After a restless night (for me, everyone else is sleeping like the proverbial logs) we were ready for our big day trip to mythical Lake Atitlan (Lago de Atitlan).
We were collected promptly at 8:00 am and then proceeded on a bone rattling tour of Antigua to collect the various other passengers. Antigua does not seemingly have a sealed road within the city limits and driving around on the cobblestone streets yesterday morning made me pity anyone who earns a living from driving in this town. Like anything I suppose you would get used to it. These streets may look beauiful and rustic but they are not a good match for modern cars. The shock absorber repair companies must make a killing here (not to mention to brake and tyre merchants).
Our mini bus is finally full and we leave the town proper. We pass the industrial areas which are not dissimilar to our own, large warehouses and merchants of various kinds: bricks, plumbing supplies, electrical. Except it looks like a bomb has been dropped on most of the buildings. This is the very curious thing about the buildings here, most are in various forms of disrepair or partial construction. Sometimes just the four walls are up, no windows or doors. Most look like they were going to put on a second storey but never got around to it, with pipes and reo sticking out. [Found out today people don't finish their houses because they don't have to pay taxes on unfinished houses. Genius!]
The road turns into a very impressive freeway, two lanes each way. The cars, buses and trucks zoom along. The road is quite steep in many places. Often we'll see a lone bike rider, sometimes with a load. Other times a person or small group walking; the women balancing giant baskets on their heads. It is baffling: where are these people going seemingly miles from anywhere. But they walk a long way each day to go to work or to sell something at the market. While it appears that we are in the middle of nowhere there are small clusters of homes (not what you would think of when I say "home", there are no McMansions here), tiny villages of sorts on every hillside.
We stop for a "banos" break at a lovely looking restaurant. While us ladies line up (this seems to be a totally universal problem) for use of the toilets a boy of 8 or 10, neatly dressed in black pants and white shirt, hair combed and shined, runs in, quick as a monkey jumps on top of the paper towel dispenser, opens it and takes out the roll. Nimbly he puts the cover back on and proceeds to rip the paper towel into squares and fold them to hand out to the ladies as they finish washing their hands. He has a sweet smile and greets each lady as she passes. Of course we all tip as we file past. [Yet another example of enguinity for survival.]
We carry on up and down the mountains. We turn off and proceed through a village and then onto a windy road which tested my ability to control anxiety. When your driver is talking on his mobile phone and there is a sheer drop on one side of the vehicle it's hard not to imagine a grizzly end as we all plummet to our deaths.
But we do not plummet anywhere. We descend towards Lake Atitlan and soon enough we start to gt glimpses of water. It's a misty day, so everthing appears as a water colour, slightly grey, slightly blurry. As we get closer and closer realisation sets in. We have no plan; I have booked our visit to Panajachel with no thought to what we might do once we arrive. Panic! Those who know me will understand I don't function well without a plan, when, where, who and why. All those "w's" must be addressed before anything happens. Suddenly we were here and no idea what to do next.
Luckily we were quickly swept up by a man whose job was hard to pinpoint but he was very happy to take us in hand. Within seconds of getting off the bus we had agreed upon a private boat to take us to two towns on the Lake's shores. We had just over four hours before our trip back to Antigua so we didn't have much time to muck around. A brief tuk tuk ride later we were being introduced to our boat driver Edgar, a boy of anywhere between 15 and 25. His fibreglass launch, no fancy overheads here, was to be our pleasure cruiser for the day.
I can't describe the feeling of moving across the lake for the first time. It was exhilirating, our small boat skimming the small, choppy waves at a rapid pace, spray flying from all sides. A few minutes into the journey a previously glum Marianna shouted "I know I didn't want to come to Guatemala but this is the BEST DAY OF MY LIFE!". It was almost magical. The lake is huge and flat, surrounded on all sides by mountains and volcanoes. Yesterday those mountains were vague shadows amids the mist; as we approached they would emerge from the gloom and reveal their beauty.
There are villages of various sizes dotted around the lake. There are also luxurious private homes and resorts, by far the best structures I have seen anywhere in Guatemala.
We approach the first village on our itinerary, San Antonio Palopo. It is a tight knot of tiny buildings dominated by a large, white church. Gingerly we come onto shore and look around. Very quickly a tiny Mayan woman introduces herself to me as Manuela, very politely asking my name in good English. In the blink of an eye she is doing something complicated to Marianna's hair, turning her into a minature Mayan girl. The effect is gorgeous and of course we buy the scarf. Meanwhile Jason has been accosted by two or three boys selling woven bookmarks. He buys a handful and I haven't got the heart to explain to them why they should cease and desist in making further bookmarks in this Kindle world we now live in.
Manuela senses an easy target and drags us to her home/showroom where she shows us the beautiful weaving she creates with her family (sister/mother/aunt?). As usual in these situations I feel flustered and pressured but unable to simply walk away. We buy a gorgeous table runner and escape as quickly as possible before another purchase is manufactured.
The town is steep and tiny, mountain goat country. We huff and puff up the narrow streets while children scamper around our legs and young women go about their business, young men seem to simply loiter. Everyone has a smile and a "hola" or a "beunos tardes", even the ones with nothing to sell.
We briefly visit the church, which is not particularly remarkable, apart from being large and white. Jay is anxious we stick to schedule so we head back down towards the jetty. There are a group of boys playing soccer on the basketball court and Will is keen to join them. Language is no barrier to soccer and soon enough he's on the court playing. It's a mind blowing concept: Guatemalan born, Australian raised Will is playing soccer on a dusty court in a speck of a town on the shores of Lake Atitlan, a million physical and cultural miles from home.
I find a general store around the corner and buy the boys a new ball and a dozen lollipops (no helado at this shop). The boys are not super impressed, accepting the ball without comment and sneakily taking more than one lollipop each, leaving me short when it comes to giving the boys selling bookmarks one each. We don't have enough for the older boys so we give them one quetzal for a Coke. "You're mean" they shout at us as we get on the boat.
Again we bump across the water. I am concious that this lake is the crater of an old volcano, that we are moving across history. Next stop is the more substantial village of Santiago Atitlan. Here the markets meet the shore, so you barely set foot of the boat before you're hit with the full force of Mayan economy.
We are starving so manage to keep our game faces on, with a million "no, gracias" we stumble up the hill in search of lunch. Many stalls and shops, none selling food more substantial than Doritos and Coke. Finally we find a cafe which is busy and looks clean. We get a table and order lunch, which involves a great deal of arguing with Miss M about why she can't order the spaghetti bolegnese. Then we wait, wait, wait. We have to be back at the jetty by 3:00 in order to be back at Pana for our 4:00 pm bus. Finally Jay's order arrives but nothing else. We tell them to cancel the rest and share his sandwich. Miss M is sulking due to aforementioned spaghetti situation so won't eat anything.
Edgar is waiting for us aboard "Ingrid" and we head back towards Pana. The mists are settling in and there is very little visibility. It adds to the magical effect. The mist can't hide the three ugly green hotel towers someone has built to the left of the central Pana area. It's hard to believe even the most corrupt planning official could allow something so horrible and inappopriate to be built in this area. Not that the town is beautiful by any stretch of the imagination, but like most of the towns outside of Guatemala City it has its own particular charm.
We arrive back at our designated collection point with time to spare. What else do you do in Guatemla but shop? Generally I am more attracted to the quiet merchants, the ones who sit with their goods and wait to be approached. I like to browse without feeling pressurised to buy. Outside the hotel which is our meeting spot sits a lovely young woman. I enjoy buying from her because she is helpful but placid and polite, with a sweet smile. She won't be calling us "mean".
Four o'clock comes and goes and no sign of our bus. We start checking our paperwork, asking at the hotel's reception desk, but still no bus. A little anxiety creeps in? What if no-one comes?! But they do, this time in a much smaller mini-bus. Jay has to sit up the front with the driver. The kids and I squished in the back. In front of us an American couple, the husband straight out of Fawlty Towers... complaining about every little thing, the traffic, the driver. "I bet he doesn't even know where he's going," he mutters not so quietly at one point.
After many traffic delays (the Semana Santa processions are what it's all about here this week) we get dropped off at Parque Central and look for somewhere to eat. We have literally shared one sandwich all day... oh, and a bag of plantain chips. The centre of Antigua is buzzing but it's hard to find a restaurant which either isn't full to capacity or looks fit for human habitation. We find Fusion which is empty but looks welcoming. While we're perusing the menu at the door the wild haired American manager rushes out and we're hooked by her friendly manner.
We order (Miss M seems happy to order ribs and not the spaghetti bolegnese I had caved in to) and while we wait for our meals a procession descends on the street outside. We get to see it close up. What a fascinating sight. Rows of boys and men in purple hoods, KKK style, various men and women in suits, then the actual floats depicting Jesus, all carried by men and boys. The last float is carried by women. I know there's meaning to all this but you'll have to look it up yourself because I don't know enough detail to present a coherent description here. Needless to say it all looks extremely tedious and strange to a heathen like me, but certainly culturally fascinating.
Our host tells us she is from Alaska originlly and is finishing up this job to manage an exclusive spa on Lake Atitlan (from where we've just come) which is only accessible by helicopter and private boat. Oh, the extremes of third world countries. The poverty and the excess.
Exhausted, the kids scream for a tuk tuk, but none can be found. So we walk home. It's been an amazing but very long day. Another one coming up tomorrow.