Day 2: San Pedro la Laguna

I wake up to the cluck, cluck of chickens. The patio door is open to the outside and their fussing is distinct. I feel safe enough to leave the door ajar each night and let the breeze waft in off of Lake Atitlan. I can’t explain why or how it feels safe … but it does. It is the same knowing as when I know that something isn’t safe.

I wouldn’t keep my door open in my hometown of Richfield, Minnesota.

Soon Jody is frying fresh eggs from these same chickens and Antonio is urging Crystel to catch one. She does. Antonio finds enjoyment in Crystel doing what he himself won’t do.

After breakfast we meet our guide Sam who by the end of the day will feel like family.

Because of our experience with Sam, Jody and I know we will always request a guide when visiting Lake Atitlan. Sam is knowledgeable and bilingual, but even more than that, he knows how to relate to two nine-year-olds. He becomes their companion. For Antonio and Crystel, it is the slow melding of being around another Guatemalan. Antonio and

Sam

Crystel can think, when I am older maybe I will be a little like him.

Being around a person of the same ethnic origin, someone who they like, allows Antonio and Crystel to intuit that being Guatemalan is a good thing. This is something Jody and I can’t give them. All the words that we have can’t compare to spending time with others of their own culture.

Los Elementos dock being worked on

Antonio and Crystel are around many Hispanics in Minnesota and the Spanish dual language school that they attend in Richfield. They never have to feel alone or at odds with their skin tone. Still, there is a difference in being in your birth country and knowing that everyone you see is Guatemalan and not Mexican, El Salvadoran, Peruvian, Ecuadorian, or a mix of the former.

In the days to come Jody and I will witness our children’s growing sense of pride in their ethnicity.

Antonio at home in his kayak

Sam helps us carry our kayaks down to the water. Los Elementos Adventure Center has kayaks that fit the children. All of us are happy that we can each have our own. This is the first time I have ever seen Antonio and Crystel navigate on the water under their own power. They don’t have any hesitancy jumping into their kayaks and pushing off.

Included in our lodging at Los Elementos is access to the kayaks during our stay. Jody, Antonio, and Crystel will take them out again. I am content to sit and look at the volcanos from the patio, but I also know that I am missing out on that special feeling of being in the water surrounded by vast outcroppings.

Lunch

After our morning we head off to San Pedro la Laguna in a launch for a horse ride. Once we arrive at San Pedro, we decide that we are hungry. Sam assures us that the restaurant Shanti Shanti is open even though it is still early. This sets the tone for our day. We don’t have set times that we have to be any place. Horseback riding will come but not quite yet.

Having Sam with us makes Jody and me more adventurous in choosing our lunch and more inclined to say ‘yes’ to milk shakes and other drinks.

Lake Atitlan and Mayan Indian Nose out our window

When our family traveled to Guatemala in 2010 we didn’t try a lot of things because we didn’t want to become ill. In 2003 when we had brought Antonio and Crystel home we all got terribly sick with a gastrointestinal bug. Not the homecoming any of us wanted.

Sam, Jody and I order curry, Antonio orders his regular staple of pasta with just butter and Crystel has a cheese quesadilla.

Our view from the restaurant looks right out over Lake Atitlan and Indian Nose, a unique mountain formation that resembles the face of a Mayan Indian in repose.

Choosing handicrafts to bring home. See woman’s head dress. Crystel will soon be wearing one.

A Mayan woman and her son approach us while we are waiting for lunch. She is from San Antonio la Laguna but comes to San Pedro every day to sell her handicrafts.It is nice to be able to ask Sam if her asking price is good and to have his help in negotiating.

In 2010 when we traveled to Guatemala, Antonio and Crystel hated when I did any bargaining. Especially, if it was children with whom I was haggling. Even though I explained to them that that is the way it was. “Just give them the money,” they insisted. Now, I wanted to poke them and say, See?

Crystel’s new head piece.

Sam let us know that negotiating also puts him in an uncomfortable spot because he understands that the woman is trying to make a living and yet he knows what a good price would be.

San Antonio is named after Saint Antonio, Sam says. We smile at Antonio. He lets us know that he wants San Antonio to be a destination on our next trip to Guatemala.

San Pedro la Laguna

San Antonio is known for their hair ribbons. The Mayan woman demonstrates how to put a ribbon on Crystel. It seems fairly complex and we ask if we can video her doing it.

We aren’t planning on buying handicrafts but it feels good to do so. It seems as if the money will go directly to her and her family.

Making our way to the horses

Lee Beal had told us in the morning that we could have Sam go horseback riding with us or we could go alone. We opted for Sam to join us especially, when we found out that he had never been on a horse before.

Horseback riding seems like the thing to do in Guatemala. It has become one of our must-do things.

An interesting trek to the horses

We took a horse ride in 2010 and it was a remarkable way to see a village. You go slowly, you are up high, you can observe your surroundings, and there is excitement involved because you don’t know what your horse is going to do. Invariably, at some point in your trek the horse will start trotting, which leads to uncontrollable, scared, excited laughing.

Getting to the horses in itself is an adventure in San Pedro. We were led down narrow paths, past people working in small plots, and in-between buildings. Finally when we arrive it’s like the farm moved to the city.

Added to the excitement is an occasional BOOM.  San Pedro is celebrating their Festival of San Pedro with fireworks, carnival, and games.

After our horse ride we stopped for lunch again. There are many Spanish language schools in San Pedro, so we stopped at a restaurant frequented by students.  Jody and I had very good nachos with fresh tomatoes.

Before taking a Tuk Tuk to the dock, which Saint Antonio was all for, we walked through the main part of the village where the carnival was set up.

Riding horses in Guatemala. The thing to do!

Sam called Lee and told him that our first weaving class would need to be delayed by one day. We weren’t quite ready to leave San Pedro.

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Surprises in San Marcos la Laguna

Every morning I took a photo from our patio of what the novelist, Aldous Huxley, described as, “…really too much of a good thing.” Lake Atitlan takes its name from the Mayan word, “atitlan,” which translates to, “the place where the rainbow gets it’s colors.”

Volcano and lake, height and depth, pointed and vast, cradled me for five nights and six days. I felt taken care of regardless of what was or what would be. 2,895.3 miles from Minnesota, my family and I were home. Jody, Antonio, and Crystel were perceptibly at peace as well.

Antonio and Elizabeth waiting for launch

Across the lake from our suite at Los Elementos, Volcano Toliman rose up with Volcano Atitlan behind it.  Owners, Lee Beal and his wife, Elaine, reinvented their lives in Guatemala. They have been full-time residents of Santa Cruz la Laguna on Lake Atitlan for the past five years. They came to Guatemala looking for a simpler and more fulfilling life and found it on Lake Atitlan. They originally started working with a local nonprofit Amigo de Santa Cruz. Lee now serves on the board of directors. As he and others learned more about the people of Santa Cruz, they realized there was a need for jobs. The CECAP vocational training center run by Amigos helps fulfill that need.

Dock at San Marcos–homemade signs telling us where to go

Lee’s background as an entrepreneur in the horticultural field gave him the experience and basis to introduce a new cash crop to the area. He has developed a Vetiver Grass program, which is a good fit with the agricultural culture of the local people. This is a multi-year program that will not yield profits for 3-5 years, but will make an impact in the long-term. Lee and Elaine wanted to expand on the idea of creating new jobs, and from this idea grew Los Elementos Day Spa and Los Elementos Adventure Center.

Classes available on San Marcos

Elaine has trained over a dozen local women to do manicures and pedicures and has trained three women as massage therapists. Each of these training programs offers the women employment opportunities that would not have been available to them otherwise.

Lee developed a series of tours, hikes, kayak excursions, rock climbing, and cultural sharing opportunities through Los Elementos Adventure Center. He has been employing two local guides trained through INGUAT on some of the tours and have been training a dozen local youth to develop the skill sets needed to be a guide.

Medicinal and curative garden

Accompanying us to San Marcos la Laguna was Zach, a 14-year-old adventure “guide in training” who was staying with Lee and Elaine. Zach’s personal story is similar to Antonio and Crystel’s. He was born in and adopted from Guatemala, he met his birth family for the first time last year, and he returned to Lake Atitlan and Los Elementos as an intern. It was our good fortune that Zach would be our guide for much of our stay. Antonio and Crystel had someone ‘just like them’ to hang with.

Lee had arranged our day for us. We were picked up at his dock and ferried twenty minutes to San Marcos. The waters were calm on Lake Atitlan as they usually are in the morning. They don’t kick up until noon. This surprising turn-around is known as the Xocomil winds.

Medicinal and curative garden

Stepping onto the shores of San Marcos is walking into New Age. Signs greeted us touting Astral Traveling, Metaphysics, Kabbalah, Tarot reading, Reiki and more. The village has several meditation, yoga, and massage centers. Walking up the foot path to the main center, Lee pointed out medicinal and curative plants and elaborated on their use and origin. Banana, coffee, and avocado trees blended with the landscape.

Mayan calendar

Next to the walkway was a wall with beautiful colorful paintings including a Mayan calendar.

We came to a wall on our right made of plastic bottles. Project Pura Vida or what I call the bottle project finally made sense to me. The evening before in their home, Elaine had shown me how she was putting plastic trash in a bottle. She had a stick she used to compress the waste. But it was the moment that I saw the wall in San Marcos that I understood what she was doing.

The bottle project – Pura Vida

The bottle of trash would be joined with other bottles and become a wall for a home. In more technical terms, the construction technique consists of stacking thousands of bottles between a shelter’s wooden supports, holding them in place with chicken wire, then applying concrete to create what looks like a typical concrete wall.

Close-up of construction

The walls are cheaper than those built with cement blocks, which is the material typically used in low-cost construction in Guatemala. The plastic core also makes the walls more flexible—and thus less dangerous—than block walls in the event of an earthquake.

Pura Vida began in January 2004 as a pilot project in San Marcos to solve the local problems of garbage.

Walking towards path that will lead us to cliff jumping

One of Lake Atitlan’s greatest attractions is the cliffs of San Marcos. Our group headed towards a dirt path that led up the side of the mountain when a very large sack fell out of the sky and hit me on my head. After I straightened up and shook off the shock, Lee explained that the locals unloading a truck were looking at me and not where they were throwing. I have often told people I need to be hit on the head to get the message, so it was kind of funny in a spiritual sort of way. Still, I missed the esoteric message that was divined for me.

Zach, preparing to jump

The sack incident was not on anyone’s mind a short while later when we were standing on a diving platform three stories above the cool waters of Lake Atitlan. We quickly determined that Zach should be first to jump. 

Sometimes all it takes is one. If that first person can make it safely through an adventure, then we figure it will be okay for the rest of us. I wasn’t any stranger to cliff jumping, having jumped and dived off the cliff at Spring Valley dam in Wisconsin when I was a teenager. Still, it was frightening. My heart went up, my body went down and that feeling didn’t dissipate on any of my next jumps. The kids kept telling me to do a pencil dive. I screamed and waved my arms crazily instead. Lee pointed out a tree that hung out over the water to Antonio. Without hesitation, just like at home, Antonio scampered up the trunk, inched out on a limb, and swung off into the water. He did this over and over and over.

Elizabeth not doing a pencil dive

Later, I asked Antonio and Crystel which was scarier, meeting their birth moms, or jumping three stories off of a cliff. In unison, they said, meeting their birth moms. The bar was set. Their world had opened up. From the moment they met their greatest fear, they leaped beyond their nine years.

Hiking the Canyon

Starting our hike up Pampatin Canyon, Santa Cruz la Laguna

Antonio had mumbled and grumbled up the zigzag paved road to the village square the first evening at Santa Cruz la Laguna and often brought up that traveling by tuk tuk was an excellent way of going from point to point and why didn’t we do that more often. He hadn’t warmed to the idea that we were a-people afoot. Still, I was hopeful when he was handed a walking stick for our hike up Pampatin Canyon. He could poke, stab, and slash his way through the jungle, over the creeks, and up the gorge that starts its accent from the backyard of Los Elementos. In my suitcase back at our suite were the guide books Moon Guatemala and one that I thought would be particularly helpful on our trip, Moon’s Guatemalan’s Western Highlands Including Chichicastenango & Lake Atitlan. But I didn’t crack the handbooks open our entire trip. No need. Lee Beal and our Guatemalan guides were our experts. They went into detail about the age-old traditions of the Mayans, the colorful mountain villages, the indigenous Guatemalans, and the forest jungle.

The jungle

After I started blogging about our trip, I quickly learned that even Google couldn’t provide the information about the area surrounding Lake Atitlan that Lee and the guides did. It was through Lee that I learned that the old and original name Mayan of the village of Santa Cruz (Spanish for Holy Cross) is Pampati. The name of the canyon is from this origin.I shrugged when handed a walking stick by our guide, Alex. I’m not a grumbler. I’m agile. I can skip up rocks. I survived Kor Am Tae Kwon Do black belt camp. Quickly, I learned the poker was useful for pushing aside large leaves that I termed itch weed. Alex told us the correct name of the leaf but my head is only so big. As far as I was concerned it was itch weed and I shouldn’t touch it. We stopped often on our trek up the canyon as he pointed out a fruit, a plant, a leaf, and coffee plants.

Alex showing us the pitaya fruit

Alex nodded to our left towards two children, who looked to be about 5 and 7 years old, resting, tucked under a tree with a bundle of wood made up of dead twigs and branches. Alex told us that any child who wasn’t in school or working had the job of fetching wood from the forest for cooking fires or to sell. Of course, I hoped Antonio and Crystel were hearing this.

When we received photos from their birth families, I sat with them, and told them to look past what their eyes first saw. “See your family sitting around the table and on the bunk bed?” I said to Crystel, “From this photo you can tell that this one room is the family’s living room, bedroom, and kitchen. The room is smaller than your bedroom.” I added, “Look past your family and see the toothbrush on the window sill? There is only one toothbrush. It is likely that your family is sharing that toothbrush. If you look at the walls you can see that they aren’t painted. The walls are plastered or whitewashed.”I wanted Antonio and Crystel aware on our Guatemala trip. This is their birth country: beautiful, vibrant, rich in culture, poor and illiterate. Alex and Samuel our guides, would receive 200 quetzales, about $25.00 per day for their service, their skill set speaking English, is marketable. The average Guatemalan earns 50 to 60 quetzales a day, about seven dollars.

Antonio, Crystel, Jody, Elizabeth

Alex showed us a pitaya (Mayan word for the color of the inside of the fruit) also known as dragon fruit. When he opened it with a machete I could see that it was a fruit that had been offered at our breakfast buffet at Hotel Grand Tikal Futura, zona 7, where we stayed for three nights in Guatemala City. Jody and I encouraged Antonio and Crystel to try at least a taste of something new at each meal. The pitaya tasted like a cross between kiwi and pear.

On our hike we met a local Mayan woman who was picking pitayas to sell at the market.Our trip in June of 2012 was very different than our trip in June of 2010 for many reasons. One of them was the fact that we didn’t take any pictures of the Guatemalans that we saw in remote villages. Having Alex, Samuel, and Lee as guides meant that taking photos was possible because with their Spanish we could ask permission. Antonio and Crystel have more than four years in a Spanish dual language school but their grasp of the language was most evident when they were buying boom booms (lollipops) in the tienda (store).

Locals carrying firewood down the canyon

When Alex asked the children if we could take a photo they smiled shyly and shook their head no. Later we met the woman who had been picking pitayas and we learned that the two children gathering wood were hers. After visiting with her, Alex asked if we could take a photo of her and her children. For a few quetzales, she agreed.

Our goal for the canyon hike was to reach the waterfalls. We didn’t make it before Alex called Lee and found that it was time to meet up with him to visit our first NGO (non-government organization). It was odd to me that we were in a third world country yet you could use a cell phone to call someone. Cell phones are inexpensive in Guatemala. You can buy one for less than $20 dollars. This is something I will do on our next trip if only to be able to call within the country.

Later that evening, Zach took Antonio and Crystel back up the canyon to see the falls. The 14-year-old and two nine-year-olds returned breathless, happy, and flushed with energy. The grumbly nine-year-old boy had transformed into an adventurer. And truly, he didn’t grumble the rest of the trip. But then again, on a few occasions in villages we all piled into a tuk tuk to get from point A to B. Funny thing, his Spanish came alive when I told him it was up to him to ask for a tuk tuk and find out where it would pick us up. Ah, kids.

Our first NGO visit, Mayan Medical Aid, opened by Dr. Craig A. Sinkinson, M.D.,  in 2004 serves the 99% native Mayan Indians that make up the population of Santa Cruz. To help subsidize the clinic, he gives private Spanish lessons along with his Guatemalan wife who is also an M.D. Dr. Sinkinson developed a medical Spanish accredited program that also brings in funds. The benefits of the program for medical students are the

Lee Beal and Dr. Craig Sinkinson, M.D.

one-on-one attention, the ability to participate in the clinic, and the immersion experience. Prior to Dr. Sinkinson coming to Santa Cruz, 12 to 15 Guatemalan women died each year in childbirth. Most years they now have 0 deaths. The locals come to the clinic for medical assistance with digestive, reproductive and skin concerns, diabetes, and emphysema.I found the doctor to be very hospitable and knowledgeable with a respect and passion for the Mayans that was similar to Lee’s. One of Dr. Sinkinson’s goals is to teach the Guatemalans working with him to operate the clinic. In this way if something were to happen to him, the clinic would be self-sustaining.

The goods we brought–gloves, vitamins, aspirins. Oh, yes, and suntan lotion. Dr. Sinkinson was happy we left the large blue suitcase on the cardboard box for him to use.

Antonio and Crystel sat patiently while we visited with Dr. Sinkinson. Though Lee and his wife Elaine don’t have children, they have a sense for when it is time to move on. Prior to leaving the clinic, we stuck our head into an office and saw the suitcase we had brought filled with sterile gloves, Centrum, and Ibuprofen for the most part. Alex asked what was in the spray cans. I explained that it was suntan lotion for the clinic. He laughed and pointed to his skin. All I could do was raise my hands and tell him that it was on the list. Funny foreigners.

What are Antonio and Crystel doing and where are their mothers?!? You can see a typical casa in the foreground. Tin roof, chickens, dogs, firewood, dirt yard.

Walking across the village square, Lee said lunch at Sabor Cruzeno Restaurant was next. The restaurant is part of the CECAP Culinary Arts program that trains young people for successful employment in the tourist business. CECAP is supported by Amigos de Santa Cruz foundation of which Lee is on the board.

Local tienda where Antonio and Crystel buy their boom booms. This Mayan is a graduate of the CECAP vocational training center run by Amigos de Santa Cruz

Though not yet totally immersed in village life, the di Grazia family was beginning to place their fingertip on the local culture. We were closer than we had ever been before to the Guatemalan way of life.

If you like my blog writing hit the subscribe button on WordSisters. You will automatically receive my posts every other week. Also, I find Lee Beal’s blog very interesting.  He writes about his meanderings in Guatemala, Lake Atitlan, and the Mayan culture. http://lakeatitlantravelguide.com/blog/