On the beautiful Lago de Atitlán, Guatemala, lies the small and “alternative” community of San Marcos. Home to an indigenous Mayan population, aging hippies and organic-smelling backpackers alike, this lakeside idyl offers an experience unlike many others. Having spent brief periods of time there in the past, the most noteworthy of which being the occasion when I was unceremoniously locked inside a bungalow whilst my shoes were stolen by gang of miscreant schoolchildren, I had until recently been oblivious to one of the village’s most infamous attractions, namely: Las Pyramidas.
Within hours of arriving in sunny San. M, you will undoubtedly hear talk of “The Moon Course.” Excited chatter wafting past on the warm afternoon breeze, baggy-panted beauties animatedly discussing the latest escapade involving Miguel and the marvelous medicinal properties of Mexican Sage. Do not be alarmed, dear friends, you haven’t unwittingly stumbled into a J.K. Rowling wet dream. They are referring to the exciting happenings of a month-long course which starts every turn of the moon, and takes place within the sacred walls of Las Pyramidas.
The Pyramids, a name preferably to be whispered whilst utilizing flowy hand movements and granola eyes, deals with the likes of opening chakras, purification and the general cleansing of orifices: literal and physical. The Moon Course is the most popular of its attractions and comprises four weeks of yoga, meditation and spiritual teaching, culminating in what The Moon folk reverently refer to as “The Retreat.” During “The Retreat” each participant is encouraged to fast and remain silent, pondering the following questions: Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? How can we get in touch with our inner light?
I don’t know if anyone is familiar with that episode of Home & Away, an Aussie soap-opera that seems to have enjoyed the height of its popularity in the UK at the beginning of the 1990’s, where the character of Selena gets kidnapped by her step-father, Saul, taken to join a cult and forced to nurture organic vegetables and suckle free-range cattle, but there are distinct overtones of such at Las Pyramidas. There is something distinctly cult-like about this Chapin Stonehenge . . .
Led by the beautiful Charity, who I like to think of as “The Head Witch” because she would sporadically burst forth in tongues as she channeled the voices of passing spirits, Las Pyramidas is governed by a group of teachers. Each of them has their own specialty and each, at least during more formal occasions, is named after one of the four elements: Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water. A bit like The Power Rangers. Or Captain Planet.
Theoretically, people can come and go as they please, either joining for a day here and there or choosing to embark on the full 28-day spiritual journey. Yet the meatless womb of The Moon Course seems to quietly incubate a distrust of people who chose to exist outside of its spongy and Spirulina-powdered interior. Or maybe not even a distrust, but a sort of pity. Enclosed within in a vegan bubble of introversion, interacting with normals becomes difficult, whilst there is a resentment towards newbies, who cannot yet understand the ways of The Moon. I felt it myself, within maybe five days of being there. As I walked around town wearing special “in silence” badge — smiling apologetically and bowing with clasped hands, like some sort of sloaney Dalai Lama — it was easy to feel superior to those terribly unenlightened tourists asking for directions, eating red meat and drinking Mountain Dew like Neanderthals.
I joined the course in its closing stages. A move which some might, quite rightly, consider unwise. I had only been there for 72 hours when “The Retreat” kicked off and I was rather alarmingly informed that I would not be allowed to speak or eat. For seven days. Now, ordinarily, this sort of carry-on is absolutely not something I would have poked at with a substantial barge pole but, as fate would have it, my friends tricked me into joining them. I was meant to be meeting them to have a lovely time in Honduras. Instead, I find them loitering around in Guatemala’s answer to Glastonbury getting their auras cleansed so, rather than working on my Advanced PADI, I found myself earnestly unpicking the secrets of Metaphysics over mugs of chai tea in Moonfish Cafe.
I had seen a change in my friends’ correspondence between the time I left to go home for Christmas and my return to the lake. My suspicions were confirmed when, after a highly irregular supper of stewed tofu and raw cacao, one of them suggested that we head to the medicinal garden for a spot of evening chanting. Formerly a fairly cool surfer type, I was somewhat surprised to find myself, moments later, with him and a group or bearded and tie-died others, cross-legged under the night sky amongst rose bushes, learning how to “Ohm.” And, sadly, that is not a sexual reference. My favorite part was when the wind started to blow as we sang, which seemed to excite some of the other chanters extremely, prompting much waving of hands and eye rolling.
Normally, Moon Course participants are asked to pass their month-long stint in a personal-size pyramid but, as a late-comer I was made to stay in a construction which can really only be adequately described as “Owl’s House,” a la Winnie The Pooh. Living in a thatched dwelling which would make a timely and fitting addition to The Hundred Acre Wood, I felt like bloody Christopher Robin. Plus, an observation in the interest of health and safely, or simply or common sense: people here meditate in candle light in houses made almost entirely of twigs. Surely it’s only a matter of time before there is some sort of horrendous accident and the whole place goes up in a towering inferno.
To be honest, I’m really not sure how much time I have for meditation anyway. It seems rather unrealistic. How on earth are you supposed to think about nothing? What does that even mean? I tried, I really did. We were encouraged, during the period of silence, to spend at least an hour and a half a day in meditation, and everyone else seemed to be pretty pro. I tried many things in my desperation to succeed, even raiding the dusty shelves of The Pyramid library (opened between 2-4pm by a part-time nudist) finding books encouraging me to “acknowledged my thoughts as friendly visitors,” but anything close to a meditative state remained staunchly out of reach. The closest I got to enlightenment was the word “malapropism” repeating itself in my head. I have subsequently tried to look for deeper meaning to the recurrence of this grammatical term, but I think I was just going mental through semi-starvation and an inadvisable over-exposure to Hem Champa incense.
On the other hand, lucid dreaming, or the art of being aware that one is dreaming when in a dream and thus able to control what happens, I find far more intriguing. It is also something which seems to fascinate The Pyramid people intensely. There is a preoccupation — some might say borderline obsession — amongst residents of The Pyramids that at any given time they may actually be functioning in a dreamworld, as opposed to existing in tangible reality. Throughout the compound, on the back of kitchen doors, in the shower, on the loo seat, the question is asked: “Are you dreaming?” There was a concern that, once one had mastered the art of the lucid dream — one of the skills taught during the course — that the boundaries between the sleeping and waking world would seep seamlessly into one another and become indefinable. In fact, there was one man who spent a considerable part of each day staring intently at his hands, as apparently in dreams they lose their detail, therefore, if he could familiarize himself with the lines of his palms he could then distinguish the realm in which he was currently operating. For her part, Charity was busy building a Noah’s-type Ark in the Astral World as part of her preparations for the Great Flood of the imminent apocalypse. Tickets, presumably, are limited.
I’ve have just been added to “The Full Mooners” Facebook group. On my first and only visit to the page, I was met by the following wall post: “Had a poo today. It was like a hard little pellet. Lots of wind. Any thoughts?” This comment illustrates one of the defining elements of The Moon Course, not only insomuch that the conversation was often centered around the consistency of faeces and bodily functions, but that many of the participants, almost by definition, tended to be deeply concerned with themselves. There were a few individuals who seemed to go from one retreat to the next, apparently willing to sacrifice relationships with loved ones who waited at home whilst they, meanwhile, traveled the globe training their Downward Facing Dogs.
I really don’t mean to be so scathing. There were some truly fantastic people amongst my clutch of Moonies. And I say that with absolute sincerity. One example has to be the girl who, outside of this month of madness in San Marcos, otherwise lives in a tree house and survives from her own allotment and recycling which she culls from the refuse that others throw away. Now, on paper, that possibly doesn’t sound fabulous, but she was exactly the sort of “alternative” person the so many trust-funded lovelies pretend to be. She was living it. She disagreed with how society was run and decided to tell “the man” to fuck right off. And not by hanging around at a few Greenpeace rallies before going for a Vanilla Frappacino at the local Starbucks, but by building her own house in the woods and living a completely independent subsistence lifestyle. Kudos to her!
Yet, for me, by the end of the course, the prospect of a different conversation and eating something other than the inside of my own cheek had become almost unbearably exciting. Still, I am sad to admit that the one word I uttered during the silence was “Fuck!” when I dropped my aviators in the lake. Not so Zen? They were Ray-Bans for God’s sake . . .
Nevertheless, I have to admit that this was a challenging and in some ways incredibly powerful experience. Not only does the whole thing take place in a wonderfully beautiful setting, allowing you to pass your (albeit completely silent days) swimming in the glassy waters of Atitlán, soaking up the colors of Guatemalan’s highlands and sunning yourself on grassy knolls but, left to your own thoughts, you actually are forced to confront and deal with them. For me this meant that things I hadn’t pondered for a very very long time, and haven’t really wanted to think about, bubbled to the surface of my mind, demanding attention. Not being able to talk about what I was thinking and therefore churning it over in my head meant that I worked through some of those nasty little pieces of forgotten consciousness, leading to some intense highs and a few difficult lows.
Ohm . . .
Back in Antigua, I think of San Marcos and The Moon Course often and fondly. Wackiness aside, it is a place which offers space, peace, tranquility and reflection: my time within the sloping walls of The Pyramid temple was, I feel, well spent. Plus, thanks to Charity and her gang of merry men and elements, I am now tanned and at least 45 percent more flexible. So, for those of you who are skeptical, like me, of the crystal-wielding approach to a break at the lake, just think of it as a Kate Moss post-Doherty style detox. For others, who behind closed doors dabble in tarot and enjoy the odd Flaxseed milkshake, this may well be your personal Eden. Good luck on your quest for the light.