The Vibrant Women of Guatemala

I visited Guatemala in 2008 for a writing and yoga retreat, held at a yoga center on stunningly gorgeous Lake Atitlán, which is surrounded by volcanoes. A Nahuatl word, Atitlán means “the place where the rainbow gets its colors,” and the Maya believe Lago de Atitlán is the umbilicus of the Universe—the birthplace of the soul.

I soon discovered that the soul of Guatemala lies in the strength and creativity of the women whom I met and photographed.

This woman, wearing a traditional Mayan hat, met our water taxi at the dock of the town of Santiago Atitlán. Widowed during the Guatemalan Civil War, she supports herself by selling her beadwork to tourists. © Laurel Kallenbach

This woman, wearing a traditional Mayan hat, met our water taxi at the dock of the town of Santiago Atitlán. Widowed during the Guatemalan Civil War, she supports herself by selling her beadwork to tourists. © Laurel Kallenbach

Years after taking these photos, I’m still awestruck by the colorful clothing and warm, wise faces of these women, many of whom speak the traditional Tz’utujil language.

Many of the women I met live in Santiago Atitlán, a thriving town that’s accessible by water taxi from other parts of the lake. The majority of the residents are indigenous Mayans. In pre-Columbian times, this was the capital of the Tz’utujil people, a Mayan sub-culture.

Our group visited the parish church in Santiago ©Laurel Kallenbach.JPG

Our group visited the Church of Santiago Apostol, a Catholic church in Santiago Atitlán, where these three girls giggled at meeting us American women. ©Laurel Kallenbach

While visiting, I got a chance to meet and photograph a few of Guatemala’s indigenous women artists who make the most amazing textiles on the planet. Most of them support their families by creating beautiful weavings in the ancient Maya tradition.

It’s courteous to pay a small amount of money to photograph a women wearing an ornately embroidered huipil blouse. And I loved taking a picture of women whose handiwork I bought. Doing so helps me remember each individual face that goes along with the scarves, tablecloths, and purses I purchased. That year for Christmas, many friends and family members got a beautiful, handmade souvenir from my trip to Guatemala—along with the accompanying snapshot of its respective creator.

Tour guide Dolores Ratzan Pablo wears a "huipil" embroidered with Guatemalan birds. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Tour guide Dolores Ratzan Pablo wears a traditional head-covering and “huipil” embroidered by her mother with Guatemalan birds. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Handcrafting textiles isn’t the only way indigenous Guatemalan women support themselves and their families. On our trip to visit Santiago Atitlán, our group hired tour guide Dolores Ratzan Pablo, who speaks Spanish, Tz’utujil, and English.

Dolores lived for several years in America after she and her then-husband, shaman Martín Prechtel, fled the pueblo during the violent Guatemalan civil war to live in the United States. Dolores shared her insights into the culture of Santiago Atitlán, including the unique fusion of Catholicism and ancient Maya religion. She took us to the Church of Santiago Apostol, the shrine of the Mayan “trickster” deity, Maximón (who drinks liquor and smokes cigars), and to the  workshop of her mother (pictured below), who creates fantastic works of textile art.

The mother of Dolores Ratzan Pablo wove this red table runner that I bought. © Laurel Kallenbach

The mother of Dolores Ratzan Pablo wove this red table runner that I bought. She had her own humble shop in Santiago Atitlán where she displayed all her textile art and demonstrated the backstrap loom. © Laurel Kallenbach

Many of the women in Santiago Atitlán were affected by brutal, government-backed violence during Guatemala’s civil war, which lasted from 1960–1996. Indigenous people in the highlands of Guatemala were especially at risk. In 1981, Roman Catholic priest Stanley Rother (from the United States), was assassinated by right-wing death squads. In 1990, the Guatemalan Army opened fire on a crowd of unarmed civilians.

These Mayan women came to Villa Sumaya, the yoga retreat center on Lake Atitlán to sell their artwork. © Laurel Kallenbach

These Mayan women came to Villa Sumaya, the yoga retreat center on Lake Atitlán to sell their artwork. © Laurel Kallenbach

Though many women sell their textiles at the town mercado (market), some take their work to places where tourists come. The women above got permission to bring some of their best work to Villa Sumaya, a retreat and wellness center located in Santa Cruz la Laguna on the shores of Lake Atitlán. I have one of their brilliant-blue woven cloths on my dining-room table.

Women carrying their wares on the streets of Antigua ©Laurel Kallenbach

Women carrying their wares on the streets of Antigua ©Laurel Kallenbach

After leaving Lake Atitlán, I spent a couple of days in the colonial town of Antigua, where visitors can find bright, indigenous clothing, popular over centuries, alongside fancy modern hotels. As you can see from the picture above, some spots in the old Spanish part of town still have cobblestone roads. Boutiques often sell traditional Maya handicrafts, but there are also textile cooperatives where women can display their art in a large space.

Weaver woman in Antigua ©Laurel Kallenbach

Woman weaving on a traditional Guatemalan backstop loom in Antigua ©Laurel Kallenbach

At Trama Textiles Cooperative in Antigua, I watched this woman weaving on a traditional  backstrap loom (see above). The loom is light and portable so that she can work in a tiny, single-room house. The loom, often made with sticks and rope, is easy rolled up when not in use.

Trama Textiles Co-op consists of about 400 women, forming 17 groups of weavers from five different regions in the western part of the Guatemalan highlands. It’s an association of women that promotes artisan development in backstrap loom weaving as a way of providing women with a livelihood in a country with a high rate of crime and violence against women and children.

These women are carrying a float during a Holy Week procession in Antigua, Guatemala. ©Laurel Kallenbach

These women are bearing a religious float of Mary, Queen of Heaven, during a Holy Week procession in Antigua, Guatemala. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I happened to be in Antigua for Semana Santa (Holy Week) in 2008, so I got to see the grand procession in the streets of this Spanish-colonial town (founded in 1542), which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Though men are typically float-bearers, the floats of female saints and the Virgin Mary are the domain of the women. What strength and faith!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read more about my journeys in Guatemala:

Market beneath the ruins of El Carmen Church in Antigua ©Laurel Kallenbach

This open-air market in Antigua is at the feet of the ruins of El Carmen Church, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The church was built and destroyed by earthquakes several times over the centuries. ©Laurel Kallenbach

 

 

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

Read more about my travels in Guatemala:

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