Sorry Mom and Dad

San Pedro La Laguna Travel Blog

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Sorry Mom and Dad

Situated on the majestic volcano and mountain encircled shores of Lago de Atitlán, Guatemala, San Pedro La Laguna exists for most tourists between the two arrival docks, a stretch of colorful storefronts, hippie-owned restaurants butchering international food and offering "special" brownies and cookies, and bars luring tourists with drink steals and American sports and cinema on TV. Townspeople venture into Gringoland to sell fresh-squeezed juices, basketfuls of warm pan, or handicrafts for an extra week's wage surcharge in quetzales. A few natives own and operate hotels, there's the one papuseria and a few Guatamalteco run restaurants. A handful of taxis crowd the docks offering tuk-tuk transport to lazy, bag-laden tourists who'll never do more than admire the steep hills rising into town proper and will be staying in a hotel a flat few hundred meters (maximum) from the dock. A shadier few with hoodies up and signature bloodshot eyes lurk in shadows and alleyways exercising their limited English, essentially the ability to ask, "What you need," and then run through a litany of illicit substances for smoke, snort, or syringe. But a quad-testing hike uphill reveals a different city entirely, closer to the third-world that characterizes much of Guatemala and Central America outside the major cities.

San Pedro above lake level is a grey concrete expanse. The ascending passageways are cobbled in varying degrees of danger to ankle ligaments. Those with a high dirt-to-stone ratio rearrange themselves during heavy rains. Every edifice bears the sharp edges of cinderblock construction and rusty tin roofing protects most homes, thin sheets spanning the poverty rainbow from dry blood reddish-brown to compost heap black. Tree limbs crudely fashioned into fenceposts and strewn with barbwire delineate dirtpatch yards; chimneys puff the breath of fresh tortillas from the moment the first rays of sunlight pierce the crisp morning cool. Men who don't work a farm, construction, or a store are simply there.

Dogs with countable ribs wander listlessly, following anyone holding so much as a candybar wrapper with a stray smear of chocolate or a sugary sprinkle tucked into their bushy mustache. Kids congregated in front of home-businesses kick and toss circular anythings in gestures of sport, donning tattered dusty clothes invariably sizes too small or large for their small frames, a few feet from a mother perched upon the entranceway steps with a basket of tortillas to vend. Traditionally dressed Mayan women stream by balancing baskets headtop, draped in flowing, intricately patterned cloths, multicolored garments that shame Crayola's suggestions of variety.

Amidst all this I've found a new family. Sorry Mom and Dad. Because I'm not entirely clear on the family surname -- the Spanish language has a tendency to keep things rather unclear for me -- we'll call it the household of Mama Melida (Meli for short) and Papa Mingo (who I see only in the evening, gone to work before my daily 7:30am breakfast). Besides the househeads, Tia Ana Maria, and myself, there are alternately between six and eight others in the household, a pack of tireless kids who love nothing more than wearing my watch and reporting every minute advancement: Mariori and Melani, ages four and five respectively, princesitas who shower me with hugs and kisses every time I reappear from Spanish class or a walk into town; Mingo (Mingito), a cool rascal of seven years who often sports a pair of blue goggles; Meli, eight years old, who communicates with me in words and at a pace slow enough that I can occasionally comprehend, generously accomodating my every "otra vez"; Jacuelin, nine years old, a cutie with an angelic voice who constantly keeps a sly eye on me; and Eric, twelve, a kite-flying professional patiently teaching me the craft, in the rare moments I escape Mariori and Melani's clutches. To be honest, I haven't figured out exactly who belongs to who, but that's the beauty of a Latin family: however tenuous the relationship, it's still family.

Yes, I love my (new) family, communicated through an everpresent smile and bobblehead-nodding which has the family convinced I understand far more of their conversations than the random words I actually intercept from their unbroken strings of Spanish. Thank you active listening. Mini-Meli, however, did write me a note that could heartwarm a statue of Stalin: "Tu eres parte de la familia. Te queremos mucho." I guess it really does pay to sincerely enjoy the insanity of kids. A sampling of the daily play routine: loose the family dog in the streets and run away while he chases; pretend to be various animals and crawl around imitating their sounds; pick up and/or hug Melani and Mariori; chase Melani and Mariori pretending to be a monster, until they face me and cross their arms, at which point I'm magically transformed into a benevolent aficionado of pirouettes, extending a hand to each from which they dangle and spin like ballerinas on a windup toy until they become too bored or dizzy and I momentarily revert to monster; using two dilapitated wooden ladders laid on the ground to simulate American football footspeed drills; and my personal favorite, "El Rey", which involves me sitting anywhere upon an imaginary throne and ordering objects I want, sending los niños scattering in search, the first to return with an object satisfying the requested-item-criteria awarded a point, though at no accumulation of points does one actually win or the game actually end. Tireless, imaginative kids. Much preferred to America's TV-mesmerized french fry fatties are my Guatemaltecos with carb-fed panzitas.

The food, too, is much to my liking. That fresh tortillas are served with every lunch and dinner goes without saying. And that every meal is abuzz with flies is something I came to terms with the moment I hit Mexico in September. With limited resources, Mama Meli does a commendable job. My first meal was homemade ceviche, basically pico de gallo with bits of raw shrimp "cooked" in lime juice. Seriously great stuff. The anticipated fare of black beans, rice, and eggs has been accented by platanos fritos, homemade tamales topped with cabbage, salsa, and jalapeños; some delicious dish combining ejotes, huevos, salsa y chilis; and various other combinations of the usual suspects with meat and a vegetable or two. The unexpected versatility proves the all too common homestayer's culinary complaints and dietary denunciations spew forth from filet-spoiled lips that deserve only a hearty helping of comida tipica fattened pompis.

Living with a family -- and one I believe is slightly more well off than average for San Pedro -- elucidates what closer-to-third-than-first-world actually means. Like almost every building in San Pedro, my family's home is constructed of cinderblocks, but with the luxury of near-Ace Hardware grade planks of wood for fenceposts. The ubiquitous snaggle of livewires powering the waterheating showerhead provides warm to hot water. Drinking water arrives in five-gallon jugs delivered by truck, but I brush my teeth with buckets of water from a stagnant pool floating with insect corpses, a deep reservoir central in a massive sink system.

The central dining and dish-cleaning area is covered but open air, doors to the shower and bathroom stall each opening from one wall. Two bedrooms and the kitchen/prep closet open along the two walls along and behind the kitchen table. I reside in a separate two-story structure adjacent the kitchen, forming the fourth wall, sheltering the kitchen from the gale force winds gusts that haven't abated since they arrived four days ago, chasing the rain and introducing the cool winter nights that will quickly see my single Davidson sweatshirt out of style. The first floor of my homey concrete behemoth is under construction, eventually providing a handful of additional rooms, but I occupy one of two dorms on the second level. I'm provided a double bed and ample blanketry, a desk, chair, and small shelf, a hammock outside and rooftop access to peer down upon the lake, across and around at the terrestrial undulations of the highlands, or up into the starry nights. I also have a toilet closet immediately atop the staircase, obscured by a hanging cloth flap which the incessant gusts have effectively rendered useless, whipping the flap about so anyone on the street or the courtyard can observe my every piss and plop. All part of a different perspective, no doubt.

Concerning school, I'm still slow at Spanish. The process is trying for someone who born sans a natural reserve of patience and I'm cursed with a beautiful young guatemalteca maestra not averse to flirtation. At twenty-two and single, Mildred is both the reason I've signed up for another week of classes and the reason I can only half-concentrate during session. She's patient and encouraging and part of a traditional family that make it tough for me to torment her outside of class. If I can improve my Spanish and my tan, then maybe, just maybe...

El Dia de los Muertos is Sunday, though the celebration takes place all weekend. I've been spending a lot of time in the cemetary the past few days, which has been crowded with people repainting, cleaning, and otherwise touching up the graves of loved ones. The cemetary is colorful, beautiful, and to be the place of jubilation (and a bit of libation) this weekend. Should be fun...

(And a tuk-tuk blasting DMX just rolled by...what a place!)
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