La Escuelita



The Sun Rises Over Lago Atitlan

Time is precious. I’ve come to appreciate that more during the months I’ve spent here on Lago Atitlan. I experience the passing of time very differently here.

In contrast to the U.S. cultural norm of scheduling every minute of every day, time is a bit more fluid here, especially in my work life since I create my own schedule. I don’t have a time card, I don’t time my lunch hour. I don’t find myself checking my watch constantly, or rushing from one meeting to the next hoping to make it in time. I don’t wake up at the last possible minute, rush to arrive by a certain time, sit at a desk waiting for the clock to display 5:00pm.

And yet, every minute is precious, but I live it in a different way –  a fuller, more authentic way, in which I experience the world around me, rather than fixating on the numbers of a clock. Instead of scheduling every minute of every day in advance, I enjoy all of the moments in between my scheduled activities. I revel in not knowing what time it is or how much time I’ve spent doing something, be it a swim in the lake or a meeting with my co-workers. I feel that I am free to take all the time I need, without having to rush or cut anything short.

And yet, I feel the time is passing quickly. And I wonder if twelve months is enough time to experience all that I want to while I’m here. I can hardly believe three months have passed already. And it seems every day I find out about some new activity, some curious marvel, some distant and beautiful location that I hope to do or see or visit before I say goodbye to this place.

With this in mind, I’ve been taking every opportunity to aprovechar my time here. I wake up early and stay out late. I fill my days with beautiful sights and sounds and people. I pour myself into my work, and I fully enjoy my days off. And I find it very difficult to say no – both to requests and invitations.

So, this past weekend, I took advantage of the opportunity to hike a mountain (called Nariz Maya or Indian Nose) at 4 in the morning in order to see the sun rise over Lago Atitlan from its peak. And, because we had to get to the mountain from the town of San Pedro across the lake, I also took advantage of the opportunity to experience San Pedro’s vibrant nightlife before hiking this mountain at 4 in the morning. I think it goes without saying that I was quite tired, but in the best possible way. Although at the moment of being woken to go on this hike, I second-guessed my decision, when we got to the top and the clouds cleared a bit as the sun made its way up into the sky and reflected off of the still water below, I knew there was no better way to be spending that time.


It may seem hard to believe, but I’ve lived in Guatemala for more than a month now! And while I think from previous posts you all have gotten a fairly decent impression of what it is I’m doing here, I certainly haven’t had the time (or patience!) to blog about everything I’ve experienced since my July 1st arrival. And I think many of my experiences have been noteworthy and/or atypical.

So, in honor of my one month anniversary, and to paint a better picture of adjusting to life in a rural Guatemalan pueblo, I present you with 31 things I’ve experienced, learned, appreciated, or become accustomed to in my first month! I’m doing this in list form because who doesn’t love a list these days?

  1. I’ve swam in the lake! – I live on a huge lake surrounded by three volcanoes (a phenomenon called a caldera, i.e. a lake that is formed when land collapses after a volcanic eruption. But don’t worry, the volcanoes are dormant now!) I also love to swim. Thus, this seems like an inevitable occurrence. For me, it certainly was. There is no way I could resist swimming in that lake! But surprisingly, many people from here have never done it, and many visitors who come to the lake don’t dare to swim in it. Some of the reasons I’ve heard cited for this include: not knowing how to swim, irrational fear of water snakes, concerns about water quality, panic attacks, giardia, laziness. Well, to all that I say – the heck with it! This lake is gorgeous and I’m going to keep swimming in it! Sure, I can’t see much more than my hand in front of my face even with goggles on, but nothing beats that moment when you’ve swam about fifteen minutes and you stop to orient yourself and see three beautiful green volcanoes, their peaks topped in fog, the deep blue-green water surrounding you in every direction, the moon still visible in the bright blue sky, the sun rising above the mountain tops as you start your morning. I look forward to much more than coffee to start my day.
  2. I’ve become accustomed to the altitude. – It’s high up here. Like, noticeably high. As in, you feel really out of shape for the first week because you’ll walk up a small hill and feel winded. Well, now I can run up that hill and feel great!
  3. I’ve climbed something (he subido algo). – Mountain/hill/volcano climbing is a pretty popular activity here, and difficulty level varies greatly. I plan to conquer all three of the volcanoes around the lake during my year here, but I wanted to start with something small. So, my new friend Katie and I climbed a smaller mountain (or very large hill?) called Cerro de Oro (Hill of Gold) yesterday – and this was my true test of altitude adjustment! Cerro de Oro is only about a third of the height of the three nearby volcanoes (San Pedro, Atitlan, and Toliman), so it was a good place for a beginner like me to start. There were challenging moments, but it was so worth it (vale la pena!) to get to the top and see the view – that will be its own post eventually, when I get around to it. But, my climbing adventures have begun!
  4. I’ve made some friends! – Atitecos (as the locals are called) are really, really nice people. And while many of the locals my age lead very different lives (because they’re married and have kids and are very religious and don’t really go out at night and certainly would never drink), I’ve been able to meet some pretty great people who I can hang out with from time to time….many of them are Gringos like me, but I’m meeting some locals too! Yesterday, for example, a group of us went to a chalet (basically, someone’s giant vacation home) to celebrate the birthday of one of the Gringos who lives here. It was me, 3 other Gringos, two girls from another part of Guatemala, a woman who lives here in Santiago, two Italians who live in Santiago, and 6 or 7 Atiteco guys – an interesting mix of people and a LOT of fun.
  5. I’ve made a TON of new Facebook friends, even if we’re not all the way to being actual friends! – ALL of the Atitecos have facebook (they call it Face, which is funny to me when they ask “Do you have face?”)
  6. I’ve witnessed great wealth disparity. – Sorry this one is a downer, but it is just so true. In my work, I go out to a government subsidized housing area called ChukMuk. It consists of hundreds of one or two room cement block houses, built by the government for those who lost their homes (and ancestral lands) during the 2005 hurricane/mudslide. There are no paved roads, the houses lack electricity, they’re located in the middle of nowhere with limited transportation. Then I visit this chalet for my friend’s birthday party or walk along the lakefront in the pueblo of Cerro de Oro and see ginormous vacation homes with landscaped gardens, multiple bedrooms, modern kitchens, pools, hot tubs, helicopter landing pads, for crying out loud! And they’re all empty – owned by someone from the capital or from another country who only comes every now and again, and in the meantime, pays a local person a measly salary to live in a squalor next door to this unbelievably nice property and care for it while they’re away. I have so many feelings about this.
  7. I’ve been charged different prices (almost everywhere!) because I’m white/extranjera. – So, I almost can’t be mad about this because it helps to correct the disparity just a little bit. But it is standard practice here to charge people who are obviously not Atitecos higher prices. On everything. The boat that takes you across the lake to the larger town, and is basically your only option for doing so: 25Q for foreigners, 15Q for locals. The taxis, which have a standard rate of 3Q but foreigners don’t know that, will try to get 10Q out of you. Some of the restaurants have two separate menus with different prices, one for foreigners, one for locals. In the market, if you don’t speak Tzu’tujil, you’re definitely being charged more (sometimes, my Atiteca friend Yanil goes with me and gets me the good prices!) Even the hospital has different fees for foreigners and locals, which I totally understand. In the end, I can afford it and I’m helping the local economy, so I’ve accepted this as a fact of life in Santiago.
  8. I’ve haggled. – that boat that goes to Panajachel? I got them to let me on for 15Q. Once. But the guy said he would remember my face and I would have to pay him an extra 10Q the next time, so I’m not sure how successful this really was.
  9. I’ve received a really uncalled-for amount of male attention, and I know it’s just because I stick out. – I just smile, look them in the eye, and say buenas tardes, or whatever. My favorite is when they just say, in English, “I love you!” They also make this weird “chhh chhh chhh!” noise, which is a new one for me.
  10. I’ve felt two earthquakes! – yep, there was a strong one my first week, and then another one about a week ago. I was in a restaurant when it happened, and we just kind of noticed things moving.
  11. I haven’t gotten sick! – This might be a miracle! Or it could be that I have a strong immune system from my mostly vegan diet and natural remedies. But let’s go with miracle! No sickness, and I even brush my teeth with sink water and eat fruit off the street. There have been a few times when my stomach felt slightly not normal, but I haven’t had the usual sick and can’t eat for days thing that most people go through during their first month. My Atiteco friends were impressed.
  12. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in speaking Spanish. – Unfortunately, none of them have been funny. (For example, a friend of mine asked our host parents if they wanted her baking powder (polvo de hornear) but what came out of her mouth was polvo de orinar(urinating powder!)
  13. I’ve said goodbye to some great people.Despidadas (going away parties) are fairly common here in summer months because there are volunteers who come and go. I’ve already had to say goodbye to quite a few people, and though I only got to know them over the course of a couple of weeks, I’ll miss having them around.
  14. I’ve traveled to another city! – It just so happens that a dear friend of mine from Chicago is living in the nearby town of Quetzaltenango (also called Xela). It’s the second largest city in Guatemala, and only about a 3 hour bus ride from where I live. So, I went and visited for a weekend, got to experience a new place, felt like the small town girl in the big city as I marveled at its grocery stores, paved roads, addresses, grid system! But mostly, it was just nice to spend time with someone I know and love.
  15. I’ve traveled to another country! – This same friend from Chicago needed to renew his 90-day visa, so we went for a long weekend in San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico. It was wonderful! And I’ll be doing that a couple more times as my visa runs out.
  16. I’ve mastered the chicken buses. – This is how I got to Xela. On school buses from the U.S. converted to public transport. They are painted bright colors, chromed out most of the time, packed with way too many people (sitting three to a seat on a school bus when you’re 7 is okay, when you’re 27, not so much!), and they usually have music blaring and drive at crazy speeds down twisting mountain highways. It’s not the safest mode of transportation, because robberies and extortion happen (and are overlooked) here. But, if you don’t bring anything really valuable with you, it’s fine, and super cheap! The tricky part is all the transfers. Direct routes aren’t too common, so you’re usually hopping off somewhere and running to catch the next one. Oh, and they’re called chicken buses because people transport all manner of things on these buses, either on the bus itself or strapped to its top, including chickens! Though there weren’t any chickens on the buses I took.
  17. I experienced the feria. – This is the once a year city festival with rides and contests and games and shows. The city is packed and people are actually out at night and fireworks go off at all hours of the day and night. So, feria was many, many experiences, some of which included: riding a (probably never tested for safety) ferris wheel that goes really fast, seeing a Guatemalan muscle building competition for men and women, watching a competition where men climb a buttered pole to get to a bag of money at the top, seeing two Guatemalan beauty pageants, playing a few casino/carnival games, and being a part of a parade! Feria was a lot of fun. But I’m also kind of glad it’s over.
  18. I’ve learned about and experienced some local religion. – So, there are these things here, called Cofradias. It is a religious order of sorts, with each Cofradia chapter being dedicated to a specific Saint. However, their religion and worship practices are a blend of indigenous Mayan religions and Catholicism. For example, one of them has a Saint that is actually the Mayan God of Thunder and must be kept in a box because he is so powerful that if the box is ever opened, the world might end, or something. Anyway, they have these Cofradia parties (I’ve been to two now) where people bring alcohol or money as offerings to the saint/god, and then get really drunk and dance and light candles and chant and all kinds of stuff. The gender relations at these parties are particularly interesting to me, because they are mostly attended by men, and men are free to dance with other men (something they would definitely not do in public here). There are also usually cross-dressers in attendance, and out gay men (another uncommon thing in conservative Santiago). Most interestingly, though, I went to one of these parties with a male friend, and was sorted of treated like his property, but in this very respectful deference sort of way – they would ask him for permission to dance with me – and one of the men who asked for permission to dance with me referred to me as a man (puedo bailar con él?) My male friend and I were rather confused, and I declined his offer. But I did dance with some of the dignitaries.
  19. I have been bitten by literally every type of bug there is. – I used to live with two street dogs and I’m pretty sure I now have fleas. Or possibly it was bed bugs. Or both. I’ve also been bitten by sand fleas. And mosquitos. Maybe a spider. Ants. And had  a weird rash. Basically, I’m itchy. All the time.
  20. I’ve marveled at the stars. – There are SO MANY! I’ve been to a few other places where I could see a lot of stars (rural Texas, small town Minnesota) but it just doesn’t compare. Last night, I stayed up pretty late at this chalet on the lake, and it is outside of the city, away from any light, and the stars were just breathtaking! I could’ve stared at them for hours! And I probably would have, except when I laid back in the grass to admire them, my arm ended up in the middle of an ant bed and I immediately got bitten about 30 times and my fingers went numb. But the stars! Beautiful.
  21. I’ve learned to roll with the punches. – Sometimes, you don’t have internet when you really need it. Or the electricity in the entire city goes out. Or you have to wait 30 minutes for a boat to leave, or an hour and a half for a meeting to start. And it’s fine! I’ve really embraced the fact that there is nothing I can do to change these occurrences, and sometimes, it is best to just go lay out at the lake and drink a limonata and read a book until your refrigerator turns on again.
  22. I discovered the “Gringo” store. – We don’t really have grocery stores. We have an open air market with fruits and veggies and other random crap, and we have tons of small tiendas that mostly just have little bags of chips and things, but nothing big, no aisles of frozen or refrigerated foods. BUT, there is one tienda that is a little bigger than the others and stocks things I could not believe I’d be able to find here – chief among them is almond milk! Now I can make smoothies for breakfast! They also have peanut butter, large bags of chips, wraps, actual sliced bread, standard brands of toiletries. It is a definite game-changer. I can now be mostly vegan while here (though I am eating eggs – they’re local and very cage free).
  23. I’ve taken a lot of siestas. – I totally get why this is a thing. A necessary thing. You wake up to roosters and dogs at like 6:30 every morning and the hustle and bustle of life starts happening early, and you get some stuff done before 1pm, and then you have to go the market and buy stuff for lunch, and go home and make that lunch from scratch, and wash the dishes immediately so the flies don’t come, and then it’s really hot and there’s no air conditioning, and you lie down on your bed for just a minute, and well – an hour later, you wake up feeling so much better! And you can do a bunch more stuff! Siestas are great.
  24. I’ve gotten a ton of scrapes, cuts, and bruises, many of them mysteries! – I cut my finger while washing out a can of beans (it was actually quite deep, but don’t worry, I got a tetanus shot). I scraped the top of my foot while attempting to climb a pole. I have a huge bruise on my right thigh and its origins are unbeknownst to me. Between this and the bug bites, I’m kind of a disaster! But no one cares, including me.
  25. I’ve danced outdoors, a LOT! – This is like my number one “What do you do in your spare time?” activity. I dance outside. During the feria, there were bands at an outdoor stage and we would start dancing circles outside in the plaza. Last night, we danced outside at the chalet. Pretty much all I want to do is dance outside. And I’m going to keep doing it!
  26. I’ve been frightened by at least one street dog. – Street dogs are everywhere here. Some of them are really cute, others are very sad to look at. They usually travel in packs and leave people alone. But one time, a street dog tried to follow me and my two housemates into the house and it was pretty scary.
  27. I’ve rediscovered my inner morning person. – I used to be a morning person when I was a kid. Then these last few years, I wasn’t able to wake up that late because I had to go to work and whatnot, but I would try to fit in every last possible second of sleep, and on weekends, I could sleep pretty late. Here, it’s just impossible to sleep late because I’m such a light sleeper. And I love my mornings! Even when I don’t have to wake up early, I enjoy it. I go for a run or swim or both, make coffee, shower, make breakfast, listen to music, sit on my balcony. This morning, I was the first to wake up at the chalet, and while everyone else slept for another 2 or 3 hours, I went on this great walk by the lake and saw so much nature – birds and huge lizards, a giant bullfrog, so many gorgeous flowers, fish jumping out of the lake, the mountain view. I’m definitely a morning person again.
  28. I’ve seen La Sonora Dinamita. – They’re a Colombian musical group that is apparently pretty famous. It was fantastic. I danced outside.
  29. I’ve participated in a Saint procession. – This is part of feria, I guess, and also part of the Cofradia too, but not manyextranjeros experience this. I was a part of this procession that started at 4am and ended at 5:30am, and it was pretty cool! There were women with candles and palm leaves, a band, a choir, and men carrying the saint (Santiago Apostol) through the streets, making him dance around and whatnot. I shot some video that I will hopefully have time to edit soon.
  30. I’ve learned to embrace solitude. – This isn’t always easy. I’m far away from all of the people I love and the people who love me. I’m living alone for the first time ever (okay, aside from those 6 days I had my own apartment before Hurricane Katrina hit). I’m also in a foreign country with immense cultural differences and a language barrier that can be further isolating. And I’m the only person from my organization here. So yea, I get lonely pretty often. But, I’m embracing my solitude and maintaining a good balance, and really enjoying some things about this time I have to myself. I think it allows me to focus on creativity, art, dreams, desires. And those are the things that really drive me. And I’ve also found that whenever I’m feeling particularly down or alone, the universe sends something my way to turn that around – a text from my sister, an email from my dad, an invitation to go do something here in town, a really great song, a beautiful moon in the night sky to sit and enjoy. There are moments when I can’t help but think “I wish ____ was here to share this experience with me,” but, at the same time, I’m so full of gratitude that I get to experience it for myself.
  31. I’ve made a list of things I want people to bring me from the states! – Take note, everyone. I packed pretty well, but there are some things I miss or wish I had! And I recently found out that getting mail here is basically impossible, so if you’re thinking about coming to visit me, here are some things you could bring!
  • Running shorts – yea, I run now, and I only have pants to run in, and sometimes it is hot.
  • A light robe – this will help me not to walk across my apartment naked, forgetting that my balcony doors are open to let in air and light and that they look straight down onto a fairly busy street. Not that this has happened.
  • Coconut oil – it has so many uses! There is one store across the lake that has it but only in small and very expensive bottles.
  • A hoodie – I get cold. Hoods help with that.
  • Almond butter and chia seeds and probably other food items like that – I don’t need them, I just miss them.
  • A USB DVD player for my computer – this will help to entertain me.
  • Various clothing items including another pair of jeans and simple dresses – I’m already getting sick of wearing the same stuff all the time.
  • Hiking boots – I think I might need these for the volcanoes.
  • A backpack – like a regular sized one. I have a hiking backpack but it is big for day hikes.

So, after reading all of this, who wants to come to Santiago?!