Over a month since my last update and I’ve had plenty of people contact me to let me know as much. I spent roughly four of the last six weeks battling one illness or another. While I’m sure that sounds fun and interesting to those of you following along, I don’t think you truly want to read about stomach flus and sinus infections. They’re about as fun as you might imagine and I’m as about as tired as you would expect at this point. Moving on.
When I set out on this trip I had only a rough idea of where I’d be going and a list of places I’d like to see along the way. However, I only booked my flights down and home so that I could have the flexibility to go where I wanted to, when I wanted to.
After leaving San Pedro, I spent three miserable weeks in Antigua trying to decide on a next stop and getting a practical lesson in how much more Spanish I need to learn. I considered Easter Island, but exorbitant prices for flights took that off the table. Galapagos Islands and Ecuador was also far more money than I am willing to spend right now.
At the end of my second week in Antigua, I took a trip back to San Pedro for a weekend to watch the Super Bowl with some friends and fellow Seattleites. I took a shuttle into Panajachel and then took a lancha (boat) across the lake to San Pedro. There, crossing the lake, I felt like I was home again and I knew where I wanted to go next.
So here I am, back on the shores of Lake Atitlán in San Pedro la Laguna. I’ve found a place I enjoy and it’s where I want to be for now. Maybe that will change tomorrow, but today it’s where I’m at; literally and figuratively.
The plan, at this point, is that there is no plan. I’ve cancelled my plans for going to the World Cup in Brazil. I wasn’t able to get tickets in the lottery and every update from Brazil just sounds worse than the last. So, I’ll stay in San Pedro until I feel the need to move on or until my return flight in July.
That doesn’t mean the blog posts will stop. I will continue blogging as the mood strikes me or when I have something of interest to share. So keep an eye out for more. I do not expect you’ll have to wait another six weeks for my next post.
Remains of the Days (in Atitlán)
I’ve got more pictures that didn’t really fit into the theme of any of the posts I’ve previously written about my time in San Pedro and Lake Atitlán, so here’s a potpourri of photos.
Three volcanoes dominate the skyline of Lago Atitlán. Volcán San Pedro sits to the right (with San Pedro La Laguna sitting in it’s shadow to the lower right) and that’s Volcán Tolimán on the left with Volcan Atitlán just behind it
Hasta Luego Lago Atitlán
On Monday I left San Pedro, my home for the past two and a half months. When I arrived, I couldn’t speak a lick of Spanish. Two months of classes later, I can now speak a lick of Spanish. That phrase sounds very odd when you reverse it. Now I need to Google where the phrase “a lick of…” comes from. Just one moment please.
Okay, I’m back. For those who are interested, here is a synopsis of “a lick of…”. You’ve been learned!
Now that we’ve established the extent of my Spanish skills, on to some profoundly deep expressions from my soul regarding my time in San Pedro.
"It was great."
"I really liked it."
"Guatemala is different from the United States."
I feel like I really opened myself up there. Glad to get it all off my chest.
In reality it’s very difficult to put into words how I feel about my time in San Pedro. Guatemala was not originally part of my plans at all. I had planned to go to Peru in October to focus on Spanish for five weeks and then do the trek to Machu Picchu. However, my camera had to go into Sony for repairs and I was waiting on delivery of my new laptop, which pushed my start date back into November. Unfortunately, November is the start of the rainy season in Cuzco, so I decided to wait on Peru until April or May.
That left me going back through all of my research to find the best places to learn Spanish and enjoy a break from the cold and rainy autumn in Seattle. I didn’t really research much about Guatemala beyond the schools and prices so I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I got down here. A telling example was when, about two weeks before I departed, my buddy Cliff asked me if I was going to Tikal and I had no idea what he was talking about.
But after two and a half months, I found it incredibly difficult to leave the place and the people. It was a very difficult morning as I was leaving San Pedro, what with all of the dust in the air messing with my sinuses and making my eyes a bit watery. Making matters worse, I seem to have also developed an allergic reaction to Coldplay songs, as this song was playing in the Tuk-tuk for the incredibly slow journey through town to the docks. Somebody forgot to tell Coldplay (and the Tuk-tuk driver) that men are only allowed to shed tears while watching Field of Dreams or Brian’s Song. At all other times we must display the emotional range of rocks.
The culture shock I felt in the beginning was fairly short-lived and now it seems that it was easy settling into my new day-to-day routine in Guatemala, even without the benefit of speaking the language. Making a new friend who could speak English and Spanish within my first hour in San Pedro certainly helped in that regard. Said friend, Kristianna, showed me the town and provided translation services free of charge as I learned the language.
Kristianna was even kind enough to share her home-cooked vegetarian meals with me a few times. Yes Mother, I ate a meal that only included vegetables. Dad, please stand by to provide CPR should Mom’s heart be unable to withstand the shock of such an event. Or don’t. I have no idea what your life insurance situation is like these days and it’s a tough economy, so it’s your call. Just let me know if I need to return for a funeral; I believe my traveler’s insurance covers that contingency so I’m covered as well.
Anyhow, Maïka’s arrival a short while later gave me another friend who could speak both English and Spanish which allowed me a second person with whom I could practice my puppy-dog, pretty-please look with when I didn’t understand what the hell was going on.
I’ve touched on my friendship with Maïka before, here, but since I’m the one leaving San Pedro this time I can’t very well make a post on every single person I had to say goodbye to. I’m way too awesome so there are just too many people. And I don’t have enough pictures of them all to make a single post work, so get off my back! Instead, this will be another super-sized post to introduce you to a bunch of the folks who were part of my San Pedro family (as a friend put it the other day).
Obviously, my English skills are a bit strained. Not only did I wait to introduce a basic premise of this post until the 52nd paragraph, I also just interrupted the flow of the story for this comment. If any of my past English professors or teachers have stumbled across this post, I do apologize. I blame Guatemala’s…and Obama.
Of course, the vast majority of my time was spent with my teacher, Flora. As my Spanish improved, we moved from more formalized lessons into conversation to allow me time to absorb all of the new material and to practice what I was learning.
Spending 20 hours a week talking one on one with someone is not easy. Even if you don’t have a language barrier, you still have to find new things to talk about each day and have some sort of rapport. I’ve met plenty of travelers who came to study for a week or two at a time, telling me how judgmental, close-minded, and/or super conservative their teachers were. Mind you, that wasn’t every student I met, but it was clear that I was lucky to have an open-minded teacher with whom I could form some sort of bond in class.
Anyone who’s ever worked with me knows that I can be difficult when trying to wrap my head around new concepts or ideas. I ask a ton of questions and tend to test the patience of even those who want to help. So, I feel even more fortunate to have found a teacher who not only had the patience to work with me in such close environs but who was also flexible enough to adjust when a particular approach wasn’t working.
And after a certain point, sitting in the same little hut for four hours a day gets tiresome and boring. Flora was all for changing the scene and we spend many days visiting other towns around the lake so I also got to mix in a bit of sight-seeing with my classes while having something of a tour guide with me.
I didn’t come to Guatemala expecting to make lasting connections. But then this trip has been full of surprises. I have a feeling that Flora is one person whom will remain in my life after I leave Guatemala.
In two and a half months, I also spent a lot of time around the family that runs the school. Marta, the mother of the household, runs the school and a program for educating niñas in San Pedro. Her husband, Antonio, does most of the labor around the school and kicked my ass at ping-pong. Rosa, her daughter, lives in Guatemala City and was kind enough to meet me at the airport when I first arrived.
In the title of this post I used hasta luego instead of adios because I really do feel I’ll be back in San Pedro and Lake Atitlán one day. Like any place on this planet it has it’s positives and negatives, but it really became a home away from home for me. San Pedro holds a special place in my heart.
The local market (el mercado) is the primary source of fresh produce, meat, spices, local craft goods, clothing, and other materials for many people in Guatemala.
In towns (pueblos) like Chichicastenango, the local market is so large and popular that it has become a tourist draw. In the towns surrounding Lake Atitlán, the markets of Santiago Atitlán and Sololá are probably the biggest and most popular. However even the smaller pueblos around the lake have their own local markets, including San Pedro. What follows are photos from the Santiago and San Pedro markets.
In more rural areas, the local markets in larger towns draw people from all over the surrounding pueblos and countryside which can result in a rich mixture of cultures and colors. For example, in Chichicastenango, people from various Mayan tribal backgrounds converge each Thursday and Sunday to sell or buy.
The Mayan women in each town wear different clothes with the colors representing the town they hail from. Even here in the Lake Atitlán area, each little pueblo has its own unique clothes which speak to the history and heritage of the person wearing them, showing others where they come from and, sometimes (depending on the town’s tradition), whether they have kids or are currently expecting. Many locals can easily look at another person’s clothes and immediately identify the nearby clothes from nearby towns.
Bargaining is also a key part of the market experience. While food is often a set price (except for the occasional tourist), the prices of more expensive goods (such as handmade clothes and hammocks) can and will be negotiated. In fact, while I was looking at a hammock chair, the kid trying to sell me on the merits of his products immediately let it be known that although he was asking Q150 (about $19 USD), I was such a intimidatingly handsome and charming individual (my Spanish is coming along really well, so I’m pretty sure this is what he said) that I could have it for Q125 (~$16). Of course, if I had wanted it, the final price would’ve been closer to Q85 (~$11) once we were done haggling.
If you snap photos of total strangers without their permission or knowledge you are a shit human being and a low form of absolute scumbag.
Or you might be a street photographer. Context matters.
I hope everyone had a great holiday season. Things have been quite hectic here, in Guatemala, as I’m sure they were for those of you in the States or Europe (or wherever you may hail from). It’s taken a bit longer to update the blog than I had planned, thanks to some changes by the platform I use resulting in losing a bunch of photos I’d uploaded for a draft post, studies, and the holidays.
While I’m in the process of re-uploading the photos for the planned post, I figured I’d take a moment to update you all on how my holiday season was down here. And, to make up for the lack of posts, I’ll give you this one super-sized post.
Like Thanksgiving, this was the first time I’ve ever spent Christmas away from home and my family. But, unlike Thanksgiving, this holiday is celebrated all across Latin America so there was more of that feeling one gets in the days before a major holiday. No, not that feeling that makes one want to punch the person next to them in Costco, Walmart, Target, or some other big box store as they fight over the annual must-have toys or electronics. In fact, I didn’t get to punch anyone this Christmas. Personal growth or some such nonsense. But I digress.
No, I’m referring to that sense of anticipation for a time spent with family and friends around the dinner table, Christmas Tree, or the Festivus Pole. Or, for some people, maybe it’s the excitement for time off of work, a trip to warmer climes, opening (or giving) gifts, or some other tradition. Call it the holiday spirit if you want, but I think you all know what I mean.
But Christmas is different here. Really different.
For one thing, Christmas here is celebrated on Christmas Eve. Families gather for dinner and, afterwards, count down to midnight when all of the towns around the lake light off a ton of fireworks. I know what you’re thinking and, yes, it is like New Year’s Eve. The people here love them some fireworks. It’s like Fourth of July in the US, except without any real regulations on what people can buy or any kind of discernible restraint on when or where the fireworks are lit off. More on that later.
Another thing is that gifts are not nearly as common as they are in the United States. In general, the people here don’t have the resources to do gifts the way we do in more affluent cultures so it’s just not done much. However, gift giving is part of my culture and so I did what came naturally.
I spent the week before Christmas trying to find some place to have prints made from my photography and then trying to hunt down frames that said photos would fit in. Both proved harder than I’d expected to accomplish and ended up requiring a last minute trip across the lake on Christmas Eve which became quite the rush.
For the week of Christmas, my classes were in the afternoon so I had the morning free to head over to Panajachel which is normally about a 30 minute boat ride. Unfortunately the boats aren’t scheduled here. Instead they just load up and go when they have enough people to make it worth the cost. It makes sense but it really makes planning things difficult when the boat ends up leaving almost an hour and a half later than you are hoping.
To make matters worse, the lake was extremely choppy that day which meant a longer, slower boat ride and one in which we at the front of the boat had to hold up a tarp to keep everyone dry. Along with two Dutch women and another American I had the honors of exhausted arms by the time we arrived in Pana 50 minutes later.
So I was already running late and had to find a print shop, the grocery store (like a smaller version of the supermarkets we have in the US), and do a scavenger hunt to find a specific book in Spanish that I wanted to give as a gift.
The book was a no-go. Spanish language books are surprisingly hard to find here as the bookstores are few and far between. Like seemingly everything else, selection is vastly improved in Guatemala City or Xela, but then you’re talking three to five hours by bus each way. I didn’t have that kind of time, so I briefly considered printing out a bootlegged version that I found on the internet. I decided against that and moved on to the next target.
After asking around in a few places, I stumbled across a print shop that could do both 8x10s and 6x8s and actually sold some decent frames. Matting was another issue, but I really didn’t have time to be picky. They had some 4x6 frames with matting and I had a bunch of those sizes I had managed to print in San Pedro so I grabbed a bunch for smaller gifts. The shop needed a bit of time to print the enlargements but I was short on time. Using my newly acquired Spanish I explained my predicament and the shop owner cut his estimate by a half hour or so. Satisfied that he was doing the best he could and knowing these things take time, I set off to occupy myself with the remaining items on my list.
Along the way to the grocery store I came across a shoe store and got a bit distracted. I’ve been regretting not bring my favorite flip flops from home as I’ve been unable to find suitable replacements here. So with a bit of time to kill, I walked in and…promptly bought a pair of shoes.
Yeah, they didn’t have what I was looking for, but they did have a pair New Balance Minimus Leather shoes that are very similar to my favorite pair back home; a pair of shoes I like so much that I didn’t bring them with me out of fear of ruining them. They’re no longer in production and I’m afraid I won’t be able to replace them. These shoes aren’t the exact same but they’re close enough, cost half what they would in the States, and, hey, Christmas gift for me!
After making a quick run to the super market, I was back in the print shop about 15 minutes early. To my surprise they had everything ready to go and even threw in a big bag of marshmallows as a thank you for spending so much money there. It wasn’t much money for me (roughly $40), but I got the impression it was a lot for them as many people in this area can’t afford cameras let alone to print and frame pictures. Anyway, it was a nice gesture by the family and a little bit of the Christmas spirit.
I made it down to the boat launch to find far too few people waiting and no private boats available for hire. After waiting for 20 minutes I was at risk of being late for my class and we still needed 8 more people before the boat would leave. So I negotiated with the driver and ended up paying 200Q (roughly $25 USD) to leave immediately. Normally the boat ride would cost me 25Q (15Q for locals), so I was effectively paying for the empty seats. Like a good American I was flaunting my vast sums of money ($25 people!!!) to get what I wanted.
After a choppy and wet ride across the lake, I grabbed a Tuk Tuk to school just in time for class. I had a ton of stuff to do so I enlisted the services of Flora, my teacher, to help me wrap presents as we conversed in Spanish. As I said before, gifts aren’t really common for Christmas here, so it was actually Flora’s first time wrapping gifts. She took to it quite well and we had a few laughs as she attempted to deal with the copious amounts of scotch tape required for the task.
I was invited to celebrate Christmas (Eve) with some friends of the family that runs the school I’m at. The traditional Christmas food here is tamales however, the friends of the family happened to be from the US, so Christmas dinner was a little slice of home, with turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, and all the trimmings. And, because this is Guatemala, there were also many tortillas and some salsa-like offerings.
After dinner was similar to the post-gorging malaise we’ve all experienced following a Thanksgiving dinner (or, insert the appropriate holiday for your country). A little conversation and some sleeping though no football on the television because…(gasp!!!)…there was no television. I’ll give you a moment while you recover from that revelation.
Shortly before midnight we went up to the balcony to watch the fireworks around the lake. There wasn’t the choreographed presentations one sees on TV in New York or London for New Years. But seemingly every pueblo around the lake was lighting them off; some more professional looking than others. One consistent aspect is that they’re all loud.
The people here love the fireworks that sound like bombs and often don’t even have any visual aspect; like a half stick of dynamite. In fact the morning of New Years Day (yes, I just switched holidays on you, deal with it), was what I imagine it’s like living in hearing distance of a war zone. Who needs an alarm when you’ve got WWIII happening outside?
Christmas Day (yes, switching on you again) itself was quite relaxing. Everyone was up late in the night, so much of the town was late to rise the next day. Things were fairly relaxed and I spent the afternoon walking around San Juan and having dinner with friends at the one restaurant that was open in San Juan. A nice, relaxing follow-up to a hectic Christmas Eve.
So, that was my Christmas experience abroad. All in all it didn’t feel like any Christmas I’d ever known and certainly didn’t have that same sense of family that I’m used to. But this trip is all about new experiences and new cultures.
I’ve got a few different posts in the hopper and will try to post more often going forward.