Lake Atitlan, Panajachel, Guatemala

Monday, October 26, 2015

Karen Walker on Turning Negatives into Positives

Today I'm hosting my longtime blogging friend Karen Walker! I really connected with her memoir Listening to the Whispers, so I'm eager to read Karen's debut novel, The Wishing Steps.

Thank you Karen, for hosting me today.

If you’re a glass half empty kind of person like me, if that’s what comes naturally to you rather than seeing the glass half full, you tend to view things from a negative perspective. The problem with this is that it keeps us stuck feeling badly about ourselves and the people and world around us. So I’ve had to train myself to find the silver lining when the bad stuff happens. And the truth is, I’ve either learned something I needed to learn or some powerful insight was revealed, or whatever it was I thought I wanted or needed wasn’t really going to be good for me.

I’m here at Karen’s blog because I’ve written a novel, The Wishing Steps. I actually can’t believe I’m able to write that sentence and have it be the truth. I. WROTE. A. NOVEL. Okay, here’s the negative: Who do you think you are – you think you can write a novel? You’re a nonfiction writer. You can’t write fiction. You get the idea, right. These are the things I heard inside my head through most of the six years I was pulling this story out of the depths of my soul. Now, here’s the positive. I. WROTE. A. NOVEL. I did it. Despite the voices. Despite the doubts. Despite the fears. And here I am telling you about it.

After I completed the book, I decided I wanted to be published traditionally. Nice dream, yes? I knew in my heart of hearts that the likelihood of that happening was slim to none, but I needed to try. I don’t think I was being negative in that regard. Just realistic. Anyway, I heard back from one of the publishing companies that they wanted to read the manuscript. Yippee. I’d never gotten that far before. Days passed and I anxiously waited. Two readers from the company wrote critiques explaining why they thought the manuscript wasn’t okay. I was devastated. It validated all those voices I’d been hearing about my inability to write fiction.

But then I shifted into a peaceful, grounded, meditative state and read the critiques again. Both readers had read the book as if it was historical fiction and every criticism was related to why it didn’t work as historical fiction. Ahhhh! The book isn’t historical fiction and I’d neglected to say that. The positive which came from this experience is my writing an Author’s Note that appears at the beginning of the book which addresses the issues these readers had.

Life is difficult. We have moments of joy, perhaps even days or weeks. But then something happens to pull us off our center. I’m learning, one day at a time, to tune into my thoughts and feelings so that I’m not operating on automatic pilot. When I stay tuned in, I can catch those negative thoughts and shift them before they become stuck in me and I become stuck in the muck of negativity.

Now that my book is out in the world, I know there will be people who won’t like it, who will criticize it and perhaps me for having written such a book. All I know is that I was called to write it and I can’t allow other peoples’ opinions to make me feel bad about something that is so deeply meaningful to me.

 Here’s the scoop on The Wishing Steps, Three Women and a Single Story That Unites Them Across the Millennia

“Totally engrossing. A must-read for today’s wise woman!”Rev. Kathleen McKern Verigin, minister/priestess
Brighid, Ashleen and Megan: Bound through time by a curious light, a mysterious voice and a call they dare not ignore. Yet in obeying this strange force, the women must face soul-searing trials that call into question everything they know and believe — about themselves and about the world around them.
“Guaranteed to inspire you to a deeper level of spirituality and a new appreciation for Goddess.”Rev. Clara Z. Alexander
Karen Helene Walker is a widely published essayist and author of the 2009 memoir, Following the Whispers. When she isn’t writing, you will often find Karen performing in nursing homes and retirement communities as part of the Sugartime or Sophisticated Ladies musical groups, traveling with her husband of 20 years, Gary, or relaxing with a good book at their home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Visit the author’s website at
Author photo
The Wishing Steps is now available for purchase in both print and ebook versions at: You can also purchase it as an ebook on Kobo, I Tunes, and at Barnes and Noble.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Storming the Castle

I was asked to do a guest post for the IWSG website about submitting to a small press. Many writers seeking publication with a traditional publisher may not realize how many options are available for them beyond the Big 5.

And as I say in my post, "After many rejections, writers can feel like publishing companies are the enemy and their editors the army blocking entrance to the castle. In fact, editors want to open the castle gate and usher in the right person. Publishers don’t exist without writers and manuscripts but it needs to be a good fit."

To see the full post go here.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Writing and Wellness and My Darkest Moment

Author Colleen Story maintains one of the most helpful, informative writer websites I've seen. It's called Writing and Wellness, dealing with every kind of trouble we writers may experience from depression to writer's block to chronic back pain, along with a lot of positive encouragement too.

On Colleen's blog I regularly find inspiration, motivation, helpful publishing information, marketing tips, as well as that warm fuzzy feeling you get when you find another writer going through the exact same thing as you.

Colleen asks each writer she interviews about their darkest moment, which of course being a glass half empty kind of person, is my favorite paragraph to read. It's always hopeful to read about what miserable thing someone else has experienced and overcome.

This week I'm honored to be the featured writer on Writing and Wellness. I explain how blogging helped me get through my darkest moment. The link to my interview is here.

Speaking of darkest moments, today is the 14th anniversary of 9-11, the bombing of the Twin Towers, which for most of us alive now was the darkest moment in our nation's history. I suppose for the previous generation it would have been the bombing of Pearl Harbor. I do remember the assassination of President Kennedy, as I was 15 years old when it happened.

And then the Viet Nam War I remember also as a dark time in our nation, where US citizens screamed obscenities and spit on our returning Viet Nam war veterans. These young men were just kids who'd been drafted. It sickens me to think of that particular time in our nation during the late 1960s when our country was bitterly divided over a war.

Although 9-11 was a tragic event one of the good things that came of it was unity, although temporary, within the various political factions in our nation.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

When a 10 year old writes a story with passion but no punctuation and you know if it was a school assignment he'd have gotten a bad grade but it's so good you want to give him a prize or at least publish it on your blog

We went to Bufallo Wild Wings and dad decided he wanted to do the wing challenge so asked if they still did it and they said yes so then they told the manager and he got this big red light like a siren but without the noise and he put it on the table then he got a microphone and all the speakers in the cafe were saying to find the red light and watch that table because my dad was doing the wing challenge. So my dad had to finish 12 wings (with bones) that had the spiciest sauce on them in under 6 minutes. So the guy hit a buzzer and dads time started the guy was watching our table the entire time but dad finished with a 5:53.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Joy in the Small Things

My daughter recently sent me a picture of the box of clothes she was getting rid of because, as she said, "wearing them no longer brings me joy."

I thought of the clothes I wear all the time that no longer bring me joy. Two pairs of pants I used to love but now have stains on the cuffs I can't get off. Shirts that don't quite fit me right or the colors are faded. A knit dress several years old that's now pilled. The list was quite long and disheartening.

These small imperfections I try to ignore because new clothes are hard to come by where I live in Guatemala, and I only go back to the States once a year. That's a long time to wait between shopping trips.

Then I began to think of other things that take up my time and energy which do not bring me joy. Not a lot, I must admit, because at my age I've learned how to bring joy into my life even with mundane tasks. But still, there are a few areas for improvement. Like the clothes.

Have you ever given up something when it no longer brought you joy?

Friday, June 19, 2015

Rainy Season

While many of you in the U.S. are feeling the heat and drought conditions, in Guatemala we are deep into the rainy season. In the morning it is sunny and everyone is outdoors before the clouds come and the rain hits.

Gotta do laundry and hang it out to dry.

Gotta walk to the market before the water is pouring down the middle of the streets.

Gotta just get out and feel the sun on your skin.

Later in the day when it's pouring rain, wifi can get spotty. Sometimes the electricity goes off altogether.

If it gets cold and dreary, I've got a supply of wood ready for the fireplace.

It's nearly impossible to go all through the rainy season without getting caught in a downpour without an umbrella. When that happens, people stand inside stores or under shelter, watching for a tuk tuk, or just waiting for it to lessen a bit.

One of the best rains happened last year when we were at the hotel. It was evening, the electricity went out, it was dark. We stood on the balcony and watched the rain filling up the street as the parking lot across the way turned into a flood.

The main street of Panajachel during a light rain:

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Deciding What to Write

As a writer, figuring out what project to work on next is part of the job. As a blogger, wondering what to post can be puzzling. Blogging is personal, and posts with heart are what appeal to me. I appreciate those who share something of themselves: things they're going through, insights, ideas, successes and failures, ways they've changed.

Writing books is not as spontaneous as blog writing. There's a form for each genre which must be respected. A book is a lengthy enterprise, not to be dashed off in a spurt of inspiration. Maybe the first draft can be written like that, but to achieve a professionally finished work, the spurts of inspiration must be supplemented with hours and hours of sometimes perplexing drudgery.

This is why I only write the book I want to write. Whether it's marketable or popular isn't a consideration, at least not in the early stages. John Truby in The Anatomy of Story, says to "write the story that will change your life."

As I look back on my six published books, I realize each one of them fit this principle. Each one was important for me to write at that particular time, and the writing of it changed my life in a significant way. When I hear from a reader, or see a review that shows me my book also changed a reader's life in a significant way, it means more to me than all the royalties in the world.

One of my absolute favorite reviews on House of Diamonds exemplifies exactly what I mean:


 "As a reader who is struggling to start a family this story was my worst fears put to paper. But it reminded me also of the love of a being more powerful than all who does what is best for us whether we see it or not. It was honestly what I needed to read to put my current struggles in perspective and I recommend it to anyone who feels they can't deal with their struggles. Thank you Ms. Gowen for writing this book, it was just what I needed to read."

Recently I've been struggling with what to write next. At first I was doing the third book in my Diamond series. After all, it's been four years since the second, House of Diamonds, came out. And it is supposed to be a Mormon Family Saga. What kind of saga only has two books in it?

Despite it making perfect sense for me to write that next Diamond novel, I just couldn't do it. I finally put the rough draft away for another time. Apparently this isn't the story to change my life at the moment. Whenever I worked on it, I'd get upset, revisiting a time in our family's experience I was not ready to face. I want so badly to write that book but right now I just can't.

Instead I'm eagerly working on something else. That's my clue I'm on the right track--how I'm excited when I think about it, getting ideas, looking forward to my writing time, jotting things down in a notebook when I'm not at my computer.

As writers, we think a lot about sales and marketing. We have to as part of the job. But maybe we should be considering what means so much more than money: changing a life. Especially one's own.

And if in the process our work changes someone else's life for the better, then we have truly done a fine job.

"Every story I write creates me. I write to create myself." 
--Octavia E. Butler

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Location of Zarahemla and the Waters of Mormon

For my Z post last year I wrote about Zarahemla, a key city and land written about in the Book of Mormon, another testament of Jesus Christ and companion to the Holy Bible.

People often question the location of this ancient city in the American continent, and wonder where Zarahemla could be.

I'm borrowing my Z post from last year's Challenge,  Where is Zarahemla and Does it Matter, and changing it up a bit to connect it with another interesting Book of Mormon geographical location--the Waters of Mormon.

The Waters of Mormon were a short distance from the City of Lehi-Nephi. The prophet Alma and his people left Lehi-Nephi under duress and persecution from King Noah.

Escaping to the forest in the borders of the land, the people gathered at a body of water called the Waters of Mormon. Here Alma taught them the gospel of Jesus Christ and baptized them in His name.

The group then traveled from this location for eight days, and stayed for a time in a valley they named Helam. Another twelve days journey from Helam took them to the City of Zarahemla.

For a group of people to walk or ride in wagons pulled by animals-- (we don't know what their transportation was so this is an assumption, using the way large groups of people traveled across the Western plains in the U.S. before gasoline-fueled vehicles)-- it would take about 20 days to travel from the Waters of Mormon to the City of Zarahemla. This is geographical background that can be helpful if one is wondering about the location of these two Book of Mormon places.

Now, where might the Waters of Mormon be located?

To the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints native to Central America, it is not a question. They are convinced the Waters of Mormon are one and the same with Lake Atitlan. At the time of Alma, the Waters of Mormon are described as containing "a beautiful fountain of pure water” (Mosiah 18:4-6) where the people entered and were baptized by immersion. For this reason, it became a sacred place to the people and the church of Jesus Christ at the time.

Currently Lake Atitlan is a huge land-locked body of water much larger than how the original Waters of Mormon are described. However, the lake has a life-giving spring that bubbles up from the center, and because there's no drainage, the rains fill it up each year as the level continues to rise, rise, rise.

In addition to the spring, there is the legend of the Xocomil, the wind that blows across Lake Atitlan and carries away sins. These two elements would seem to validate the idea that Lake Atitlan is indeed the original location of the Waters of Mormon. And if so, it isn't too difficult to ascertain the approximate location of our Z letter, Zarahemla.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Young and Old

I think I'm most fascinated by the very young and the very old people of the Mayans, although seriously they all are beautiful to me...

The school kids with their fresh happy faces, looking so healthy and energetic

The fathers who watch over everyone in their family
The mothers who quietly go about their work, usually with a child close to them

The farmers in the fields, or out selling their wares

The older brother or sister walking with a youngster, holding a cloth over the little one's head to protect him from the sun.

I have images of all these in my mind if not on my camera. Most likely not on my camera since I respect the people too much to be sticking a camera in their faces without permission, as tempted as I am to do so.

But the very young, the babies held close to their mothers, peeking out at the world with their round beautiful faces and bright clear eyes...oh how I love to see them!

And the very old, bent over, often barefoot, trudging up the hill carrying a load of some kind or pushing a cart.

Once there was a tiny, wrinkled old woman who must have been 80, with a strap around her forehead that held a huge bag of firewood, all of which had to weigh much more than she did.

The very young and the very old of the Mayans are among the most beautiful people I have ever seen.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015


There's a wind that blows across Lake Atitlan and it has a name, Xocomil, pronounced "Sho-ko-meel". Like many traditions and legends in this area, the Xocomil has sacred origins. I'm going to talk about those further in my "Z" post, as they are connected.

The indigenous people have a belief that when the wind blows across Lake Atitlan, it takes away their sins. This is part of the fascinating story I'll discuss in my last post of the A to Z Challenge.

We are almost done!!! Only 2 more letters to go....

I'll leave you with a picture of Lake Atitlan, with the clouds gathering to bring Xocomil across the water in the late afternoon to carry away our sins.

Monday, April 27, 2015

What's the Weather Like in Guatemala?

A young man from Costa Rica said Panajachel was too cold. If you are wanting a very hot, tropical climate when you come, you may be disappointed. Be sure to throw in a sweater to go with your shorts and flip flops.

Guatemala has two seasons: wet and dry. The dry season--December to May-- is sunny and warm during the day but can get cool in the evenings. The Lake Atitlan region is at an elevation of up to 5000 ft, and the higher up areas can get quite cool. Also, there's no central heating in hotels, homes and restaurants, nor air conditioning either. I suggest bringing something warm for sleeping, in case the bedding at your hotel isn't sufficient.

During the day, it can get hot as you walk around town, and that's when layering works best. A jacket or sweater for cool mornings can be shed during the day and put in your backpack, ready for sunset. I like to put in my flip flops too, in case my feet get too hot in shoes.

If your eyes are sensitive to the sun, bring a couple pairs of sunglasses. I'm never without mine. Buying them locally can be pricey, as it's one of those "the tourists will pay for them" items.

In the rainy season-- May through November-- the time to go out is in the mornings when the sun is shining. Take an umbrella in case you get caught in the rain which nearly always starts by 1 or 2 pm.

That's when I like to be home next to my fireplace, with plenty of dry wood nearby.

Saturday, April 25, 2015


Guatemala is a country the size of Ohio, and it has close to 100 active volcanoes. It's not like they're going off all the time. I'm not afraid of them either. It's like the earthquakes in California or the tornadoes in Illinois-- it's a part of life that may or may not affect you, and it's pointless to worry over it.

The volcanoes make beautiful settings for pictures, whether clouded in mist or silhouetted by the sunset.

One did erupt near Antigua, which is just south of Guatemala City. But it wasn't like the City of Pompeii or anything. There were evacuations due to ash in the air and a lot of heavy cleaning after. Definitely some excitement when a volcano erupts, and of course danger too.

But anywhere you live will have its natural disaster waiting to happen, whether its earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, drought or the eruption of the nearest volcano. We have our 3 day emergency kit ready, just in case.

Friday, April 24, 2015

A Unique place to visit

There are so many reasons I'd recommend people come and visit Guatemala. I remember when our son in law first told us about it, I thought "I'll never go there." I was afraid to travel out of the country, and especially afraid of anywhere in Central America. The horror stories one hears, you on TV and in the movies. Once we'd arrived I couldn't believe how comfortable and safe I felt.

When one decides to visit another country it's usually for something specific, like food or scenery or shopping or perhaps family who lives there. Guatemala has all of these things, and if you're related to me, there's even family!

To me, the most unique element and what you hear visitors mention over and over, is the people. The people of Guatemala are what make this place beloved to me. They are generally hard-working, spiritual, family-oriented, happy and exceedingly friendly.

I truly enjoy living among them. If for no other reason, come visit Guatemala, and especially the Lake Atitlan region, for the people.

When my little granddaughter lived here with her parents for six months, she too felt comfortable and safe among the people of Guatemala. Here she is photo bombing a group picture. She jumped right in and when her mom tried to get her out of the shot, they said, "Oh, no, let her stay and be in the picture." How can you not love people like this???

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Transportation once you're here

There are several ways to get from Guatemala City to Panajachel, most common for tourists being the shuttle vans. Usually your hotel will line this up for you. Once you're here, shuttle vans can take you to other areas of Central America as well. Along the street are many places listing times and places and prices.

Within Panajachel the easiest way to get around is on foot, but if you are carrying a load or just tired of walking you can flag down a taxi, or tuk tuk. They're everywhere and cost only 5 quetzales, or about 75 cents U.S., to get anywhere inside town. This is per person, so if there are 2 or 3 of you together, you can add up the cost. It's good to know in advance since if you're obvious tourists, the tuk tuk driver may double the price.

Our hotel provides free bicycles to guests, and although I'm nervous about riding a bike on these crowded streets, this is the main form of transportation for local families. As in the US, a husband and wife will each have their own car, in Pana they'll each have their own bike, some equipped with extra seats for carrying a child or two.

And there is the ever present chicken bus, the best way to get to Solola or other places inland. It's only 3 quetzales to go one way to Solola, a larger town than Panajachel. Many residents go on Friday when Solola has their big market day.

 For all the villages around the lake, there's the extensive water taxi system. This is more expensive than a chicken bus, costing 25 quetzales per person to cross the lake.

The middle class residents will have a car or motorcycles. Personally, I'm happy just to walk, with the occasional tuk tuk or bus ride.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Shoe Shine Boys

Kids in Panajachel go to school half days, either in the morning or afternoon, with many of them working when they aren't in school. They'll help their parents at home or with their businesses, or they might even have their own little enterprise.

One of these is shining shoes. I've never seen girls with shoe shine kits, only boys, around the ages of 7 to 14. They do an amazing job of it, too. Sometimes several work together, one doing the shining while the others seek out customers.

My husband has always shined his shoes every week for Sunday and taught our boys how to do it as well, but now he's happy to pay a little kid to do it for him. The charge is about five quetzales, or 75 cents U.S, but they do such a good job cleaning and polishing, most people will give them more. Bruce usually pays 10 or 20 quetzales for a shine.

One afternoon when we were relaxing at an outdoor table eating lunch, this shoe shine boy came and asked Bruce if he needed a shine. He didn't, but the kid looked so forlorn and hungry, I offered him a sandwich and the rest of our big bag of Cheetos. He ate the Cheetos and half the sandwich, wrapping up the rest for later, or maybe for a little brother at home, then he just sat there quietly on his little shoeshine box keeping us company.

He showed us his shoes, how they were coming apart at the soles, and I saw they were too large for him besides. But you can see how nicely shined they are! I gave him 20 quetzales for a photo, figuring this could take care of my S post. He's putting his shoe on his kit to demonstrate how he gives a shine to a customer.

Many of the children who work in town don't get a lot to eat. This little boy is 14 but looks a lot younger. I was glad he came around while we were eating so I could share our lunch with him. There are many hungry people in this area, and although we can't feed everyone, I decided early on that when I had an opportunity I'd share what I could.

If you come to Panajachel, you'll be approached numerous times by shoe shine boys. They'll polish and shine a leather purse for the ladies, too. It can be a nuisance how they always come up to you on the street, but just remember, they're working for a living, not begging, and the little they ask for the job they do goes a long way in helping out them and their families.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Restaurants in Panajachel

I love food and especially trying new dishes, flavors, ways of preparing. The truth is I've been a little disappointed in the restaurants in Panajachel. It's a tourist area, thousands flock to the community every year for Semana Santa (Easter week, Spring break), so one would think the restaurants would be the best of the best.

You've got to really pay attention, ask around and seek out the best places. Fancy environment doesn't necessarily mean great food. More like overpriced and mediocre menu, unfortunately. Traditional fare is chicken, black beans, rice, tortillas and a little vegetable. I posted about that earlier under C for Chicken, and I can't resist posting another delicious plate from The Last Resort, our personal favorite.

What's so charming about this family-owned restaurant, is despite having amazing food at exceptionally reasonable prices, and a clean tidy environment, it's all prepared fresh. You'll see one of the little boys, a son of the chef and proprietor, run out to the corner tienda to get something specifically for the dish you've just ordered.

There is other traditional fare like pupusas, gringas, tostadas, tamales, empanadas, arroz con leche. The street vendors often have the best items, like the ladies grilling corn on the cob over hot coals, then serving it rubbed with lime and salt.

And for a snack, you won't want to miss frequent stops at the fruit carts for fresh papaya, pineapple, mango, watermelon or whatever is in season.

The larger restaurants will serve fish and shrimp and fancy drinks. Be sure to specify if you want your fish with head on or off.

When you visit Panajachel, ask at your hotel for restaurant recommendations. Or you can pop into Hotel Casa Colonial and talk to Bruce Gowen, who will be happy to tell you where to find the best food in town.

Besides traditional Guatemalan restaurants, he can direct you to a wonderful cafe that serves authentic Spanish seafood paella, a huge bowl for the table accompanied with fresh rolls and herb butter. One of my favorite places right near the hotel is the Tuscany, with bruschetta as good as any in Italy (according to my well-traveled sister who's been to Italy many times). Or if you just like basic American food, there's the best hot dogs ever at a stand that sets up on Santander after 8 p.m.

Bruce and I have been exploring and experimenting with the restaurants and street vendors for over a year now, and we have our own code for the ones we like:

Taco Kid
Tostada Lady
Chicken Soup at the Mercado
Pana Rock Nachos
2 for 1 Pizza at Pollo Campero
Fried Chicken at That Place We Like
Pie Lady
Hot Dogs on Santander
Grilled Chicken Guy
Pupusa Ladies
Gringa Place
Smokin' Joes

Buen provecho!

Monday, April 20, 2015

Gorgeous Quilts

If you don't purchase anything else to take home with you from Guatemala, like art or jewelry or a handcrafted bag, (which seriously I don't know how tourists can resist any of these items), you will want to select a beautiful quilt.

Whether it's for a gift or to put on your bed at home, or to hang on a wall for display, these quilts are a work of art. (I would suggest washing by hand or having them dry cleaned, not to toss in the washer and dryer.)

This is a colorful but fairly simple design my daughter chose for the wall of the hotel entryway. It features the sun design which is very common in Mayan culture.

Friday, April 17, 2015

OUTDOORS in Panajachel

It seems like everything happens outdoors in my town, even during the rainy season. It's odd because we came from the suburbs of Salt Lake City where people basically live in their cars or their houses, only going outside to exercise or do yard work.

But here, the whole population seems to be living outdoors.

At first seeing so many people outside all the time was exciting to me. I wanted to be part of the crowd, eating outside, walking to buy my supplies at "WalMart" or rather a small version of it called "Dispensa." And of course shopping for fruit and vegetables at the mercado, or open market.

Women making their corn tortillas outdoors for sale to passersby.

Even washing our clothes outside....

And of course drying them too!