En la playa de Pana

Rómulo and his son Elder playing at the Bistro

The first night in Panajachel (Friday, March 5th), we went to eat at the “Bistro” after a recommendation from the hotel staff. I had asked for a typical Guatemalan restaurant and this one turned out to have an Italian menu. We looked around for something else more typical and then decide to go to the Bistro. There was an absolutely fabulous singer guitarist, Rómulo, playing and singing there. I left him a really good tip, telling him that artists are never paid enough. This entry’s title is from one of his songs.

On the way home we ran into a procession. A brightly lit statue of Jesus carrying the cross was being carried by a group of men towards the Panajachel church. The float was followed by a wire leading to a generator that provided the power to the lights.

The next day, we met Lars for lunch. He suggested going to the Bistro again where I had a great filet mignon and Marilyn had chicken. That night we ate at the Sunset Bar on the waterfront where the food was all “genuine” Mexican, supposedly just like in Mexico according to the menu but actually mostly Tex-Mex. The band played some rock classics including Marilyn’s favourite: Stand by Me. But they were nowhere as good as Rómulo. On the way back, we passed by the Bistro where Rómulo waved at us.

On Sunday, following Lars’ suggestion, we went to the famous market in Chichicastenango (a.k.a. Chichi), about an hour away by twisty road: half an hour uphill, 5 minutes on the highway and an hour down and then up twisty roads. Yes, that’s an hour away, but it took us an hour and a half to get there. I immediately bought a rather dandy straw hat for 50 Quetzales (about six or seven dollars) without bothering to bargain. I needed it as my head was starting to feel sunburned.

In Guatemala, the custom is to bargain, and not only for tourists. The sellers usually ask for about double what they want and one tries to beat them down. On the other hand, I still refuse to bargain with artists and artisans for their work, and if it’s double what they really want, well, good for them; they’re underpaid anyway. The market was overwhelming & I forgot what Marilyn bought. We had lunch at the fancy Hotel Maya Inn where the waiters wear a traditional costume that costs almost a thousand dollars.

Marimba players at the Hotel Maya Inn

That night we went to yet another place, called the Circus Bar. Italian food yet again: I had home made potato gnocchi with tomato sauce and Marilyn had tagliatelle with shrimp and cream sauce. There were some musicians playing there, but they were not that great and passed the hat after their set. The place was decorated with many circus posters from Latin America and Europe, some very old, as the founders of the place were former circus people.

On the Monday, we went on a boat (lancha) tour around the lake with Juan, the brother of Timoteo our hotel clerk. Marilyn & I were the only passengers on this tour. We went to Santiago Atitlán as well as San Antonio Palopó and Santa Catarina Palopó.

In Santiago, after visiting the church where the saints were all dressed in different colour cloths, we went to visit Maximon (pronounced Ma-shi-mon), the Maya deity protector of the people. The Maximon is portrayed as a man with a suit and a hat usually smoking a cigarette or a cigar. At the shrine we went to, there were four women kneeling and asking favours of the Maximon: one had a stomach ailment, the second was opening a new business and the other two needed help with passing their exams. A Mayan priest was reciting incantations to help them while everybody else was chattering, smoking & drinking. We had to pay for our entrance and for each photo we took. The money went into Maximon’s pocket. Marilyn did not want to enter the shrine or chapel as it was way too smoky.

Luigi in Maximon shrine in Santiago

Maximones at the Nim Pot store in Antigua

In San Antonio, we saw some weavers at work and Marilyn was happy to see that the fabric she liked a lot and bought a lot of was actually made with a pedal loom rather than by machine.

We then had lunch in Santa Catarina, where I also took some pictures of the perfectly safe scaffolding. (NOT!!!) It is amazing with what workers will put up with when they are poor and powerless: people spraying paint with only a handkerchief over their face, no ear muffs in sight when using jackhammers, and speaking of sight, I have yet to see any safety glasses in Guatemala. But the hardware stores are full of Satanley (sic) tools.

That night (Monday) we went back to the Bistro but Rómulo was not playing. However, he was there and we did talk to him. We arranged to meet the next morning at the hotel. At breakfast he told us about a project he was heavily involved in: building a school for special needs children. I went to the school with him.

Martha and Rómulo in the school showing one of the displays. The curtains in the background are the "doors" to the toilets.

The school was fully operational with 32 kids and two teachers, despite still missing interior doors and windows and having little furniture. They are responsible for 52 kids, but the others are in the regular school system; for example they got fitted with a hearing aid and can attend regular school. The school was built within the precinct of a kindergarten in Panajachel.

Martha, the teacher, told me that it would be ideal to have another six small tables so the kids would have a place to work. (Hint, hint Luigi!) I asked how much a table would cost and she figured about 500 Quetzales each (about $65 dollars). I asked about chairs and she said it would be great to have some too, but right now the parents were asked to bring chairs for their kids to sit on. I got sucked in and agreed to get the tables made to a maximum of 3,000 Quetzales.

Canadian peas for Soupe aux pois.

I was happy to see that the school got assistance from a Canadian organization in Montreal and from Spain. They also had bags of pasta, gummy bears and dried split peas donated by a Canadian parish, but they did not know what the peas were. They thought they might be lentils, but I told them they were not and that they were used to make a traditional French-Canadian soup. I later looked it up in a Spanish dictionary and Rómulo now knows what they are called (guisante, alverja, or chícharo).

Planer and jointer in wood storage and planing area

Anyway, Rómulo and I head to the carpentry/cabinet making shop where they are already building some lockers for the school with money Rómulo raised. The owner is not there, so Rómulo and I agree that he is to look for the guy and call me after he talks to the owner.

Table saw

I go off shopping with Marilyn and I call Rómulo around 5 PM or so since he had not called me yet. He tells me the owner wants 675 Quetzales per table. I think, shit, he’s going to hit me for more money. Anyway, around supper time, Rómulo calls me to ask whether we would come to the Bistro for supper, I am ready to say no more money with Marilyn supporting me in my resolve. We sit down with Rómulo, and he tells me he found a cabinet maker in another village (San Pedro, IIRC) who is ready to make the six tables, and six chairs as well, for 3,000 Quetzales. I am truly relieved and maybe have been unjust with Rómulo who had every intention of respecting my boundaries. I owe him an apology for my misjudgement of his intentions. Anyway Rómulo does his gig which we truly enjoy, throws in a line about amigos de Canadá in his Playa de Pana song. He calls the president of their association, Marvin Quinoñez, who happens to be married to Martha the teacher and works as speech pathologist. I hand him half the money so he can pay the cabinet maker when the work is finished, and I am to pay the first half tomorrow directly to the cabinet maker so he can buy the materials. I also ask Marvin to look into the possibility of my getting a Canadian tax receipt for my donation. I tell Rómulo and Marvin that the tables are in honour of my good friend Todd Hardy, carpenter, unionists, former leader of the Yukon NDP and founder of Habitat for Humanity in the Yukon. Todd is dying of leukemia.

Ricardo at his workbench

We have every intention of leaving the next morning, but I want to go see the woodworking shop first. Rómulo shows up at the hotel and tells me he found someone in town to do the work. Ricardo shows up after a while and we go to his shop to discuss design. He already has some sketches done, and he intends to use round tenons for the chairs and regular mortise and tenon for the table. His shop is really simple; a small metal table saw, and a workbench and a bunch of hand tools in the yard.

Ricardo's table saw

Anyway, Rómulo says he can’t make a decision about the design, he has to ask Martha. We go to the bank and I hand Ricardo 1,500 Quetzales and go with him to the lumber dealer to buy the wood. The pine lumber to be used for the table is sold in 12-inch wide planks, 8 to 10 feet long at about 65 cents (5 Quetzales) a board-foot. Cypress is a little more expensive at 8 Quetzales per board-foot. Ricardo picks his planks and some 2X3 rough material for the table legs. He tells me to be at the entrance to the callejon (alley) near his house at 2:00 PM to help unload the lumber.

Ricardo slecting wood for the tables

I show up at around 2:10 and Ricardo has a box on his shoulder and is obviously weaving. The man is totally pissed. I think to myself, “Uh oh! We have a problem here.” He insists on carrying the box back to his place. Luckily the alleys are quite narrow and the walls help keep him staggering in the right direction. He is quite proud to tell me numerous times that he has bought the glue, contact cement, varnish and screws needed, which are in the box he is carrying. I get to his place and meet his wife who is rather shy and maybe a little ashamed. He hands her 400 Quetzales and to my relief she tells me he has already paid for the wood. I call Rómulo, who had been there before when no one was there and I tell him that Ricardo seems to have had quite a liquid lunch.

Rómulo shows up, tells him he expected more professionalism from him. Ricardo excuses himself. We decide to go get the wood. Ricardo and I walk there and Rómulo goes on his bicycle. Along the way, Ricardo alternates between being my best friend and ashamed of himself. He had to stop to relieve himself along a wall on the main drag of Panajachel. He meets another guy along the way who wants him to do some work. I introduce myself to him and he tells me his name is also Rómulo. I ask him about Ricardo. Rómulo No. 2 tells me he is a very good worker but has an alcohol problem. No shit!

Cypress & pine planks at Sebastiano's lumberyard

Anyway, we decide to get the lumber delivered the next day as the alleyway is currently blocked as workers have dug it up to install a water main. Ricardo later told Rómulo that he gets really happy because he got a job. I told Rómulo that allegro (alegre in Spanish) also means happily drunk in Italian. Anyway, Ricardo is obviously a drunk, as he is too poor to be an alcoholic.

We decide to stay in Pana one more night, go have a light supper of ceviche and salad at a waterfront restaurant. We then go to the Bistro to see if Rómulo is still there, but he has already left. I also happen to see a place where they make housecoats, but they don’t have any my size (Surprise, surprise!). I start walking away, but then I ask them if they could make one for the next morning. The tailor says he can have it for nine in the morning, so he takes my measurements and I put a deposit down.

The next morning, I call Rómulo to let him know we are leaving. He tells me he is going to Chichicastenango. Since it is on our way, I offer him a ride. I tell him to meet us at 10:15. We are late as we are doing some last minute shopping (I need to get my housecoat, Marilyn wants to buy me another shirt, I need to get a map of Honduras and we decided to buy some Huehue coffee which just came in from Mike at the Crossroads Café). Then off on another adventure with Rómulo.

Anyway, we’ll see if we can get Rómulo up to the Yukon to play in one of the music festivals.

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2 Responses to “En la playa de Pana”

  1. Deborah Says:

    Just discovered your blog through Facebook. Love the stories of your adventures! Great photos, too – I look forward to seeing/reading more.

  2. In memoriam « Pickup truck diaries Says:

    […] March, I described how my friend Rómulo, the musician I met in Panajachel, Guatemala, got me to donate money to build […]

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