Category Archives: San Pedro La Laguna

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.

The Transparency of Kindness

I’ve experienced some amazing moments of kindness since I started traveling in August. Moments where I stop and realize that there is goodness in this world, and even though someone does not have money or status, they can change someone else’s life. To me, I thought that to make a difference in someone’s life, you needed to have enough money and education. You had to be in a position of power to positively affect someone else. But there were many moments, and continue to be experiences, where I realize that being educated, having money, skills or talents is irrelevant. Absolutely irrelevant. What matters most is desire, and the willingness to step forward and make yourself available.

Out of many, many examples over the past 4 months to illustrate this point, I’m going to talk about Antonio. Antonio is a Guatemalan in his thirties (possibly early forties). Early on in his life, his diminutive status and diminished mental capacity limited his ability to work led his family to cast him out in the streets to survive on his own. He’s an orphan, and because he never grew up around a family or had consistent relationships until he was 12, his language skills are limited. He doesn’t even speak Spanish. When you want to talk to him, you either have to know Tz’utujil or use body language, and work at it both until he understands. He has no wealth nor the potential for earning it. In the modern world, he has nothing to offer, but yet, he has a room in a home, three meals a day, and a family to call his own. How?

When people ask me what I’ve thought about Central America, I usually respond that people are so kind, so incredibly gracious and welcoming. I say it because it is a point of contrast between the United States and the Central American culture. I say it because I’m a single, young American, without any dependencies, and everything I consider to be safe, secure, and good has come from hard work and the protection of what I’ve been given or earned. Sometimes, I think that to survive in this world you have to fight, and that to admit weakness, or softness is a dangerous admission into vulnerability.

Antonio lives with the Cortez family, and has lived with them for over 20 years. They found him on the street and felt sympathy for him and gave him a home, and more importantly, they gave him a family. He’s got a role in the family and it matters that he follows through with it. He has to fill the water into the outdoor sinks and replenish the firewood, or the food making (which starts at 6:00am) will not happen. I’ve seen him many times at 5:00am wearing a stocking cap and a winter coat carrying firewood up to the second floor. He always wants me to pass by him, and he won’t let me wait for him to finish his trek up the steps.

My perspective has been changing about how this world can work.  I have seen too much already to continue with my old mindset. While I haven’t usually taken the time to record my thoughts on this blog, or captured the moments with a photo, in some ways, I don’t want to. There is something special and unique about knowing that when a moment exists it will pass and will forever never be recorded in words or images. I believe these moments are precious, and they have become some of my fondest memories.

The first time I saw Antonio’s room was when I went up the steps one evening up to my room. The experience made me stop, mid-steps, and think about what it means to be an orphan, or a son, or a traveler in this world. His room, in a word, is “security.” The family gave him something that will always be his. He has a single bulb that lights up his small dwelling place. I saw a picture of the Cortez family, a picture of Jesus, a dresser, a neatly made bed, and his boots placed next to his shoes underneath his small coat rack. I paused on the steps, and thought about the preciousness of having a room to call your own. To have a place where you can set your stuff, fold and store your clothes, and rest in privacy. The times I’ve felt most comfortable while traveling in the past four months has been when someone has given me a room to my own. It’s then that I know that this place will be mine, and mine only, and I and my various possessions, will be safe here.

Antonio’s room is his firm grip on this world. Even though this world has been cold to him and deserted him so many times, this room is something that will not be taken away. It is his, and his only.

I don’t have a picture of Antonio’s room, and I will never have a picture of it. It’s his room. It’s where he feels safe. I’ll leave it in his possession.

I guess, one could say that you really need to leave the borders of the western world to see such kindness of the Cortez family, but I don’t think that’s fair to our society. Kindness exists in our culture every day, but it is so easy to overlook. We get lost in our schedules, in our obligations, and in our entertainment.

So I suppose what happened to me was not that the world was suddenly filled with these moments of real kindness, it’s that I was finally able to see them.

And now, I see it everywhere.

Too Much with the Digital World

Now that I’m back in San Pedro La Laguna in Lake Atitlan, I am amazed that I’ve reentered the analog world. People don’t have smartphones and the internet isn’t ubiquitous. It’s a bit sad, but in some ways, I feel like I was too much with the digital world back home. At times, I was no longer making footprints in my life, I was only making digital prints, digital copies of memories, and losing touch with what it meant to really experience something without regard to whether I could share it, tweet it, email it, or post it.

It’s easy to live in the digital world. The convenience of information and entertainment can be addictive, and sometimes these abilities can become a competition of who’s got the the  most versatile gadget with the best internet signal. When I was home for three weeks, I saw clearly how much of my life was spent being addicted to shiny screens. Just take a look at my workspace below:

Pictured above are the following electronic devices:

  • HP Laptop
  • Macbook
  • External hard drive
  • iPod
  • iPod touch
  • Cell Phone (my same one from 3 years ago)
  • Droid (x2)
  • Kindle (x2)
  • Flip Video
  • 19″ secondary monitor.
  • 5.1 speaker system.

Now, a few of these belong to my brother, but seriously this is crazy. Here in Guatemala, there is a need for people to rent a telephone. When was the last time you thought about having to leave your house to go call someone?

For me here, it’s hard to get information. You have to go talk to people. Yikes.

I remember when I was asking about where I could find a guitar to play. A guy from the church drew me a picture. That’s right, he asked for something to write on and he drew me a picture. Strangely enough, some of the roads don’t have names, so he drew landmarks next to the location of the music store.

Here’s a picture of my guitar with his small map.

I’m live my life in two worlds, both the digital and the analog. I have a laptop here in Guatemala which is incredibly uncommon (even for travelers like me) and I’m posting about my experiences on my blog.

Slowly, the analog world is making it’s way into my life. Right now, I’m smelling the aroma of roasting coffee and watching the delight of a father and his sons marvel at the machinery of the coffee roaster.

Coffee season has begun in San Pedro La Laguna, Solola, Guatemala.

I’d love for you to experience sitting in this chair in this cafe, but I have to apologize because this experience is mostly analog.

San Pedro is a Second Home

Coming back to San Pedro this time was much easier than my first arrival. I felt good about returning to a place  that I knew. I had a family to stay with, I had a few friends from my language school, and I knew a lot of the teachers that taught there. I got really excited as we crested the first mountain coming into the lake. I felt like I was coming home.

I think it’s important to dive into a new place. Dive in completely and try to make it your home. At first, I didn’t like that idea, because I wanted to stay true to my roots: Virginia. Somehow, it seemed that if I were to try to make a new home, sentiments for my old home would decrease. Nope, that’s not how it works. I’ve found that when you try to expand your heart, there is always room for a new home.

As I arrived to my house I heard a chorus of “Hola Aaron!!!” It was almost like they coordinated this greeting. There’s nothing like the feeling of coming home, or hearing your own name. I dropped a few of my bags and looked around for my little brother. Tiny Hector’s mom released him (as he was scrambling to get out of her arms) and he ran to me. He had a huge smile and reached out to hug me, but because of my size he just grabbed my leg. I leaned down and he gave me a high five. (My family told me that for a few days after I left Tiny Hector would come up to my room and knock on my door and say “RRROOONNNN!” He thought that I just had my door closed, he didn’t really know I left!)

My family was really happy to see me. They said they had a surprise for me. We walked closer to the kitchen and they opened the door to their room. But it wasn’t their room, it was a redecorated, rearranged room and there were streamers and balloons everyone.

Two more students had joined the family from the language school and my old room was taken. In order to make room for me, they moved to another room so that I could have a place to sleep. Their entire family sleeps in one room, and they moved everything to the small room to the side of the kitchen so that I could stay there.

Wow. Such graciousness and hospitality.

Many times I feel such a weight of gratitude, that it feels like a burden that I have to repay. But there isn’t a way I can repay them. They do it out of love and they expect nothing in return.

I suppose seeing the joy on my face is a down payment though.

The decorations were all Lolita’s idea. What a sweetheart.

Welcome home.

The Last Shuttle to San Pedro is When You Decide it is

My first night back in Guatemala, I spent the night in Antigua, Guatemala with my friend Shane. Shane and I went to language school in San pedro for three weeks. He was also the guy getting his haircut when I was playing Oasis in the barber shop (barbershop concert). I called in the morning to get a shuttle to San Pedro and they said that all was good, there was plenty of space. Like most things when traveling, plans change. They called me during lunch (at 1:30) and said there wasn’t anymore space. Normally, this isn’t a problem because there plenty of shuttles in Antigua. But they all leave at 2:00 . . . I had already made plans to be back in San Pedro with the family and with my school, and I was like “Uh-oh . . . what do I do now?”

Guatemalan life is pretty laid back. Most people are content when plans change because schedules are flexible. There isn’t always a rigid adherence to set plans or schedules, like in America. I felt compelled to see if there was another shuttle, and a little guilty for being so proactive, because in some ways I could really just relax in Antigua and spend another day there. Still, I believe that I should be proactive in my decisions, and I was planning on eating dinner with my family that night.

So Shane and I finished our lunch and headed out the door. Determined to find another shuttle, we walked briskly toward the central park. On our way we stopped at one agency – no more shuttles. We stopped at another, and apparently they were eating lunch and couldn’t help us. (I didn’t understand why eating a sandwich prevented them from getting me a ticket but it was clear they couldn’t help me, so Shane and I continued on). Maybe there was a shuttle leaving late, maybe there was one to Panachel?

We crossed into the central park and I was headed to the same agency that I called that morning. Just then, I spotted a shuttle. “Wait, a second I think I know that shuttle . . .” I ran up to the shuttle which had just picked up a passenger and was started to accelerate and I asked them to stop (hehe).

“Are you all going to San Pedro?”

“Yes.”

“When?”

“Now.”

“Right now??”

“Yes, get in the shuttle, we’ll take you to get your luggage.”

Normally, I don’t jump in random shuttles, but I recognized both of these guys, and there was already a female in the van. I’ve taken shuttles with them to Antigua and Chichicastenango and this time, I had a whole seat to myself. It was the Casa Verde Tour Agency of San Pedro!

I brought Shane along because he knew how to get back to his house. He was equally amazed that we found a shuttle. They dropped us off at our house and I ran inside to get my luggage. We tossed it in the back, and the shuttle continued picking up three more people. In 15 minutes we were on our way to San Pedro.

I laughed to myself as we moved into the countryside.

“Sometimes, the last shuttle to San Pedro is when you decide it is.”

I’m Afraid of Heights, but I Jumped from a 35 Foot Platform into Lake Atitlan

Every time I step close to the edge of an elevated area, my hands start to sweat. It’s a natural reaction because I’m afraid of heights, and have been ever since I can remember. I don’t like ladders, hotel balconies, or views from the summit. I think I’m getting better though, and rarely do I back down from a challenge to see someone’s roof, spit off a balcony, or pose for a picture with my back to cliff’s edge. So when some of the students from San Pedro School wanted to go to San Marcos to jump off the rocks, I agreed without any deliberation.

If you go to Lake Atitlan, I encourage you to visit San Pedro, the sleepy tourist town where I’m learning to speak Spanish, and take the boat for $1 to San Marcos. Upon your arrival to San Marcos you’ll see a newly built wooden platform that stands about 12 meters, or 36 feet, above the water. You may even see a reluctant voyager nervously waiting at the platform’s edge. He or she will be trying to build up enough courage to take the leap, politely ignoring all the voices from their friends, and listening only to the voice inside that says “I’m pretty sure it’s about 500 feet, and there’s no way you’re going to make it . . .”

Once you arrive at the dock, It’s a 5 minute walk to the rocks, and there’s a nice little cafe next to the rocks where you can debate with your friends on who’s going to take the plunge.

We make it to the platform and I accidentally look over the side. “Whoah. This is way bigger than I thought . . .” I’m concerned about rocks and my general safety, but the locals say that you’ve got over 25 feet of water before you touch the bottom of the lake, and some local workers have removed all the nearby rocks and built a nice platform for a safe depature.

My group is ready, which means that the guys are going first. I’ve got my trunks on so there’s no need to have second thoughts. I toss my shirt and flip flops to the side. I step back to the end of the platform. For me, the thought process is simple. If I think about it I’m not going to do it. So I don’t think, and start running off the edge . . .

It’s at this point where I realize that I’ve got a long way to go.

and . . .

SPLASH!!!

Immediately, relief and joy wash over me from another challenge met. I swim to the side to watch the rest of the guys jump off. The view from the water isn’t as scary as it is from the top. Sometimes it’s the “not knowing” that’s the scariest.

(Here’s my friend Dave jumping into the water, he’s got a better view of the volcano in the background.)

I swim over to the small rocks to relax. With my big accomplishment completed it’s time to have fun. My friend Amy has a nice Canon DSLR and I tell her that I’m going to dive. She’s perfectly situated for a perfect shot.

This is me mid-air as I’m diving off the 3 meter rocks.

I got a 9.5 score for this dive. If I had pointed my toes, I would have received a perfect 10. You might be thinking it’s strange that I dove off the one that was almost 10 feet.

I suppose after you make the big leap, everything seems more manageable.

Shiny Things You Can’t Buy

I breathed a sigh of relief when I got through security at the Guatemalan airport to come back to the States. It wasn’t that I was concerned that they would find  anything illegal or hassle me about some souvenirs that I was trying to bring back; it’s that I just don’t like the fuss and invasiveness of the process. Strangely, there were only a few people in line, and the procedures were brief. The security attendant only wanted to look in my bag of toiletries. Despite having an electric toothbrush that really looks like a weapon, she chose to interrogate me about the small fingernail file that I always travel with and I never have a problem with security, because the blade is a meager 1.5 inches.

Still, she called for assistance and then there were 2 more people inspecting the weapon. I told her that it wasn’t important to me, but I didn’t think it was a big deal. I had traveled with it from the United States and to Mexico without a problem so it seemed fair to let me leave the country with it. Fully aware that this conversation wasn’t necessary, I persisted, because I was feeling comfortable with my Spanish and wanted a challenge. The other attendant said with a smile, “While they may have let you travel with it in Mexico, our security is better in Guatemala.” I responded with “Well, of course!” and grinned back at her. After that exchange I was on my way to the gate.

So I found my gate and sat down and reflected on how it felt good to have order and procedure and red tape. Often, I lament about the rules and silly procedures that slow us down, but this time, the whole process gave me a sentiment that felt like home.  I was now sitting in air conditioning, typing on my computer next to the business passengers, and after finishing a Subway sandwich, I was comfortable.

My thoughts returned back to San Pedro La Laguna, and the family that I stayed with. I’m not sure they’ve ever taken a flight, and being that it takes four hours to get here, they’ve probably never even been to the airport. People they know are local, there’s no need to travel. I began thinking that this entire situation, this airport, the forms, the queues, the security, all of it would make them feel really uncomfortable. Even being near Guatemala City makes them feel uncomfortable, but for me, the city, and this airport makes me feel like I’m back on track, back to the life I really live.

It’s strange to think how the same situation can be so calming to one person and so frightening to another. I realize that I live in a world of polished metal, large glass windows, conditioned air, new clothes, perfumes, computers, and seats that were replaced just last year. I consider these things valuable, but does that mean that the rusted metal, small windows, second-hand clothes, old televisions and well-worn seats aren’t? How exactly can I compare these two worlds? Should I?

While the internal debate continues, I think back to yesterday, how Lolita ran to the shuttle pickup to make sure she was able to say goodbye and then Tiny Hector’s mom brought him and his sister, Thelmita to wait, with me. Thelmita was so shy as I was leaving, and wouldn’t look at me. I kneeled down to say goodbye, she smiled and leaned forward to give me a hug and said, “See you soon, Aarrrrrooonn.”

Even in a world of shiny things, sometimes the best things can’t be bought.

The Economics of Letting Your Coffee Get Cold

I had every intention to learn a little bit more about the effects of mal-appropriated economic distribution in the world of international development, but another coffee patron interrupted my studies when she introduced herself just inches away from my face.

During my last full day in San Pedro for awhile, I went to get some coffee and to read one of my nerdy books. I’ve been re-reading “Economics in One Lesson” in preparation for my fellowship in the Dominican Republic and I had just opened it to my bookmarked chapter when Angelica crawled up on the chair next to me.

“Como te llamas?”

“Me nombre es Aaron, y tu?”

“Angelica”

“Angelica? Una nombre bonita.”

“Si, queires jugar un juego?”

“Ummm . . . (I guess I’m not going to read anything this afternoon) . . . si!”

She put her finger up to her mouth to pause and to ponder what game we would play. She announced one, and then uttered “No, that’s too difficult.” Then another, “Mmm, no that’s too difficult . . . oh, I know, we’ll play this . . .”

She motions for me to put my hands out and proceeds to sing the instructions to a game as she moves her hands in the appropriate positions. She stops and looks at me and says “Follow me!”

I stick out my hands and mirror what she is doing. It’s one of those games that kids play in school where they put their hands out in the air and the other person is supposed to mirror the movements and slap the other person’s hands at the correct times.

“Peekachu, arriba” (up)

“Peekachu, bajo” (down)

“Peekachu. Este lado.” (this side)

“Peekachu. Otro lado. (other side)

At this point I’m just laughing out loud. This darling of a 5 year old has completely captivated my attention and is depriving me of economic theory and warm coffee. She’s quite demanding and says “Hey!” as I look away.

So after we put both our hands on our shoulders, we put our hands behind our back. I still don’t know what game we are playing, but when she brings out her right hand with two fingers holding up, I’m thinking we are playing a counting game. I quickly make two fingers and she laughs and motions to put our hands behind our backs again. She brings out 5 fingers this time, and I bring out 4 fingers. She’s mad now. I screwed up the game. We have to start over.

“Peekachu, arriba . . . bajo . . . este . . . otro . . .”

I bring out 3 fingers. She’s yelling at me: “Start over!”

“Peekachu, arriba . . . bajo . . . este . . . otro . . .”

Ok, ok. I’m getting it now. We are playing rock, paper, scissors. I’m good at this. I’m pretty sure I can beat a 5 year old.

I bring out scissors and she brings out a rock. I lose. She pinches my cheek and insists that the game begins again while she is still pinching my cheek. I am not familiar with the Guatemalan rules regarding rock, paper, scissors, but this is just kind of silly.

This time, I win. She makes me pinch her cheek.

Now imagine the situation that has transpired here. There’s a lukewarm cup of coffee sitting next to a book about economic theory and a 27 year old bearded man wearing shorts is playing rock, paper, scissors with a 5 year old Guatemalan girl and they are pinching each others cheeks and preparing for the championship.

(Yes, living in Central America for almost 2 months has taught me that sometimes you just need to set aside your agenda and let your coffee get cold.)

“Peekachu, arriba . . . bajo . . . este . . . otro . . .”

I show paper. She shows scissors.

She squeals with joy as she runs away downstairs. I laugh to myself, sit back in my chair, and drink the rest of my cold coffee. By this time, I need to head back home for dinner so I gather my things and make my way downstairs and I see Angelica sitting on the coffee bar. She’s still celebrating her victory or maybe she’s just always full of joy. She turns to me and says:

“Adios Amigo!”

Oh, what an evening . . . instead of learning more about international development I played rock, paper, scissors and had to drink my coffee cold because I got beat by a five year old Guatemalan. I’m sure there’s an economic lesson in there somewhere, but I think I’ll reopen that chapter another day.

Hector Plans a Heist

After class today I had the front door to my room shut. You can access my room via the balcony . . . and that’s just what Hector did.

Oh, you left your shoes in here? How did that happen?

Yep, there they are. Looks like “you need to get them” huh?

A massive amount of effort.

“I ain’t paying attention Hector. It ain’t like I’m seeing you nab my Spanish/English Bible so stealthily.”

“Oh, so your shoes are out on the balcony? By all means, go retrieve them . . .”

Such a cute thief.