The Festival of Consciousness


The poster asked me. Answerless, I stared back. Was this my chance to EXPAND MY MIND? To find out about more ENLIGHTENING TOPICS?

Alas no. I was too late. The Festival of Consciousness had already been and gone.

Arriving at San Marcos by footpath, I felt like I'd stumbled upon a secret hippy enclave. The spiritual equivalent of a clothed person strolling onto a nudist beach. A bearded, ageing man in colourful cotton pants dozed in a hammock, restaurants offered VEGAN MEALS, SMOOTHIES, SUPER FOODS and FLAPJACKS, hostels provided YOGA, promised MINDFULNESS and TRANQUILITY. A trio from the States discussed the rudeness and ingratitude of the local children, too loudly for my ears to block out, whilst eating tamales de chapin piled high with avocado, grated carrots, beetroot, beans and picante. 

It was like Disneyland - magical for the believers, an uncomfortable, unnatural experience for the unillusioned. We hotfooted it down to the dock, leaving the barefooted ones behind. 

Safely on board our escape vehicle, bobbing up and down upon Lake Atitlan, I laughed at yet another bizarre sight. To my left, a house reminiscent of a Swiss ski lodge sat half-submerged in the lake water. The local guy ext to me provided an explanation; the level of the lake rises every now and again, after heavy rain fall, and this particular bank hugger hadn't fared so well. All around the lake, other holiday homes and restaurants were dying a similar, watery death, subsiding into the depths.

"What do you think of the hippy culture?" I asked my friendly neighbour. "I don't know," he smiled shyly. "It's a different culture - your culture from my culture."

"Woah," I joked. "That's not our culture either."

Sadly, Sam explained, most of the owners of the hostels and restaurants in San Marcos were owned by foreigners. "Does tourism help the locals much at all?"

"No mucho - not really. It doesn't do much to help the village, raise standards of living."

There was the occasional philanthropist, he added, who organised some project or other, but most just ran their business and made their money.

"Why did they choose San Marcos?" Lago Atitlan, west of Antigua and Guatemala City in the south of the country - compared by Aldous Huxley to Italy's Lake Como - has numerous small villages dotted about its edges. Why was San Marcos the hippy spot of choice?

Sam wasn't sure, but said San Marcos had always been a spiritual place, nestled as it is between two hills, one of which is a Mayan place of worship.

Bizarrely, each of the villages around the lake seemed to have developed its own, unique, tourist character. For spiritual enlightenment, San Marcos was your place. For Spanish lessons, the winding streets and alleys of San Pedro; for locally woven huipiles - blouses - skirts and blankets, Santa Clara or San Juan; for the cheapest artesanias from around the country, the packed market stalls of Panajachel. Perhaps it should be no surprise; since the Spanish enforced a distinct outfit on the members of each village, their people have always been visually unique. Why would each town not also create its niche tourist identity?

Splashing back to Panajachel on the lancha, we passed many a holiday home constructed at the edge of the lake. "Who owns them? Rich Guatemalans?" No, said Sam, mostly foreigners. Some young villagers would inherit land and sell it off, able to make more money that way than working it themselves.
Walking from village to village around Atitlan, holiday home rental signs called out to us everywhere. Vistas which could have come straight out of a deluxe Mediterranean holiday brochure appeared around every other corner. Terracotta roofs, pools, terraces constructed into the rock face. Perfectly manicured, landscaped gardens kept alive only by constant watering, glimpsed through pine trees or spied on through gaps in fences. Huxley's comparison to Como seems to have been a somewhat ominous prophecy.

Passing women in long, wrap-around skirts and intricately embroidered tops, carrying bowls of ground maiz on their heads, on the old trails which connected the villages, winding behind the villas, I wanted to know how they felt about it all. I should have asked the countless construction workers we passed who they were working for, was the money good, what work did they do when there was no construction?

It was too easy for me to bemoan the tourist boom at the lake, to ignore the fact that Lake Atitlan used to be one of the poorest areas of Guatemala. To find unpretentious, undemanding San Antonio Palopo, with its one women's weaving association workshop, and dockside comedor - 'caff' - far more 'natural' than neighbouring Santa Clara Palopo, where a line of street stalls hawking purses, blankets, tablecloths and bracelets paraded up from the dock. To prefer eating beans and stew served from a street stall pot in San Juan to any of the pizza, pasta, fusion and Asian restaurants in Panajachel. But what did I know of the real benefit tourism might have brought to each of these places? And why, just because I was staying in a cheap hostel run by a local resident, eating mango bought from the local market, did I think I was immune from culpability?

At the top of the slope leading down to San Antonio, we'd met a family enjoying a Sunday afternoon together.

They'd gathered under what looked like a half-constructed church, or gateway, and were sharing a 3 litre bottle of Pepsi. The strange building, they said, was an unfinished project by someone from Spain. It looks so strange, I commented, like a landing strip. The views though, were amazing. "That's why we come here," they responded.

We chatted a while, were offered some Pepsi, congratulated on having finished uni, and then the grandfather of the family tried his best to convert us to the evangelical church. "Don't you want an eternal life?"

Nevertheless, before spirituality reared again, we'd shared something up there, thanks to that Spaniard and their forgotten holiday home. And it wasn't just the view.


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