“Ri chuq’ab ri kaqokoj che ri
usachik sataq xuquje xik’ali.
The effort of forgetting
is also poetry.”
~ Humberto Ak’abal, Drum of Stone
My daily life in rural Guatemala is grounded in wonder, balance, awareness, gratitude, and nature. Verdant visual delights surround me here at one of the most gorgeous lakes on the planet.
I’ve lived on Lake Atitlan in the western highlands of Guatemala for nearly a decade; it’s the place I feel most at home. Each day, I gaze upon her sparkling blue waters and three volcanoes along the opposite shore. The sky is a spectacle of distinctive sunrises, cloud formations, bright or faded blue skies, and sunsets.
Initially, my motivations for moving to Guatemala were a new job, a different experience, and a way to improve my Spanish. Because I had a comfortable and relatively pleasant life in the United States, I didn’t realize at the time what I was running from—or even that I was running away. I didn’t realize the extent to which capitalist consumerism (that is, “the rat race”) and dating mediocre men had come to define my identity.
Moving to Central America was a form of personal decolonization, as it turns out. I worked fewer hours and had gobs of free time as never before in my adult life. As a longtime yoga practitioner and teacher, I find it natural to integrate mindfulness into my daily life in rural Guatemala. I’m awestruck by the stunning natural beauty everywhere I turn and the heart-centered wisdom of my Mayan neighbors.
My Spanish is still far from perfect, but I’ve come a long way. I’m proud to have reconnected to the language of my maternal Mexican ancestry, especially since that chain was broken in my mother’s generation. I speak fluent Spanish as a second language, and my eight-year-old daughter is fully bilingual.
Living here has taught me countless lessons, the most relatable of which I’ll share with you today.
1. The Value of Immersion in Wonder and Contentment
Guatemala is called the land of eternal spring due to its year-round temperate climate, gorgeous tropical flora, and amazing biodiversity. I live with my family in a cabin on a wooded hillside, surrounded by birdsong, vivid flowers, and lots of greenery. Our closest neighbor is a woodpecker. Hummingbirds, vultures, and whippoorwills swoop all around us. These splendid surroundings invite wonder into the mundane.
So do the people. Guatemalans are generally kind and content folks. Many of them are downright jovial with bright and genuine smiles. Even people whose living conditions are meager and whose work is crushing physical labor tend to be friendly and warm.
When passing people on the street in rural Guatemala, it’s customary to greet each other with eye contact, a smile, and a genuine buenos días (or buenas tardes or buenas noches, depending on the time of day). Life in rural Guatemala—with its lush gardens, idyllic scenery, kind people, and never-ending learning opportunities—is a life of wonder and contentment.
Where do you find wonder and contentment? Go there.
2. How to Slow Down and Find Balance
A common saying around here is “No hay prisa.” It means there’s no rush.
Life moves at a slower pace in Latin America than in the U.S. and most other “developed” nations, for better or worse. Pretty much everyone is late for everything here. Initially, this is maddening for a person who’s accustomed to a fast-paced, busy, and perhaps even overscheduled lifestyle. (It was for me, anyway!)
It took a while, but I gleefully adjusted to the slower pace of life here. Long ago, I let go of my unhealthy attachment to my Google calendar and endless to-do lists.
I enjoy the slow flow of everyday life and have embraced my current lifestyle as a quasi-hermit. The lockdowns last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic forced me (and just about everyone) to slow down to an even greater extent. Living at Lake Atitlan, I am constantly reminded that, whatever it is, it can wait.
Life in Guatemala has taught me to seek and find my balance, from moment to moment and day to day. I’ve learned how to accomplish things—and how to fully relax. How to balance doing (getting things done) and being present with what I’m doing in each moment. I achieve this by engaging in part-time and freelance work that I’m passionate about and making plenty of time for friendship, rest, and family.
How might you slow down the pace of your life?
3. How to Move Through Life from a Foundation of Gratitude
Living in rural Guatemala has raised my awareness. Prior to moving to Guatemala City in 2009, I knew little about this country, other than the fact that it was in Central America. Through books, documentaries, lectures, and meeting people, I learned about the country’s brutal history. A 36-year civil war in Guatemala officially ended with peace accords in 1996. The worst atrocities were in the early 1980s, including state-sponsored genocide of indigenous Mayan communities.
This awareness of Guatemalan history has made me a more compassionate global citizen. I’m motivated to spread goodwill here as best I can through kindness, generosity, and sensitivity. My experience in Guatemala has helped me cultivate gratitude for life in all its complexity and simplicity. I am grateful to all the people, places, and experiences that have shaped my life into what it is today.
How can you expand your awareness of other people and cultures, and how can this open you to a greater sense of compassion, kindness, and gratitude?
4. How to Live in Tune with my Own Natural Rhythm
I used to rely far too much on processed and packaged foods. The “cooking” I did usually involved opening jars and boiling pasta. Life in Guatemala has taught me how to procure and prepare fresh vegetables and fruits from the market, many of which I didn’t even know existed before. My family’s staples now include foods I never ate growing up in Texas: platanos (plantains), yuca (yucca), camote (sweet potato), granadilla (passionfruit), mango, and papaya.
I no longer use an alarm clock. For years, I’ve woken up naturally, often with the sun, and gone to sleep when I’m tired (which is, admittedly, usually around 8 or 9 p.m.). I nap if I feel tired during the day. I get up and read, write, or stargaze if I can’t sleep in the middle of the night.
How can you live in a more natural way, more connected to your inner self and Mother Earth?
5. How to Love Myself and my Family
I had a lot of bad luck in love and romance from around age 15 to 31, at which point I simply gave up. My love life in Austin and San Francisco had been abysmal, with a string of short-lived and unfulfilling love affairs. My love life in Guatemala had somehow been even worse, to the point of being emotionally painfully bad. I decided I would just be a single and ever-unattached world traveler. I foresaw a nomadic lifestyle and felt excited about my own independence and inner strength.
Then I met the man who would become my husband. Right here at Lake Atitlan. And it wasn’t love at first sight or any kind of fairy tale, but it was almost 10 years ago, and we are still together, which is a huge achievement in my book.
I learned how to love myself in rural Guatemala. I opened my heart to my own sweet self and thereby to all others. I am learning how to be a steadfast and compassionate partner. I am learning how to be a caring and creative mother of a marvelous almost-nine-year-old girl child.
How can you love yourself and others today—and how can you love each moment?