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First Impressions of San Juan La Laguna

After two somewhat spooky nights at Las Hortencias, a spacious house in the highlands outside of Guatemala City, our group took a bus to Lago Atitlan. Juancho and Lisa have often told us that Guatemalans just refer to it as ‘the lake’ despite the numerous lakes throughout Guatemala. As soon as I saw it, I understood why. The lake is a vast expanse of shimmering blue water, encircled by a vivid green mountain range whose highest peaks breech the clouds. It is the result of four distinct episodes of volcanic growth and collapse, the most recent of which formed the now present caldera. Three volcanoes lie around the rim of the caldera, Volcan Atitlan, Volcan San Pedro, and Volcan Toliman. The most recently active is Volcan Atitlan, which last erupted in 1853. The landscape is both grand and mysterious – untouchable yet welcoming.

After having some delicious pupusas for lunch in Panajachel, we boarded a ferry to San Juan La Laguna, a town on the south side of the lake where we are to spend the next two weeks. We were greeted by Rosa, the leader of a local weaving cooperative and our program’s contact in San Juan. She gave us a demonstration of how the yarn is spun from cotton, dyed using natural materials, and then weaved into a product. The weavers in San Juan have been utilizing ‘tejido de cintura’ or belt weaving for as long as anyone can remember. The threads are strung taut between two pieces of wood and the weaver will keep them so by wrapping a piece of material around their waist and attaching it to the lower piece of wood. The loose thread is then strung through in a variety of intricate patterns. Weaving is a major part of San Juan’s economy and is deeply ingrained in the local culture. Generation after generation of weavers have learned the skill from their mothers and their mother’s mothers.

After the demonstration, our homestay families came to collect us. I was picked up by my host father Antonio, and his son Ashton. Antonio was very open and friendly and easy to make conversation with. His manner of speaking is much slower than that of the Nicaraguans I have met over the past month, making communication much easier for me. He told me that as well as Spanish, he and his wife Olga both speak fluent T’zutujil, an ancient Mayan language spoken only in this region of Guatemala. He also told me that the language is dying out in this generation; although his son understands some phrases he cannot speak the language and shows no interest in learning it. He smiled sadly and said ‘It’s just a sign of the times.’

San Juan is an incredibly tranquil and friendly town. When I walk to class just about everyone I see greets me with a smile and a ‘Saqari!’ (‘good morning’ in T’zutujil). Although Mayan culture seems more fervent here than in other places we have visited (ex traditional ‘traje’, the number of people who still speak T’zutujil, the frequent depiction of the Nahuales from the Mayan calendar), Erick tells me that tourism is increasing rampantly and infiltrating the local culture. Both San Juan and its neighboring town San Pedro have grown exponentially in the past 10 years. I can see why too. Just the view from my walk to Spanish class makes me fantasize about buying property on the lake. Even though tourism is benefiting the local economy, I have to wonder if it’s worth the slow breakdown of an ancient culture.