We took a few day trips to various communities around the Lake. Sololá was one of our favourite places. It is the busy capital of the Departmento (Province) and was situated up a long, snaking road overlooking the lake and its three cone-shaped volcanoes. Despite being an extremely busy hub, the town has some beautiful old buildings and there are indigenous people in traditional dress sauntering around everywhere. We loved sitting outside the pizza place on the main square and just watching the colourful populace go about their day to day business. People were exceptionally friendly probably because, unlike the more touristic towns right on the lake, there we no tourists to speak of in Sololá. We were especially enamoured with the hilltop cemetery and its pastel coloured crypts. Another notable settlement, in the opposite direction from Panaj, had just one road in and out. I had spotted this charming little hamlet looking down from what Rudhy referred to as the ‘hot road’ when I first arrived on my bike in Lake Atitlan. The ‘cold road’ lying within the valley on the other side of the mountain range provides a more direct and much faster path to the Lake from Guatemala City but is in the shadows of the mountains and doesn’t give the same exquisite views. We discovered the name of this town was Santa Catarina Palopo when we passed through on a Mayan Families food run. It was one of those really enchanting picturesque places that you don’t come across very often but never forget. Cute, white stucco houses with red tin roofs inched down the slope toward the lake. Rows of neatly, stepped terraces above the house line was where the community grew it’s food. There is one road which occasionally has a truck driving along it carrying crops or supplies. It takes less than ten minutes to walk through town but every person you see will wave hello. Lakeside, there are well-used trampolines which the kids pay a couple coins to jump on. When we carried in the baskets of food, we stumbled into a preschool class. Upon receiving the food donations the teacher led her young students in singing ‘Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes’ in Spanish to say thank you. Beyond cute! It was a good day.
Another town we visited just 10 minutes boat ride along the shore from Panaj was called Santa Cruz La Laguna. This place we dubbed the ‘Town of Children.’ After a cruelly steep hike up an embankment to a mountain ledge which housed the township, we walked around for an hour. There wasn’t much here at all beyond some modest mud houses, a town square and a crumbling concrete school. During the entire walk we saw only a handful of old women, but a huge number of children. There were groups of children playing in the square, bands of five and six children romping along the trails leading up into the mountains and toddlers who would run out from their houses to see who these tall white people were. Without exaggeration, I think we saw only two men; a very old man carrying some seedlings up into the mountains and one man with his wife and son building a fence outside their house. It was strangely eerie. We knew that it was very common for Guatemalan men to bear many children and then abandon the women but this was preposterous. We very much hoped that the men of the village were all working in one of the larger towns or that they were in tribal council or something. It was fun playing and goofing around the kids but you had to wonder who was looking after them all.
We were extremely excited to hear that our old friends Jayne and Phil were heading our way to take a week of Spanish lessons at a school in San Pedro, the bohemian, party town across the lake. We made plans to meet up on the weekend and Tanya and I took the 40 minute lancha ride across to San Pedro. During our hike up the steep hill to the meeting place suggested by our friends, Tanya spotted a used clothing store highly recommended by a girl we knew in Panaj. We went in and were enthralled at all the fashionable (and proper-sized!) clothes for sale. There are many budget travelers that pass through San Pedro which I suppose explains the volume of clothes available. This was an absolute treat. The store was owned by a girl from Switzerland who used the proceeds to run yet another educational outreach for indigenous women. It seems every ex-pat or long-term stayer around Lake Atitlan either runs their own humanitarian organization, volunteers with or works for one. Tanya emerged from the store with a super sex pair of skinny blue jeans shorts and a nice lavender blouse and I snagged a huge pair of white cargo shorts which were desperately needed. My old shorts were either torn to shreds or had some unidentifiable rusty red stains on them. Total expenditure: $10!
Jayne and Phil rucked up to the Church plaza while I was getting my boots polished. I hadn’t actually wanted my boots polished but I was tired of running away from the two 11 year old entrepreneurs who kept setting themselves upon my feet. Finally I just ignored them and continued chatting to Tanya and away they went with their brushes and polish. I was a bit aghast when I finally glanced down and saw that my boots were no longer flat brown but shiny maroon. Well shit, they’d be completely beat up again in a couple weeks anyway. When the boys were finished we got down to negotiating a price. As usual, their ask was ridiculous but since I hadn’t wanted a shine and since they had already completed the work, they didn’t have much leverage. I got them to agree to 15 Quetzals or $2. I figured this was still expensive by local standards but they were cute kids and, hell, there were two of them that had to share the revenue. I gave them a 20 Quetzal note and put my hand out for my change. Instantly both kids grabbed their shine kits and bolted across the church square. I yelled abuse at them, in a half-joking way, amid the laughter of the local people looking on from around the perimeter of the square. Just then Phil and Jayne wandered up. We greeted and hugged and they asked what was going on. I told them I’d just been fleeced by a couple shine kids and Phil immediately looked down to inspect my boots. He reported crossly that they hadn’t even applied the polish down to the sole and hadn’t brushed it in well at all. He couldn’t believe I’d been taken for 20Q and told me the going rate for a shine here was only 5Q. He was indignant on my behalf and told me to keep an eye open for the little bandits and we’d shake them down. I love Phil for this. He understands the inherent cultural value of honouring the local economy. Tourists who ultimately just pay the asking price are unwittingly making it harder for other travelers who are perhaps more money conscious and want to negotiate a fairer price. It also convinces locals to target travelers and makes us the victims of constant harassment from hustlers and cheats. That is why we get ambushed at third world train stations and markets because so many people so easily part with their money for stupidly inflated prices. I’ve been to countries where venders don’t even serve locals and taxi’s don’t stop for non-whites because of the increased profit they make off us. When we travel with Jayne and Phil, we are comfortable knowing they will immediately walk out of a restaurant with us, if we’re being offered inflated prices. But as far as the shine kids went, I was happy to part with a couple dollars, if nothing else than to witness Phil’s outrage. (-;
It was a hot day and we deemed it necessary to celebrate our reunion by getting day drunk. We grabbed some Brahvas from the store and wandered around exchanging stories about our experiences in Rio Dulce and Guatemala City. Phil and Jayne had also failed to see the famed Semuc Champey because it was completely flooded when they attempted to visit, which apparently happens every year during the rainy season. We came across a basketball court in a main square which was teeming with people. Phil and I got schooled by a couple extremely talented yet diminutive 14 year old boys in two-on-two while oblivious townspeople ambled across the court. After a boozy pizza lunch including an ill-fated arm-wrestling completion (ill-fated for the Davidsons anyway, heh heh) we made our way to a popular bar while sipping a sweet Jamaica liquor that Jayne magically procured from her pocket. By the time we found the somewhat hidden bar we were already feeling pretty smashed, and discovered to our delight/horror that this particular establishment offered a free shot with every drink purchased. A tequila was shot, chased by a Moza, an ounce of whiskey, then 12 ounces of Gallo, a hit of rum followed by more rum and maybe a splash of cola. We were getting very drunk, very quickly for very little money.
Things started to get a bit fuzzy for your narrator at this point, but I distinctly remember Tanya and Phil naked in the pool taking turns paddling around in a small rubber dinghy while the less drunk patrons in the bar watched on. I remember being inspired to try and salvage some memories of this epic night for future reference and walked around the pool to get some photos. Armed with my precious blackmail material, I made my way back to my seat at the bar but was still howling at the nudes instead of watching where I was stumbling. My foot caught a chair leg and I performed what was described by everyone afterwards as an extremely graceful headfirst tumble into the pool. As I surfaced with sobering surprise, I heard Tanya scream, “My camera!” I reached into my pocket and immediately retrieved the camera and held it as high as possible out of the water. I’m sure that everyone, despite our acute states of inebriation, realized that it was too late. Phil warned not to turn on the camera but despite putting the camera in a bowl of rice for a week when we got home with the battery and card hatches open, she never did come back to life. It was a hard loss for us, but was really our only major miscarriage of the trip so far (motorcycle repairs not-withstanding) and it came with a pretty hilarious story so we accepted our karma and Tanya accepted my shitty spare camera for the interim. The night didn’t end here, of course; the foolishness and debauch taking us to many more locales and into further interactions which for the sake of good taste I will not delve into here. I’ll reveal that it did culminate in the demise of yet another pair of size 13 sandals and a lifetime of running jokes amongst the four of us.