Sunday, 4 November 2007

Skulls, Drunks and Broken Taps

El Remate, the Peten, northern Guatemala.

On Thursday we decided to head to the village of San Jose on the other side of Lake Peten Itza. It was November 1st, All Saints Day. This is widely and strongly celebrated here because of the mix of Catholic faith and traditional religion which honoured the dead and ancestors. People across the country walk in large numbers to the cemeteries to have picnics with their dead families, wash and paint the graves, and place wreaths of bright flowers. We had been told that San Jose, having a alrge Maya population, had a traditional ceremony where Three Skulls were taken in procession around the village.

The day started well with a beautiful boat trip across the lake from the town of flores to the village of San Andreas only 2km from San Jose. Andreas has the hotels and we´d been recommend Villa Benjamin on the basis of its view and restaurant. After disembarking we climbed the near vertical village streets, following directions further and further up the hill. THe directions got shorted each time suggesting we were really getting closer until the last person we asked pointed and used only one word - arriber - up! When we reached the hotel the view was truly spectacular - right across the jungle-fringed lake and down into the turqoiuse waters below where kids leapt off a wooden dock. The only hitch was the somewhat shady hotel managed who couldn´t say anything - and I mean anything - without winking or suggesting in hushed tones he was doing us the sort of favour that should have involved him producing silk stockings and silver watches from a raincoat. His somewhat dubious antics put us off but being tired and hungry, by now it was 2pm ,we decided just to have lunch before deciding our next move. As the food was great and his wife more normally friendly, we thought we´d take a room as we were here. The gardens were beautiful and we wouldn´t have to speak to him. We paid then heard the shattering news that they were leaving at 4m the next morning to visit her family grave so there would be no breakfast.

Not disheartened by the news, lack of light in the baƱo, unfinished electrical wiring, cobwebs or fake stone walls, we set off along the road to San Jose for a sunset walk beside the lake. The water shimmered blue and aqua in one direction, shades of pink and purple in the other. We hung out on a dock by San Jose´s part-built concrete promenade which promised tourists, cafes and car parks galore. We then thought, as it was nearly 6 and our reports varied between 6 and 7 for the start of the ceremony, we should find the church where the action was meant to begin.

We climbed to the sound of bells and the vision of a white bell tower to find a church almost empty except for three skulls lined up in front of the alter, each with a raised cross on its forehead. After about 20 minutes of sitting in the empty church, except for the occasional bit of activity as a mujer brought a decoration or alter piece out, we thought best to get a drink and come back later.

We pitched up at a small bar for a soda and a licuado de papaya to be hailed from the back by a guy saying ´why not come in´. Why not chat with the locals. The three guys didn´t instanly look like they had been drinking for that long. There were the husband of the woman doing all of the work, his father-in-law (both from El Salvador) and a local friend. Georgia was soon speaking Spanish to the father in law and friend while the other guy decided to talk at me ni English. Neither of us spoke much for the next half hour or so. My amigo had come to Peten after a vision of god while on magic mushrooms after leaving the US Army cadets. He had seen eyes appear on the floor and walls, then the earth at way and in hunger. A voice spoke to him, saying ´why do you think it doesn´t not explode´before two hands cupped the earth. Taking this as a sign that he hd to go to the Peten and show the locals how to save the rainforest by growing vegetables on rafts of waste in the lake, he had ended up drunk in San Jose.

Skulls again
The church bell rang again and we took this as our cue to escape, climbed back up to the chruch to find a full Catholic mass about to begin. THe church was packed, there were plenty of chicos and chicas hanging around outside the open doors and as the mass progressed more people wandered in and out. A dog sallied in, wagging its tale as it sauntered downthe aisle until it found someone it knew and sniffed them. It soon became bored and wandered out again. That was probably the highlight for me. Realising that the mass was going to go on for a long time and that any procession wasn´t shaping up to be that spectacular we decided to walk back to our hotel.

Broken Tap
We crashed out in our room but as the toilet cistern wouldn´t stop filling up Georgia went to flush it again and turn off a dripping tap. Suddenly water was flooding everywhere and I found Georgia trying to keep the tap on the faucet. I took over so she could get the manager, as our room and the balcony flooded. Thankfully he turned off the ater without trying to sell us a new plumbing system or blackmarket coffee and we moved room. About two hours later there was a knock on the door and he shouted something, apparently prompted by his wife. It seemed to be that he wanted us to pay for the tap we´d clearly broken. Giving the general unfinished and uncared for state of the rooms we thught we´d not enter into the conversation.


  1. Ooooh! How cruel to stop the story there... were you thrown out into the night? did you have to pay for the tap? did he try and sell you the hotel? did you accept the offer?

    We need to know!

    Hope all is well out there, Dinah and Jason

  2. uummmm, yes what happened? did u praps take some magic mushrooms and have a vision that you must install a british water system, or did you go to the bar in peten?

  3. Hi D n J, we slept, when we woke up the place was as empty as a politician´s conscience! No water, no shower, no breakfast so we caught the bus to Flores ate, drank, shopped in the market and went home for a good clean!

    How are you two and how are the plans for the big day?

  4. We found Villa Benjamin very peaceful, and Isabel and Antonio helpful and delightful. She went out of her way to make my ill friend soup (which was delicious) and he climbed all the way down the 400 ft steep hill to bring us the keys we had forgotten, climbed out our window to secure it open for us, shared his personal shampoo, got us extra towels, pillows, great wine, and was very sincere and helpful. Two women travelling alone, we slept in the top room with doors and windows wide open and felt perfectly safe. You are in Guatemala, remember. Concrete floor, no frills, adequately, not brilliantly lit bathroom, (who cares? we had not looked in the mirror in a week anyway!) no screens, (amazing breeze -didn't need them even though I was neurotic about bot-flys). It was my favorite place, and we had stayed at Robert's Grove and frequent 5 star places. it was clean, not buggy, great ambiance, safe, gorgeous views and gardens.