With my dental issues repaired and two weeks of Spanish school under my belt, I move on to the town of San Pedro la Laguna on the shores of Guatemala’s Lake Atitlan to continue my studies. It’ll be one of my favorite places from my travels.
It’s a three-hour van ride west from Antigua to get to San Pedro, and as with all destinations one arrives to at night, my first impression is a bit underwhelming. I’ve met a British girl named Sophie on the bus and we have the same plan to take lessons at the San Pedro Spanish School, and we walk over together at twilight. By the time a tuk-tuk is taking me up the hill to my new homestay, it’s dark. My host is a guy named Bartolo who lives with his wife and two young kids above the electronics store he owns. The contrast with my Antigua homestay is stark. No more frijoles and plantains from Irma and Cornelia; I’m now in for treats like pasta night and a more generically Western menu overall. The house is clean and modern compared to my, let’s call it rustic accommodation in Antigua. But I arrive on Sunday and that’s the day I have to get my own meals, so Bartolo leads me through San Pedro’s steep and winding hillside streets down to the waterfront.
San Pedro is split into the gringo/hippy-friendly waterfront and the locals up the hill. Down by the docks are Irish bars, pizza places, and at night, a couple of dudes grilling up some excellent pork tacos for five quetzals a pop. I visit them pretty much every day.
It’s a different world up the hill – not just different from the waterfront due to the bustling marketplace and bus terminal, which is to say, the intersection in front of the town square, but different from even the Manchen in Antigua. This town isn’t dominated by colonial-era Catholic churches, instead, Baptist services abound every day of the week, and the Catholicism that does exist is more syncretic with old Mayan rituals. Antigua’s strict building code has no counterpart here, and three major graffiti powers vie for the hearts and minds of the populace: political parties, cell phone companies, and Jesus. Some fellow students and I complain about the prevalent messages that remind locals that solo Jesucristo puede cambiar tu vida (only Jesus can change your life)- we express a desire to go around editing the signs to tell locals that only YOU can change your life. Of course we do no such thing.
Locals love finding out my name. “Pedro in San Pedro!” they invariably exclaim. They are less enthusiastic about the climate change that has created a dramatic rise in the lake level over the past four years, swallowing up houses by the shore. If the level keeps rising, a number of bars, hotels, restaurants, and even my Spanish school, are all threatened.
The school itself is fantastic. In Antigua my school was certainly pleasant enough in its garden courtyard, but it can’t compete with the thatched huts that dot the gentle slope on the waterfront that is the San Pedro school. One day a hummingbird flitted its way through my lesson as though I had suddenly found myself in a Disney animated feature. My teacher is Lorenzo, a very soft-spoken young guy, and despite his small frame I feel like I would not want to be on his bad side. He’s the best teacher I’ve had yet, switching between the free-wheeling conversation of Cesar with the grammatical rigor of Bithia. He’s curious about life in the US, and while you can tell he is exposed to things like gay marriage, casual sex, and conspicuous consumption via the students who come through town, you can also tell he’s not really comfortable with them, or more accurately, he can’t wrap his mind around some of them. I should say he doesn’t actually come out and say anything negative, but it’s a small town and he’s clearly a traditional guy at heart. Talking social issues with Lorenzo, in contrast with the behavior of well-off Guatemala City residents on the weekends in Antigua, makes me realize that the social divide is really an urban/rural divide, and a class divide, more so than a matter of religious background.
One day we’re talking about the “se puede” construction, and I’m listing off things you can do in Spanish school, se puede aprendir espanol, se puede hablar con mi maestro, that kind of thing, when a stray dog wanders up to our table. While I’m petting him I add se puede conocer un perro, and I’m immediately corrected by Lorenzo. I’m supposed to use encontrar instead of conocer. This is frustrating because I’d been erroneously using encontrar to talk about meeting people for the first time (it’s only for subsequent meetings), and I had just finally gotten myself to use conocer when talking about meeting someone for the first time. I asked Lorenzo what I did wrong. “Conocer is only for people,” he explains in Spanish. I reply “well dogs are like people.” Lorenzo laughs. “Only for gringos,” he replies. I tell him we treat dogs so well because we treat each other so poorly.
Outside of school and late night tacos, San Pedro forever has my heart because it is the pub quiz capital of Central America, but that’s a topic best covered in another post.