Villa Sumaya, Guatemala
A winding drive through the mountainous landscape of western Guatemala, and a vigorous boat ride across the glistening expanse of Lake Atitlan, will bring you to the doorstep of Villa Sumaya. Sitting on the northern banks of the lake, and reachable only by boat, this charming guesthouse and retreat is literally a hidden paradise. Nestled in the heart of the Mayan world, there is a whimsical mysticism to the place, where Mother Nature is revered and her delicate touches are woven into every precious experience.
The shaman leans over the smouldering fire, nudging its embers and whispering to the nascent flames, compelling them to rise up in all their glory. On his head is a brilliant red scarf that sits in incongruous harmony with the discordant patterns of the rest of his traditional attire. As the flames begin to flicker, he slowly adds to the fire pit a collection of tapered candles in different colours, his whispers becoming a monotone chant as the smoke begins its wildly exotic dance towards the sky.
The grass surrounding the fire glistens with crystal drops of dew balanced delicately on its tips by the cool early morning air. Thirteen figures sit, transfixed by the shaman’s diligent process. Our eyes bleary, and our hands clasped around steaming cups of tea, we watch as he begins the ceremony. As he moves agilely around the fire, he invokes a blessing for each of the Mayan birth signs, and we chant along with him in call and response. Each of us has written on a piece of paper our hopes for the world, be they a blessing for a loved one, or a will to rid ourselves of a weakness. At the shaman’s instruction, we throw them into the fire, offering our whims to the universe. He places a set of the candles in our hands, telling us to once again will our heart’s desire upon them. He moves about the circle, lighting our candles and performing a blessing upon each of us. Even with my eyes closed, I feel the powerful warmth of his presence in front of me as he waves the candles systematically across my body, chanting in a Mayan dialect. My heart begins to pound and by the time I have come to my senses, the ceremony has finished.
This is the third morning of our eight-day yoga retreat at Villa Sumaya. I think back to our arrival, aboard the old boat that skipped across the sparkling waters of Lake Atitlan, basking in the afternoon sunlight. As the villa slowly came into view, my heart swelled at its natural beauty. Banana palms undulated elegantly in the gentle breeze as waves lapped tenderly against the shore. We clambered out of the rustic speedboat and onto the charming old dock that acts as the welcome mat to Villa Sumaya. Taking a deep breath of tropical air, I let my soul drink in the beauty before me. Having never been on a yoga retreat before, I was intrigued as to what would fill the blank canvas that was the next eight days.
The shaman ceremony falls on New Year’s Eve, so it seems fitting that we have begun the final day of 2010 with an internal reflection. The first two days of the retreat have already been a revelation. It’s hard not to become reflective when ensconced in the simplicity of Mother Nature as you are at Villa Sumaya. The thatched-roof buildings of the retreat sit in against a hill, fringed by verdant foliage home to curious fauna. The positioning is such that virtually any vantage point offers a view that will take your breath away – the expanse of the imposing lake and soothing blue skyline pierced by three majestic volcanoes.
Following the shaman ceremony, we climb the stairs to the yoga studio for our daily Ashtanga practice. Perched atop the highest building at Villa Sumaya – Tara Temple – the space itself is imbued with a warmth and energy that indicates a mingling of the souls of all those who have sat upon its wooden floors. Compared to my companions, I am a yogic novice, but as I watch them glide elegantly through each movement, I am inspired to dedicate myself to the practice I have dabbled with capriciously for years.
Afternoons at the retreat are allocated to doing whatever we please, be it lazing in a hammock, swimming in the lake, or indulging in a massage. This afternoon, the sun is shining gently, complemented by an earthy breeze. Armed with a fruit smoothie from the retreat’s juice bar, I nestle back into a sun lounge under a thatched pagoda on the lake’s bank, and gaze into the patterns of the wind across the water.
As the sun begins to set, we return to the top of Tara Temple for meditation. A relative amateur in such activities, I’ve found these daily inner explorations to be somewhat of a challenge. But this evening is different. As I lie on my back listening to the rustle of the treetops outside the window, my mind flashes with clarity and a great energy begins to build in my heart, before spreading to every fibre of my being. The moment is fleeting, but enough to give me hope that, with practice, my efforts will not always be confined to an eternal struggle of the racing mind.
The dinner bell rings and we amble down to join the other guests. As with every meal here, we are greeted with an ambrosial spread, this time Chiles Rellenos with Cucumber Salad and Red Bean Stew. Our dinner conversation turns to the new year that lies ahead of us the next morning. Being in a place of such purity, it seems a blessing to begin afresh in such a setting.
We spend the time leading up to midnight singing and dancing. As the hour draws near, part of the group heads off to a party at another villa along the lake. I choose to ring in the new year a little more quietly. Accompanied by four others, I pad down under the moonlight to the dock that had welcomed us three days ago. Spreading blankets across its rustic surface, we settle back onto the ageing wood. As a city dweller, it is rare that I am privy to a sky awash with so many stars. I catch my breath as my heart once again swells at the beauty. The clock strikes midnight – it’s going to be a beautiful year.