Our first site in Guatemala was Lago Atitlan (Lake Atitlan), a volcano crater filled with rain water located high up in the mountains. As we climbed to the rim of the ancient volcano we pulled over to take a photo (above). Lago Atitlan is over a 1,000′ (330 meters) deep and is shaped like an inverted cone. It actually is the cone of a dormant volcano much like Crater Lake in the United States. Our first destination, Panajachel is on the north rim of the lake; the photo above was shot from the southeast side – Panajachel is near the center of the photo on the far side of the lake behind the mist. The town in the foreground is San Lucas Tolmain, a wonderful day-trip by ferry boat from Panajachel.
As we pulled into town we could see that the place caters to tourists: everywhere we looked we could see internet cafes, bars, restaurants and “touristy” gift shops (below). We would learn later that Panajachel is called “Gringoville” by many of the locals and expats due to the high number of tourists who come on vacation and, well, they just never go home. Panajachel has a high proportion of expats in its population.
Almost as soon as I put the truck into park some children descended on us trying to sell us bracelets, jewelry and all sorts of other things that we really didn’t need. But, they were quite cute and we thought we might support the local economy and buy something. And, it seemed that everyone else was wearing a local necklace or bracelet and we thought that we’d be “cool” like the rest of the kids. I wondered if these children should be in school, I wondered if they were working as mobile vendors because they had no other choice? Perhaps they only moonlight as vendors and go to school at home or on other days? I wasn’t really sure, it was something that I would watch for and ask when I had a chance.
One thing that I found was that it is much easier to speak Spanish with children than with adults. They speak using much simpler words and slow down to talk to you; many adults, no matter how many times I told them in Spanish that I was learning and to please “slow down,” they would just jabber away at full speed and I couldn’t catch a thing. Often times I would say (in Spanish), “My spanish is little, please speak more slowly,” and they might talk slowly for one sentence andbut then pick up to full speed again. I felt like I was saying “slow down” the entire time I was in Central America.
One day Jeff and I were walking along the main thoroughfare in town browsing and looking at the many vendors’ wares. We saw one table that was covered with beautiful silver jewelry. The vendor was quite clearly an Anglo and we chatted with her a bit. She was in fact an American who had come to Panajachel 5 or 6 years previously. She liked the town so much that she just didn’t go home. She emailed her mother to close out her apartment and put her things in to storage and has only returned home for holidays. She has a thriving silver jewelry business and even has an online website and is getting increased online sales. All of her jewelry is hand-made by local craftsmen and women and by exporting jewelry to America, England, Germany & Australia, she is helping the local economy. She told us that she has a villa rented on the side of the hill with a lake view and even owns a car.
I asked her if it was difficult to obtain a residency visa and she laughed, “I’m not a resident.” Puzzled, we asked her how she was able to stay without a visa. “Oh, I have a visa,” she said, “a tourist visa!” She explained that all of the expat community have 90 day border tourist visas and when they near expiration, a man – who makes a business of this activity – comes by, collects everyone’s passports and takes them to the El Salvador border. There, the passports are stamped out of Guatemala, into El Salvador, out of El Salvador and then back into Guatemala. She says that she pays U.S. $10 for this fee and estimates that the man has perhaps 200 or 300 clients. She is not sure what the cut is for the border guards but it certainly sounded like a profitable business. She even added, “My passport says I’ve been to El Salvador 15 or 20 times, but I’ve never been there before.”
At breakfast, in our hotel restaurant we met a Canadian couple who were interested in taking the bus to the market at Chichicastenango. I made the offer, as I did with most of the other travelers that we met who were heading our direction, they could come along with us for a split of the gasoline bill. They eagerly approved and we made plans to meet on another day.
At the same restaurant late one evening, a woman came by with her child slung across her back. She was making “custom” bracelets and offered to make some for us. We agreed to buy some and using my Spanish dictionary, I asked her all about her life, work and family. She told me that she was married two years ago and that she and her husband work a small piece of land on the hill above the city. She is Native American descended from the original people of this land. She and her husband grow what they can and she works as a vendor to supplement their income. I found it quite interesting that she could move about and get all of her work done with her son strapped to her back. She held him with nothing more than a blanket that was knotted in the front. As I watched during my time in Guatemala I saw that most of the little children didn’t walk around unattended, they always seemed to be tied to their mothers.
Another thing that I noticed was that breastfeeding in public is quite common. The first few times I noticed it (it is quite obvious), I was a bit uneasy. But within a few days it seemed as natural as bottle feeding a kid. To this day, when I see a woman breastfeeding it seems as natural as any other daily function. I do think that all of this “covering up” in the Anglo world is quite silly. Just like at a topless beach, it is quite titillating at first but after about 1/2 hour, it’s no big deal. Gunfights, beat-up blood matches and violence is ok on American TV, just, please, no breasts. It is quite silly when you think about it.
I offered to hold her little son; he was learning Spanish – same as I was – and it was fun to talk to a 3-year-old. Another vendor boy who we had come to know came by for his evening pitch. I eventually bought some overpriced blankets from him. In the photo below, Jeff shoots one of his famous over the shoulder self-portraits that I had come to know. He always seemed to line them up just right. I suppose that this experience is a symptom of a lot of solo traveling. Sometimes you have to take your own pic. A tripod is handy but is not always available…
Our hostel was only about $8 for each night. The rooms were a bit noisy at night as there were nightclubs everywhere full of 19 and 20-something party kids who were drinking much too much beer and probably some of the locally grown supplements. The entire town had a laid back-party atmosphere that was fun for a day or two but a bit too noisy for my tastes. If you are looking for a little quiet, there are many hotels and hostels that are a few hundred meters out of the “party zone.” A 5 minute walk will probably mean a better night’s sleep.
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