Rain pounds the earth and waters as I shoulder my backpack. I’m waiting on the shores of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala for a motorboat launch. When it arrives I scramble in among Mayan families and their baskets full of tomatoes, rice, and beans. Whitecaps skip across the lake, and soggy clouds shroud the volcanoes on shore. I’ve been on the road for two weeks on a work trip, and I’ve just bid farewell to my colleagues.
At their suggestion, I’m headed to the village of San Marcos, at the edge of this famous lake, for some yoga-focused time off. But as glorious as Guatemala has been, I am exhausted. I wish that I were going back home to Seattle instead.
Lake Atitlan is hardly the problem. I’ve rarely witnessed such beauty: a sparkling freshwater lake 1,000 feet deep, ringed by lush forests and volcanoes. The problem is that I’m lonely.
Although my life is filled with wonderful work, good health, friendships, and travel, something has been missing—a partner. Forty-five years old, I have never married. But my hunger to see the world has been too great to wait for someone to join me. I’ve visited West African villages, Thai temples, and Parisian tea salons, yet going on my own has often made me feel my aloneness more deeply.
As the boat bumps along on the lake, a familiar ache begins to gnaw at my belly. Back home I had learned about santosha, the yogic practice of cultivating contentment. The teaching prescribes accepting things as they are, without fixating on what’s absent or wishing that things were “better.” When you’re engaged in such a practice, life’s riches tend to present themselves.
For a while I’d tried making a gratitude list, ticking through it fast and often when loneliness arose. I told myself that if I just worked hard enough to appreciate what I had, I’d be happy. Maybe eventually my solo travels would no longer elicit pangs.
But as we draw closer to San Marcos, the ache in my belly only sharpens. It had seemed like such a great idea: rent a lakeside home. Spend a week practicing yoga, reading, and swimming in a tiny village dotted with places to do yoga, massage-therapy studios, healthful restaurants, and produce markets. There would be plenty of bougainvillea, birds of paradise, songbirds, and a sky and lake that never quit. But now I’m not so sure.
I reach San Marcos, and a Mayan boy meets me at the dock. He leads me along a muddy lakeshore trail to my rental house. I huff along behind him in the thin air, 5,000 feet above sea level. The shrubs along the trail snare my pack, and my feet slip in the mud; the rain wets my hair and dampens my spirits. When we finally find the house, the caretakers show me around, hand me the keys, and disappear.
What was I thinking—renting a house by myself, in a country where I don’t speak the language and know no one? I unpack and try to swallow the lump in my throat. My solitary state here reminds me how alone I am in my “real” life too—the one back in Seattle with just my townhouse, the cat, and me. As the first evening draws to a close, loneliness surrounds me.
The next morning I’m startled awake when a squirrel leaps from the thatched roof to the porch outside my bedroom. I rise and make my way to morning yoga class at La Paz Hostel. I stumble on the footpaths and pass Mayan women out doing their wash. Their tongues make staccato ka-ka sounds. I feel awkward; could they be talking about me? Their embroidered blouses are stitched in brilliant colors, and I feel drab by comparison. Young men in dirty T-shirts and rubber boots who are chiseling rocks stop and stare at me. Wrinkled brown men smile, their front teeth missing, and I’m sure that they’re sharing a secret joke.
The yoga class takes place in an open-walled garden hut topped by a thatched roof. We arrange straw mats in a circle. The teacher, a young woman from Brazil, eases us into Pranayama practice. I find my Ujjayi breath; like an old friend, it fills me with ease and comfort. We move into Sun Salutations, and for these moments I forget that I am alone in a strange place.
After class I explore the village’s narrow stone and dirt pathways, bumping and backtracking beneath coffee plants and banana trees. I find a holistic healing center, then a cafe that serves brownies, pita bread, and watermelon licuados, a smoothielike drink. There I meet Cristina, a local inn owner. She carries a baby in a sling, and her face radiates warmth. When she welcomes me with a hug and a kiss, I stiffen and pull back. In Seattle friends rarely share that much contact, let alone strangers. Yet I am drawn to Cristina because she seems to read the loneliness in my eyes. She tucks her arm into the crook of my elbow in the way I’ve seen elderly Parisian women do. “Treat yourself to lots of massage,” she advises me.
That afternoon I lie on a massage table. The therapist, a French woman with lush hippie hair, rubs my muscles and joints. My body tightens. So I try to remember the warmth of Cristina’s hug. As the therapist works, a crack of thunder sounds. The skies open up and so does my spirit.
The next day I’m getting ready for a hike when a trio of barking dogs charges across the garden. They skid around the flower beds like dirt-bike racers rounding a track, then head straight for my patio door. I freeze. Are they feral? Rabid?
The dogs leap and paw at the door. I cower in the house, but the thought of staying trapped feels ridiculous. I take a breath and remind myself to accept things as they are, even if those things are snorting Guatemalan canines. Gingerly, I open the door. Their barking gets louder. I brush past them and stride across the path with an authority I don’t truly feel. When the dogs chase me, I whirl around and shush them. For a second I wonder if they’ll attack. But instead, they fall back into playful Downward Dogs. I throw my head back and burst into laughter—the first laugh I’ve had during my stay.
An Unexpected Gift
After that, the days ease into a comfortable routine. I rise early, an hour after I hear the first motorboat hum across the water. I brew some tea and write in my journal. I feed the dogs, one of whom I’ve named Batata, Spanish for “yam,” for the color of her fur and the quality of her disposition—sweet and soft. She lies at my feet as I eat my morning granola. When I hike to town for yoga class, she joins me and then trots home when I stay on for a Spanish lesson or a tortilla-and-bean lunch. I’m back by the time the sun is high in the sky and it’s just right for swimming. Afterward, I climb into the hammock. Later I might warm up some leftover chicken mole, play a Rosa Passos bossa nova CD, shower. I get to bed by nine, read until I am sleepy, and fall asleep to the sound of chirping crickets.
This routine grounds me, and the loneliness I’ve carried for so long begins to lighten. As I climb out of the water one day from a swim, a dragonfly catches my eye. Its body gleams like an emerald. Entranced, I watch it hover above the water. I realize that I’m content to be alone to appreciate its beauty, and the thought stops me. Hadn’t I felt miserable only a few days before because I was alone? What had changed?
Contentment had slipped into my life. Not from dogged recitations of all that I should be grateful for, but from embracing what lay right in front of me. I stopped yearning for what was missing, and in its place a bounty of gifts had appeared—yoga, Cristina, Batata and the other dogs, the dragonfly, the waters of Lake Atitlan. No gift had been more precious than solitude. I’d been so caught up in seeking a partner’s company that I had not discovered my own. Here, far away from home, I had returned to myself. Santosha had resided within me all along.
By the end of my stay, waking up in the house feels normal. So does calling out “buenos” to the men I pass along the path. I wonder how I ever imagined that their smiles, so full of warmth, hid secret jokes. I’ve come to love my daily views of San Pedro Volcano. I look for the fisherman with the yellow hat in his dugout canoe and listen for his whistling.
Leaving San Marcos and Batata, my little yam dog, stings my heart. As I climb into the motorboat to begin the journey home, Cristina tells me a saying about Lake Atitlan. “Once you swim in it,” she says, “you will always return.”
Next time, I think, I will not mind going alone.