Guatemala, Our Best Vacation Ever!

Our front yard at Los Elementos Adventure Center

By Elizabeth

It’s amazing our best vacation ever would be in a third world country deemed dangerous for travel by the U.S. State Department. Even my best friend was questioning my risk assessment capability when I told him that I was going to Guatemala AND taking my partner and two nine-year-olds AND calling it a vacation. I myself found it a strange thought to be spending ten days in the same country where the Peace Corps announced that they would stop sending new volunteers due to the increasing violence in the country.

So what was I, a white woman, with her partner and two nine-year-olds doing in Guatemala? Simply, having the best vacation of our lives.

My next several posts will be about our trip. I hope to capture the feel of the Mayan culture in Guatemala. How truly immersed in our experiences we were. How full our days were. How peaceful and at ease we were and how I slept with the doors open each night without fear of intruders.

Antonio and Crystel loved the trampoline

This would be our second trip to Guatemala. Our first trip in 2010 was to see the country and Antonio and Crystel’s birth villages. Following our trip, Antonio and Crystel said they would like to meet their birth moms. That story and their recent meeting is described in my forthcoming memoir HOUSE OF FIRE: From the Ashes, A Family, a memoir of healing and redemption.

Making our acquaintance with the locals

I made our travel arrangements with one primary goal: to get as close to the Guatemalans living in villages as possible. Since Antonio and Crystel were born in Guatemala, I wanted to show them what their life might have been like if they had grown up there. Seeing it in a picture book doesn’t equate to learning to weave from a Guatemalan woman in a casa and playing soccer in the village square.

Lake Atitilan is famous for its natural beauty and the colorful Mayan villages near it. Santa Cruz la Laguna is a traditional Mayan village located on the steep mountainside of the lake. The village can only accessed by boat or footpath. A single winding road connects the dock to the village. A common gathering place in the village is the sports court, used for basketball and soccer by the children of the village.

This location was the perfect destination for our family because Santa Cruz la Laguna also has two nonprofits, Amigos de Santa Cruz and Mayan Medical Aid that focus on the local indigenous people. Santa Cruz ranks at the bottom in terms of literacy rate: 73.4% of the population is currently illiterate. One of the missions of Amigos de Santa Cruz is to help improve the lives of the people through support for education.  Amigos officially opened a trade school in 2010. The school features a computer lab, craftsman workshop, and culinary area. Santa Cruz also ranks # 1 in infant and maternal mortality. Until the intervention of Mayan Medical Aid, health services, were practically non-existent.

A new friend

Lee Beal, a U.S. citizen living in Santa Cruz, serves on the board of directors of Amigos de Santa Cruz and is also involved with Mayan Medical Aid. I contacted him via email to inform him of my interest in visiting the projects.

Kayak Guatemala  and Lake Atitilan Travel Guide showcases the many varied tours that Lee Beal provides. Hmmm, I thought, horseback riding, cliff jumping, ziplining — exactly what our family needs after meeting the birthmoms. Time for celebrating, letting go and having fun! What most piqued my interest is that his services are advertised as being family-friendly and safe for women travelers.

We came to stay at Lee Beal’s Los Elementos Adventure Center, because by the time we were leaving the States, I was totally confused about where we were staying and what hotel was the best for my family. Lee mentioned that they had a guest suite available that was connected to their private home. When he added that it also came with a kitchen, Jody and I were sold. We don’t classify Antonio as a picky eater– we only cook what he eats. And that means familiar foods that don’t touch each other. Packed inside our suitcase was dry elbow macaroni and wide egg noodles. Staples for unknown times.

Los Elementos Adventure Center became our home for the next five nights and six days.

Another friend and fresh eggs every morning

Lee’s personal touch was transmitted in his emails and became cemented when he said that he would meet us at the supermarket once we got to Panachel, help us grocery shop, bank, and then board the launch for his home.

The first thing the kids ran to after getting off the boat was the trampoline in the garden. All of their excess energy flipped and flung away. They only stopped to pet the chickens that ran loose and make their acquaintance with the three dogs. Soon after they were holding the dogs on their laps.

View from the village

After meeting Elaine and informing her that having a massage from Los Elementos Day Spa was on our itinerary we started our hike to the village square. Antonio lagged behind grumbling. It was too hot. The hill was too steep. The top too far away.Once at the square, he sullenly sat by himself and wouldn’t join us in watching the children playing soccer.

But the next day all that would begin to change.

In large part, this was due to Lee Beal using English-speaking Guatemalan guides, who not only guided us throughout our stay, but who also related to our nine-year-olds on a very personal level.

Samuel, a 21-year-old indigenous local guide kayaked with us on Lake Atitilan and rode a horse on San Pedro La Laguna. We looked to him for advice during our lunch, when we bartered with a Guatemalan woman from San Antonio la Laguna who was selling her weavings. Encouraged by Samuel, we ate Guatemalan foods and drinks that we would never have dared without his assurances that they were safe for a gringos’ intestinal tract.

Alex, also a local guide from a nearby village, hiked with us to waterfalls, played soccer with Antonio in the village square with the local children, assisted with weaving, and swam with us at El Jaibolito.

Staying with the Beal’s was Zach, an adopted 14-year-old Guatemalan who is also from the United States and interning with Los Elementos as a guide. He was Antonio and Crystel’s constant companion. It was Zach who first jumped off the cliff followed by Antonio and Crystel. It was Zach who first put on his zipline hardware at Atitilan Nature Reserve to zing through the trees.

As the children’s mother, I could see that it made a difference to Antonio and Crystel that Samuel, Alex, and Zach were Guatemalan. They weren’t Hispanic. They weren’t Latin American. They weren’t from a different country. They were Guatemalan. Antonio and Crystel are Guatemalan. Their brown arms are the same skin tone. Their hair has the same coarseness. Their faces have the same Mayan features.

Through our Guatemalan guides, the village came to us and Antonio and Crystel began to gain a sense of who they are.

Next post: hiking, nonprofits, weaving.

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The hotel is somewhere around here . . .

by Elizabeth

I know exactly where I am. Each time I say this, the folks that know me, go Uh, Oh. They start looking around, become skittish, grab a map, grab a phone, read the fine print on documents. I just think they are taking things a bit too seriously.  Trust me, I say.

Before I disclose any more facts, I do want you to know that I am a very responsible parent, friend, coworker and partner. You are safe with me. Totally.

To myself, I myself grimace, I know exactly where I am, when it’s me that is first to comprehend that I am totally in the wrong place, the wrong hotel, the wrong state. But, I get over it quickly. Life is meant to be an adventure.

Yesterday, I printed out the confirmation for where my family will be staying in Guatemala. I love to research and via the Internet, I explored the 14 villages surrounding Lake Atitilan, and decided the small Mayan village of Santa Cruz la Laguna was the place for us to reside for five nights and six days. It is accessible only by boat or footpath.  There is no road access to or from the village because it’s surrounded by jagged mountains. Amigos de Santa Cruz Foundation and Mayan Medical Aid, two non-profits are living out their mission on Santa Cruz la Laguna. By learning about the non-profits, perhaps my family would have more access to the Guatemalans in the three villages located in the mountains.

It was January when I secured our hotel.  Our trip is planned for this summer. Maybe I picked that hotel because all rooms had a great panoramic view of the lake and the three volcanoes. Perhaps I chose it because all the rooms were set amongst lush tropical gardens bearing fruits and flowers all year long. Or maybe it was workout gym for Jody or the private beach that the family could enjoy. I made the reservation and bookmarked it as a favorite. From time to time, I took a look-see at the hotel, the gardens, and the rooms.

Reading the confirmation I quickly came to the understanding that we were totally in a different hotel from what I had thought.

I fast-forwarded in my mind to landing on the village dock after being ferried from Panajachel, Guatemala. How we would have climbed up the mountain to our hotel only to find out that we didn’t have a reservation and then because there is no telephone system and maybe the Internet wouldn’t be working that I wouldn’t have a clue as to where I did have a reservation in this remote location. Perhaps, Crystel would look up at me and say, Mama Beth is this your most embarrassing moment today?

And I would respond as I always do with, It’s an adventure!

I went back to the email chain certain that “they” had made a mistake. As I read, it became clearer and clearer that it was not their mistake but mine. Goodbye private beach. Goodbye exercise room.

Yet, I also knew that being the researcher that I am, there must have been a reason I changed hotels. Clearly, I showed a sharp detour in my emails, asked them to the cancel the hotel and went with a different place. Now for exercise, we can enjoy the well-maintained paths that traverse old Mayan trails on the steep mountainside. And for gosh sakes, we will be on a mountain, where all views are panoramic. And won’t we be standing in the locale that is mentioned four times in the #1 Bestseller, 1,000 Places To See Before You Die? At least we’ll be in the right spot, alive.

I don’t think the Gopher to Badger half marathon is in the #1 Bestseller. Maybe it should be. It is set along the banks of the St. Croix River about 30 miles east of Minneapolis. I know exactly where it starts, I told my niece. She was training for a marathon and I was accompanying her. Our goal, as always, was to beat the trash trucks and the biffy picker uppers. We are not fast. We aren’t even slow. We are just above walking pace. When we got to the start of the race there wasn’t anybody. I couldn’t figure it out. The town was sleepy. Where are all the people? My niece called her husband and got him on the Internet. He found out that we were in the wrong state. We jumped in our car and raced across state lines to Wisconsin. After parking, we jumped on the moving bus that shuttled us to the start.

Gopher to Badger, Badger to Gopher. Gosh, an easy mix-up.

Trust me Jody, I know exactly where I am and you and the kids are safe. Get ready for an adventure.