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I’m now back in San José, Costa Rica. Let’s get straight to the good news: two days ago, Wolf was released from the hospital. He is now very happily at his home in Monteverde. He is free of infection – may he remain that way for a very long time. He is taking medications that are keeping him alert and relatively clear but also allowing sleep (for everyone). I have spoken with him a couple of times and he is full of plans and optimistic.
On the book front, I have been snarled in the red tape of dealing with a big company, Café Britt, in Costa Rica. My contact there has been very helpful and most supportive, but there are procedures that one can’t get around regarding details like commercial invoices. With the help of the exceptionally wonderful Deb Hamilton in Monteverde (of Chunches Bookstore and the Bellbird Conservation Project) I think I have jumped through the last hoop to get the books into the airport stores for the thirty day trial. As soon as I know they are on the shelves, barring any more unforeseen issues, I will let y’all know so that you can hopefully spread the word to travelers who may be able to buy a copy and help us secure a bigger contract.
Next week I will continue working with Lester Gomez, who is editing the Spanish translation of the book. We spent several hours together before I went to Guatemala and have many more days of work to finish. He is very keen about the project, even more so after talking directly with me about Wolf, Monteverde and this great project of love. He has become a valuable part of the team that keeps Wolf’s stories spreading further. I think the published book is beginning to come to a boil.
But it is really Guatemala that I want to write about. After those great few days in beautiful Antigua with EDITUS, I went up to San Pedro la Laguna on magical Lake Atitlan. There are other ways of describing this place – spiritual, serene, stunning – but magical is how it seems to me. The clouds and light and winds are constantly shifting. Tinkling laughter floats past, voices of ancient tongues rise then disperse, the spirits of the ancestors linger by the shore caught between the old world of their existence and the new world of change.
Owners of land within one hundred meters of the lake edge keep an eye on the rising water that has already drowned many individuals’ concrete dreams. All eyes are on the Mayan calendar that marks only twenty-two more months before turning its final page and we head precariously into the next five thousand years.
I was visiting my friends Treeza and Rick who built a comfortable beautiful home last year. Their property originally ran from the walking path down to the water’s edge – about 150 feet. In this last year they have lost more than fifty of those precious feet. They had a concrete gateway that is now in the water, their property line moved back substantially.
The good news is they now have waterfront property with American coots and other water birds floating in the marsh, men harvesting tule (reeds used for mats and baskets) from their wooden kayaks, local women washing their endless piles of clothes just over the bamboo fence that surrounds their property.
I was told that the lake, a cauldron surrounded by volcanoes whose slopes host several indigenous villages, has no natural outlet. It is a catch basin and, in the same extreme weather period that the whole world is experiencing, heavy rainfall has kept the lake on a steady rise. It is already the deepest lake in Central America and, it would seem, it’s getting deeper each rainy season.
Last year, the lake and all the living creatures that depend on its benevolence suffered from a serious outbreak of a Lyngbya microorganism (or cyanobacteria) which spread rapidly, forming mats of fibrous scum that floated on the surface. This was fed by the high levels of phosphorous and nitrogen that are in the fertilizers being used around the lake for the coffee crops as well as the wide variety of farm crops – corn, onions, lettuce, strawberries, cabbage and on and on. Untreated sewage flowing directly into the lake from the growing communities, introduced fish species that have diminished populations of endemic feeders, and a rising water temperature (that ol’ global warming) have created an environmental disaster that has affected every aspect of life on this beautiful landscape.
The Kaqchikel and Tz’utujil people continue their subsistence farming, speak their Mayan languages and wear their colourful traditional clothing. The culture is strong but change is everywhere led by these environmental challenges and tourism. Like in all places dependent on that fickle industry, the rise and fall of tourist numbers either over-stresses people and systems at its height or leaves boats empty and vendors’ stalls abandoned when numbers drop. After millennia of clean water supplies, the communities are now warned not to drink the water that alone bathe in it.
Groups of women and children worked together to remove the mats of scum. There was little of it apparent last week so it is either under control or conditions are less favourable right now. The day Rick and I went out in a kayak, we returned to find a large group of local Mayan fishermen cleaning up the trash – both plastic and natural – along the shore. With the problems they are encountering, it will take a village – as well as a reluctant government’s money and international aid – to take care of this priceless aquatic and volcanic heaven.
People I met when I was in San Pedro two years ago told me that this last year was very hard for the lack of business due to the harsh weather and the bacteria-story keeping tourists away, besides the devastation caused by the rising water level. Then there were the serious landslides that washed many homes down in a river of mud and rock. If there is any truth to the prophesy that there will be mass confusion and disasters in the lead up to 2012, San Pedro may be a micro-example of what is to come.
A Canadian who has been in San Pedro for many years, Dave, lost his home and two of his dogs to a landslide last year. He closed one restaurant and then reopened a new one with new partners called Bubuluski’s. On Friday nights they have “white table cloth dinners” – fixed menu theme dinners. I was there for Romanian night. Felicia, a co-partner in the restaurant and a Romanian, created a beautiful menu of cabbage rolls (sarmale), a vegetable casserole (ghiveci) and tochitura which is tasty roasted pork in wine sauce. There was a fantastic beef salad as an appetizer and a chocolate desert. All this for about $7.50! Food in Guatemala is so cheap and in San Pedro, fantastic food abounds.
I went on a hike one morning with Dave, his two dogs Can Can and Mimi, and Steve, a sweet man from Oregon, through the community of T’zununa to a waterfall. As almost every day at this time of the year is on the lake, it was hot and sunny. We walked in searing sunlight up an exposed rocky trail. I felt the elevation – about 3500 meters or twice that of Monteverde – in my breathing. Arriving to the cool mist of this fresh mountain water stream was a just reward.
Another day I went by boat with another lovely man from Oregon, Michael, to the town of Santiago. I had seen the textiles from this town that feature beautiful embroidered birds and so I went to buy myself a bag with birds on it. Michael is old friends with Dave, the owner of the Posada de Santiago, a hotel and restaurant that’s been growing for 35 years. I have to say that I had a glorious French Onion Soup (of which I’m a connoisseur) for lunch, a tasty Caesar salad and excellent Bloody Mary. Next time on the lake, I’ll return to this restaurant for its great food and the possibility of hearing live music, something it is renowned for.
One of the hottest food tickets in San Pedro happens only on Sundays. A big red-headed character named Nestor Castillo has created Smokin’ Joe’s BBQ. He started a couple of years ago with his own line of salsas and smoked meats and it has grown into BBQ gone wild! Held at la Piscina – a happening bar and swimming pool scene I wrote a lot about two years ago – Nestor keeps the BBQ hot for a huge menu until he runs out. People now come from all over the lake for his excellent products – meat, chicken and tuna steaks augmented by several sides of salads and vegetable dishes. I think this guy should be on the Food Channel and it is only a matter of time until somebody discovers him both for the great food he makes and his kinda crazy manner, that alone the cool order delivery system he has – a wire strung between where his wife sits at the bar taking orders and Nestor controlling the fire. She slings a clothes-peg carrying the little order paper across the yard with a “whhhhhinggggg” to Nestor. If you go to San pedro, don’t miss it!
Another thing not to miss is this – the finest hot stone massage you could ask for – two hours of slippery rock bliss, herbal seduction and the magic hands of Andrea, another Canadian living the good life in San Pedro. Follow the signs that are on the eastern side of town. For just over $25 US, you can’t beat the rub and you’ll float home to dream of sliding over rocks in a stream of soft fragrant oil.
I want to recommend a nice little hotel – $7 will get you a private room with cable TV and wireless. Hotel San Antonio is along the path heading east from the Pana-dock (where boats come in from Panajachel). I only stayed a couple of nights there as I wanted to be closer to Rick and Treeza’s, but would have been very happy there for ages. Nice people, beautiful rooms, and a little café downstairs open early for all your caffeine needs.
As I wrote in an earlier blog, I was going to try to find out what the expectations for 2012 were in the center of this Mayan world. I spent awhile talking with a local ashuan, Juan. He has just come back from a tour, attending conferences and gatherings, speaking as a messenger of Mayan thought, and history and prediction. He is also the owner of Big Foot Travel and an expert on things local, touristy, and popular. Another character not to be missed.
I asked him about the changes in his community, on the lake, and the upcoming calendar climax. He is a very funny rather irreverent guy, but speaks about the Mayan prophecy quite seriously. The elders have been predicting much of what is happening – the rising lake, the sliding slopes – but so many people haven’t listened.
Juan’s main message was this – 2012 will be a year of great celebration. Party, as we’ve made it this far and life will go on after! Yes, there will be upheavals, and there will be collapsed systems. The further you are from the natural world and the more dependent on the false gods of money and materialism, the more you may suffer. But the closer you are to Gaia, the Mother Earth, and to the power at the center of the universe – whether you call that power Allah, Manitou, God or Self – the closer you will be to the biggest fiesta of our time.
It seems to me that we have about twenty-two more months to figure some things out. Maybe I’ll make it back to beautiful Lake Atitlan before…I love seeing Rick and Treeza and their friends and appreciate everyone’s hospitality. Thanks guys! In the meantime, it’s back to the jungle for me….
After over thirty years of dreaming of this place, I have finally come to el lago de Atitlan in Guatemala. I am so fortunate to have my good friends, Rick and Treeza, here – they’ve been spending winter here for the last five years or so and are now preparing to build a house in the lakeside community of San Pedro. Although they, and others I spoke to while staying in Antigua for a couple of days, describe this place as a village, I think that the place is growing up around everyone faster than they are aware. There are between twelve and fifteen thousand inhabitants, or more, now. Certainly it is a bustling place that laps the lakeshore and then winds its way in a series of paths, alleyways and terraces up to the volcano that looms behind – to this Canadian, it is definitely a good-sized town.
I came to Guatemala with the high expectations of a magical landscape that would be home to a colorful and friendly people and so far I have had these long held ideals met by the people and the place. Since I have some familiarity with other parts of Latin America, especially Costa Rica, I felt quite at home when I walked out of the modern airport in Guatemala City and saw the crowd of people pushing against the barriers, waiting for family and friends or to hustle a taxi fare out of the arriving planeloads of tourists. Arriving into that chaos in a new place always makes a big impact until you’ve done it a few times. Speaking the language helps to take away some of the confusion.
An elegant modern tipica Mayan – notice the great shoes…
The first language in this country is a variety of the different dialects of the Mayans but Spanish has been here for centuries and the Mayans speak it in a more understandable way than anyone else I’ve heard, probably because it is their second language. They speak it very cleanly and patiently and politely for the most part, and so my personal version of Spanish – learned in the campo of Costa Rica, spoken with a French accent that I picked up in the northern bush of Quebec, colored by my lack of attention to detail and perfection – well it works very well here. I find very little problem in understanding anything except the new vocabulary that is indigenous to this place.
I took a $10 shuttle van to Antigua as people uniformly seem to recommend getting out of the city, or Guate, quickly. Antigua is a smallish ancient cobble-stoned city where people have headed for years to study Spanish. The Mayan population there is accustomed to the ways of foreigners and tourism runs the economy but the traditional aspects of the place are still strong. Although I just arrived in this new country and city, I was eased into its comfortable slow and friendly pace.
I met a nice guy from Montreal, Georges, on the shuttle and we stayed at the same hotel, the very pretty Mayan-family run San Vicente Hotel, right downtown but off the street with a plant-covered courtyard, very colonial looking, with Hugo the talking parrot and Toby the terrier mascot. Georges and I discovered the joys of the city together, heading out by foot and just walking and circling, visiting the big cemetery that houses the ancestors, taking pictures in the amazingly clear mountain light, and trying out a variety of restaurants – great breakfast at La Escudilla, sunset at Cafe Sky.
Antigua sits on a flat table at the base of volcanoes – one of those places where you feel peaceful and protected by the shadowy mountains but are aware that this tranquility can be fleeting if one of those volcanoes decides to roar or an earth tremor wants to well up from below. Signs of destruction are all around in the old churches and traditional houses but there is a very modern energy that permeates out of the painted facades and old stone walls.
The mercado central, as is present in so many communities in the world, takes up blocks at the northwest end of town, where mostly Mayans dressed in their bright woven clothing are selling everything from fruit and fresh patted tortillas to bootleg CDs and plastic conveniences. Because of it being Christmas time, there was a whole section of decorations – many cornstalk and grass nativity figures, seasonal plants, and religious figures, but also tables of singing strings of Christmas tree lights that made me crazy just walking past as well as the aluminum-foil wreaths, hanging stars and garlands. I have been amazed in the past when I’ve spent December in Costa Rica at the art form I call tinsel-creations – I bought an intricate tinsel snowflake ball to take to Rick and Treeza – an Antiguan snowball.
Everything about Antigua was low key yet vibrant, steeped in the past but with signs of the 21st century all around. I will return for my last night to Antigua before heading to Costa Rica and already have ideas in my head of what food I want to taste and what streets I want to visit more closely. I have really enjoyed the food here – access to lots of fresh fruit and tropical vegetables as in Costa Rica, along with traditional corn tortillas and a variety of salsas. And because there is a significant foreign population here now, you can enjoy fusion cuisine made with local products, something that often takes food to new heights.
Hand-painting La Merced, a beautiful decorated cake of a cathedral…
From Antigua, it was a two and a half hour drive in another comfortable shuttle van up to Panajachel on the other shore of Lake Atitlan. From there you take one of the many lanchas, small boats, across the lake to San Pedro. I have now been here over a week – Christmas just passed, and I have a couple of days before heading back to Antigua and onward to Costa Rica before New Years. I’ve been writing this but actually have been too busy to finish up – and now just want to post it with a few pictures. It will surely be next year before I’m writing about this great community that I’m loving called San Pedro. Instead of trying to carry on, I will just leave you with what’s been said and will write about the lake, the food, the people and the beauty of Lake Atitlan later.
Suffice it to say, it’s been a comfortable, friendly and truly gorgeous place to spend the Christmas season. I hope that wherever you are, you have felt the same joy and contentment that I have, and been able to partake of the wealth of love that comes from family and friends. I am finishing 2008 in a very beautiful, peaceful place and hope that bodes well for the future. May 2009 be better in every way than anything that has passed before – and if it is meant to be a trying year, as fate sometimes predicts, than may we have the strength and humor to survive it gracefully. Hasta la proxima chicos.
Here I am on the eve of leaving for Guatemala. I have yet to pack, but I’m pretty good at that so the idea that I have to get three months worth of things together in the next few hours is not really a problem. Instead of doing that however, I’m in the middle of baking butter tarts because my lovely friends in Guatemala, Rick and Treeza, requested that I bring some with me (apparently they only just learned of the pleasure of the BT a few years ago and they seem to like my version.) They don’t have an oven so we can’t be making them there.
Sheesh! What one is willing to do in the spirit of Christmas…it isn’t the making of them, but the transporting them whole (as in not in crumbs) up into the mountains of Guatemala over the next three days that has me thinking this is nuts…but whatever, I just chopped those nuts up and threw ‘em in the mix and can smell the tarts baking now. I’m thinking that they better be the best damn batch I’ve ever made.
After my two weeks hanging out in Guatemala – where I can envision myself sitting with my laptop, warm sun beating down, one day looking out over beautiful Lake Atitlan and writing something on this blog – I’ll be getting to it again in Monteverde. Wolf is anxiously awaiting my arrival and we will be doing our best to get Walking with Wolf further afield throughout Costa Rica. If you are down there, you’ll no doubt find one or both of us sitting at the entrance to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, in our own version of a meet and greet. The guides often bring their groups over to introduce them to Wolf, the man hugely responsible for this stunning protected forest, who will be sitting there with a cup of coffee in his hand and a big smile on his face. I’m looking forward to seeing the staff of the Reserve, many who I have known since I first went the Costa Rica, all of whom have been very supportive of the book. They treat me like visiting royalty – not to suggest that I’m a princess, much less a queen, but I know when people are being that nice to me I better lap it up!
I managed to get eight more boxes of books (big KACHING) off to Toronto to be shipped in early January to Costa Rica. I’ve also forwarded another seven boxes with my friend Laurie who will be driving to the west coast and able to deliver them to my sister in Washington and Wolf’s son in California. I plan on following them next summer to do a book tour and it’ll be great to have the boxes there already. That leaves only five boxes here in Hamilton – available for my friend Kathryn who will be back in charge of mailing orders that come from this blog, and for me to take to Philadelphia and NYC at the end of April.
That means we’ve almost gone through 2000 copies of Walking with Wolf - or at least distributed them – and it will be time to do another printing! I’m pretty thrilled about that, though the idea that my living room, which has just finally cleared of boxes, will be a depository again isn’t as thrilling.
My good friend Tory Byers came and got me and my boxes and took us to the Toronto shipper. We then spent a couple days together at her home in Toronto, just visiting and relaxing, as her partner Jamie Grant fed us real good food and Macie the beagle kept us entertained.
Tory is this beautiful talented woman with a heart that takes everyone and thing in. She has been working for one of the Toronto cruise ships that people hire to float about in the lake while they get married or drunk or both with the Toronto skyline sparkling behind them. While working down on the waterfront, Tory has met up with a colony of feral cats who live around one of the boatyards.
Along with her friends Sandy and Aaffeine, she has been providing food for these abandoned cats, many who were once quasi-domestic street cats living with the squatters at Tent City, a makeshift home for street folks that was eventually dismantled a couple years ago. The people left for other fields, the cats moved into this boatyard.
The women look for homes for the cats – since they are feral, they won’t really become house cats but some are tamer than others and will be outdoor cats who can handle a little human interaction. They have found homes for many kittens. They purchase big bags of catfood and cans of sardines and take turns going daily to feed the felines. They also have constructed cat shelters out of recycling boxes and tarps.
This is Hemingway – papa to many
The three women and their friends have taken all this on and fortunately are starting to get support from others who can contribute time or money or catfood once they hear about the Cherry Street Cats. They don’t want people to know exactly where they are as they have already seen that people will drop off unwanted cats there, figuring that they will be absorbed into this colony and the ladies will take care of them. Meanwhile, not only is that terribly irresponsible and cruel, but those domestic cats don’t necessarily fit in with the tougher ferals…so it is a bit like throwing your pup to the wolves.
If you want to see what the ladies and cats are up to, or look at other pictures of the cats, or donate, go to Tory’s blog on wordpress – cherrystreetcats.wordpress.com. It gives you a look at a different community in Toronto.
On Thursday night, I made it to a Christmas party at the Earthroots office. Saw my old friend Amber Ellis – the only person I know who is still there after all these years. This non-profit environmental group grew out of the Temagami Wilderness Society, of which I was a board member in the late 1980s during the time of the blockade on the Red Squirrel Road in northeastern Ontario. In September 2009, we will be having a 20-year anniversary reunion of the blockade up on Lake Wakimika, on whose beautiful shores I lived with several others for seven weeks in the fall of 1989. I stay in touch with alot of people from those days and I hope that many of us will turn out and spend a couple days together, reliving what was a very powerful time for many of us. If September is kind, it will bless us with warm sunny weather – the way it was that first day that we gathered there on September 15, 1989 for a camp-in that, because of the massive support and passion of the hundreds who came deep into the bush that weekend, grew into the non-violent blockading of a logging road extension.
Other than that little trip to Toronto, I’ve been real busy taking care of business, getting ready to go, catching some great music in town, doing a little dancing, and spending evenings with friends who I won’t see for a few months. Of course there is the usual enthusiasm from folks who swear they are going to come to Costa Rica and visit – but I’ve learned not to get excited until they have their plane ticket in hand.
Last night I went up to spend the evening with the Poag, Marskell, and Johnston clan – the family that subs as my real family though we are only “pretend” cousins. Although I do have some blood relatives in the Toronto area, I seldom see them. I spend most of those big holiday occasions – Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving – if I’m in town – at Bob and Kathryn’s with their big extended family. Kathryn’s parents, Doreen and Bill Poag, and my parents were close friends from before they all had children and we continue the friendship on.
Throughout my childhood, my parents hosted a Christmas carol and euchre night the weekend before Christmas. We all grew up looking forward to that one night of the year when we all sang these great songs together. Doreen Poag and Bea Marskell, the singing Miller sisters, would accompany us on our piano. Their husbands, Art and Bill, sang in the International Harvester Choir and Bea and Art also were in this rocking seniors club called the Geritol Follies that put on musical cabarets for years. So there is a lot of singing going on in that clan.
After my parents died in the late nineties, my sister and I gave our piano to Kathryn and Bob. Maggie didn’t want to transport it out west and I didn’t have a home for it. So when the piano moved to their house, so did the carol singing. For the last ten years, an ever-growing crowd gathered at the Johnston’s. Once we were done with the trough of fantastic food, we carried on the tradition of singing with Bea playing the songs on the piano and Doreen beside her turning the pages of the music books.
Bea died last year and not only was it a very sad day for us all to lose her, but it wasn’t good for our carol singing – we needed her loud enthusiastic key-tinkling to cover up the general uproar of our voices.
When I was young, my dad would tape our carol-singing on his reel-to-reel – and when we would listen to it, ouch! There are some great voices amongst us, but collectively, we can be pretty pitiful - fortunately we laugh as much as we sing. I was sick last year and didn’t make the party, but they told me that it was very sad – Bea had just recently died and no one was quite ready to take over providing musical accompaniment. The spirit wasn’t strong enough that night to overcome the loss of our friend Bea. If I had been there, I’d have tried to help as I’m often one of the ringleaders, keeping track of the musical requests, making sure we sing the best verses of each song and dictating who has to sing the part of the three kings or Good King Wenceslas and his page.
Last night, we gathered again and the spirit was great. We now have a variety of musicians to accompany us on different songs. Everyone is trying to keep it alive. The lovely Madelaine played her clarinet – very well, I might add. Rich and then Don and then Keira played the piano and Lindsay’s guitar was a real great addition. So we managed to get through the majority of the carols we wanted to sing and once in awhile, we even sounded pretty good. Two years ago I took all the various songbooks we were working from – it would get very confusing as everyone was looking in a different book (that were so old they were falling apart) so I consolidated them and made new songsheets. That seems to have helped us move forward as well. Trying to keep this great family tradition not only alive, but fun enough to keep the next generations bringing their friends along to partake is worth the effort. All that great food, along with the riotous fun of this family, helps to ensure that people will continue to come out. And I am forever grateful to have had these wonderful folks in my life, all my life, and proud to be a family-member, if only of the pretend kind. I’m also extremely grateful that Kathryn agreed to take over my book sales while I’m gone – although I hate the idea that it could really keep her busy, that also has a nice ring to it somehow.
Well, my butter tarts are done and not bad, if I do say so myself. Now I have to figure out how to pack them, along with everything else. In case I’m not online or able to blog for awhile, and in the spirit of last night’s swelling of joy amid Christmas tradition, I will wish you now all a big HO HO HO, a very Merry Christmas or whatever you are celebrating, and leave you with the hopes for a miracle called worldwide peace in 2009. And also with a quote from my favorite carol, that being Good King Wenceslas:
“Therefore Christian men be sure – wealth or rank possessing – thee who now shall bless the poor, shall themselves find blessing.”