It was our second full day in Guatemala.
I woke first, because I always wake first. While Robbi did her sleeping thing, I tiptoed down the cobbled jungle pathway.
And there was the lake in all its early morning majesty. I kept pinching myself. Was I really here? In Guatamala? A minor injury resulted. The minor pain confirmed the fact. I really was here, in Guatemala, on the shores of a gorgeous volcanic lake, standing in the shadows of a magnificent Balinese structure from which would emerge delightful things for me to eat.
I tapped my foot impatiently for what seemed like an eternity. Eventually Robbi emerged and the breakfast arrived. The coffee was delicious. The food was amazing. The company was questionable at best.
After a swim and a shower, we walked down to the lake and hopped onto the ferry that runs along the lakeshore all day long. Our destination was Tzununa, a little town a few bays to the west.
The boat was full of locals.
The volcano loomed.
As we pulled into the dock at Tzununa, we saw evidence of the lake’s recent rise. Apparently, the water has risen 15 feet over the past five years. Our friends at La Fortuna have lost 40 feet of real estate in that time.
Apparently, the lake has risen and fallen over the centuries, but is currently at an historical high water mark. Theories vary. It might be that mudslides have plugged the underwater vents that used to drain the lake. Or it may be that recent volcanic activity has created a thermal “bubble” below the lake bed that is pushing waters up. Regardless, people have their eyes on the water line and are thinking twice about how high to place new construction.
We got off the boat.
And declined eager drivers who wanted to give us a ride on their three-wheeled tuktuks, the prevailing form of taxi in Guatemala.
As we walked the road between the dock and town center, we came upon a field of children flying handmade kites.
We suddenly missed our children and longed to give them hugs. And then the moment passed. We walked along the road, blissfully free of children for the next few days at least.
Before long, we came to the central intersection and saw the challenge before us, a volcanic ridge that was (I swear) so much more steep and daunting than it looks in this photo.
I steeled myself for the challenge. I did so demonstrably, as if to convince myself that I was truly up for it.
Though sweat-inducing, the walk was beautiful.
We chose mid-November for this trip in part because of Robbi’s birthday, but in part because the rainy season had just ended and we were promised full-blown jungle verdancy without the accompanying rains.
Creatures were everywhere. Lizards, spiders, dogs. Naked-necked chickens.
Murals were painted onto any willing surface pretty much everywhere we went.
As we walked east from Tzununa, the road varied from neatly paved…
…to precariously situated…
…to nothing but a narrow strip of dirt clinging to the edge of a cliff.
The views were spectacular throughout. See below to the right of Robbi’s head, the village of Tzununa. I submit to you this evidence of our strenuous exertion.
We walked through cornfields that clung valiantly to the near-vertical slopes.
Entwined with the corn (holding on for dear life, we suspect) were bright red beans.
Existing in a kind of symbiosis.
Occasionally, we stopped to smell the flowers.
And were rewarded with little glimpses of things one does not find in Chestertown.
The path was full of ups and downs, but someone had taken time to build a clever set of steps into the stone.
We walked through dozens of tiny ecosystems as we made our way along the lakefront from above. You cannot see it in the photo below, but off to the right is an aloe plantation.
Eventually, we made our final descent into the little town of Jaibalito.
On our way into town, we stumbled upon a playground. My Spanish wasn’t good enough to know for sure whether or not it was ok for Robbi to use the slide. But she proceeded to do it anyway, fully prepared to start babbling excitedly in German if issued a summons.
But no one batted an eye. We were free, on vacation. No obligations in the world but following the path, skirting the edges of volcanos.
We found ourselves in the heart of Jaibailito, but the welcoming committee refused to show us the way.
And so we followed a guy down narrow streets that seemed to be pointing in the direction we wanted to go.
Eventually, we found ourselves on the trail again. As we left Jaibailito, we heard what sounded like a whole lot of gunfire but was (we later discovered) just a whole lot of fireworks. One hears a lot of fireworks in Guatemala.
Everywhere there were tiny treasures. Fragments of pottery and tile built into roughly paved steps, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
Open doors that led temptingly to secret places.
Mosaics in front of little hotels that hugged the cliffs.
Eventually, we came to the next town, Santa Cruz, where we met two kindly people from Denver who agreed to take our photo. We were, at this point, thoroughly winded, but the Denverites, used to the mile-high atmosphere, blazed on while we sat there resting for a minute.
We looked down at the ferry, feeling gratified that we had climbed so high and so far on our rickety, forty-year-old frames.
As we made our way down into Santa Cruz, we came upon a narrow door.
And looked down upon a soccer field.
On the able advice of Kat, our host at La Fortuna, we were headed to a culinary school in Santa Cruz for lunch. The path we had been hiking ended at a paved road. We had a decision to make: up the hill to the village or down to the water. We couldn’t remember whether Kat had said up or down. Perhaps it was our tired legs speaking, but we chose down.
The way was steep. The kind of grade you don’t want to have to climb back up. We rounded a bend, and then we saw it. The sign for the culinary school. Way, way, way up from where we now stood, high on the top of the hill.
And so we headed back up. Up and up and up. The tuktuk drivers offered us sanctuary, but we decided that lunch would taste so much better if we had truly earned it.
Hundreds of steep steps later, we reached our destination, a tiny institute perched high atop the hill of Santa Cruz.
Were we happy to be there? Oh, yes we were. It was the final day of Robbi’s 39th year, and we were going to celebrate in style.
There may be no restaurant with better views. And so we took them in.
But not for long, because then our drinks arrived. Robbi had made the inexplicable order of lemonade with chia seeds. I mocked her silently until she took a sip and declared it the finest thing that she had ever lifted to her lips. The gauntlet thrown, I tried it for myself, and had to agree. (Though I’ll also allow that the recent double-climb might have had something to do with it.)
I ordered tamales with pickled vegetables, fresh homemade cheese, and a variety of salsas.
Robbi had eggplant and chicken in a spectacular sauce.
For desert we had fried bananas floating in a chocolate mole sauce.
It was all so delicious and unlikely. And the entire meal set us back about $14.
To get to the dining room, we had to walk through another part of the school, where students were making clothing and handicrafts.
We bought a bracelet for Alden and walked back down the hill.
We caught the ferry for the short ride back to La Fortuna where we swam, and then had a spirited conversation about not much of anything in the bungalow’s loft.
As soon as we ran out of things to say to one another (it took about four minutes), we took a long nap.
It was a constant struggle deciding between staying in our bungalow and exploring the wonders of Guatemala. Both options were equally tempting. And equally beautiful. So we opted for a back and forth approach.
When we awoke, the sun was down. We ate dinner. We sat by the water and watched a lightning storm happen on the distant Pacific.
We came back to the bungalow and brushed our teeth, again stunned by how a gorgeous setting can transform an otherwise mundane task into a kind of performance art.
And then we slept. And then we woke. Suddenly, Robbi was 40.
She looked pretty much the same, and so I decided to keep her. In keeping with the theme of birthday admiration, I said nice things about her for a while, praising her elbows and eyelashes and etc., but then the food arrived and the joyful celebration of 40 years of life suddenly seemed like a lesser priority.
Fortunately, Robbi was sufficiently distracted by her own breathtaking meal to be too upset about her sudden downgrade.
We munched contentedly for a while, and then Kat came by, as she did every morning, to help us plan the day. We were heading out to explore a new village, so she drew us a map.
I say SHE DREW US A MAP. We have never stayed in a motel/hotel/thatched-roof-eco-hotel in which the proprietor was so incredibly kind and helpful. A MAP, I say a hand-drawn MF@#ING MAP!
Map in hand, we headed down to the water and flagged down a boat, a task accomplished by vigorously waving a plastic bag.
My vigor was rewarded. They picked us up.
And we headed out again. This time, our destination was a bit further down the shoreline.
We were headed for San Juan, a town known for an abundance of artisans.
Once again, the waterfront told the story of a rising lake.
Our first stop was a little shop run by a collective of painters.
One of the artists was on hand to tell us about the various local styles. Bright color was the prevailing theme, but there were interesting variations in perspective and technique. Our new friend spoke no English, but we managed to cobble together a kind of understanding. We wish that we could have purchased the painting shown below. It is so charming and different and weirdly wonderful.
Next, we headed across the street to a shop run by a collective of weavers.
All the cloth was made of hand spun, hand dyed, hand-weaved cotton cloth.
We wanted one of everything.
One of the weavers took her time in explaining the process.
Every bit of dye is made from natural materials found nearby — whether indigo or avocado bark or the dried bodies of insects (the cochinilla).
We spent a long time admiring the sumptuous wares and vowed to return later. For the time being, we had a specific mission in mind—a special birthday lunch for Robbi.
In addition to being an artist enclave, San Juan is known for its murals. As we walked the streets, we stopped to admire them.
Wherever we went, there were dogs. Dogs of many kinds. All of them were friendly. And unconcerned. And devoted nappers. Not at all unlike Robbi. The dogs appeared to belong to no one. And to everyone.
It was unclear whether there were more dogs or murals.
Or children. In our admittedly limited experience, Guatemala is full of murals, children, and dogs.
We had plenty of time. And so we walked slowly.
Constantly dodging tuktuks while savoring every detail.
It was a day we intended to remember.
And so we took lots…
One mural seemed to not quite match the rest. Note that even this familiar logo has been hand-painted.
Occasionally, the dogs and murals stood in close proximity. We kept waiting for a child to walk by and make it the trifecta. But no child came, so eventually we moved on.
At the center of town was a beautiful church.
With simple but lovely stained glass windows.
In search of money with which to purchase lunch, we spent an inordinate amount of time trying to find the ATM. At one point we considered resorting to despair, but several mangled conversations later, we finally pulled it off.
Then made our way to the edge of town.
To a little wine and cheese shop Kat had suggested would be a very nice place to celebrate the culmination of four decades.
We found ourselves in a picturesque courtyard with just twelve seats.
And great atmosphere.
And a truly remarkable view.
Although the menu had many tempting options, we had been advised that the cheese plate was not to be missed.
We had been instructed to ring this bell when we had made up our minds. So ring we did.
A few minutes later, our cheese arrived.
And olives and nuts and fruit and honey and red pepper jelly. There were 23 different kinds of cheese, all made locally and aged on site. Our proprietor walked us through each one, advising us to eat them in a certain order so as to maximize our gustatory pleasure.
We followed his instructions to the letter. The cheese was incredible, with no exceptions. Be not fooled by my face. We had been warned that one section of the platter was devoted to “stinky cheeses.” One of them was really breatakingly stinky. I was truly impressed. And pleased. In spite of what my face might say. PAY NO ATTENTION TO THE FACE.
Our host wished Robbi feliz cumpleaños…
…and then ushered us across the street to his wife’s shop…
…where handmade truffles were in the offing.
As we walked back down the hill to the water…
…we encountered more murals…
…and more dogs.
As promised, we stopped back into the weaving collective to get Robbi a birthday scarf.
And the boys some hand-woven backpacks.
And me a…spectacular…poncho. If you haven’t read the previous post, Robbi’s recent dream has been to watch me march down the streets of Chestertown wearing a Guatemalan poncho. Given that I make it my primary goal to make her every dream come true, obtaining said poncho was a primary objective of this trip. And San Juan seemed like the perfect place to make it happen.
The weaver kindly and carefully made an accounting of all the materials that accounted for the dyes in the stuff we bought.
My poncho, for example, was dyed with indigo and two different strengths of dye made from the bodies of the crushed cochinilla (an insect that resembles a potato bug).
Our various missions accomplished, we bid farewell to the children, dogs, and murals. We hopped back on the ferry, and found our way back home.
We swam and we rested. (As I’m sure you know well, vacations can be so exhausting.)
In spite of my vehement protestations (for as you know, I loathe nothing more than appearing foolish or playful in photographs), Robbi asked me to model my poncho.
I asked Robbi, “Have your dreams come true?”
She repled, “Not nearly. This is all well and good, but I really want to see you walk up High Street thus decorated.”
To which I replied, “Whatever you ask, my Bright Sun, my Clear Running River, my Rainbow After a Rainstorm.”
At which point Robbi promptly threw up.
The resulting excitement lasted tens of minutes. Once we both regained our composure, we dialed up the kids for a birthday video chat. My saintly mother had agreed to take them for a full week. Guatemala not withstanding, this was Robbi’s REAL 40th birthday present.
But it was so good to see them and to know that they seemed to be missing us not even one shred of an iota.
We rested some more (the prevailing theme of this entire week) and then wandered down to the main building for another delicious meal and a special slice of chocolate coconut cake with chocolate ganache and a single candle on top.
It was one of those times when one actually equals forty. It was a very good day. In the midst of a very good week.
And somehow, in spite of feeling that things just couldn’t get any better, our vacation was not yet halfway done.