It has been 25 years since my last visit to Guatemala. And for all of that time I have been saying it is one of my favourite countries. So I am a little nervous. I hope it is going to live up to my expectations.
This time I am not travelling alone. My intrepid mother is along for the ride (having rejected my original suggestion of a trip within Europe… as she pointed out, everybody else she knows is dismally unadventurous, so it is a good jib she has me to travel with). It takes us about three attempts to successfully leave the airport and get on the highway heading west out of Guatemala City to the volcanoes and Lake Atitlan, but we make it in the end. It is a relief how quickly the urban landscape of global food chains, advertising mayhem and multi lane chaos gives way to – well, frankly, a more Guatemalan vernacular. As we make our way west – far more slowly than google maps would have us believe (the more I travel in less developed countries the more I wonder whether the google car has ever actually driven these roads, they seem to be hilariously optimistic both about the definition of a road and the likely travel time).
Despite that though, once we have got used to the alarming severity of Guatemalan speed bumps, the exciting chicane approach the heavily laden local buses adopt to ensure there is only ever one wheel going over them at a time, and the exceptionally neat but 50 cms deep square holes cut in the highway just in case anyone should ever show up to repair them… once we have got used to all of that, we make reasonable progress. Our local connection has explained to us already that now the former President and VP are in jail for corruption, the very recently installed new administration have gone into overdrive on infrastructure repair. All to the good, though it definitely keeps me on the alert during the several hours’ drive.
The contrast, when we arrive at our lakeside home for the next week in the aptly named village of Santa Catarina, is breathtaking. The stillness is palpable. The only thing we can see from any window is the lake. Though we are assured the volcanoes are on the other side of the lake it is not till the third day that we can see them.
What we can do though, even before the mists clear, is swim in the lake. The water is cool and clear. Up to 300 meters deep with the sides plunging straight down. You can sense the volcanic crater as you step into it. I never see anybody else swimming in it, but nobody stops me either. Such a joy to swim in water that is neither chlorinated nor salty. It is oddly comforting to know that it is so deep – though I have to discipline myself not to think about the introduced carp once I read about that. Such elemental energy. Huge skies, a staggering amount of stars at night, wild winds whipping the water into white caps or a glassy stillness. The colours change every day. I take endless photos, fascinated by it in its different moods.
One of the things I enjoy about our few days here is the immersion in Mayan culture. At least 80% of the women we see (outside of Guatemala City) are in traditional dress. The younger ones wear their skirts tighter and shorter but they stick to the traditional fabrics too. The older men are also in traditional clothing, though most under 40 have succumbed to the global dullness of male casual clothing. Some of the older women, probably short to start with and shrunken by years of transporting enormous loads on their heads. The men seem to be on a different growth program though! – here is Pedro with his wife and daughter.
These people have maintained a great sense of fun and freedom of movement that is charming and enviable to we cool city dwellers. We see them larking about with each other. They all seem ready to giggle openly at we two strange pasty people in funny clothes. It would be disconcerting but it is so warmhearted, so merry, that it is impossible not to join in. Even the haggling in the market becomes a game. They love it when I offer outrageously low prices and totally disregard the ‘meet in the middle’ concept of negotiating. Given that we only see 3 or 4 other tourists in the whole of Chichicastenanga market we get remarkably little pressure. Plenty of chat but not much pressure.
In fact the only person we met in the whole visit who wasn’t charming, friendly and helpful was unfortunately one of the last people. I wonder if the car rental guy realized how he risked tarnishing a whole heap of delightful hospitality with his churlish incompetence? But maybe he was from another country.