I was hiking alone along a dozen kilometer-long trail which transits the western shores of Lake Atitlan, Guatemala, linking several tiny villages unreachable by roads. I’d started the hike that morning in Santa Cruz, a village where I’d stayed the previous night. The trail was wide and well-worn, although I encountered few other hikers. Cut from a ledge that ascends dramatically from the shores of the great Lake Atitlan, the numerous volcanoes rising from opposite shores of the lake were clearly visible from most vantage points of the trail. Farms were terraced onto the steep hills, some of which the trail cut directly through. The lake extended almost as far as the eyes could see, though the hills rising from the far shores to the east were just barely visible through the haze of the far distance. Some clouds clung near the peaks of the dramatic cone-shaped wonders; Volcan San Pedro, Volcan Santiago, Cerro del Oro and the like.
Combined, the lake, volcano, and numerous small villages hugging the shores kindled an otherworldly feeling, like I was observing through the haze of a dream.
Several patches of farm and thick forest later, I approached a village even smaller than my point of origin. This, I would learn, was Jaibalito. Surrounded on three sides by mountains rising so dramatically they could be mistaken for cliffs, on the fourth side by the shores of Lake Atitlan, The village had no roads or vehicles, only narrow cement or dirt pathways. It was only reachable by the mountain trail I came in on, or by boat, which linked it to other, larger villages around the lake.
As I ventured into its’ center, I was confronted by throngs of locals, Keqchikel people.
The local inhabitants were almost exclusively Keqchikel, a Native American people directly descended from the famous Mayans who used to populate the region and whose pyramid-shaped temples are still scattered throughout the surrounding jungles. Nobody spoke English, and very few people even spoke Spanish, the official language of the country. Here, Keqchikel language was king. The children excitedly approached me, challenging one another to see which was bold enough to come closest. They were friendly and the air around was filled with laughter and anticipation. The women and girls wore Native American clothing, although most of the males wore Western-style ensembles.
It was a welcoming, exotic atmosphere, noticeably devoid of the tourist hoards which frequent the larger and more popular lakeside villages of Panajachel and San Pedro.
Following the narrow cement pathway towards the lake shores, I soon passed a small hut with a sign out front: Alquilar, 150 Quetzales 1 Mez, the sign said. For Rent: 150 Quetzales (exactly $20 US dollars) for one month.
Deep in contemplation, I immediately stopped in my tracks and observed the sign. The large Keqchikel family across the pathway poked their heads up over the wall and observed my musings. Numerous children inside giggled at the gringo before them. I continued to ponder my options.
I’d been traveling a little over three months, and was growing a bit weary of always being on the move. Every few days, I packed up and moved onto the next town. The longest stint I’d spent in one place had been eight whopping days in Mexico City, but even there I’d stayed at two different locations. Here was a secluded Mayan village, on the shores of a magical lake surrounded by volcanoes, offering me a quite suitable place to stay for less than 70 cents per night.
On the spot, I made the decision to sojourn here for the next month.
I summoned a local passer-by and inquired about the sign. She dutifully walked me to a nearby hut which was occupied by a caretaker of my hut. After paying the woman the 150 Quetzales, the keys were handed over and I excitedly entered my new domain. It was a large, one-room shack, with whitewashed mud-brick walls and a tin roof. A tiny space of open air between the walls and roof ventilated the place quite nicely, but also served as a convenient entry and escape route for mosquito marauders, as I would soon learn. But no matter;
I had a place of my own, for the first time in a long while!
The first thing I did was return to Santa Cruz and grab my big backpack, return via the trail (which I found noticeably more challenging with my burdensome luggage), and completely unload the pack. There was a simple wooden shelf in one corner, a basic desk in another, which had precisely the right amount of space for all of my belongings. I set the empty bag in the final vacant corner and flopped down on my bed, enjoying the confines of my very own place.
Later, I went exploring. Behind my shack was a separate but considerably smaller outhouse-shower shack, and even a kitchen shack. Three whole buildings, all mine! Between the three tiny structures was a dusty yard area, hidden behind the main shack from the pathway. Surrounding the entire complex was a lush coffee plantation. Only a two minute walk down the path were the brilliant shores of the lake.
I spent the entire month at the lake, using my hut to relax and decompress, enjoying the rare period of not being burdened by my backpack and all my heavy belongings.
There was a gazeebo right beside the lake, which was almost always vacant, which I spent long hours reading, writing in my journal, planning my next moves, deep in contemplative thought. I found a small hotel on the outskirts of the village, manned by a gringo couple, who let me borrow books from the hotel’s reception room. I had to walk to Santa Cruz, about five kilometers down the trail, to use internet. To do my laundry, I had to either hand-wash my clothes or take them by boat to a simple laundromat in Panajachel. I went on several short trips to countless villages around the lake, using Jaibalito as my ‘base camp’.
Associating with the neighbors was fun; I was always being visited by groups of them, most commonly the large family who lived across the pathway.
I had a Nintendo Gameboy, which was soon noticed by the local boys, who couldn’t get enough of it. They usually showed up in groups, pounding on my door and begging me to let them play the device. I usually always relented, and they’d sit in a crowd on my porch, taking turns playing Metroid or Mario Brothers or Madden Football. I spent long periods of time simply watching the boys joyfully play. Part of me was reluctant to oblige their requests too often; I didn’t want them to become addicted to the unfamiliar device. I also felt good being the source of so much fun.
Obviously, the Kiqchikel children had never seen anything like the Gameboy, they were unmistakably enthralled.
Strangely, although the girls came to visit as often as the boys, they never asked to use the Gameboy. I figured it was a cultural thing and their parents wouldn’t allow females to use it. No matter, I had a toy for them, too, in the form of a deck of cards. The girls excitedly played card games with each other, usually sitting around the comforts of my bed (which their parents didn’t seem to mind), while the boys were outside on the Gameboy. Occasionally the frequent visits by the village children annoyed me; I did, after all, rent this place in part for some solitude. But far more often their innocent exuberance brought a smile to my face and jolts of joy to my soul.
Other neighbors came for different reasons. Word soon spread throughout the town that I possessed a camera, and wasn’t shy about taking photos of the villagers. I was initially reluctant to take too many photos, especially of the children. But the villagers themselves eased my concerns.
Entire families would show up at my doorstep at all hours, begging to have their family photos taken for the first time in their lives.
It made them feel like somebody, like modern people. I found a print shop in Panajachel which could print out digital photos, and I took time printing out the family photos I’d taken, proudly delivering them to their subjects, whose hearts were clearly touched at the gesture. This only brought more families to my door and I was soon the de-facto village photographer. I wonder how many of my photos adorn the walls of their huts today, over a decade after my brief sojourn in their village.
The villager I found most drawn to was my next-door neighbor, an ancient Mayan man by the name of Juan.
His face was weathered and leathery, completely covered by creases and wrinkles, and he appeared to have not one single tooth. I took to calling him Toothless Old Juan; nobody in the village understood my nickname, which was good-natured but derogatory nonetheless. Juan had to have been at least eighty. He lived in a primitive bamboo shack directly next door to my own place, which was a certified palace by comparison. He wore the exact same clothes every day; a badly worn and far too baggy pair of what had once been blue jeans, held together by a rope belt and a flimsy pair of suspenders. A thick, red-checkered wool jacket-sweater. He also had a straw scarecrow hat. His ensemble suited him perfectly, added to his mystique.
Juan had kind and wise eyes, this was a man who had seen a lot in his lengthy time on this earth. He often came by and sat with me, although we couldn’t communicate much. Juan could speak neither English or Spanish, only his local Mayan dialect.
We got by with the simple language of gestures, but mostly co-existed in comfortable silence.
He’d often come sit with me on my porch, and although we conversed barely at all, I learned a lot just from observing the man.
Toothless Old Juan often asked me for meager offerings. “Pan”, he’d sometimes gesture with his bony hands. More often than not, I’d run to the local tienda and buy a few pieces of bread for him. I wasn’t sure how he ate it; not only was he toothless, I don’t believe he even possessed a pair of dentures. Perhaps he tore the bread into tiny pieces and soaked them in his mouth until they were soft enough to swallow. He never ate them in my presence, so I’ll never know the exact answer, but he seemed quite fond of the plain bread rolls I’d regularly produce.
Juan also often asked me for “two Quetzales”. Never one, never three, always exactly two. To confirm his point, he’d hold up two frail fingers as he asked. I figured the old man used the money to buy other food, perhaps eggs or cereal. Two Quetzales was such a pittance, and besides, I genuinely enjoyed this mysterious old man’s company, so I usually couldn’t help myself but reward him with the meager treat. I was unsure how he got money or food any other way; he didn’t seem to have any family or other friends, he also appeared to be easily the oldest guy in the village.
I hoped my offerings would be enough to sustain him, and worried about what would come of him after my departure.
The local children liked to torment old Juan for pleasure. I’m terribly ashamed to admit it, but I actively encouraged them in their ill-intentioned endeavors. When Juan would be resting in his little shack, they’d creep up on the outside, hands filled with pebbles, and pelt his hut and tin roof with them. They’d loudly clink and bang off his hut, after which the children would scamper away into the surrounding coffee field, giggling intently. An agitated Juan would stumble out the door, shaking the stick he used as a cane, mumbling what I could only assume were curse words in Keqchikel language. You’d still be able to hear the children laughing, obscured by the coffee plants and safely out of Juan’s attack zone.
Many times I’d be sitting on my porch as their shenanigans were going on, and the sight was so hilarious I couldn’t help but bust up laughing. Watching the little local kids agitate their elder, followed by him coming out and creakily shaking his cane in fury, the spectacle never got old. The kids noticed my delight and it only increased their attacks; to this day I regret encouraging their ill-advised deeds.
I don’t think Juan ever got wind of my participation, but if he did, I hope he understood it was all in good fun.
The other thing Juan would consistently ask me for was cigarettes. In Guatemala, I smoked Payasso cigarettes. I still remember the brand, that’s how I learned the Spanish word for payasso (clown). They were damned-good cigarettes, and I had to take a boat to a larger village to get them, but I could never resist sharing with old Juan whenever he begged for one. The old man must have bummed several packs worth from me during my month-long stay, but it was all worth it.
During one of my short trips to San Pedro, I bought a considerable amount of weed, which I usually went deep into the coffee fields or down to the lake to smoke, so as not to be around the village children while I was getting high. But late one night, correctly assuming the village children were asleep, I was toking up right on my porch. Toothless old Juan quietly emerged from his hut and hobbled over. Assuming I was puffing a cigarette, he requested one.
Already feeling the effects of the weed, I thought, ‘what the hell’, and passed the joint over to the old man.
Without hesitation, Juan took several deep hits. We shared the entire joint together, then I rolled another one. After several minutes, Juan’s face twisted into a not-unpleasant display of contentedness. Without a word, he got up, limped back to his hut, and disappeared behind the door. I immediately began to grow nervous. What if the weed would kill the old man? Despite my intoxicated state, I couldn’t sleep well that night, my concern over Juan’s fate loomed large.
The next morning, I waited anxiously on the porch for Juan to emerge. His customary entrance into the outside world usually occurred sometime around 9:00. But on this day, he was nowhere to be seen. I waited and waited, too uneasy to even take my usual walk to the lake shores or the tienda.
My dread increased until I was in a nearly frantic state, almost sure I’d killed poor Juan.
Finally, near 1:00pm, Juan emerged from his hut, an enormous smile plastered across his withered face.
He slowly maneuvered towards my porch and began gesturing wildly, mumbling his incomprehensible grunts. I understood enough of his gestures to get that he absolutely realized he’d been given weed. The old man seemed thankful for the experience, although I had no doubt I’d never indulge him like that again.
And that’s the story about how I got Toothless Old Juan, the ancient Mayan elder, high as a mothafucka. There can be no doubt the old man is dead by now, but I still think of him from time to time. I’d like to think, I truly hope, that his ‘wild night’ with this Gringo was one of his final pleasant memories.
Attachment: Guatemala