Return to the Land of the Eternal Spring: Guatemala Field Report 2022

Guatemala is a land of contrasts, of beauty and hardship. It is a land that is renewed virtually daily by silted showers from volcanoes, yet carries the long story of humanity in Mesoamerica, a culture that has been tracking time for millennia. The lush green and multi-colored floral landscape is punctuated by concrete block buildings, gated estates, and buses puffing out clouds of diesel exhaust. It is peopled with those from many nations: descendants of European colonization, both wealthy and impoverished, colorful expats from nearby and afar, and travelers, students, missionaries of one sort or another. Its majority population is its indigenous Maya communities rich in the tapestries of the loom and traditions yet held struggling for their daily bread tortillas.

One day before for our journey, Lenise asked me if there was anything we had not yet considered in preparing her mentally for what would lie ahead.  After explaining the challenges with transportation and transit, including walk streets in the villages, I said “It’s..Guatemala.” She couldn’t fully understand this, she later reported, until she was on the ground.

We scheduled our arrival for the early afternoon, in time to arrive at the Valhalla Macadamia Farm before sunset, and hopefully out of Guatemala City before rush hour traffic. Our clever plans were thwarted when, upon landing, I received a message from our hostess Emilia Gottschamer that due to a landslide, the typical one-hour journey from Antigua to Guatemala had taken three. We were in for a long journey to the farm.

Lenise was instantly enchanted with the colors and lushness of Guatemala, and that was before we had even departed the city. Our slow crawl in snarled traffic allowed her to appreciate it that much more, except for the belching diesel exhaust from the ornate “Chicken Buses” and others. It gave us both greater appreciation for the smog controls we had been subject to while living in Los Angeles.

Valhalla Macadamia Farm

Arrival at Valhalla, a piece of paradise

We arrived at the farm at dusk, three-plus hours after landing, refreshed by a burrito we snagged along the way. We were quickly settled into our deluxe accommodations in the luxury motor coach Lorenzo purchased for their journeys to tend to their Valhalla Macadamia project in Nicaragua. No sooner had we gathered in the Oxygen Bar adjacent to the now closed restaurant, when the sky began to rain down upon the tin roof, complete with thunderclaps. This symphony of nature was punctuated by the laughter of familial story-telling that carried us through the night.

After a full day of rest and acclimation, I was set to present my new program which was inspired by the setting in which I knew it would first be delivered. In the Saturday mid-morning sun, we gathered in chairs shaded by macadamia trees. Emilia had arranged a table with elegant tablecloth and vibrant, fragrant flowers that were collect from the vast array on the farm, including strands of macadamia flowers that served as garlands on the table. Emilia’s grandson Adrian, upon reviewing my recent First Medicines handout on backyard medicinal herbs, instantly roamed the farm to gather specimens that he added to the table decorations.

Teaching How to Have a Beautiful Life

Emilia’s son Ricardo Lopez, Valhalla Operations Director and a skilled translator, sat beside me to deliver my remarks to the group in Spanish. Over the next hour, I sauntered through the discussion of How to Have a Beautiful Life. My long effort to translate the benefits of hypnotic breathwork, relaxation, and visualization, were serenely realized as the breeze blew, rustling the trees above. Napping dogs in dappled sunlight littered the ground around us, stirring occasionally to shift positions or go scouting. I began and finished the program with a flute song, but the program itself flowed with grace and lyricism, enhanced by its multi-lingual reverberations.

Return to Atitlan

Upon completion of the program, we quickly loaded our gear into a waiting car for the four-hour drive to San Pedro La Laguna on Lake Atitlan. We had arranged to take a macadamia tree to Nana Marina Cruz in fulfillment of the Valhalla project. They have already donated over a quarter-million of the nutritious and climate regenerative champions to various Maya groups throughout Guatemala. Emilia decided to make the journey to the lake with us so she could personally deliver the tree, along with macadamia nuts and her Emilia Aguirre macadamia beauty oils and soaps.

The Guatemala Highlands

After an equally arduous drive along the main highway, impacted from its own heavy rains and heavier traffic, we reached the highlands from where it seemed we could see the whole world. Our driver stopped to seek guidance as we departed the main highway and wound our way through several villages, descending a twisting road to San Pedro La Laguna. As we entered the center of the village, it seemed odd that a place so remote could be bustling with traffic and people like an inner city.

Arriving at Lake Atitlan

A Solemn and Celebratory Remembrance

The rain was beginning to fall as we arrived at the home of Nana Marina Cruz, daughter and spiritual successor of the late Tata Pedro Cruz. It was one year later, almost to the hour, from when I had first arrived to say goodbye to Tata Pedro before his departure from this life. To commemorate the date of his passing, a group of Quiche Maya Elders arrived to offer a special ceremony in honor of Tata Pedro and the entire Cruz family.

Quiche Maya fire ceremony to honor Tata Pedro Cruz Garcia, Heart of Lake Atitlan

Wherein the previous year I had felt like a complete novice, I was happy for my year of study and practice, guided by Tommy Harevis through video instruction, that allowed me to participate more fully in the ceremony. It was also enriching to have Lenise there to participate and share the experience. Live marimba music, simple feasting, and an elegant evening of fire offerings and dances filled the evening, while outside the sounds of rainfall, thunder, and intermittent fireworks transformed the event from one of sorrow to festival.

Shrine at the home of Tata Pedro Cruz
Playing at grave of Tata Pedro on his birthday

We spent four days and nights in San Pedro, enjoying the lake setting during the days, including a brief jaunt across the lake to San Marcos. Being the rainy season, bright sunshine was both predictably and unpredictably overcome by downpours. Every night we gathered at the home of Tata Pedro for ceremony, each with its own focus and flavor. We were happy, as guests of Nana Marina, to enjoy breakfasts with the visiting Quiche Elders and share our cultures and life stories, especially the pleadings to relate the adventurous tale of how Lenise and I commenced our romance almost forty years ago. Laughter is the same in every language.

Lake Atitlan and San Pedro Volcano from San Marcos

The Continuing Mission

Although the journey was deeply personal as part of my effort to write the final section of a book about my encounter with Tata Pedro, the underlying mission of First Medicines remained an important focus. My drive in creating How to Have a Beautiful Life was in part to structure a program that I could eventually deliver to the Maya and greater Guatemalan community. As with all First Medicines field projects, we arrive with ideas and methods, but seek to identify and strengthen the resources on site and bolster them through our contributions. This ethos has caused me to integrate these native resources and systems into the overall First Medicines profile. Indeed, that principle was what initially inspired the transformation of First Medicines through the principle of the “backyard medicine” I learned in Guatemala in 2004.

What we discovered on this trip superseded those expectations. When I informed Nana Marina that Lenise was experiencing trouble with her knee from an enduring injury that had been exacerbated by the many stairs she was climbing, she said that she would “call the Abuelas (grandmothers) to help her.” The following day, two women arrived and spent hours working Lenise over with massage, stone rubbings, and incantations which she reported to be the most astonishing body work she had ever received. To place in perspective, Lenise has availed herself of chiropractic, acupuncture, Feldenkrais, Rolfing, osteopathic manual therapy, reiki, yoga and other methods for decades and to great benefit. The Mayan Bone Women were operating on another dimension and resolved long-standing complaints in a miraculous way.

I am looking forward to returning to the Lake to continue the mission, and I am as excited about what First Medicines can gain from these engagements as I am about what we can share.

Street vendors in Antigua Guatemala, always a joy to visit with and support

Homing to Antigua and Valhalla

Our season at the lake complete, we returned to Valhalla via our first stop in Antigua. It was my third visit, after having spent about a week there in 2004. The central square and shops and restaurants that line it are reminiscent of my childhood visits to Santa Fe. That English is almost as common as Spanish in Antigua enhances my sense of familiarity and belonging. Connecting with embracing vendors and taxi drivers compound the sense of coming home.

The shift in environment and sense from the villages on the lake in the highlands to the farm was stark. Following an afternoon visit to newfound friend Elizabeth’s garden estate, we were treated to a firelit evening of relaxing company, as the nearby Fuego volcano puffed occasional showers of fire into the sky.

Elizabeth’s garden in shadow of Fuego
Firelight gathering at Valhalla

We scheduled a day of rest, but there was one final piece of business, one factor of this mission which needed to be completed. I was traveling not just as the Director of First Medicines, advancing our field work and completing a book project, but also as Board Vice President of the International Human Rights Consortium. It was through IHRC that I first met Lorenzo and Emilia in Geneva in 2002. They were being honored with the Medaille d’Excellence for their work with the Indigenous communities and the overall environmental stewardship aspect of the Valhalla Macadamia project.

IHRC has become a fiscal sponsor to many meaningful projects, including First Medicines, to assist them in the realization of our shared missions to promote Human Rights and the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Valhalla Macadamia Farm had received approval as a project. Emilia and I had to review the process and together support its fulfillment.

Macadam seedlings given to Maya widows
Macadamia seedling delivered to San Pedro La Laguna

After a nice breakfast on a sunny cool morning, complete with macadamia waffles, we went to work. It was a bit like completing the final verse of a song or stanza of a poem. It felt like fulfillment. An endeavor that had begun two decades earlier and matured through so many individual and shared successes was now forging forward. Together, we were members of a greater team effort to make a difference in the lives of individuals and the health of the planet itself.

The Macadamia tree does not just offer us delicious treats; it is cleansing the air of carbon dioxide as it does. Lorenzo and Emilia’s greater mission was to disperse these trees far and wide, reforesting the denuded slopes, helping to hold them in place during the heavy rains and supporting a healthy climate at the same time, a kind of First Medicines for the Earth.

Work session at Valahalla

Young Adrian was at my side during the meeting, adding his own comments about this and that and reassuring us that not only did our work have merit today, but it might also look forward to a promising future.

Adrian and Ricardo wheeling out new plants photo: Lenise Franks

A Graced Departure

We packed and loaded our gear and said farewell for now to Valhalla as we headed into Antigua for one final stop. Lenise and Luisa were discussing nurseries in the area, for as a horticulturist, she is always interested in seeing familiar varieties and encountering new ones. I have joined her on many of these excursions and they are always an adventure of colors and botanical Latin nomenclature. This expedition was no different, however, rather than filling a cart for our own garden, we loaded a couple of wheelbarrows for enrichment of the gardens of Valhalla. Although we would soon depart, a part of our adventure could continue to flourish at the farm, along with our desire to return soon to the work and the sense of family we have cultivated over time.

Timothy, Lenise, Emilia, Ricardo, Adrian, and Luisa huddled at the nursery before departure

No visit to Antigua can be truly complete without a nice dinner at one of the casual courtyard restaurants that encircle the square. We enjoyed a lovely meal at El Criollo and some browsing at the shops before taking the four-block walk to catch our shuttle to Guatemala City. With cautious consideration, we decided to spend our final night in the city to catch our morning flight without the risk another slide delay.

Antigua cathedral and square at dusk

The fading sunlight was met with bright lights and activity with a festival-like atmosphere in the central square. I spotted a young lad dressed as a superhero and asked if I could take his photo. “Five quetzal (about 65 cents)!” His sister said. It was one of the finest purchases of the whole trip. Guatemala indeed has many contrasts, but the greatest is it fusion of simplicity and splendor, a charm which we carry home, yet calls us to return.

A Superhero for Guatemala’s future

Support First Medicines with your tax-deductible contribution to International Human Rights Consortium: Donate Here

Learn more about Valhalla Macadamia Farm here: Home – Valhalla Macadamia Farm & Restaurant

Enjoy Emilia Aguirre Macadamia beauty care products here: Macadamia Nut Oil Skincare – Emilia Aguirre Skin Care

View the entire How to Have a Beautiful Life Program

View the entire How to Have a Beautiful Life presentation

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