Aching for a shower, I arrived in Guatemala City smelling like the sixteen hour journey and five hour delay I’d just had, but on leaving the airport to head to Antigua, I didn’t feel too out of place on the filthy streets that whizzed past.
Elegant pyramids of rubbish lined the streets, I reeked to the high heavens and the woman in the people carrier beside me harped on about the frequency of group kidnappings in that particular area. All this, before I’d set foot on one of the country’s infamous chicken buses!
The following morning in Antigua, the first port of call was Fernando’s – a local artisan café and chocolate maker. In response to the provocation of his vast display of chocolate goods, Fernando, possibly to prevent my imminent salivation all over the display, gave me a tour of his kitchen.
Somewhere between the aromas of mint, mango and vanilla, I started twitching like a junkie and noticing my predicament, he offered me a sample of fresh chocolate. Far more bitter than I expected, and with a more powdery texture than I had anticipated, the usual choclofied euphoria ensued. I took my steaming coffee outside on the cobbled street and looked across at the nearby volcano, still smoking from a recent eruption.
We later packed onto an airless rental bus that snaked through a series of twisty, hilly roads into the Western Highlands. A number of hours and several bottles of water later, we hopped onto a small boat in the town of Panjachel to cross the magnificent expanse of Lake Atitlan to the wonderful Mayan village of Santa Cruz la Laguna. Volcanoes fence the lake on the Southern side and to the North a thick weave of vegetation covers the hill as far as the eye can see.
The xocomil winds that blow down from the surrounding volcanoes stir the lake violently in the afternoons so no vessels traverse during the middle of the day. It was just after midday when we crossed, so the waters were quite choppy but not dangerously so. Only six of the group felt ill after the crossing. (There were only ten in the group.)
We disembarked at the shaky dock in Santa Cruz where Mayan women decorated in traditional garb greeted us with warm toothless smiles. Their hand-woven attire was a rainbow of colour and spoke to the particular tribe from which each family was descended.
We later visited the local school in Santa Cruz, where we deposited gifts of shoes and toothbrushes for the children. The classroom was nothing more than bare block walls and an uncovered concrete floor, much like a neglected outhouse. The children, surprisingly, wore an assortment of dirty Barcelona and Real Madrid jerseys – no doubt, gifts from previous visiting groups to the area. Their gorgeous little faces were unwashed but illuminated with joy as they noticed the visitors walk into their classroom.
Throughout the excitement, one boy sat quietly in the corner, looking down at the floor. When one of the Americans in the group asked if she could photograph him, he looked up at her revealing black spots scarring the whites of both eyes. He smiled for the photo and then smiled even more enthusiastically at the image of himself on camera screen.
I don’t think of the Quetzal as part of Guatemala’s emblem, I think of that boy – his cherubic face and those unfortunate blemished eyes. Hope and despair are inextricably linked in the country haunted by the atrocities of the recent past but sustained by their Mayan beliefs that something better is yet to come.