If I were to choose one distinctive sound to symbolize the identity of Guatemala, it would be the gentle ‘pat-pat-pat’ of a Mayan woman nimbly flattening maize into homemade tortillas. Her rhythmic tapping has a musical, almost therapeutic cadence, similar to the mesmeric qualities of falling rain or crackling fire, and the soft beats only pause when she briefly bends to grab another handful of maize. And then the ‘pat – pat – pat – pat’ starts again.
Everywhere I go, local Mayan women are making tortillas. I watch them in their pueblos while they work near wood burning stoves, or I see them through open windows, standing quietly in their simple, dirt floor kitchens. I cruise through narrow alleys and encounter mothers, daughters, aunts and grandmothers chatting and laughing together while pressing and flipping tortillas over hot coals. They begin early for I often hear the ‘pat-pat-pat’ outside my window just after sunrise, and they finish late for the ‘pat-pat-pat’ continues to reverberate across San Pedro’s tin-roofs long into the night.
Maize, or corn, is a staple of Guatemala’s Mayan cuisine, and tortillas form the backbone of all meals; breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks in between. Since the Mayan women often cook for many family members, it’s not uncommon for them to make between two and three hundred tortillas each and every day. They take pride in their tortilla making skills, and I am told that no two recipes are alike. And believe me, nothing beats the taste of a fresh tortilla hot off the stove; hence why I have already exhausted my lifetime limit of tortillas.
San Pedro la Laguna is a massage for the soul. I understand now why so many expats “get lost” here, perhaps having visited for a short time and then either staying or returning years later to start a business or not work at all (as seems the case with many). However, it is not the expat community that I have grown to love. It’s San Pedro’s atmosphere outside of “gringo alley” and the simply gorgeous, friendly locals that are so addictive and lovable.
From the weathered man resting outside the “tienda” to the giggling senoritas selling watermelon, everyone here has a smile and a “buen dia.” Though the locals seem to work long hours in unimaginable third world conditions, there is always time for introductions, jokes, siestas, and conversations.
At the moment, I am in the middle of a one-week intensive Spanish course at La Cooperativa Spanish School. I have four hours of class in the afternoons, and therefore I try to spend my mornings exploring San Pedro, stealing photos, absorbing the culture, and marveling at Lake Atitlan’s landscape – after my homework, of course. There is always something to appreciate: children flying long-tailed kites against jade mountains, lazy dogs slumbering in shaded doorways, or engorged blossoms cascading down outstretched branches.
I frequent a local cafe for morning coffee and watch the pulse of foot traffic travel up and down nearby streets. Mayan women wearing traditional clothing balance baskets of avocado, fruit, and laundry on their heads while navigating the steep, cobblestone streets with ease. They flow in measure with mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and sisters hustling little ones off to school- hand-in-hand- sometimes finishing hair braids, carrying babies on their backs, or practicing ABC’s and numbers.
If I stroll near the lake at mid-morning, I catch the local women washing clothes (and quite often, themselves) in the lake – their laundry creating a kaleidoscope of reds, blues, and greens amid transient soap suds.
Further from the shore, fishermen patiently clutch their poles over placid water, their faces obscured under large sombreros. The “banana bread ladies,” (as I have named them) call out, “Pan de banana? Pan de chocolate?” I have yet to buy any banana bread from these always grinning women only because I get my daily carbohydrate intake with tortillas. But perhaps I’ll try some tomorrow as I’m certain the homemade bread is deliciously fresh.
The local market at the top of the hill is always a bustling and colorful place to visit throughout the day. I buy fresh licuados (carrot, ginger, and celery), ripe fruit, avocados, and peanuts for afternoon snacks. It is also fun to just sit on a street corner and watch the market activity stream around me.
My homestay “mom” visits the market on a daily basis in order to have fresh ingredients for our meals. It’s much unlike our habit in the States of only frequenting a supermarket once or twice weekly. Then again, she also manages to cook three meals a day for eight people on a two burner gas stove. Imagine that.
We celebrated Guatemala’s Independence Day on Monday. The streets were full of parades, bands, and loud, banging “bombas” (incredibly loud noisemakers that went off at all hours of the day and night.) I enjoyed watching the parade as many of the men wore their traditional Guatemalan clothing for the celebration. Though it is normal for the Mayan women to dress in the colorful, beautiful local attire, the men quite often wear jeans, dress shirts, or other types of “western” clothing.
Following my twenty hours of Spanish practice, I plan to move on from San Pedro toward the highlands of eastern Guatemala. There are caves and jungles to explore before moving on to Tikal and into Belize. Though my stay in San Pedro was temporary, I’ve made lasting friends with my homestay family, Luis (my barista), and many of the expats that have made their lives in the lovely lakeside village. I will certainly come again.