Sunday, August 17, 2014

Antigua de Guatemala and Lake Atitlan

On a crowded chicken bus – a former US school bus painted like it's going to star in a monster truck show now used to facilitate intercity travel in Guatemala – I found myself chatting with a local that grew up in Los Angeles. A wizened minstrel in a Mayan tunic hopped onboard and played some Latin pop songs on his guitar while I watched a blur of trees in volcanic soil creep past through the window. I smelled of tequila from a bottle that did not survive my flight from Havana, leaving all my books and clothes baptized in agave and broken glass. This route, so I was told, from the capital to the city of Antigua occasionally sees its bus drivers beheaded for failing to pay their dues to the cartel.

Up until my first hours in Guatemala, I don't think I've ever put a step in a country where I've felt less safe than in my own. Though truly, if it weren't for the reports I've read of robbery, kidnappings, raids, and hijackings, little about Guatemala's appearance suggests any additional measure of peril than anywhere else – save for maybe the abundance of well armed security guards posted by jewelers, bodegas, and bus stations brandishing scowls and rusty looking shotguns.

More surprising to my eyes, in my fleeting hours in Guatemala City and then repeatedly afterward, was the diminutive stature of our neighbors to the south. Whereas I was pleased to see in Mexico a thriving incorporation of native culture, Guatemala seemed to be inversely a country of natives with incorporation of European culture. Tiny Mayan women in lovely knit dresses were on every corner hawking Mayan this's and thats's. Prior to this particularly trip, I suppose I had naively assumed that the U.S.'s near total domination and diminishment of its native peoples – particularly in its big cities – was also reflective of the condition in the rest of the Americas, and I was happy to find I was wrong.

I hopped off the bus in Antigua's outskirts and ambled toward where I was hoping I'd find the city center. I was shortly intercepted by a a Canadian family that warned me I was in a part of town I ought not to be alone in with all of my belongings.

I followed them until I had made my bearings and then I checked into a hostel where I would find my friend Henry, a bartender I had once worked with whom was in town for a wedding. Together, we took the to the city’s old streets.

When the clouds permit it, an ominous volcano watches over colorful Antigua, a colonial town split tidily along a cobblestone grid dotted with grand old cathedrals of every degree of upkeep – many struck down to stony skeletons by earthquakes in the passing of centuries. Sometimes broken things can be so beautiful. Blue sky might shine through what was once a painted dome, and the reeds and bushes that mark their paths and creep up the walls celebrate their advances in the endless drama of man vs. nature.

The Antigua of today seemed a town for outsiders. Receptionists and bartenders seemed more likely to be wandering Brits, Aussies, and Yanks that wanted temporary roots in exotic soil.

Guatemalan cuisine seemed harder to find than sushi, and there was even a Staples for me to pay a visit to when the last of my pens had run dry or missing. I got the sense that Guatemala's tourists are corralled into more specific geographic locations than in most countries – perhaps for safety reasons.

Days earlier, sharing rum in Havana with an Australian flight controller and a loud young Englishman wearing a shit that read, “Guat-ever!” I was told I shouldn't miss a visit to lake Atitlan, a great lake not too far from Antigua with a huge expat community and dramatically set before two great volcanoes (volcanoes are really what's up in Guatemala). So I talked Henry in joining me for a day trip a little to the northwest. At dawn we crammed into a van that wound for hours through piney hills, smoke scented farms, and bustling towns full of knit Mayan dresses and ceramic pottery stalls.

After passing a final hilltop we began a descent into the valley that holds the beautiful lake Atitlan and our van was suddenly full of gawking rubberneckers swiveling their heads left and right in opposition to our vans orientation as we slid steeply down a ridgeback road into a dockside village.
Like in Antigua, the volcanoes in Atitlan were shy, and spent most of their time hiding their immensities behind curtains of mist.

The perimeter of the lake is dotted with communities of dramatically different qualities. There were populous towns like Panajachel where we were dropped off, great mansions perched on cliffs (one supposedly belonging to Sylvester Stallone), idyllic hippy expat yoga communities that were highly recommended to us, and then grey Mayan shanty towns where Spanish was truly a secondary language. Of the lot, it was the very last that interested us the most and we haggled a boat driver down to a reasonable fraction of the grossly inflated asking prices to show us around for the afternoon.

We enjoyed an overdue bite in Santa Catarina Polopo's one hotel/restaurant, a typical Guatemalan meal of plantains, rice, and beans. Stalls of beads and fabric lined the way to the town square where buildings were draped in purple banners in anticipation of Easter.

School children on break were sprinting each way and one with a giant smile even wrapped his arms around my leg in a very sweet unsolicited hug. I'm already reluctant enough about taking photos of people in my home country or otherwise, and the matter is even more complicated here. I was advised against taking photos of children in Guatemala – or at least to exercise more caution and consideration – thanks to high rates of kidnappings and the true villains who might use their cameras to shop around for their clients or however that might work. I did exercise extra restraint, but as I had in each of the last eight countries I've visited taken a portrait of a local kid wearing the fedora I take with me on the road, I let the friendliness of the kids there and the approving smiles of some nearby adults embolden me enough to take at least a couple shots (I've always found some justification in the fact that I've been snapped by foreigners with and without permission plenty of times back home and perhaps more so by the locals who snap pictures of me while I'm the stranger in their countries).

Further along the lake, following the rim clockwise, we found ourselves strolling up and down the steep alleyways of San Antonio Palopo, an even larger Mayan village. We caught some shade and our breath in a ruddy little cathedral with a sweeping view of the lake and this diagonally set village tumbling down the hills into the water.
It shouldn't be surprising to overhear the locals speaking only in Mayan, but I found its staunch disparity from Spanish and my lack of expectation to give their intonations a fascinating beauty.

Henry said his prayers in the cathedral and then we were back under the sun and took to the paths that weaved around the town. Back by the water, we enjoyed some beer. The big national brand is called Gallo and comes in a few different varieties all printed with the outline of a rooster. My favorite was their dark beer.
Henry was in Guatemala for a wedding, and back in Antigua we joined the wedding party for dinner and dancing. I tried to demonstrate what a couple hundred dollars in Salsa lessons in Cuba might accomplish, first with a gringa then with a a tall Guatemalan with deep set eyeshadow. It turns out I'm still worthless at doing the Salsa and after I parted with my second dance partner, Henry grabbed my arm and asked, “Matthew, you know that's a tranny don't you?” I chuckled as that fact became clear to me and I realized that better justified the fact that she approached me at the bar.

A few drinks later, the bartender, a strapping young white dude with dreadlocks, leaped up on the bar to dance a bit before running around the dance floor pouring free shots into people's mouths. His was a level of showmanship I couldn't hope to match in my cocktail bars back home.
For maybe half an hour I was drunk and in love with a tiny Guatemalan girl I was dancing with. She had curly hair, wore only black, and seemed not to know a word of English. When she left, I decided the party was over for me and moseyed back to wherever my bunk was waiting for me.
The morning after, the wedding party had booked a tour of the nearby Pacaya Volcano and saved me a spot, but I must have mentally logged the wrong meeting spot and they had to leave without me while I was running around the town square just hoping to bump into them along their way. Undeterred, as I'd never been up close to a volcano, I got on the next bus I could find heading to Pacaya.
By law, visitors to the volcano are required to have a guide, thanks to the previously high rates of armed robbery along the volcano's trails. Two guards with shotguns stood watch by the trail head. The gradient on the trails was considerable. The hills were green at first and yielded both fertile farmland and energy for the nearby geothermal plant. The greens and browns as we climbed higher slowly faded into greyscale as the mist in the background wrapped denser and closer, and the trees stopped growing for the inhabitability of the crumbly basalt we stepped on. When we reached the first peak nearby figures became mere silhouettes in the shroud.

Further along, the grains of basalt became pebbles, then rocks and small boulders of porous and angular stones that crunched under your feet and were warm to the touch. It was all very ominous and alien, and I felt like I could have been beamed down from a spaceship, sent down to explore a distant planet. Just before our final destination, we reached a wooden shack where we found two young men and a dog, the tenants of the highest shop in Guatemala. They were selling wares on behalf of a nonprofit, jewelry made by locals whose homes were burned down by the last eruption. I bought a silver pennant shaped like a leaf with lines etched from lava rock.

I was hoping to see a brilliant stream of bright red lava, or the kind of sulfurous pit befitting the sacrifice of young virgins to appease sadistic deities, but was rather disappointed when we converged on a little red hole in the ground. Even without this little red hole, the atmosphere of the hike along was well worth the price of admission, and my companions took marshmallows from our guide to roast upon this tiny tear in the earth. Not a fan of eating sweetened goo made out the tendons and skin of cows and pigs but still wanting to partake in the novelty, I brought along one of my last Cuban cigar, which I stabbed with a stick and smoked there on top of the volcano.

I intended to have left Antigua earlier than I did, but I really hit it off with the wedding party and the couple to be wed invited me to join the wedding at an eco-lodge deep in the hills above the city.

She was an American and he was a Guatemalan. The wedding procession was led by four adorable Guatemalan kids in traditional outfits in white and red. Henry, as a friend of the bride's, came down with the procession with the bridesmaids, his tie matching their dresses. The ceremony went down mostly en Espanol, and for what I assume are entirely legal reasons, the officiant had to go over the bride's legal information in great detail, and I believe he read aloud her passport number not once, but twice.

Later, after tapping into rum punch and cervezas, everyone was cutting looser to the tunes of a hip young guitarist that could vocalize the rhythmic sound of a cuica (that instrument popular in Brazilian pop that sounds like the squeak of rubbing a window with a rag and glass cleaner). It was a beautiful time and I was grateful to be there, but had to scoot before the party was done. There was an overnight bus waiting for me in Guatemala City, and I was warned repeatedly against taking a chicken bus after dark. I got back to my hostel in time to collect my things and get in the last tourist van bound for Guatemala City.

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