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Dragons students hand-carving a dugout canoe. Photo by Micah LeMasters, Indonesia Semester.

Lakeside Living

This past weekend, I spent 3 days near Lake Atitlán, a Guatemalan treasure surrounded by three massive volcanos. I first caught site of the lake as my bus came over the rim of the steep caldera that holds the lake. As we inched down the road, decimating the shuttle’s brakes, I got to watch the last few rays of sun on the water, a breath-taking view accentuated by a light layer of mist that clung to the road.

The next seventy-two hours were packed with equally stunning experiences. My first morning, I visited nearly a dozen galleries and textile shops in San Juan La Laguna, a town on the shore of Lake Atitlán. Each one was packed with vibrant paintings of Guatemala, or rooms and rooms of woven clothes, most of which took at least two weeks to produce by hand. I got to talk to one artist, who walked me through the elaborate process of making the intricate skirts that Maya women in the lake-side communities still wear. I couldn’t believe it when he showed me how they have to plan where exactly to stain a spool of yarn so that it will produce stripes or patterns or even figures of animals and humans when put through the loom. That afternoon, I also had a three hour long conversation with a local ex-candidate for mayor of San Juan La Laguna, who walked me through his campaign and the challenges he faced navigating an often corrupt system.

The second day, I took a boat across the lake to Santiago Atitlan, another town nearby. Like the tourist I was, I sat down alone in the very front of the speedboat hoping to get a good view of the lake, and ended up clinging on to anything I could grab as we zipped head-first into the choppy water in the middle of the lake. When we stopped at a dock for a moment, the driver (clearly amused) asked me if I wanted to move further back, and I gratefully accepted.

In Santiago Atitlan, I met a local guide who walked me through the recent history of the town. During the 1980s, the army heavily targeted the region as part of Guatemala’s decades long civil war and genocide against the Maya population. We started at a local church, where the guide took me into a small room attached to the side of the building. In the room, she told me about an Oklahoman minister who came to Guatemala during the civil war to help out the community of Santiago Atitlán, until the army tortured and killed him in the very room where we were standing. After that, we went to a park a little outside of the town where the army opened fire on a peaceful gathering of unarmed citizens in 1990. We walked around the park, which has since been turned into a memorial, and she showed me a plaque honoring a nine-year-old boy killed in the massacre. We also met a woman who’s husband was shot working in a field, leaving his wife with two small children. Hearing these stories were stunning in the complete opposite way that the lake and the volcanoes and the art was. It made me think of a quote from Stephen Kinzer, the author of a history of the 1954 US-backed coop in the country: “The coexistence [in Guatemala] of such unspeakable beauty and horror may be unique in the world.”

I ended my trip the following morning by getting up at 2:45 am to climb to the top of San Pedro Volcano in time for the sunrise. When we got to the summit, it was still pitch black and I got to see another volcano spew a huge explosion of lava into the starry sky. As we waited for the next hour, I could barely feel the bitter cold because I was so distracted by the most epic sunrise of my life.

Thoroughly exhausted when I made it home to Antigua that evening, I slept for twelve hours straight, and then got up on Monday morning, ready for another week in heaven.