On Guatemala's Gringo Circuit

Ensconced in an idyllic village, Doug Fine describes the characters and concerns of daily life on Guatemala's Gringo Circuit.

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SAN PEDRO LA LAGUNA, Guatemala — Antonio was giving a lecture on Vigilante Day. He is the wide-eyed American-by-birth who runs the solar-heated thermal waters and decidedly North American indigenous sweat lodge next door to where I am living in electricity-free luxury in the new, peacetime Guatemala. His student was Stephan, a tall German who endlessly lists and re-lists the cities he has visited in the United States and in India.

“So the whole village gets together, and if they agree Juan is a thief, they gouge his eyes out, then they string him up. Once a year.”

It occurred to me that there is a whole Hallmark niche in this (congratulations for the acquitted, condolences for the mothers of the blindly hung), but I kept this thought and my greeting card poems to myself. Stephan thought that he might have had an American Express travelers cheque and a few hundred Guatemalan quetzals (about $40) ripped off from a money belt inside the house where we had both been sleeping since its American gringa renter had invited us as we walked off the boat from Panajachel.

A small-time volcano-climbing guide and ganja dealer named Chich was Stephan’s chief suspect. Chich had come to hustle and hit on Claire, our 22-year-old hostess at a beautiful two-story green trim house (with two decks). She had moved in a week earlier when its septuagenarian Mayan owner took a liking to her because her name was the same as his departed wife’s. Chich had had five minutes alone in the house while Claire went to collect some water through the 200 yards of coffee groves that abut the place. The groves, along with 10 acres of corn and black bean fields, lead down to spectacular Lake Atitlan and the surrounding lush velvet volcanoes, the whole a tourist haven in shaky Guatemala since the 1950s.

The village of San Pedro is a prime spot on the Gringo Circuit — the predictable nebula of young, guidebook-toting Western travelers settling into the nicer grooves of the developing world to study, screw, live, escape, learn and read John Irving, Tom Robbins and Carlos Castenada. They are here in numbers generally relative to the strength of their currencies: Germans, Dutch and an unexplainably disproportionate number of Danes, Israelis, Canadians, people who call themselves Canadians and the original gringos: norteamericanos.



Western tourism around the lake started in formerly mellow Panajachel, the lakeside town that has been dubbed “Gringotenango” for decades. “Pana,” as its hundreds of expat neo-hippies call it, bears about as much resemblance to its 1960s incarnation as the Haight-Ashbury does to its. Each year, satellite Mayan villages around the lake grow, specializing in various sectors of the tourist economy: Backpacker stoners gravitate to San Pedro; package tourists flock to see the semi-pagan maximsn ritual at Santiago (wherein a mannequin is given cigarettes and prayed to out loud); slightly richer backpacker stoners and honeymooners make their way to Santa Cruz, particularly the nearly communal Iguana Perdida guest house. All are easy motorized-ferryboat rides from Pana.

My chance at nostalgia

A sort of scraping, ringing sound was reaching me at my thatched, queen-sized hammock on Claire’s second-story deck. The scary, nationalistic, 6-foot-8 Stephan, an infected mosquito bite on his gigantic head like the mark of Cain, was sharpening a machete in preparation for a Vigilante Day of his own. I think he was misinterpreting Antonio’s story.

Antonio, 40-ish and rarely be-shirted, made a decision three years ago after a few decades of living on American communes (he calls them “ego factories”) and working on Mexican ranches: He was going to pay $7,000 for a heap of rocks with a killer view of the powerful Guatemalan lake, live in a teepee made from morning glory and ivy and run the aforementioned hot springs and sweat lodge resort. He attends church weekly, and in his free time crafts cypress canoes. Antonio is widely regarded as a genius by the gringos who find him outside of the San Pedro village center.

More will find him now. He is listed, albeit as “eccentric,” in the latest version of the Lonely Planet guidebook. Among dreadlocked and multiple-pierced backpackers with a copy of Pirsig and a pocketful of parental cash, that is like a four-star Michelin rating.

The one sentence devoted to him will be read by about 20 million eyes in 18 Indo-European languages over the next five years. As nostalgia is one of the great badges worn by those who consider themselves veterans of the circuit, I proudly and self-righteously look forward to lamenting how much “this place has changed from 10 years ago.” I’ve always wanted to do that.

Endless names

Antonio knew about Stephan’s possible theft because he lives adjacent to Claire and is surrounded only by man-sized banana trees for privacy, so Stephan and I had stumbled over to raucously sweat and soak at his place right after Stephan had made his possible discovery. Antonio told Stephan — whom I had overheard earlier explaining to a Danish girl, “I have been to L.A. twice, then Miami, which I did not like as much as Bombay” — that this Chich was trouble and had ripped off a number of gringos.

It had turned into an interesting evening at Antonio’s. After exhausting the 15 minutes that a sweat lodge is enjoyable, I found myself naked and depleted, standing knee-deep in a hot tub, talking within fluid exchange range to an equally au naturel gringa from Michigan whom I knew from a previous Gringo Circuit pit stop — the Spanish schools of Xela in the mountains of western Guatemala. She was waiting for her bar exam results and trying to cheat on her boyfriend. Rachel, aware of the power of her chest, stood and talked while almost ultraviolet lightning flashed silently just beyond the closest volcanoes. This, for me, was a symbol of the tumult of Guatemala as watched from the haven of the lake.

What, er, stood out most about this gringa was her incredible memory for names. There are no goodbyes on the Gringo Circuit. You meet people for two days, then run into them two weeks later on another guidebook-dictated stop (the Mayan ruins at Tikal in northern Guatemala, for example). If the memory of the previous meeting is positive, you are suddenly old and strong friends with dinner plans — for another day or two. It is far less common to remember names than not to. I often only remember the initial introduction after the addresses that no one follows up on are exchanged. These fill my notebooks.

Rachel remembered not just my name, but my schedule (on which even I wasn’t clear), which I guess I had mentioned to her casually during those five days we had both studied at the same extremely progressive, intensive and expensive school. She — whom I noticed was flirting with everyone in the hot tub vicinity, male and female — had just finished a book called “Using Your Perfect Memory” or something like that.

Unfortunately, like most visitors to the lakeside villages, Rachel didn’t know much about the bloody 50-year history of modern Guatemala. But this ignorance is not surprising: Put on your conspiracy cap and try to do a library search on U.S. coverage of the region’s CIA-supported reign of terror from, say, 1975-1995. It’s about as bare as Stephan’s money belt.

Mayan multiplex

Above Nick’s Restaurant in central San Pedro, American movies are shown every night (often, I’m told, suspiciously before they are out on video, but I’ve thus far seen only dated offerings like “Contact,” “Face-Off,” “Trainspotting” and “Il Postino”). Rolling papers are stacked in the cash drawer and sold for $2.

The same people you see at Phish shows, wearing the same garb and body hair, spend parental cash and smoke huge spliffs right at the tables at Nick’s. It’s not uncommon for spectators to collapse mid-film. This phenomenon has provoked an eerie feeling of déjà vu for me, because even in the States the same demographic dresses up in Guatemalan clothing. I expected to be asked for some spare change to get a friend out of jail.

Watching “The Truth About Cats and Dogs” over beers with Claire a couple of days before Stephan became homicidal, I asked Nick, who is a local bigwig and very amiable, if he ever worries about foreign law enforcement coming down here and, uh, poking around. He laughed and said, “This is a different country. They can’t come here.” Then his face clouded over for a moment. “At least, they haven’t yet.”

Boss! Boss! The guests won’t leave!

There is an “I am Mr. Rourke, your host; welcome, dear guests, to Fantasy Island” feel to the lake villages. Story after story is repeated, to the point of overplayed refrain, about the foreigners who came to the lake intending to stay two days (as Claire had) and wound up moving in. Almost everyone stays a little longer than expected. There are some haggard, shipwrecked faces here in San Pedro, like people who have spent too much time in the Orgasmatron.

Claire is in touch with the spiritual world to the point of clairvoyance and telekinesis. She says she knew this place was “it” because of a dream she had recently that pinpointed San Pedro right down to the hot tubs and the green-trimmed house. Next to falling in love, Lake Atitlán is the great schedule killer on the Gringo Circuit. Claire woke up the other day and, joining me on the second-floor deck and looking at her view, said, “5:15 in the morning is amazing. 5 p.m. is just … lavender and incredible. And all that time in between is unbelievable.”

You start to wander around town and through narrow paths in fields, and the feeling of home sets in. An old man stuck his head out a window my first afternoon in San Pedro, invited me to share some bread and told me about his leg injury.

Switching on my Allman Brothers tape later that day and thinking of the incident, I said, “This is paradise.”

“This group?” Stephan barked, working on a halved coconut with a spoon.

“No, this place, my life.”

But the breath of McWorld is already upon “this place”: All around the lake, gringo dream houses with “no trespassing” signs are springing up. The people from here — with my normal apologies when an opinion sounds liberal — have a traditional respect for the lake. The docks are few, and nobody but the resort owners build right on the water. Villages are high above the lake, for what I am told are security and aesthetic reasons.

There is a truly intense energy here, which one stereotype-defying Brit I’ve befriended calls “volcanic chaos.” The unfathomably deep lake, with its shades from burnt sapphire to wavy turquoise, still has an ecosystem, but is plagued by nasty runoff from pesticides banned even in the U.S., by a predatory bass population introduced for gringo anglers and by the fact that disposable Cheetos wrappers have arrived in Guatemala before weekly trash pick-up service. In the black bean field outside Claire’s, each day on my way to kayak, I watch a farmer wearing a canister filled with God-knows-what spray every plant thoroughly.

Pros and cons of circuitry

If the lake is a Central American paradise, the real Guatemala is rarely seen by even the well-meaning Lake Atitlán gringo tromping around in Tevas. As soon as a village is too far away from the lake to be part of the tourist economy — say, a two-day walk — the issues that started Guatemala’s civil war 36 years ago are very much still in play: horribly lopsided land ownership, inflation, no educational system to speak of. People are hungry and desperate, even by “developing” world standards. One in three children dies before age 2.

It’s impossible to quantify the effect of all these foreigners on local culture. I hear progressive travelers hypocritically complain about “modernization” and “cultural poisoning,” and yeah, the former real estate agent from Carmel who retires here and dresses her kids as Mayans — that’s annoying, to me and to locals. But how far back do we go? Four-hundred years? Fifty? Were the Mexican Toltecs — who, before Cortés, pushed the various Mayan groups south from Chiapas and the Yucatan — “foreigners”?

I think of a contractor from Merced, Calif., who, smoking a fat one in Nick’s, explained his trip to San Pedro this way: “One day I found out that not all the workers picking grapes near my house were Mexicans,” he began, signaling the waitress for another liter of beer. “Guatemala? Belize? No one had taught me about these places. I wanted to see what was going on.”

That’s good. But an enlightened field trip for a country boy isn’t going to transform Guatemala’s future. And not all lake visitors have the bodhisattva mind-set.

An angry Stephan was apparently about to leave for Chich’s house, machete in hand, when I offered a more diplomatic, perhaps face-saving suggestion: “Why don’t you tell Chich you heard he had found some money, and you’d like to settle it without bringing the village authorities in?”

I wonder if I am going to see Stephan at the next Vigilante Day. I myself have now been trapped — perhaps not the best choice of words — on the lake four days longer than I had intended.

I think.

No one can tell me what day it is. After a week of volcanic chaos, one feels that one has changed … back into something. Who was that nice Brit who coined the volcanic chaos moniker? He had a guitar with him, and I argued that although he was right, the Doors and Huxley are indeed clichés, they are good clichés. I’m making a mental note to check at Nick’s book exchange after “Shine” tonight for a volume called “Using Your Perfect Memory” some naked girl told me about. Ah, here comes Claire, asking me if I want to grab some homegrown hot chocolate at a restaurant called, as far as I can remember, Good Restaurant.

Doug Fine is the author of "Too High to Fail: Cannabis and the New Green Economic Revolution." He blogs at www.dougfine.com.

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