:: Lake Atitlan ::
December 11 - Jan 2
We planned on staying for a week and left 3 weeks later. "The most beautiful lake in the world," rimmed by dormant volcanoes and in a state of eternal spring - simply amazing. Each of the small pueblos tucked into sparkling bays or hanging on cliffs patch-worked by fields of fresh foods, has an entirely different flavor. We loaded the kayak and left Elephante with Thor, an American photographer and student of the great Buckminster Fooler. Thor combs the cloud forests in search of Guatemala's national bird, the magnificent Quetzal and works to preserve its endangered habitats.
For a week we explored the rocky shores and Mayan villages, stayed in a gorgeous hotel, ate yummy food, chatted with interesting people, and hiked a majestic volcano. The most magical of the pueblos was San Marcos where we stayed for 2 more weeks, 3 days of which was spent in silence at a Buddhist retreat. Taught by Jose Poncho from Marin, California of all places (!), it was a sublime experience. He introduced us to movement meditation and Chi gong, similar to Thai-chi. My realization at the retreat was to finally understand that I do in fact have a culture! Poncho taught a more flexible and Western version of Vipassana Buddhism which worked much better for Heather and I. He reassured us that to practice Buddhism, one doesn't have to give up passion and that there is not only one path to follow. Whatever works for you is perfect. California's culture is one of individualism and assimilation of many different cultures. We are a fusion of all of the world's cultures and beliefs. Its wide open out west and Life/Spirituality/Culture can be whatever works for you- there are no rules. My culture is one of acceptance and individual empowerment. I love that! I love that I am finally comfortable with it. In the past I have longed to belong to some ethnic group- Blacks, Hispanics, Asians etc. all have such rich cultures. Being an American mutt I felt I had no roots. But actually, I am rooted in being me- an individual, with unlimited opportunities and the privilege to actualize a reality best suited for me.
We picked up two travelers while at the lake, Pedro from Humboldt and Sally, a friend from Santa Cruz that we randomly ran into, and took them with us to Chichicastenango. Chi-Chi is known for their colorfully loud fiestas and rowdy Sunday Markets. When we arrived the party was ripe, already having simmered in the heat for week. This pre-Navidad party left men passed out in gutters with eyes staring, unblinking, into some other universe.. they're dead!! No, they're breathing.. Wow, they're completely gone! I tried to help an elderly women teetering in the street to get out of the way of a raging, drunken crowd. Thinking it an invitation to dance, she gave me tequila kisses. People dove for cover as fire crackers cracked, barely avoiding the spewing fire balls- a surreal and disturbing experience. A passing woman with a child slung on her back and one at her side said with an honest smile that she rather liked all the parting. The culture was vivid that night: bright costumes, beautifully handmade crafts, festive music, strong, short people tolerant of chaos and drunkenness!!!
Books like Open Veins of Latin America and Rigoberta Menchu swirled in my mind as I took in the sights and tried to absorb their culture. The government, the anti-culture, doesn't pay for much social reform, education, or maintaining Mayan traditions, which is left to the foreign philanthropists. In fact, the Mayans don't even consider it THEIR government. The government is quite blatantly corrupt - the platform for one of the recent presidential candidates is that he knows how to fight crime because he himself has committed murder. The upper-class, almost entirely of Spanish descent, relentlessly exploited and continues to exploit the Mayan Indians. Poverty has for many years forced them to work on coffee, cotton, or fruit fincas where they are paid barely more than their rent for impossibly hard labor. So many years of violence and instability. Ritual murder and cannibalism by the Mayan ruling class was replaced by Spanish conquistadores with manipulating evangelical missionaries. If it isn't an earthquake, it is famine. If it isn't guerilla warfare, it is exploitation by foreigners and internal colonialism. So the outrageous Chi-Chi party on one level seemed like whimsical debauchery. On another level it is a culture that lives in the moment without preoccupation of the past or future. But when we come up for air, we realize we don't understand and cannot relate to their history or culture.
Back at the Lake in San Pedro
A community's relationship towards those with disabilities sometimes offers a measuring stick for the community's level of education but more importantly opportunities. Leo, a volunteer at Candela - an escuela especial, testifies that the school's positive contributions have come with much struggle and there is still a much work to be done. Leo also illuminated deeper layers to this touristy lake. While backpackers stroll the streets drinking organic coffee and eat scrumptious meals at vegetarian restaurants that cost a buck fifty, the men and children who picked the coffee have no shoes and were paid ~$4/day for their hard labor and the buck fifty could have fed a family of 10 for two days. Tourism brings opportunities for everyone, even the locals testify that the like the work foreigners bring. Yet, tourism blatantly exposes the differences between the haves and the have not's. The inequities have gone on for ages and the truth, convoluted and murky, depends upon one's perspective. People with disabilities are commonly hidden away. Able-bodied girls are told that if they look at the girl who has a disability she will end up like 'that' or have children who look like 'that'. When given wheelchairs or other therapeutic equipment, families have been known to sell the gift for food or alcohol. But it even gets more dynamic: this and other NGO's have not always been honest, and in fact have sometimes been manipulative. Therefore, locals will not accept a paying job at Candela and some families are untrusting of motives - making it even more difficult for honest NGOs to make a difference. Perspectives? We actually have such little experience and knowledge, a limited perspective. Are we foolish in attempting to encapsulate the injustices or problems with words? Perhaps, but as we try to understand the culture and history, we are able to make more conscious decisions. And ignoring the situation feels even more egocentric.
We bought pens, crayons, pencils and paper with some of the money our friends donated. We passed them out when children came up to our car asking for Quetzales. Often the children fought over the regalos [presents], until we explained we have enough for everyone and these are to share. One time a boy layed down on the ground grinning and holding the regalos to his heart.
Navidad a Ano Nuevo en San Marcos
We scored the most amazing campsite at a grassy, terraced, lakeside hotel. On Christmas Eve we delivered clothes and shoes to Clinca Naturalista, where Heather met a wonderful midwife named Cindy. Because she successful integrated herself, she effectively treats and educates the indigenous people by using natural methods, growing medicinal herbs that her patients can also grow. She also trains, or rather reminds, local women of their forgotten ways of midwifery. While at the lake, Heather joined Cindy on a home visit and provided her expertise on a home visit, to a boy who has spina bifida. The prospect of collaborating with Cindy working on the lake and living in San Marcos, a spiritual town full of alternative healers and conscious foreigners has Heather excited. There also appears to be website design work for me. For Christmas we were invited to a potluck in a sunny organic herb garden. The foreign locals, mostly restaurant and hotel owners, brought tasty vegetarian vittals and feasted in the sunshine. It was great to be included in this eclectic community of well traveled and intentioned humans- shamans, grass dealers, yoga teachers, indigenous families and us!
Heather's spent her birthday trying on different properties in San Marcos and Tzunena, a small pueblo a short bike ride away. Land prices at the lake are still very cheap but climbing fast! To better understand the investment potential we talked to everyone we could and finally learned the ins'n outs of Guatemalan (supposed) land laws and issues. We didn't end up buying any, even though it was cheap ($10k for a pretty piece at the lake) for a number of reasons: water, electricity and sewage services are tricky issues, land swindles are extremely common, and the crime issue certainly isn't to be ignored. Sorry honey, maybe next year!
To celebrate the dawn of a new calendar year we danced! Tabula Raza, an african-cuban-latino band, played into the wee hours of the night, then the drum circle began. On the first day of the New Year we visited Martita, a precious little girl who I was told could not walk but when I arrived with tiny crutches she greeted me with a huge smile as she clapped and hesitantly walked toward me. We passed out vitamins, clothes, and toys to the family. And we styled Martita out with new high-tops and orthopedic inserts. She didn't need the crutches after all.
On the way out of the Lake we picked up three very kind people, two peace core volunteers and a visiting brother. Together we ran errands around the Lake, had a home cooked meal at peace core sites and eventually made it to Antiqua for dinner and a few hands of bridge!