It comes into sight. The entrance is almost grand, surrounded by the white dust that coats everything. Even the building itself has been faded into this same flat white, but the door is coated in a bright bronze, and the sign that whips back and forth in the wind off the lake boasts a colorful image of a mountain against a cheerful sky. Upon a closer look the mountain takes the form of a woman. Pachamama Hostel y Restaurante.
I pass Los Abrazos, with it’s Guatemalan food and Mayan Astrology readings. As I pass I whistle at the solemn blond dog that lays asleep in the road, the dark spot under its eye slowly and constantly oozing. Beside the narrow footpath are flyers taped and stapled to a few electrical poles and a piece of propped plywood, advertising meditation retreats. Over the bridge I look down. Beside the trickle of water weaving its way down to the lake, a mayan woman with a long braid down her back carries a basket and walks with a little boy.
The door is wide open when I enter the hostel. I see the prayer flags and the camping tents up above, the big brown and black dog called Rambo sleeping in the dust just inside. A scant piece of barbed wire at the top of the fence.
I’ve come to appreciate the chaotic use of space. The stone path gives out about halfway and becomes brown dirt, in which stands now the two year old wearing an oversized t-shirt, a can of peas between her hands. She looks at me and yells, “NO!” And runs away laughing. This is our game, a language of play we can both understand.
The walls to one side are bright blue, with mountains and quetzal birds and erupting volcanoes painted around the shuttered windows. Tucked to one side is a little house behind a scrawny tree, a rainbow hammock strung up on the porch. On the other is a row of doors angling into the fluorescent bathrooms, a defunct shower I’ve heard has hot water, but I’ve never seen any steam and hot water seems like a myth we tell ourselves here on Lake Atitlan.
Just beyond an open concrete floor with couches, low tables, an aloof parrot named Paco and a reception desk are housed under a tin roof that bangs in places when the wind blows hard enough. The person sitting behind the reception desk is just another guest sitting there because of the close proximity to the electric outlet, though they may become an employee briefly should anyone approach to inquire about a room or shuttle to the airport.
Pachamama Hostel (the restaurant part exists in advertisement only, as I’ve never seen anyone in the family make food for any of the guests and there aren’t enough plates and spoons as it is) is a short walk from the main drag of San Marcos de la Laguna, which itself only takes five minutes to cross. For 35 quetzals (or about $5 US dollars) you can have a twin bed in the dormitory and access to the kitchen, the bathroom, the dust, the dog, the parrot and the maze of laundry lines glowing brightly in the sun just behind the main building.
The wind whips through now, lifting the dust and the laundry and the sheet metal of the roof. I take cover in the partial shelter of the living room. Paco the parrot isn’t hungry, so he ignores me when I offer him some melon I found on the table. The guy from Poland appears to be making a lampshade out of sticks. A couple is napping, their bags laying on the ground beside them.
In the kitchen I usually find most of the children. The oldest is 15, the youngest two. The Duena of the house is currently overdue for her seventh child. The father is a chipper man with a few gold teeth and a clean shave. They are all crowded around a wooden table having breakfast. The fire in the hearth is going, and seems to be the way the family prepares most of their food. Being less accustomed to cooking on the fireplace, I use a match to light the propane stove so I can toast a few tortillas.
Robert comes in, looking as he usually does, as if he is really surprised to see you. He looks up from the ground, a plate that needs washing in his hand, and jerks back a little, his big blue eyes opening a little wider, then a smile breaks out over his face.
“Hi, friend,” he says, and I feel his beard cuddling my shoulder when he hugs me.
“Hi!” I say. The sounds of our voices competes with the sound of pop music blasting from the room adjacent to the kitchen, which I believe is the shared room of the older girls. A lacy pink curtain covers the doorway.
Robert tells me about the painting he is making with a shaman he met who lives in Ometepe just as Andy comes in after his Tantra class. Andy nods with a kind smile and says hello so quietly it’s nearly silent, just a movement on his shy mouth.
The wind blows again and the sheet metal on the roof lifts and comes back down with a bang. None of the family comments on the noise of the loose metal, so we don’t either.
We spend most of the rest of our time in the kitchen in silence. I make a guacamole to go with my tortillas, and offer some to Robert and Andy. I clean the dishes in the three-chamber sink, using the method shown to me by one of the older girls: secrets to life in a land where water will often stop running from the tap in the middle of the day. I’m proud of how efficient I get with my technique.
Outside the hostel, San Marcos swallowed me into its bright dream. I’m sure I passed my days somehow: going to cafes, eating food, wandering up the hill, sitting by the lake and watching the lanchas come and go. The feeling was one of relative safety. It’s the kind of place that expats seek out for refuge, for healing, for fun, for the option of parties or quietude.
But mostly I just remember Pachamama. I remember making food in the messy kitchen that was always barely just clean enough to use, thanks to the older daughters who would deep clean it just as we would start to give up on cooking there and go out for a coconut that we could have hacked open on the corner.
One time, someone saw the oldest crying on the phone and we all noticed that their parents weren’t around. Word spread in whispers that the woman was finally having the baby and there must be complications. We carried with us all a softness around the children, and hoped that they noticed and felt some comfort from it, though mostly we just tried to be clean and kept to ourselves. One of the guests, a woman from Spain, employed herself as the babysitter. I saw one day a man from Denmark rebuilding the low wall around some of the house plants.
Outside, San Marcos felt like a doll town. Mayan women with their children sold vegetables and shirts and ran laundry out of their homes while young people with dreadlocks and feather earrings sold jewelry and leather utility belts and pipes carved out of obsidian. There were thrift stores and tattoo shops and a Krishna restaurant and several hostels offering mayan massage and Tibetan yoga classes. There was a meditation center where all the buildings were shaped like pyramids. There was an italian restaurant next to a cacao and coffee shop. There were advertisements stapled to poles for workshops of all kinds. It was so much like everywhere, it was like being nowhere at all.
Inside Pachamama, however, was Guatemala and nowhere else. There was dust and a mortgage and a big guard dog and more children than the family had ever really hoped for and a barrel full of water for the afternoon when the water in the town ran out. There was no opportunity for romanticization of Mayan culture or spirituality, as tourists love to do: the family had likely moved from Guatemala City looking for safety and space and didn’t wear traditional dress or speak Chekchumel or Queche. They didn’t make handcrafts or medicines or ceremonies. They kept a few chickens and they cooked on an open fire stove, but they also ate chicken roasted on the street cart and bought their tortillas at the store and ate potato chips and pre-sliced vegetables from a plastic bag.
Yes, we were guests from the United States, from Europe, from Argentina or Mexico or Canada or wherever, but the feeling was clear: we were guests in their home, and the unspoken agreement was that we would live like they live. The sheets would be clean and when the propane in the stove ran out, someone would go for more, and if you wanted someone to put your laundry on the line alongside their own, that was fine. Sometimes they would make jokes with you and ask you about your life wherever you came from and if you spoke spanish you could do the same. Money for the room would be collected as soon as someone remembered to collect it, whether this was an adult or a six year old child. Otherwise, you were essentially on your own.
Pachamama imbibed me with an instinct that would serve me for the rest of my time in Guatemala, and free me from any preconceptions: we would all do for each other what we could, but happiness and survival here depended on the ability to figure and do for yourself. The state wasn’t coming to refill the water tank, the mechanic only had a part that would fix the problem for a little while, there weren’t enough bullets for all the street dogs, there hadn’t ever been tape or aspirin at the general store and the road would never be finished. Do what you had to do and allow others to do the same.
The Duena, who we affectionately called Mamacita, was in the hospital in Antigua and we suspected a difficult birth. While they were gone, I could feel a collective protectiveness of the place from all the guests who had been there during her pregnancy, who had come to feel this place was something like a home. The Polish guy was making something new now, I couldn’t tell what; he whittled at a piece of wood with a knife.
New guests were coming, and as far as I can tell other guests were checking them in during the absence of the heads of the family. One of them emerged from the bathroom, and looked down with an expression of disgust when she discovered she was standing in a puddle of water that had leaked from the shower. She looked around and asked in English, “Is there someone who can fix this?”
The Polish guy looked up from his work and eyeballed her up and down.
“If it’s a problem,” he said, calmly and without malice, “why don’t you clean it yourself?” We all went back to lounging on the couches, and nothing else was said.