Beauty framed in volcanic mountains

San Pedro isn’t an easy place to get to. As the local ferry snaked its way towards a little village by Lake Atitlan, we could see why the area has been accorded such prominence in literary treatises

Beauty framed in volcanic mountains

Savi & Vid

And then she wore that dress and played with the bears and rabbits all day long…’

Now go see if you brother wants any more food and come help me cook dinner – you’ll cook chicken and tortillas for your family every week when you’re older!’

I would’ve enquired which fairy tale that first sentence was from if her second statement hadn’t thrown me off the way it did.

Sitting in a weaver’s house in a little village by the shores of Lake Atitlan, the most scenic part of Guatemala, we were witness to the domestic rhythm of life. A number of slow travellers come to this bucolic corner of the world to hone their Spanish-speaking skills and the two of us were no different. We had come for a week, but three weeks later, we still hadn’t left.

San Pedro isn’t an easy place to get to. We took a flight to Guatemala City. Then a bus ride to Panajachel, the gateway to Lake Atitlan. Then a boat. As we clutched onto our bags on the local ferry and snaked our way towards a little village by Lake Atitlan, we could see why the area has been accorded such prominence in dozens of literary and geographical treatises. It truly is ‘too pretty’, if there is such a thing! A series of volcanic mountains frame a ring of azure water. Little villages, famous for colourful handicrafts and scrumptious food, are dotted around the entire perimeter of the lake.

Traditional boats transport residents and tourists from one village to the other. Historical cathedrals and Mayan temples loom large, bright handicrafts adorn walls and hole-in-the-wall tortillerias beckon visitors. We lugged our suitcases uphill and reached our apartment, perched on top of a hillock in the village of San Pedro.

Every morning we would get up and marvel at the view of Lake Atitlan. The lake, surrounded by indigenous villages and three stunning volcanoes, is truly one of a kind!

Inevitably we would head into town at midday, just in time to catch the local market. Ripe avocados being sold by the dozen; juicy passion fruit, bursting with flavour, by the kilo; freshly baked tostadas still warm from the oven; and crisp tostadas dipped in traditional black bean paste, frijoles negros, all the more impossible to resist due to the persistent calls of the vendors. San Pedro’s local market spoilt our taste buds rotten. We’d never had avocados like that before – so creamy and velvety, they were almost sensual.

It was on one such midday roving that we first met her – sitting on the pavement with piles of bright red and pink scarves all around her. We stopped to pick one up – a distinctively Guatemalan souvenir for a friend. An animated spate of bargaining in our admittedly rotten Spanish, with frantic hand gestures, followed. Probably the best way to practice a new language.

With generous help from Google Translate. ‘You have the warmest smile in the world – is it okay if I come to take a photograph of you tomorrow? Do you sit here every day?’ Vid asked. Before we knew it, we had been invited to her house, in the neighbouring village, so that we could take a photograph of her weaving those scarves on a traditional loom. Of course, we said yes!

And here we were – sitting in her house, enraptured by the innocence of her little daughter’s face! We had been there for over an hour but our camera was still in the bag.

Because the house was as most houses with young kids are – chaotic, messy and full of life. The superwoman in question was weaving, cooking a meal and reading a fairy tale to her daughter, all at once. It was a fairy tale I’d never heard before – about little girls building houses with the help of animals that talk.

The look of wonder in the girl’s eyes reminded me of myself. I have loved books for as long as I can remember. My mom loved reading. And she ensured daily bedtime stories were an unsaid rule in our house. Every night after dinner, either my mom or dad would regale my brother and me with Noddy’s adventures or fairy tales till we fell asleep. As a child, books were all that I ever wanted as presents.

As a ten-year-old, with an early wake-up call, I would try finishing books with light from a torchlight under the blankets. Because I couldn’t bear the thought of going to school the next day without having finished an interesting story. As a teenager, I would use all my pocket money to buy Nancy Drews, Secret Sevens, Agatha Christies and everything else out there. I didn’t have any dolls or toys but I was very proud of the jampacked bookshelf in my room.

Us humans, we love a good story. And books contain the ability to transport us to faraway lands, without so much as leaving the confines of our own rooms. Perhaps that’s why we’ve been reading more than ever during the Covid-19 pandemic.

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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