Monthly Archives: April 2014

Antigua road trip!

OK, so the title of this post is somewhat misleading, since “road trip” usually implies that A) you are driving somewhere, and B) you are traveling with at least one other person. While this was not the case, I at least A) took a lancha from San Pedro to Panajachel and then a shuttle to Antigua, where I would be B) meeting up with Megan (from Seeking Somewhere), who had left San Pedro after our karaoke extravaganza in order to check out other parts of Guatemala, namely Tikal and Semuc Champey.

I checked into a lovely guesthouse, Posada Juma Ocag, which had a private single room, en suite, for only 100Q, or just under $13. The rooms overlooked a small green courtyard. Part of me wants to keep this place a secret since it’s so nice, but the staff people are friendly and do a great job, so I’m happy to recommend them. I spent Friday evening checking out the festivities near Iglesia La Merced, which was already preparing for Palm Sunday.

My $13 room at Posada Juma Ocag





Megan and I had originally planned to hike the volcano Pacaya on Saturday, but as she had only arrived in town at 6am and was dead tired, and I was suffering from a painful lump on the top of my left foot (I know, the random ailments continue), we decided to just take it easy and enjoy the ambience of Antigua for the weekend. Antigua Guatemala is a Spanish colonial town, not unlike Granada in Nicaragua, and it was absolutely abuzz with locals and tourists alike for the beginning of Semana Santa, or Holy Week. I had read about the popular processions involved with this week, but never did I expect anything so elaborate. The entire week, there are outdoor festivals and displays in the churches, streets covered in flowers, and bands playing sacred music.



Megan and I picked up coffee and bread for a mini-breakfast and went to Iglesia La Merced, the main cathedral, on Sunday morning for Palm Sunday Mass. Unfortunately, I got the times wrong, and by the time we arrived, the service had already started, and the church was packed with people. We were able to squeeze in to get some standing room, but about halfway through, the lack of space and air started to affect me. I was getting visions of my preteen days when I constantly felt faint during Mass… and then I started seeing stars. I needed to get out of there. The outside of the church wasn’t much better: stifling heat, massive crowds of people, and a myriad of street vendors. (This merits a quick comment on the festivities: while I understand that most of the vendors are there to feed the throngs of people who come to watch the processions, it did feel a little strange to see men selling motorized helicopters and Dora the Explorer or Minion balloons at a religious event. It made me think a lot about the distinction between what is “religious” and what is “cultural”).

On the way to Mass with my palm branch, in front of the fountain of Our Lady of Perpetual Lactation (Kidding. Those are sirens).

Selling palms outside the church

Once I had recovered by eating a good breakfast in the shade of a restaurant, Megan and I searched for a shady spot on the street to watch the processions. We lucked out in that we had chosen a spot right in front of a beauty salon; when the processions started down our block, the ladies from the salon brought out a small bench and allowed Megan to stand on it to get a better view.

Most processions that I saw followed the same standard: men and boys with matracas pave the way, followed by younger boys with incense and men in purple robes, the cargadores or cucuruchos, who take turns bearing the weight of the enormous andas of the procession. (I have read that some of these can weight up to 4 tons). There is always a lead cargador in white who stands at the head of the anda, steering and controlling the speed of the group. The first anda is followed by a band and then by a second, smaller anda with the Virgin Mary, which is carried by female cargadoras in white blouses and black skirts. After the second band comes the clean-up crew, which efficiently scoops up the alfombras of flowers, which the townspeople worked all night to create.

These alfombras are absolutely spectacular and are comprised of flowers, tinted sawdust, plants, and fruit. Rather than ramble on, I think it’s best to let the photos speak for themselves.


















Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , | 4 Comments

A hike to Nariz del Indio

The day after Domingo’s birthday, he and his friend Samuel guided a group of us on a hike to Nariz del Indio, or Indian Nose, which is the hill on the opposite side of the lake that is visible in just over half of my photos. (What can I say? It’s picturesque).

There are several options when attempting this relatively easy hike. Some people opt to start in the wee hours of the morning in order to see the sun rise. Others start from the lake side of the hill and complete the 2-3 hour hike from there. Still others take some form of transportation to the town of Santa Clara on the other side of the hill from the lake; from the town, the hike to the top takes just over an hour. Because I A) wanted to sleep in on Sunday, and B) am a wuss, an hour’s hike seemed sufficient for me.

We took a shuttle to Santa Clara, where we did a quick stroll through the town to get to the head of the path. At one point, a group of local schoolboys accompanied by their chaperones walked along with us on their way through the woods.

Entering Santa Clara

Sex ed mural outside a community clinic



Our last few steps near the summit were interrupted by the sound of a woman wailing. Just next to the path, a small group of local people were worshipping; I could not see if there was a small shrine, but the women and men there knelt with their hands on the ground, loudly crying out in voices that oscillated between singing and sobbing. Domingo explained that the people were preparing for Holy Week.

At the top, drenched in sweat (or maybe that was just me), we took our obligatory landscape photos. While we could see some amazing views of San Pedro and some of the other towns, the weather was unfortunately very cloudy and obscured much of the lake. A local family of a father and two elementary school-aged children had reached the summit at the same time. Content, the dad proceeded to take the Sunday paper out of his pocket, sit down on a tree stump, and read while his kids scoped out the view. Now that’s the way to spend a Sunday!


Overlooking San Pedro

Domingo and Max enjoy the view

Samuel, our guide, scopes out the lake

Dean, looking majestic

20140427-102423.jpg Check out those steps!

As we descended, the weather started to cool. By the time we walked through the town -seeing some awesome medical and dental clinic facades along the way- and back to the road, it was downright cold and a slight drizzle began to fall. I envied Dean, who had brought along his windbreaker, as we waited in vain for another shuttle. After a time, a truck approached us on the road. Domingo briefly consulted with the driver, and we hopped in the back of the truck bed. This is a totally typical event here in Central America: trucks with entire families in the back or, even more commonly, about 25 men standing and holding onto the added metal barriers, drive down the roads and highways. It’s just a more basic local version of a taxi or bus, yet it has still taken me a while to get used to seeing it, because that just does not happen where I’m from. Still, despite what felt like possible damage to my tailbone from my awkward sitting position on a corrugated plastic truck bed, the ride back to San Pedro was reeeeally fun.

This lab tech literally thinks he’s God’s gift to dentistry 馃槢


What was supposed to be a mutual thumbs up ended up with me wearing a rubber nipple on my head

20140427-102527.jpg Bwah hah!

What’s not to love?

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , | Leave a comment

I fell in love with San Pedro

[4/26: Many thanks to all my follower friends who emailed this post back to me after the original mysteriously disappeared into the ether. I have reposted and updated it with larger photos: are these too large, or do you prefer the detail? Any opinions? Please share: thanks!]

I wake up at about 5:30 in the morning to the sound of a man singing. It’s disorienting at first: what’s happening? What’s going on? As my eyes open, I realize that it’s a local pastor preaching in the streets. I hear him once or twice a week. I fall back asleep.

The next time I wake up before my alarm, it’s to the sound of clapping. Not applause, only an unfamilar, syncopated clapping: Linda is making tortillas upstairs in the kitchen. I close my eyes and fall asleep one more time.

My alarm goes off at 6:00. I’m supposed to be meeting my friend Ken for our morning walk in ten minutes, so I throw on my clothes and hiking shoes, slip a bottle of water and my camera in my backpack, and head out from the house. I’m staying with a local family, and although they’re already up, they won’t expect me for breakfast until 7:30.

My walk takes me down a neighborhood road that runs parallel to the shore of the lake. San Pedro la Laguna is just one of the many pueblos along Lake Atitlan in the western highlands of Guatemala. It’s a bizarre mixture of indigenous people and hippie expats, but so far, I’m really liking it. I pass by a number of tiendas which have yet to open, and I avert my eyes to provide some privacy to the women who are standing waist-deep in the lake in their bras, already busy bathing and doing laundry at this early hour.


I can see Ken waiting for me at the corner near the dock where the lanchas leave for Panajachel. (The locals have coined this area between the docks “Gringolandia,” a term not always used affectionately). I’m glad that he suggested these walks: he wants to prepare to climb the volcano in San Pedro again this weekend (his last attempt was successful but painful, he says), and I need to break in my shoes – and my feet- for the Camino in Spain next month. I know that otherwise I wouldn’t be getting up this early! Our walk is just less than an hour, but it’s a great workout, because the first half is entirely up the steep hills of the town. We pass the local people heading to work, women carrying baskets on their heads, kids in their white polos and navy pants or skirts on their way to school, and men in straw hats holding their machetes. The majority greet us with a friendly “Buen-os diiiiii-as” in a singsong voice.

The first part of the walk is torture for me, but we talk the whole way. The views of the town and the lake when we arrive at our summit make the trip worthwhile. On sunny mornings, the sky is clear, the lake is blue, and I’m pleased that I dragged myself out of bed.



Ken is not at all disturbed by the effigy hanging from the tree



Then it’s back home to stretch, do some situps (be gone, spare tire!) and quickly shower before breakfast. Nadine and Michel (or Miguel, now that we’re studying Spanish), a German couple also living at the homestay, are already sitting at the kitchen table. The kitchen is located on the roof of the house and is open-air with a wood-burning stove. Our host family is a couple, Linda and Domingo, but we are usually joined by a number of members of Domingo’s family: his mother, Elena; his father, Juan, and his younger brother, Lolo, who drives a tuk-tuk. We eat three meals a day together in the house, except for Sundays. I am thrilled with the food here. Not much meat, but enough eggs, beans, cheese, and vegetables to keep me happy. (Linda has gotten used to me breaking out in spontaneous applause when I see what’s cooking). We speak only Spanish at the table. One lucky thing is that Spanish is not the first language of anyone at the table: our hosts’ lingua franca is Tz’utujil, a Mayan tongue. This means that the vocabulary used is easier for us learners to understand! The family switches back and forth between the two languages when speaking with each other.

Coffee beans drying on the roof

Linda roasting cocoa beans

After breakfast, we take the three-minute walk to class. We are studying at the Orbita School, where our morning classes last from 8:30 to 12:30. Sometimes it’s hard for me to concentrate, because our “classrooms” are open-air and overlook the lake and the surrounding hills. I see a boat or some kayaks or a fire on the other side of the lake, and suddenly my mind is not on Spanish. Oops. But it’s preferable to being stuck indoors on a beautiful day! Elizabeth, my teacher, is the younger sister of my host Linda and keeps me in line.


20140426-161539.jpgThe view from my desk


Every day at 11am, we take a snack break. (Not gonna lie: this is my favorite part of the school day). We’ll have coffee or tea with something like guacamole and tortillas or chuchitos, which are dumpling-like snacks made of cornmeal wrapped around a piece of chicken in tomato sauce and then boiled in a corn husk packet. (The teachers have also gotten used to my spontaneous applause upon seeing chuchitos. They’re so crazy good).

Buying bread with Elizabeth for our snack break



After classes, we have the rest of the day free between lunch at 1pm and dinner at 7pm. The first week of school, I was wiped out by a horrible stomach bug, but since my antibiotics kicked in, I’ve been able to do a lot of different activities in the afternoons. Many times, it’s just going to a cafe or restaurant with wifi, grabbing a coffee (Guatemalan coffee is phenomenal), and finishing my homework. There’s a pool near the dock to Santiago, kayaks for rent for 10 quetzales (less than $1.50) per hour along the lake, and plenty of rocks to jump off into the water. One of these days, I’d like to try horseback riding. I’m on a futile quest to find a yoga class in San Pedro that’s actually open as advertised. Also, many of the local bars have free movie nights and activities, which makes traveling on a budget MUCH easier.


20140426-162049.jpgTuk-tuks in Gringolandia

20140426-162059.jpgKen, Linda, Nadine, and I at Cafe Cristalina’s, where Linda tried her first cappucino

The evenings are mellow for me and most of my friends here. San Pedro definitely has an intense party scene, and it’s very obvious that any assortment of drugs are available for the taking if you just ask. As this is TOTALLY not my scene, I’m grateful to have met a lot of friends who are also students. Most of us still like to go out and be social but not take it to the extreme that we frequently see around us. (I can’t remember the last time that I had to forcibly decline tequila shots from other bar patrons). Megan from Seeking Somewhere joked, “Yeah, I can’t stay out. It’s my bedtime in San Pedro time.” I completely get where she’s coming from. Here, it hits 9pm, and I am tired.

I let myself back into the house in the evening. Usually, a handful of family members are watching TV – most likely soccer- in the living room (although they all live in another house). After a chorus of “Buenas noches!”, I return to my room, read a bit, and go to bed. Tomorrow’s another day of school.


Dusk at Indian Nose

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , | 11 Comments

Religion in San Pedro

One of the first things that you notice upon arriving in San Pedro la Laguna is the ubiquitous nature of all things religious. Signs and banners with Psalms, Scripture passages, and religious messages cover the streets. Even the buses and tuk-tuks are labelled with things like “Cristo es El Rey.” There are thirty-seven churches in San Pedro; of these, one is Catholic and the rest are evangelical. As mentioned in a recent post, it was not uncommon for me to wake up in the morning to the sound of preaching. Singing can be heard throughout the day and evening from any of the churches in the town. Most of the music is very pleasant; however, one church in particular across the water from our school (you know who you are, little green church with the star!) employed a cantor who was less than skillful in terms of pitch. Nearly every morning, our lessons were accompanied by the sound of the church band’s bass and guitar and their warbling singer. I tried hard, without much luck, not to be distracted.





I attended Mass with Elizabeth, my teacher, the first Sunday after I had arrived in town. I was happy that I had brought a pashmina to cover my shoulders, because the vast majority of the women in church covered their heads with woven scarves during the service. Not that this helped me blend in at all, mind you, as I was about a foot taller than most of the people in the room. I decided against covering my head: with my hair in a top-knot, any additional height would have turned me into an awkward mountain of many colors in the middle of the pew.



As the Mass continued, I was pleased to realize that I could follow along and understand much of the readings in Spanish. Sweet, I thought, I *have* learned a lot so far. Until the homily, where the flow of Spanish was interrupted mid-sentence like music on a scratched CD. For a minute, I thought I might be going crazy, but then I remembered that Tz’utujil is another language used in San Pedro. I asked Elizabeth why the sermon was bilingual. She answered that since many of the older people in town speak very little Spanish, the homilies are given in Tz’utujil, but since this language lacks the vocabulary to describe certain people, events, and places (especially Biblical), the priest fills in the blanks with Spanish.

My entire time in San Pedro occurred during Lent, and there were countless processions and celebrations in the town during this time. I will write more in a future post about the more elaborate Holy Week processions with their alfombras, or carpets of flowers, in the streets. This procession, however, occurred on a Friday night two weeks before Easter:

Before the procession, men and boys holding large noisemakers called matracas (thanks for the info, Max!) parade the streets, paving the way for the ondas, or “floats” with sacred images.

A reading from one of the Stations of the Cross (in Tz’utujil!)

Processing to the next station

Processions galore in upcoming posts!

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , | 1 Comment

Oh, fishy fishy fishy fish

I loved both of these photos, taken different days, and then realized that they had the same subject matter. I think they deserve their own post!

Elena holding Juan’s (still moving) catch of the day

20140416-174352.jpg Sending fish (preserved in leaves) to relatives in L.A.!

Categories: Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Feliz cumplea帽os a ti!

Saturday, April 5 was a special day in our house as it was the 30th birthday of our host “dad,” Domingo. We had prepared during the week by going out to purchase a gift (a new baseball cap) and order a cake with Linda. Early in the morning, Linda and Elena started the process of making chuchitos to eat for the party later on.

20140415-184727.jpg Nadine helping Elena and Linda in the kitchen


Around 3 pm, the guests began to arrive: lots of cousins, wives and their children. It was difficult to keep everyone straight. After singing happy birthday to Domingo, we sat down for a feast of chuchitos and birthday cake.

20140415-185034.jpg Domingo, his two uncles, and his father Juan

After dinner, Nadine and Miguel retreated to their room to begin the unpleasant task of packing their bags to leave San Pedro. I took my camera outside in the courtyard to take some photos of the flowers there and was joined by Josefa, Lorenzo, and Elena, who were all excited about the prospect of playing with a new toy.

I have written in a previous post about universal pastimes of children. Another one seems to be taking photos and videos with digital cameras. For the next hour, the kids became master photographers and actors. (Note: the kids took all of these photos, minus the video).


My favorite video of the afternoon, complete with Jesus rising from the dead 馃檪 :

Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Maxim贸n, the Evil Saint

On Tuesday, I received an email from Ashley: she and her boyfriend John had made it to Lake Atitl谩n and were staying in the pueblo of Jaibalito. They were planning a trip to San Pedro that day, and would I like to join them for the afternoon?

Would I? 馃檪



We met in the afternoon near the dock to Panajachel, but as we had decided to visit the pueblo of Santiago Atitl谩n, we needed to walk to the opposite side of town to a different dock. I gave them a quick tour of San Pedro as we zigzagged through Gringolandia on our way to the Santiago dock, where we hired a lancha. We were then joined by Maria, an older woman with a broad smile that showcased her lack of teeth. I sat next to Maria and answered her questions as best I could. She found us incredibly amusing.

“驴De donde eres?” she asked me.

“De los Estados Unidos,” I answered.

“驴Los Estados Unidos???? Hahahahahaha!!!” she replied, laughing hysterically and slurping on a snow cone in her hand. We didn’t understand why it was so funny, but she was so cute that you couldn’t help but just crack up along with her.


As soon as you arrive by boat to Santiago, you realize that this is Where You Go To Shop. Markets with local handicrafts lined the road up to the town, and every shop owner had an offer for us as we walked by. The local dress here is a bit different than in San Pedro: the women’s clothing is similar, but more of the men in Santiago wear cowboy hats, dress shirts, and brightly printed pants. (I have heard this ensemble described in one guide book as the “space cowboy” look). We stopped for a snack and then set out to find one of the other main attractions in Santiago: Maxim贸n.


Maxim贸n has been described as “the evil saint.” Shrines to him in different towns are a blend of pagan and Christian rituals: a sort of folk Catholicism. During Lent (and Holy Week in particular), he often becomes synonymous with Judas Iscariot. Every year, the location of Maxim贸n’s shrine changes, so you need to ask a local where to go. It is also advisable to bring a gift, John had been told by a friend. We stopped at a tienda to buy a small bottle of rum and some cigarettes, then hired a tuk-tuk to take us to the shrine (which was a bit of a scam since the tuk-tuk took us around the block and dropped us off at a point that we had walked past two blocks earlier!) We walked through the narrow passageways between the buildings and into a small fenced courtyard where chickens were pecking at the ground.



We were charged a nominal admission fee and were led into a dark room. Smoke from burning incense hung in the air, along with suspended taxidermied animals and gourds. (Yes, you read that correctly). On the left was a glass casket with a figure of Jesus inside, decorated with colored Christmas lights, silk flowers, scarves, and crosses. On our right were other religious statues, all covered in different gifts from visitors. And in the center, surrounded by offerings and a table full of (quite possibly slightly drunken) men, was Maxim贸n in all his glory, wearing several cowboy hats, smothered in silk neckties, and smoking a lit cigar.




One of the men asked us our names and where we were from. When we answered, he gently took our gifts of rum and tobacco from us, knelt in front of the statue, and began to pray in a mixture of Spanish and his Mayan language. I heard our names and “los Estados Unidos” several times throughout the prayer, so I assume that it was some type of intercession. A second man took and opened the bottle of rum, and with the help of the first man who tipped the statue back, poured it into the statue’s mouth. They then opened our cigarettes, placed one between Maxim贸n’s lips, and lit it. We were allowed to look around and take photos (again, for a small fee), but the entire ceremony took maybe five minutes. Definitely a bit bizarre, but one of the most interesting things I’ve seen in a long time. (Also interesting was the sheer number of empty rum handles sitting beneath a table in the corner!)


On our way back, a local gentleman offered to show us back to the dock. It was just down the street -we had walked from there about two hours earlier- but he was so friendly that we just followed him anyway.




20140415-174907.jpg Yet another “Yes, I’m a big girl” shot

Back at the dock, we tipped our friend and said our goodbyes as we departed on different boats. I was disappointed to see my friends go but thankful for the invitation to join in on their afternoon. My guess is that none of us will have the opportunity to supply a saint with booze ever again.

20140415-175018.jpg Volcan San Pedro in the mist

Categories: Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Just a normal Sunday night

Wearing comfy clothes, finishing homework, watching Game of Thrones.



God bless the Alegre Pub for allowing me to keep my sanity and watch the season premiere of my favorite show the day that it actually airs. The previous season’s episodes were also shown… in Spanish. Kinda fun to hear things like, “Tu sabes nada, Jon Snow!”

Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Adios, amigos!

No send-off of my walking buddy, my kayaking buddy, and my favorite German roommates ever would be complete without a night of karaoke at the Alegre Pub. Yes, you know that a karaoke post was bound to happen sooner or later.






Note: you haven’t lived unless you’ve sung “99 Luftballons” with a pair of Germans.

Categories: Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Why I love bachata and hate boats

The afternoon shuttle ride from Antigua, Guatemala to Lake Atitlan, where I would be spending the next month studying Spanish, was thoroughly enjoyable due the scenic views and our driver’s music selection. (I had also picked the passenger seat with a headrest in contrast to that morning’s tiny backrests. So much better!) He had several flash drives of music that he could plug into his stereo. Much of this was current Spanish-language radio hits, while others were bachata remixes of popular American songs.

This is thing about the bachata style of music: it makes everything better. It expresses joy and love and passion but with an underlying hint of sadness at the same time. And anyone who knows me well knows that I like a bit of darkness in my music. I become really really happy when I listen to grunge ;). Bachata transformed Coldplay’s “Clocks” and Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” into danceable melodies. Normally, I like Adele’s “Someone Like You”… but it’s the type of song that makes me want to curl up in a ball on my couch in sweatpants and either drink heavily or inhale a pint of Ben and Jerry’s. But set that baby to bachata, and it’s time to put your dancing shoes on! Bachata has even accomplished the seemingly impossible feat of making Jason Mraz palatable. (Whaaaat? Well, I never!) I found myself tapping my foot to the bachata-style “I’m Yours,” when typically I start looking for the nearest sharp object when I hear the original version. (Only a slight exaggeration).

Our shuttle descended through the town of Solola down fog-covered roads to the lakeside pueblo of Panajachel. In order to reach San Pedro, I would need to take one of the many lanchas that ferry passengers across the lake throughout the day. The problem: the weather was overcast and rather cold, and the water was wicked choppy. I do NOT do well on small craft. Still, without any realistic alternative, I threw my backpack in the lancha, donned my acupressure wrist bracelets, and hoped for the best.



As our boat bumped along the waves, water and mist splashed at us from the front of the boat. One of the workers who was sitting on the roof lowered a bright blue tarp over the front of the seating area to keep the water from hitting us. (The couple sitting in the front two seats of the boat were not so lucky). The upside was that the tarp blocked the wind, keeping the interior a bit warmer; the downside was that the tarp dangled about three inches in front of my nose, creating the equivalent of being blindfolded on a magic motion ride. Vomitus.

Roughly twenty minutes later (was it twenty? I don’t know, I was blindfolded), a hint of sun started to peek through the clouds. The tarp was lifted, and land ho! Whereas before, the mist obscured any type of view, we could now see our boat approaching the other side of the lake and the dock of San Pedro.




Pleasantly surprised that I had not lost my lunch, I disembarked and got my first look at the town that I would call home for the next month. It was my last night of “vacation”: the next morning, it would be back to school for me.

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , | 5 Comments

Blog at