San Pedro was my little hidden paradise. Two months there flew by, and I didn’t regret my stay for a moment. It was hard not to wake up happy every day as the sun came through my window over the green mountains that lined the far side of the lake. For my second month of both lessons in Lake Atitlan Spanish School and Lake Life, I found myself an apartment to live in, just next door to my teacher.
I had mentioned that another month was on the cards to Elena, my tough but hilarious Spanish Maestra. She found me, within a few minutes, a two en-suite apartment literally next door to her own home. It came to only £270 a month and included a cleaner once a week and a huge kitchen. Within a few days, I already had someone who wanted to move in with me and take the second room.
Everyone says it’s impossible to only stay at Lake Atitlan as long as you originally intended, and I have to agree. I only planned for three weeks, and two months disappeared with no qualms at all. It sucks you in, keeps you there, and begrudgingly lets you go, happier and more relaxed than before.
I spent my months there learning Spanish with Elena in the Lake Atitlan Spanish School. We got to know each other well. She would often pop round to my place with food, even when I wasn’t having lessons. She introduced me to her husband and her kids, and I spent a day fixing her family’s bikes, which were in a state I don’t think I have ever seen bikes in. One of them looked like it had been run over by a car and then dipped in animal fat. I did my best to get them back into some kind of rideable shape, but I feel like they were beyond the pale.
One of the biggest enjoyments for me in San Pedro was the constant flow of people that not only came through the school but also through my life and, some, through my home. In the first few weeks by the lake, I met Melissa, a hilarious woman from Ireland who smoked all my weed and had me in stitches pretty much constantly. I met Rory in the gym, a lawyer from the UK who had packed up his job and was traveling the world. An inspiration, I plan to do the same. He bought all my drinks on our last night, and it made me feel like a special little lady being taken out by a successful big-city man. I am totally into it.
At one point, I gave a bunch of new friends a small heart attack by taking them all on a midnight boat trip to a drug-fuelled party on a section of the lake only accessible by boat. there was no returning boat until 8 am the next morning, and if it wasn’t for Nimi, a firey woman traveling to Spain for a tennis school, they would have been stuck there with me getting eyeball-deep in undisclosed powders. Luckily, Nimi care’s more for her health than I do, and she ended up getting them all home. Not me, though.
Johnny is from Manchester, and we connected on a level I feel like I only can with other Englishmen. I talked about him for weeks to come, and I still miss him. Johnny liked backflips and eating 5 meals a day. Along with Johnny came Coco. Coco is a German with a terrible smoking habit.
Coco took me up on my spare room before I had even paid the landlord for the month. She already knew she wanted to stay a little longer, and, in the way San Pedro always seemed to do, the town provided. I was there just when she needed the space, and honestly, I couldn’t have asked for a better housemate. She lived in the hammock that hung in the Kitchen and chain-smoked 10 Quetzales cigarettes and wondered why she got a throat infection.
Her company is, and was, perfect. Conversation was easy, and she seemed old beyond her 19 years. She had saved a lot of money working in German bars and had then spent the past number of months traveling the world. Coco has a bravery and independence to her that I don’t think I had at that time in my life. Coco is remarkably unphased and astute. She left to be with a lover she met at the lake, but we have run into each other again in Flores, as will usually happen.
Every week, new faces would appear at Lake Atitlan Spanish School with their own stories and journeys. Most of them interesting, and all of them worth listening to. I guess you don’t really end up in Guatemala without some fun reason behind it. All sorts washed up on the shore of the lake, and one of my favorites was a kindergarten teacher from New York.
My teacher had had to leave class early; she was attending another funeral. People die in San Pedro every 5 minutes due to third-world healthcare. I had a half hour left and a pile of homework to do before the evening’s activities began. Coco introduced me to her new housemate, a red-haired, fair-skinned, and freckly New Yorker with big eyelashes and a very pretty dress. We chatted for a while before I self-sabotagingly excused myself to do homework, sat down for two minutes, and then kicked myself for being such an awkward clod.
Homework? Fucking virgin.
We now had 20 minutes before the group fun. More than enough time for one quick Cuba Libre in the local bar. Luckily, she took my invitation. We made a hasty relocation, and Alyssa introduced herself, and I tried my best not to awkwardly talk her ear off. I think I was a little smitten, but I tried to play it cool; it’s important not to get ahead of myself.
From there, the next few weeks together were wonderful. She is outrageously cute in a way I think only a kindergarten teacher could be. She teaches children how to look after their mental health as a freelancer, but now an almost tenured teacher. She has a home in New York and rides a massive Honda Shadow around the countryside of America on her holidays. We smoked lots of weed and talked about video games, motorcycles, films, music, how tasty the lake is, hopes, dreams, and aspirations.
The two weeks were originally supposed to be one, but due to a friend bailing on her holiday, Alyssa did what everyone always does at the lake, and stayed, with me, for longer. Being with her for that short time was not only wonderful but good for my heart. We laughed constantly, and her presence only added to the beautiful glow the lake seems to constantly have.
She is understanding and gave me space and patience for all the weird shit I have going on in my head. And I hope, despite my current struggle with closeness and emotional intimacy, she remembers the time we shared well. We still play Diablo together online, so in a ‘Druid & Barbarian’ capacity, we still actively hang out.
The lake was a time for me to ground myself a little. I know I travel remarkably slowly, but sometimes it is important for me to touch down and build a small community. Little things, like getting recognized on the street, knowing your barman by name, and having a favorite veg shop, all really quench any embers of homesickness that might start up. San Pedro and Lake Atitlan Spanish School, for me, was home for a time, and the people in it were my community.
Elena deserves much more than I was able to give her. She is a formidable woman who runs her house, her life, and the things around her with a control and energy that I think only belongs to mothers. Her husband, in the past, suffered from a debilitating sickness that required him to go to hospital for a significant amount of time. Hospitals are not free, and health insurance does not exist for people like Elena. The debt of this still hangs over their family’s heads.
The pay her husband receives from the work he does here and abroad in Canada is pitiful. He moves to Canada for a few months of the year to do farm work, but due to him being Guatemalan, he is paid wages that are astronomically lower than the minimum wage. How that is permissible is beyond me, it is tantamount to slavery, and yet it still goes on, no doubt, with the knowledge of the government.
Elena, therefore runs a tight ship. She hosts students who study in the school at her family home. This means that she wakes up at half past five in the morning to start making breakfast and food for the students and her family. She has to make over a hundred tortillas a day by hand when her home is full. Once she has finished with the breakfast, she makes her way a formidable distance to Lake Atitlan Spanish School to teach in the morning classes. After, Elena then makes her way back home to make lunch for the students in her homestay. As soon as this is finished, she jumps in a tuk-tuk to teach the afternoon classes before finally heading home to make an evening meal for everyone. The next day it’s rinse and repeat, six days a week.
She has a home to pay off and a daughter going through a medical school that costs a lot of money to attend. The school takes 8 years in total, and there is no funding for it at all, but the outcome, in the eyes of Elena, is well worth it. Despite working herself to the bone every day, she still finds the time to party/attend 6 funerals a week, maintain excellent relationships with her family and friends, and come round to mine with fresh tamales and other treats. Her kindness is boundless, and she is a woman with some serious fire behind her eyes.
I left without saying a proper goodbye. We spent days together sitting by the lakeside rather than my flat because she saw I was too distracted by work at home. We sat in the sun doing lessons that consisted of talking about how she could work her way out of debt and the state of the economy in Guatemala. We used to drag other students and their teachers to sneak off to bars at the end of a week to practice their Spanish over a few jugs of beer. She showed me how to haggle the local markets and schooled Coco in all the medication she needed when she had the Flu. I didn’t say a proper goodbye on my last day, and I regret it deep in my heart. I was feeling anxious, and I didn’t say goodbye. She text me the next day, telling me she had brought me a whole load of Tamales because she knew my bus was so long. I had already left.