Outside Perspective


It's always good for the consciousness to leave one's home country and get some outside perspective. And boy, that's what I did…

A few days after arriving home from Guatemala, I'm still adjusting back to the rat-race pace that supports our so-called 'American Dream'. (Apparently, I've forgotten how to do work… or at least it feels that way, when I sit down to try.)

Traditionally, in astrology, long-distance travel is represented by the 9th house of a chart… the same chart zone that also symbolizes our explorations of religion, philosophy, justice and higher meaning. These links have always made obvious sense to me. When we jet off for destinations way outside our usual frame of reference, we set ourselves up to reap a greater understanding of how our own culture may handle such big life-defining questions quite differently. And wherever we find common ground? These shared beliefs point toward conclusions that comprise the closest thing to universal human truth each of us might find.

Judging from my previous paragraph, you may think I'm heading straight into a preachy tell-all revealing the myriad lessons about modern society that I gleaned from traveling the dusty roads of Central America. Nah, forget about that. I was on vacation, people. The main lesson I gleaned was one I already knew but which needs continual repeating: Gosh, it feels good to relax for a couple weeks. Without my laptop, I couldn't have worked if I tried… unless I wanted to plant myself in a internet café with periodic power outages (it was rainy season, after all) and a different set of shift-key keyboard strokes (did 'Alt-G' stand for the 'Alt for Gringos' key?). So I relaxed.

I suppose I don't have to travel so many hundreds of miles, just to relax, do I? Yet, there's something about removing one's self from all the regular trappings that enables the process to occur much more easily. At home, I'm too tempted to get back online or dabble just a smidgeon more with one or another of my pursuits-cum-wannabe-achievements—and the most relaxing act of doing nothing seems like too much a waste of time to bother with.

Still, from day to day on the trip, my mind managed to wander back into stressful territory. Even as all I could see around me were coffee plants, banana trees, mountains, a pristine lake, and colorful textiles and garments everywhere I went, there were times when my type-A (for 'Anal Retentive') urbanity got the best of me.

For instance, I found a way to nurse worry about money of all things—while supposedly 'relaxing' in a town where the average restaurant dinner costs $5 or so, and where my hotel room had already been paid (via PayPal) in advance. With scant little to even spend my quetzals on, I still couldn't push away the anxiety that arose from the fact that nowhere in San Marcos la Laguna accepted credit cards nor dispensed cash. Finally, we took the rickety boat (comfortingly named El Viejo, or 'the old guy') twenty minutes across the lake to Panajachel to the nearest ATM … and even there, we had to wait for the rifle-toting official to refill the machine with money. One step back from my petty hysteria, however, and I caught a prophetic glimpse into the inevitable future moment when all the computers crash and everybody's wealth (nothing but an imaginary bunch of numbers in columns in brokerage spreadsheets anyhow) suddenly and irreversibly disappears. At least in San Marcos, I could subsist on the mangos and avocados falling off the trees at every bend.

Yes, it's true, travel all around the world, and our own personal issues will follow us to the far reaches of nowheresville. We cannot escape ourselves, can we? Yet, annoyingly so, I spied many a gringo traveler—from the US and Canada, Europe, Australia, Israel, and elsewhere—who'd apparently come to Central America to 'find themselves'. (While I don't know how many might have actually used that language to describe their vision-quests, surely some shamelessly would've.) From the corners of my eavesdropping ears, I overheard many an embarrassingly gringocentric discussion about how 'these people' live, how cheap or inefficient or uncomfortable things are 'down here'… and how the stronger spiritual energy in Mayaland is pulling them toward this or away from that.

There's no shortage of spirit-seekers in Guatemala, and whether any of 'em is authentically shedding his ego-trappings to go deeper into the abyss of Oneness or simply donning the white clothes and the feelgood jargon as a cover for their addictions to drugs or rootlessness, or whatever they're escaping back in the motherland, is anybody's guess. The 9th house shows us our personal path to enlightenment, or else helps us construct a defensive ethos that justifies whatever selfish pleasures we choose to pursue.

As I sat chowing down on my falafel burrito in one of many global villages dotting this great planet, I continued judging the other gringos around me… and was forced to implicate myself, too. It is hard not to notice how cheap things are here, how poorly maintained the roads, how lazy-looking so many of the local men are as they sit around all day watching the women work their asses off, how much trash piles up around town, comprised of 25-cent bags of junk food and plastic Ziplocs of soda emptied into the mouths of toddlers as nutrition, and how nobody can expect to earn much money if they can't even make change for a purchase. I would be a liar not to notice my judgments—not to cherish my gratitude for the relative affluence I enjoy—but I do not necessarily believe my glamorous American life is any 'better' (whatever that might mean).

My friend Stephanie may be raising my goddaughter Marley in a house with no indoor running water (no worries, there's a cold-water shower outside), but she spends far more hours with her child than she would in the States, where she'd be working crazy overtime to afford single motherhood, stowing Marley in daycare most days, only to wake up one morning and discover her baby is 18. Marley attends school in a tropical wonderland, where she is learning English, Spanish and native Kaqchikel, and has friends from all over the world. She is outgoing, unafraid and appreciative. However, Marley's days in San Marcos may be numbered, as Steph warily watches the pueblo's growing drug problem. Children only a few years older than Marley have recently taken to crack cocaine.

The best part of traveling is often the arrival home, and this has again proven itself true. I'm relieved to once again drink water from the tap, flush my used toilet paper down the toilet, and not worry about where I'll find the nearest ATM. I was thrilled to reunite with JoJo, though there were plenty of cute pet dogs in San Marcos to serve as substitutes (hi, Princess and Hermes). I won't miss the awful exhaust fumes clouding the Central American air, sometimes making me literally gasp for breath, nor the omnipresence of guns and machetes on virtually every able-bodied (and not-so-able-bodied) man (or child).

I did, I must admit, secretly enjoy our final adventure, when the main road from Honduras went out and our bus couldn't pass. We found ourselves walking a couple miles up a mountain road in the rain, in between towns, until the pickup we'd been told to toss our bags in came back to pick us up, carrying us the remaining distance to our connecting bus in the slippery back-of-the-truck as, dripping wet and being zoomed way too fast around the mountainous curves, our new Guatemalan friends (one with a shotgun, of course) welcomed us to their country. I couldn't stop giggling an adrenaline-powered laugh.