The community of San Pedro at the base of Volcano San Pedro on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala
It is December 30, 2008 and I’m now in Costa Rica. I arrived last night (blessedly put in executive class on the two planes that brought me from Guat City to Panama to San Jose – I took that as my Christmas present from Copa airlines, not that they owed me anything) and came directly to my friend Marilyn’s. After a day here in the barrio of San Pedro in San Ramon, I’ll head up the mountain tomorrow to spend the last night of the year, and the first manana of 2009, in my home away from home, Monteverde.
Before I’m steeped in everything Tico, I want to write a bit about the other San Pedro, the funky town on the shores of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala where I spent most of the last two weeks. The time went by in a blur of Christmas festivities, great food and sunshine. Thanks to the fact that I was visiting my friends Rick and Treeza (who treated me to all the extras including a superb Christmas breakfast), I was introduced to many locals, mostly folks from other parts of the world who now make their home and business there, but also a few real live Guatemaltecos. Without a doubt, the majority of people I met while in Guatemala, whether residents or travelers, were from Canada, many from Quebec. And here I thought they were all in Cuba.
Being a relatively short, round and generally dark-skinned person myself, I blended in quite well with the Mayan population. I was asked several times if I had Indian blood – not a new theme, as I grew up often being asked this, most specifically if I was an Eskimo – as in Kay Chor-Nook of the north. The phenomena of San Pedro is that for perhaps the first time in my life I felt very tall – at five foot three inches, this doesn’t happen often. One night I was walking home on one of the narrow paths through San Pedro, and found myself surrounded by more than a hundred Mayans who had just come out of a religious meeting, all dressed in their traditional woven wraps and tipica clothing. They were socializing along the pathway, sharing some refreshment. I got caught behind the man collecting the cups and couldn’t move one way or another, so just had to shuffle along slowly, greeting those who caught my eye with “buena noche amigo.” Never in my life have I stood as the tallest in a crowd – but here I was, what felt like a good head above the rest – I could see from sea to shining sea – many of them laughed as they saw my predicament of barely being able to move, trapped amidst their brown smiling faces. My friend Rick, who could be my equally-short twin brother except for his Boston accent, also appreciates being in this population where he feels absolutely tall at times.
There was a steady schedule of events all week leading up to Navidad. Every day and night, well practically every hour, you could hear the explosions of the bombillas – the fireworks that the people here love so much. From multi-crackling poppers to the large boomers, you have no choice but to get used to them…I couldn’t help but think about North American dogs I know who would spend this season hiding under a bed but here I saw that most of the dogs seemed oblivious (although I’m sure there were many hidden under beds who I couldn’t see) as do most of the people. Every morning I would walk through the scattered left-over litter of the fireworks along the paths and every night walk through the lingering sulfur smells, and despite developing a resistance, still jump when a loud BOOM would burst beside me without warning. At midnight on Christmas Eve the firework display was super loud and impressive, a barrage of explosions set off higher up in the town, but also visible coming from every community around the lake.
As I said in my last blog, San Pedro may be described as a village, but it is actually a good-sized town (or very small city). I stayed in the lovely Sak’cari Hotel, at the recommendation of my friends – it sits on the edge of the lake with beautiful views and is right in the middle of many of the great restaurants. Treeza and Rick live in a small house a little away from the action and so they suggested that I might want privacy and to be closer to the nightlife. At $12 a night (private bath and cable TV – you can’t beat it and that is pricey in San Pedro) and the fact that I could sit in the garden and pick up the neighbouring café’s wireless for free, it was a great choice – and Manuel, one of the managers, and the Mayan folks who worked there where real nice to be around.
In reality, nothing was more than a ten minute walk from anywhere else. The central market of San Pedro and the bank machine both were up the hill in the central part of the town – the lower part closer to the water held the majority of the restaurants and bars, all linked by an intricate system of walking paths that were just recently paved with blocks. I can imagine how dusty or muddy these walkways would have been before the cobblestone was put in. Another big change in the community, according to the locals, was the arrival of the little tuktuks – these Italian three-wheeler carts that are used as cheap taxies. Dave, an ex-pat from Canada who runs the fine Bistro Sol restaurant, told me that about three years ago a man brought two into the community. Dave went to Canada for six months and when he returned there were more than forty! I can only dream how quiet this place was just three years back, before these little motors started squealing around everywhere. They can move people and their packages over greater distances and much faster than before but perhaps that is the point – once everyone feels the need to move further and faster, the wave of change is well on its way to being a tsunami.
One of the places that I really loved to be at was La Piscina. People generally don’t swim in the lake close to the communities (although the Mayan women do their laundry and bathe on the shore) but go to places out of town – a beach at La Finca, cliffs across the lake for diving – where people go to be in the cool water of the lake. A friendly guy from Quebec, Daniel, put this swimming pool in last year. He also happens to make the best bloody marys in the land. La Piscina is a great place to hang out, catch some sun, swim, or relax in the shade of the trees around the bocci ball and horseshoe courts. Recently Daniel began a friendly bocci ball competition on Saturday afternoons which is becoming an addiction for the locals. Having grown up around a lot of Italians, I’m familiar with the sport. I was at La Piscina for two of these Saturdays, hilarious hours spent with a large cast of characters, some who actually could play the game well. There was an eleven-year-old boy from the US, Cody, who was very competitive and managed to get into the finals the first week – I seemed to run into him everywhere and almost felt like he was the red-headed mascot of the place by the time I left. However it was the red-headed Kevin – the Guatemalan-born son of hippies who was born here in the early wave of grooviness in the seventies – who beat the competition both weeks and now is the undisputed and big-headed bocci champ. Rick has promised to keep me informed as to who finally dethrones him.
Neil the sweet kiwi, Daniel and poor Santa
Daniel also had an “I Hate Christmas” party December 24th which I went to, even though I don’t, where the highlight was the destruction of the Santa pinata. Lovely to see all that pre-Christmas aggression played out on a tissue-paper effigy of the Father of Consumption instead of in mall parking lots. Daniel also treated me to the music of Harmonium, a band that I learned French to while living in Lac St. Jean in northern Quebec many years ago. I haven’t heard any of their music in years and so he played several songs for me, him and I singing out – it brought tears to my eyes and took me back to crispy white wintery days living in the northern bush of Quebec. Although I find it hard to string together a sentence in French anymore, I could still sing most of the lyrics to these songs! Amazing how the mind works.
The most popular girl at Daniel’s bar
If you find yourself one day in San Pedro, I highly recommend Daniel’s place – a great outdoor space for relaxing through the constantly hot sunny days with the entertainment provided by the locals, the music, cocktails and the clear cool waters of the pool provided by Danielito.
Speaking of those hot days, I was amazed at the intensity of the temperature on the lake. I can imagine that it is because of the dry climate – in the sun, it was very hot in that pure clean atmosphere – but the second you moved into the shade or a cloud passed over the sun, the temperature dropped several degrees. At about four o’clock each day, when the sun made its way behind the shadow of the volcano, the temperature would really drop and stay there. If the afternoon wind was blowing off the lake, and you were in the shade, it was downright chilly. It was a constant effort to re-balance my temperature in San Pedro and just moving a few feet could mean the difference between sunstroke and frostbite.
The lake itself was very high from an intense rainy season recently ended, the evidence apparent all along the shoreline. Many trees were sitting in the lake along with crops and shore grasses. People who have buildings and businesses right on the shore are worried about the loss of their land. Treeza and I spent a morning walking outside of town along the shoreline where the public path has mostly disappeared. The distinction from town to country is slight – spaces not filled with buildings are filled with maiz or other crops such as coffee and a variety of vegetables or are small corrals for tethered horses. The land around the lake, on the hilly volcano skirt, has been terraced by the Mayans for generations.
On the path from town to Rick and Treeza’s, one passes through a crop of anise – I have no doubt that every time I smell licorice I will remember that bit of dusty trail where I had to stop and breathe deeply each time.
Many of the people I met were folks who came once and returned, now perhaps having built a home or renting a cheap house somewhere in town. Many of them, such as Eduardo and Beth, were volunteering in the local schools. Literacy has been a problem in Guatemala. Public schooling has not been a priority but as tourism grows and the locals find that speaking English is an asset for their childrens’ future, there is more interest in classes. So there is no shortage of volunteer work as a teacher in the area. And to do my little part to evict literacy, I managed to sell or trade a few copies of Walking with Wolf, so our story will live on in San Pedro long after I’m gone.
In my two weeks in Guat, I slowly became aware of the use of the word “they” – as in the Mayans. I have no doubt that “they” also have a similar word for the foreigners. “They” do things in very different ways than the folks who have come from afar and I listened to a lot of criticism and frustration by people attempting to run businesses based on their foreign standards. I’ve lived through this in Costa Rica – where “they” aren’t from as distinctly different of a culture as the indigenous communities in Guatemala. The influence of foreigners in Costa Rica is profound – I am not sure that the standard of living has improved here but the arrival of a large foreign residency has certainly meant that life moves faster, that time and money have taken on a different meaning, that people work hard to buy all the stuff that is now available, and there is great pressure on the next generation to be educated and capable of working in this newly-Americanized world based on consumerism.
I’ve never quite understood it, as most foreigners I’ve met have moved to these beautiful countries not just for the sunshine but also for the slower pace of life…and before you know it, they are amping up that pace and demanding that the locals who work on their houses and in their businesses meet their standards that they’ve brought with them. It isn’t fair or right for me to come to any strong conclusions from my short time in Guatemala, but this concept of “they” hit me – I started to recognize who “they” were as I sat in a restaurant or at a bar eavesdropping on new residents discussing their Guatemalan realities. I certainly saw lots of very warm relations between the foreigners living in San Pedro and the Mayan residents. It is very difficult to blend into an old culture without creating change – and no doubt some change, since as literacy and health care, is good change. But tourism is seldom a completely clean and healthy alternative – providing services that appeal to foreigners – and more often than not there are many conflicts that get swirled into the exploding waves of change. I would say that the Mayan culture has proven itself to be a very strong one and so I trust that they will hold their own against the tsunami that is building force in the area.
I had some great nights of dancing in San Pedro – at El Barrio, the Buddha Bar, and Freedom Bar. The embers of a big hippie fire are still burning in San Pedro and the longhairs and their influences are evident. A local band, Dr. Brownie and the Space Cookies, play original latin-groove music – couldn’t get enough of them – well, the name says it all. In reality there’s no shortage of organic local foods, street artisans, music wafting on the breeze, friendly folks and all that colorful Mayan cloth that is the national dress of the country. The place breeds originality and has attracted people with flare – this can be found in so many of the restaurants and hotelitos.
A real sweetie of an ex-pat gringo, Blake, runs two restaurants with his partner Santos, a wonderful chef from a local Mayan community across the lake. They own La Puerta, an oasis with great breakfasts sitting right on the edge of the water, and recently opened the Ventana Azul, with asian/latin fusion cuisine. It has to be the smallest restaurant around in size but their attention to detail is impressive and their food divine. Once again, I send a high recommendation to visitors in San Pedro to check out either of these places and when you go, say hi to the boys for me.
When you arrive on the boat from Panajachel at the dock in central San Pedro, you look up and immediately see D’Noz, a restaurant that has been there several years, run by a beautiful couple named Dean and Monique. Dean is one of, if not the best, chef in the area. On Christmas Day they put on a buffet dinner (serving Space Turkey – the theme holds) that has to be one of the finest orgies of food in a restaurant setting that I’ve ever participated in. Every kind of food was represented, all beautifully presented, from exotic salads, to sage dressing balls, to bacon-wrapped beans, grilled eggplant – well the list is endless along with the turkey and your choice of gravy – straight or groovy-space-style. Unfortunately I had picked up a small stomach problem for a couple of days – best described as a gaggle of gurgling in my body – and couldn’t eat as much as I would have liked. But every single bite that I took was delicious, each dish distinct, and it was all served up by Dean and Monique with their helpers in a way that made the whole thing look amazingly easy.
For the price (I think it was about $15), as their Christmas present to their guests, they also threw in a gigabite of music that they would download on your MP3 or on a DVD, out of their huge collection of digital music so I came away with several albums of music that will remind me of my time in San Pedro. After the main spread of fantastic foods, we were then treated to the fine desserts of Margy – carrot spice muffins and double chocolate caramel fudge to die for and her specialty, butter tarts. Considering that she lives quite a ways out of town with no refrigeration, her ability to create these wonders for a crowd of about sixty and then transport them there and serve them crispy cold was amazing.
Those of you who read the last couple of posts, may remember that I was making butter tarts on my last day in Canada to bring for Rick and Treeza. It was Margy’s tarts that had been their introduction to this very Canadian dessert. Our versions are quite different but equally delicious (I think). You will be happy to know that my tarts not only arrived in perfect condition, but that Rick, Treeza and I were able to indulge ourselves daily for most of the time I was there. One day we went across the lake to Panajachel, a very busy commercial center that perhaps has lost its charm that I had heard it once had. Treeza bought herself a gas oven that will move with them into their new house which is to be built in the coming months. The next day the store brought the oven over and a man walked it down the dirty path on his back to their rental house and hooked it up. One of my last evenings there, I gave Treeza a lesson in pie dough making (the rules – the right proportion of ingredients, touch it as little as possible, keep it cold, touch it as little as possible.) We ate a great quiche that night with perfect dough but I can imagine that back in San Pedro, Treeza is probably already making butter tarts. Give a man a butter tart, he’ll kiss you – teach a woman to make butter tarts, life between man and woman will be sweet forever.
So thank you Dean, Monique, Alex and Jaden at D’Noz, Daniel at La Piscina, Ben and Xena at El Barrio, Dave at the Bistro de Sol, Blake and Santos at the Ventana Azul, Eduardo, Beth and Sasha, Felicia, Jill, Axel along with the Guatemalan and other musicians, the sweet kiwi Neil, and especially Rick and Treeza – you all made San Pedro more than the beautiful place it is – you made it feel like I was home for the holidays. Ciao chicos, un abrazo fuerte.
And a very peaceful, healthy and joyful 2009 to us all!