Guatemala #11 Lago de Atitlan and Antigua

After spending a few days exploring Xela and the surrounding villages, I moved on to the scenic and famous Lago de Atitlan. My plan was to hike around the lake (or at least a part of it as it is a huge lake and would take 3-4 days to hike nonstop) and climb at least one of the volcanoes that borders the lakeshore. Unfortunately I was struck down by some sort of viral illness that for 2 days left me feverish, congested and running for the bathroom every 20 minutes. Needless to say I wasn’t exactly in any condition for gruelling physical activity. So instead I walked around a little bit, read a lot, people watched, and visited some of the villages that dot the lakeshore. This area of Guatemala is by far the most touristy I have experienced, but it was interesting to see that even amidst the tour groups and the hustlers there seemed to exist genuine culture. It was common to see men and women wearing their indigenous clothing and going about their days as if in ignorance of the boisterous groups of blonde haired tourists parading around.

I continued on from Lake Atitlan to Antigua, the other most touristy place in Guatemala. Antigua is very interesting as it was once THE place to be in Central America due to its status as the capital of the Spanish occupation. Several earthquakes later, with the city in ruin the capital was moved to the site of present day Guatemala City, however many of the old buildings, colonial structure and city layout are intact. To add further interest, Antigua is nestled in a valley surrounded by three humungous volcanoes that dominate the landscape and turn every glance into an epic photo opportunity.

I am glad that I saved the two most touristy destinations for last, as now I have something to compare these locations with. These locations are very different from the reality of life for the vast majority of Guatemalans and it would be a shame to think that every Guatemalan shares this high standard of living that is apparent here. These are the locations where the rich and famous come to play, shop and divert themselves from the rigors of capitalistic society. Having seen the real life of the majority first, I feel that I have a better perspective to view the current cultural microclimate.

Speaking of which, as my travels come to their inevitable conclusion, a theme that has dominated my thinking for the past days is the confounding degrees of contrasts of lifestyle I have witnessed here. For a country roughly the size of Tennessee, Guatemala has an entire continent worth of microclimates for cultural and traditional practices, languages, topographical features, weather climates and lifestyle modalities. Each location that I visited was totally unique. For example in El Peten it is hot, humid and tropical with flatland tropical forest dominating the landscape. There is very little indigenous influence, the people eat tortillas made with white corn and derive a lifestyle from the forest, harvesting wood, palm or herding cattle. Then, drive 2 hours south into the mountain highlands and it is surprisingly cold, with a gorgeous mountain landscape cloaked in pine and high altitude cloud forests. The language is completely different; the people eat tortillas with black or yellow corn and derive a living from agriculture and textile manufacturing. Drive another hour south into the coastal valleys and completely different….. you get the point. With this profound contrast of lifestyle and culture existing under the same generic name of “Guatemala”, it seems to me awfully pointless to even try to imagine where the “average Guatemalan” falls on the spectrum.

This point is really brought home when you consider that if two random Guatemalans were to meet on the street there is only a 3/5 chance that they could even communicate with each other, and a much lower chance if they were women or children (as there are vast numbers in the smaller communities do not speak Spanish). Facts like these lead me to question what does it mean to be of a nationality? Even in the US there are a tremendous variety of subcultures and microclimates that one could identify with much more so than the generic impression of “American”. Why do we put so much importance in a name and box ourselves into neat little categories? For pride? For convenience? When people ask me where I am from (which is always the first question I am asked) I usually say “planet Earth first, but the U.S. second.” Not many people really understand this and are relieved when I say the U.S. The sense I get is that people are comfortable when they can put you into a category, with the uncatagorizable being unrecognizable, possibly dangerous and unpredictable. All this is talk of Guatemalan cultural heterogeneity is fine when talking in conversation, but when it comes time for political organization the profound contrasts in this society manifest themselves in severe social problems. As is the case in Guatemala, with a push for a “unified” state where in reality there exists 22 different worlds.

I leave Guatemala tommorrow, after which I will have a month to rest, recover and reflect before embarking on a new African adventure.

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