15 October, 2010

Habla Espanol?

Location: San Pedro la Laguna, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
Position: N 14 41.589 W 091 16.195

We left the Rio Dulce fairly early in the morning, it was hot, humid and we were dripping in sweat. Luckily we traveled on an air conditioned bus, which even showed a movie. We didn't watch the film though, as we were too busy looking out of the windows. The entire 5 hour trip we were going up, up, up, sometimes a gentle incline, other times steep winding roads. At 1pm we got off the bus in Guatemala City, the capital of Guatemala, there was almost a chill in the air and NO humidity. Ahhh this is why we came!!

Our first destination was Panajachel another 90 miles higher into the mountains, over the Continental Divide. Because of the enormous amount of rain this year (the most since they began keeping records in the 1940s) the road had been closed off and on for a few months due to mud slides. We were amazed at the destruction caused by these slides, not only to the road but to villages and fields all along the way. This area is rich in crops now we see why we've been enjoying such a variety of vegetables and fruit since we arrived in Guatemala. We passed miles of fields being worked by hand. Men and women in traditional Guatemala dress were scraping away a living with hand tools and carrying the produce to the road in big baskets and bundles on their heads. These bundles are then piled high waiting for trucks to come and pick them up. It's like we stepped back in time.
Firewood being delivered

We finally left the main Pan American highway and started to head down a narrow winding road toward Lake Atitlan. For about 20 miles we slowly descended around hairpin bends, this road also with much evidence of land slides and lane closings. We finally reach Solola, which is an old cobbled town with a magnificent old church in the centre, again almost everyone is wearing traditional dress. This town is perched 1/3 mile above Lake Atitlan with amazing views of the lake and the surrounding volcanoes. We wished we could have stopped there and wandered around but the bus continued on and another steep 5 miles later we arrived at the edge of the lake at Panajachel. The road from Solola to Panahachel has since been closed for repairs due to damage from the mudslides. Apparently large rocks kept falling down the steep banks onto the road and crushing cars and people. So they're going to excavate all the way up the mountain to try and control it.

Earlier in the year we met an older couple who have a boat at our marina in Rio Dulce and are now living most of the year in Panajachel. They had kindly invited us to stay with them for a few days.
We spent 2 days exploring, Panajachel, fondly called “Pana” by the local ex-pats,. The town is not as old as Antigua, nor as quaint as Solola but it had lots of little back streets, a great market, including amazing local flowers, and transportation by tuk-tuk for Q5 ($0.65) per person to anywhere within the town. We really enjoyed getting to know our wonderful hosts Brian and Christine better. They showed us around the town and then left us to our own devices to wander around and do as we pleased. They were gracious and interesting hosts.

Lake Atitlan is a caldera, a collapsed volcanic cone, over 1,000 feet deep and the views are spectacular. Surrounding the lake are 3 volcanoes and several towns. Transportation between towns is by lancha from the public docks. This year's “gringo price” was Q25 ($3.20) one way to any of the other towns. Because of all the rain the lake is 7 feet higher than usual so the public docks are under water, making it a challenge to get passengers on and off. The drivers stand at the waters edge shouting their destination “Santiago”, “San Pedro” etc.
Note the many baskets that the women carry on their heads being transported on the top of the lancha

The standard way to carry things here is to have a band around your forehead which changes the distribution of weight from your back
Due to the high water in Lake Atitlan the docks are having to be rebuilt. Note the ladies with baskets on their heads on the dock.

Many of the ladies and girls embroider their own clothes

We saw this old man in traditional attire every day when we walked through San Pedro, he always smiled and said Hello

We were heading to San Pedro to attend Spanish school for a week so we climbed into the correct lancha. We were the only ones on the boat so we asked the driver when we would leave. He said, “When we have 12 passengers!!” We looked at each other, shrugged and sat and waited. Actually it only took about 30 minutes to fill up and we really enjoyed watching the hustle and bustle of the dock. Women carrying baskets on their heads, men carrying cases of heavy goods on their backs with a strap around their forehead to take the weight. Mark said “Now I see why Guatemalan's are so short!”

We arranged to take one-on-one Spanish lessons and live with a family including a private room and 3 meals a day in the nearby town of San Pedro la Laguna. We really need help with our Spanish. We have learned enough to be able to ask questions but not enough to understand the answers. We weren't expecting miracles in a week but we were hoping to improve. And we were really looking forward to living with a family and learning more about what life is like here.

San Pedro is 5282 ft or 1 mile above sea level. The Rio Dulce at 289 ft elevation is only 230 miles from San Pedro. San Pedro is unofficially split into 2 sections. Down by the water are the restaurants, hotels, and shops for the tourists. By following several steep cobbled roads (they seemed almost vertical when we first arrived) you come to the town centre with market, church, schools and local businesses.

We attended the Cooperativa school which was half way up the hill.
Mark studying, good job he has his back to the view
Our school had salsa lessons one night. We were really bad, but had lots of fun.

Our teachers, Ligia and Josefa
Dinner with our family
A fun visit to the ice cream shop with Helena, the kids and their 2 cousins
Classes are conducted in gardens with little palapas, containing a table and 2 chairs, dotted around so you have privacy and serenity. We had class every morning for 5 days from 8-12. The teachers find out how much you know and what you are hoping to learn and then take off from there. We had lots of conversations dotted with grammar and really felt that we made leaps of progress during the week. Concentration was difficult though with classes overlooking these wondrous views.

The family that we stayed with lived right below the school and they were wonderful. Lorenzo and Andrea had 3 kids, Francisco, 11, Elena, 9 and Lorenzo, 4. When we weren't in class we'd wander around town, do homework and hang out with the family. We had our own room, spartan but clean and comfortable, and shared the bathroom with the family. The kids helped us with our Spanish, and we watched kids TV with them too which was really helpful. Francisco showed us how to make a kite from sticks and tissue paper, Elena showed us how to embroider a traditional belt, and 4 year old Lorenzo was wild and crazy and of course loved his big new toy – Mark!! We ate all our meals with the family and practiced our Spanish on them. They were all very patient and helpful. Julie sometimes got Andrea to let her help with the cooking.

Andrea trying to teach Julie how to make tortillas

Most people here are Mayan and speak Maya as their first language and Spanish as a second. We learned so much during our visit that we're really glad we decided to take classes here in this small remote town rather than in Antigua which is much more touristy and much less traditional.

At the end of our week we caught a bus to Antigua. This was yet another amazing ride, up and over the volcanoes with outstanding views.
Beautiful view of San Pablo and Lake Atitlan

View of the volcanoes from above San Pedro

Antigua is only 20 miles away from Guatemala City but very different from 'the City'. This old colonial town founded in 1542, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It sports cobbled streets, old buildings, and is dripping with charm. The town has a definite Spanish influence, the houses are hidden off the street in courtyards surrounded by high walls with grand old wooden gates and some of the most impressive knockers we've ever seen.


We spent 4 days here wandering around the back streets, hoping to find gates open so that we could nosey in at the elaborate courtyards, looking at ruins, climbing up to the Cero de la Cruz to enjoy views of the town with Volcano Agua in the background.
View from Cero de la Cruz, Antigua

La Merced church,Antigua

Fountain in Parque Central, Antigua

Marimba band playing outside the town hall on a Sunday night

Andean pipe band playing in Parque Central

We found a couple of great cheap local places to eat and a couple of good more expensive places. Our favourite hangout was the Central Park. Here we would sit and people watch. Usually there would be music or a mime to entertain and of course the shoe shine boys and women hawking Guatemalan 'stuff'. A fountain in the centre of the park was a big attraction - topless mermaids spouting water from their breasts! Needless to say, lots of tourist photos get taken here.
Volcano Fuego spews every 10 minutes.

Mark being artistic took this picture of the menu outside . It looks like they etched out a place in the wall so it would sit correctly

Primary transportation for locals around Guatemala is the “chicken bus”.

These are retired US school buses that have been purchased and driven down here, renovated, “blinged up” and put into service transporting people around the country. There are no regulations, no inspections, and no oversight. The faster they drive, the more passengers they can carry and the better wage they can make. It's a scary sight seeing them round mountainous corners on two wheels. The coolest thing about them is all the “bling”. Most of them have been really tricked out with chrome, fancy lights, great names, decals, and colorful paint.

Here's a link to an article about “camionetas” from a local Antiguan magazine: http://revuemag.com/2010/03/the-birth-of-camioneta/.

And here's a link to as many chicken bus photos as you could ever want: http://www.google.com/images?hl=en&q=chicken+bus&psj=1&wrapid=tlif12914091680071&um=1&ie=UTF-8&source=og&sa=N&tab=wi&biw=1112&bih=801&uss=1