Atitlan: if effigies can drink...


There was an unformed question in my last post about hope that has unwittingly been answered in the past few days. Sometimes our prayers are answered in a way that we can understand, even if the initial questions were unclear.

In this case, the answers have been at once humbling and generous.

First off, the conclusions I drew about the reasons for the rise and pollution in these waters turned out to be (mis)educated conjecture. We can read and read, and even ask and listen, but it takes time to come to an understanding about systems that are complex and old and that involve many moving parts.

And so the story unfolds: that this lake has been rising and falling in a somewhat predictable way for as long as these movements have been measured (500 years). That there are many reasons for the bloom in algae and cyanobacterias (sewerage and fertilizers being the most apparent) but that the clean up that was thought to have happened was only funded - and funds subsequently pocketed - by local politicians. That typically an earthquake opening up the clogged underground vents is what brings the water level down. That academics took a crack at lake cleanup as well (UC Davis I believe) but stopped being so interested once the money ran out.

We traveled today to see the town of Santiago la Laguna. Santiago is the second largest community on the lake, and by far the one with the most intact indigenous population. We read in our guide book today that, if taking the road to Santiago, the esteemed tourist has a 99% chance of being held up at gun point - day or night. Needless to say, we opted for the boat ride.

Although the American trained Guatemalan militia tried to extinguish the flame of these proud people in a most inhumane way - from what we could tell today, their hearts still shine brightly. Their women still offer a genuine smile along with the delicious produce we purchased. Many of their men still proudly wear the colorful striped shorts as has been their tradition for eons. The children still flirt with strangers who are willing to make faces and act generally like fools.

And then there is 'Maximum' (pronounced Mosheemom). Maximum is one of the more loved religious figures in the Mayan-Christian blended faith practiced here. I still have not seen him, but as soon as we got off the boat, everyone wanted to take us. It is Maximum's practice to long-term couch surf (a year or so) among the shaman caste of the area, and then to make his way to a church around Easter to be given offerings. Typically there is neon involved, and from what I understand, canned music to the tune of 'Santa Claus is coming to town'. During the non-Easter season, guests travel to the house where he is currently couch surfing, and offer him gifts there. Tourists are encouraged to not take photos while offerings are being made. Although this all might seem like a Billy Bob Road-Show to the untrained hoohaw, in actuality there is high religion at work that must be respected.

There was one man in particular who insisted on taking us to see him. He kept on showing up unexpected like Waldo, and pleading with us - but I ask you - what self-respecting person in the process of vying for a place in this new neighborhood is going to go see the most notorious and power-imbued religious statue-being without bringing gifts? We had no gifts, and so there would be no visit. Period. Apparently Maximum has an appetite for alcoholic beverages, tobacco and shiny gawdy kitch. He also accepts cash. We are having some money glitches right now, and so these kinds of purchases are somewhat complicated for us. I finally had to give this man the stink-eye, which I typically reserve only for frat-boys and Texan politicians.

Still, somewhere in between the boat rides, the rain deluges, the gurgling stomach, the visits from our landlords (wonderful humans doing great work) and the genuine smile that needed no translation from the old grandmother who I gave my jacket to on the boat ride today, I came to a peace about being here - for whatever length of time this place will have me.

I think that the response I received today to my poorly stated and somewhat unformed question is that people belong in whatever place they respect.