Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Lakeside reveries

The morning air is fresh and cool, and near-silence broken by the steady thump of Juan's hoe in the milpa alongside the little terrace outside my hotel room, the soft hoots and warbles of birds in the background, the whirr of a vehicle on the road, the irregular rhythm of a woman a house or two away talking, maybe to her children (I saw a small boy slip his head around the side of the next house over when I was walking to the store last night).  Farther away, someone is listening to the radio, but it's not too loud or unpleasant. For now, at least.

I have taken a few days' retreat and come to San Pedro la Laguna, which has an unfortunate reputation of being the hippie, pot-smoking town of all the communities that surround Lake Atitlán, surely one of the most beautiful places in this country. On the other side of the lake is Panajachel, swarming with tourists and fair-trade stores. San Pedro has an area down by the docks where the boats from Panajachel (colloquially, Pana) arrive that caters to tourists; many of the businesses have signs in English, there are cafés serving espresso drinks and restaurants advertising wifi, and a few stores featuring long flowing gauze skirts made in India. And walking through the streets of the town center, one sees a lot of blond hair and expensive walking shoes. There are several Spanish schools in the area -- the sister of my friend Brenda works at one -- that offer "Antigua-style" one-on-one classes, and some also advertise home stays or have their own hotel facilities. 

But I can easily overlook all of that, and the women circulating in the lakeside restaurant where I went to have a large late lunch yesterday, because of the beauty of the lake and the volcanoes and mountains that surround it. And beyond the tourist facade, there is the San Pedro of the people who live here, the Kaqchikel and Tzutujil and Ladino residents, who plant their milpa or harvest their coffee. Right now as I write, someone is working in the milpa that is part of the hotel property, hoeing between the rows of tender young plants. A bit farther along the lake shore there are some young boys bathing in the water. Butterflies flit over the bean and potato plants, the yerba buena and cabbages. Somewhere more distant, the thump a-thump-a, thump a-thump-a of reggaetón on someone's radio. One of the men who works on this property, Diego, told me that I was welcome to take some yerba buena (there is an entire patch of it growing here; they sell it in the market) and some cabbage leaves for my dinner.

The surface of the lake ripples with the wake of the small ferries that traverse the lake, bringing tourists and residents from Pana to the other lakeside towns, and that bring people from one town to the other. The ferries aren't that frequent and don't make a lot of noise. There are a few rowboats and canoes out on the lake, undoubtedly belonging to local residents, perhaps some of whom are fishing.  Amid this beauty are some serious environmental problems. The lake waters were very contaminated, I think from the dyes from textile industries in the surrounding areas, and the lake waters have been rising for several years. Just next to this property stands an unfinished two or three story house, the white skeleton standing "knee deep" as it were in the lake -- it apparently was started when the lake shore was several feet farther away, but now the lake has come to surround the house. When I was here in January, we took a walk along the lake side one day, and passed a basketball court that will soon be a swimming pool, it seems. The center of the town, with the heaviest density of population, is very hilly and steep, but most of the lakeside is ringed with fields and houses, and entire areas have had to be abandoned and homes and fields moved upwards.

I arrived in the afternoon, after a harrowing ride down the very steep and winding road that frequently threatens to plunge one and one's vehicle into the shining blue waters of the lake. No exaggeration. I thought about leaving my car in Pana and taking the ferry across but decided against it; not sure if that was an entirely wise move, but.. in any case, I'm here. The battery had been a bit cranky for the few days and had conked out on me a few times when we were making the rounds from community to community during the consulta on Sunday.  The battery does not sit properly inside the engine; it is the right voltage, but not the right size. And so it does not sit squarely inside the housing. Therefore, we have had to do some "chapuses" (the word "chapús" has many meanings; it can be a form of word play, but in this context it means a makeshift solution or repair -- what Cubans would call "un invento"), finding some wires and cords and cables to more or less tie the battery into place. But since the roads are rocky, rutted, irregular, winding, and the paved ones are full of potholes, it gets dislodged easily. 

So, about halfway down to San Pedro (and I do mean literally down -- the first part of the road has some flat areas and some ascents and descents, but after Santa Clara it is pretty much all downhill), the battery died when I stopped to give some men a ride. I couldn't get it to start again, although I opened the hood and tried to see if the terminals were tightly fastened (I didn't have tools with me but I tried tightening the bolts manually). Still no luck. A passing pickup stopped and we got the car started again with "un empujon" (a push) -- the men pushed it backwards and, with the ignition turned, I let out the clutch and pumped the accelerator like mad. It coughed to a start and I took off, with the man's admonition to try and not take my foot off the accelerator. But with steep downhill curves, it was hard to do, as I had to brake and downshift and I only have two feet. The engine conked out again, and I managed to start it again as I slid downhill, but eventually the battery punked out again and I basically made it down to the more or less flat area in San Pablo in neutral. Where I came to a stop. Luckily some local police (and that is a true anomaly) stopped, and then they radioed their chief, who also came (must have been a slow crime day in San Pablo). He called a mechanic. I had found a wonderful mechanic in San Juan de la Laguna when one of my brake shoes needed to be replaced when I was here in January -- although he didn't have the right replacement part (Mazdas are not so common and so few garages outside of major cities stock their replacement parts  - I have a couple of extra lug nuts because I figured if I ever need one out in the middle of nowhere, it won't be easy to get the right size), he and his sons basically made a new brake shoe, soldering it together from scratch. My friends, both of whom know a lot more about cars and mechanics than I do, were extremely impressed. But I didn't remember his name and could only say to the police that the garage was on a curve on the road that leads out of San Juan towards San Pedro. So, the chief called his mechanic. But meanwhile we (mostly he) cleaned off the battery terminals and tightened the bolts (he had some tools). And then it started again, quite easily. 

I decided to stop in and see the mechanic in San Juan, which is on the way to San Pedro. He opened the hood, had me start the car again and looked at and listened to the engine. He told me that he thought that the battery itself was fine, but that the problem was that it wasn't properly housed and it was the constantly jiggling and dislocation that caused most of the problems. So he will build a new platform for the battery, and meanwhile take a look at the accelerator, fuel injectors and so forth to see if there's anything else that is going awry.

So, I felt more confident as I slid into San Pedro. I have learned to not get freaked out when something goes wrong with the car -- a friend who was with me in January remarked at my calmness in the face of small disasters.  Getting upset doesn't fix the brake shoe or the battery, and it certainly doesn't help one get safely down a very narrow, winding and sketchy (to say the least) mountain road. 

The hotel is about 2 km outside of town, but I was easily able to find the "Camino a la Finca" (road to the plantation or farm: a finca can be a large landholding, or a small property) and the hotel, and the guardian came out to let me into the garage and lead me to my room overlooking the lake. Maybe they are at low occupancy, but they are only charging me Q60 ($7.68 at yesterday's exchange rates) for a small suite -- a bedroom nook, a small kitchen (stove, sink, and refrigerator), and down a step, a semi-circular study with bay windows, outfitted with a wooden table, a wood and metal baker's rack, one wooden and one plastic chair.  OUtside, a tiled terrace (with an overhead light), with a small round table and curved bench built in.  The path from the upper rooms goes past my door and leads down to the lake. 

I unloaded my things and then took off for town, as there are no eateries nearby. I noted a few stores nearby -- there is a pretty spare, small one right next to the hotel, but they only have a very sparse selection of dried and canned goods and beverages, and some eggs. The next one is about half a mile away. So I walked back into town (I could have driven but wanted to stretch my legs) and found the market, which was almost closing up for the day, and purchased some salad fixings: avocado, limes, tomatoes, garlic, an onion and a cucumber. I figured I'd go back today and get more of a selection (beans, for example, and rice, and maybe cheese and eggs).  Then I made my way to the radio station, Radio Sembrador, to see my friend Brenda and her family.  I had called Brenda when I arrived, saying "Guess where I am now?" but I had to cut short the call since the owner of the hotel was calling on the other line to say that he had called the guardian to let me in. I decided not to call her back again but to just show up as I was certain to find at least some of her family at the house.  One of her sisters was there, and then Brenda's mother and father and Brenda herself came out to greet me and made me sit down and drink some water. 

They filled me in on what was going on with the radio station. A few weeks ago, during the middle of a weekly radio program hosted by the vice president of the Association of Community Radio Stations of Lake Atitlán, the Ministerio Público arrived and raided the station, so it is now off the air. They told me that several other local radio stations had been raided, but that the vice president of the Association had gotten a lawyer and they were working on redressing the matter and they thought that they would soon be back on the air. They decided strategically to stop broadcasting while the lawyer and the Association worked  on the case.

After chatting a bit I told them I needed to eat something as I had only eaten some oatmeal at around 7 a.m. (and it was now nearly 4), so I went down to a lakeside restaurant where I had eaten last January when my friend Babette had come to visit me in Guatemala (we had taken Brenda out for lunch). There were few other patrons, and I chose to sit inside instead of right over the dock outside, and after dithering for a few minute about whether to have a pizza or a mojarra (a tropical fish that is bony but has very sweet and tender flesh), opted for the mojarra, as it came with salad (in this case a mixture of broccoli, cauliflower, green beans and carrots) and guacamole, and splurged on a white wine.

Fortified, I headed back, stocking up on some sparkling water (a 2 liter bottle), wine, and milk at a store close to the dock since although it meant carrying all of this back over a 2 km walk, I wasn't sure what I'd be able to find in the stores closer to the hotel (as it turns out, I could have gotten most of this, but a much smaller selection of wine; however, I didn't know that then). Although I had asked the hotel if they could lend me some utenslls (pot, pan, a few dishes, fork and spoon), I bought an enameled cup for heating water or milk, and a sharp knife (figuring I would gift these to friends when I leave) and headed back. Then at the store right next to the hotel, oil and salt -- enough supplies for dinner and breakfast.

I was exhausted, and only did a little work last night on one of my syllabi, and caught up on some correspondence. A little domestic drama back in New York -- my subtenants, a young couple, both students at Columbia, just broke up and so I needed to make sure that there would be someone at the apartment and taking care of the cats. The original plan was that the woman would stay there alone for the first few weeks (she moved in the night before I left) and then her now-former-boyfriend would join her on July 24. Yesterday morning as I was preparing to leave Olintepeque, I got a note from her saying that they had decided to go their separate ways and that she was relieving herself of responsibility for the apartment and the cats as of this Wednesday. I was a bit concerned, although I knew there was not much I could do from a distance other than to see if my daughter could fill in if there was a gap between the woman's departure and the man's arrival. But after sending a few quick emails to both of them, saying I was sorry and I wished them both the best and could the man (who is currently in Shanghai, 15 hours ahead) contact me as soon as possible so that I could rest easily. By the time I arrived in San Pedro in the afternoon, he had replied and it seems everything should go smoothly (I guess the woman is staying around to hand off the keys and my wonderful daughter will stop by to go over cat care and answer any questions).  

So, I puttered around, as it were, on my syllabus and some reading, after stepping out onto the terrace to marvel at the lake. 

Last night the darkness fell swiftly and softly over the lake, deep blue and purple shadows moving down from the mountains and gradually obscuring the light. I could make out the cluster of lights from Panajachel and one or two other lakeside settlements --the shoreline is very jagged with a lot of coves and inlets, so from any given point along the shore, there are always communities and mountains that are not visible. 

This morning one of the men came down very early to start working in the milpa, and then as the morning has worn on two of the other hotel guests came down to the water -- one, a woman who looks to be in her 70s, sat with her watercolors and worked for a bit.  I hauled myself out for a run -- usually if I can convince my brain to tell my hands to put on socks and tie the laces of my running shoes, I will go running. That is, it is a psychic battle between the part of my brain that says, Yes, you should run, and the part of my brain that says, Eh, maybe, maybe not.  Occasionally the legs and lungs have their say -- yesterday, for example,  I took a steep walk instead of running, since I had run the two previous days and was feeling the elevation, and my legs were a bit rubbery.  I ran farther along the road, away from the town -- we had come for a walk along this road in January, the day after we'd climbed the volcano and realized that we were not up to climbing a second volcano right away. I ran past men tramping along with machetes and hoes, luxurious homes and more modest dwellings, past a sign reading "Santa María del Lago" (not sure if that is a settlement or simply an estate) until the pavement ended, and then just about 200 yards more and turned back.

Now situated again looking over the lake, the garden, listening to the sounds of birds and the scrape of the hoe, the rustle of wind in the cornstalks and the gentle ripple of lake water.... time to buckle down to work.

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