We left Guatemala 2 days ago and managed to catch some breath to start reflecting on our latest leg of journey. We spent a week in San Pedro La Laguna, a small town on the shores of lake Atitlan, popular with the tourists because of many Spanish language schools. We opted for a homestay with a local Mayan family and 4 hours of lessons Mon-Fri. After reading about the popularity of San Pedro and the beauty of lake Atitlan, with its 3 volcanoes, we were a bit disappointed to find a small town with a pretty bad urban planning, houses without facades , the lake that didn't look that inviting and clean and, most of all, many hippies! We soon learned that this town is a hippie heaven. There is anothere village opposite, called San Marco which is a Mecca for people interested in massages, holistic and spiritual therapies, rituals and yoga. We went there one day and quite honestly came wondering what the fuss is about. We heard a lot of talk about a special energy of this place, but it didn't do anything for us.
Back in San Pedro many of the tourists didn't mind walking barefoot even tough we definitely couldn't describe this town as 'clean'. This seemed to be in part due to the natural conditions (the earth is pretty dry and dusty) and in part to the human element: we only saw rubbish bins in one place and the locals seem to dispose of the rubbish in some surprising places amongst the populated area and generally do not seem to maintain their town the best they can. Like in Belize, there were quite a few stray dogs and some cats, but again, ok to live alongside one another; although to us, it all looked a bit sad. One thing that noone mentioned on any of the websites about the lake Atitlan, is the road condition on the approach to San Pedro! Out of a 4-hour journey from Antigua to San Pedro, half of the time is spend on a nice double-lane road and another half is spend on a much shorter distance of the mountain road leading down into the town. The average speed possible was about 20km ph, lots of sharp curves, and most noticeably HUGE potholes. Actually, I think to call them potholes is a big understatement.
The school was fun and useful. We had our individual lessons in a beautiful outdoor environment with the views over the lake. It felt like a nice balance of formal and informal, especially at times when the owner of the school took out some laundry to dry on the line during the lessons :)
The less comfortable part was staying with the family, but it is the experience that we cherish the most. We lived in a house with Melinda and Dominic, a young couple, which like most other married couples here live with his parents. It was very difficult to establish a conversation because of the language barrier, but they treated us with utmost kindness and respect, helping us as the best they could to communicate. It was also helpful that Dominic spoke enough English so we can keep the flow of the conversation in our version of Spanglish !
I thought about my work a lot during that week and was reminded how the act of playing music together makes a direct connection between people and provides a relief in overcoming a language barrier. Every time I was understood I felt 'saved' and every time I managed to understand others, I felt immensely empowered. Over days we were able to develop a closer relationship, build up on our vocabulary and have quite a few laughs! What we learned from our stay with this family is that the Mayans living in San Pedro are Tzutujil Mayans and that there are another two different groups of Mayans living in other villages on the lake, but speak different languages. In total there are around 22 different Mayan languages...and we thought there was only one! Another thing we learnt is that there are 22 evangelist churches in the small town of San Pedro and most, if not all of the people there, are very religious. We also didn't know that most Mayans here are evangelists.
From the conversations with our teachers and based on what we observed in "our" family, there is a great difference in the roles of men and women here. Most men in San Pedro seem to work on coffee farms or drive tuk tuks (although we did see one woman doing the same job).Dominic and his father went to work around 7-8 in the morning and came back around 3-4pm; they seemed to take a rest until the dinner and again afterwards; during the weekends they stayed in bed until later, whereas all of the women's days of the week resembled and involved relentless work from 6am: cleaning preparing breakfast, going to the market, preparing lunch - always fresh and from scratch and of course....always making fresh tortillas and cooking on a wood stove. After lunch there is washing up and then working on the back-strap-loom creating traditional textile items like table covers etc. back to making dinner and doing the washing up and finally more textile work until 10.30-11.00!!
I asked to help with the dinner a few times, but may have been more of a hindrance. Even tough, Melinda patiently watched me learn the tortilla making 'clapping' technique and waist a few by dropping them on the floor. All in all, there is more than we can express in writing and we will always remember these lovely people.
Looking back on our time in Guatemala, here are some things we will remember:
- Guatemalan shower: a truly unique invention with the electric cables going into the shower head where the heater is placed. Apparently safe and we have obviously lived to tell
- Guatemalan coffee. Very nice, sometimes chocolatey flavour.Our favourite choice was just black, as it is more like a filter coffee, so lighter than espresso
- Driving in Guatemala...all but one driver were ranging from careless to pure suicidal
- all imported products as well as the fuel are very expensive: a 0,5l bottle of Evan is more than £2. The same price is for a liter of petrol
- Melinda's tortillas. The best! The traditional Mayan recipe uses the mix of corn flour and ground limestone which excludes the need to use any oil, as the limestone stops them from sticking to the surface and also makes for nice soft texture and delicious taste
- lots of men with the big guns: soldiers on the roads (especially in the Petén region), bank security guards, even some shop guards
- Choko museum in Antigua
- Japanese food in San Pedro, at a small eatery run by a Japanese lady.
- women working for laundries, standing in the lake and handwashing clothes all day :(
- the stark contrast between Guatemalan dark past (and present for many) and the bright and colourful fabric and clothes
- very cold nights and mornings in the highland area of Antigua and the lake Atitlan
- a very scary but most exhilarating boat ride across the rough waters of the lake. Lots of screaming and (nervous) laughing. One person on the boat likened it to horse riding. Haven't tried, not sure I want to!
We said goodbye to Guatemala. We area happy we visited this country and we had some really nice experiences but we don't think we will come back. It is time to move on and meet other places.