As I wrote in my previous blog post Antigua, Guatemala – 2 May – 3 May 2012, part of the Intrepid tour was to go to a homestay and stay with a genuine Mayan family for two nights. The idea is that we, the tourists, get an insight into how these very poor people live and can hopefully gain some perspective of their culture. They benefit by getting paid by us, and so they can afford to send their children to school, buy luxuries such as running water and electricity, and have a better way of life.
So we were split up into pairs – same sex so as to not offend the people which we were told are quite old fashioned like that – and then allocated to a family. I was very, very fortunate in my allocation. Firstly I was put with a guy on tour who spoke fluent Spanish, so communication with the family was no problem. Secondly the family had been doing this programme with various tour companies for years so they were fairly well-off compared to other families, and were also quite well kitted out for having western guests. They had running water, a fridge, clean drinking water, a shower, a flushing toilet, and half decent beds that didn’t have bed-bugs. Now let me tell you there were a lot of complaints from some of the other people on tour that didn’t have these things. In fact, one pair was with a family that didn’t have any of these!
The tap water in the area was definitely not drinkable – even the locals didn’t like to drink it. They relied on a Canadian charity to send water purification systems, I think they are the chemical based kind that purify and sterilize the water at the same time.
Here’s a pic of the town. It’s pretty much half way up a mountain that goes all the way down to a lake, and then across the lake you can see a couple of volcanoes. I’ll go into more about that later. I’m standing with the town’s church behind me looking at an area that’s used for all the sporting activities – mainly soccer of course. It seems that this area is “booked” for most of the day. The younger kids play here in the morning, and older in the afternoon / evening. Also, the local school uses it too for their physical education class.
This is a view from town down to the lake. It was hazy when I went to take it, sorry!
I didn’t take any pictures of our homestay or the family, I guess I didn’t personally feel comfortable doing that, others on tour probably did though. They were very nice though and went out of their way for us. We had dinner with the whole family on the first night. There was mum and dad, and their eldest daughter who was 19 years old. She was engaged and getting married soon to a nice fellow who I didn’t meet. They also had four boys – two in junior school, one who had finished high school and was working as a courier for the local hospital, and one who went to college and was a technician for the hospital where he fixed computers and helped analyse blood samples. You could tell just by looking at him that he was an egg-head! Some people definitely look like they belong behind a computer doing nerdy things. Makes me wonder what I look like?
They served us a simple but very tasty dinner of chicken and potatoes, with a decent home-made sauce and of course tortillas which are the staple of any meal – even breakfast. I tried to help make the tortillas, but it actually takes a bit of skill and a lot of practice, and I couldn’t even make one decent one. They’re supposed to be small and round and of an even thickness, but mine were always misshaped and uneven.
For dinner we all sat at the table in the kitchen with its old and mismatched chairs, and talked for about two hours! My Spanish is non-existent, but because I have a very basic knowledge of French and I am good with non-verbal language, as well as having picked up a few Spanish words in the last three-odd weeks I had been in Central America, I managed to be able to follow bits of the conversation. If it got too tricky my mate Rodrigo would translate for me, and I found that I was even able to laugh at the odd joke without Rod needing to translate. Although perhaps I had misunderstood completely and was just laughing randomly like an idiot.
One thing that did stick out from that conversation was how reliant on TV these people were to get an idea of what it was like outside their country. It really is their only window to the world as most of them don’t have access to computers or of course the internet. Additionally, most of them will never even leave their town, let alone leave the country – they simply could never afford it. Consider that they pay about $80 a year for their running water, and they consider that quite expensive – testimonial to the fact that many families didn’t have running water.
While I was travelling in Central America, I met a few Australians and Canadians who had done the “sponsor a child” thing where they pay something like $50 a month to a child’s parents so that they can raise the child properly and send them to school. These Australians and Canadians were actually going to go and visit the child they were sponsoring and see how they were doing! Quite cool! It must be very rewarding if you have been sponsoring a child for so many years, getting the odd letter or photo from them, and then seeing for yourself how you have had such a good effect on their life. I definitely gained a new perspective about the whole situation.
After dinner we said “buenos noches” (good night) and retired to bed. The next day we all met up by the church at 9am and piled into a ute to be taken down to the lake – Lago de Atitlan.
Here’s Rod with a decent background as we go down the twisty road!
At the bottom there is a big-ish town that’s a kinda touristy with its markets full of souvenirs, mats, dresses, and with bars and restaurants not being hard to find. There was a school parade on that went past, with the kids in some interesting outfits!
Our optional activity for the day was to get onto a speed boat down at the lake and go across to the other side to another tourist town called Santiago Atitlan which is placed in between two volcanoes. Here’s a pic of one of the volcanoes.
The water in the lake is very, very dirty. This is due to a bad sewage system for all the people living in the area. The sewage isn’t treated – it just goes straight into the lake. As a result the fish is bad, most of the locals don’t eat it. I did see this guy in a rowing boat, maybe he’s out to check a fishing net, or maybe he is just trying to get from one place to another?
We reached shore.
I noticed all these tables under water. I inquired, and apparently they had plenty of rain last season and the water level had raised a lot.
In the area they have plenty of markets, an interesting church, and also a shrine to one of the local deities. So I jumped into a tuk-tuk and headed up to the shrine first.
This particular deity is named Maximon and is some kind of god of wealth, cigars, sweet things, and ties. He is doted on by the local shamans, who you can see in this picture. If you want to know more about this, the Wikipedia article is pretty interesting.
Also quite interesting is the house where the shrine was. Apparently the shrine moves around every so often, but it was like a walk through some tiny alleyways just to get to it. Here’s a pic of the shrine building on the right, and some perspective of the area.
We headed for the church and I thought I would snap a photo of the street with some tuk-tuks zooming through.
This woman had some kind of disease where she couldn’t walk, couldn’t use a wheelchair by herself, and so had to crawl.
So that was pretty much it for the town, although I will mention a café we stopped at that had a cake called “tres leches” which translates to “three milks” – which is made with condensed milk, evaporated milk, and cream. It’s amazing! If you ever see it, have some. In fact if you’re into baking, bake some and then invite me over for tea.
That night we went back to the homestays and then met up for a group dinner that the locals in the town put on for us. All the girls in our group borrowed a traditional dress from the families.
There was a few guys playing the marimbas. I know the marimbas well, being African, so I was a little surprised that they are also played here in Central America. I was convinced that it was a purely African instrument, but it turns out that they are actually a Central American instrument. The African instrument I was actually thinking of isn’t a marimba, it’s called a bafalon and is very similar, but in Africa they just call it a marimba.
Our food was interesting. It was some kind of corn soup with chicken and potatoes. Corn soup, you ask? Well yes, that’s how best I can describe it. Basically I reckon they get some maize meal and then make it into a soup – as opposed to making it into a thick porridge like sadza (Zimbabwean staple food).
And so that was a fairly interesting couple of days! I don’t think it was what anyone expected at all. I loved it. A few people hated it. It’s not for everyone I suppose, but I’m all about these experiences so I made sure I got the most out of it.