Monthly Archives: July 2013

Lago de Atitlan-Beyond Beautiful

Lago de AtitlanThe first view of Lake Atitlan is from just under the ridge where the winding road begins its descent into the valley. We are at 6000 feet in the highlands of western Guatemala, and the contrast of the various shades of green on the mountainsides and the deep, sapphire blue of the lake is quite startling. The lake fills a caldera, a volcanic depression, of enormous proportions which was formed 84,000 years ago.

Volcanos Toliman (left) and San Pedro (right)

Volcanos Toliman (left) and San Pedro (right)

On the southern rim of the lake, three volcanos, Toliman, Atitlan and San Pedro tower over the landscape. It shreds the boundary of picturesque. Aldous Huxley tersely noted, “It really is too much of a good thing.” In this, he was correct.Volcan San Pedro Panajachel, the town where we are staying, is similar to the other seven or eight villages spread around the lake; a few thousand people engaged in traditional crafts and tourism with the remainder in ancillary businesses or farming and fishing. However, Panajachel is unique. It is built on the ancient flood plain of the Rio Panajachel, which still feeds Lake Atitlan, and as a consequence it is built on the level. Santiago AtitlanThe remaining villages are built on the sides of the caldera and they are a vertical maze of streets, homes and shops. While people have lived around the lake since the pre-Classic era, the lake has flooded five times in recorded history. The latest iterations of Panajachel, San Marcos La Laguna, Santiago Atitlan and most of the towns date from the 1930’s.

WeavingWe set out one morning to visit some of the lake towns by boat, the easiest means of transport. San Juan La Laguna, a very small village on the eastern shore of Atitlan, is an artisan’s town with over 40 cooperatives, primarily women’ s “asociaciones”, devoted to the production and marketing of traditional native crafts. While the focus is primarily on weaving, other co-ops engage in wood working, pottery and painting.

Textiles and handicraftsThe quality and beauty of some of the woven pieces produced was truly phenomenal. The gradation of colors in the thread was enormous and all the dyes were produced by hand from organic materials: plants, minerals and insects.( At times the tyranny of a single suitcase seems unjust. That day was one of those times as we both were so tempted to make a purchase).

Maximon - sans arms and legs

Maximon – sans arms and legs

The highlight of Santiago Atitlan was the shrine of Maximón, a folk saint venerated in various forms by the Mayan people of several towns in the highlands. One of the legends holds that one day, while the men were away working, Maximón came to the village and slept with all the wives. When the men returned they were sorely aggrieved and cut off his arms and legs. And that is why the effigies you see of Maximón at the shrines are of short men often without arms. The worship of Maximón treats him not so much as a benevolent deity but rather as a bully whom one does not want to anger. His expensive tastes in alcohol and cigarettes indicate that he is a sinful human character, very different from the ascetic ideals of Christian sainthood. Devotees believe that prayers for revenge, or success at the expense of others, are likely to be granted. The veneration of Maximón is not approved by the Roman Catholic Church – geez, go figure…Hauling firewood By Richard and Anita, July, 2013

Where Can I Buy Chicken Feet?

El MercadoWe lived in the land that invented the supermarket and the one-stop shopping concept and we’re slowly beginning to realize what we’ve missed: the one-to-one human interaction of asking if a certain item is available and for how much, occasional bargaining and the adventure of the quest. Here, in Latin America, the options for shopping vary. The larger cities usually have some version of the western style supermarket.  TiendaEvery neighborhood, town and city has its tiendas: little shops similar to small and crowded convenience stores. There are also the family businesses; bakeries and tortilla shops, stationery stores, pharmacies , fruit and vegetable stands, etc. Many of these shops are actually “storefronts” with the business in the front and the family home in the rear behind a privacy barrier.El Mercado

And then there are the mercados, huge farmers type markets that are usually in a permanent location, sometimes covered and several square blocks in size. We enter into the narrow lanes of the mercado and are instantly assaulted by the calls from the vendors seeking our attention, entreating us to buy their goods, declaring absolutely the best quality and price.

??????????This competes with the blaring music and noisy discussions all around from the crowds of people in a riotous cacophony. Stalls are jammed side by side into every available space and goods hang from the tent type walls, corrugated tin ceilings and shelves packed with colorful goods.

MannequinsMannequins decked out in skinny jeans and t-shirts strut their stuff next to pirated cd’s and dvd’s and hardware tools. Piles of underwear and padded bras are sold next to stacks of eggs and handcrafted items such as traditional weavings, leather goods, jewelry, and pottery.El Mercado

Plastic ware and household goods share space with fruits, vegetables and flowers all in a tower of abundance. There are of course the usual mangos, bananas, tomatoes, avocados and more strange and exotic things that we’ve never seen and have to ask in our Spanglish “what is this?” and “how do I eat it?”.

An artful display of chicken feet and other parts

An artful display of chicken feet and other parts

The meat, poultry and fish stalls are areas that we prefer to visit earlier in the morning (especially before the fish smell begins to permeate the area). Hanging from the ceiling are strange-looking cuts of meat, paper covered counters with stacks of fish and large bowls of chicken feet and other parts all arrayed with careful attention like a flower arrangement. We’ve seen live chickens near the stalls a few times but are unsure if they’re sold live or butchered later. One early morning, before the Mercado opened, we saw a merchant with several piglets leashed together on ropes. Better not to guess…Piglets

And this is before we get to the biggest used clothing thrift store we’ve ever seen.Aisles and aisles of clothing, sold by different venders, arrayed on hangers, piled onto tables, spilling to the floor. Huge wobbling stacks of shirts, trousers and skirts, dresses , underwear and shoes .

La Paca, an enormous bargain extravaganza!

La Paca, an enormous bargain extravaganza!

We’ve dug through the piles of clothing a couple of times out of curiosity but it requires patience, perseverance , stamina and maybe even some desperation. Easy, convenient and one stop shopping it ain’t!

By Richard and Anita, July, 2013

Buried Under Volcanic Ash: El Salvador’s Pompeii

The shaman's abode

The shaman’s abode

Sometime during the day around 590 AD there was a cloud of noxious gas which accompanied an eruption of the Loma Caldera Volcano in what is now western El Salvador. The warning gave the people time to flee, leaving behind the possessions that marked the lives of the common Mayan people of that time. The eruptions covered the village with up to 16 feet of volcanic ash.

A home of wattle and  daub construction (background of volcanic ash layers)

A home of wattle and daub construction (background of volcanic ash layers)

Often referred to as the “Mesoamerican Pompeii”, Joya de Cere’n was first discovered in 1976 during a construction project. Because it showed the daily life of the laboring, non-noble Mayan population in starkly preserved details, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993 – the only designated site in El Salvador.

A storage building - layers of ash in the door entrance

A storage building – layers of ash in the door entrance

Currently, there are 14 wattle and daub buildings that are displayed at the ruins, with up to 70 more awaiting funding for excavation.

Family site - garden areas are in the foreground center and right of the habitation with the kitchen in the background.

Family site – garden areas are in the foreground center and right of the habitation with the kitchen in the background.

Found at the group of structures, and shown at the museum, were pottery vessels for storing and preparing foods, tools for daily use, sleeping mats and worked and bulk obsidian objects.  It is an insight into the ancient Mayan people that none of the magnificent temples, towering pyramids or awe-inspiring glyphs can portray.

We had come to El Salvador for a few days because, in Anita’s words, “we were jonesing for a beach” – and that was a fact. The coast of El Salvador is renowned for its world-class surfing venues and, El Tunco, in the La Libertad department (similar to a province or state) where we stayed was peopled with young, bronzed, buffed males wearing flip-flops and surfing shorts and a small number of beach beauties in as little as possible. (As an aside, picture us, two retired expats fighting both time and gravity and modestly clad… definitely the odd-beings out!)El Tunco black sand beaches

The black sands and rocky beaches, the crashing waves and foaming surf, the swaying palms and the heavy, humid air were a startling contrast to Antigua and the highlands of Guatemala.

We fell into the habit of visiting the beach early in the morning with our blended fruit drink breakfasts in hand. At that time, the beach was nearly deserted, save for a handful surfers sitting astride their boards two breakers out and a few early morning joggers trying to run the cleared area of the beach before the rocks defeated them.Early morning at El Tunco

Watching the huge waves was hypnotic as was listening to the rocks tumble along the shore as the surf washed in and receded. We’d bob about in the waves until we’d been up-ended a sufficient number of times then resume our wave watching. Eventually we’d head back to the hostel for a cold water shower (no hot water again but that wasn’t an issue with the heat) followed by a late brunch or lunch over-looking the beach and an afternoon of lounging comfortably reading a good book. Life is demanding at times…

Large rock formation (greatly reduced in size since it was used  for bombing practice during the civil war in El Salvador)

Large rock formation (greatly reduced in size since it was used for bombing practice during the civil war in El Salvador)

By Richard and Anita, July, 2013

Housesitting: The Right Place at the Right Time

Volcan Agua -view from house

Volcan Agua -view from house

We met Mike in March, a few days after we arrived in Antigua, at a local restaurant. After meeting him a second time a couple of days later he invited us to his house in Santa Ana, a little community contiguous to Antigua, the following Sunday to see the Lenten procession which the church in Santa Ana was sponsoring. Since we were anxious to learn about these processions and the whole Lenten experience, we gladly accepted.

La Iglesia (church) in Santa Ana

La Iglesia (church) in Santa Ana

The following Sunday we followed the Alfombra carpets laid out on the cobblestone roads and walked to his home. Sure enough we had an unobstructed view of the event. Centurians Mike’s is a beautifully renovated colonial house at the end of Calle Real, the route of the procession, so all of the marchers, the bands, the andus (the elaborate wooden platform holding the religious statues that the marchers carried) , the hawkers, everything and everybody trooped by his front door.

Mike and Dawn's Alfombra

Mike and Dawn’s Alfombra

Mike and his wife, Dawn, and friends had spent the early morning hours creating their own alfombra in front of their home, using a custom-made plywood stencil and colored sawdust. Their participation in this annual religious ritual endeared he and his wife to their neighbors and further tied them to the community.

During our visit we found out that Mike and Dawn split their time between two homes, one in Santa Ana and one in Canada. We discovered that they would soon be departing for their home in Canada and that they were looking for a “house-sitter” for the Santa Ana casa. After some discussions they extended an offer for us to care for their home after we finished our volunteer work commitment teaching English at the end of April. We decided to prolong our time in Antigua for an additional three months, accepted their offer and the deal was sealed.

La Casa CourtyardThe house-sitting has been a fantastic opportunity to further acquaint ourselves with the city of Antiqua, learn about the pulse of the small community of Santa Ana and spend more time exploring Guatemala. After living in fairly basic accommodations, we are thoroughly appreciating a pampered lifestyle. We have 1) a coffee pot ! 2) a hot water heater which provides a hot shower with full water pressure ! 3) good Wi-Fi ! 4) a washing machine ! 5) a kitchen where we can cook both comfort foods and experiment with some local cuisine 6) a home to spread out in!

2nd floor terrace

2nd floor terrace

Our contribution is to provide a visible, lived-in presence at the house, pay the monthly salary for a lovely lady who comes in and cleans daily (far less than what we would be paying for rent) and make sure that things operate in good order.

This experience has led us to enroll in an on-line international house-sitting website. So if the planets are aligned favorably, we may be able to care for another home, in another country, at another time. It sounds good in theory; don’t plan too concretely or too distant and be available to respond to opportunities when they present themselves. We shall see…Santa Ana-Antigua street

By Richard and Anita, June, 2013