Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Of our triumphant return to Lago Atitlan

Extra! Extra! Special mid-day edition of the Holla as I sit at home running through Kleenex like it was going out of style. The Sudafed I took was supposedly "non-drowsy," so I may even stay awake through the production of another epic missive. Readers are advised to find their own solution for staying awake while reading it.

Originally, we had planned to take our first visitors (of those who were not obliged by blood relation to visit) to Costa Rica, in search of cloud forests and resplendent quetzals. But for the cost of a ninety-minute flight in Central America, you could fly from DC to San Francisco back home. And why were we in such a hurry to get these people out of the Land of Eternal Spring, anyway? Through the highly recommended power of Skype, we agreed with our guests that Lake Atitlan would be a just fine destination for a few days of Guatemala-centric fun.

We stayed at the Casa del Mundo, or "House of the World," which might not live up to it's billing, but not for lack of effort. It was built by a guy from Alaska, of all places, and his Guatemalan wife. Accomodations are a series of cabins sprinkled through gardens and paths up the steep slopes surrounding the lake. Climbing to the towering heights of Cabin 12 was a serious workout a few times a day. Connecting back to the hippie burnout tradition of Lake Atitlan, dinners at Casa del Mundo are served family-style at one big table, and one of the primary attactions is a wood-fired hot tub that, much to our disappointment, does not actually feature a giant bonfire underneath a cauldron-shaped tub, but rather a little watertight, rectangular wood-burning stove in the center of a 12-person tub.

Other than hanging out by the lake, which is nothing to sniff at, and kayaking, which we forced upon our unwary guests, there's not a whole lot to do at Casa del Mundo, since it isn't attached to a town. On Sunday we took a series of lanchas (Spanish for "Dangerously overcrowded motorboats") to get to Santiago Atitlan. This gave us a chance to get to know some of the adoptive locals, a bunch of hippie characters who came to Atitlan to get in touch with the earth or something in 1972 and never left, and apparently have to shuttle back to the main town to get pot every once in a while. At least we weren't paddling home-made canoes, as the local fishermen do. Sunday is market day in Atitlan, which is not quite a Chichicastenango-style regional event, but still offered plenty of opportunities to buy veggies, plastic toys, native crafts, and, of course, ice cream. At one point, we contributed to the local economy by paying an opportunistic vendor more to take a picture of her goods than it would have cost to buy them outright, take them home, and then take pictures of them there. We quickly quit asking before snapping pictures of inanimate objects.

While several of its neighbors around the lake have been completely transformed by the change that lake-loving tourists bring, Santiago Atitlan has held on to some elements of tradition. While indigenous women all over continue to wear their traditional traje, in Santiago, one still spots many men wearing their traditional white, striped, and sometimes embroidered, pants.

The town suffered many tragedies during the civil war, and a memorial in the beautiful and simple church commemorates a massacre of locals (and of an American priest who had harbored them in his church) by the Guatemalan Army that some see as a turning point in public perceptions of the Army's activities. I don't have the details to write intelligently at length about the events there, but it was powerful to see such a forceful reminder of how the Church has actually been a force for good every now and again.

In a slightly different role for the Catholic Church in Guatemala, many places in the highlands have mixed Catholic and indigenous religious traditions with some level of impunity. I'm sure the Church is not thrilled to know that many highlanders still pray to Maximón, an idol representing a blend of Christian saints, Judas, and indigenous Mayan gods, depending on the source; many present conflicting stories on his origin. What is known with certainty is that Maximón loves cigars, and he loves liquor: A religious figure we can all aspire to emulate. After some agressive bargaining with the pre-pubescent touts who were merciless in their pestering when we arrived in Santiago, but who were more interested in playing soccer when we were actually looking for a guide, we paid a local boy Q5 to show us to Maximón's current home. The secret location is not listed in guidebooks because the honor of hosting him rotates annually between members of the Board of Directors of Maximón Industries, LLC, in what is assumed to be some sort of decades-old power-sharing agreement. The current home is decked out in streamers and the floor covered with candle wax. We walked in on two guys kneeling on woven mats before Maximón, praying in a mix of Spanish and Tzutujil, one of at least 23 Mayan languages still spoken in Guatemala. The other gringo in the room offered Maximón some cigars. Your correspondent felt bad that we had neglected to bring either smokes or rotgut, so he simply paid something like three times the suggested offering. Your correspondent felt a slightly less bad once he saw "Maximón" enjoying shots of the offerings of cheap rum through the body of his guards/priests/representatives in the room, who in some cases looked to have served as vessels for Maximón's vice-loving spirit for a good portion of the day.

On the way back to Guatemala City, we swung through Antigua, strolling the cobblestone streets and visiting the Church of San Francisco, where pilgrims ask for assistance from Hermano Pedro de Betancourt, lighting candles and leaving plaques in gratitude. Inside was another tribute to another slain Catholic Priest who had been a little too helpful with the poor people for the Guatemalan Army's taste back in the 1980's. Still feeling a little moved, we bought some candles outside and lit one on the table outside, which was technically Hermano Pedro's table, but being a Saint and all, I'm sure he'll share.

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