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Doing Right by the Hosting Tradition

November 20th, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

One of the best things about hosting someone in a beautiful place is that you get to see that beautiful place newly once more, through the eyes of your guest.

By the time of Chaz’s arrival, Tracy and I had clocked right around a full month’s worth of time on Lake Atitlan, spread over our our past and present trips.  So to a certain extent we’d come to take some of the area’s charm as given, registering much less in our awareness under the category of “Holy crap this place is magical”.  In addition to his own many merits of personality, we loved Chaz’s visit for the reactions he had to our surroundings, which refreshed our own perceptions.

At around 8am from our dock I flagged down the passing boat bound for Panajachal (or Pana for short), a 40 minute ride which I shared in the company of a lovely woman named Dita.  Dita left her job as a partner of one of the largest executive search firms in all of Germany some 10 years ago, and with her husband came to live on the lake in a sprawling and beautiful looking house located two docks down from our place.  We’d just gotten to the topic of what it was like raising and home schooling their 7-year-old (who speaks 4 languages) here on the lake when our boat ride ended in Pana.  Though I invited her and her husband over for drinks at some point, I fear that perhaps the casual bond we’d forged in those 20 minutes of chatting might not be sufficient to entice an actual visit1.

From Pana I took a shuttle into Antigua, the appointed place for me to meet up with the incoming Chaz and escort him back to our place on the lake.  The fruits of Chaz’s high school Spanish study have largely withered on the vine, and so while the airport-to-Antigua shuttle is easy enough to sort out with English alone, the full trip to San Marcos take a bit more travel gumption the first time.  Thus as part of paying forward the fab hospitality from our friends back in Miami, I was happy to ensure his 8-day stay got off to a proper start with smooth transit to our accommodations.

We arranged to meet at Parque Centrale, as likely a drop off point as any for Chaz’s shuttle in from the airport.  When he arrived I was sitting on a bench, plying a native fellow to teach me how to eat a local fruit called hocote, and, in the process, sharing a bag thereof that I’d bought 10 minutes earlier.

Our first order of business was to get Chaz some proper lunch.  Appealing to his adventurous side we walked on into the Antigua market and sat down at one of those micro restaurants like those I described from Peru: a few stools and a counter at which you can get a big heaping plate of whatever someone’s mama is cooking up that day.  Today it was chicken, rice, mashed potatoes, and suitcase black beans2, all topped with this tomato puree red sauce that brings it all together and tastes so good.  All this for 20Q (about $1.30 US), so you may as well splurge 7Q more for a fresh blended, frothy pinapple/milk beverage called a licuado.

Chaz was already finding himself pretty sold on Guatemala, and generously vocalized as much.

After lunch we strolled on further through the market, picked up a few coconuts to snack on, marveled at how thoroughly boot-leggy some of the bootlegged merchandise was, and grabbed some produce to take on back to the house.  En route back to Parque Centrale for our 4pm shuttle I had one more order of business to tend to in town: buy a new pair of jeans.

If you see me walking among the native population anywhere in Guatemala, you’ll notice immediately that I, at 6’5″, stand out even more than I usually would in most any other country.  So by all counts the notion that the nation of Guatemala has any pair of jeans suitable for my stature within its borders ranks a little, well, perhaps naively optimistic.  But it turns out there’s a shop right off Antigua’s main square that carries my size, 34×34.  I know this because I bought a pair there back in ’09 to replace mine which had a bad rip up the left leg3.  On this occasion I had an ever growing worn patch around the crotch of my jeans and strict orders from the Mrs. to take care of the situation already.  With 5 minutes in my favorite jean shop in Guatemala (perhaps the world, I mean, I did wait several countries to finally do my jean shopping there) I was sorted, and we were on our way.

A few stops for beer marked our 2 and a half hour shuttle ride to the lake, and it was well past sunset when we got to the Pana dock.  We stepped aboard the half full boat (which comfortably seats about 20) at 7:07pm, and waited for it to fill until about 7:30 when we, aboard the last boat of the night, scuttled off into the darkness and across the water.  The boat dropped us off at the Pasajcap dock at around 8:10, and my what a welcome site was Tracy, waving down to us on the dock from our warmly lit apartment some 80 feet up.

“Honey, look what I picked up in Antigua!”  Tracy had done a lovely job of prepping for our arrival: after our long day of travel we settled in with beers, tostada chips with fresh made pico de gallo, and tasty tacos.  Chaz, pal that he was, brought us key items from the homeland, including zip-lock bags, some new credit cards that had arrived by mail and were lovingly forwarded along by my fab mother in law, and a dish wand, the hard-to-find luxury which so brilliantly prevents the unpleasant scent of sponge hand.

We had no firm plans for our visitor’s stay but had plenty of ideas to serve as building blocks for an itinerary.  Here are the broad strokes and highlights which aptly describe his visit:

  • Free* boat rides.  Free with an asterisk to denote that they weren’t strictly free, but close enough.  Jumping to San Marcos or San Pedro by water taxi was a 5 or 10Q affair, which Chaz deemed essentially a rounding error.  Compared to our $80 ferry ride to Cape Cod from Boston, I’d have to agree.  So we took the boat option for transport as often as possible.
  • Lakefront sauna.  Pierre’s property has a wood fire sauna in a stone edifice right at lake side, and for now it remains un-flooded by the rising lake.  So we partook one morning of the sit in the sauna/jump in the lake/repeat as necessary sauna ritual.  I was feeling the hint of a cold that morning, this cleared me right up.
  • Liters and liters of Gallo and Extra.  Gallo is Guatemala’s answer to like a Miller or Budweiser, and Extra is a common darker beer.  Chaz tells of having 3 or 4 beers while lunching in San Pedro, and an onlooking 8-year-old was stunned that he was still standing.  Apparently locals can’t hold their liquor quite at all like folks from the states; as a cultural norm they are just not as practiced.
  • Smokin’ Joes barbeque.  We were glad this fell on day 6 of Chaz’s visit, to give the man a chance to experience local cuisine long enough to have a gringo throw back be a welcome change of pace.
  • Breakfast party with neighbors.  Robin and Garth joined us as we pulled out all the stops to make pancakes and bacon, granting our party of 5 about 3 hours of top-notch entertainment.  It is all too easy to underestimate the simple joys of cooking for people.
  • Night out with live music.  I’d met a fellow on a boat ride who told me he and his buddy would be playing at Restaurant Fe on Saturday night.  In the sleepy town of San Marcos just coming off of low season, such a happening was remarkable indeed.  So we came out for beers, tunes, and a curry buffet.
  • Driving a tuk tuk4.  This one was all Chaz.  After our first ride in one he boldly declared “I wanna drive one of these things.”  To his immense credit, he managed to do just that during his solo field trip to San Pedro.  He missed the last boat back to San Marcos, so to get back he had to take a 100Q tuk tuk ride.  As coincidence would have it, he ended up sharing the ride with Pablo, the same Pablo who leads Mayan ceremonies high above cliffs (see what I mean about small town magic?).  They had already met, giving Chaz an in.  Pablo doesn’t speak too much English, but enough to broker Chaz’s request of the driver to drive a part of the way around the lake.  Sure enough, Chaz was allowed to drive through San Juan (another town along the lake), and his experience came complete with a mini lesson on, well, how to drive one.
  • General cultural immersion.  Walking the streets of town, visiting the markets, interacting with people.  Chaz put to words something I never thought to articulate but immediately recognized as true: the natives here consistently exude a way of being that is notably polite and respectful.  Well summarized.

We began the week with the stated intention that we ensure Chaz’s visit be a memorably positive one, bordering on (if not crashing into) “kick ass” territory.  Here at the end we all agreed this intention had been fulfilled.  This morning (the day before his flight) we took a boat back to Pana, and his confidence and comfort with moving about Guatemala was such that I needed only get him on a shuttle to Antigua and he would be good the rest of the way, including getting a place to stay the night and getting off to the airport.  This was quite nice as it saved me about 5 hours of riding in a minivan, but also delights me to know that he’s all set to have his own adventures traveling about this country.  Thanks for visiting, Chaz.  It has been a pleasure to show you around the settings of our current home5


  1. Which is doubly a shame because in our conversation Dita was YET ANOTHER instance of a person insisting simultaneously about India that (A) they never got sicker than while there and (B) despite (A) you have to go, because it’s just simply amazing.  I really wanted a longer conversation to better sort out that apparent contradiction.
  2. This is the same black bean concoction as mentioned earlier: a refried black bean puree with onions and cilantro blended in.  The term “suitcase” derives from the cooked down consistency: a firmer texture that, when slid on out of a circular frying pan, can be folded over on to itself like a suitcase.
  3. Fun fact: one of my first blunders with Spanish immersion happened in the taxi ride that Tracy and I first took to Antigua at the start of our ’09 trip.  I, keen to practice my Spanish as I was, ventured to boldly ask our driver if I could eat more pants in Antigua.  Turns out the words “comere” and “comprar” (Spanish for “to eat” and “to buy”, respectively) are interchangeable for hilarious and/or awkward results.  Best part: since I figured this was an uncommon thing to ask about and because I had sufficient vocabulary to do so, I prefaced my question by asking “Do you mind if I ask you a weird question?”, making our driver all the more apt to take my question at face value rather than recognize a linguistic blunder.  Thank goodness Tracy was able to spot me and clear up the confusion before things got weirder.
  4. A tuk tuk is like a motorcycle fitted over with a rooftop enclosure containing the driver’s seat up front and a bench just barely wide enough for 3 in the back.  They are a minified version of cab-like transportation, and quite common here around the lake.  For example, 10Q per person will save you the 15 minute walk from San Marcos to Pasajcap.
  5. Editor’s note: Chaz’s ravings have already prompted some of his friends to make a trip down in December, and he himself plans to return for a month around March.
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