better. We explored around San Marcos, checking out the park next to the best swimming spot in the lake and up the hill to Mayan altars and some lovely views of the lake and the volcanoes.
We wandered around the streets of San Pedro, allowing me to experience it without quite so much festival craziness going on, and found a nice cafe to sit and have a drink in. We went over to Santa Cruz and walked up the hill along narrow paths as far as the paths would take us, and then back down again.
Rachel's sister Sarah arrived on the lake late in the week as she was coming down to Guatemala for a few weeks too, so we all went to the swimming spot next to San Marcos for the afternoon and had a nice swim in the lake, before heading up the hill to show Sarah the views and altars.
At the end of the week Rachel was finished up at the Spanish school, and her and Sarah were going to head over to Xela, and I felt like I'd tried enough meditation for now and had been planning to go there anyway, so I tagged along with them and we all booked a shuttle from the lake to Xela together.