The Monster of Lake Atitlan

[This was a post I wrote in Guatemala on November 2nd. I’m finally publishing it because I have the picture.]

I’ve always liked the kind of small talk that leads to a better conversation. As my Spanish skills have been improving, I’ve been trying to joke a little more with my friends and with some of the locals, and I usually start out with that I live in the States, near Washington D.C. People never know where that is, so I say, “You know President Obama?” and they answer that they do, then I add: “We are neighbors.”

They usually laugh, and then I have to clear it up that we are not exactly neighbors, and nobody can be neighbors with the president because the White House really doesn’t exist in a normal neighborhood. Of course, this expanded explanation is much more difficult to convey in Spanish, so I simply leave it that “We aren’t really neighbors, but close enough.”

After my lead in with the “I’m neighbors with the President” I usually struggle with where I should go next, so when someone told me recently that there was a monster that lived at the bottom of Lake Atitlan, I thought this would be a perfect topic to adopt into my small talk repertoire. There are many legends in the small Mayan community near where I’ve been studying Spanish, and my favorite is now the Monster of the Lake. Some people believe that there’s an enormous dinosaur-like reptile that inhabits the lake, much like the Loch Ness Monster that supposedly lives in Loch Ness Scotland.

But people don’t like to talk about it. Not because I’m a gringo, it’s because some people believe that the more you talk about it, the more energy you give to the monster, and the more likely it will be to strike again. Strike again? Has it struck before?

Apparently, it has. It’s gotten the blame for many injuries and casualties that have occurred in the Lake. But then again, it depends on who you talk to. After I asked the 2nd and 3rd person about the Monster of Lake Atitlan, I realized that I possessed three different stories or interpretations from this legend, and my new “go to small talk topic” was borne.

So for the past three weeks, when conversation is lagging or I have no idea what to say, I ask about the Monster. Now, when I ask, I ask like I’ve never asked the question before. It’s not “Tell me what your personal experience has been surrounding the supposed legend of this so-called “Lake Monster.” Instead it’s “Is there a monster in the Lake???”

The current tally is 14 yays, and nine nays. But look at these various interpretations:

  • The monster lives in an underground cave.
  • The monster has been seen by over 300 people.
  • There is an underground network of tunnels that it travels in.
  • It’s just a legend, gringo.
  • It’s not true, but no one knows for sure . . .
  • There used to be a town at the bottom of the lake.
  • Satellites cannot map the terrain of the lake, so it’s impossible to know.
  • When the water came, it destroyed the town, and the people.
  • The monster ate the people.

So this year for Halloween, when I was considering what costume I was going to do, the answer was obvious.

A friend told me that there was a guy doing face painting near the Panachel Dock. I thought that might be a good asset for my costume. I made my way in and talked to the guy about getting my face painted. Standing there and as the heavy stage makeup was being applied, I knew that if I was really going to do this, I’d have to dive in completely. I immediately thought about all the materials I could don myself with to complete the costume. As he was starting to draw on my face he said, “You know it’s just a legend, right?” I said, “Probably, but people say different things . . . What do you think it looks like?”

He responded, “I dunno, maybe a serpent or a dragon?”

I said, “Well, do what you want, you’re the 23rd person I’ve asked, so it’s up to you to draw what you think’s best.”

And here we have the result:

Yes, everyone knew who I was at the party, and they wondered where I got the greenery for the costume. I responded that I got most of it on the walk to the party, from various trees, bushes, and branches and my real aim was to look like I just emerged from the lake. A lot of people wanted to take pictures of me, and I was able to collect a few more stories about the Lake Monster for the road home.

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