Updated: Oct 11, 2019
The writer and pacifist Aldous Huxley said of Guatemala’s Lake Atitlán (where these photos were taken), “Really, it is too much of a good thing”.
And when standing on its banks, crossing its waters, or staring down from the heights of a nearby volcano, it’s impossible to disagree with Huxley.
“Lake Atitlán, situated in a country that saw an incredibly brutal and divisive Civil War that ended only seventeen years ago, is sheer, mezmerizing beauty.”
But when the war, which began in the 1960s, spread to the Mayan highlands and Lake Atitlán in 1975, the lake was anything but beautiful. Its waters ran red as the Guatemalan military, with support, training, and financing from the United States, committed genocide against the indigenous Mayan population, killing many in the lake’s largest town, Santiago Atitlán, and terrorizing the populations of the other towns around the lake.
The Guatemalan government, funded by Washington, pursued a scorched earth policy in which indigenous people were assumed to be supporters of the guerrillas, and thus targeted for brutal reprisals.Now, not long after the end of the Civil War, the lake area appears again to be a sea of tranquility and beauty, the way that Huxley saw it. Its twelve towns bustle, boats full of people from around the world navigate the waters, and the war seems a distant memory.
The gringos who left during the war have moved back (many gringos stayed during the war to assist the Maya) and have helped build schools and medical facilities, including a state of the art “hospitalito” in Santiago.It’s hard, almost impossible, for an outsider to know and understand the impact a war, a Civil War, has on the people. The Maya largely live in the moment, trying hard to make a living, maybe farming or building or creating a business or working for a gringo entrepreneur.
Many children work, bringing in more money than their parents by hustling (helping!) tourists at the docks or hotels or restaurants.
Education is too often an after-thought, although the younger generation seems interested in pursuing dreams common to their age, making their lives better than their parents. Here in Lake Atitlán, Guatemala, I try to use my camera to interpret what I see and experience. Life itself. Everyday existence.
“And I see smiles, hear laughter and sense joy. I feel a calmness and a gentleness and a kindness of spirit.”
And that ever-present beauty. But underlying it all, I sense mystery. A vagueness, as though something is hidden, possibly waiting to reveal itself at another time, but not for me. Is it the history and very nature of a proud civilization that has endured hardship after hardship for 4000 years? Maybe,
I’m not sure, but this I do know: the lake is gorgeous and its peaceful people even more so. That is what I hope I’ve captured.
Story shot in Guatemala
Pictures and Text © Eric Mencher / USA