On Lake Atitlan

January 17, 2012

Dear Friends and Family,

It has been over a week since I have written.  I can’t say I have been that busy but I think that song by Jimmy Buffet, Wasting Away In Margaritaville might be a good description of most of our week.  The tropical lethargy and the frequent rain kept us just vegetating on the boat a good part of the week.  Now I am making up for it with a very long log.  Hope you can handle it!

We finally left the dock at RAM in the late afternoon a week ago Monday.  The cleaning of the deck was done but we did work on the sails and I took Rob up and down the mast a few times to install the wind indicator and also put up the jack lines.  (For you non sailors, they are lines that makes a cradle for the sail as it comes down so that it doesn’t fly to one side or the other.)

Finally, we were on our way and motored the 1 ½ mile trip to Mario’s Marina and got docked.  Our new friends on Scrammin and friends from before on Chickcharnee and Capria were already there.  What was a big surprise is that friends from our Belize trip about 5 years ago arrived that day as well.  Their boat, DE JAVUE had been on the hard at RAM for about 2 years.  We had heard that George had cancer and they were selling the boat.  What we didn’t know is that he has recovered and doing great but they were there to get the boat fixed up and ready for sale.  During his illness, he realized that there were still a lot of things they wished to do and so the sailing adventure is over and they are happily on to new adventures.  I didn’t know that his health situation had improved and in fact when I heard they were selling the boat, I thought the worst.  It was with great joy that we renewed our acquaintance.  They live in Maine so we hope that when we sail up the east coast, we can reconnect with them again.  One never knows when and how people will return to your life.  That is one thing I have really learned from sailing.

We entertained out friends from Canada that I mentioned in the last log. They were joined by  friends we made last season in Mexico from a PDQ Catamaran named Sunshine.   They were at a marina around the corner from us.

The rest of the week, it rained and as I write this, it is raining again.  It has been unusual to have so much rain and so heavy this late in the season which is usually dry.  The cloudy, rainy days somehow kept us inside but it should clear this afternoon.

We left Mario’s on Sunday morning.  We had planned to go in for one last flea market and to get a last supply of fruits and vegetables but the rain discouraged us.  We left in time to make the 12 mile trip to Texan Bay where our friends Chris and Kelly have their boat.  I will stop here as it is another log just to catch you up on all of that and I want to back track and tell you about Lake Atitlan and then you will be current.  It seems so long ago now, and I guess it was, but on January 2nd, we took leave of our wonderful host family in Antigua.  A private bus picked us up.

I enjoyed an interesting conversation with a woman who spends a good part of the year in Guatemala, having lived here for a time and now coming back every 3 or 4 months from San Francisco to spend time here with friends.  Each bus ride offered different stories and all from Americans traveling here and really loving the place.

The lake is quite large, measuring 5 miles from north to south and 11miles from east to west. It has several towns settled around the shore.  It is ringed by volcanoes.  I don’t think any are still active as they all had vegetation growing on the top.  It was beautiful.  We went to the city where the bus drops you off.  It is called Panajachel.  Most people start their adventure from there and it is probably the most gringo influenced of the cities on the lake.  Many like to take a ferry from there to a more secluded hotel but we were there for only 2 nights and knew that the wind on the water sometimes made it difficult to travel where you wished to go, so we chose to stay in Panajachel.  We even splurged on a “good” hotel on the lake.  Our room didn’t have a lake view but did have a fireplace and we were looking forward to having a fire and getting warm for a change.

Unfortunately, when we got there, they said it would be an additional amount, only about $4 extra, to actually get the wood and have a fire.  I wondered why have a room with a fireplace if it doesn’t include the fire?  We ordered it anyway but they never came to set it up.  The winds were really howling there that night and all the next day and night and we thought better of the fire in case it didn’t draw smoke well.  We certainly didn’t want to sleep in a smokey room and the fireplace was rather small.

We had spotty internet access from there but all in all, not worth the money we paid.  I wouldn’t recommend it for the price to anyone.  The lake front is public access so it was easy just to walk down and see the view.

The day we arrived, we arranged a boat trip for the next day with a tour guide to take us to 3 other cities on the lake.  The cities are settled by mostly Mayan people and they still have their own Mayan language.  There are about 25 different Mayan languages and many of the people living in these villages don’t speak Spanish.  The villages all seem to have their own special flavor or products that they make.

A big surprise for us at lunch that day was to meet a family, from of all places, Lincoln, Nebraska!  That is very near where we lived in Nebraska and where Rob and I went to university and met each other.  It is still the larger market town when we go visit my Dad on the farm in Nebraska.  This couple owned a store selling imports from around the world and were there on a buying trip.  It was interesting to hear about their experiences and some of the things they told us about the items they were buying.  We are going to look for their store next summer when we are in Nebraska.  We met them because the restaurant was full and we had a large table we were sitting at.  We offered to let them join us.  This was the second family we met from Nebraska, the first being in Antigua at Monastery Santa Domingo, a 5 star hotel that has a museum of the monastery ruins on the grounds.  We almost never meet people from Nebraska as we travel but now twice in remote Guatemala!

The next day it was cold and windy and going on the lake didn’t look very safe or inviting and we wish we had not paid for a tour in advance.  We waited at the hotel to be picked up and our guide arrived on foot with three women from Ireland.  We walked through our hotel to the lake side to get on our boat.  Along the way, two couples asked about a tour and since ours was a small group, they were just able to join us.  They were two young couples, the men, friends for a long time.  One couple was from Anchorage, Alaska and the other from Idaho.  We were the oldest in the group by far but we all enjoyed getting to know each others stories and we had a lot of fun with just that part of the trip.

Because of the direction of the wind, the cities we had planned to see would be too difficult to get to.  As it was, we got a little wet traveling across the lake to a town that was not usually visited at all.  We didn’t spend time there but did walk to where our guide could find ground transportation.  What that means is a truck with a frame in the back.  People can hold on to that frame as they stand in the box of the truck.  It was about a 30 minutes drive over some hills to the largest and primary town on the lake, Santiago Atitlan.  Once there, we toured the open market, a bustling place every day.  In the smaller cities, they have market day a couple of times a week when the produce people arrive and set up stalls.  In this city, there is a large permanent building for many tables and people set up with their baskets anywhere, even on the steps and many places outside the market.  There were a lot of interesting things to see but we didn’t linger to shop.

We walked from there to the main church in town.  This church was where a missionary priest from Oklahoma had been.  He was a real help to the people, trying to find a way for them to improve their ability to survive.  He also started a hospital which is still there, though it was moved from the original location as the lake water has been rising and reclaiming shoreline.  He was murdered during the civil war in Guatemala, right in one of the offices next to the church.  There is a shrine to him in that room and the bullet holes in the floor are still there.  There is a large plaque in his memory in the church.

What is interesting in the church was to see all the statues dressed in fabric clothes.  We see this in a lot of places.  Our guide explained that when people pray, they often like to touch the statue and the oils from the hands eventually discolor it so the clothes protect the statue from the touch of the hands.

He also showed us the altar that was carved wood.  It was behind the new altar which now faces the people.  What was unique about this altar was that Mayan traditions are carved in right next to Christian stories and characters.  Many of the priests were  willing to really get to know the people and the language and not try to require a wholesale elimination of their culture and heritage and beliefs.  The priest from this church that was killed had learned the local Mayan language and had translated scripture in to their language.  There was a side chapel where you could see many Mayan women praying.  Lighting candles came with the Spanish but the local Mayan’s seem to give great significance to lighting candles.  Colors and the way they are laid out reflect the purpose for their prayers.  We were told on our tour in Antiqua with Elizabeth Bell, that the Mayans were used to human sacrifice and later animal sacrifice, so the idea of Jesus dying on the cross fit in well with their religious beliefs and it was not difficult to embrace him or the saints.  Of course the fact that the Spanish occupation required that all people be Catholic put to death, made it at least seem as though the local population embraced the faith.

After lunch, we went to the home of one of the local people where they keep a sacred statue called Maximon.  There are three cities in Guatemala that have such a statue that is official.  There are three clubs in this city that are part of the Mayan Catholic Brotherhood.  They take turns having the statue in one person’s home for a year.  This family is checked out very carefully as they are to be above reproach.  The statue sits in a room and people can come to your house and pay money to visit the statue.  They often bring candles and burn incense as they pray.  The money is not kept by the family but covers expenses.  The shaman and many men are sitting in the room as people come in.  It cost a little more than $1 for us each to come in and we had to pay extra for taking pictures.  The statue is put away for the night so it can rest.  It is covered with scarfs which are gifts from those who wish indulgence.  The money that is given is placed on the statue so that the giver will have the money blessed.  In this way, the money given is a blessing that is likely to be returned to the donor in some future form.

Maximon is actually a combination of a Mayan god, a Spanish conquistador and Judas from the Christian bible.  He is always smoking a cigar or pipe.  I think he is more like a saint that is similar to the common person as it were and maybe resonated more with the people that pray to him.  We had seen this represented in a church in Panama as well which is the first time I ever heard of it.  There is not a consistency in his appearance nor in the way he is revered other than the fact he is loved by most of the Mayan people.

In all cases, you are likely to see bright twinkle lights like we have for Christmas and gifts of fruit, cigars and liquor.  He will be surrounded by other figures representing the Christian religion.  The people here mix the beliefs together.

In many of the churches we saw in Antigua and elsewhere in the world, there are glass coffins with a statue of a body inside.  These are statues of the saint or in some cases, Jesus.  In the room with Maximon, there was a life size glass coffin with a Jesus statue inside and in the outside area just before you go in to the room there is a nativity set.  Maximon is even represented in the carving on the alter in the church in town.

I told my guide that I understand the passion.  When they put our entry money on the statue and he told us why, I agreed that when one gives, you will find that you receive.  That goes for what you give out as a blessing or a curse.  You always chose the result and if it is Maximon or Jesus, or Buddha or Allah, in your heart your prayers are answered with the intent given.  I believe there is only one source of spiritual power and the name or form you use to access it is not the determining factor in the result.

One more stop was at the home of a town dweller.  It gave an example of what people’s homes are like.  There was a large dirt packed area covered by a tin roof but only cement walls to make a separation between them and neighbors.  It was all open area with little furniture.  What we came to see was their Mayan sauna.  It is a very small cement block structure with an open door.  Inside you sit on a cement block and there is an open fire in the corner near you.  There is no place for the smoke to come out except to go by you and out the door in to the living area and then out in to the open.  There is room for one person or a person and a child.  It would not be something I would do as you would certainly breath in the smoke.  We went in to their kitchen and this family must have a little money because this room was enclosed and had a door.  Inside was a new gas range.  In another part of the small room was a wood burning stove.  The walls and ceiling was blackened from all the smoke.  Our guide said that the wood stove top is still used because it is less expensive but it takes buying and gathering and carrying wood and the fire takes awhile to heat.  The gas is expensive but that stove can be started and used right away for things that can’t wait for the wood fire.

The family was very nice and I got a picture of the Grandmother holding her granddaughter.  Though it seemed a dirty environment, the people are always clean and neat.

When we left there, we again got in our truck for the drive back to our tour boat.  I had the option to ride in the cab of the truck and did so both ways.  A very nice young man was our driver.  He spoke no English and I was very happy to be able to communicate with him on various subjects like crops, family, occupation, where we are from, etc.  My Spanish was pretty juvenile but we got
along so well.  I really hated to say good-bye to him as I felt I had found a kindred spirit.  I am afraid we had about covered my ability to add more to the conversation but I was happy to have had something!!!

We visited two other towns on the lake, one being famous for the pottery it produced and the other for the weaving.  Weaving done by the back strap method is still quite common here.  Many things are machine done now or done by men on a more traditional loom.  You can tell from looking at the back of the woven piece how it was made.  The pictures that will follow will make things easier to understand.  Many villages have a particular design or color that when worn lets people know where they are from.  This was originally inspired by the Spanish who used this as a way to keep track of people.  Many still wear their local favorite but many are mixing things up.

Men today are less likely to wear traditional dress, especially in the larger areas, but you saw it a lot more in these towns.  Women and girls are still wearing the traditional garments but sometimes you see a mixture of western clothes mixed with the traditional.  It would be a shame for this tradition to stop as it makes life so colorful.  They wear the products they create and the vibrancy and variety and workmanship make them really beautiful to look at.  Just like the women in the San Blas Islands of Panama, who still wear traditional clothes that have mixed patterns and colors, it all seems to work.  It makes being in Guatemala a feast for the eyes.  One gets tempted as the items are so lovely and very inexpensive when you consider the work involved but they are often a little too bright for our northern decorating styles and end up hidden away in a drawer.

The next day, we took the bus back to Antigua, after doing our last minute shopping,   (OK, I did come back with some souvenirs!)  We caught a connecting bus to Guatemala with minutes to spare.  Both trips included interesting discussions with fellow travelers, giving insight to some of the things we saw and didn’t see in Guatemala and about ways people view the life here.

We stayed at a nice hotel in Guatemala city but they had to bring in a space heater as they were replacing the room units but had not gotten to our room yet.  It was to get as low as 40 degrees that night.

We caught the bus the next morning and arrived to find out that our boat was not ready to launch.  So now you are caught up.

In the next log, I will let you know about life here on the river.  Can’t get much more laid back that this!  Rob is already taking a morning nap and we slept in!

Hope you enjoyed our inland journey.

Fair winds and no rain please!

Sue and Rob

Here we are heading to a boat along the lake.  This is only part of the view but you can see something of the size as well as the terrain around the lake.  Boats are available for rent and there are less expensive, less private, public ferries that run to the various places but schedules are not always certain.

We rode around in the back of the truck.  Do you see the frame that one can hold on to?  They are used as taxis from one part of the lake to another.  The cost is about $1 per person to ride and people stand by the side of the road waiting for such a public bus to pass.  They end up a lot more crowded than we are here.  You can see the yellow Tuck Tuck which you would use to get around town.

You can see a small part of the inside of the market on the left.  On the right, the woman is selling green oranges and something that we think was pressed duck.  Not sure what it is or how you eat it or what they did to make it that way.

The three pictures sort of bring out the vegetarian in in a person, don’t you think?

Here is a shot of a little of the activity outside.  Both Tuck Tucks and people using the little space between the venders who have set up along the street.  It was the center of activity for the town, that seemed certain.

Along with the traditional bussel of the market, you see a new service, an internet access location.  Times, they are a changing!

This is a fountain near the market.  The outside is shaped like a traditional hat which you will see next.  Inside is a replica of the lake and the volcanoes surrounding it.

Below you see a woman winding up her traditional hat to show us how it is done.  You see the finished result.  See how it looks like the fountain?

You can see part of the shrine to the priest who was murdered.  Below covered with the glass front box are the bullet holes in the floor from the shooting.  You can see the beautiful colored bird design which is used in this city.  He brought color pictures of world birds that they used to make their special fabric work.

You can see that the statues in this church are wearing fabric clothes.   The one in the middle is also adorned with scarves which are offerings.  The statue of the holy trinity seems interesting, not just because of the dress but you see God the Father seated, the Holy Spirit as the traditional dove and Jesus on the cross, of course now dressed and draped with a scarf.


You can see in the carving from the pulpit, an example of mixed culture.  You see the religious symbols of the angel and the lamb but the bird next to the angel won’t be in any churches outside of Guatemala.  This bird is the symbol of the country, much as the eagle is for us.  The bird was said to have taken on the spirit of the slain warriors that fought for their people in long past times.  On this pulpit, it is given a halo.  Also, you see corn depicted on the carving.  It is not only one of the primary stables of diet in the country and thus a symbol of life, it has it’s own position in the godly world of the Maya.  There are examples of the coexisting of religious beliefs all over the church.

The route to Maximon required walking through the neighborhoods.  Not a fancy entrance to a revered statue but typical of the way the housing is set up.

You can see a person who has lighted candles and is doing incense, hence the smoke in the picture.  You see the shaman sitting next to the statue.  In the picture of just the statue you can see how covered he is with the scarves and if you look on his right shoulder, you will see our money as an offering tucked in to the scarf.

You can see inside the room the life size coffin of Jesus covered with lights and the nativity just outside of the room.  It is a blending of faiths.  All involve prayer and intent in one form or another.

You can see that the back strap loom is done by using the body with one end tied round the back to put tension on the strings.  The woman is moving the shuttle back and forth in front of her.  She is sitting on a woven mat that is used as a sleeping mat at night in many homes still today.  Modern beds are more popular but the traditional mats are still common.  There is a larger foot loom that is now operated by men.  The patterns on both are different.  These pictures were taken in a place that sells things but is set up as an exhibition for tourists to understand the process.

You can see the woman doing her weaving on the sidewalk even as she is selling her products.  The tops are so intricate with tiny woven in designs.  One is tempted to buy because the workmanship is so interesting but somehow, it doesn’t fit the rest of my clothing style!

Here are a grouping of local boats.  They are made in the hills from a very large tree as a dug out log.  Then the boards are added along the sides to makes it less likely to take on water over the sides.  They are built with handles on the back so that they can be carried distances to the water.  Given the amount of water we took over the side on our tour boat, I wouldn’t use these unless it was dead calm!

The Mayan Sauna doesn’t look very fancy.  The outside is very basic as is the smoke filled inside.  You can see the buckets for water to make a steam from the fire.  Not the block to sit on.  You can see the soot collecting and unless you are laying flat, you are likely to be breathing in the smoke.  It is very dark inside and what you see is with a flash.

You can see the kitchen with the new stove but look at the soot covered walls.

You certainly can’t argue that they make cute babies here.  Grandmother sure thinks so and so do I!

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