2004 Journey: Central and South America
Lake Atitlan, San Pedro & A Dormant Volcano
One of the most beautiful lakes in the world, Lake Atitlan, is in the Central Highlands of Guatemala. Flanked by volcanoes, it served as a tranquil setting to continue my personal quest of learning Spanish. For a week, we lived in the small town of San Pedro La Laguna. It is a quiet place sitting at the base of volcano San Pedro and on the edge of Lake Atitlan. We skipped the family stay this time. Our hotel was five dollars a night, and San Pedro has plenty of good cheap restaurants with meals costing two to three dollars.
Every night as we began to settle in for some rest, the wind would begin to blow from across the lake. The quality of the wind was fierce and forceful, very similar to the gusts of wind as a summertime thunderstorm approaches. It would rattle the tin roofs and shake our window frames so loud that at times I thought it was going to blow our room apart. Additionally, when the wind blew from the right (or maybe I should say wrong) direction, it pushed the sewer gases back up the pipe and into our room. We had waves of horrible fumes floating through our room that smelled like some back street alley that had been used as a toilet for years. Most of the sewage from the small towns gets dumped directly into the lake, which spoils the thought of taking a quick swim after a long afternoon of Spanish class. But in the middle of the lake they say the water is clean enough to drink, a piece of information that I was unwilling to test.
On my free day, I went for a climb up the side of San Pedro, a dormant volcano that shoots into the sky 9,908 feet. The trail wound through corn and coffee fields as well as untended woods that were home to a variety of wild plants and animal life. On the distant hillsides, smoke trails floated to the sky as farmers prepared new ground for farming. They farm the sides of mountains and hills where deer and goats wouldn't dare to venture. Subsistence farming is a way of life in Guatemala, but at best is only a temporary solution to the ongoing challenge of feeding a country. As rains wash away the fragile and thin top soil, the farmers slash and burn new areas to scratch out a small amount of food. They get three to four years’ of crops before the soil will no longer produce anything, and then they move on to new ground. I passed many workers hand picking the coffee beans, most of which were Mayan Indians, a friendly and kind people. While in San Pedro, I learned to say hello in the local Mayan dialect. This was great fun because it consistently brought a big smile to those I greeted. Sometimes it even stirred a group to laughter as they nodded their heads in response. It is these small moments that are special to me, and with a little effort some joy is created, if only briefly, in an otherwise hard life.
The view from the top allowed me to soak in the entire view of the huge lake surrounded by mountains and hills. Seven hours from the time I started, I was sprawled out on my bed exhausted.
In San Pedro I met Bartlo, 21, an ambitious young man teaching English at the school I was attending. He came from a big family of nine children, a common occurrence in Guatemala. His dream was to have a normal life; I asked him what that meant for him. "A normal life is having a vision or dream and doing what you need to do to get there, like having a good job, one that I enjoy. Having a family and a home." His message to the people in the U.S.; "Hi, be happy, and take it easy." He thinks the people in the U.S. are rushing all the time, "they do everything quickly and they don’t take much time to appreciate things or to think about what they are doing."
On that thought, let me say thank you for coming along with me, I truly appreciate having you along.
We now say good-bye to Guatemala. The people, the cultures, the colors and the history have been a delight to experience if only for a brief moment. From here we head overland for the coast of Honduras and the Bay Islands.