Thursday 24 February 2011

11 Sundays in San Pedro La Laguna

Every time Rick, who we first met on the shuttle from Antigua to San Pedro La Laguna (Lago Atitlan), sees us, he laughs and calls out "You're still here then!" He thinks we’re going to do what he, his wife, the other Rick, Ricardo, Bob, Canadian Bob and all the others have done and stay here forever. Everyone’s story is the same: they were passing through and that was however many years ago. This is the closest to South America some of them ever reached. We have a little kitchen installed on our hammocked balcony where Alex works minor miracles with rice, beans, spaghetti and eggs, sometimes in the same dish. We’ve had two dinner parties, and think of the long-haired tabby cat that steals in through the window whenever it’s open as our own. We could never be sure that Rick wouldn’t turn out to be right. But we also spent around 8 weeks in San Pedro de los Pinos back in D.F., so clearly we have a bit of a thing for San Pedros.

Sunday is our big day. It is the anchor of the week. It's how I remember time. We don't have breakfast on Sundays, because of Smokin' Joe's barbecue at La Piscina, known as the Lake's best feed of the week. Bacon-wrapped steak in Jack Daniels, the unfeasible Flintstone burger, Jamaican sausage and so on, accompanied by massive sides and followed by strawberry crumble (though they think it's called a ‘cobbler’!) or chocolate brownie with ice cream or whipped cream. There's table tennis, pool, a pool and giant 'extreme' Jenga (two extra levels). All that’s missing is giant Connect 4.

There are a few hours to digest all the food and discover what's been happening in the rest of the world before the pub quiz at El Barrio at 8pm. On our first Sunday, Brian, an expat from Bermuda, approached us and asked if we'd like to join his and Tony's team. They needed cover for music and entertainment, and we needed cover for everything but. We became 4 Candles. We finished second behind team Zig Zag, the regular champions. The following Sunday, we bumped into Brian at the barbecue. Tony, from Germany who runs a business here, had sent him to find team members, thinking we'd gone. Obviously, we hadn't and went on to our first victory.

Team Zig Zag was the Bjorn Borg of the quiz - the undisputed champions with 6 victories under their belts. On our first outing, Team 4 Candles, or John McEnroe, if you will, almost ended the run, finishing second (just as Borg defeated McEnroe in the 1980 Men's World Championship Final). As with Borg, it was their last win. Team 4 Candles went on to dominate the tournament - sorry, quiz - in a Roger Federer kind of way, accumulating 6 wins, levelling with Borg. I mean Zig Zag. Then Rick, Teresa et al finally pulled their fingers out and The Lobotomists entered the scene, pushing 4 Candles to the brink on their first outing. A very Rafael Nadal kind of threat. And, sure enough, they hammered their point home the following week, forcing 4 Candles into second place.

The El Barrio 'Megabowl' (as the event was touted) between 4 Candles and Zig Zag was still on though with 6 wins each. Then, disaster. Just as Federer did when first beaten by Nadal at the Wimbledon final, 4 Candles crashed out of the tou... quiz in a lowly fourth place ("How the mighty have fallen," commented the compere Ben), The Lobotomists proving again what we were up against. The following week, Nad... The Lobotomists didn't show up (neither did Nadal the year after beating Federer), so 4 Candles' 7th victory was somewhat hollow. But The Lobotomists were there for our 8th and final victory, which was crucial as Federer's wins don't count as much if Nadal doesn't show up.

Team Zig Zag advertised for team members in the monthly Sol De Atitlan San Pedro guide. They were looking for "a European female, 30-40s, you keep the beer!”

We’ve made friends with many of the expats here. I met John the other day, a USAn* who has just moved into the house opposite. He was glad to hear I was British.
“Oh good,” he said, shaking my hand vigorously, “You don’t hate us as much as everyone else.”
“Well, we’re as bad as you guys!”
“Yeah, man, you are. We’re the Bad Kids On The Block!”
Mind you, it’s not so bad for travelling USAns now that Obama’s in charge.

I am one of possibly a fraction of people who has not been in the lake. There's no doubt that, from the surface, it's stunning, whether tranquil or choppy, but as you may know by now, I have a testy relationship with water and refused to get in it. It's said that the water here used to be crystal clear with many meters visibility and filled with a huge variety of fish. I've only seen three fish in the lake and they were all dead. Some years ago, a bright Gringo spark had the idea of setting up black bass farming for Gringo tourists and, without any natural predators, the black bass ended up eating nearly everything else in the lake. During our first conversation on the shuttle, Rick told us that the lake had recently risen 10 feet, encroaching inland by 150 feet over crops and properties. Rick's 6 month-old home had become a lake-front property almost overnight. Some buildings have been completely surrounded with front paths leading to water instead of the front door. There's also a problem with a tide of litter washing up from all over the lake, collected by groups of concerned villagers. There’s also the recurring cyanobacteria problem. Locals advise against swimming near the towns, from which a lot of waste makes its way. The state of the lake is a reminder of what happens when a precious resource is taken for granted. None of this bothers Alex. Water always calls Alex in. This water calls to me too, but it says something completely different. But you don’t have to be in the lake to enjoy it.

And there are so many other things to do in Lake Atitlan. We've climbed to the tip of the Indian's Nose, which looks exactly like the horizontal profile of a Mayan face, with the forehead physically moulded to slant backwards. We've walked - and ridden hungry and stubborn horses - through San Pedro's narrow alleys and out through the town to the narrow lakeside path lined with tall grasses offering lovely views and access to a tiny beach with a rickety pier (where you can see the dead fish). We've climbed the deceptively tall San Pedro volcano, the oldest of the three that tower the lake, dead for 40,000 years, since when Toliman began to grow, and for the last 10,000 years, volcan Atitlan. For the comfort that's worth, that's the one furthest away from us. We have kayaked across a conveniently calm lake to San Marcos La Laguna where I watched Alex jump from the variously tall vantage points and, eventually, the tallest, a wooden platform some 5 metres (I have no idea how tall it was!) above the lake. Alex has become an expert of the local geography and takes me round the all the paths he’s discovered that don’t deteriorate into landslides. We saw visitors filling the cemetery, bright with candles and flowers, in celebration of the Day of the Dead. We’ve watched the colour of Volcan Fuego’s ashy burps turn from black to burnished gold in the early glow of the rising sun. We saw the shadow of the earth swallow the full moon on the night of the winter solstice, a once every 500 years event, with Venus, Saturn and Mars rising in the east, and followed the moon as it set into the eye of the Indian’s Nose. But we haven’t done the 400-metre zip-line yet.

Rick was nearly right, we nearly stayed there forever. And we still might.

*We have discovered that the term ‘American’, usually used to refer to people from the USA, strikes a discordant note with a small but distinguished number of Latin Americans who will respond indignantly that they’re Americans too, thanks very much. Gringo aside, I have been unable to identify any other term for people from the USA, therefore, I hereby coin the term USAn (yoo-es-ay-an).

For a walk-through in photos of Big Sunday in San Pedro, click here

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