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august 1, 2005 -> the lake and the market: Guatemala

Three hours after leaving Antigua, the van rounded a corner and we beheld Lake Atitlán far below us.  Recessed in a crater-like bowl and watched over by five extinct volcanoes, the lake's beauty astonished us.  A series of villages, accessible by water taxis, dotted the lakeshore.  A precipitous road led down the slopes to Panajachel – also know as “Gringotenango,” or place of the gringos.  At one hairpin corner, we had to swerve around a car-sized boulder that had tumbled onto the road.  I noticed that several sections of the road still had mud stains from recent landslides.  “Oh my God.  I feel like I'm in Bangkok,” Nori said when we got out of the van.  A single street carried down to the lake past restaurants, coffee shops, Internet cafes and hundreds of souvenir stalls.  Toasted tourists cultivated disdainful looks as they surveyed the shattered spirituality of the place.  Roving handicrafts vendors shoved dolls and blankets in our face.

Thinking that pot-smoking San Pedro de Atitlán wouldn't be our scene, I decided that we should investigate Santiago de Atitlán first.  Santiago had been a hot spot during the long civil war: some indigenous communities responded to years of abuse by joining leftist, anti-government brigades.  In 1990, drunken soldiers killed 13 villagers.  After a magnificent passage across the lake, Santiago disappointed us greatly.  It sat at the edge of a teardrop-shaped inlet, pinched off from the main body of the lake by two volcanoes.  Fisherman paddled traditional boats while standing, the upturned bow making the wooden craft look like an elf's boot.  It took real skill to render such a lovely setting unattractive, but Santiago managed it.  It rose above the lake in mildewed concrete tiers.  Swimming was definitely out.  One look at the town told me where the sewage went.  A few kids ran down the rickety pier, offering themselves as guides.  Nori was so taken by Santiago's charms that she wanted to get on the next boat to anywhere.  But I wanted to see Maximón.  An enthusiastic boy promised to take me to him.

Maximón stood in a small, candlelit room, his diminutive figure ringed by murmuring worshippers and curious tourists.  Bolts of cloth draped over his shoulders and his face glistened with beer and aguardiente – local moonshine.  Votive candles and alcoholic offerings lay before him.  Every few minutes, his high (that is, intoxicated) priests took a gulp of beer and then tipped the bottle into Maximón's waiting lips.  The beer spilled out from his shallow mouth and coursed to the floor.  Maximón, you see, was made of wood, the representation of a half-Christian, half-Mayan deity who retained his popularity despite a half-millennium of Catholic disapproval.

I hoped to offer Maximón a half-smoked cigar, but I couldn't get it lit again, which I took as a rejection of my offering.  Instead, I sat on a low bench and watched as the priests chanted, drank and accepted offerings.  Then I noticed a coffin at the side of the room.  I turned to a Spanish-speaking tourist.  “Is this is a funeral ceremony?” I asked, terrified.  She didn't think so, but made the sign of the cross just in case.  Spooked, I left Maximón's temple.  We hurried to the dock and caught the next boat to San Pedro.  Two months after we left Atitlán, Hurrican Stan deluged the area with rain.  The steep flank of the volcano that rose above Santiago collapsed, burying the outskirts in mud “a half-mile wide and up to 20 feet thick.”  More than 1,500 people died.  Frantic digging recovered only dead bodies.  Maximón had failed them.

San Pedro, though far from beautiful, was much more tourist-friendly.  It was a legendary stop on the ‘alternative' Gringo Trail.  Many people spent weeks there.  Others set up businesses and never left.  I laughed when I discovered that it also had a number of Spanish schools.  Wasn't smoking pot supposed to destroy short-term memory?  Once again, no one offered me any marijuana.  Did I really look that upstanding?  No one would describe me as ‘edgy,' but I didn't think of myself as ‘square' either.  I was becoming convinced that the ‘real backpacker' dress code served (perhaps most importantly) as a signal of openness to drug dealers.

We found a spotless hotel with great views of the lake for only US$11.  Nori took a nap while I sat on the patio, smoked a cigar and watched mist roll down the volcanoes.  As expected, San Pedro's expatriate and backpacker community tended towards dreadlocks, multiple piercings, tattoos and pot.  “Welcome home, man!” I heard one old hippie say to another who had returned from an apparently long absence.  While we ate dinner, we had no choice but to listen to a loud Canadian man whose bizarre courtship banter focused on tales of his US drug bust and subsequent incarceration.  When we returned to our hotel room, we dragged our bed back and forth across the floor and stamped our feet.  The French family had taken the room below ours.

The Saturday market in Chichicastenango – which Nori and I usually abbreviated as Chimichanga – was Central America's most famous.  Having wearied of the unexciting and identical handicrafts offerings at the artesanía markets in Antigua and Panajachel, we weren't expecting a shopping bonanza.  Another long, twisting ride brought us to the unappealing city, where we were deposited, along with several hundred other tourists, at the periphery of the market.  A quick reconnaissance confirmed our suspicions: exactly the same products, repeated in a thousand stalls, and choked with disappointed-looking tourists.  Oversupply appeared to be a major problem.  Shrunken grandmothers and bands of children patrolled the market, desperate to make a sale.  The tourists weren't even safe in the restaurants, despite migrating to the tables farthest from the door.

Bored, we walked to the old whitewashed church and sat on its sooty steps.  Several of the market's main thoroughfares converged at its semicircular steps, giving us a great vantage point of the mayhem.  A train of tall German tourists squeezed past a file of tiny Mayan women carrying huge loads.  Behind them all, a large display of crudely carved and painted masks grinned, and we grinned back.  On one side of the steps, a crowd of Maya gathered around a well-dressed man displaying a bouquet of weeds.  “This collection will help with headaches, digestion, your liver, heart and blood flow,” he shouted in staccato Spanish.  He pointed at diagrams in a children's anatomy book to emphasize his medical credentials.  Like the multitude that surrounded him, he was Mayan, yet his routine was in Spanish.  Perhaps the language of the colonizers aided the legitimacy of his enterprise.

Just below us, an ancient woman climbed the stairs to where an offering fire was burning.  Mumbling prayers, she ripped open a cornhusk parcel of aromatic coals and shook them into the fire.  The camphor-scented smoke wafted around her as she fished a flask of aguardiente from a plastic bag.  She swigged a mouthful and poured the rest onto the embers, which crackled angrily as the flames jumped.  Still mumbling, she threw the husks to the ground and disappeared into the market.  I remember little of the market, but I can still see the faces of that snake-oil salesman and pious old woman.  It is a truism that the greatest travel experiences are usually unplanned.