This past weekend, Sara and I joined an EcoLogic intern, another Sarah, on a trip to Lake Atitlán. This, if you didn't know, is one of Guatemala's (and all of Central America's) most impressive places and a major tourist destination. I've always had mixed feelings about major tourist destinations, as you can probably relate to - how unnatural it feels and the sea of all those "obnoxious tourists" (as if I'm not one myself). But as I've told many friends over the years, particularly those who swear to omit major tourist destinations in favor of going "off the beaten path" - the path is beaten for a reason. Places like Atitlán are popular and flocked to by people from all over the world because they're practically universally amazing. Don't get me wrong, I see the value in going off the beaten path. But I'll deal with a sea of other tourists any day for the opportunity to tour the Alhambra, hike the Grand Canyon, or take in Lake Atitlán. I'll let the pictures do the talking...
For me, the highlight was actually probably observing a ceremony worshiping (or at least praying to) Gran Abuelo (also called Maximón, but according to the Tz'utujil devotee who told us what house the ceremony was in, only people that don't understand and respect Gran Abuelo call him Maximón; I started calling him Gran Abuelo at that instant). I have no idea how to sum up the experience, but it was unreal and I encourage you to search for Gran Abuelo next time you find yourself in the town of Santiago Atitlan.
The lowlight was probably the mental and moral handcuffs I found myself in when thinking about the surplus of local people, almost all indigenous, trying to make a living off of selling their wares or a boat ride in the lake to us tourists. There was stall after stall of almost the exact same dresses, coin purses, flutes, hats, etc. and not nearly enough tourists to buy them, despite Atitlan's popularity. This just increases the pressure to make a sale and puts an aura of desperation in the air. We had a man walk with us for about 10 minutes then wait outside our hotel for another 15 just to see if we'd take a boat ride. Later on, Sara and I momentarily pointed at a blanket. Before we knew it, the woman selling it had given us the price, dropped it 50% and as we walked away yelled out lower and lower prices to try and get us to turn around. It makes me realize even more the crucial need for more dignified, non-tourist-dependent livelihoods, where women don't have to sell the beautiful results of hours of work for the equivalent of a few bucks.
- Chris Patterson, Program Officer for EcoLogic
Chris collaborates closely with the senior program officer by writing grant proposals and project reports, investigating potential funders, and following trends in philanthropy, conservation, and international development. Chris was a fellow for the Ford Foundation's Difficult Dialogues Project and has documented his time working from EcoLogic's regional office in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala from March to June, 2011.