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Digital Nomad: In the shadow of the volcano

Maverick Life


Digital Nomad: In the shadow of the volcano

Things start getting spiritual for a Daily Maverick subeditor following the data stream across Central and South America.

San Pedro La Laguna is a small Guatemalan town of about 14,000 souls nestled on the southwest shore of Lake Atitlan – “the most beautiful lake in the world”, according to the German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859).

The lake is ringed by mountains and on its southern flank stand three volcanoes. One of these is Volcán San Pedro, in whose shadow lies the town of San Pedro La Laguna.

San Pedro La Laguna by Mickaël T. via Flickr

Most afternoons the lake is whipped into a frenzy of chops and swells and whitecaps and spray by a ferocious southerly wind known as El Xocomil, which originally meant “the demon’s fury”, but after the arrival of the Catholic conquistadors, was taken to mean “the wind that carries away sin”.

When El Xocomil isn’t raging, the lake is placid, a smooth black mirror, a tranquil centre of stillness, the jewel in the heart of the lotus… so to speak.

San Pedro La Laguna is mostly inhabited by Tz’utujil Maya people. The women wear brightly coloured woven skirts and embroidered blouses, the old dudes sport cowboy hats, and the young guys wear baseball caps, shorts and T-shirts. Many of them drive garishly embellished tuk-tuks, which buzz noisily through the narrow streets and rides anywhere in town for five quetzales (about R10).

There’s also a small contingent of American and European expats living in town, and a floating population of international backpackers, or travellers as they call themselves.

The expats are mainly older single men who spend a lot of their time hanging out in a couple of bars (The Alegre Pub, El Barrio), and shooting the breeze.

They remind me of the “Daga Boys”, the solitary buffaloes forced out of the herd, who spend their days wandering aimlessly and rolling in the dust.

But, like the Daga Boys, they are not to be underestimated, and are, I believe, dangerous when provoked. I haven’t yet provoked an old expat in San Pedro La Laguna, but I did once antagonise a Daga Boy, with potentially dire consequences, near Mana Pools in Zimbabwe.

The big beast had sustained a grievous leg injury and was lying in the dust, seemingly on the way out, surrounded by vultures waiting for it to die. My friends and I sat at some distance from the scene, waiting for whatever was to unfold. But nothing unfolded. The Daga Boy lay there, occasionally shaking his head, snorting, his fly-covered flanks twitching.

After a couple of hours of staring at this (non) spectacle, and befuddled by heat and boredom, I stood up and thumbed my nose at the old buffalo.

“Hey douchebag!” I yelled. “Yo douchebag! Come on, do something!”

The buffalo looked at me and slowly lumbered to its feet. Horrifically, he broke into a full-on charge – at me – showing one hell of a turn of speed, leg injury notwithstanding.

I ran as I had never run in my life, arms pumping, adrenalin squirting, soaring over anthills, dongas and branches, reptilian brain fully engaged. Needless to say, that was the last time I ever thumbed my nose at a buffalo. Let alone called one a douchebag.

And so I treat the expats at San Pedro La Laguna with the necessary respect, something I learnt in the far-off veld of Africa. As for the backpackers – sorry, travellers – the men are a motley assortment, with their shorts, tattoos, beards, ponytails and Guatemalan adornments.

This crowd doesn’t hang around in bars all day, yakking about the glorious times of yore. No, they’re engaged in activity: kayaking, paddle-boarding, swimming, hiking, exploring, quad-biking, horse-riding, learning how to weave, how to make chocolates (Guatemala is said to be the birthplace of chocolate), how to speak Spanish or Mayan, learning to paint, to cook Guatemalan cuisine, doing volunteer work with the nearby communities …

And then there are the other voyages that they undergo here: past life regression sessions, chakra realignment, smile therapy, reiki massages, crystal healing, hypnotherapy, ozone therapy, communicating with spirit guides – “seeing beyond the illusion and communicating with [their] true essence” (or so claims one of San Pedro’s healing centres).

No reminiscing about yesteryears’ adventures for them, they are already on an adventure, or planning tomorrow’s adventure. Or getting healed, because, as Leonard Cohen said: “Well, it’s Father’s Day and everybody’s wounded (baby).”

After hanging around town for a few days, I decided it was time that I too embarked on an adventure – or at least hiked to the top of San Pedro Volcano (3,020m).

I checked out TripAdvisor to see how this was done. Some of the reviews were not encouraging. “Two Austrians with mountain experience”, reported that on the way down, “two with machine guns and a machete equipped guys jumped out of the bush. They wore masks and pointed the guns on us and robbed everything.

“Doing all the police report and insurance stuff and talking to local people we found out, that ROBBERIES ARE COMMON, LATELY ESPECIALLY ON THE ST. PEDRO VOLCANO!!!!”

JosephJ001 said: “Hiked San Pedro last week and was robbed by 3 men armed with machetes. Very scary experience, and the park did almost nothing afterwards to help us.”

Matteo from Milan, Italy relayed his experience: “We were attacked by a group of 5 young men armed with machetes and pointed wooden sticks (luckily no firearms). We were a group of 5 tourists accompanied by 2 local guides, one from the park and the second from the travel agency. They arrived from multiple sides, luckily not blocking the way down: the two guides defended us with their walking sticks, but two people, whilst covering the other’s run down the path, left their backpacks to the bandits.

One of us got cut by a machete, luckily they didn’t follow us down any further!”

Mmmmmm… Maybe next week.

I decided that a drink would probably be more beneficial to my health than hiking up the volcano, so I walked down a maze of narrow lanes to El Barrio and ordered a mescal, in honour of Geoffrey Firmin, the doomed alcoholic consul and anti-hero of Malcolm Lowry’s 1947 masterpiece Under The Volcano.

At the end of the novel, which takes place in a small town in Mexico on the Day of the Dead, Firmin is shot dead by police chiefs and thrown off a ravine.

Throughout the day, he steadily drinks himself into oblivion, upping the ante alcohol-wise, until he finally starts knocking back the mescal.

Lowry wrote:

“… without mescal, he imagined, he had forgotten eternity, forgotten their world’s voyage, that the earth was a ship, lashed by the Horn’s tail, doomed never to make her Valparaiso. Or that it was like a golf ball, launched at Hercules’s Butterfly, wildly hooked by a giant out of an asylum window in hell. Or that it was a bus, making its erratic journey to Tomalín and nothing. Or that it was like – whatever it would be shortly, after the next mescal.”

There was a magazine called Atitlan Mundo on the bar counter and I leafed through it. I came across an advertisement for the 6th Annual Harvest Festival in San Marcos, happening that day. San Marcos is a town across the lake from San Pedro and, according to Atitlan Mundo: “San Marcos has become an attraction for world seekers and like-minded people who agree that the place has a supportive spiritual energy for practicing meditation, holistic therapies, Reiki and other spiritual learnings. It’s an array of cultures, dreamers, shamans, Kakchiquel locals and artists accompanied by a scenery of breathtaking natural beauty.”

Well, that sure beat knocking back mescals at El Barrio.

I boarded a speedboat at the embarcadero, and after skimming across the lake and disembarking at San Marcos, where two bikini-clad nubiles were performing yoga postures on the wooden jetty, I found myself in a cool shady lane, the wind sighing in big trees, Buddha Bar-type music floating from some place of spiritual succour, colourfully garbed people hunched over their smartphones in the garden of a coffee shop.

It was already mid-morning, but most of the attendees at the Harvest festival looked as if they hadn’t woken up. They wafted soporifically across the dusty dance floor, for all the world lost in a dream, while their dogs sniffed each other out and their children ran wild.

There were stalls selling cucumber kombucha and vegan yakisoba, and similar marvels, but it was a little kiosk with craft beer on offer that caught my eye. I handed over 25 quetzales and was given an El Zapote IPA. It slid down smoothly, tasting of zest and grapefruit with hints of nostalgia, and a whiff of sardonic bitterness.

I looked across the lake at San Pedro Volcano and raised my El Zapote to it. “ Salud!” 
It had the makings of a good day. ML


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