After some time relaxing in Antigua, we headed west to San Pedro la Laguna, on the shores of the stunning volcanic crater lake Atitlan. It was formed when the volcano erupted 84,000 years ago, and is surrounded by other volcanoes.
We took a further week of Spanish classes with the San Pedro Spanish School, and with each class found that the world around us was starting to make a bit more sense. At last we were able to hear some stories direct from Guatemalans we met, and discuss more interesting things than our latest travel plans.
With our teacher Rosario at the school – the classrooms are open-air and dotted around beautiful gardens adjoining the lake. The Tutzhil gardener who took this picture had never used a camera before but was clearly a natural - this was his first shot!
We had decided that our Spanish might be just about up to staying with a host family this time, and were assigned to a couple of local teachers, Clemente and Marina, and their three kids. We discovered that they were evangelical Christians (about 80% of San Pedro is now evangelical, the remainder Catholic - religious murals are everywhere e.g. at the end of a sign advertising TV repairs, it will say oh, and by the way, ' the only way to God is through Jesus Christ', or similar). The family lived by strict religious principles pared with a modern outlook on the world. It was a surprising combination – they did not drink or smoke and their teenage son’s idea of a fun night was bringing his friends round to sing hymns with his granddad. We thought they would think us drunken fornicating heathens, but they were relaxed their approach to different lifestyles - we later discovered that they had recently hosted a couple of gay travellers, the kids loved American cartoons and Clemente seemed to be devoted in equal parts to Jesus and football. The couple hope to travel when the kids have grown up, in particular to see Israel and visit the places which feature in the Bible. They were very welcoming and interesting people, and we really enjoyed our stay.
We began to pick up a little information about Guatemalan politics and social attitudes, using our shiny new Spanish skills! We won’t identify who said what (it’s a bit of a shame to divorce the people from their stories but we didn’t get their permission). This is the gist of it…
The most striking thing about Guatemalan politics seems to be the all-pervasive corruption. Politicians tend to attract loyal followings through handing out food parcels and throwing parties before elections - although the gifts, when they are opened and the photo opportunities are finished, rarely turn out to be as promised. The politicos rarely seem to stand for issues. Once in power, they use every opportunity to siphon off money for themselves. While in theory the press are free to write as they like, they are usually bribed to stay away from negative stories, stifling potential for change. Meanwhile, there is little money for books or facilities in the schools. Angry teachers often protest in Guatemala City because they feel that the future of the country lies in education but this is being ignored (nevertheless, school enrolment is better than it used to be). Public hospitals are seen as poor and private insurance expensive. Most of the spare money in middle income families goes into saving for emergencies. A little later we encountered a lot of expensive yachts on the Rio Dulce and tried to find out who owns them - apparently rich Guatemalans, but only those with considerable European roots traceable back to the conquistadors. It seems like they also own most of the farmland, industry, basically the government, and all of the large mansions on the Caribbean coast. Also, European-looking mestizo people are the only ones who ever seem to appear on TV or in adverts, even though 40% of the population is indigenous and most people have a lot of indigenous blood - its strange how little the media seems to represent the population.
Some rural communities remain starkly divided along party lines as well as religious – if you identify with the red party, your children may go to the red party school even if it is on the other side of town. I was also interested in life for women in Guatemala – it seems like in rural areas, a very macho culture persists and is responsible for many women losing their friends, independence and opportunities when they marry. But with higher levels of education, things are beginning to change in this respect. All of the comments we heard came from people who had an education, and certainly can't be counted as representative of everyone, but all felt that getting access to a good education for everyone was crucial. We hope we haven't misrepresented their comments too drastically.
We bought a picture from this local artist, whose work focuses on local Mayan culture and agriculture. The one we chose was of a woman using a traditional weaving loom (see previous post) - its the big gap on the wall behind, but we posted it home without taking a picture!
Clemente works weekends as a tour guide, and we asked if he could take us to see some coffee farming in the hills above San Pedro. The organisation he took us to was in fact a co-operative which teaches local farmers techniques for farming organic coffee and collects the beans to sell in order to get a better price for its members. Alongside the coffee the farmers grow avocado which helps to keep insects under control. They also keep bees to pollinate the plants and so the farmers produce honey too. Nothing goes to waste and even the coffee husks are composted with the help of earthworms. it was great to see a business being run on such good principles and also producing very tasty coffee which we got to try at the end of the tour.
Next we headed back towards the Caribbean and experienced life in a riverside jungle location, including hanging out on an old sailboat with an old dog...