Eleanor Ross is enjoying a rural homestay in Guatemala; she shares the experience of her first few days there with us… “Escular San Andreas?” The waiter dashed over to our table and announced the presence of a man who stood, dripping in the doorway. My boyfriend and I had arrived in Flores just an hour earlier, on the 6am bus from Guatemala City. We had come here to travel onwards to a nearby language school in San Andreas, a small town on the other side of the lake. The monsoon rains had started, and we’d run for the only open cafe, the Villa de la Chef. It had a balcony that commanded stunning vistas of Lago De Peten Itza.
Flores is a petite town, approximately 200 metres across, on an island nestled in the corner of this vast lake. The bus from Guatemala City had driven through the night and had trundled across the 500 metre causeway just as the morning mists began to lift. Clapboard signs along the highway had warned us to protect ourselves against mosquitos, which are malarial in the jungle department of Peten. Despite the town’s rather ramshackled appearance, its brightly painted clapboard and concrete houses cheered us up after the tiring journey from the south of Guatemala. The rain clouds upturned on the lake, turning the water into a concrete-like surface.
Downing our coffee, we made our way over to meet our visitor. A barefoot, toothless man smiled gummily at us from the entrance, wrapped in a plastic sack to protect him from the torrential downpour. “I wait two hours!” he says proudly. Our bus had arrived late thanks to a traffic jam and, having been unable to contact the language school, we had gone in search of coffee and wifi in order to email them to ask about the meeting point.
Even though this man looked as though the rain had soaked through to his insides, he continued to grin, leading us down to the edge of the lake. The Language School in San Andreas offers transportation in the form of a boat across the lake, and this calm journey was welcome after a night cramped on a bus.
Our escort did not offer us a name, but instead draped his plastic sacking over me and took his place at the helm of the boat. The engine chugged into action, and the boat slid away from Flores and into the petrol-green lake waters. Before long, we were the only craft in the vicinity, and the only audible noise was the thudding of the raindrops on the boat’s awning.
We had decided to do a language school in order to make our travels around Central America less of an ordeal and more of a journey. We had already been confused by the notion that mañana meant both ‘tomorrow’ and the ‘morning’, and Sam’s halting and formal GCSE level Spanish was more of a hindrance than a help in Guatemala. We had decided to opt for a homestay, to increase our level of immersion in the language. Although a homestay could prove more awkward than having private rooms, it has placed us in the middle of the village life in Guatemala.
The glossy website provided no information about the standard of living in a homestay. We were unsure whether we’d be in a faceless apartment block, or in a solid, concrete built house. The reality is more like the latter, except with a level of rusticity multiplied by a million. The house is completely open. Below the corrugated iron roofs is a gap of at least a metre, and in some cases there are no walls at all. This ensures maximum airflow throughout the house.
The sounds of the jungle wake us each morning. Screeching macaws and the thrashing and flapping of wings clearly act as the alarm clock of San Andreas. The couple who live here, Gabriel and Candida, are mother and son. Candida is 60 and Gabriel is 31. He’s a teacher and is unerringly helpful, especially when we make demands such as wanting a door that closes. During the day, the front door is left open and dogs and chickens wander in. Our bedroom is walled, apart from the open window, which allows us a child’s height view of any nosy intruders.
I’m both delighted and devastated by the level of rusticity here. I’ve never before stayed anywhere that is actually the real deal, not just the tourist agency’s promise of getting off the beaten track. It took 45 minutes in a small launch across the lake to reach the village. The road between San Andreas and San Jose is peppered with tiny ladders leading from the road and into the lake. Assuming they were for fishermen, after a kilometre we saw families wallowing in the cool water at the bottom of these ladders. In San Jose, 2kilometres down the road, these ladders became more gentrified, and have been built into stone steps with a promenade. The colour of the water is, as described to us by Candida, white, green and blue. It has the colour of the tropical seas yet the deep blues of the ocean. Tentatively dipping my toe in, I expected a rush of cold water from the splashing waves. Instead, the warmth invited me right in, and I slipped off the bottom step and I completely submerged myself.
This is one of the delights of rural living. As is being cooked for by a 60-year old Guatemalan lady. We ate perfect huevos con tomatoes, frijoles y aguacate (avocado). Earlier in the day we ate narrow strips of aguacate with a spicy spaghetti. Although I’m certain that the pattern of meals will become monotonous, I know it’s also really pleasant to be eating as a local person would in Guatemala.
Likewise, the washing situation is the most unbelievably rural I’ve ever experienced. I’m reading a book about somebody who time travels back to the Elizabethan era. With the exception of weak electricity and the presence of a microwave in the kitchen, I’m finding it exceptionally easy to empathise with the protagonist. I had a stack of washing that needed to be done last night, so Candida pointed out where I could start scrubbing. She lead me to a trio of enormous stone sinks. The middle one was full of cold, clear water, and the one on the left was for soaping up my clothes. I then had to use a scoop to fish into the middle sink and pull out the glassy water to cover my clothes. I pummelled them for a minute or two, before transferring them to the third sink and using the middle one to rinse.
All I can promise any traveller to this area is that it is a whole lot different than Antigua or the touristy Flores. It is a fascinating, first hand anthropological study of everyday life in modern Guatemala. I love it here.