On August 6, 2009, I boarded a plane in my hometown, Austin, Texas, and took a flight into the unknown. Destination: Guatemala. I was 29.
Ten years prior, the international travel bug had bitten. At age 19, prompted by my irrational fear that Y2K would cause global chaos and planes would fall out of the sky at the turn of the century, I’d flown to London to spend a semester abroad. I arrived at Gatwick; my two gigantic suitcases didn’t. A lesson in letting go. How I sobbed. I was so alone, on the other side of the pond, empty handed. Later I realized how lucky it was that I didn’t’ have to lug the luggage through the streets as I walked in frustrating circles searching for the big creaky Victorian house in Notting Hill Gate where I would live with a bevy of fellow college kids, mostly from the northeast US. Plus, I got money from the airline to go out and buy clothes.
Since there were two Michelles living in the house, some of the guys took to calling me “Texas.” Yankees, I called them. I took the tube, studied art and architecture, Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes. We went out for Halloween and I was so mortified to be on the tube with these rowdy, drunken Americans, my roommates. I was dressed up as a zebra but nowhere near drunk enough. I spent hours one long November day at a recording studio listening to Nik, my slightly-older British crush, and his band sing “In-Between Days”, over and over and over again, for a Cure tribute album. The one night I stayed out with him until after the tube stopped running, I slept at Nik’s place in north London. Zero romance occurred, and I was so disappointed. I visited Dublin, Barcelona and Paris for long weekends. Life was not as glamorous as it sounded, though. I was only 19 and largely a clueless, privileged American girl.
Living in London in the fall of 1999 was my coming of age. My first stab at “adulting”. Learning to cook actual meals. Managing my life abroad, alone. When I went back to work in Austin post-London, my good friend and boss at the ad agency noted how much self-confidence I had grown through the experience. I held myself differently, she said.
Back to the summer of 2009. I had a perfectly happy life in Austin, Texas, seriously. I was single and mingling. I’d become a school teacher three years prior, having left my first career in advertising. On a whim, I went to an international teaching job fair in Bethesda, Maryland in late June 2009 and landed a job in Guatemala. I chose it over Brazil for its proximity and Spanish language (although Portuguese is beautiful, I’m not inclined to learn languages and my brain can only seem to handle English, Spanish and the handful of Sanskrit and Kaqchikel Maya words and phrases I know). I chose the job in Guatemala, despite the fact that I became violently ill immediately upon accepting. Immediately. My body broke out in hives and my stomach ached and I threw up. I knew then that I had made the right decision.
For the next six weeks, I packed up my life: checked off endless to-do lists, condensed my funky little south Austin cottage into two 50-pound suitcases and stored the rest at my folks’ house. I brought along with me my best fur friend, a four-pound black and white teacup Chihuahua named Lucy. I left behind a loving community, two cats, a cottage, a mortgage, a car, a lot of material possessions, and my comfort zone.
There was turbulence on the flight as we approached our landing. When the plane touched down in Guatemala, all the passengers burst into applause, and I burst into silent tears laden with both trepidation and joy.
In retrospect, it seems as though I was fleeing, escaping from something when I left home. If so, I really wasn’t aware of it at the moment of departure. I didn’t leave home because I was disillusioned. I was rather happy. Perhaps too content, even. Comfortable. I wasn’t running away from anything, I was running toward something different. For the sake of shaking it up. Nothing was keeping me in Austin: I hadn’t had a meaningful relationship last more than a few months, much less come anywhere close to finding a partner with whom I’d want to share my life. My job was good but I had been at the same school for three years and was getting bored. Spending three weeks in Mexico in the summer of 2007 for a Spanish immersion had planted the seed. I could do this; I could live here.
Soon after arriving in Central America, I had a gut feeling that this would become my lifestyle. I didn’t know whether I’d stay in Guatemala after my initial two-year contract at the school was up, or try my luck in another Latin American country, or maybe take a leap and move to Asia or Africa like so many of my teacher friends. But I felt pretty certain that I wouldn’t be returning to reside in the States for a long time, if ever.
I was immediately free—the opposite of busy. I was liberated. Even in an oppressively dangerous, dirty and foreign city, I was free. I’d been busy in Austin. Lots of work, both during and after school hours, family visits, dinner parties, chores, errands, grocery shopping. Suddenly, I had no obligations (other than work, and my job was a lot less demanding than it had been in Texas), no plans and no expectations.
Moving to Lake Atitlan in the middle of 2012 was another total rebirth. If happiness is a place, that place, for me, is right here: Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. It is my chosen home, where I belong. Its powerful magic magnet drew me here to live, as permanently as permanent can be, in the middle of 2012. Life has unfolded and consciousness expanded in wonderful and unexpected ways ever since. Having my daughter Jade has been the greatest blessing. I’m grateful to witness her growing up here in this natural paradise, far from the hustle and bustle and polluted culture of city life. Being in a stable, committed relationship with a loving partner is a revelation.
In front of me, I see a striped hammock. I see the patio roof covered in morning dew. I see coffee trees down below, their green leaves verdant, their lime green berries silently growing plump. In November, they will turn red and be ready to harvest. I see two redheaded woodpeckers in one of the shade trees, trying to find a place to peck and make a hole for their new home, or maybe just looking for breakfast. I see a hummingbird pass by in a blur, buzzing like a bumblebee.
There is the grandmother and grandfather lake, calm and steady. There are the three silent massive volcanoes, shrouded in light foggy cloud coverage, beaming their incredible staying power out upon us. There’s the woodpecker again, directly in front of where I sit on my meditation pillow and bolster. The bolster I brought with me from Austin in my suitcase is now faded by the sun and years but it’s still useful. It’s one of the few things I still have from the initial luggage. Maybe the only thing? I guess the black polka dot dress I had too, and maybe a few other garments. Not much has lasted. Things come and go. Disposable possessions.
I hear the first boat, its motor whirring, creating waves. More hummingbird wings flapping. One small hummingbird about the size of my thumb sits for a brief five-second repose on a thin branch, her Pinocchio nose jutting out in front of her. Actually, buzzingbird or chatteringbird would be a more apt name. They don’t really hum.
This morning meditation is happiness. The inner peace and happiness I feel beneath all the other emotions that visit each day are there thanks to years of devoted practice. I know, deep down, no matter what happens, peace and presence are available. Joy and sadness, pleasure and pain, attachment and aversion are inevitable. What is “evitable” is the grasping, the constant seeking of entertainment in its ubiquitous forms, with its insidious way of pulling us away from this specific moment of life, here and now.
Perhaps I have misconstrued the lake to be sacred. To be somehow more spiritual, pure and blissful than other geographic locations. It’s just because I have known more happiness here than anywhere else I’ve lived. Could I be this pleased residing anywhere else? This lake is sacred to me. So is the cozy bedroom where I first learned yoga as a young teen in a suburb in the hill country of central Texas. So is this moment, regardless of location. This life is a gift; every breath, a miracle.
May all beings be happy and free.
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