They say that Lake Atitlan is a powerful place—the Mayans worshipped here, thousands of people come every year to find something inside themselves that has otherwise gone missing, or undiscovered until then. I don’t expect that, but then, I didn’t know what to expect. Certainly not this, I think by the time we got to the Uxlabil dock. It is getting late when we get there, a little darker than we meant it to. The drive, looping over mountains and through the half-built, dusty suburbs that are endemic to all developing countries, took longer than we thought—bumping around in the back of a van, knocking knees with other tourists for two and a half hours, with one bathroom break for a Canadian guy around our age who chugged three beers on the way over. He seemed surprised when he had to go to ask for a stop. I’m not sure what he expected.
And when we finally do get to the lake, it is a confused hustle of figuring out where we are and where we go next. Before us the water spreads out, wild and a steel blue, rippling out to meet the mountains where they begin, deep into the belly of the water. It is stormy, a little, the tops of the volcanoes are obscured by a thick layer of clouds, shifting in the wind, letting stray beams of light through where they dance on the water. I know why they call them God’s rays, now, as if the hand of heaven reached down and touched the earth in a rare moment of divine intervention. The boats anchored to none too sturdy docks along the shoreline bob wildly while waves—from somewhere; the wind, the steam vents far down below us, something—crash onto the retaining wall that holds back the lake from overtaking the little town we’re currently in. Someone comes up to us as soon as we start heading for the lake—we take a quick detour once off the bus and go to the bathroom in a restaurant we find, in stalls near the shore that creak and churn with the movement of the water—and they know we’re looking for a boat to take us away from Panajachel, the town we’re in now. I don’t blame them, for most people are looking for a way to get out, and we’re easy targets, white faces and backpacks in tow. He tells us to wait here, so we’re waiting, and waiting, and I eye the flipping white of the waves nervously, because I’ve been seasick before and I doubt it was the last. The guy who told us to wait disappears, gone somewhere else to drum up business—the boats won’t leave til they’re full, so it could be a while—and it’s just Alexa and I leaning against this wall, eating power bars and watching the clouds move across the volcanoes.
When he does come back, with a nice variety of other tourists—some people who came over on the bus with us, a Finnish girl we don’t recognize but who’s very friendly, an English family who prove themselves to be extraordinarily annoying—we get on the boat, a low-slung vessel with a covered cabin but open windows. Someone puts a piece of fishing wax along the windows, and I hold it up with my shoulder, but it smells like hell. I’d rather take the wet.
Alexa and I are at the back of the boat, she in the middle while I huddle away from the wax and stare fixedly at the shoreline while we speed through the waves, riding low in the water. We are the last ones off, at Uxlabil. We stop first in Santa Cruz, a little cluster of white buildings hugging a rocky shoreline, in San Marcos, a haven (apparently) for yogis and spiritual seekers, at a private house for the English family—a long, green lawn butts up to the water’s edge in a very weird contrast to the rest of the lakeshore—in San Pedro for the Canadian we rode over with, the party town they say about San Pedro, and then finally to Uxlabil, a lonely dock at the far end of the lake.
The water is green and murky with seaweed, and there is a half-sunk house off to our right as we clamber out of the boat and onto the trembling, just barely floating wood. Make that two, actually—the larger house is only sunk up to the first floor, the smaller house is drowned to the roofline, making it almost impossible to see in the gathering twilight. So, I say to Alexa, looking around, here we are.
The hike up to the, a big, four story stone monstrosity looming over us is steep, built into the hillside, but paved with river rocks and overflowing with orchids and bougainvillea, growing right out of the ground. A friend of Alexa’s recommended it, this eco-lodge, I remind myself, it can’t be that bad. High windows grace the little waiting area to check-in, framing the lake in light blue arcs where the pane is painted. It is quiet, save for the hushed clamor of birds on the water below—this place might be deserted, I think irrationally for a minute, there may be no one here. How weird that would be, how weird this has all been.
Finally a very small man appears, the picture of enthusiasm—he speaks in rapid, high-pitched Spanish to Alexa, of which I understand nothing but the giggling, which he does often. We exchange looks while he leads us onto the third floor, the kinds of looks people who know how to travel together exchange, the kind of look that says, “listen, we’re at a weird, remote eco-lodge without wifi and potentially no other guests, and this odd man could be a nightmare caretaker, but hey—we once stayed at a brothel by accident together so this may work out in the end”, and while our footsteps echo around the tiled balcony, we swing open a creaking door to a bizarrely large room, two twin beds the only furniture save for the desk under the window. Muchos gracias, Alexa says, and then sit for a minute in the quiet still when he leaves.
The window is open, a slight breeze coming in—there is a hammock slung up on the balcony beyond the door, it sways gently, a dark shadow against the gathering blue of night. Vines crawl over every surface that isn’t walkable, the gray light filters into the room and outlines them too with twilight’s paintbrush, so that in our own gathering, of selves and courage, we are refreshed to forge on. We are stretched and changed with every odd circumstance, every time we encounter a new that goes past what we’ve experienced before.
The man comes back, to the door next to ours this time—someone else is staying here too! This is encouraging, although the fact that their key isn’t working in the door is not. Is this your first night, we ask them, is it hard to get to San Juan? It’s the nearest town, as far as we can tell. The girl has wide blue eyes, a friendly face, she is wearing cheetah print flats that make me smile, I am so tired of seeing Chacos. We don’t know she says, we were going to go to San Pedro though. Alexa asks the man, who is still giggling, how we can get there to San Pedro, and he offers to walk us there, down the highway. Take a tuk-tuk back he says, but you can walk there!
Much later we descend back down to the hotel in the dark, wearing head lamps to find the rocky path. A stray dog sleeps in a dark curl off the side of the trail, scaring us witless with his wide, guileless eyes lighting up in the dark—there is, we can see from the trail, lights moving on the second floor of the first sunken house, there are no lights on at the hotel. The birds squawk louder now, piercing the otherwise silent night with a raucous noise that seems so out of place for this place, though I know it so little.
Two cocktails later, after more confusion in San Pedro and one wild tuk-tuk ride—swooping down the highway in a three-wheeled car, holding on to the land of the living with everything we had around each corner, lest we go bouncing out the side—it is time for the sweet refuge of sleep, the temporary escape, the chance to put this weird day behind us, and let tomorrow bring what it would.
Except for the stray dogs that started barking around midnight and kept it up til dawn, it was actually very peaceful.
They weren’t wrong, about Lake Atitlan being a spiritual place. We ate breakfast in a dining room, with other people there and everything (birders, mostly), the sun sparkled off the water and an American man complained he probably had giardia, everything felt more normal, a little less ominous in daylight. We drank coffee in the hammock and read our books, we attempted to find the names of the birds we were seeing. We watched the cranes take off from the roof of the second sunken house, gangly legs tucked neatly behind them as their noble heads floated through the sky, bodies weightless as a breath of wind. The profile of a sleeping Mayan was outlined in the ridgeline before us—from our balcony we could trace the chin, the mouth, and the Indian’s Nose, an apparently famous appendage that most Mayans carry. It’s not so bad, after all. It’s pretty soothing, really.
No, not what I expected, even when I didn’t know what to expect. I can’t report any self-discovery, no revelations, no visions of ancient Mayan gods. But there was a moment—after all was said and done, before we moved on to the next place—that I felt a deep contentment, a quiet inside I hadn’t had before. Alexa was taking a nap in the hammock, I was writing in my journal on a daybed pushed under the window of our room. The lake spread out like a blanket under the sleeping Mayan profile, the vines crawling up the side of Uxlabil stirred gently in the sun, the birds ran on the water below us and weren’t making too much noise. I lean my head back and stretch my neck, I feel still, I feel whole, I feel settled in the home of my heart.