The van careened around a hairpin turn. It felt like the driver was actually stepping on the gas as he turned into it. Usually a pretty exciting maneuver, but not when you’re hundreds of metres above a jagged ravine in the Guatemalan highlands. The roads in those mountains are so narrow, it’s an everyday miracle relatively few vehicles collide head-on on these high-adrenaline routes.
Getting around Guatemala is cheap and easy. It seems like everyone has a van. You can pay a tour company or a driver as little as $5 Canadian for a three hour trek. The trade-off is safety. On this particular shuttle from Antigua to Lake Atitlan, we were about 10 people crammed into a rickety van with no seatbelts. Wheeling through winding mountain roads at top speed to boot. I remember thinking well, if we go off the edge, at least we’ll probably die instantly.
After three hours of white-knuckled patience, sweat, and tears, our shuttle made it to Panajachel, a town on the northern shore of Lake Atitlan. Lake Atitlan is an ancient body of water, nestled among massive monolithic volcanoes and surrounded by Mayan towns and villages. We made arrangements to stay in Santiago, on the southern shore. After negotiating a relatively expensive 20 minute shuttle boat ride across the lake, we’d finally made it to our temporary destination after a wild day of travel.
Santiago is a city of about 50,000 people built on a steep hillside leading down to the lake. It’s made up predominantly of Mayan people. In fact, I don’t recall seeing any non-aboriginal people walking the streets other than tourists. It was both humbling and inspiring being in such a big place with such overwhelming indigenous influence. All women still wear traditional Mayan dresses. Everyone still knows their native language – here most people speak Tz’utujil. Although most converted to Catholicism after the Spanish invaded in the early 16th century, I was impressed and proud to be in a place with such strong ties to its native ways. It gave me hope for some of our languages, traditions, and communities here in Canada.
The streets were always bustling, well into the night. A lot of people in Santiago apparently don’t have much. On the surface it’s a pretty poor place, and a lot of the locals depend on tourists to buy their crafts and food. There was a fire while we were there, and it was a challenge for the local firefighters to put it out because the water infrastructure is so poor. But it seemed to me these people didn’t need anything more. There were smiles everywhere. With love and happiness in their lives, why bother with North American luxuries? It brought me back to my own upbringing on the rez. Having lived as an urban Indian for the past 12 years, I tend to forget that I spent most of my childhood in a house without power or running water. But my family didn’t need that, because we had lots of love, respect, and happiness in our home.
Being in Santiago was a sobering reminder that strong values trump any material gains. I felt a little ashamed walking the streets with my expensive digital camera and ipod. But spending a few days here was a blessing. The strong Mayan pride that simmered around the lake lifted my own Anishinaabe spirit. But that was just the beginning. My mind was about to be blasted just days later standing atop temples in the heart of Maya….