When Your Whole Life Boils Down to A Single Moment of Reckoning: (What do you make of it?)

Lago Atitlan Boatman  

It's now just over two weeks since I landed at the tiny lakeshore town of San Pedro La Laguna in Guatemala. There are so many experiences I'd love to share with you from these past couple weeks...it's been a blur of intensity as I've sought to immerse myself fully into a new way of life. But there's one event in particular from the last week that I cannot overlook -- one of the most harrowing and life-changing experiences of my 35 years on this earth.  

At the core of the experience is a single moment -- a quiet roar of reckoning in which an entire lifetime of meaning is effortlessly distilled. And since then there's been a struggle to find the meaning -- to determine for myself the lesson of the experience. But let me tell you the story and maybe then you can decide for yourself....

Here, then, is the story of an encounter with the lake -- Lago Atitlán -- that almost took my life. ..

Lago Atitlán is gorgeous and wild -- the largest and deepest lake in Central America -- and not a few lives have been lost in her depths. From my tiny treehouse cabin near the water's edge, surrounded by volcanic mountains, tropical foliage and a rainforest-racket of birds, it sounds and feels a lot like the ocean.

One monday morning I awakened to the usual cacophany of wild birds in the trees around my cabin, and decided it was time to take a kayak out to explore the lake. I had an itching to travel across the lake to the nearby town of San Marcos, so after breakfast and some work I walked over to the dock to speak with the kayak guys.

The waves were a bit choppy, but it didn't cross my mind as a concern. When I spoke with the kayak man he didn't bat an eye either...

"Sure, you can make the ride over if you want, spend an hour relaxing there and then come back," he said. "How long does it take?," I asked. "About an hour...."

Each way...? OK it's a bit more of a commitment than I expected, but no problem. I was pretty determined to make an adventure of it.

Setting off in my little plastic kayak, the waves bobbed me about, but the lake was gorgeous. After tipping over on a hard wave I began to realize how vulnerable this little boat was. In the world of kayaks it was a real beater -- an old jalopy of a kayak. Any secondary safety devices or advanced engineering elements you might find on a modern kayak? Notably absent. And forget about a life vest. But, hey, I'm always up for a good adventure!

The trip over was daunting and long. My arms and upper back muscles were starting to lag about halfway through, but I was energized. It was a worthy adventure, and I arrived just under an hour later.

San Marcos is a sleepy little hamlet with a spiritual bent and a nice view of the San Pedro Volcano. My hour there was oddly random and uneventful, yet filled with a vague sense of restlessness. In my last 10 minutes I found a sweet spot overlooking the lake to sit and soak in the last of the afternoon sun. I was sipping a coconut and anticipating the long ride back -- thinking of the boy watching my kayak, while considering the advantages of the view of the volcano from San Marcos. I had not the slightest idea of what lay ahead.

It was about 4:15 in the afternoon when I returned to the boat, and the waves were a lot choppier than before. The wind had picked up and the lake was alive and wild. The boy asked me if I didn't want to take a 'Lancha' (a motor boat) instead. I asked him what he thought about setting off now...

"Well, it's up to you," he said. "Some people wouldn't go, but others yes. It depends on the person really." "OK me voy..." (I'm going) "Tenga quidado," were his last words (be careful). I could tell he meant it.

The words rung in my ears as I set off without turning back. I was determined to complete the mission.

The waves were big and beautiful, and my little kayak cruised eagerly over them towards the center of the lake. It wasn't until about 10 minutes had passed that I realized my fatal mistake. The wind and currents were swiftly pulling me out farther and farther, but not at all in the direction of my home in San Pedro! I was headed straight out to the center of the biggest lake in Central America, and each time I attempted to correct the course my little boat began tipping over on the waves.

And here's where it starts to get interesting...

On the back of the kayak there's a little cover tied down loosely with flimsy rope. As it turns out, this kayak is not at all water proof, and when it tips it starts to fill up pretty quick. And the more water you have inside the kayak, the less likely it is to stay upright.

As I bobbed around the lake, waves crashing hard on me and all around, I tipped over once, and then again...my little kayak was quickly filling up with water. By this time I was well out on the lake and far from any shore. And soon my kayak was starting to sink....

It was then that the real gravity of the situation began to hit. I was at least 45 minutes from any shore (assuming a working kayak in good weather), and the sun was low in the sky. I had no idea whether the kayak would stay afloat, and it definitely wasn't taking me anywhere.

Stranded on the sea of Lago Atitlán, hanging on for dear life to a little plastic boat that would no longer carry me, the waves tossing and carrying me wherever they wanted, I experienced one of the most surreal moments of my life. Looking at the far distant shores a wave of desperation swept over me. I was completely and utterly alone.

I panicked and began to yell out loud. "Ayuda!!" Dear God, what have I gotten myself into?! I was praying for dear life. 

In the far distance a 'Lancha' passed by and I cried for help as loud as I could, waving my little paddle in the air, but it was fully in vein. How could they even see me...? It was quickly growing dark, and I was completely off course from any of the boats that cross the river.... No one was going to rescue me.

The wind and waves continued to whip me along, carrying me where they would, and dunking me under from time to time. Gasping for air under the crashing waves I swallowed mouthfuls of water, grasping on to my paddle and my kayak, and attempting to swim alongside it. The wind was strong and the water freezing cold.

By now the sun was low in the sky, almost touching the mountains, and I was considering the possibility that I might never make it to the shore. There were just 20 or 30 minutes until it would be completely dark and I'd be lost for sure. (The lake has deadly currents in the night -- currents that are known to pull people easily to the bottom.) It was clear that I was fully and completely on my own for this one.

And then The Moment came. I wish I could say it was a magic moment, lightning to my soul and life flashing before my eyes, but it was really a quiet and clear moment.

I was floating alongside my boat, contemplating my utter smallness and the powerlessness of this situation I found myself in, when a surge of conviction came over me. Having already reached the depths of despair, the determination to pull myself out of this absurd mess came to me as though of its own accord. I don't know if it was sheer instinct, or something greater than me, but I suddenly knew that no matter how bad it got, I would NEVER give up without a damn good fight.

It was just me and the world and this mad mission on a mad lake, with no way home in sight, but a fire was burning in my heart, and I was determined to make it back to the shore no matter what.

I had tied my flip-flops, shirt and towel together and I now secured them to the rope on the back, and mounted the kayak on my stomach. Laying down on top of the kayak and hugging it with my upper arms and chest, I found I could use the paddle to move me forward across the current, dipping it into the water on either side of the front of the boat.

It was my only chance, and the clarity of my determination alone is what carried me forward. There was no room for failure here -- just sheer will and determination. And so I stopped worrying, and stopped wondering. Stopped crying for help. It was up to me and me alone.

Working with the current's flow, and pointed towards land, I paddled without stopping, without thinking, without second-guessing. I was determined to go until I reached land, no matter where I might land, and I paddled without stopping.


I have no idea how long I paddled -- time stood still in that small window of opportunity to survive the test -- but eventually I began to see that the shore was drawing closer. I doubled my efforts.

Soon a small house appeared, and then a man walking. I was so happy at that time to see a human, I yelled out loud at the top of my lungs. It could not have been a happier moment. I knew then that I would make it. Somehow I would make it. And as I reached closer, I noticed several more people -- they were farmers tending the land along the banks of another tiny village called San Pablo.

As I came closer they met me on the shore, and by sheer grace I landed there and collapsed, shivering and freezing. My fingers were blue, and my heart was racing. A farmer with the kindest eyes came to my rescue with a towel and a dry shirt. He rubbed my chest to warm me up, and the people gathered round were talking and asking questions. As I sat there, breathless and shivering I looked around me and the tears came to my eyes. I held my face in the towel. I was in a state of shock.

I was alive, and I was alive. And that thought was running through my head, and the overwhelming shock of it all was racing through my heart. I was alive, and there was something akin to gratitude there, but it was more like a heart bursting open. It was a feeling unlike any I had experienced.


That night when I finally landed home -- I had left the kayak under the farmer's care and caught a tuk-tuk -- I changed my clothes and collapsed on the bed, curled up and shivering.

And soon I heard the sounds of my friend’s guitar playing -- he was doing a little performance at my local Cafe -- and I decided I had to get up and join him. It was the best thing I could do. So I pulled myself off the bed, got it together and walked up to the Cafe Atitlán for dinner and a good strong drink.

For the rest of the night, spending time with my little crew of friends here, sipping whiskey and playing music together, I was like a man who had walked free from the clasps of hell. It was hard to believe what had just happened, but here I was, alive and well, and in one piece. Life had maybe never tasted so good.


The next day I awoke early to take another boat out and recover the kayak from the kind farmer's watch. It was really wonderful to see him again -- to see his kind face, and watch the villagers recount the story to the kayak guy who came with me.

On the way back, as we stood on the front of the motor boat at full speed, flying over the waves with the wind in our faces, we spoke about what had happened. It was only then that he asked me,

"But you've used the kayak before...?

Nope, I told him, it was my first time on a kayak.

"Oh no don't tell me!," he said, "You must have a lot of experience to make a journey like that, or go with an experienced guide...!"

His friend has been the one who spoke with me about taking the boat, and he hadn't asked. He had been real worried when I didn't turn up before sunset, and had even gone out on a boat searching for me.

I laughed and replied, “Oh yes, but I love a big and crazy adventure...perhaps this one was a little too crazy even for me!”

He laughed and shook his head, “Gracias a Dios que estas vivo” -- dinero es dinero, pero la vida es la vida!" (Thanks to God you're alive -- money is money, but life is life.)

Yes, I agreed. By the Grace, I am here, and so alive.

And now one week later, as I sit in my cafe overlooking the lake and writing this story of my near-death encounter with Lago Atitlán, I feel the current swell in my heart and the waves sway in my body and spirit. It’s as though I've been permeated with the spirit of the lake and a part of me is with it now too. The boundary has melted between us at the river’s edge here, where my heart also merges with the world through these words.


It’s been hard to really choose the lesson -- there are so many. But what I felt the next day as I left my little cabin to come here and begin writing this story, was a certain indefinable sense of strength. A calm and powerful strength that courses through my body and mind still.

At that moment on the lake, peering at the far away shore and the great mess I had gotten myself into -- that moment when I came to witness the sheer tenuousness of my existence -- it was as though my entire life came distilled to a single moment. And it was that moment of reckoning that propelled me to choose life over an unknown fate, a moment that echoes hauntingly through my days since.

But as I struggle to find the meaning of the experience and of that moment -- to take away the great lesson or universal truth and share that with you -- what's even greater than the feelings of gratitude, strength and renewed conviction is a sense that I have not yet fully discovered the meaning, and that I may not ever find the one great lesson. And perhaps that's just it.

What I see now is that the core of the experience was in having the experience itself, and in continuing to build my own strength and self trust. But it was also an initiation -- an immersion and rebirthing of sorts -- and for what specifically I don't know. Perhaps it's just one of the many tests of my own hero's journey.

Instead of choosing one of many lessons, I'm deliberately letting it simmer and unfold. I chose a small handful of words to remember the experience by, and I wrote this piece. Harrowing, life-changing, frightening, transformative, traumatizing, strengthening, renewing, eye-opening, humanizing, hope-filled, profoundly revealing. I've created the space to remember what happened, and now I'm going to let it keep simmering, and hopefully keep informing my life.

Perhaps that alone is the great take-away: You don't have to decide the real meaning or purpose of any life experience -- or life itself, for that matter. Just being present with what is, reflecting deeply and letting it unfold is enough. And that just gives me a big Ahhh....

Are there any big question marks hanging over your head you could do that with, and notice the difference? Does it just feel so much better and ease-filled to you also...? Easy. :)

My near-death encounter with Lago-Atitlán was one of the most difficult and harrowing experiences of this life, but it was also awakening, strengthening, life giving. And that's why I'm on this journey -- to be fully alive in body, mind and spirit. To live a good life, and To Live -- to taste the full essence of this life in all its vast and deep glory again and again and as deeply as I can. And that I am, and for that I am humbled and deeply grateful.


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The JourneySatya Colombo