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  • Writer's pictureStanislas Wang-Genh

The third road

Guatemala - January/February 2023

The journey is a great lesson in modesty and simplicity (...) if you manage to transform yourself into a smoke ring or to be the color of a wall, you go everywhere,” he tells me.
To become one with the things of the world, in short. That's all very well, but how long does it take? It's hopeless, sometimes, Mr. Bouvier*! I can feel that something is crumbling, but I don’t want it to take my whole life…”
It is the journey that makes you, little monk... or rather that un-makes you!”

*Nicolas Bouvier

Moonless night. I am at the back of the bus, my head stuck against the window, my neck bent in two. I’m pulled in and out of the transport trucks’ evening ball, their headlights dance across my eyes, travelers of another journey bringing food to the entire region between Mexico and Nicaragua. After more than ten hours of changing buses throughout the state of Chiapas (Mexico), I look like a lost package, complete with the caved in corners. We will cross the border at La Mesía and once my passport has its new Guatemalan tattoo, I will go straight to Quetzaltenango where I’ll take another bus to Lake Atitlán. Considering the hour, I'm not sure if I’ll catch it; in that case I'll find a hostel.

It is in these moments that I reflect on the imaginary world that we can create for ourselves as the geography unfolds. The third road... Maybe it's the one to take when you're hesitating between two others. Buddha, Moses, Saint Therese of Avila, or even Rasputin... what could have been going on in their genius heads while they were wearing out their soles on the rocky ground of the world. What motivated their action? A simple desire for adventure or to discover someplace new? Not sure. There must have been a call, an inspiration, a clever little angel hidden in a thicket that pointed them in the right direction. Or perhaps there was nothing, and that's the whole point. The basis of wandering and the art of searching for nothing at all gives Epics their greatness. Only after a few mountains climbed, an ocean sailed or a desert crossed, with feet bleeding, fallen to the ground can they truly see themselves. From there, they’ll meet a passerby, then two, two quickly becomes ten, and slowly the others will begin to understand their revelations. Soon everyone will know how they have seen the light beyond the light, heard the rustle of the world, how they hold the unspeakable secrets of beauty; they have kissed eternity and discovered the answer to the great mystery: true silence. Only then can they be considered ‘Great Mystics’.

Well, me... I may cultivate aimless wandering - yes, I know how to do that - but my journey is still in its... hmm... first phase... Not to say I’m hopeless. I promise you, I'll let you know when I have my first divine experience ;)

It is beautiful. Among the most beautiful lakes in the world. But I decide not to stay there more than forty-eight hours. You can't hear the silence of the lake behind all the noise. Here, yoga retreats, magic ceremonies - cocoa, toad venom - esoteric coaching and fortune tellers seem to have eclipsed more than 3500 years of Mayan wisdom. Travelers in search of spiritual experiences have become so prevalent that the only economy left is one to meet their expectations. It's the same everywhere, you might say, but it hurts to accept it when the setting is so sublime, and the wisdom is so ancient.

Anyway, Antigua is where I want to be, I have a few contacts there and I would like to organize a Zen conference.

To get there, I hop on the chicken bus, the ones with the square jaw, metallic coating and flashy patterns. They are very beautiful. The driver’s assistant manages the money, the denominations well classified and folded between his fingers. Before leaving, one waits for a guy who climbs clumsily onto the bus, once on, he wedges his broad derrière between two seats, blocking the middle aisle. He starts to preach the Great Word while clutching his briefcase under his arm. The passengers all rally to his praise of Christ. I, too, get caught up in it. I don't know if it's his pointy moustache or that cheesy smile, but he sure knows how to capture an audience. When he's done, he dips his hand in his briefcase and pulls out a collection of vitamins: A, C, D, B1, B2, B5, B12, you name it. They are on sale. Spiritual health, yes! But not without a healthy body first!

I spend my first days discovering Antigua and its surroundings. Here, we feel the damage of an armed conflict that lasted 36 years – it’s obvious. Against a background of social inequalities, agrarian reforms, coup d'état, military junta, the civil war, orchestrated by the United States against the backdrop of the Cold War, has caused more than 200,000 deaths. The victims have largely been the indigenous peoples, who still suffer from the dark shadow of inequality and repression more than 25 years later. Today, the rate of inequality remains one of the highest in Latin America. Figures such as Rigoberta Menchu continue to fight for human rights and the recognition of Indigenous people. A fight that must persist even if the hope is dim.

In general, the 20th century in Central America was one built under conflict: dictatorships, assassinations, corruption, foreign interference and drug trafficking. And even if peace is found today, it is sad to note that the ancestral traditions and cultures do not receive the same respect and recognition that they deserve. A solemn picture and yet, the smile and the kindness of the Guatemalans are the expression of joy and the promise of a certain resilience.

The center of Antigua is a wonder, the Walhalla of the traveler. In the Parque Centrale, light shines from all sides and children run after pigeons. Behind the mermaid fountain, the façade of a neoclassical cathedral warmly embraces the whole space. In this square, mornings are bright and full of life. It is good to have a coffee here and wake up the senses.

In the paved streets, one hears frenetic applause here and there. It is the sound of the women preparing the tortillas, passing the corn dough from one hand to the other before spanking it on their work surface.

Very quickly, I meet Suzanne and Eric. They have been married for years and run the restaurant Como Como, a beautiful place where you can eat very well. French cuisine!

With the help of Suzanne and Eric and a few new friends, I learn about Jocotenango, a town in the suburbs of Antigua. There, I rent a room in a house where three young women are already living, one Chilean, and the two others, Guatemalan. An opportunity to improve my Spanish!

Jocotenango is a not-so-safe suburb where numerous gang rivalries result in deaths every year, especially among the youth. Living there, I meet Katie and her husband, both of British origin, who run a huge finca on the edge of the neighborhood, La Azotea. A place that serves as a cultural center with a huge garden and a restaurant with live music on Sunday afternoons. There is a space dedicated to well-being and meditation. But above all, they take care of about 40 horses and together have created the Lead-up International Foundation. This organization aims to help pull the young people of Jocotenango out of the traumas of violence and poverty, by forging special bonds between person and horse. I am fascinated by their project.

They offer to host my Zen conference and initiation at La Azotea. Of course, I accept, and I pledge to donate all the proceeds to their organization. When I spoke about this with Suzanne and Eric at Como Como, Suzanne very kindly agreed to be the interpreter for my lecture. Suzanne is Guatemalan, but she speaks perfect French. Everything worked out perfectly. What luck!

During the two weeks leading up to the event, we focus all our efforts on marketing and communication. Katie tapped into her vast network to bring in as many people as possible, including young people from her foundation. I was very touched by her involvement in this project. As for each of my conferences, I created a beautiful poster to be shared across social networks. After spending hours on Photoshop, I’m happy with the result.

Later that same day, I met Suzanne in town. I can see that she has something on her mind and after a few steps, she asks me if she can speak frankly. Of course! She explains that my poster is not suitable. I pulled in all the tourist elements of the city (the Arch of Santa Catalina, the quetzal bird, etc.), which won’t do much to attract the locals. She went on to tell me more about how Indigenous culture and traditions have been appropriated by tourism, without intervention or compensation from the government. Their weavings, treasures of beauty and hard work, have become the image and color of the country. They’re fighting for their rights, having gone to the court to demand justice and recognition. And still, nothing for them. I spent a whole day redoing my poster. And the result: a better-informed, simplified version, but also very beautiful.

Shaving my head in the early morning, I can’t imagine that later that day I will be holding a three hour conference with some fifty people. I am amazed by the interest that Guatemalans have in Zen meditation. There is no Zen center in Central America and it pains me to have to leave the next day without having set up a meditation group. To stay or to go? Perhaps there’s a third way…

Translation and proofreading : Haley Dolan

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