Last year on December 28, Robbi woke me at 5:00am, put me in the car, and drove me to the airport. We flew to Los Angeles to begin a 10-day adventure in the Desert Southwest. December 18 happened to be my 40th birthday. In the wake of said odyssey, Robbi made me swear not to plan anything so grand for her 40th, claiming that the trip was to be a celebration for both of us.
I solemnly swore. And then immediately got to work planning my revenge.
Yesterday morning, it finally happened.
In order for the second act to be satisfying, there must be new twists and escalating dramatic tension. So, instead of waking Robbi at 5:00am, I woke her at 1:30am. She was remarkably gracious about it. We rolled into the car and drove to BWI. Two hours later, Robbi was keenly aware of the hour. The whole “gracious” bit seemed to be wearing thin.
The grumbles continued as the shuttle ferried us from the long-term parking lot to the terminal.
It continued as we boarded our plane to Atlanta (not our final destination).
Robbi plied me with questions which, of course, I would not answer. Such is the nature of clandestine 40th birthday adventures that information is delivered on a “need to know” basis.
However, as we sat there in Atlanta eating sweet crepes, it became clear that Robbi would soon learn our destination because we were soon to board our second plane. And so she pondered as she munched, testing theories and having each one soundly debunked.
Were we going to Italy? We were not.
Germany, perhaps? No again.
Or was it Japan? Not even a little.
I told Robbi that she had all the information she needed to unravel the mystery, that she had, in the past, expressly requested something for her 40th that could only be obtained in one place. This clue did nothing to clarify the situation.
But then I reminded her that about a year ago my dad and Judy went to Guatemala, and before they left, sent us an email asking whether we might like them to bring us any Guatemalan goods, such as a blouse or a bag or a poncho. Robbi forgot about the email and thus obtained no goods. In the wake of the missed opportunity, she realized that, above all else, she wanted to see me march down the streets of Chestertown wearing a Guatemalan poncho. In an unguarded moment, she said that it was the only thing she wanted for her 40th birthday.
Needless to say, the comment was idle, and Robbi had forgotten it. But I did not. I booked us two tickets to Guatemala with the express intent of obtaining said poncho. The scheme revealed, Robbi got a little emotional.
She was amused. She was touched. She was a little bit stunned. It seemed like the perfect moment to hand her a present.
As we boarded the plane, the surprise turned to delight. We were going to Guatemala. It all seemed so unlikely.
We took off. The new Mission Impossible movie came on. We watched it with the delight of two people suddenly liberated from all three of their children for the first time in nearly eight years. The movie ended, and we looked down at Guatemala City.
We cleared customs, and there we were. Guatemala. We felt so welcome.
We walked out to the curb and there was a man with a sign. His name was Miguel. The sign said Robbi Behr. We decided to do what he said.
He said we should get into his van. We drove us for roughly three hours, pretty much due west. The traffic was intense.
And so was the rain.
Eventuall,y we made it to the shore of Lake Atitlán, a gorgeous volcanic lake in the highlands.
We said goodbye to Miguel in the little town of Panajachel.
We walked down to the public dock.
And boarded the ferry that makes a circuit to the series of little towns along the lakefront.
Night fell as the boat left the dock, loaded with locals and us and a few other tourists. Rain started falling as we moved through the dark. Our stop was the first one on the route, a little dock in a private bay belonging to La Fortuna de Atitlán, our home for the next five days.
Our hostess Kat led us up the hill to our bungalow. Dinner was waiting, and so we ate it. And then we fell into a sleep so deep and profound I am convinced there were no dreams.
Eleven hours later, we awoke to the sight of thatch above our heads.
And breakfast waiting on the little porch of our bungalow.
The food was incredible.
Now seems like the right time to tell you that the poncho bit was just a ruse, a thing to justify our destination as we were sitting there in Atlanta. Robbi’s real dream, the one she talks about after staying up for three nights in a row to meet a deadline, is to spend an entire week in bed, able to sleep in as long as she likes and watch as many movies and TV shows as her heart desires. No interruptions, no urgency, no endless demands from life as she knows it. Just Robbi and the bed and all the time in the world.
To her this was an impossible dream. Like petting a unicorn or walking to the moon. And so I decided to make it happen.
At this point she still had no idea how long we’d be staying in Guatemala. I had several times hinted that it was just a weekend trip.
I chose breakfast as the perfect opportunity to let her know that her real birthday present was a week in bed. In one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever been.
The news went over pretty well.
During breakfast, we were visited by Sanza, one of the three dogs that live at La Fortuna.
She had brought us an avocado.
It was not for us to eat, but for us to throw and for Sanza to fetch.
And so we did. About a hundred times.
It was so unlike a typical morning back at home. We put our feet up and let it all soak in.
Here is our bungalow, nestled into the jungle and surrounded by coffee bushes.
It is a wooden structure with a thatched roof and walls made of panels that can be lifted by pulling a string so that the air can blow through. The temperature is 60 and night and 80 during the day. We are a mile high, so there is no humidity and no mosquitos.
There is a lime tree growing outside one window.
And an avocado tree growing just off our front porch.
And a banana tree growing over our bathroom. Because, you see, our bathroom has no roof.
It is a small yard ringed with bamboo just behind the bungalow. When doing one’s business in the middle of the night, one can gaze up into the piercing brilliance of the dark Guatemalan sky. I know this from personal (if limited) experience.
After breakfast, we set out to explore.
La Fortuna is a small eco-hotel run by Kat and Steve. She’s from Canada and he’s from America. Together, they created an off-the grid escape with four small bungalows and a large central building with a dining room and a bar. All the buildings are inspired by Balinese architecture. This is the main building.
And this is the view from the main building looking down at the lake.
We chatted with Kat for a while about all the wonderful things there are to do in nearby towns. There is a nearby culinary institute where we are going to go have lunch one day. And a hike between two villages. And a town that specializes in ceramics. But for today, we weren’t feeling so ambitious, and so we decided to stay closer to home.
Kat pulled out a couple of kayaks for us, and we headed out for a short adventure.
Sanza and her sister dog were sad to see us go.
The water was choppy from the wind, so we stayed close to shore. We watched a blue heron fly in and land in its nest.
We did a fair amount of smiling.
After the kayaking, there was swimming and jumping from a raised platform reached by a rope ladder. Then we decided to explore the main building, which is nothing short of a piece of art .
Steve and Kat are visionaries, to be sure. They’ve created something absolutely beautiful and have invited the world to come share it with them.
The bathroom in the main building has a wall made from glass bottles.
There is also a map of the world where visitors can place a pin to mark their home.
Chestertown is now on the map.
We’ve spent the day in a state of aesthetic bliss.
Every inch of this place is thoughtfully considered and beautifully constructed.
We ordered some lunch.
And sat on the deck while we waited.
Admiring the exquisite details of every surface.
After lunch, we took a hike.
The rainy season has recently ended, so the foliage is abundant and exotic.
Steve and Kat have restored an old trail that leads up through the jungle to an overlook partway up the mountain behind La Fortuna. Even though the way was steep, the walking was good.
And the view was worthy of the climb.
I do not know the name of the volcano directly across the lake, but it looms large in every photo you take from this bay. For all but a very few moments, its top was buried in clouds.
On the way back, we stopped to pick some coffee beans.
Thinking about a nap, but a little hot and sweaty from the hike, we returned to the lakefront for another swim.
It is November, but the water was perfect.
After the swimming, we did some lakeside lounging.
Apparently, the only thing I got wrong in my clandestine suitcase-packing efforts is bringing the wrong swimming suit for Robbi. This one is her maternity suit, which she hasn’t worn in approximately five years. I was lightly chided for failing to recognize that she was no longer pregnant. I conceded the point but cited fatigue and the fact that I was forced to pack in the fleeting moments that Robbi was not at her desk drawing stuff.
During the lounging, a boat pulled up. This is the same sort of boat that had delivered us the night before.
It was dropping off two new guests, a couple from Canada.
It was dropping off two new guests, a couple from Canada.
Tired from the swimming and from the past fifteen years, we decided to take a nap. The nap was not photogenic.
At 5:30, we headed down to the main building for dinner. While we waited for our food to arrive, we explored some more. Just above the lake is a wood-heated hot tub that we plan to get to know better in the days ahead.
We went back down to the water. Someone had lit candles along the floating dock.
Because making things beautiful is what La Fortuna is all about.
The sun was setting. The day was coming to a close, but what a day it had been.
Our dinner arrived. For the third consecutive meal, we were eating plates full of art.
I was a very happy man.
Now we are back in our bungalow, tucked in for another night of long and peaceful sleep. The bugs and the frogs and the night are conspiring in harmony to make the jungle even more alive than it has been all day.
Good night, La Fortuna. Thank you, Kat and Steve.
How can the next six days ever hope to live up to this one?