Saturday, July 2, 2011

July 2, 2011

Greetings from Antigua.

Well, we made it home in fine shape from our month long journey here and there and have even gotten all the current pictures onto the facebook in labeled albums, so enjoy.

Our journey this week took us to Lake Atitlan, a lake in the northwest part of the highlands of Guatemala. The area holds geological, cultural, commercial, and historical interest for many different reasons.  Geologically the lake was formed from volcanic action that resulted in a large lake surrounded by mountains, three of which are still active volcanoes, although they only seem to spew steam each morning. The lake itself is quite deep in the center, as the depth has not been fully determined.  It is fed by run off from the surrounding mountains and rain, both of which come in great measure during this rainy season. Due to the fish bowl nature of the lake, when the weather comes in, the water sloshes back and forth, going from completely placid to standing waves in a very short time. The villages along the edges of the lake are far enough apart to operate quite independently of each other, but connect through a system of ferries and launches that carry people and materials back and forth. Only a few villages have roads leading in and out to the rest of Guatemala. The water in the lake is quite clean, aided somewhat by the reeds and other plants on the shorelines that serve to as lake cleaners. There was very little trash in the water, so it seems that a clear effort is being made to maintain its beauty.

Commercially, several things are going on.  Each village is made up of Mayan people who speak different Mayan languages, who have cooperatives of weavers, ceramicists, painters, and wood carvers, who make and sell their wares in the villages, as well as in markets in other parts of Guatemala. The work is exceptional and old methods of dying naturally are maintained in several of the cooperatives we toured in San Juan.  There are fishermen all over the lake in small crafts of wooden boats, probably designed to work with the change in waves as the weather shifts.  We did not see too many fish markets, so either these are used for home cooking, or sold to restaurants locally. We did taste some Black Bass, a fish introduced to the lake by some US folks some years ago, and a prime catch for the fisherman.  Much of the commerce is tourism and shopping for Mayan goods.  We witnessed in every village, including Panahachel where we stayed at the Posado de Don Rodrigo.  Ladies with large bags of folded weaving, poised on their heads, walk the main streets, selling, talking, and encouraging the purchase of their goods. Some shops are in cooperative groups, whereas others are on the sidewalks. The men on the streets are selling boat rides around the lake to tourists who might want to see the lake, or visit a village. Some, as did ours, serve as tour guides as well as drivers. 

Culturally, each village along the lake has its own Mayan culture, including language, dress, music, arts, food, and weaving. The groups, even in ancient times, were not unified, and during the Spanish invasion of the 16th, several groups worked with the Spanish to overcome certain villages of differing Mayan groups. Eventually, the Spanish conquered them all, but initially, they were assisted by the Maya.  There is a strong vestige of Catholocism, particularly in Santiago, where the Oklahoma born priest who was brutally murdered during the civil war in Guatemala, is venerated in the church there. The church was built in the 16th c, and still stands and is a pillar of the community. Other religions, such as Maya and Protestant sects are a part of the communities as well, although fewer and fewer people are following the Maya religion strictly, although there is evidence of candles of certain colors, flowers, and incense in the churches that mixes Maya and Catholic practices. The protestant religious places were less evident in the villages. There is one village that is an enclave for US expats, and is called the Hippie village by the locals.  Most everything there is in English, and where we rented kayaks on our third day, since they seem to know what US tourists are looking to do on a weekday on the lake.

Historically the lake has been itself for some time, and the people have been primarily Mayan settlers for centuries, but the treatment of the people by others outside the villages has been one of brutality and now a certain calm.  The villagers, separated by mountains and a testy lake, kept to themselves, not necessarily increasing their reach beyond the villages for many years until the Spanish conquered and settled the areas with Catholicism and Spanish rule. The country came out from under this rule in the 19th c, and again the 20th, but put in place new governing rules that forced the people of the villages to work in the fields of landowners, named by the government, none of whom were Mayan.  A revolt in 1960-86 led to support groups in the form of guerrillas, who defended the Maya people, but eventually turned on them in some quarters, resulting in loss of life to many in the area. Since the peace accords were written, there continue to be struggles, but the people of the lake are finding some solace from the development of artisan coops, NGO support, and the support of people like JoAnn Dwyer, who provides a medical clinic in San Juan and after school tutoring.  There seems to be a certain calm among the people we met, with an underlying sense that nothing is forever. There are lots of opportunities for outreach, but what is important is that the people themselves have set the pace for what is important and hopefully that will endure as they find a way to maintain and continue to succeed.

We returned to Antigua and have been hanging out, watching the rain, and getting ourselves back to starting point with a trip to the mercado yesterday, a haircut at Franks Salon, and a taste of local food.  It feels good to be back home.  Well, with only 26 more days in Guatemala, as usual, we have filled our dance card with new and interesting things.  I start observing in a public school on Monday, Johnetta Hudson arrives on the 14th, departing the 18th, then two students, Cordell and Bonne, from UNT from Alpha Chi arrive on the 19th, departing the 27th, and in between we hope to see Ron Wilhelm and Janet Ray, both of whom are doing important work in Guatemala through NGOs.  We plan to hike Pacaya Volcano, take salsa lessons, and maybe hit the beach one more time.  Life is good here in Antigua. Hope all is well for you and yours.

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