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The Magic of Lake Atitlan

You’d need a couple of days to walk around the 50 km around the perimeter of Lake Atilan and there’s no road connection between the main town of Panajachel and the other small villages dotted around the shores. So I jump on one of the small motor boats that ferry passengers across and take my seat up on the front bow to take advantage of the view.

You’d need a couple of days to walk around the 50 km around the perimeter of Lake Atilan and there’s no road connection between the main town of Panajachel and the other small villages dotted around the shores. So I jump on one of the small motor boats that ferry passengers across and take my seat up on the front bow to take advantage of the view.

After I get soaked by the first wave I consider asking the captain for a discount. But from the looks of the boat I guess he’s saving up for a paint job and so I search within for the famed stern resolve of the Englishman. But of course it’s the kind of country that values such a thing as a ‘stiff upper lip’ that I’m fleeing from in the first place.

We’re heading for San Pedro, the village named after the huge volcano at the foot of which it sits. It always seemed a bit dim to me to be living on the banks of a volcano but the ground is always so fertile that these areas are always well populated.

San Pedro itself is an ominous, looming eruption of earth, shrouded in a crown of clouds and I think of Frodo on his way to cast the Ring into Mount Doom. My daydreams are burst with a new jolt of the water that almost sends me crashing into the water and I’m not confident that anyone would notice if I fell. I spend the voyage oscillating between daring an upfront vantage point of the lake’s splendour and cowering down in the bottom of the boast each time it gets rough.

Young boys are right on hand to help me with my bags and are equally as swift to demand payment for doing so. The traveller in poor countries often stumbles into debt before he knows it; the guide, the translator or accepting the helping hand in the street often imply an unwritten contract in the eyes of the locals. And it’s they that make the laws.

But I’d be doing the same thing in as these kids in their position and I don’t begrudge them a chunky one quetzal piece. One of them takes me to a cheap guest house and makes a little more on commission from that.

The signs of recent growth in tourism are all here, apparent right from landing at the dock as all kinds of foreign-owned restaurants surround the docks. Outside investment is welcomed for the jobs and revenue it brings to the village but many of the locals complain that the owners act like kings, looking down on all the people of the village.

The restaurants serve pizza and cakes, Bob Marley sings through the stereo systems. For a moment I might as well be in Bangkok or Bali or Kathmandu…

All the tourist I meet seem to be students of Spanish or else they plan to be. Travel in Latin America can be a little fruitless after a while if you can’t communicate with 98% of the people you meet. San Pedro though, maybe isn’t the best place to learn.

“Half the students here have too much of a hangover to come to class in the morning,” One American friend of mien told me.

As I’m strolling down to the lakeside to sit on a rock and write this article, I meet a man whom Jesus would surely have resembled had he born in Jamaica; his features are a shining ebony and his even blacker dreadlocks somehow amplify the piety of his flowing white robes. He shakes my hand warmly with both of his (something Indian politicians like to do in a rather overdone show of sincerity) and meets me with the smile of a saviour.

“I’m Tom,” I tell him, “And you are…” “My name is… Love.” He responds. Even his reply sounds like the generous words of wisdom to a wayward pupil. He frowns ever so slightly when my curiosity gets the better of me and I ask:

“And where are you from?”

“I am from… the Universe.” He bows, incorrectly, in the manner of someone who hasn’t grown up with such a custom and wanders on to enlighten other lost souls. In a sense all travellers are ambassadors of where they come from and I wonder what the locals make of it all. But then of course, he was representing the Cosmos…

In fact, incongruous saviour images aren’t hard to come by in this part of world – everywhere there are portraits of Jesus painted as though he were a Spaniard. He has long, thin hair, pale skin and rosy cheeks that would peel within half an hour of the Palestinian sun and gentle, delicate features that I never saw on anyone in the Middle East.

That it’s an adopted culture here is especially clear as the local women walk past me with their laundry stacked up in baskets on their heads. They click away in a local dialect that sounds far more expressive than the Spanish imposed upon them by the conquistadors.

Thankfully, they were never quite shamed into the modesty often demanded by the Church as boys and girls still bathe together without anyone thinking the less of them for it. Not that I know how things were a generation or two ago but I’m warmed to see a pair of sweethearts embrace in the water. The young guy isn’t so delighted to see me and he scowls until I’ve passed.

I find a good rock and at last relax to take in the lake. It’s too big. I can’t really make out the other side and can’t decide which way to look. It’s clearly a place that take some time to appreciate so I lower my horizons.

The reed beds are trembling, a humming bird beats its wings at impossible speed as it drinks from a purple flower and a beautiful white girl in flowing blouse, skirts and shawl has come down to swim. We start to chat a little.

“Where are you from?” I ask.

“Oh, I’m from everywhere.” She tells me, “From the sky, the earth, the lake…”

I don’t get it. Is it really such a hard question?