After a week drinking carefully cultivated coffee in Antigua and becoming the world's foremost surfing expert in El Paredon, I parted ways with new friends with old souls and hopped on a shuttle to Lake Atitlan. It was one of those existential bus rides where you find yourself listening to sappy music, staring out the window and wondering what in the hell you're supposed to be doing with your life. It's hardly an infliction to go from a beautiful beach to a beautiful lake, but a part of me felt sad to be moving on. A group I'd been traveling with was heading onward to El Salvador and I found myself alone again. With only one Guatemalan week to spare.
The bus ride was confusing at best. When we arrived by the lake in Panajachel, there was lots of scurrying and fast talking about who would be dropped off where. Unlike in the States, you're not guaranteed any semblance of order when traveling around Guatemala. It can be difficult to get used to initially, but you learn to trust the fact that you'll get dropped off somewhere which will lead to somewhere else which will hopefully lead to where you're supposed to go. Because nobody cares that you have to meet Pedro at the dock.
I spent five or so minutes haggling with the bus driver about why the hell he was ushering me off and whether or not my host dad Pedro would be meeting me, but it was a fruitless endeavor. We'd made it to the last stop on the route and, with no options left, I hauled myself and my giant suitcase off the bus and took stock of my surroundings. Panajachel is beautiful and hectic, with hoards of Guatemalan salesmen willing you to purchase everything from brightly colored blankets (in 75 degrees Fahrenheit) to flutes, private boats across the lake and parking spots for the car you don't have. One man actually bent down in an attempt to shine my beige, canvassed shoes with black polish.
When in Guatemala and in doubt, hop in a tuk-tuk. Their drivers are generally knowledgeable about the attractions and for 5-10 Quetzal ($0.65-$1.30) you can get about a mile. They also know how to put the pedal to the metal. I figured there was only one port and about forty Pedros, and I had to get across the lake to Santiago de Atitlan somehow, so onward we tuked to El Puerto. The lovely thing about tuk-tuks is how they make your entire body vibrate in the least comfortable way possible. They have just enough space to fit you and two pieces of luggage which will jostle around behind your head as you cling onto iron bars to steady yourself. Then you spend most of the ride praying to avoid head on collision with a truck, human being, feral dog or equally reckless tuk-tuk.
Five minutes and twenty Quetzal later, we were at the port. The lake is as blue as it is in its pictures, with a glistening surface whose current changes with the wind. At times, Atitlan appears so flat you can see your own reflection in it, but when the chilly evening winds pick up speed, water laps at the edges noisily and boats can be caught gaining air as they stagger toward the shore, their captains shouting out to each other in passing. The lake is flanked by rickety wooden docks and white and blue passenger boats that bob around like rubber duckies, "anchored" by one or two ropes for good measure. In the distance, faint glimpses of indigenous Mayans glide across the lake in hand-carved wooden canoes. A cobblestone boardwalk lines part of the lengthy stretch of port and three massive volcanoes: San Pedro, Toliman, and Atitlan, sit centered along the horizon line, clouds ebbing in and out of the views of their respective craters.
When one extremely blonde woman drags a massive wheeling suitcase over to the docks, she begins to notice another thing: hecklers. It's laughable how easy a target I am in Central America. Despite my Spanish-speaking skills and best efforts, I’m like a sitting duck sometimes. Six different men came sprinting up to me, offering promises of extremely expensive boat rides to San Pedro, San Marcos, Santiago de Atitlan and everything in between. I'm pretty sure I could've paid 100 Quetzal to get thrown into the lake. More women with blankets and beaded bracelets stuck their hands in my face to show me their goods.
“No, gracias. No, gracias. No, gracias. No, gracias. No, gracias. No, gracias. No, gracias. No, gracias. No, gracias………”
Before I could get a word out I was being quoted forty Quetzal for a one way boat ride, which I knew to be a farce. I rarely take guff in any language, so I marched my thousand parcels onto the wharf and asserted I would not be spending more than twenty five Quetzal to get to Santiago de Atitlan. And if that wasn’t an acceptable price, I'd wait for the next boat. Until the day I died. Luckily, a gentleman accepted my offer and helped me offload my luggage into his "lancha."
The ride itself was rocky but surreal. Even though I was sitting in a boat, waggling across the lake I’d googled a dozen times from the safety of my smartphone, a part of me felt like I wasn’t really there. The photos do no justice to the expansiveness of Atitlan. A volcano that seems so close you could swim out to it (in a few days), sits like a static block of earth for minutes before you actually reach its mighty base. And when you look up high from the your seemingly tiny vessel, its magnificence evicts all the thoughts from your head. You can’t think of anything but how effortlessly beautiful Atitlan is when traveling across it, no matter how tumultuous the ride. It might have the odd bits of debris congregating at its shoreline or a few plumes of smoke billowing from the burning of wood on its hills, but the colors and textures as you forge across it are so vivid they seem fake. It isn’t until you step off the boat and into the mayhem that you feel content it’s all real.
I noticed the locals making their way to the back of the boat and immediately understood why. Sitting in the front means a steady pelting of lake water in the face as the boat bobs around like an inflatable bounce house. Still, in between attempts to readjust my pashmina around my head and shield my face from lake water, I was filled with wonder.
When I ungracefully exited the boat and walked down the far more dilapidated dock to Santiago de Atitlan, I was greeted by an overeager salesman with a kazoo mimicking the sound of a(n extremely annoying) bird. He kept blowing into it and nodding his head vigorously, as though the harder he nodded, the more likely I was to buy it. Even as I took my first steps off the dock into the crowded receiving area ahead, a steady influx of hands tried to wave me onto boats departing for other towns. I just got here!
The most (in)famous reason to visit Santiago de Atitlan by many standards is Maximón, a perceived Mayan god and folk saint whose statue is looked after by a group of men who take turns housing its shrine in their homes. Often seen as a controversial figure and not recognized by the Catholic church, the deity can be found wearing a colorful suit, sombrero and moustache, with a cigarette or cigar hanging out of his mouth. Locals and tourists alike line his altars with burning candles, bottles of rum, grain alcohol, and other offerings, perhaps even sharing an adult beverage or two themselves. The shamans who guard him throughout his stay keep watch, accepting donations of cigarettes and money and drinking from a variety of passed bottles of rum.
All in all: it’s a shit show most tourists don’t want to pass up.
Thus, when making my way through the crowded port, tuk-tuk drivers lined up along the street yelling “Maximóóóóótnóóón!” to fresh faces, knowing most would be content to go directly to his altar. As for me, I had other plans. I still hadn’t found Pedro, and the thought of lugging my belongings into a smoky den overflowing with Guatemalan liquor didn’t appeal to me. At least not before noon.
I rolled my way along a dirt path to a courtyard filled with benches. In either direction and off in the distance, groups of indigenous Mayan women and children could be seen washing their clothes on boulders at the base of the lake. They wore the traditional garb of huipils and cortes: colorfully woven blouses and wraparound skirts, tied together with a faja.
Many of the women carried baskets of woven clothing and other materials on their heads and had no qualms about wading right into the water to get the job done right.
I took a seat and waited for Pedro, smearing on SPF 50 and chugging the remnants of my water bottle. The midday sun is just as strong as the nighttime wind is cold in Atitlan, making for a wide array of climate conditions. Not that it bothered even the slightest bit. Anything is better than February in Boston.
He finally appeared in the distance, eager and enthusiastic, with coffee-colored skin and a sturdy frame. He was sprightly and in his mid-thirties, if I had to guess. I would definitely not be calling him "Dad."
“Lee-Maaaaah-ree?” he asked. In every language, my name is a thing to be questioned.
“Si!,” I replied. “Mucho gusto.”
He reached for my suitcase and pointed upward, referencing the climb we were about to make. He motioned toward a tuk-tuk and asked if I thought we should take it. Not wanting to seem like a giant, lazy wimp, I declined. Instead I followed him up the sharp incline, past the shouting locals and pop up shops of woven materials and to the main road, pretending to give a few helpful boosts to my bag as he dragged it along behind him.
“Gracias! Muchisimas gracias!, I proclaimed. "Se que es muy pesado."
After a ten minute and mostly-vertical clamber through the bustling lakeside town, we arrived at a wide, black gate. Pedro inserted a key into the padlock and opened the door which led straight into a garage. When you walked in, a car and a moped sat directly in front of you, and just on the other side was a veranda with two windows (which I would soon learn were attached to my new bedroom). To the left, a set of cement stairs crept down to another bedroom, kitchen and bathroom, and above them, clay tiled columns paved the way toward an atrium opening up to the sky. My bedroom door was the first on the right in the hallway adjacent to the garage, followed by another bedroom, a bathroom, and a back wall that wasn’t actually a wall, rather a completely open exterior facing Volcán San Pedro.
The house extended upward for another two levels, apexing at a balcony with a sink and colorful clothesline. It would appear nobody in my house washed their clothes in the lake. We were also fortunate enough to have hot water, a refrigerator and a water filter--luxuries not afforded to many in Santiago de Atitlan. The view from the top was multifaceted; A shanty town by many respects, sitting at the base of a glistening lake with a huge, green volcano hovering over it. Sounds and smells wafted all around us as winds howled and crawling clouds made dreamy shapes across the sky. The roofs and walls were thin enough to hear everybody’s business, and I soon learned the only people I’ve visited who are louder than the Greeks or the Italians are the Guatemalans.
An undeniable and unstoppable wailing emanated from the house next door. And their living room was basically connected to my bedroom. That’s how most of the architecture works in the crowded lake town of varying elevations. Everything is stacked in tiers but horizontally connected. As I plopped my suitcase in its final destination, I turned to Pedro with a look of “what the hell is going on over there?”
“Someone died,” he said.
“Oh no! I’m so sorry! Your friend?!,” I asked.
“The 90-year-old woman next door,” he said. “But here, when someone dies, the village visits their house and sings and cries with them for the first few days.” He had a sheepish grin on his face when he said it. As though he was waiting to see my cold, confused western reaction.
Just as I was about to reply, one woman let out a long, guttural howl reminiscent of a farm animal, and Pedro and I locked eyes, sussing out each other’s reactions. I put my head down and tried my hardest to look like I was praying, for fear I’d be thrown out of his house for disrespect and ignorance. When I looked up, he had a wide grin across his face. Pedro may have been a local, but he’d been housing volunteers from all over the world for twenty years. I’m sure he frequently took delight in witnessing our collective culture shock.
In that initial moment, I was both touched and extremely fascinated by the unwavering commitment to grief and honoring of the dead. They didn't sit shiva, they screamed it. But after 16 straight hours of nextdoor wailing and ear canals rubbed raw from readjusting my plugs, the novelty wore off.
“They’re not even crying anymore!,” I asserted to Pedro over breakfast the next morning. “They’re just yelling!”
He dropped his tortilla on his plate and put a hand over his mouth to keep from laughing too hard. His wife Miritza turned only her head from her perch in front of the stove-top, a wry smile forming on her face. His five-year-old daughter Azule let out a loud laugh through a mouth full of half-chewed rice, kicking her legs in excitement underneath the table.
And I sat there, sipping my coffee and rubbing my ear canals, wondering if I’d ever learn my lesson about being dumped off in the unknown without doing any research.