The first time I landed in Guatemala after my husband’s death, I didn’t get very far. Twelve years ago, I collapsed in Aurora, Guatemala City’s airport, unable to move. I was changing planes, on my way to a healing center in Costa Rica, where I hoped to further my recovery from the enormous grief of losing Gary to the Cahabon, a wild river in the highland jungle of Guatemala. For the first time in my life, I was having a full-blown panic attack, or whatever it was that turned me into a shivering, wet noodle. And so I knew I had a lot of healing to do before I could return to Guatemala.
I decided then and there that I needed to complete my long, wandering pilgrimage of healing by going to Guatemala and participating in a cacao ceremony.
Oddly enough, it was cacao, the raw unprocessed version of chocolate, that brought me back last month. Gary’s friend Ben, who led the band of brothers who were kayaking with Gary on the river, had told me that the men had engaged in a cacao ceremony on the morning before they embarked on the river. Ben had grown up in Guatemala and had learned of the ceremony from indigenous friends. They had camped that night near Tikal, which I later learned was ruled during the late seventh and early eighth century by none other than Chan K’awiil, better known as Ah Cacao, or Lord Chocolate.
The cacao ceremony hadn’t registered as important at the time, overshadowed as it was by the tragedy. But when a new friend I met in England last year was telling me about a cacao ceremony he had experienced, something clicked. As I talked to the friend, who told me how meaningful his experience had been, I decided then and there that I needed to complete my long, wandering pilgrimage of healing by going to Guatemala and participating in cacao ceremony, though I didn’t know how or where that might happen.
After doing some research, I found a retreat center on Lake Atitlan that offered traditional ceremonies in a tranquil setting. I had actually been to Lake Atitlan twice before, many years earlier, and I always thought of it as the most beautiful lake in the world. The center, called Villa Sumaya, also offered training in Reiki, a healing discipline I had studied before and wanted to revive. But I soon discovered I wasn’t the only one to discover Villa Sumaya. Two weeks before I left, I was sitting next to a a fellow member of NextTribe at a Coffee Tawk at the museum Laguna Gloria. When I mentioned I was going to Guatemala, to a remote retreat on Lake Atitlan, she asked if it was Sumaya. Yes, I said, startled. What are the odds that I would sit next to someone who had been there just a few months earlier? Obviously, I thought, this journey was meant to be.
Getting to the Lake
And then there I was, sitting in a motor-driven lancha, bumping across the choppy waters of the azure-colored lake, gazing at the three volcanoes that loom over it. How perfect to be arriving at my destination by boat, I thought, as we pulled up to the dock, and I gazed up at the profusion of flowers and small terraces adorning the hillside. It all felt a bit like a fantasy, particularly because I had escaped an ice storm back home in Austin that had left my house without power. I thought about the time in my 20s when I first came to Lake Atitlan, and three friends and I had somehow managed to paddle a traditional wooden boat across the lake to a verdant hillside covered with ripening cornstalks. It had taken us hours and hours to get there. There were no convenient lauchas then, as a recent earthquake had put an end to tourism.
The sense of being in a dream continued, as I looked out at the two volcanoes, Toleman and Atitlan, from my window, with rampant bougainvillea framing my view.
Villa Sumaya revealed itself in layers, as I made my way up the steep rocky steps to my little casita on the hillside. Puffing a little from the altitude, I passed a yoga group on a terrace. When I stepped inside, the sense of being in a dream continued, as I looked out at the two volcanoes, Toleman and Atitlan, from my window, with rampant bougainvillea framing my view. The volcanoes looked quite benign, though Atitlan had last erupted in mid-19th century. Fuego, the volcano near the city of Antigua that I had passed along the way here, was still fuming.
That night there would be a full moon, and I had already set as the first goal of my stay to glimpse the full moon over the lake, as it was a Leo moon, according to an astrologist I knew. Gary was a Leo, and though I’m not usually big on such things, I felt I had to see this particular full moon. Though the steep hill blocked my view of the rising moon, I set my alarm for 4 am, when—as Jose, the concierge, had assured me—I would get the best view. And so I set out with my flashlight to a terrace near my casita, and there it was, big and bright as he assured me it would be. Ah.
A Return to the Kayak
As I began my Reiki training sessions, my next goal was to take a kayak out into the lake. Because Gary had died in a kayak, I had not been able to take my kayak out into the lake near my house, though Gary and I had enjoyed kayaking together for many years. But this was a step I needed to take, I knew, in order to let go of another of the blocks to be released on my healing journey. And so, with the assistance of a kind helper, who steadied the kayak as I stepped into it from the dock, I plopped down, and I was off, heading out into those azure waters toward the volcano Toleman.
Over the days that followed, I could feel layers coming off every day, like winter clothing.
Kayaking, of course, is like riding a bicycle; you don’t forget how. But your kayaking muscles might remind you how many years it’s been since you used them. And of course, in my enthusiasm, I paddled much further than I realized and got a bit lost. The currents in the lake were much stronger than I realized, and the passing boats created waves in their wake. But when I returned, I was glowing, according to my Reiki teacher.
Over the days that followed, I could feel layers coming off every day, like winter clothing, and as I gazed out the window one morning, I experienced something that I hadn’t felt in a very long time. It was joy, I realized. Just to be alive. In order to heal others with Reiki, my teacher had observed, I had to heal myself first, and that meant shedding those layers of guilt, remorse, and regret that come along with grief. And now I had one more goal in this beautiful, tranquil place, which was to participate in a cacao ceremony. I didn’t know quite what to expect, as I climbed to a small temple higher up the hill.
The Secret of Cacao
Paola, a native of Mexico who has been leading the ceremonies at Sumaya for several years, had created an altar of flowers and candles. She had prepared the raw cacao as a hot drink, in the long, slow traditional method, and she poured out a cup for me, saying I could sweeten it if I liked, as it can be quite bitter. I declined, and sipped the warm cacao slowly. It was indeed bitter, not like ordinary hot chocolate, but I savored it. She explained that cacao, which was considered by the Mayans to be the food of the gods, was used in many ceremonies, in particular those to help ease departed royalty on their way to the next world.
The cacao is gentle and brings a sense of well-being, and in my case, of acceptance.
I then lay down on a soft pallet while she played a native flute and pinged singing bowls. I could smell the scent of roses, and I realized how important our senses are in being comforted. Taste, hearing, sight, smell, touch. The cacao is gentle and brings a sense of well-being, and in my case, of acceptance. I remembered that my friend in England had told me that what he experienced was the feeling of being “gently held.” I was particularly comforted by the idea that Gary had experienced this sense of well-being on the morning he died, and that like departed royalty, his way into the next world had been eased.
When Paola asked me if there was any single word that I felt at the moment, I told her it was compassion—for myself, for Gary, and for all those who suffer loss. May we all feel gently held, I thought. And so it was in Guatemala, as in a dream, I knew that I was nearing the end of the long, slow alchemy of turning loss into acceptance and gratitude. Little did I know that it would be a kayak, two volcanoes, and a cup of cacao that would be key ingredients in the process.