Adventures While House Sitting


Sunrise from our Casa.


This morning I arose at my usual 4:30 AM, made coffee using Guatemalan beans given to us by a friend.  The coffee is one of Guatemala’s finest and produces a rich red head of foam as I pour boiling water through it. Cup in hand I step outside into the darkness, shake the locally made hand woven seat cushion just in case a scorpion or spider (or both) is resting there and then I sit.

The stars shine brightly.  The temperature is probably in the mid-fifties, the air still.  This has always been my favorite time… the quiet before dawn.  I can just make out the inky black silhouette of volcanoes against a sky one shade lighter.  A few roosters crow, dogs bark here and there.  The lights of Santiago reflect blue, green, gold and silver on the lake’s calm surface.  A blinking forest green light can’t be ignored.  The green light floats on the lake and indicates the location of a solar powered aerator.

I lean back, sipping the hot coffee and reflect on Santiago , the Mayan and the Spanish peoples, their art and attitude. The fact that I still cannot believe 33,000 people live just three miles across the bay on a tiny hillside slice of volcano and that we are very much a part of it all.

I hear the splashing of a fisherman along the shore.  It seems as though the local fisherman never sleep.  No matter the time, day or night, even in the worst weather, they are out fishing and crabbing. During the dark hours they use flashlights to hunt the 3” fresh water crabs.

Other mid night hunters are sometimes at work too.  We occasionally see the beam of flashlights in the hills and learn later that crops of peppers, tomatoes and other foods ready-for-market were stolen during the night.

Yesterday, we went to Santiago to look at rentals, shop for produce and take pictures of our favorite restaurant so I can complete the website I am building for them. A Diego arrives in a 24’ fiberglass boat and speeds us across the bay.  We dock at the Bambu (a posh tropical hotel) and pay Diego 25Q ($3.33) and walk along the dirt road till we find a green iron gate.

We meet with Angelika, a transplant from Germany and wonderful artist.  We look over her lovely property and two rentals.  The first rental sits at the top of the property, near the road and is a brand new fully modern one bedroom home with a nice patio and landscaping.  We then wind our way along stone pathways, through a series of gates, and down a steep flight of stone steps to arrive at the lake and an older two story one bedroom home.  The lake front home has a lot of privacy but little sun exposure. Nevertheless we decide to rent that house for 4-6 weeks when we are done with our housesitting assignment. The rentals run $350 a month and include; water, trash pick-up, electric, the use of a variety of canoes and kayaks and the help of the gardener to haul heavy loads.

At the lower house we have immediate access to the lake, pleasant views, lots of windows, a second story veranda, a fenced yard and even, and I loved this, an outdoor laundry washing area complete with built in scrub board. Plus we have free roaming privileges of the large property. Neither home has a heat source. We will miss the fireplaces we have at La Casa Cynthia’s.  Then again, by February we expect the temperatures to be warmer. We look forward to this future time to fish and write, free of the problems and responsibilities of our current housesitting assignment.

We walk out to the main road and flag a Took-Took.  “El Gran Sol Por Favor”.  We travel at a fast clip and are deposited at the main intersection of Santiago, which is a mere twenty feet wide.  We pay 10Q ($1.33) to the TOOK-TOOK driver.  On one corner sits the thirty three year old El Gran Sol restaurant, on the opposite corner hang the same old faded textiles belonging to a street vendor. The other corner has a restaurant we have never actually seen anyone eating in and the fourth corner has a textile tienda or gift shop that is usually pretty busy.

Three of our village buddies are loitering around the front of the El Gran Sol… a welcoming committee.  We are always happy to see them, but once again the older skinny guy (we talk to him every week) asks where we are from and tries to sell us a tour to see Machemone – a weird religious icon. A heavy set tour guide pats his protruding belly indicating he would like us to buy him something to eat (even though he is dressed in Santiago’s most expensive handcrafted clothing probably worth 1200Q ($160), and the roaming street vendor shows me her newest textiles. “No gracias”.  We step into the darkness of ‘The Great Sun’ restaurant.

We have anticipated this day for a solid week.  We like the Mendoza family and clearly they need to increase business.  The restaurant is in a perfect location, has indoor and outdoor seating, is very clean and pleasant, serves huge fresh fruit drinks and the best burgers and fries in town.  But of course their specialty is the ‘Tipico’ foods of Guatemala. We thought we’d see a bustle of activity and tables laden with food (for the photo session).  But all was quiet.  Mom is sick; dad’s gone to the city.  A bit deflated (they could have at least called) we sit outdoors and drink a cold mixed fruit smoothie and coffee.  I take some pictures anyway and notice, for the first time, just how badly the place needs a fresh coat of paint and a new roof. Oh well, we will reschedule.  We wish mom Mendoza a quick recovery and head down to the Azul.  We eat breakfast there, it is cheaper and she makes the tortillas fresh while you wait.  Besides Nicolas (the gardener) will once again ask if we ate at his Amigo’s restaurant…The Azul.

With the unexpected free time on our hands we begin browsing.  I want to buy a small painting for a gift.  We pass the one and only vendor that openly and illegally sells Mayan artifacts.  I can’t help myself; I look at the jade and glass beads. But I don’t buy. We stroll along and browse every stall, shop and gallery for the perfect painting.  The quality of work varies from amateurish to stunning.  Local artists have three painting styles with an occasional twist thrown in.  Some artists use acrylics, some oils.  Most paintings are on small canvases hand cut and nailed or stapled to wooden frames.  Some of the canvases are floppy. Clearly these are quickly produced for the tourist trade. Surprisingly the portraiture is consistently the best.  Some of the work is amazingly realistic.  I saw at least twenty pieces I would buy…if we had a home here. The vibrant colors and rich textures can’t help but brighten up your day. 

As usual, nothing is priced. We ask. Prices start high.  We educate ourselves along the way and try to arrive at an average value for the work we admire. One painter offers us a beautiful painting 24” x 18” for 150Q ($20).  Further up the street a 4”x6” painting is offered at 100Q ($12.50). Finally, I settle on a lovely little oil painting of three women in traditional dress going to market. It is exactly the type of scene we see every market day. The price starts at 100Q…too high.  I offer 40Q and am turned down.  I lay the painting down and head for the door, in a Nano second the price drops to 40Q ($5.33). The vibrant little painting now sits on our shelf.

We head for the market – Friday is market day. As we turn left into a narrow alley, we pass our banana lady.  As usual she greets us with a bright smile and says “Bananas”.  The Tz’utujil stretch out the a’s and n’s with a strong emphasis on the n’s. Our banana lady’s smile flashes in the sun. She has a lot of shiny gold caps.  We pay 5Q (.66) for a bunch of bananas (about 3 or 4lbs.).  Wandering up the alley we pass the textile ‘factories’, small adobe one room buildings holding one or two roughly crafted floor looms.  Each loom has an intriguing row of shuttles loaded with cotton in specific shades; earth, sky, sun.  Young men simultaneously listen to loud music, weave and chat. I want to take pictures but they say “Noey, no” which in Tz’utijil is a very firm “No”.  I wonder why.  I wonder if they want to protect the age old image of women producing everything on backstrap looms.

I enter the indoor market while David goes further up the street to the clinic to see if they have the vaccines we need for a visit to the mosquito infested gulf coast. I buy 35 lbs. of fruits and veges for 50Q ($6.66) and stuff them in my pack. Walking through the market I receive a glare from one of the melon vendors, clearly she saw me buying from her rival (I alternate buying from three melon vendors).  A Tz’utujil man of about 40, with only one leg, is crutching himself along.  I pass him and he holds out a small basket with a few coins in it.  I reach into my pocket and give him whatever the bill is. He is deeply grateful and thanks me repeatedly. Clearly I have surprised him.  I look down and see I gave him enough money to feed himself for a week. I am thankful I can give.

I exit the dark indoor market and weave between the tightly packed street vendors selling plastic trinkets, fruit, weavings, used clothes and shoes. I find David in the clinic talking to a woman who looks very confused.  Apparently she can’t read the Spanish prescription. She disappears and we wait for a few minutes then decide it is too risky.  What if we get injected with the wrong vaccines?  We leave quietly.

Winding back through the vendors, heads bent down due to the low slung plastic and fabric ‘canopies’, we stop at the ‘Centro’ or town square, sit down, and drink from our water bottles.  A familiar voice is blasting through huge speakers; he is a street preacher, one I recognize because we frequently hear him all the way across the bay at the La Casa we are housesitting. A young guy in non-traditional dress sits down and watches us closely.  I am glad I slipped my camera under my shirt and comment to David that if anyone tried to grab my backpack, they would be in for a surprise, it is very heavy. I watch the young guy, he watches us and I can tell by David’s body language he senses a threat as well.

We decide it is time to head home. We work our way back through the maze of vendors then hail Took-Took. he driver rushes us down to Santiago’s boat dock as though our life depends on a speedy arrival.  He pulls up literally to the water’s edge. One of five Diego boats is bobbing in the water just steps away.  Diego Jr. greets us warmly and we load up.  Diego Sr. also says hello. The Diego family consists of, we don’t know how many Diegos, but we have been hauled around by four different Diegos and suspect there are more.

Even though Diego Sr. sets the prices for their boating services, each Diego Jr. charges differently and, of course, they always have a logical reason.  Today Diego Jr. charges us 5Q more than anticipated.  It must be due to the fact that he can’t simply pull up to our dock.  A week ago the strong north winds dislodged a floating mass and deposited the half acre of hyacinth along the properties lake shore which quickly wrapped itself around the dock and boats. 

Diego Jr. tries to deposit us into a muddy hole several hundred yards from the edge of the mass.  Nicolas is running down the stone walkway to redirect Diego Jr.  Diego Jr. is clearly unhappy that he has to move the boat.  Immediately I know this is going to cost us. Upon departing the boat I hand him 20Q.  Indignantly he demands another 5Q (that is after he removes his IPOD earphones). Nicolas voluntarily arbitrates for us.  The only thing I understand is “gasolina”.  I abruptly put an end to the debate with a 5Q bill.  For David and me this inconsistent pricing and haggling puts a bad twist on an otherwise pleasant day.  I decide right then and there I won’t argue or haggle anymore, if we can’t walk away and go to someone else, we’ll simply pay the price. It is really that simple and easier to live with, besides we are usually quibbling over the equivalent of a few US quarters.

Later that afternoon we have the usual enjoyable after work visit with Nicolas.  And as usual he tells us stories using Tz’utijil and Spanish words, pantomime and song. His stories always involve food. I eventually get around to explaining to him the clump of Impatien flowers I planted under the palm tree will remain a clump. It’s big and beautiful and I like it.  Clearly this solitary clump has been disturbing him as he expected me to divide it up and plant it in a dozen different places a week ago. David and I have noted he frowns every time he walks by the clump and has taken to planting the flowers he brings to the property himself…a clear message.  I might mention here that Nicolas is not actually a gardener and until recently was employed at his inherited trade; fishing.  For a variety of reasons it has become painfully obvious he lacks a true gardener’s heart. 

Nicolas launches into a lengthy discourse describing the difficulty of obtaining these flowers, their high cost (if he wasn’t getting them free from an Amigo) how he has to store them in water overnight, how one whole load was stolen, and on and on.  This lasts about thirty five minutes.  He is waiting for me to cave.  But I don’t. I then tell him I will make his familia and his Amigo’s familia banana bread as payment. The piercing look is immediately replaced with a beaming smile. End of subject.

We will miss our daily visits with Nicolas when we move to the rental in February but then again we can see his whole family regularly, attend church services, visit friends and neighbors, kayak and canoe the lake, and perfect our miniscule knowledge of the Spanish language!  In addition we will save a small bundle on boat trips and avoid the haggling. I’m looking forward to a whole new adventure.

It is 4:30 AM. The stars are shining brightly. The air is still.  This has always been my favorite time… the quiet before dawn.  I lean back, sipping hot Guatemalan coffee and reflect on Santiago , the Mayan and the Spanish peoples, their art and attitude and the crippled but grateful man on crutches. I realize in these still small moments that I must relearn how to be more compassionate and truly grateful.

Blog Stats

  • Total posts(26)
  • Total comments(17)

Forgot your password?