The 2012 Mayan Calendar: Out with the Old, In with the New

A Mayan shaman on Lake Atitlán performing a ceremony for protection of travelers. © Laurel Kallenbach

December 21, 2012, marks the end of one Mayan calendar and the beginning of a new era. To celebrate, I wanted to share a few of my images from my 2008 trip to Guatemala, where I spent a week on Lake Atitlán, one of the spiritual centers of the Mayan world.

The Mayans call this deep lake, surrounded by mountains and the Atitlán volcano, “the umbilicus of the world.” It’s a source, a place of birth for them.

On the first morning after I arrived at Villa Sumaya,  a yoga retreat center on the shores of Lake Atitlán, a Mayan shaman came to perform a protection ceremony for all us gringos. After offering sugar, cinnamon, chocolate and taper candles to the gods, he entreated them to cleanse our spirits and keep us safe throughout our Guatemala journeys.

We could feel the love from the chocolate-sated deities every morning as we drank Mayan hot chocolate with breakfast. Rich cream, dark cacao, ginger, and a touch of chile: amazing and spirit-lifting.

These Mayan women brought their weaving to Villa Sumaya for our group to look at. I bought a gorgeous tablecloth. © Laurel Kallenbach

As I look ahead, to the new era, I’ll remember Guatemala’s colorfully clad Mayan women. These skilled seamstresses wove exotic birds, such as the quetzal, into their clothing designs. May that color and vibrancy lead us all into the next Mayan calendar.

On this Winter Solstice 2012, we all get a fresh start. My hope is that the new era will be characterized by peace, creativity, the end of materialism and global warming, and a renewed understanding of the wisdom of indigenous peoples worldwide.

Laurel Kallenbach, writer, traveler, editor

Lake Atitlán, in Guatemala, is one of the spiritual centers of the Mayan world. © Laurel Kallenbach

 

 

How I Got Hooked on Writing/Yoga Retreats

I wrote from the hammock on my patio at Villa Sumaya retreat center in Guatemala.

A few weeks ago, I went on a trip that ranks high as one of my favorite types of travel: a weeklong creative writing and yoga retreat. (In my next post, I’ll relate the details of this recent getaway — in Jamaica! — hosted by Writing Journeys and Tropical Escapes. First I want to wax poetic about the wonders of writing retreats!)

Back in early 2001, I noticed a small classified ad for a creative writing / yoga retreat in the back of Yoga Journal. What could be more perfect? Here was an opportunity to combine my passion for travel with the relaxation of doing yoga and with the luxury of having time to write twice a day for an entire week.

At the time, I was frustrated because I hadn’t managed to wedge much “creative” writing into my schedule since I finished my master’s degree 11 years earlier. So I signed up with Patchwork Farms retreats and headed to a rural Mexican fishing village of Yelapa, near Puerto Vallarta.

Views of Lake Atitlan, Guatemala, inspired our yoga practice and writing sessions.

Led by poet and writing teacher Patricia Lee Lewis and yoga teacher Charles MacInerney, that retreat gave me the opportunity to stretch both my muscles and creativity while staying in a palapa, an open-sided, thatched-roof shelter.

Pen in Hand

My first retreat also exposed me to the Amherst Writers and Artists (AWA) method of writing, which practices the philosophy that every person is a writer and that every writer deserves a safe environment in which to experiment, learn and develop craft. With this approach, writing is fun, and everyone — from beginner to professional — writes something profoundly moving or funny during the week.

Writing sessions (done twice a day) go like this: Our group (including the leaders) write together for a set amount of time (perhaps half an hour) and then read aloud what we’ve just written. Then the group responds — not critically but gently — by pointing out what they liked about what they heard and what parts from the writing stood out.

Our group worked on our Welsh suntans and enjoyed a picnic lunch while sightseeing in Pembrokeshire (summer, 2007).

According to the AWA, this practice “enables participants to expose aspects of their creative minds that may have been inaccessible, leading the writer to his or her truest voice, and fostering the power to use it.”

International Discoveries

I’ve become addicted to the destinations and the wonderful people who run and attend these yoga and writing getaways. Since my first Mexico experience (I’ve returned to Yelapa three times), I’ve attended similar retreats in Guatemala, Ireland, Wales, and now Jamaica. In the process, I’ve discovered magical places, including the St. Non’s Retreat Centre on Wales’ Pembrokeshire coast, Los Naranjos jungle retreat in Yelapa, and Villa Sumaya on Lake Atitlán in Guatemala.

St. Non’s Retreat Centre in Wales is a magical place to write and do yoga.

There’s plenty of free time on retreats, and the group always goes sightseeing. In Ireland, we hopped a boat to remote and mythical Tory Island, which still has its own king who greeted us on the dock and invited us for dancing and a pint at the local pub.

In Guatemala, we visited the Mayan town of Santiago de Atitlán to visit the fabulous weaving markets and to see Maximón, a cigar-smoking, scarf-adorned folk saint (a blend of a Mayan god and Catholic santo). And in Wales, we explored Neolithic dolmens and a sacred tree that bleeds.

The Territory Within

Perhaps even more important is the undiscovered territory I’ve explored within. Every morning of these retreats starts with yoga, taught for all levels so you can go as deeply or gently as you like. In this loose, relaxed state, I’ve often grabbed my notebook and let the sentences gush from my pen. Forty minutes later, the leader rings a bell to signal the end of this writing session, and I feel as if only moments have passed.

Over the years I’ve transformed from frustrated wannabe author to actually creating a novel. I’ve heard bits and pieces of other writers’ novels in the formative stages, and now, thanks to the work and environment of these AWA retreats, I actually believe myself to be a novelist.

Our group of yogis/writers sculpted and fired clay masks (Guatemala, 2008).

Whereas I first signed up to prod myself into writing fiction or poetry again, now I go to these retreats to work on scenes from my own novel. In fact, on my second retreat, I wrote a piece (right after a guided meditation) that turned out to be the seed for my novel.

This time in Jamaica I challenged myself to write some really emotionally draining passages from that novel — they were still tiring and hard work, but the environment sustained me.

The combination of yoga, good food and writing recharges my creative batteries. Creativity just seems to blossom where nature, art and movement intersect — and it can happen in any landscape: a beach, a jungle, a field of heather.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer, editor and novelist

Morning yoga at Bromley Estate retreat center in Jamaica

Holy Week Processions in Antigua, Guatemala

Antigua, Guatemala, is a stunningly beautiful colonial town with cobbled streets, glorious cathedrals and colorful markets filled with exquisite Mayan textiles. In 2008, I was lucky enough to spend a number of days in Antigua during Lent.

It must be quite an honor to take the center position at the head of the float. That man or woman carries the float with their arms spread wide in a position reminiscent of a crucifixion.

The first float, which includes Christ bearing the cross, is massive, requiring 50 or 60 men at a time to keep it upright and moving along the parade route.

On Sundays throughout Lent, there are 10-hour processions up and down the streets of Antigua. They usually start at 1:00 in the afternoon and last until 11:00 at night.

This small float is probably Mary Magdalene. The sousaphone behind her is another band of musicians.

This small float is probably Mary Magdalene.

Hundreds of participants dress in regal robes and carry gigantic floats (andas) as onlookers watch. The floats are filled with sculptures of Jesus dragging the cross, the Virgin Mary looking beatific, and scores of angels playing herald trumpets.

Antigua has one of the most elaborate Holy Week (Semana Santa) celebrations in the Americas, and the city’s hotels are filled to bursting throughout the week.

For Semana Santa, carpets of sawdust paintings fill the streets as the processions walk through; that doesn’t happen on Lenten Sundays, but would be quite a sight. (A small sample of a sawdust carpet was preserved in the cathedral, and it was amazingly intricate and colorful.)

Mary, the Queen of Heaven looks mournfully down upon the spectators while women shoulder the burden of her holiness.

Mary, Queen of Heaven, looks mournfully down while women shoulder the burden.

Some of the floats weight as much as 3 tons, so it takes quite a few people to bear them on their shoulders. The float-bearers take shifts to spell each other, but they all keep shuffling slowly through the streets to the dirges played by marching musicians.

I watched the procession four times along various streets. Because the parade moves so slowly, it was easy to watch it pass, then walk six or eight blocks around the route, and catch the whole pageant somewhere else.

The final time I saw the procession pass by was from the window of a restaurant at about 8 p.m. In the dark, the floats were lit and had a different aura than they did by day. Night or day, the procession is quite a spectacle.

Many of the celebrants were boys in their early teens, all wearing robes?either purple (the color of the Passion) or white ala shepherds. Some wore pointed hoods that remind Americans of the Ku Klux Klan.

Male celebrants wore purple robes—the color of the Passion).

The parade begins with blocks of processing boys and men in robes, hoods and cassocks. That’s followed by altar boys swinging the incense burners. The streets of Antigua fill with the smoky aroma, turning the entire city into a cathedral-like setting.

Then comes the massive float with Jesus carrying the cross over his shoulder. This is followed by musicians.

Next, the Virgin Mary float arrives, borne by women in somber gray and black dresses with lace on their heads. Although the Virgin Mary float is smaller, it’s impressive to see women in heels and skirts carrying what is still a massive burden.

All the locals take these processions very seriously—even mournfully. Bystanders in their jeans and flip-flops (or Mayan clothes if they’re visiting from a small village) gaze meaningfully at the floats. The participants are all very proud and solemn about their jobs.

Cotton candy and balloons added to the celebration.

Cotton candy and balloon hawkers added to the air of celebration.

However, there’s also an air of festivity: hawkers sell cotton candy, toys and sodas. As you’re in the large crowds, you’re shoulder-to-shoulder with other bystanders on the sidewalks trying to glimpse the floats and take photos.

Pickpockets make a healthy living on procession days. Although I felt nothing, for some reason I looked down at my fannypack and noticed the zipper was open—not the way I left it. I checked, and the only thing missed was the granola bar that I had tucked in at the last moment on top.

A friend of mine was not so fortunate. Her wallet disappeared from her purse, but fortunately her passport was safely back in the hotel safe.

Watching the processions made me truly feel like I had sampled a bit of the local culture of Guatemala, a fervently Catholic country.

Heeled women carry the Virgin Mary float.

Heeled women carry the Virgin Mary float.

Laurel Kallenbach, writer and editor