“Lake Como, it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing.” – Aldous Huxley
Settled in the small boat that would take me across the lake from San Pedro to Panajachel, the sun was just rising and people on the boat were still waking up, quiet and contemplative from sleep, before external guards and masks are put on. Other than myself, the boat was all locals, evenly split between men and women.
The women are all wearing their traditional clothing, the brightly coloured skirts, blouses and shawls that women in this area still proudly wear. Not for the benefit of tourists who pay to take photos of them, but simply because these are the clothes that they wear and they like them. Unlike many traditional societies where the customs are upheld mostly by the older generation, with teenagers aspiring to the tastes and customs of the people they see on television, the people of this part of Guatemala proudly keep their culture.
I sit next to an older woman in clothes of warm orange and earthy tones, she happily ignores me and is deep in chatter with the other women on the boat. Their conversation is in the local language, so unintelligible to me, but seems happy and simple as they gossip and laugh together. Once the boat starts moving, people stop speaking and settle into their own thoughts, the isolation only broken by the occasional murmur between a mother and young daughter clinging to her for comfort. The two younger girls take the spotlight at the front of the boat, taking about whatever it is that young girls here talk about. All the women on the boat seem to share a connection of some sort, whether of culture or something else.
Whereas the women look like a natural part of the scene, the men stand out in contrast, wearing modern clothes and cut off from everyone else by headphones or books. They don’t seem to fit, isolated from their own environment, maybe from having lost their connection to the culture that the women hold on to so tightly. It is a theme I have seen throughout Guatemala, men caught between two cultures, tradition and roots showing them one way whilst advertisements and television preach a different form of life. Fast cars, mobile phones and gadgets have done their work here. Needless to say, in these cultures of machismo and peacockery, the quiet man goes about his business unnoticed.
Arriving in Panajachel lost in thought, I manage to walk my bike along the narrow connection of wooden planks without falling in the water and head towards the quieter route to Antigua via Godinez. Not wanting to disrupt the peace that the boat trip instilled in me, I leave Panajachel without giving it much attention.
This being Guatemala, I found myself slowing winding up the inevitable hill through beautiful forests on quiet roads, aiming for the town of Patzun. After another uphill day of Guatemalan mountains, I arrived in Patzun, found a cheap room and went for my daily post cycling search for food in the market, which I was lucky to catch on Sunday.
In a town that the guide-book described as “purely functional, if you are hungry or thirsty”, I was getting a taste of real Guatemalan life away from the tourist trail. These weren’t the cobbled, colonial streets of Antigua, crawling with tourists and locals with TV American accents trying to sell me tours. This was a Sunday in a small town, with families leaving church to look for food and women trying on shawls and scarves.
A day later, in Antigua, I am plotting a route towards a reunion with my sister at Copan in Honduras.