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Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Guatemalan highlands

After six days of intense total immersion Espanol, our heads were spinning.  Time to head out of Antigua to the hills for a break and to try out our new vocabulary on some unsuspecting locals. 

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We headed to the picturesque Lago Atitlan area, about three hours from Antigua by (dodgy) bus.  The lake is surrounded by stunning rugged and lush mountains.  The villages dotted around the shore range from remote and quiet to bustling and touristy.

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The lake level is slowly rising and with no natural drainage many of the lakeside properties are under threat.  Many jetties we saw were underwater and others obviously hastily built to replace them.

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First surprise was when we managed to find and book a room in San Pedro de Laguna using only Spanish!!  Feeling chuffed we then went out for dinner and once again used only Spanish and managed to order, happily discovering the food and drink was exactly what we anticipated!  Same at breakfast the next day.  No nasty surprises.

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That was a thrill after a week in which David managed to tell our teacher he farmed bees in NZ (the words for sheep and bee are similar) while I said we lived in a baca (cow) instead of barco (boat).  I have also asked several children how many bottoms they have instead of how old are they (anos is years….ano the other!).  Muy embarazo!!

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The lakeside settlement at San Pedro was quite busy with alternative types, read hippies, but a steep climb to the town left the tourists behind.  We spent several hours at the local market watching the locals going about their business.  Not a tourist in sight.

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First surprise was to see nearly all the women wearing traditional dress.  It consists of a long wrap around skirt in a patterned material, fastened by an embroidered tie belt.  The huipiles (blouses) are multi coloured and hand embroidered with a design unique to each village.

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Many also wear an apron over the top which doubles as a bag to carry money in.  They usually carry heavy things on their heads.

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Santiago Atitlan women wear distinctive striped huipiles heavily hand embroidered with colourful flowers and birds while in the other pueblos (villages) the huipiles are distinctive by their colour.

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Women with babies carry them in a large wrap on their back and you know what – we never once heard one crying.  And - you don’t have to dodge those oversized strollers western women insist on using. 

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Friday is traditionally market day in many Guatemalan highland villages so we decided to head to what is considered a very local market in the hilltop village of Solola. 

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It involved an early morning boat ride across the lake to Panajachel and then a chicken bus nine kilometres up a winding and steep mountain road.  Chicken buses are garishly painted, fume belching and exceedingly uncomfortable ex American schoolbuses.  They’re dirt cheap to use and probably highly suspect mechanically but when in Guatemala do as the locals do.  And yes you do see chickens on board.

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The ride up wasn’t as hair raising as we expected…..but we did avert our eyes from the precipitous drop on one side. Solola sits at an altitude of 2136m and the busride from Panajachel ascends vertically 500m….so it’s a hell of a climb!  The bus felt safer than the utes used.

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We were the only westerners in town so the market was a true dip into local Guatemalan culture.    Thousands of village people were going about their business….buying, selling, looking and most of all, bustling!  They may be short but these people know how to push their way through a crowd.  Despite towering above them in size we spent the entire time being (nicely) pushed and shoved.  It was exhausting.

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Every imaginable item was on sale – from live hens to fresh flowers, furniture to clothing and every type of fresh and dried food you could think of.  It was a wonderful experience and we wandered for ages just soaking up the atmosphere and trying out the odd bit of Spanish.

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It was at Solola we first saw men in traditional dress….and they looked fantastic in their patterned trousers and colourful shirts.  The shirts have a Mayan symbol embroidered on the back.  Many also wear a woollen piece of material around their waist like an apron and they top it all off with a great hat.  Very stylish.

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After an absorbing morning we caught the bus back down to Panajachel which was full of wonderful textile and clothing stalls.  Far more touristy than Solola it was interesting nonetheless.  One thing we have noticed about all these villages and indeed the whole of Guatemala is that noone smokes.  One local woman told us that it is not in their culture and the majority can’t afford it.  It’s great to not be assailed by cigarette smoke……but the belching buses make up for it.

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We also visited Santiago Atitlan, one of the bigger towns on the lake with a unique traditional dress.  The men wear intricately hand embroidered striped pants featuring flowers and birds, tied at the waist with a thick band.  Absolutely gorgeous.  The women wear very distinctive striped huipiles with fantastic embroidery around the neck.

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We were so taken by the pants we just had to have a pair and spent several hours having fun bargaining.  We later realised we’d paid less than half what we’d pay for a pair of jeans at home.  And these are far more classy….but just where will David wear them?

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We finished our time in Lago Atitlan with a day and night at Santa Cruz where we stayed in a laidback waterfront hotel.  Dinner was a lively communal style affair with heaps of delicious food on offer.  As usual when we stay at such places, the highlight is always the people we meet and it was no exception here – some fascinating folk including a great bunch of American university students doing some field work in Guatemala before embarking on med school.  Inspiring people.

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Feeling relaxed and having done a bit of Spanish language homework – both written and oral - we headed to Panajachel by boat to catch the bus back to Antigua.  We spent an intriguing hour sitting at a local cafe watching locals and taking photographs of those who would let us…most were more than happy, especially when we tried out our Spanish on them.  It was guaranteed to raise a laugh. 

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We will never forget the happy faces of the Guatemalan people we met.  It always seems that those with the least, have the most to give.

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