Vertical Endeavors

Guatemala Days 4 & 5

The dogs continue to wake me at 6:30 every morning, as if set to rise by some internal Swiss clock. I enjoy it, as I have been going to bed around 10:00 and reading for a while, and it seems like the right time to get up and about.

Sebastian and his two helpers are making great progress on the tree in the front yard at Casa de Benjamin. They have all of the upper branches down now and are beginning to cut manageable-sized logs for use as firewood.

The other day they were caught in a heavy downpour of rain, with one of the men high up in the tree. I was inside the house working on my step work when it began. They took refuge on the other side of the window from me, under the safety of porch. I went to them and asked if they’d like water or coffee and despite the language barrier, I could see the enthusiasm in their faces. It seems that all Latin Americans drink their coffee with leche (milk); unfortunately I didn’t have any, but provided them with all the sugar they could desire. They have been gracious to me until now, but it seems since the “coffee event”, they go out of their way to say hello to me.

Day 4 was very rainy. I read much of Siddhartha and napped. I also made my way to the internet cafe up the path. They have six workstations and a couple of plug-in ethernet cables for use with laptops. Unfortunately, or perhaps an omen that I shouldn’t be using it, they have no wi-fi service, so I have been unable to upload photos from my iPad.

The highlight of the day came in the evening. I met Josh, Nadja, Maryjann and Maggie up at Nadja’s home at the top of the hill, though this time I cheated a bit and found a TukTuk driver to take me. I paid him 15Q, probably 5 – 10 too many, but at least I arrived with no heavy breathing involved.

We stayed there for roughly an hour while Josh finished his dish of vegetarian chili and we waited for Nadja to return from work. Josh was also preparing a chocolate sauce-covered fruit salad for dessert. I assisted by eating the leftover chocolate scraps and ‘cleaning the bowl’.

Nadja arrived and we headed down the hill to Julia’s house, where the dinner was to be hosted. The walk down to Julia’s house is very near the base of the mountain, near the village, however, the walk UP the mountain to the house is quite steep, and dare I say, probably 500 feet. I now see why Julia appears so fit.

The prize at the top of the hill, however, was spectacular! The house has been in the making for two years, but that seems to be normal here. Especially considering that all of the materials have to be brought up the vertical climb by hand, as there is no way to get any heavy-duty equipment up the mountain given the terrain of her property. A local American architect designed the house, and his crew has been constructing it. Julia showed us the rain water filtration system and solar-powered water heating coils in the rear of the home. She’s quite proud of this particular feature, as it makes the house fully self-sustaining. There is also a gray water tank that’s used to catch water for flushing toilets.

In front of the home is a large cement, semi-circular platform extending roughly 30 feet out from the house. At its edge is a pool and hot tub, built into the platform, with an infinity pool effect at the edge. Unfortunately the weather that day didn’t provide much sun, so the pool hot tub was not suited for use. The edge of the pool and platform sit high on the mountain, with only a few trees and Lago Atitlan below. There is no railing to provide safety, but the view is unobstructed.

The pool
The pool

At the house’s center is a two-story circular structure. The first floor of which is actually only a half-circle, where the kitchen is laid out along the front arc overlooking the lake below. There is a wood-burning stove in the center, and a stairway that leads upward along the curve of the circle. The stairs themselves are large boards of wood seemingly magically suspended, only appearing from the wall outward.

Halfway up the stairway is a door to the master bedroom on the right. This room juts out of the circle, shaped squarely. The bed is highly elevated atop a set of drawers and the mattress runs even with the windows overlooking the lake. In the rear of the bedroom is a door to a 3/4 bath.

Continuing up the stairs brings you to the great room. The floor is a beautiful tropical wood, of which Julia couldn’t recall the species. There is a round fireplace in the center of the room, directly atop the wood-burning stove in the kitchen beneath. Part of the circle is open to the staircase and kitchen below. Large full-height windows line the front of the circle, overlooking the lake again. The room has very high ceilings, probably 20 feet high at the center. The roof is a traditional thatched roof made of bamboo and leaves.

A door opposite the circle from the master bedroom leads to a few short stairs up and angled to the rear of the property. The hallway is painted pink, with indirect natural lighting provided by an artful use of glass block, cutaways in the wall and wooden boards every five feet or so in the hallway. It produces quite the effect, as not just the walls are painted, but also the floor and arch-shaped ceiling. It is quite the site. The first door on the left leads to another 3/4 bath and the second door, on the left at the end of the hallway, leads to a second bedroom. Both the bath and bedroom off of the pink hall also include lake views.

The Pink Hallway
The Pink Hallway

Julia prepared seaweed chips dipped in a batter and fried in oil, then served with a dish of the amino acids soy-sauce substitute you find in health food stores. They we DELICIOUS.

Andrew, of the famed Dark Room, joined us a short while later and prepared a salad.

We gathered up in the great room, sans furniture, to eat in front of the fire. There was a lightning storm directly in front of the house, over the lake. Loud claps of thunder would strike the windows and the fire crackled and popped throughout the evening.

Josh had added too much chili powder to the dish, and the level of spice was nearly unbearable. He is such a good cook, but was seemingly mislead by the powder’s labeling. In an attempt to subdue the spice, he had added chocolate to the chili. We tried adding tortilla, salad and even Andrew made a batch of pasta, but I wasn’t able to get it down. Some were more successful than I. Nadja, with draining sinuses and a near inability to close her mouth, muttered out between chomps, “I think it’s powfect. It’s baww good.” To which I laughed out loud and observed her draining sinuses and difficulty in swallowing. We all chuckled a bit.

Dessert was a saving grace, and we all downed the fruit and chocolate in a fury. After dessert I went downstairs to begin the dishes. The rest of the crew remained upstairs and Andrew picked up Julia’s guitar and began performing a song for Maggie, as she was leaving in the morning to continue her journey. Andrew was quite marvelous, making up the chords and lyrics on the fly, and the structure of the house provided a magnificent amplifier of the sounds.

Some of the group asked to see Julia’s latest movie, so she setup her laptop to begin playing. Interested, but tired, I said my goodbyes and headed down into the village. The home’s steep incline provided to be just as difficult on the way down in the rain with a small flashlight, but I was able to make it without a slip.

The following morning I met up with the gang at Nadja’s house to depart for Pana to see Maggie off. Julie and Maryjann stayed behind, while Josh, Andrew, Maggie and myself made it down the hill from Nadja’s to the dock to wait for a ferry.

Pana is the largest village on the lake, sitting on its east-most point, though it’s more of a city with a population of roughly 60,000. The ferry ride took approximately 30 minutes with a couple of stops between. Approaching the Pana docks we observed a two or three tower hotel of roughly 20 stories on the northern shore. Josh told us that it sits nearly complete, yet vacant, and has been for quite some time. Several stories have been told as to its fate. Some say that the locals didn’t want such a large resort on the lake, and that the negative energy from everyone prevented its completion. Others say that the locals hired to build the structure conspired to sabotage the project. One story went so far as to say the elevator shafts were built of the wrong size, and wouldn’t properly accommodate the elevator cars.

Being the largest pueblo on the lake, the docks are a gathering spot for local street vendors. The damage to the dock and surrounding landscape from the recent rain and mudslides also appear in Pana, though there was a large street crew at work performing repairs there.

We made our way through the main market street, where one can purchase nearly anything. We arrived at a bank, where Maggie and Josh used the ATM. While waiting for them to complete their transactions I was observing the busy intersection, where a policeman was directing traffic. Keep in mind that stray dogs, people, motorcycles, trucks, TukTuks and inattentive tourists all exist on the street, and things can get somewhat hectic with the policeman’s whistle and cars horns. As one TukTuk came through the intersection, at the proper direction of the policeman, a local attempted to cross the intersection. The TukTuk tried to swerve out of his path, but caught the man’s foot. A stranger on the side of the road came over and began yelling at the TukTuk driver, at which the larger driver got out of his TukTuk and began arguing with both the stranger and the man with the now-gimp foot. Things turned a bit violent and the TukTuk driver nearly beat the two men to a pulp, but they ran away. The entire debacle was merely watched by the policeman, laughing quietly to himself and directing traffic around the vacant TukTuk blocking the intersection.

Josh and Maggie finished their transactions and we headed deeper into town to the Crossroads Cafe – a coffee shop run by a husband and wife team with the help of their daughter. Mike, the patriarch of the family, was originally from upstate New York and his wife, who wasn’t present, was from South Africa. I believe the family settled in California before departing south.

The Crossroads Cafe
The Crossroads Cafe

Mike was a very happy man with lots of energy. He ran a smooth and efficient business in the small shop and never ran out of jokes and friendly mockings. Josh purchased six pounds of coffee to return to the US with, and we all ordered drinks and baked goods. And what FABULOUS baked goods they were! I ordered a piece of carrot cake. Andrew had a cinnamon roll. Josh had a walnut, white chocolate, and berry cookie, and some of us went for a second dessert – myself included.

Aside from two regulars and ourselves, a tour group of roughly 8 – 10 people came in and filled the cafe. A handful of other locals came in, ordered and departed as well.

Mike showed us and the tour group his “secret room” where he stores and roasts his coffee. He told people to make sure to keep it a secret, while at the same time showing a tour group the entrance. It was a bit comical.

The secret room
The secret room

We next stopped in at a grocer’s where Josh picked up some things. Then we were off to the bus stop where we said our goodbyes to Maggie and waved her off.

Andrew stayed in Pana while Josh and I made our way back to the docks to board a ferry back to San Marcos.

In the afternoon I explored the village a bit more on my own. I discovered another main pathway that runs parallel to the main path up and down the hill to the lake. At its top is a restaurant and bar I had heard about called Blind Lemons. They were rumored to have wi-fi, which I was excited for, but upon arriving discovered it had been broken for several days. Another omen perhaps.

I returned to LaPaz for a hummus sandwich for lunch. Stopped in at the internet cafe to check emails, and returned for a short siesta in the afternoon.

For dinner I headed back to LaPaz where I met up with Rico and Vanessa, whom I hadn’t seen in a day. The two of them have been spending time together, which is nice to see – they make good companions for each other. Vanessa overcame her fear of being the newcomer in the yoga class and enjoyed it. I had introduced her to Nadja and the two took it together. Nadja later told me that the class lasted 3 hours, though obviously it wasn’t all intense.

The three of us decided to try Restaurant Fe for dinner, just down the path. There I discovered that Kathy, the Brit who runs the Blue Lili coffee shop, also runs Fe. She was there acting as the server and sharing a bottle of wine with her accountant at the table next to us.

I had the Thai Curry. Rico and Vanessa shared a pasta dish and pizza. I also ordered a Lime Cheesecake for dessert. It was all rather good. We discussed their trip to Pana and the Crossroads Cafe. They told me about their yoga classes and trip to the Sauna, which I will surely have to try from the description Vanessa gave! Salts to remove toxins, followed by aloe for moisturizing.

It’s now Wednesday, Day 6, at 8:30 and Josh has just arrived to pack some of his belongings. We are headed to LaPaz where he is to enjoy his last LaPaz serving of yogurt and granola.