After staying the night in Panajachel we woke up to a beautiful sunrise. It was perfect beach weather which was awesome, given that today was a swim day. We boarded a boat to take us to Casa Mundo, a quaint hotel that is boat-access only. The edge of the lake is dotted with all kinds of villages rising up fro the water which made for a very scenic boat-ride. The topography actually reminded me a but of shusway or Kootenay Lakes (aside from the 3 huge volcanoes rising high above the surrounding land). We had a leisurely lunch and swim (I had a traditional Guatemalan meal of beans, rice and plantains) and then we made our way off to San Juan del Laguna (San Juan on the Lake).
As soon as we rolled into San Juan, the flooding in October that everyone had been talking about was very apparent. The lake had risen 10 ft in recent months and houses that were once waterfront were up to their eaves in lake-water. There is really nothing that can be done about the water level as the lake sits in a massive crater formed about 10,000 years ago. It simply goes up and down with the rain and sun.
Many of the towns on Lake Atitlan are very poor but San Juan has done well for themselves. Realizing the importance of tourism and agriculture they have built up a town based strongly on those two industries and have been smart with their choices. This was clear the moment we stepped off the dock. You can feel a certain pride and contentment eminating from the people despite their lack of material wealth. It was by far the most friendly, cheerful and genuine town we had beeen in so far. And once again, the religious dedicationof the guatemalan people was evident as yet another religious procession (albeit smaller than the one in Antigua) made its way up and down the streets.
The plan for the evening was to do a tour of local artisan co-operatives and then meet up with a Mayan Family for dinner and our homestay. We quickly maade our way to the first co-op, an art gallery where they make paintings using traditional Mayan styles. They have three different “perspectives”: Abstract view, Bird view, & Ant view. The paintings are really colorful and each of the different perspectives shows off the Mayan culture in unique ways. I ended up buying an ‘ant-view’ painting of some farm workers.The next stop was a textile co-operative where some local weavers demonstrated how they make their textiles on hand looms. They make all of the thread by hand by processsing cotton that they grow in their own gardens. All of the dyes are made organically using local plants (and bugs such as a reddish beetle found on cacti!), much like their relaitves did hundreds of years ago. Each piece of fabric takes days (or weeks to make) and the attention to detail is incredible.
Finally, it was time to meet our Mayan home-stay family. We would be staying in the home of Marcos and Jauna and we couldn’t have asked for nicer hosts. Marcos worked in the coffee and corn fields of the Lake Atitlan area and Juana was a home-maker. They had 3 boys and lived in a basic but well taken care of home. Charlotte and I ddidn’t know what to expect but it was an incredible experience. Despite us not knowing much Spanish, we managed to stumble our way through conversation using a combination of Spanish, English, French and Mayan (which they taught us). It took a lot of mental effort to communicate but it was a positive and fun experience for all of us and there weren’t really any awkward moments. Marcos and myself prepared the eating area (small wooden table with plastic stools) while the ladies made Tortillas by hand in the kitchen over a wooden stove. Dinner was a basic but flavourful chicken soup with hot sauce on the side. Let me tell you about this hot sauce: I put only the tip of a tea-spoon of it into my bowl and it was the hottest thing I’ve ever tasted in my life. It was all I could do to hold back the tears. It was delicious but WOW they have some crazy peppers in Guatemala. Marcos was an interesting fellow but also had a bit of a sense of humour. When he pulled out a mis-shapen tortilla he looked over at Charlotte and said “Son Tortilla”, teasing her on her rookie tortilla making experience. When the topic came up on our relationship, for sake of cultural simplicty we used terms we had agreed on before hand: “Esposo y Esposa”: (Husband and Wife). Dinner conversation was hard but fun at the same time.. We talked about Canada, Guatemala, politics, schools, and life in general. One of their sons was studying computers in school which I wished I could have shared more of my knowledge over. Given that basic communication in Spanish is challenging enough, I can’t imageine trying to explain PHP in another language.
After dinner, we wandred through town coming across some of the other home-stay groups as well as a middle school graduation and photography exhibit. We watched the graduation ceremony for a bit but it was all in spanish and difficult to understand (Except for the national anthem which had karaoke-style words on a projector screen. Its also the longest national anthem in history, I’m sure it went on for at least 15 minutes). The photography exhibit was… interesting. We had a very enthusiastic (but spanish-speaking-only) guide who walked us through a class-room full of photos showing the progress of San Juan. The pride of the people in the town is absolutely amazing. In just a few decades they’ve built up a first class town full of schools, churches and sustainable businesses unlike any other town on the lake. They are proud yet humble. It was by far the most friendly town we have been in this entire trip and all of the townspeople radiate happiness and contentment. It was definately one of the highlights of the trip.