Mary Bartnikowski calls herself a CEO of fun. Sitting around one day she noticed there was no one to make dinner for. Her son was riding camels and meeting holy men in caves in Morocco when it hit her: she needed adventure and the unknown.
She used to take $500 a day vacations but, after selling everything she owned and liberating herself from the rat race, now lives a simple life and is happier than she was in the USA. In the last six years she has travelled and lived in 27 countries on four continents working, playing and enjoying.
I’m sure you’ve never heard this before: Where are you from?
I’m bi-coastal – born and raised in upstate New York then lived in Palo Alto California where I had my own photography business for 20 years –Silicon Valley clients from Apple, Google, HP, and Intel etc. I photographed over 700 weddings and at least 1000 portraits. I’m also a published author and have been writing for 20 years. My latest book just came out: Kitten heels in Kathmandu, the Adventures of a Female Vagabond.
It is an e-book with travel tales and photographs from the last 6 years of wanderlust: photographing the Dalai Lama, surfing in Peru, teaching Buddhist nuns how to do yoga, showing babies in Colombia how to salsa dance and riding elephants in Nepal.
How did you end up in Santa Cruz?
I landed in Santa Cruz because my son was living in San Marcos here on the lake – so I came to visit him and he left and I stayed. I didn’t expect to like it as much as I do but now I have friends here and am teaching photography and kundalini yoga, writing and shooting. I’ve been traveling worldwide for 6 years exploring, reflecting and learning how to be a global citizen. I travel and teach supporting myself as I go – in the last 6 years I’ve lived in ashrams in the Himalayas, bungalows by the sea, temples in Thailand, tents, houses, hotels, hostels and monasteries/nunneries. Last year I lived in Thailand for 8 months and 2 months in Bali – if it weren’t for the visa restrictions I’d live longer in each country but I do have a 5-year visa for India.
What’s so good about Santa Cruz?
Santa Cruz is wonderful- I live on this vast gorgeous lake and every day I see the beauty more clearly. What lies beneath the surface? I don’t know but I like swimming in it. I like walking into the lake early in the morning in the clean spot by the hotel where my friends live.
When I am out there in the lake swimming looking at the morning sky graced with volcanoes, verdant hillocks of dense shrubbery and vast expanses of emerald green I am blissed.
I don’t want to be anywhere else.
And what don’t you like?
Hmm, I can’t think of anything oh wait there is littering on the lake and that bothers me a lot. The lake is an ancient Mayan jewel and it is very slowly getting polluted.
I will be in Guatemala for 3 to 6 months more then I have plans to live longer in Belize, Thailand and Bali. Belize has remarkably clean air, 2nd largest reef in the world, pure ocean water and has only 330,000 people in the entire country. Cost of living is higher than in Guatemala but I like it. In fact I am visiting Caye Caulker, Belize right now for 2 months. And working.
Do you feel like an insider or outsider?
I feel like an insider because I have many friends on Lake Atitlan and know how to get around – I get the local rate for the water taxi not the trumped up tourist rate. I know how to live here by going to the best markets for produce and enjoying the mystical energy of the lake.
How do you support yourself?
I’m a pro-photographer with my own business so I get hired to get photographs for web sites and promotion – and I’m teaching private 3-hour crash courses of photography to tourists and ex-pats who also hire me to shoot. I teach people in 3 hours what took me 25 years to figure out with photography. I’m also a writer and have just finished another book – it’s on Amazon and here or available for the iPad.
Any advice for wannabe Santa Cruz de Lagunans (what do you call yourselves?)
We call ourselves foreigners or gringos. Then we’ll say what village we live in – the advice I have is to anyone who wants to live here is:
Go Slow and don’t take photos of the Mayans they dislike it. But they will talk with you – you can learn Spanish this way without going to school. Enjoy the nature here – it is drop dead gorgeous and the birds singing every morning in Santa Cruz are a much better way to wake up than an alarm clock.
A typical thing to do in Santa Cruz is walking by the lakeside. There are no roads in Santa Cruz only paths that crisscross the mountainside – it is very pleasant to walk everywhere or take a water taxi to anther village. I like to walk to Jaibilito to get the home made cookies at Hans place – he also makes bread and roasts his own coffee; if you want good coffee you will find Hans.
Mary Bartnikowski has been a hitchhiking hippie, professional photographer, published
author, kundalini yoga teacher, photography teacher, mother, and surfer. She shoots photography assignments and teaches photography to international travellers worldwide. She has led programs at Apple, Intel, Stanford University and for humanitarian foundations globally.