A Question for The Shaman
I’d been looking forward to this day ever since I’d signed up for the writing retreat on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala a month before. Now, seated on the patio just beyond the registration desk I looked out to the horizon where a cloud hovered above the volcano on the other side of the lake as my thoughts swirled around my head and I tried to absorb what the Shaman had just told me.
The reason I was on the retreat at all had less to do with my desire to spend a week writing in an exotic location, than with my desire to explore Mayan culture. As a dreamer who is deeply curious about indigenous forms of spirituality, I’d long wanted to visit the ruins at Tikal, but as a solo woman traveler I hadn’t yet found a practical way to do that. This trip was a compromise: I’d get close to the Mayan people for a week, and the trip would be organized by someone else. It was a way to move me closer to my goal, if not to reach it.
It wasn’t until after my registration fees were paid and my air travel was booked, that I learned that our itinerary included participation in a Mayan fire ceremony with a local shaman. I was thrilled. And then, on the first night sleeping at the retreat center by the lake, I’d dreamed of a slim, youthful, dark-skinned man who touched the center of my chest, bestowing an instantaneous healing on me that pulverized the anxieties I’d brought from home, like some superhero’s ray gun. The calm clarity from that dream lasted into the next day, and I wondered if the dream had been a premonition of the shaman who would lead our ceremony at the end of the week.
But our real-life shaman turned out to darker skinned than the man in my dream, and with a shorter and rounder build. He wore a bandana of colorful cloth around his head, a woven tunic, and white cotton pants that left off just above his ankles. When he leaned over the fire circle he was preparing for our ceremony, necklaces of beads and shells clattered like a noisy rain falling from his chest.
I had worried that the ceremony might be some put-on for tourists, and when the shaman began to scatter handfuls of what looked like neon-yellow, -green, and -pink Skittles around the fire circle, I wasn’t sure whether this confirmed my cynicism (what kind of shaman includes dollar-store candy in a ritual?) or if it proved his authenticity (no charlatan would dare use such profane props).
But by the time the hour-long ceremony ended, I had no doubt that this man, who addressed us alternately in a Mayan dialect and Spanish through an interpreter, was the real deal. I’d even paid an extra twenty dollars to have my Mayan astrology read by him.
I had planned to ask the shaman a host of questions during our 20 minute meeting, including the usual things any woman traveling alone might want to know about: love, work and her life’s purpose. Plus, with a new administration installed in the White House just over a week earlier, and headlines from home about a Muslim ban slipping in through the intermittent wifi, I wondered if it was time for me to reconsider all of my life choices, down to where I should be living.
But instead, seated with the shaman and his interpreter at an outdoor table between the lake and a row of guest bungalows, I could do little more than listen as this stranger seemed to pull from within me the answers to as-yet unformed questions.
And now, with my meeting over, and my skin feeling like it had sprouted tendrils of light that tickled the air around me the way I imagine a cat’s whiskers might, I sat to write in my journal, as other guests came and went on their way to and from yoga classes or massage appointments.
As awed as I was by the experience, I was now regretting that I hadn’t, after all, asked the shaman some my questions. Just after this thought entered my mind, I heard a voice calling my name. I looked up to find the young man from the registration desk, Johnny, standing above me with a clipboard in hand. “I have a question for you,” he said.
“That’s funny, I have some questions, too,” I said playfully, inwardly smiling at the coincidence.
“Okay,” he said in the patient but slightly wary tone I imagine he often used on foreign tourists, “first I’ll ask my question: Can we change the time of your scheduled massage appointment tomorrow?” he asked.
That was an easy one. I was on vacation. “No problem,” I said.
We settled on a time, and Johnny asked, “Now what was your question for me?”
“Actually,” I said, “my question was for the shaman. I just had an appointment with him, but I didn’t ask him anything and I wish I had.”
“You can ask me,” he said.
I’d actually asked Johnny many questions already this week as I passed the registration desk on my way to meals, or to the gift boutique. I’d asked him where I could get a towel for the hot tub, and what time lunch would be served, and if the shop would accept dollars or only quetzales.
“Well, it was really a question for the shaman,” I said.
“Tell me your question and I can bring it to the shaman for you,” he said. His accented English was nearly perfect.
“You can do that?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said.
“Well, I’ve been feeling very disturbed by what’s going on in my country. I’m not sure how long it will continue to be safe to live there,” I said. I have been wondering if I should move away, like many others in the US have been doing lately.”
I felt strange telling all of this to a young Guatemalan receptionist. I expected him to give me a silly answer, or to just shrug his shoulders. Instead, he smiled warmly. “What do you feel in your heart?” he asked.
“Whenever I think about this I’m too upset to know what my heart is saying. That’s why I want to ask the shaman,” I said.
“Do you want to know my answer?” Johnny asked.
I nodded. Why not.
“Stay,” he said. His voice was tender and firm.
I nodded, knowing he was right.
“But I will ask the shaman for you,” he said. “You see, I am studying with him to become a shaman myself.”
I looked at him again, as if for the first time. I now realized that Johnny, with his toasted caramel skin and slender build looked a lot like the shaman in my dream, the one who had touched a finger to my heart when I needed caring, just as Johnny had just done, symbolically at least, when he pointed me back to my own heart when he asked me what I felt inside.
Now he was asking me for the piece of paper on which the shaman had written my name and Mayan astrology, and he said he’d get an answer for me.
In the way of dreams themselves however, this story has no real ending. The next day was Saturday, Johnny’s day off it turned out, and my last day at the lake. I never saw him again to find out what the shaman’s answer for me was.
Except of course I already had my answer.
All of them.
Copyright Tzivia Gover 2017
For more posts about my visit to Guatemala and my “Shaman Dreams” read these posts:
And this one: