The Log of Moira


Western Caribbean: Lago Atitlán and Chichicastenango, Guatemala (December 2008)

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These are mostly Susan’s remarks. Larry’s notes are indicated thus <Larry: blah blah blah.>.


Lago AtitlanLago Atitlán


We had arranged for a shuttle to take us from Guat City, via Antigua, to Panajachel (“Pana”), the major gathering spot for visitors to the Lake Atitlán region of Guatemala, a beautiful, remote, and poor area of the Guatemalan highlands.


We shared a shuttle from Guat City, provided by Servicios Turisticos Atitlán, with an American family including a retired neurosurgeon, a nurse, and their son, who was a doctor in training. The parents were American expats, having lived outside of Florence, Italy for the last 15 years. They were traveling to Guatemala to serve for a month as medical volunteers for a non-profit clinic in Santiago Atitlán, a town located across Lake Atitlán from Panajachel. The neurosurgeon considered himself a “former” neurosurgeon, and expected that during his stay at the clinic he’d specialize in diarrhea, colds, and malaria. All could kill as effectively as a tumor in the brain. In this remote area, there were no tools or staff for a neurosurgeon, but lots of work for skilled and caring medical generalists.


Lancha, Lago AtitlanWe shared a lancha (launch) with them across the lake and got our first taste of the dual standard of pricing in Guatemala. There is a price for the Guatemalans and a price for the gringos. And another price for those on their first trip who are gullible! We let the physicians bargain for the shuttle across the lake, much to our disadvantage. We had been told that the public lanchas across the lake charge visitors 25 Quetzales (Q) per person (about $3). Guatemalans pay half of this, so visitors subsidize a better and safer boat ride for all. We had no problem with that. The youngest physician nominated himself to bargain on our behalf, and he was told a story about the supposed “real” costs for the public lancha: that the fare for the lancha was not 25Q but 35Q, and that there was a separate, unpublished fee of 25Q each for all the luggage we all had. So we submitted to paying 400Q in total for our group of five, plus another 50Q to take Larry and me to our lodge (which was further than the delivery point for the doctors). This resulted in our paying about $10 each for the ride. Granted, the private lancha was faster than the public boat but we were badly taken. The public lancha is safe and comfortable except when going into the afternoon wind, where you can easily lose your hat and your seat if you do not hang on. We learned fast and took the public lancha thereafter. <Larry: The public lancha’s are in fact identical to the private lanchas—it’s just a question of the contract. Oh, the fare for the public lancha is 25Q per person, with only a 5Q surcharge per person for our baggage. It is unclear whether this experience carries lessons that apply to the cost of medical care in the US.>


Lake Atitlán fills a caldera that resulted from a collapsed volcano. The caldera filled with water from streams on the slopes of the remaining, mostly active volcanoes surrounding the lake. Lake Atitlán is the third largest lake in Guatemala (the largest is Lake Izabál where Moira is waiting for us; the second largest is Lake Petén Itza, the headquarters of the old Mayan kingdom, adjacent to the monuments of Tikal, and five hundred miles to the north and east of Lake Atitlán).


Panajachel street vendors, Lago AtitlanLake Atitlán is a deep, beautifully blue lake ringed by three large, dormant volcanoes: Atitlán at 11,560 feet, Toliman at 10,340 feet, and San Pedro at 9,920 feet. While these volcanoes are dormant, Volcano Santa María close by last erupted in 1902, causing widespread damage to the area and spewing smoke and ash as far as San Francisco. Tourists hike to the edge of the craters of these volcanoes, both active and dormant. The climb is steep and arduous, and we were pleased to allow others that pleasure. Occasionally there is a report of crimes against those walking in remote areas, and the local police advise hiring a local, respected, armed guide. Lone tourists who do not exercise caution in a very poor country are a tempting target.


As we got to this remote, beautiful area I noticed that the air smelled sweet and so very clean. Lake Atitlán is a major Guatemalan tourist area. Many wealthy Guatemalans build second homes here, and the locals are benefiting economically because of the tourists. Personal safety is better than in past years because of the creation of a civilian police force, whose members come from the local population.


<Larry: Our acquaintance with Panajachel was primarily as a location where we went from shuttle van to lancha, or vice versa. However, we did enjoy a fine, small museum of Mayan ceramic artifacts, located on the grounds of the Posada de Don Rodrigo. The artifacts were recovered from the area of Lake Atitlán through underwater archaeology, and most bear a crust of minerals.>


Additional photos from this trip can be found in our Photo Gallery and Moira’s Ship’s Store.



The Market at Chichicastenango


The highlands of Guatemala, including the towns around Lake Atitlán, are known for their textile work. Textiles are sold in the small villages where they are made, but the largest gathering of artisans in the area occurs every Thursday and Sunday at the large public market at Mercado, Chichicastenango, GuatemalaChichicastenango (“Chichi”), perched high on a mountain, with narrow cobblestone streets. <Larry: It’s a lesson in “appropriate technology.” To make a decent repair a pothole in an asphalt road, one usually needs specialized equipment. To repair a pothole in a cobblestone street, you only need rock (they’ve got plenty) and cement (they’ve got plenty). And everywhere, the topes or tumulos (speed bumps), which are cheaper than a policeman, more effective, and less corruptible.> Many of the roofs are red tile but this characteristic seems to be waning.


Chichi is a laid back, highland town most of the week, replaced on market days by an entrepreneurial, highly efficient alter ego. Tourist buses and shuttles from around the country descend on the town. The town manages even the parking spaces for each bus: our driver paid for parking as we entered the town limits, and knew exactly where to go. About ten town blocks are closed to traffic, and vendors from miles away come to sell. A structure of beams is in place for awnings, and the vendors put up dividing curtains and place their goods to attract buyers, both locals and tourists. Chichi is located in a strategic place for trade, and has long been a market place for the locals from a large area of the highlands. The market is more cramped than others we’ve seen, with very narrow passages crammed with people looking for bargains: a pig, food stuffs, textiles, a new blouse to embroider, and in our case, a bit of line for a boat project. <Larry: Pedestrian traffic jams are common.>


My leading memory of Chichi is of the crowds of Mayans going on their way, dressed alike in their native costume. The Mayan people are short in stature, a foot or more shorter than Larry and I.


The market was colorful and bright. It was wonderful to see the mixtures of people from all over the highlands. The market itself is very much a hard-sell environment. Once I made eye contact with a merchant she would be after me to buy, and would follow me down the street extolling in Spanish and English what a good deal she would make for me. If you do not want to buy a simple “no, gracias” usually suffices. <Larry: Sometimes it takes 5 or 10 “no, gracias.”> Much of the merchandise is lovely and the craftsmanship appears to be very high. I bought several small textiles, limiting myself because of the limited stowage on Moira and my dismal knowledge of textiles. I am not confident of my ability to distinguish between hand-made and machine-made textiles. As we travel further in Guatemala we are learning more, but it was not until we spent time in Antigua, at the Casa de Telas, that we gained a significant amount of information in weaving and textiles. This knowledge was augmented considerably when we took the “Village Tour” offered by Elizabeth Bell’s Antigua Tours organization.


On the Sunday we went to the market there were several hundred gringo tourists present, some of whom had lunch and a potty break at the Hotel Santos Tomas, a lovely white colonial-style hotel at the edge of the marketplace.


Additional photos from this trip can be found in our Photo Gallery and Moira’s Ship’s Store.


Catholic-Mayan “Condominium,” Iglesia Santo Tomás


Mayan shaman, Chichicastenango, GuatemalaAt one end of the market place we began to understand the intermixing <Larry: or perhaps, the lack of mixing> of the Mayan culture and the Spanish/conquistador culture. A Catholic church, Iglesia Santo Tomás, stood at the edge of the market place. The steps of the church were filled with Mayan women selling cut flowers. A Mayan shaman stood by the doorway swinging an incense burner to repel evil spirits from the passage into the church <Larry: and to one side, an assistant fired large firecrackers, with the same intent.> For 40Q we hired a guide, certified by the Guatemalan tourist agency (Inguat), who spoke passable English, to explain the mysteries to us. The inside of the church was laid out with the usual Catholic accoutrements, including simple wooden sculptures of various mournful saints, but the statues had Mayan faces and clothes, with colorful weavings. The pews of the church were separated, occupying the left and right thirds of the real estate. Down the center third of the church were 12 flat, square stone altars, about 5 feet on a side, and standing a few inches higher than the floor of the church. Upon the stones were flower petals (purchased on the front steps), vegetables and fruit, and lighted candles: offerings by Mayans to their gods by those seeking a strong marriage, fertility, prosperity, or good crops.


Our guide told us that Mayans worship in the Catholic church but to their own gods who may in fact have very similar attributes to the God of the Catholic Church. When the Spanish came to Guatemala everyone was forced to become Catholic and to practice Catholicism. It is not clear that the Mayan ever left their own rituals and beliefs behind, despite apparent compliance. <Larry: For example, a symbol of Mayan theology is a cross, representing the cardinal directions, each of which has a cosmological significance. So the Mayans had no problem with “making the sign of the cross” in their own way, even though the import of the act was not what the priest in front of the congregation thought he was seeing. When we visited the ruins of the cathedral in Antigua, Guatemala, we saw signs that Mayans had been praying to their gods in the crypt of the church. When someone had asked why they prayed to their gods in a Catholic church, we were told that they answered, “Why not?”>

Tuk-tuk, Santiago Atitlan

Even more astounding to us was that this open expression of Mayan paganism seemed to be openly tolerated within the grounds of the usually exclusionary Catholic church. This uncharacteristic tolerance may be explained in part by the evangelical movement’s apparent rapid growth in the highlands. There were many evangelical churches in Santiago Atitlán and Panajachel. The faithful were very active in the mornings with loud, exuberant, bouncy singing and fervent preaching, reminiscent of a political gathering. It seems that women of the highlands are enthusiastic about the evangelicals because the evangelical churches insist that the men not drink, and as a result the men turn more of their pay over to the family rather than to the bars. <Larry: It appears that the evangelicals are taking major market share from the Catholics, which may explain in part why the Catholic church in Chichicastenango was willing to be tolerant.>


Additional photos from this trip can be found in our Photo Gallery and Moira’s Ship’s Store.


Santiago Atitlán, and Rural Transportation


Public transportation pickup truck, Santiago AtitlanWe stayed for a week at the Posada de Santiago, just a short ride outside of the town of Santiago Atitlán, on the opposite shore of Lake Atitlán from Panajachel.


We took a van from Guatemala City to Panajachel. Transportation within the city was by tuk-tuk, a three-wheeled motorcycle contraption, made in India, with a bench seat in front for the driver and another bench seat for two passengers in the back. The tuk-tuk is used as a low-end taxi throughout Guatemala. It is fuel-efficient, fast on the cobblestone streets, and cheaper to buy and run than an automobile. The fare was on the order of 5 or 10 Quetzales per person. (about $1.00).


Chicken bus, Santiago AtitlanAnother form of public transportation in the villages is the back of any truck not already filled with goods <Larry: and even some that are  already filled.> Just wave at any truck; it will stop and allow you to jump in the back as quickly as you can, and off you go! There are often 8 or 10 passengers in the back of a truck, with baskets or sacks of goods on the way to or from the market. The fare for transport is 1 Quetzal (about $0.13).


<Larry: And then there are the ubiquitous “chicken buses,” which do the short-haul intercity traffic. They are almost always US “Bluebird” school buses, with a roof rack added, usually repainted in garish colors, and sometimes repowered with turbocharged diesels. The paint job is not just for decoration: to cope with the high rate of illiteracy, buses bound for a particular village are painted according to a color code. Of course, this makes it relatively expensive for the bus’s owner to switch to a new route. Unlike the intra-city buses in Mexico, they have not added a rear exit door, though sometimes one sees riders exiting a crowded bus by the big, rear emergency exit door.>


When on foot, the women carry produce, textiles, or chickens on their Laborer, Chichicastenango, Guatemalaheads. They have great posture and have done this since childhood. For loads with an unforgiving shape, such as a metal basin filled with grain, this mode of transport is made possible by wearing a circular headpiece or cap called a cinta that forms a base for the burden. <Larry: A woman carries her baby (or a girl carries her younger brother/sister) in a loop of fabric that runs over one shoulder and under the opposite arm, with the baby either in front or in back, depending on the age of the baby. The fabric was probably woven on her backstrap loom.


Men carry large burdens on their backs, supporting the weight with a loop of strap or rope that runs across the forehead or the top of the skull, down the back, under the load, and back to the head.>


Additional photos from this trip can be found in our Photo Gallery and Moira’s Ship’s Store.






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