[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.
The 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.
Tuk-tuks in Gringolandia
Ken, 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