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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San Juan la Laguna

Leaving San Marcos la Laguna for San Juan la Laguna

After cliff jumping in San Marcos la Laguna, I was expecting to hike back down the trail to the dock of San Marcos instead Lee Beal motioned to where he was standing on a large outcropping of rock and a launch appeared.This happened throughout our six-day stay with Lee and Elaine Beal. Everything was taken care of from the moment we met Lee in the supermarket in Panajachel, helping us purchase needed groceries, to setting up weaving sessions for Antonio and Crystel in a Guatemalan casa, to Elaine popping corn for us in the evening after providing us with a relaxing massage.

Rising water in San Juan

Jody and I were able to unwind in a country where English isn’t the first, second or third language and more than a dozen Mayan dialects are spoken.It was with this feeling of being taken care of that we stepped onto the shores of San Juan la Laguna, a traditional, Tzutuhil village, of approximately 8000 inhabitants.

Water is rising in Lake Atitlan, swallowing homes and restaurants that are close to the lake. Author, Joyce Maynard, who has a home in San Marcos wrote an article for the New York Times describing how it personally affected her.

Rising waters are apparent in San Juan as you approach the dock. The level of the lake has reportedly risen 18 feet since Tropical Storm Agatha leaving many structures near the shore underwater.

The streets of San Juan are remarkably clean and well maintained. Street murals painted by local artists can be viewed at every street corner. The village is full of local artists and small galleries. Lee walked into a gallery and introduced us to an artist. Jody and I eyed the artwork on the wall . We knew before leaving Minnesota that we wanted to bring paintings home with us. This was a perfect opportunity. By buying the art, it felt like we were directly helping the artist and the cooperative.

Walter Mendoza artist. Two paintings that came home with us. The top painting, a common sight – women carrying a basket on their head. The second painting – three women are wearing the dress of their village and weaving colors that signify the village they come from.

Kitty-corner from the art gallery was another gallery that was highlighting student’s art. Antonio and Crystel each picked an art piece that a child their age had painted.

Our destination was lunch at Comedor Elenita.

  

The Menu “Del Dia” (menu of the day) was written on a greaseboard. After placing our order, we left Antonio and Crystel with Zach. You can easily walk to any part of San Juan within minutes. Antonio, Crystel, and Zach were playing a game of table football when we returned. Jody and I could see how bonded Antonio and Crystel were becoming to Zach whose story was similar to theirs. The three of them were starting to share information about meeting their birthmoms and their Guatemalan traits. Zach commented to Antonio how he would like to be able to do his hair just like him. A simple and powerful statement to a nine-year-old boy!

Learning how yarn is made

After lunch we visited a women’s textile cooperative, learning how yarn was made and dyed with local natural plant materials. We were also shown weaving on the traditional back-strap loom which Antonio and Crystel were practicing first hand in Santa Cruz. In fact, that afternoon, they would continue their weaving lesson when we returned.

Crystel and Zach tried on traditional dress. The older generations, in their 60’s and 70’s still wear the traditional dress of San Juan. We purchased the blouse that Crystel is wearing with a skirt. She had her own wish list – she told us before leaving Minnesota that she would like to return with traditional Mayan clothes.

Women wear their traje (complete outfit) with a corte (skirt) and huipil (shirt) and a faja (belt) while the men wear the hand-woven pants, a colorful shirt, and a cloth belt.

Visiting a local museum, we saw portraits of daily life, customs and traditions of San Juan. I especially enjoyed the photographs on the wall. In this photo Lee was explaining the artifacts and how they are used.

After leaving the museum we headed to a tienda to purchase candles for a Mayan Fire Bowl Ceremony and ran into masked locals dancing. Masked dances are a Maya tradition in Guatemala for the festival of each town. There are around thirty different dances performed in the Maya villages of Guatemala.

Traditional masked dancing.

After returning to Santa Cruz Antonio and Crystel had their weaving lesson in the village while Jody and I relaxed at Los Elementos. Zach headed out with Antonio and Crystel to do a little cliff jumping (now that they were professionals) off the rocks of Santa Cruz. Antonio kayaked by himself and Crystel caught a ride with Zach.The children were growing up right in front of our eyes.

What A Day We Had with the Indigenous Mayans of Lake Atitlan

CECAP Training Center and Cafe Sabor Cruzeno

I walked into Cafe Sabor Cruzeno in Santa Cruz la Laguna, Lake Atitlan with trepidation. Not because it was recently opened. Not because it wasn’t yet rated on Trip Advisor or that it was a student-run café. And not because it was part of an NGO, Non-Government Organization.

Café Sabor Cruzeno was the result of the CECAP (Centro de Capacitacion) Culinary Arts program of Amigos de Santa Cruz foundation. The goal of the program is to train young people for successful employment in the restaurant and tourist business.

No, it was because I had my doubts that the culinary arts program would be successful with Antonio. I had a suitcase of dried pasta betting on it. Some people might pack extra clothes and shoes to match each outfit. I was more concerned that we have a food supply tucked away. When we traveled to Guatemala in 2010 I had forgotten to pack Crystel’s swimsuit. She ended up swimming in her Hello Kitty pajamas. But, I didn’t forget emergency rations for my son.

View from Café Sabor Cruzeno

Antonio is a healthy ten-year-old. He will eat a salad. Just don’t make a pyramid out of the raw vegetables. Instead, imagine a horizontal sundial and align the fixings uniformly around his plate. No dressing wanted or required. When Antonio and Crystel were in highchairs Jody and I would put food on each tray and what one toddler didn’t eat the other would. Being low maintenance, Crystel’s sundial can be any shape: cylindrical, conical, or vertical with a dab of ranch dressing. She’s satisfied with a ham sandwich. Antonio came to us waving a chicken leg in the air. He has never eaten a sandwich in his life. But give him a Sweet Hawaiian bun in one hand and a slice of salami in the other and he will happily eat them separately.

Our table waiting for us

We cater to Antonio and Crystel because we can, though sometimes I remind him that he was born in Guatemala.  Tamales made of corn and filled with beans are eaten with nearly every meal.

Lee Beal, our guide, originally from Texas, has lived around the world over the years, with Colorado being his home base. His wife, Elaine, and he have been full-time residents of Santa Cruz for the past 5 years. The couple came to Guatemala looking for a simpler and more fulfilling life and found it on Lake Atitlan. Lee originally started working with Amigos de Santa Cruz foundation and now serves on the board of directors. As he learned more about the people of Santa Cruz he realized there was a need for jobs creation. A part of this is now being fulfilled through the CECAP vocational training center.

The kitchen

Walking into the restaurant, I was surprised how open, clean and fresh it was. I felt as if we were on top of a mountain and we were. Two graduates of the culinary arts program were busy in the kitchen completing our authentic Guatemalan meal. They would also be serving us.

I don’t out Antonio unless I have too. Usually I just take him aside and remind him that we have food at home and simply be polite and say, “No thank you” if he doesn’t like what’s served. No funny noises or grotesque looks necessary.

After snapping a picture of our seating area, I took a deep breath and sat down. We had our choice of freshly made cold tea, several sauces, mashed potatoes, and a mixture of glazed vegetables and chicken with pulique sauce. At first glance, there wasn’t anything that I thought Antonio would try. Pulique is a common dish of the Guatemalan highlands. It is often served at holidays, anniversaries, and yearly fairs. Alex, our Guatemalan guide, explained how special it was that our chef had made the pulique for us. (Lee has been employing local guides trained through INGUAT. His goal is to create well-paying jobs that fit with the Mayan culture.)

Antonio with Alex paying our bill

The pulique sauce was mild, gentle, and creamy. I watched Antonio as he scraped a bit of it off his chicken.He tried a bite, finished his chicken, and asked for more.

Antonio had proven that CECAP’s culinary arts program was headed for success.

The café is located in the vocational center which houses carpentry, welding, computer education, sewing and weaving. The training center was buzzing with students sewing on Singer sewing machines and students welding on the rooftop.

What makes CECAP unique is that it has always been a community-driven vision and not a government project. Amigos is helping CECAP become self-sufficient.

Singer sewing machines. Girls and boys sewing.

Touring the vocational education center, watching students sew and weld, and dining at the café were some of the many highlights of our trip. We were getting a glimpse into the future of Santa Cruz la Laguna. Santa Cruz is one of the 45 poorest townships in all of Guatemala with illiteracy and malnutrition among the highest in the country. Amigos believes that education is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty for the indigenous people of Guatemala. Their primary focus has been on education both at the primary and secondary level. We were fortunate to see it at work.

Before we left Minnesota, Crystel had told us that she wanted to learn how to weave while in Guatemala. Lee contacted a local Guatemalan and set up a time for us to meet with her in her home. Both Antonio and Crystel quickly became engaged in learning to weave. They returned to her home several afternoons to complete their projects.

While Antonio and Crystel were weaving, Lee took Jody and me on a tour of the town church and also to Casa Milagro. Casa Milagro (since 1992) is an NGO that supports widows and children. Thilda Zorn, founder and manager of the project, focuses on providing an environment for creativity, joy, and freedom. Jody and I purchased handicrafts that the children had made.

Casa Milagro – children learning to weave

By the time Jody and I returned to our children, Antonio had left with Alex and Zach to play soccer in the village square, and Crystel was making fast friends with the girl of the house.

Antonio rushed in breathless and excited. He was poking fun at Alex and Zach, “Those kids were smaller than me,” he laughed. “We lost 10-7. It cost us 3 quetzales (50 cents).” Apparently, there was a side bet and the local children came away the winners. “Alex, they blew right by you,” Antonio added. “And, Zach he couldn’t stop anything.”

Antonio and Crystel learning to weave

Antonio and Crystel were being changed. And, it had nothing to do with their parents and everything to do with their parents. We had brought them here – to their birth country to have an opportunity to connect with other Guatemalans.

The boy who wouldn’t look at the kids in the square the first night was now facing off with them in a soccer match and for a short time he had two older Guatemalans, Alex and Zach, that could brother him.


Antonio’s bud’s – Zach and Alex

Crystel’s new friend

This very fine day would finish in a hot tub and swimming pool in the next village, El Jaibalito. A ten-minute launch from Los Elementos.