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leaves

The leaves, having attended their annual costume party,  have been whipping around, making that inevitable trip downward from their lofty heights. I’ve been waiting for the orange cones to appear on the street, signifying that Hamilton’s big leaf-sucking trucks will be coming around the next day. I raked the thick blanket of maple leaves that has accumulated on my front yard into a big pile. I now keep watch, wondering if any of the school kids walking by will take the plunge into that soft heap of crunchy vegetation – I know I couldn’t resist when I was young.  Once those work-cones appear, I’ll rake the whole lot out on the street and hopefully be here to watch the big truck suck ’em all up like a super-duper Molly Maid.  It always gives me a thrill. 

We are having a mid-November week of warm temperatures and hot sun, beautiful weather to be dealing with the final stages of the gardening season. In two weeks, I’ll be on my way to Costa Rica, and at this rate I won’t see even a flake of snow before I leave.  I’m anxious to get down there, as this weekend Wolf was back in the hospital with a series of seizures. He is already home again, and I’m not sure just what happened, except that he hit his head when he fell and needed stitches.

wolf

I don’t know if anyone knows what happened. I’m guessing it has to do with his medications, whether he is taking them properly or not, whether they are collectively causing problems while individually dealing with his diabetes, prostate, bipolarity and knee pain. Someone suggested that he was de-hydrated. With all that water on the mountain, particularly in the streams that the Quakers have been protecting all of these years, Wolf should be drinking lots of water even if he has to go get it straight from the stream if he doesn’t like it by the glass.  I’m relieved to know that he was released quickly, which means it was a passing concern, but I know that he must be getting very discouraged and frustrated with these recurring episodes. For the moment, it would seem that Wolf is okay.  

Good health is fleeting. Sometimes it disappears as quickly as it takes the heart to burst and other times it is a long slow cancer that sneaks up. You need to really appreciate good health when you have it – and it generally takes having cancer (as I did) or something chronic for that to sink in. As often as not, there are signs that things are going wrong whether with our personal health or our relationships, and we may choose to turn a blind eye and avoid the truth as long as possible. So is it also with the health of our communities and forests and waterways – the disease has been settling in for decades now. The planet is suffering from chronic illness and we can’t remain blind to the reality.

I recently received an email from friends in San Pedro de Laguna, Guatemala. I wrote a couple blogs about this lakeside town when I spent Christmas there last year (The Land of the Mayans/The Magic of San Pedro posts.) The email is a call for people to help the communities around Lake Atitlan that are trying to deal with the decreasing health of this beautiful mountainous laguna. I am copying some of that letter here with the hopes that people who come to my blog may read it and pass it on, and in this way perhaps the people who are struggling with this will get help from the rest of the world.

lake_atitlan[1]

This is coming from a group “Todos por el Lago” but, as they state in the letter, the concern about the lake’s health has been discussed for years by a number of groups. Development and tourism on the lake is growing and putting more stress on the area without appropriate measures being implemented to deal with the inevitable problems. It is a very long, detailed letter written in Spanish and translated into English. I have edited it and only included parts, but if you want to read the whole thing or contact the group, this is their twitter account:

 lakeatitlan http://twitter.com/todosporellago 

The following paragraphs come out of their communication:  

“Unfortunately, it seems like we are about to witness a drama way more serious than we would like to believe. It has been a year now since we have started to see scary signs that something really wrong is going on with the lake water -algae, skin diseases and stomach problems of swimmers, dying fish, cyanobacteria and even sewage smells – and it feels like somehow we have chosen not to see those signs. There is no worse blindness than the one of who does not want to see and in this case, the reality we have in front of our eyes seems so terrible that it produces immediate blindness. I feel like maybe what we are witnessing is the beginning of the end of a way of life we all fell in love with at some point, that being the reason why we decided to make this our way of life. The death of this lake would be the death of a dream-like environment -one of the most beautiful in the world – of the life style of ancient Mayan villages that have a lot to teach, a lot to live, and also the death of this little sociological experiment of which we are all part, a mixture of people with different nationalities, ages and cultures that got together here in a unwritten decision to live together a different life style to the ones we left behind back home.   

“From our point of view the pace in which Mayan villagers have had to adapt to the consequences of the so called industrial development has been unnatural – it did not leave them space or time to understand the negative effects of consumerism and of lack of inorganic rubbish -and other byproducts- treatment. Because of this, us ¨westerners¨ who inhabit this land that has  belonged to the Mayan since the beginning of time, have the obligation of doing all we can for these people to have an understanding of how the byproducts of consumerism can affect their environment, and with it their way of life.

“We have some ideas for discussion we have obtained from neighbours and friends, that could be little seeds for community dialogue:   

  1. Organise informative meetings that explain not only in Spanish, but also in Kakchikel, Tzutujil and English what the lake is actually suffering, what are the symptoms, what are the causes and what will be both the long term and short term effects.  
  2.  Information is the key, let’s inform everybody, let’s make signs, drawings, posters, get out there and pass the info around, the lake is seriously ill, yes, we are not exaggerating, you just have to look at the water surface, at the sewage in Tzanjuyu… let’s do something! 
  3. We have to appeal to international organisations, whether it be realm of govnermental or non-governmental, contact everyone we can think of , Greenpeace, European Commission for Environment… we are sure there must be inhabitants and visitors of the lake with contacts, ideas, let’s use them!  Let’s motivate them!  There are home owners in San Lucas belonging to the entreprenereal world, let’s ask them for help!  From the local business to the political world there are people who may have vested interests in the lake – take whatever steps necessary to find funds, subsidies and international aid to fund treatment plants, studies and technologies that would give us organic alternatives to harmful phosphates, that is to get SOLUTIONS.  We also need information about whether it is possible not just to prevent the growth of bacterias but if there is a way to undo the damage already caused by what already exists here!   
  4. We need to stop the sewage from going into the lake.  We have all heard at some point that this and that embassy or organization has proposed to finance some treatment plant but then it has never happened, is this true?  can anybody give exact information?  we all need to know what has happened in order to take action… 
  5.  We need to stop the use of chemical products for  agriculture.  This means not only educating the workers in the agricultural sector, but maybe taking more drastic measures like prohibiting the total use of these products in the entire surrounding areas of the lake; a comment made by a neighbour in Santa Cruz: if they can make a law that prohibits smoking in public spaces, why can’t they make a law that prohibits bloody phosphates!?   The huge coffee plantations should have to set an example for all and make their crops organic, in this way also giving greater worth  -come on, ORGANIC is a magic word today in the west!- and more international fame to Guatemalan coffee.  But what is the likelihood that civil society has the power so that this is really going to happen­?
atitlan[1]

“We need to begin to organise ourselves, do something now, before it’s too late, and not sit here waiting in the hope that the algaes on the surface disappear from sight so that we can act like nothing’s happened.  IT´S HAPPENED, and there’s no pretending that this is just a surface problem anymore.  Let’s start the  DEBATE  with this fórum and hold meetings so that every single person will contribute what they can, only in this way will we be able to save the lake.  We are offering what we have: our doors are open to be used as a meeting space, we offer our time  to translate   and  our  energy, the important thing is to see that everyone is ready and is going to actually  SPREAD THE WORD, this will be the seed towards change, hopefully! ”  

* * * * *
  
I have watched the changes in Costa Rica over twenty years of going there while development swelled around me. If you are a thinking person, at least one with no personal benefit involved, you can’t help but dismay at what results when tourism takes off in an area. When it is a beautiful landscape, many tourists will find ways to return, to stay and build homes and participate in the local economy. It’s inevitably a double-edged sword, bringing development to a depressed economy, at the same time changing the lives of locals and their environment forever. Even when people try hard to do things in smart and responsible ways, at a certain point, “progress” takes over and often spins out of control.
 
It happens all over the world. When I hear North Americans complaining about immigrants, I think of how many of us have moved elsewhere in the world, bringing our development and consumerism with us. We forever change an area and not always for the good. I don’t call it progress when we turn people who have lived well on the land into hardcore consumers, dependent on foreign-produced goods and hankering for bigger, better, shinier, faster. However, this has happened as long as people have been walking and moving, and will continue, so there is no point in thinking you can stop the movement nor stop the process of migration and integration.
 
 But, as this letter is asking, we need to seriously look at how we integrate and the new influences we are bringing. How do we help the earth’s natural systems adapt to the new waves of population as well as the old communities develop into healthy new ones?
  
If you have ever been to this magical lake in Guatemala, or hope to go there one day, or simply have a means to respond to their cry for help, please do what you can.  Or do something for a lake or community that is suffering close to your home. There is never a shortage of crises. There shouldn’t be a shortage of minds, hearts and hands reaching out to help our global family and the land, water and air that sustains us.
 
snoopy_woodstcok_jumping_leaves[1]
 
 
As I have been writing, the orange cones appeared, so I moved the leaves to the street. I’m laughing along with the kids who are coming home from school and leaping through the pile, squealing and shouting in glee! It reinforces the fact that joy comes from the simplest things, as often as not straight out of Mother Earth’s special box of toys. So kiddies, take care of those toys and keep the box safe.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

   

 

 

lake-atitlanThe 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.

 

ricky-reindeer 

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.

 

processiojn 

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.

 

santos-santa 

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.

 

internet-table

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.

 

road-in-san-p 

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.

 

 

bocci3

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-daniel-santaNeil 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 barat-daniels 

 

 

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.      

 

that-path-below-treeza

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.

 

high-lake

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.

 

anise

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.

 

 

 

edwardo-and-passion-fl1

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.

 

boat

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. 

 

the-kids

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.

 

freedom-bar

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. 

 

ventana-azul

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.

 

xmas-dinner 

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.

 

dean

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.

 

treesa-new-stove

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.

 

k-in-hammockcorn-people 

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.

 

 

 

lakeview

 

 

 

 

And a very peaceful, healthy and joyful 2009 to us all!

 

 

atitlan

 

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. 

 

modern-mayanAn 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.

 

skyline 

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.

 

san-vicente

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. 

from-cemetery

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.

 

xmas-market

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.

 

lit-up-ruins

 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.

 painting-la-merced

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.

 atitlan-2

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.

 mariposa

 

 

 

July 2020
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