Friday, March 4, 2011

Curva Peligrosa y el Ombligo

Antigua - Lago Atitlan - Flores, Guatemala

The amazing Lake Atitlan, Colette took this photo from a lancha heading to the markets in Santiago Atitlan one morning

This week´s title was inspired by none other than the proximity of a common Guatemalan road sign´s texting to the Croatian language (Hrvatski) and, well the amazing place that is Lago Atitlan (Lake Atitlan) in the Guatemalan highlands.

"Curva Peligrosa y el Ombligo" [Dangerous Bend and the Umbilicus]

The lake was named the "Umbilicus of the World" by Martin Prechtel in his amazing book describing his life as an initiated shaman living in Santiago Atitlan some 30 years back (today this is a large town on the sourthern bank of Lake Atitlan, home to 40,000 Tzutujiles).The book is named Secrets of the Talking Jaguar, published in 1998, and if you haven´t read it yet, I strongly recommend it for anyone who feels that some ounce of their natural, wild self still exists somewhere quietly, hidden deep inside their hearts and souls.

Coffee is the rule in Antigua, Guatemala (this sign is from Fernando`s, one of the nicest cafe`s in town)

An antique coffee ball roasting machine desinged by none other than a German

Workers in the coffee drying fields

So much coffee...

These photos are courtesy of a tour we took through the La Azotea coffee farm

This was a little church inside the farm compund, maybe for the workers? 

The bus ride from Antigua to Panajachel, the most common tourist entry point to Lake Atitlan, is nothing short of amazing...amazing for having survived that demon ride through hell´s scorned and twisted gates! Picture this folks; our driver is a well worn Guatemalan cowboy doning a white cowboy hat, he drives as if each day is his last and perhaps he is a little hungover from last nights celebration for having survived the previous day on this very same bus.

This is a Subaru Impreza, some 40 years older than Colette`s BAM-056 Canadian version, that we found in Antigua

I bet every morning this man wakes up, makes love to his wife for what might be his last time again, kisses her after breakfast and says "Don´t wait up for me!" and steps out his door facing another day of probable death. once he hits that driver seat he rides that pony like its a bat from the devil´s very own cage for what seems to be his next attempt to score a PB (personal best time) on the leg between Antigua and Panajachel on Lake Atitlan. This journey they say is supposed to take around 4 hours; we get there in 3 hours and 15 minutes!...after many stops along the way picking up the local Mayan highlanders heading for the weekend markets around Lake Atitlan. This bus hurls along the two lane and sometimes one lane highway, around and up and down such tight bends that your liver screams for mercy, and at such a speed that I swear TO GOD, the bus could not, I repeat COULD NOT have gone any faster - for the laws of physics themselves would not permit it!!!

Happy having survived this improbability of life´s existences, we reach the tranquil shores of Lago Atitlan. Despite arriving in Panajachel, the place itself being very beautiful with scores of handicraft shops to browse and quite a welcoming tourist trap, our destination is San Marcos La Laguna. A short lancha (taxi boat) ride across the lake, San Marcos La Laguna sits comfortably on the far North-Western edge of Lago Atitlan, a modern spiritual meccha for many a crusty hippie, artesan and "spiritual healer".

Making another bracelet at Hotel Aaculax in San Marcos La Laguna

San Marcos La Laguna is an amazing place. Even the most hardened sceptic could not deny that after a week spent here they felt nothing, not even a slight change in their attitude. This place evokes tranquility, not only because there are more spiritual or yoga or healing ceremony retreats here than in West End, Brisbane (or Kensignton in Calgary) - but also because its home to the Kakchikeles (traditional Mayan people living along the northern bank of Lake Atitlan), and its just so damn beautiful.

The ornate and beautiful Hotel Aaculax, we spent three nights here

Your happy hosts in San Marcos La Laguna

We fall for its charms, and those of the many little villages around the edge of the lake. There are in fact two major traditional language groups of Mayan people here, Kakchikel (northern bank) and Tzutujil (southern bank). The days are spent quietly, paitently and calmy. San Marcos La Laguna has no roads in Barrio 3, the part of town where the tourists prevail, only little dirt paths with hand painted signs telling you where you can eat, sleep and get "healed". Swimming in the lake just off the rocks to the West of town is a calming and refreshing experience, and if you dare you can take the 10 meter plunge off the timber deck built for this purpose. Colette jumped twice on our last day there!

We take another week of Spanish through the Orbita Spanish School from San Pedro La Laguna, run by Rene, a really clever and very polite man and single parent of two amazing kids. Here in San Pedro La Laguna the local language is Tzutujil, same as in Santiago Atitlan. While their program is really well structured  for a period of up to 8 weeks or more, we insist on only practising conversation which turns out to be the right course of action. After many weeks of grammar, we just needed to know how to use it.

Colette studying at the Orbita Spanish School in San Pedro La Laguna (Rene the director was her teacher)

Not a bad view from my study desk hey? (this is my teacher Myra, she was lovely)

In San Marcos La Laguna we stayed at El Arbol, the only Mayan, and in fact Guatemalan owned hotel in San Marcos La Laguna. The owner Rigoberto and his whole family are amazing and outwardly honest and hardworking people. They are also very industrious, owning the hotel, a handicraft shop selling colourful Kakchikel clothes and wowen gifts, a tienda (regular little corner shop) selling water by the volume for your bottles and home made cakes and breads made by doña de la casa (Rigo´s wife) and also a very affordable restaurant serving up some local breakfast choices.

The gorgeous and affordable Hotel El Arbol, San Marcos La Laguna

Our breakfast table at Moonfish in San Marcos La Laguna, the amazing food at this restaurant is all local, organic and healthy - and super tasty!

This drinking spot in Santiago Atitlan does not want guns inside...or your dogs!

I really took to the village, making friends with many artesans (local and foreign) and local children and other townsfolk. The kids here like in many poorer parts of the world are used to being given gifts or money by ignorant toursits. While the intention is sweet and good, the reality and its consequences affect the local people badly since the kids learn that they can just beg or ask for things to get by in life. I refuse to give anyone anything for free and find myself teaching kids how to make bracelets, taking classes in Kakchikel in return for bracelet gifts (which I also had to make while I was there) and just generally trying to teach good examples. Give a man a fish and feed him for a day, teach a man how to fish...and well you get the picture.

My young and beautiful Kakchikel teacher Juana Evelia, she is the only girl in San Marcos La Laguna selling pure cacao chocolates made just across the lake in San Pedro La Laguna (she is 11 years old and is wearing the bracelet I made for her as payment for the language lessons)

The outcome is that I really get to know some of the people here quite well, I learn a little of the local language which comes in handy and earns many warm smiles, and finally my experience of our time here is so much richer. The Kakchikel language is beautiful, rich and warm...just like the locally grown coffee and chocolate!

Seq`ar [pronounced sick-arsh] - means Buenas Dias or Good Morning

Xq`aq`ij [pronounced sh-kak-ich] - means Buenas Tardes or Good Afternoon


Utzauach [pronounced utz-ah-watch] - means Como Estas or How Are You

Tiosh`xawa [pronounced tee-osh-shower] - means Gracias A Ti / Muchas Gracias or Thank You Very Much

...and my personal favourite...

Chuac`chic [pronounced chew-a-cheek] - means Hasta Mañana or See You Tomorrow

...I will miss this place, and ache to return soon.

We became good friends after seeing each other lots over the week and had a great time making jokes, she was truly sad when we said goodbye to her the night before we left (it broke Colette`s heart to hear Evelia say "Yo voy a ser muy triste que ustedes salen...")

We leave the lake and its amazing wonders after kitting ourselves in some of the amazing colourful locally handmade clothing, and take a 12 hour bus ride to Flores, in Peten in Northern Guatemala. The journey amazingly takes us past the three largest lakes in Guatemala, first we start from Lago Atitlan, we zoom past Lago Izabal near Rio Dulce, and end up on the shores of Lago Peten Itzà in Flores. All in one day, and what is the meaning behind all this water? Are we not made of 70% water? Interesting...

Where we are off to next we don´t know, maybe its time for a rest in Flores...either way the "Umbilicus" part of the title is very suiting, without disregard to our proximate new family member way up in that cold part of the world. Is it time yet?

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