We had been targeting Lake Atitlan for a while as a place to settle down for a few weeks and take a break from the road. We knew we were ready to stand still, write, mend our ripped clothing and un-kink our travel weary bodies. The communities around the lake are well known for offering some of the most affordable Spanish instruction in Central America. We had also heard good things from other travelers who had visited. Aldous Huxley called Lake Atitlan, the most beautiful lake in all the world after a visit in the 1950’s. The Lonely Planet says that there are numerous towns around the lake all offering a different vibe. The first town we arrived at was Panajachel which is the main hub and where most tourists alight. The Lonely Planet says that most travelers just pass through here and then base themselves in one of the smaller communities. We actually found Panajachel to be a great place to chill out. There are heaps of long term ex-pats in Panaj and most of the volunteer organizations are based here. Our Couchsurfing host, Bethany, a teacher from Atlanta, spends a few months in Panaj each year with her 8 year old son, Seth. Like many westerners that we met in Panaj, Bethany ran her own not-for-profit helping educate indigenous women. She knew all the ex-pats in town and introduced us to the who’s who of Panaj during the few days we stayed with her. Bethany took us to trivia night at the Palapa, the local ex-pat bar where we met the owner, Zondra, a chain-smoking alcoholic, self-proclaimed yoga teacher. We got a bit rowdy our first night in town and we were surprised at how little it took to get the owner up dancing on the bar with us. In Pana, the ex-pats joke that they all have a few screws loose, and that they do. We also got to know Coco, the sociable, ‘sometimes bartender’ at Palapa. He could talk knowledgeably about Guatemalan politics, basketball, and current events. He had a good grasp of the world unlike most Guatemalans we’d met and his English was excellent. Surprisingly, he also played rugby with a team located in Xela, the second-largest city in Guatemala about an hour from Panaj.
We struck gold our first few days in Panaj, when we met Karin, a close friend of Bethany’s. Karin is Guatemalan (although grew up in the States) and her family was one of the first in Panajachel. She lives alone in a beautiful home on Calle Frutales, a very wide, quiet street bordering the river; perhaps the only street in Panaj not dominated by furious and chaotic vehicle traffic. Karin seemed a bit of a recluse and chose to live in a one room apartment on the side of the compound. This left the main house unoccupied. When Bethany explained that we we were looking to stay in town for a month or two and wanting to do volunteer work, Karin graciously offered that we could stay at her home, “at our pleasure.” We weren’t exactly sure what this cryptic axiom meant but we were over the moon to have such a lovely and comfortable place to live and play house for a while. The finest feature of the property was the spacious courtyard connecting our house to Karen’s side. Tall hardwood beams rose up to a translucent roof. Better yet, Karen opened up this space to the town’s resident yoga teacher to hold her classes. Thus, three days of the week, we merely had to walk out of our font door to do our yoga practice. We were beyond delighted at all the shelving so that we could have all our possessions at the ready and not have to dig around in our packs to locate something we needed. There was also a lovely caretaker named Alejandro who looked after us, fixed things when required, arranged to have the gas canister replaced (by a company that also delivered fresh bread with their gas), and helped us with our Spanish. We did take a few Spanish classes, but the young teacher that we poached from the Spanish school, Gato, had a difficult time making it to the lessons. Gato (called such by his friends because of his unusual glassy green eyes) had dreams of opening up a movie theatre in town. I thought this was a great idea as there isn’t much for entertainment after dark other than eating and drinking. Gato was actively arranging his second illegal expedition to the US via coyote to join his brother in California. His initial foray, he’d found work in Texas but it ultimately didn’t work out too well. He told us about the first time he saw snow and tried to catch it on his tongue as it floated through the window into his cell at the immigration holding complex.
Both Tanya and I were decidedly sick of tacos and other weird street food and extremely eager to make use of the large, well-appointed kitchen. Relying on tacos, chicken skewers, hot dogs, fried chicken and spaghetti bolognese takes its toll (especially on a newly ex-vegetarian – God help me!) and makes one tremendously appreciative of having nutritious food in the refrigerator to consume at any time, day or night, when the desire hits. One of the key reasons for choosing to spend our time in Panaj was the discovery of several ex-pat geared health food stores. The main Commercial Drive-style deli/grocery is called Sandra’s. Inside this marvelous, atypical shop we found a veritable collection of healthy or just familiar foods that aren’t readily available in this part of the world. Almond milk, quinoa, tofu, chia seeds, dill pickles, natural nut butters, balsamic vinegar, artisan mustard, sauerkraut, perogies, various hard cheeses with recognizable names, red wine from countries other than Chile, Argentina and the US. Although we spent way more money eating at home than we would have going out, it was well worth it. There was also a lovely herb garden right outside our front door containing purple basil, rosemary, lavender, cilantro and mint which I would routinely go to pick at the direction of the Missus as she made dinner. We had a couple dinner parties as well which allowed Tanya to showcase her culinary skills (which she always loves) and overall it was just nice to enjoy a regular home life for a while. There were great vegetable markets around Panaj and women would bring down fresh vegetables and fruit from their mountain communities everyday. One lady just sold plums because that is all she had on her property; one plum tree. We would always try to spread out our money to make sure we didn’t buy all our produce from just one person. We liked to patronage the poorer women who only had a few items for sale.
Our place also had a wood burning fireplace with a garage full of wood where I was able to park my bike. Being able to warm the house came in extremely handy when we’d be out in the afternoons and the daily rain came soaking our freshly laundered clothes hanging from the lines in the backyard. (And this happened more than a few times.) We could drape or clothes on chairs in the livingroom and hang socks on the mantle piece. Some of the afternoon storms that occurred while we were in Panaj were fierce and would last well into the night. The roof of the house was corrugated metal and the sound of the already pounding rain was thunderous. We liked these evening when we would stay in, cozy up to the fire and drink wine. Some days the booming thunder would start at midday and threaten the arrival of a major storm for several hours… but none would arrive. There was also a claw foot tub in the bathroom of our home in addition to a Spanish-tiled shower. Unfortunately the poor filtration system which funneled the lake water into our home allowed a lot of silt in as well so the bottom of the tub would fill up with an uncomfortable amount of sand and small stones, lessening the enjoyment of having a bath considerably. Our only major complaint about the town was the polluted water from the lake which is the primary water source for all the communities around the lake. The water treatment plant in Panaj had been destroyed by Hurricane Stan in 2010 and none of the other communities had any sort of treatment; all the raw sewage runs straight into the Lake. Many of the residents, Tanya included, complained of stomach ailments from the poor water. Even if you don’t drink it, the impurities still get into your system from cooking, going to restaurants, bathing, etc. Not to mention consuming any fish.
One night at the Palapa Bar, waiting for trivia night to begin, I happened to look up at the TV screen and it looked suspiciously as if there was a rugby game on. This has happened at least 37,000 times, the TV catches my eye, I get a glimmer of excitement, and then realize it’s just another stupid soccer match. By this time the little heart flutter no longer emerges, as I’ve gotten so used to the disappointment. However, as I kept looking at the screen, I recognized the faces of some of the players from the Irish national rugby squad. What!?! I grabbed my beer and, like a tornado, ripped across the bar planting myself in front of the TV. There’s actually RUGBY on!!!, I screamed to Tanya, whom I had left dumbly sitting at the table. I continued watching and in complete and utter disbelief, I saw that Ireland was playing none other than Team Canada. Holy Shit! Ireland and Canada had only ever played head to head test matches five times previously. As I looked around the fixture grounds, I realized that the game was being played at BMO field in my hometown of Toronto. Holy Shit, again! I knew that heaps of my friends would be in those stands right now. How did I not know that this game was taking place. Oh- that’s right… I’m in Guatemala. During the game I got to see James Pritchard become Canada’s all-time leading scorer which was a nice milestone to witness. Tanya and I had made dinner plans that evening and Tanya didn’t even bat an eye when I sent her on alone to dinner with my apologies, promising that I would be along as soon as the game ended. I’m glad my girlfriend is finally starting to accept me as I am. 🙂
One of the absolute treats of our stay for me was the television in the bedroom which was connected to satellite… and there were basketball playoffs on! After watching the Clips and the Thunder both vanquished in Game 5 at the local bar, I fell onto the Pacers bandwagon when they beat the detestable Heat in Game 1. I faithfully watched every game and looked forward to the telecasts throughout the day. The games were being commentated in Spanish but it was pretty easy to pick up the key words quickly: puntos (points), rebotes (rebounds), faltas (fouls). Even when the Pacers lost and my two most hated teams were to face off in the Finals, I was already back in the groove and couldn’t stay away. Again, I watched every game of the series, although I wasn’t so much cheering for the Spurs as I was cheering against the Heat. Happily, I was slowly bringing Tanya into the basketball fold and was able to keep her watching the games for entire quarters at a time. I was slowly introducing her to the players and explaining the back stories like LeBron’s move to Miami, the Shaq and Kobe rivalry and, of course, the numerous accomplishments of Michael Jordan, which no other player had or would ever come close to. I was extremely grateful for her sparkle of interest in one of my sports, as I had not gotten anywhere in piquing her interest in either football or baseball throughout our relationship. I considered her budding interest in basketball as a satisfyingly, hard fought victory.
We decided to celebrate our 4th date at the most elegant restaurant on the lake called Hotel Atitlan. We spent the afternoon at the nature reserve and coffee finca across the street, then bombed home to get dolled-up for our romantic dinner out. We took a $3 tuk tuk to the restaurant on the outskirts of town owing to the threat of rain. Everyone from the parking attendant, to the guys at the concierge desk, to the bartender and waitress were extraordinarily friendly. Considering the 4th fell on a Tuesday this month and we were well into the rainy season, we had the hotel all to ourselves. (With the exception of the geriatric 90 year old owner dining in another room with four employees constantly hovering around him.) The restaurant had come highly recommended by Bethany and she insisted we must think up an excuse to have dinner here some night. We totally understood her insistence whilst strolling through the botanical gardens and admiring the view of the lake from the Spanish-style patio complete with infinity pool. The decoration of the entire restaurant was exquisite from the hand carved wooden accents, the furniture and table arrangements, to the striking chandeliers. We even found our dream fireplace: a floor to ceiling, stone and brick colossus with a hardwood mantle. Our meal when it arrived was nothing short of fabulous (for Guatemalan standards). I had my first proper steak in more than six years. As we downed several after-dinner drinks, and toasted to our imagined royal status, we decided to play musical chairs and try out a selection of the comfortable-looking and exotic couches and armchairs on hand. The entire hotel was ours after all; why not be as comfortable as possible. The best part of the evening was when the bill arrived and we realized that this entire extravagance had cost less than $60 with drinks and propina (tip)!!! (Ed: A small confession… although we posted a picture from this night with our engagement post on Facebook, this wasn’t actually the nice I proposed. Pffft!)
The local people in Panajachel are lovely once you put them at ease. Guatemalans, by genetics, are extremely small people and quite timid. When you first approach anyone, as Tanya was fond of saying, they look like they expect you’re going to hit them. When they realize they’re not going to get hit, they brighten up noticeably and will engage you in conversation. We got to spend some time with local families when we were invited to be judges at a science fair being held at a local American school where several of the local ex-pats worked as teachers. The students at Life School take most of their classes in English and delivered their projects based around a US curriculum, therefore knowing they would be graded on presentation, content, formatting and aesthetics. Each of the judges were given about six or seven slips of paper with different students names from Grades 3-6. We would then walk around the courtyard where all the students had their projects displayed and look for our assigned kids. They got so excited when they met their judges and you could tell by how animated they were that they’d been working hard on their presentations for some time. My first kid delivered a rousing demonstration on how solar panels functioned (complete with a solar panel, car battery and a light bulb) and passionately explained the future benefits of solar technology. There were several vinegar and baking soda volcanoes which wasn’t all that surprising since the town sits in the shadows of a three volcanoes. The funniest presentation was by a couple obvious trouble makers who delivered their thesis on different smells and their liklihood of making you puke. As judge, of course I figured it was duty to smell all of their concoctions for the purpose of accuracy. Many of the parents were on hand and they watched us ominously as their children gave their presentations. It was nice to speak with the parents, most of whom could not speak English themselves and get their thoughts on their children’s western education. It was a great day and we were awarded by free pizza and orange punch which we ate sitting together in tiny plastic chairs in one of the kindergarten classrooms.
Tanya and I found some more volunteer work through an organization called Mayan Families which is funded primarily by the Rotarians. In addition to providing medical and dental care for indigenous people, they also run a food provision program for area schools, they participate in the construction of homes for needy families and they have a vocational carpentry school. Ultimately, I had applied to work with the Guatemalan construction crew as they were building three separate houses at the time. I spoke to the volunteer coordinator and on three separate occasions made early morning appointments to go with the coordinator to visit the job sites. Irritatingly, I was stood up all three times. I spoke with the head of the organization, a middle-aged lady from the US somewhere, to explain the situation, and was surprised that she didn’t seem to give a flying fig. She merely laughed it off and walked away from me. When I asked some of our friends in town about Mayan Families, it appeared that the organization was not very well thought of in terms of their of organization or their leadership. Yet another example of a well-meaning organization that makes poor use of the resources available to them. We did manage to connect to the guy running the carpentry shop at a fundraiser dinner. Mike used to run a drywall company in Texas and sold the company just before the bottom fell out of the home-building industry in the States. He had put the program together himself with funding obtained from Mayan Families and some of his business connections in the US. He ran a tight ship and Tanya and I were happy to work with him. Mike had designed and built a beautiful and well equipped carpentry shop within a building owned by Mayan Families. He takes in young local men for free and provides them with year-long vocational courses. Mike liaises with local businesses, mills and joiner shops around Guatemala to ask what skills would be beneficial for future employees to have. Mike himself didn’t have any carpentry experience and said he taught himself joinery skills by watching over 200 hours of YouTube videos. He had six guys that he was training at the time and he was showing them how to make these really cool jewellery boxes out of native Guatemalan timber. The boxes were fairly detailed and there were numerous elements that Mike taught his students in order to get to the finished product. Mayan Families had an agreement with the Rotary Club that all the boxes or other crafts made would be shipped to the states and sold through the Rotarians website. The boxes were to retail for $250 and Mike was expected to have 30 ready by the end of the semester. The money brought in for these sales basically paid for the tools and materials making the program largely self-sufficient. It was a shame that I wasn’t able to participate in the home building programs, but learning about joinery was a nice change of pace.