Beyond Paradise: Life in Guatemala

Lake Atitlan Sunset

Late day sun over Lake Atitlan

There’s a crust on the dark side of paradise; the cost determines its thickness. Guatemala is cheap; therefore, the crust is dense and contains flies, mangy dogs, and dirt roads strewn with garbage. One of the most spectacularly beautiful vistas I’ve ever seen can’t hide it.

Today, on our walk to town, a snake stretched dead across the road near our house. The road is one car width across, rough, and composed of powdery dirt and rocks. I look down to keep from tripping and sliding. (And from now on, I’ll look down to watch for snakes.) I soak my feet every night and accept the dirt under my toenails will be there until we leave.

I can deal with the poverty, the dirt, and the need to boil water and soak all produce in antiseptic. I can accept traveling only during daylight as thieves are reputed to take over the roads at night. I can tolerate the need to take a tuk tuk home after dark, “And only those drivers you know,” a full time expat counseled.

But I can’t abide snakes. Not the jungle variety, two meters long (and in my mind, much longer).

As I ran down the road, Pat yelled, “Julie, wait. Slow down. It’s harmless.”

“Of course it’s harmless. It’s dead! I can’t live here. Not with snakes.”

In that moment, the crust obscured any glimpse of paradise.

By the time we approached the village, I had calmed down. A Mayan woman washed her clothes outdoors and the water gurgled down the drain and splashed onto the dirt road. A young girl hugged her younger brother and walked him around the square. The banana man sold me six bananas for 3Q (about 35 cents); he always smiles and never rips us off.

I reminded myself that we have a lovely home on the water with amazing views for 750 dollars a month, that I wanted to escape winter, and that every day has been warm and sunny just as I hoped.

My dilemma is should I look up or down. Right now, if I look up over my computer, a Mayan fisherman is just off the coast in his homemade craft. The afternoon clouds obscure the top of the volcano. The last hour of day light creates a romantic mood rippling across the water.

Some of the most beautiful children I have ever seen are tended to by raven haired mothers in hand woven tops and skirts cinched at the waist with fabulously colorful belts.

We met an American in the village who has lived in Guatemala for two years. “Have you ever seen a snake?” I asked.

“Only once,” he replied

I told him my snake story. “The next time you see that snake; it will be someone’s belt,” he laughed. By the time we walked home, the snake was gone.

I am learning to accept my paradise–crust and all, starting to read about Mayan history, and lapping up the experiences of another part of the world which was, until last week, unknown to me.

When I look up, it’s incredible, and as Pat pointed out once my snake induced screaming subsided, for the moment, I can’t go home. “Julie, for the next three months, we are home.”

Proud Sister

Big sister

Categories: Central America

Tags: , , , ,

14 replies

  1. Hello, Julie. I’ve been meaning to write to you for some time, and your post about Guatemala (I subscribe via email)made me hit “reply.” Months ago, I stumbled upon an older post about Paris, and I was drawn to learn more about your chosen lifestyle in The World In Between.

    I am also a blogger via Ordinary Life, with a variety of topics, but since my eldery mom died a couple years ago, I write often about travel. We’re not ready to give up life in Southern Oregon just yet, but engage in longish road trips and are planning more extended foreign adventures.

    I forwarded one of your Paris blogs to my longtime friend, Marcy Tilton, suggesting she might enjoy it. Well, of course, Marcy had recently returned from Paris where she and you were in some kind of workshop together. I love that – serendipity and how small the world really is.

    Marcy and I were teachers at the same high school in St. Paul, Minn. in the late 1960s. We lost track of one another for a few decades, then, some years back, ran into one another at a hardware store in Grants Pass, OR. We both live in the Southern Oregon countryside, about 30 miles apart.

    This string of posts begins with one that launches with a story about my young friendship with Marcy. I was 66 when I wrote it and just turned 71! Egads.

    Guatemala is high on my “go there again” list. I was lucky and smart enough, in my late twenties, to spend a couple years traveling, and Guatemala was among the most magical of places. How can you ignore cities with names such as Huehuetenango and Chichicastenango? We drove through Mexico and Belize to Guatemala. We camped for a few days at Lake Atitlan, probably near where you now live, and climbed the pyramids of Tikal before tourists discovered it. Although we did not see any snakes (at least not in Guatemala – the Yucatan was another story) I swear we heard a jaguar screaming as we camped near the ruins.

    (On a trip to Uganda in 2013, we went out on the Nile in canoes with a guide . One of our stops was to see the black mamba in its favorite place along the bank. Creepy.)

    But anyway! I’m good friends with an amazing woman named Frances Dixon, who in 1996 ended up in a mountainous region in northwestern Guatemala, and soon thereafter quit her job in Florida and founded Adopt a Village in Guatemala, a non profit that you may read about here, If I make to Guatemala again, I will be sure to visit Maya Jaguar. It is remote and difficult to reach, but I am intrigued by the work Frances is doing with the Maya. It’s all about education and sustainable traditional agriculture.

    I’ve enjoyed following your relocations. I think you’ve hit the jackpot with Guatemala, even though I know it’s difficult to get over the “crust” factor. I wrote about “the crust” once describing Nepal, something like “I was standing in putrid garbage staring at the shining mountaintops.”

    Mary Korbulic

    • Mary… Thanks so much for this note. We just visited Cuba with Marcy. She is such an interesting person to travel with (and with a great photographers eye).

      We are spending 3 days in Tikal at the end of our trip. I can’t wait to see it.

      I need to spend some time today reading thru these links and checking out your blog. Thanks for sending them!

  2. I attended a church youth conference in Guatemala City in 1965, when I was 15. I took my accordion to accompany the worship sessions. As we toured the area afterwards, including a visit to Lake Atitlan, I thought it was an incredibly beautiful country. Fifty years later, I have seen many more countries and parts of the world, and I still think it’s an incredibly beautiful country. Enjoy your time there!

  3. Snakes or no snakes, I’m jealous! It looks beautiful!
    P.S. We are planning summer vacation and thinking about driving to Tokaj and spending few days there before heading down to Croatia. Went back and re-read your posts from Tokaj, can’t wait!

  4. Hi, Julie. You and I are so on the same page when it comes to snakes. Creepy crawlers aside, happy new home. As always, looking forward to more of your vibrant storytelling.

  5. Really good thought provoking post Julie. Thank you for taking the time.
    We will start our second year here tomorrow. My first few months here were when I most of my ‘crusty’ moments. Just a little overwhelmed by all the changes and all that was new.
    Now they are few and far between.
    Envious about your weather situation. It was very nice sunny and warm (at least for December) when we were in Vienna, but we have been holed up at home pretty much since we returned, and now cabin fever is setting in so it is time to hit the road again for some place south of here that will be warm, and a change of pace.
    Thanks again for your nice post. Regards to Pat.

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