Morning in Chimaltenango

A turkey gobbles a weird good morning, and over on the Pan American the thick snog of traffic is impossible already, audible from here, buses and trucks blowing their horns. Dogs bark, roosters still crow, though dawn was a while ago. I am coming down to the last days in this place: Ixim Ulew. Tortured, Holy, 500 years at war, and always filled with acute beauty. The corn is high, three in a hill, and the beans snake up the stalks, and coffee thickens on the branch, ready for the November harvest. My heart is full to bursting. My head is too stuffed to think anything at all straight. A whole soul fog. I only know that I love this place, and I especially love a lot of people here. I know that I have work to do, that I will forever – and that Guatemala is not my home. We are linked now, and forever, Canada and Guatemala, through the rapacious and ugly mines ripping up the countryside, while waving a maple leaf. My shame, and my promise.

Four days ago, my beloved Margis and I roar out the door and on to a slower chicken bus (the really fast ones come and go from the Quiché) and three buses later find our way up to the lake. On the first bus we both fall asleep, and my little travel bag with not THAT important stuff goes walkies. Lost my camera/phone and bifocals (rats) my toothbrush and my travel supply of black licorice. Nothing that was irreplaceable, not like poor Luis whose house was just broken into. They made off with his life means – all of his carpentry tools – and a guitar that Margarita particularly mourns, that had travelled with them, broken, all the way into exile in Nicaragua, where Luis repaired it one impoverished Christmas as the family present.

The rain is erasing the world, the way it does in the rainy season here, and we slither down the cliffs to Pana – Gringotenango –  where we eat hamburgers the size of dinner plates, and buy me some cheapo reading glasses. Then to find the lancha, the right boat, and across the choppy afternoon water. Soon we are at Gerardo’s place in San Marcos la Laguna. Gerardo and Margis have been friends for forty years, but since Margis lived here at the lake, in the late 70s they haven’t seen each other that regularly. So they catch up, endlessly, and then Gerardo and his son throw together the best pizzas I have ever had. We retire stuffed with word, wine and that perfect combination of bread, tomato, garlic, basil and cheese.  It is pouring again, and we go to our little cabin, to sleep with water from above, and the waves of the lake.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day

I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;

While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,

I hear it in the deep heart’s core.


Next day is a workday for us. Since 1992 we have been collaborators on all things literary, and Margis is my official and only translator. Last spring I gave her my Colombia pilgrimage book: Blessed are the Peacemakers. She has waved her hands, and done the magic, and now we are brushing up the final revision, readying for publication. Above us three volcanoes stand guard across the lake: San Lucas, Atitlan, and San Pedro. We sit in the sun, until I am charred, and then in the grass in the shade of a papaya tree.


Margarita reads aloud, while I make small braids in my hair, and we stop every sentence or two to check in. My book sounds better in Spanish! I am amazed –  and rather surprised to find that Margis and I hotly disagree on a number of things, and this comes up and out, and we fight, and I cower, and then stand my ground, and we patch everything up. And we keep eating all day, and cloud watching, as the clouds spin around the tops of the volcanoes, and then into the valleys, out across the lake, and the rains come, and Margis and Gerardo keep catching up, and I disappear to nap, and to think and wonder.


And the next day we’re gone. We take two boats that dot in and out to different villages around the lake, and at last we arrive in Santiago Atitlan, sacred ground of the holy Tzutujil people. Margis used to live here in a different life, decades ago, and for some reason, this visit, she sees new things, and I think we are at the brink of a big shift for her, and I am delighted. Something to do with mountains, and Australian sheep dogs, and horses, and land. Hallelujah.


After lunch and a quick walk around town, with a greeting to where Padre Aplas, Fr. Stanley Rother, was martyred in 1981, we go down the hill, and then part ways. Margis back to Guatemala City, and me on an adventure right around the lake. I stop first at the CCDA Beneficio (the Café Justicia coffee processing plant) where I see things finished that were just started, and new things. What a amazing place, now up and running, rural training centre, guest cabins, bigger processing machines, more worm composters. The gardener gives me a handful of achiote pods, ready to burst red. Then it starts to rain.

And just on cue Maco from the Coast appears out of nowhere, in a pickup truck, and he drives me to the next town, San Lucas Toliman, where he finds another pickup truck that will take me up the shredded mountain road high up and around the eastern shore of the lake to Godinez. The next strip Godinez to Las Trampas was famous during the war, says Margis, for traps and murders and assaults. I catch a bus. to Las Trampas. There on the very edge of the roaring highway, I stand, hopefully, looking for a giant chicken bus. A nice woman tells me I’m in the right place, and she’s going my way. A snorting Aracely bus straight from the Quiche appears, rears its head, and screeches to a halt. In one second we are all on. My formerly broken foot still hates me. The bus is packed to the rafters, and I’ve no choice but to sit on the edge of the first row. The nice man beside me grabs my bag, as I settle down, and then he looks at the hat I have on my head.

Nice hat.

Thanks, I just bought it.

How much?

100 quetzals. (whistle)

They’d charge us 125 quetzals for it in the Quiché.

I’ll let you have it for 110. Everyone laughs. Juan, his wife, Ana, the bus assistant who is crawling horizontally over me.

Juan takes the hat. Takes off his grey felt hat. Tries it on. Perfect fit, he says. Rats, I really don’t want to lose the hat. I bought it for my beloved.

We are having a grand old time, and we laugh, and squish into each other in alternating waves of the highway curves, first I squish him, then he and Ana both squish me. There is a landslide in the rain, and we have to wait, and it is rather alarming to watch the pile of the dirt on the highway grow. Breaking a chicken bus rule by sitting in the first row where you can see out. By the time we get to Tecpan, my leg muscles are caving. Don Juan and Dona Ana get ready to get off, and he hands me back the hat, with another laugh, another blessing. Matiox. I scuttle now to the window, ready for a nap (holding tight to my backpack and hat), when the nice woman at Las Trampas moves to sit down beside me.

She’s going to Zaragoza. Actually to Comalapa.

I have friends in Comalapa, Berta, I say.

Berta! says the nice woman, my dear friend. My daughter is in her theatre group.

No way, I say.

Yes way, si pues, she says.

So Gloria and I talk all the way to Zaragoza. At last I get a quick nap in before we steam into smelly Chimaltenango. It’s raining again, and which little street is Rosenda’s? I wander around for a while, and then find it, and ring the bell. Who’s visiting this afternoon but Rosalina Tuyuc, formerly head of the Guatemalan Widow’s Association, Conavigua. We talk and visit at the kitchen table, until it’s time to take her home.

Back at Rosenda’s we cook together, work together, pray together, and talk. We talk almost all night, with a few sleep breaks, and a long three hour prayer. Rosenda is an Aj k’ij, a day keeper, and I am learning. In the morning we keep talking and we cry together, as Rosenda remembers the genocide, her family, and the dead.

Rosenda and Rosalina are working on a project of healing, working with spiritual practice, mostly with women who are survivors of sexual violence during the war, and in the long non-declared war ever since. As we pray, I promise the fire that I will help, and I will. And now I sleep on a sofa for a while, waiting to go into the city, and my last day here.


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