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What is Luxury?

On our last morning in Ak’Tenamit, we piled into the lancha (a small boat) with our generous and talented host, Doña Miriam, and said goodbye to the towering cliffs, vibrant forests, and shimmering waters surrounding Cafe Tantin. The next phase of our course had begun. Midcourse is a brief period in which we can focus inward and recenter as a group as we take a break from reaching out towards the world around us. We set our sights on a new location in which we could reflect in comfortable accommodations. We couldn’t help but feel a little guilty as we pulled into the dock of Dreamcatcher Eco Lodge. What did our relocation convey to our host Miriam? Had we not felt at ease in our previously described “rustic” local? With heartfelt goodbyes, we unloaded onto the dock.

Dreamcatcher Eco Lodge is a small riverfront destination built upon wooden platforms that run like a track around the buildings and seating areas. One dock allows swimming and boat access. The white buildings are built with clear European influence and stick out from the local wooden style. We took advantage of the washer and dryer, cleaning all but the clothes on our backs. Our hostess, from Guatemala City, had built the site and employed nearby workers. After being informed that we were there to learn, the staff were more than happy to converse with us in Spanish. Jessica, a seventeen year old girl, told us that she had worked there for a year and was glad to have a job. She eats breakfast at home before taking a long boat ride to the lodge. She starts work at 6 and is provided lunch on the job. After returning home at night she eats dinner at 11 or 12. She was evidently grateful for the job, but our observation of the interactions between the staff, owner, and guests often revealed a more sinister story of exploitation. Demanding guests, the assumed use of English, and the overall environmental and cultural clash all contributed to this underlying and uncomfortable power dynamic.

During our two night stay, we looked back upon the first few weeks of our course, analysed group dynamics, had time to check in with ourselves, and reset our goals. We took a survey in a nearby internet cafe, wrote agradecimientos (gratitudes) to our peers, reflected on the important people who had influenced us so far, did some morning yoga, discovered talents for peer massages, continued the tradition of being terrible at untangling human knots, and in all our reflection we came to ask the question of why exactly we were calling this place luxurious, or better yet: what is luxury?

The longer we stayed at Dreamcatcher the more we began to pick at its faults. We noticed that, although seemingly fancy, the European architecture was not exactly accommodated by the Guatemalan mangrove forest. The rooms trapped heat, the windows let in mosquitoes, the sinks drained directly into the river, and there were not enough bug nets for everyone. We also noticed that no matter who, or how many times, anyone spoke to the owner in Spanish, she would always respond in English if she knew you could understand. The whole place seemed to be a transplanted western ideology disguised and flexed as luxury or superiority.

Not everything at dreamcatcher was bad. It served us in our needs for the time, but in our quest to answer the question of luxury we have observed mainly the shadow sides. The food there was always delicious, thanks to the skills of the kitchen staff, but for the purposes of the following metaphor we have picked out the flaws of one dish much as we did to the place itself. Now, our group loves pancakes. Many were thrilled to learn that pancakes are an option, breakfast and dinner alike. But when we were served pancakes at Dreamcatcher, we were disappointed to discover two measly, thin, pancakes with a large hole in the middle to contain a spoonful of yogurt. Needless to say, we were nutritionally and emotionally dissatisfied, but also left with a burning question that has since haunted the group: What did they do with the middle of the pancake? In its attempt to be boujee, Dreamcatcher lacked the fundamental cultural richness that we were seeking – the proverbial pancake center. Since then, we have tirelessly sought pancakes of the culturally relevant variety. In Qachuu Aloom, the following destination in Rabinal, we feasted on a mountain of self-serve amaranth pancakes and fresh fruit, which, of course, were untarnished by mysterious holes. Alongside such delicious pancakes, we discovered a different type of luxury that Dreamcatcher just couldn’t provide. Our search continues, not just for more pancakes but for the luxury that cultural authenticity provides. Needless to say, the pancake metaphor shall definitely guide our accommodations from here on outward.

This yak was a collaborative effort of all the girls in our group.