Sunday, March 15, 2009

Horseback Riding Above Lake Atitlan, Saturday, December 13

It's been a few months since I left off with the tale of our trip to Guatemala in December. Work and life have gotten in the way, but looking at some of my favorite bloggers' posts about Guatemala, I am inspired to finish up our travelogue.

If you have not already, make sure you check out Rudy GirĂ³n's La Antigua Guatemala Daily Photo, James and Beth's Teco/Teca, and now Dave and Danaya's Hand Up Tierra Linda for nostalgia and/or inspiration to travel to this amazing place.

Back to my was our second day in Santiago Atitlan at Posada de Santiago.

Saturday morning, we rose early for a hearty breakfast at the lodge. Particularly of note were the blue corn pancakes with macadamia syrup. Not your traditional pancake, but the taste grew on you.

Then Nancy Mattison came to pick us up. I had gotten in touch with Nancy through the Posada. She and her husband, Jim, offer all kinds of horseback riding and walking tours that are combined with gourmet dining.

As it turns out, we were joined by a young guy from New York, who was also going to be part of the ride.

Nancy drove us around the lake, past the memorial to the people who had been killed during the civil war, and by a private air strip, to their house and horse ranch.

We went in through the gate to their home and past their large pack of trained dogs. Inside their house, Nancy gave us coffee, hot chocolate, and homemade coffee cake, and we met her husband, Jim.

I knew this was not going to be your run of the mill horseback riding tour from the moment Jim introduced himself as a "libertarian anarchist." Born in the Baltics (Latvia, I believe), his life in Guatemala since the early 90s is just one of many extraordinary lives he has led. He had been a professor, run various successful businesses, been an adviser to US presidents, had made tons of money and then lost it all.

The Mattisons came to Guatemala when the civil war was still on, and Jim quickly developed a reputation as someone not to be messed with. He assured us he was the only one in the area who had never been robbed and warned, "Don't think I'm not armed in three places right now."

In parts of the country, Guatemala is still a lawless place where crime, from petty robberies to contract killing can take place. Jim likes living in his fortress he designed and built himself from polished stone. It's a good place for an anarchist.

There were no papers or waivers to sign. Liability law doesn't exist like it does in the US, and he told us cooly we were all responsible for our own selves. Alrighty then.

Off we went to get our horses.

Michael hadn't been on a horse since childhood, and only once then. I had been an avid rider in my young teens, but I had only been on a horse a few times in the last 10 years. And I had never ridden Western before.

The New Yorker who came with us had never ridden before, and he was quite unnerved by the whole thing.

After getting on our respective steeds, we set off down the road for about a quarter of a mile, which had me tense to start out. I know from experience how spooked horses can get from cars, and I was without the protective equipment I was accustomed to. But there was nothing to worry about. These horses were very used to the trek.

After the road, we went down into a coffee plantation, where we had to take a path that ran right along a stretch of low trees. We had to duck down and feel the branches scraping over our heads as we passed along. The New Yorker was quite tall, so this was difficult for him to do, and he started crying out in distress.

Immediately, that got me tense again, as I flashed back to various incidents from my earlier riding career when kids had gotten scared, started yelling, and spooked the horses, thus making the situation all the worse. But again, my fears were unfounded. These horses were unflappable.

Finally, we got out of the tree lined area and started ascending the mountain. The paths were very narrow, and you really had to just trust your horse; otherwise, you might tumble into a ditch. So I slowly started to let go and relax. I had to. I couldn't hold the reins closely, like in English riding. I had to trust.

All the while, Jim was leading us in conversations about literature and politics, quoting Aristotle and John F. Kennedy, Friedrich Nietzsche and Franz Kafka, Madison and de Tocqueville, all verbatim (and not infrequently citing page numbers in specific editions!). It was unlike anything I had expected. This man was so well read, and he could remember it all!

After about an hour and a quarter of riding, we finally found ourselves at the top of the mountain. We dismounted and stopped to rest.

Below is the view west to the Pacific Ocean. There was some haze in the sky, so we couldn't actually see the water. But on a clear day, Jim assured us, it was possible to gaze that far.

A closer look, though, yielded the piles of trash by the lookout point. Trash was an issue we had talked about on the ride. We saw it so often in the otherwise beautiful fields and greenery.

Jim told us that it's part of the local culture. They don't see trash the way we do. For them, trash is a sign of affluence. You must be doing well if you can buy things that produce trash. People from the north, "do-gooders," he said, come and try to beautify and take away the trash, but it doesn't work. The trash may get collected, but then it gets dumped somewhere, like here.

To the east was Lake Atitlan, looking gorgeous, as always.

But looking at our feet yielded a different story.

Here are burnt remnants of medical waste, likely from a humanitarian mission. Jim's problem with the "do-gooders" is that they don't think about all the possible impacts of their activities: everything from what happens to the garbage to what happens if one family suddenly has a lot more than most of their community (the answer, according to him: the family becomes a target).

He said, some people here are better off than you think. Just because they live simply does not mean they don't have money. Most Guatemalan families will make money in a number of different ways: through a job, having an animal whose products they can sell, side endeavors.

It was interesting to hear Jim's perspective. While I don't think any of this is a reason not to help, it is an important reminder of the impact we may have, intentionally and unintentionally. Not everything is as it seems, and we can't always take the rules and values and life views we have in our own country and apply them elsewhere.

We rode back down the mountain, along the hair-raising paths, and through the brush. This ride had been completely unlike what I had imagined, and I was so happy for that. I felt an unearthed burning in me to start reading again, to discuss literature and politics. It was as if I had gone back to university in this three-hour jaunt.

But I was saddle sore, so I was glad to hop off my mount and head in for some lunch.

We got a tour of the house as Linda finished up the preparations for our absolutely delicious lunch.

The sun was starting to get lower in the sky, and we had finished our meal. We said goodbye to Jim, and Linda drove us back to the Posada.

On our way, we saw coffee-weighing stations along the side of the road, and Linda told us how people wait there with their coffee to sell it to wholesalers. However, these are also spots where the lawless know they can rob people, or worse. It is a difficult life.

Michael and I went back to our cottage and tried to process all that we had experienced that day. We wanted to make some changes to our lives. At the very least, we were inspired to make reading a priority and set up a library in our living room, rather than having the computer as the centerpiece. We were reminded, more than anything, of how reading opens the doors to knowledge and understanding and lends a richness to life unlike anything else.

While we were still quite full from lunch, we stuffed ourselves with more gourmet delights for dinner at the lodge. Michael had his Ron Zacapa, and I had a huge margarita. And then we settled back in our cabin.

Michael built a fire in the fireplace, and we snuggled together on that cool night, our minds still awash in thoughts from the day.

Next up: Sunday, December 14 -- we take an incredible journey from Santiago Atitlan to Antigua and stay at the inimitable Casa Santo Domingo.


mary said...

This article gives the light in which we can observe the reality. this is very nice one and gives in depth information. thanks for this nice article.


Equine Tack said...

Wow that seems like an amazing holiday, I love riding horses but to mix it with a holiday would be a dream. Those are some stunning views, you've convinced me to look into booking something similar for next year. I'm going to start hinting to my husband and hopefully he'll catch on!

Holly said...

If you love riding, this would be right up your alley! There are lots of riding vacations around the world. But there are also riding day trips that you can organize as part of non-totally-horse-centric vacation. Guatemala is fantastic, and if you did this particular outing with Jim and Nancy, I guarantee you would never forget it.

Anonymous said...

I went there in 2000, and it sounds almost the same now. We had to take off ALL jewelry, and were 'escorted' by two amazing guard dogs on the ride thru the cloud forest. Quite a memorable day.

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Van Roozum said...

This place was magical for us! Although it probably is more than 15 years ago it's the start of a big family life now. We Will visit you guys (Jim and Nancy) again with our five kids soon!

Sabrina Van Roozum