Bungle in the jungle

A vaunted New Age event creates ugly recriminations

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Mexican police blockade the campground, saying the festival did not have permits or permission.
PHOTO BY MICAELA TEAL SANTOS

steve@sfbg.com

Talk about karma.

The Synthesis 2012 Festival, which marked the end of the Mayan Long Count Calendar, was supposed to be an opportunity to bring spiritually minded people together around the Kukulkan Pyramid in Chichen Itza, Mexico to help usher in a new age of cooperation and goodwill. That was the vision espoused by Executive Producer Michael DiMartino, a Californian who said he had been leading tours in the area for decades and setting up this event for years.

Instead, this anticipated moment of enlightenment became what can politely be called a clusterfuck, a descent into utter chaos for many volunteers and attendees. Hundreds of Bay Area people traveling to an uplifting holiday event found themselves stranded in an isolated location without the transportation, sustenance, or communications they'd been told would be available.

Now DiMartino is trying to settle a long list of refund demands, and there are threats of lawsuits on all sides.

When I first interviewed him about the festival, back in October, DiMartino was talking like a New Age prophet: "We, through our actions and intentions, create the world and take the path that we are creating," he said.

So DiMartino is walking the rocky path of his own creation, facing recriminations for ignoring warnings about looming problems, and vilified both for his alleged managerial failures and for the sometimes appalling way he treated people.

About 150 people have joined the "Synthesis 2012 Scam Awareness" group on Facebook — which has barred Synthesis staff from joining the discussion — where they're telling their stories of hardship and woe, sharing research into DiMartino's history with other events, and organizing collective responses to the problem.

Micaela Teal Santos, who helped create and administer the Facebook group, told us her honeymoon trip turned into a nightmare of missing shuttles and meals and being forced to camp alone in the jungle after local authorities shut down the festival campground for several hours, missing the long-anticipated sacred ceremony at sunrise on Dec. 21.

It was one of many similar stories. People who were promised hotel rooms by DiMartino arrived to find those rooms had been given away to others and no vacancies were available — at a site far from any other accommodations. Shuttles that were supposed to bring revelers from other towns to the festival site never arrived, forcing people to spend hundreds of dollars on cabs or private shuttles, and volunteers who came early to create the festival often weren't provided food or water at a site that turned out to be five miles from the nearest town.

Luckily for DiMartino, he has been surrounded by people who really do embody the positive, patient, and resourceful values that the festival was meant to highlight, from his co-producer Debra Giusti (founder of the Harmony Festival) to Tulku and the Bay Area crew that created the AscenDance stage to the many volunteers who stepped up to address the myriad problems and voids that manifested as the event unfolded.

"That's the real story, it's how people under extreme adversity came together to make this happen," said Giusti, who has been working almost every day since the festival officially ended on Dec. 23 to deal with its fallout, from the attendees still stranded in Mexico without money to get back to the bus filled with festival supplies that still hasn't returned, to the dozens of attendees who say they feel cheated by DiMartino.

Many of the DiMartino's biggest critics have made efforts to remain positive and couch their criticisms in the New Age style of empowerment and acceptance but it's clearly been a bitter disappointment to attendees who hoped the festival would be a launching pad into a new era of harmony and hope.

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