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The Power of Lake Petén Itza
Hello, friends! It has been a while since I’ve sent you anything—hopefully you’ll see why when you read today’s post, which took a huge amount of effort and care.
For over 100 of you, this is the first newsletter you’re receiving from me. No doubt many of you found me through my essay on Lolita in’s project . Welcome! I’m so happy you’re here. Please introduce yourself in the comments, if you feel moved to do so. I love getting to know readers and I respond to every message.
And with that, let’s head to Guatemala, where I spent several weeks in June…
“There is a Mayan legend that anyone who drinks the water of Lake Petén Itza will come back here to live,” my sister-in-law, Philippa, told us. We were speeding down an unlit road encircling that very lake, somewhere in the lowland backcountry of northern Guatemala. The “we” in that sentence was comprised of the following: my husband, Nick, who gripped the wheel of our rental car to steady it as potholes and speed bumps tossed us like rag dolls; Philippa, his sister, the teller of legends, whose flowing sundress and browned skin suggested she’d gone native; Philippa’s husband, Luis, who Nick and I had met just hours prior at Mundo Maya airport in Flores and who, like Philippa, had flowing hair and the eyes of a dreamer; and me, shivering from the frigid A/C and silently questioning my choice to come to rural Central America for three weeks instead of escaping Cairo for some pastel European capital. Our headlights illuminated the tangled underbrush that encroached on the road, and every once in a while, a pair of red, nocturnal eyes shone back. Beyond the beams was total darkness.
“And did you drink the water?” Nick asked Philippa.
“I did!” Philippa said. It was as I’d suspected: she and Luis had no intention of leaving their spartan homestead in the tiny town of Jobompiche, which lay somewhere on the shores of the magical lake. I worried that meant we’d find little in common, as it was beyond my reckoning how anyone could settle in such a place. As soon as we’d left the glimmer of Flores (the capital of Petén province, whose population of around 20,000 makes it a relative metropolis) the buildings had dwindled into hair-raising nothingness, and I hoped our hotel would provide respite from this wild jungle. I had resolved to try my level best to understand Philippa and Luis’ choice to move here, but as I squinted and attempted to discern shapes in the obscurity, I imagined I’d be left with more questions than answers.
At daybreak, the whirring of insects rose out of the ground as though it were electrified. It was already in the mid-nineties, and so muggy Nick’s glasses fogged over as the two of us sat down on the hotel terrace for breakfast. We were surrounded by a verdant morass that was never still, but swayed and rustled as though it breathed. Petén was the last stronghold in the Americas to be quelled by the conquistadors, thanks in large part to its remoteness. Daylight had revealed it to be a region of tuk tuks, bad roads, and cash-only payments, the sort of place where the glint of my jewelry made me feel garish and like I had no right to wear such fine things. There must have been schools somewhere, but I hadn’t seen any, which would explain why much of Petén’s population didn’t know how to read, as Philippa had told me. There weren’t any grocery stores, either. People seemed to live off the land and small packets of corn nuts sold in dilapidated tiendas. Petén’s population remained majority Maya even after the 1980s, when they were massacred by U.S.-backed military dictators for the crime of demanding equality and respect. The killing eventually stopped, but the economic hardship persisted.
Naturally, my husband and I chose to insulate ourselves from such unpleasantness within the walls of a luxury hotel. A server bid us buenos días and put handwoven napkins in our laps, then covered the breakfast table with fresh fruits, piping hot tortillas, spicy chorizos with cream, and a bitter-smelling French press. We had been welcome to stay with Philippa and Luis, but their house offered no such creature comforts. My in-laws had run a successful hostel in Flores before the pandemic forced them to shutter it, at which point they fled to Jobompiche to recuse themselves from the banal tyranny of the modern economy. Now they were self-reliant and lived so simply they had little need for money. They had solar panels, a compost toilet, chickens that gave them eggs and a rooster that woke them at sunrise. Hot showers were considered an indulgence (not that they’d be of much use in this swelter). As I wiped beads of sweat from the crooks of my elbows, I was thankful we’d had the foresight to stay somewhere with air conditioning—a short visit to Jobompiche would be plenty. We had planned to spend a day there later in the week, to tour Philippa and Luis’ house and to have lunch with neighbors who had generously invited us over for hen soup.
The neighbors also offered to let Nick and I kill the hen ourselves. We politely declined. Part of me now wished we had accepted, if only to witness something with a clear cause and effect: a chicken decapitated and plucked, then cooked, then turned into lunch. I longed for such observable linkages because I had recently come to believe my life was too abstract to comprehend, made up exclusively of intangibles and flimsy connections. Through screens, I spoke to friends and loved ones who vanished the moment I hung up, mirages dissipating into the ether. I spent my days at a laptop in my home office, sending emails and taking phone calls, and somehow that increased the numbers in my bank account despite the fact that I never produced anything. And every few weeks, as though I’d been dropped into a wormhole, a plane delivered me from continent to continent without ever allowing me to touch solid ground, to witness the earth morph from desert into mountains into grasslands. Existing in such murkiness felt like trying to coax oxygen from mud, and forced me to draw quick, shallow gasps that never filled my lungs. But Philippa and Luis’ world was made up of ingredients that were simple and real—like hens that became hen soup—and I hoped it might teach me to breathe again.
As these thoughts grew louder than the droning of the insects, I tried to quell my anxiety by focusing on my immediate surroundings: lizards darting up tree trunks, the scent of fallen leaves decaying into earth, the delicate sweetness of my cornbread muffin. Beyond all that lay Lake Petén Itza. The water was a luminous shade of green surrounded by primordial forest, the center stone in a crown of jade. I didn’t plan to take a sip of the lake water, but I said a silent prayer that whatever power it held—the magic that drew people like Philippa back to it after they drank—might soothe me.
The road to Philippa and Luis’ house in Jobompiche was unpaved, and rocks pelted the undercarriage of our hatchback as it climbed the steep, winding hill. “If you can make it past this turn, there’s a good spot to leave the car,” Philippa semi-shouted over the loud, metallic thunks. I gripped the car door handle to steady myself as Nick stomped on the gas, jerking us upward toward the house.
It had been nearly a week since we’d arrived in Petén, and we had spent the last few days touring the lakeside beaches and the limestone ruins at Yaxha and Tikal. This would be our trip’s finale, and I was morbidly curious to see how my in-laws lived. In our time together, I had learned of their rejection of modern trappings like cars and clock time and formal employment, but my fear that we would find little in common had turned out to be unfounded. We had asked each other probing questions—What sorts of music do you like? Are you interested in medicinal plants? How, exactly, do you spend your days?—and answered with honest tenderness because we were determined to know and love each other, which was what mattered most. Still, I worried this encounter would bring our differences to the fore and shatter the foundation we’d built.
When we reached the place where the car could go no further, Philippa and Luis climbed out to lead the way. They walked barefoot in the dirt. The sun was high and strong and it cast a soft light over the corn fields that flanked the path. It was quiet but for a dog, who barked furiously as we passed a neighbor’s gate, and the occasional growl of Haojin motorcycles that carried riders who were small and brown. I recalled that Philippa was known as la gringa here, because her neighbors had never seen a white person in the flesh before she moved in. While I considered Philippa brunette, the locals deemed her blonde, and my wheat-colored hair suddenly felt conspicuous. I wrapped a scarf around my pale shoulders to shield them from sunburn or eyes that might find them strange.
A few minutes of trudging brought us nearly to the top of the hill, and we arrived at a three-room hut of mud brick with a corrugated metal overhang. This was it: casa Philippa y Luis. Chickens and ducks roamed the perimeter, and near the front door was a wood-burning oven where Philippa baked cakes to sell whenever she wanted some extra cash. The walls of the house leaned visibly; Philippa and Luis had constructed this place with their own two hands, learning the techniques as they went. “I’m looking forward to them falling down one day so that I can rebuild them better,” Luis said as we walked in.
The front door opened into a combination kitchen-sitting-dining room with a dirt floor, a small stove, a freezer, and built-in shelves that were bursting with books. Colorful paintings hung high on a support beam in the middle of the room. I felt a slight breeze cool my clammy skin, and I wondered, absurdly, if it could possibly be air conditioning. Then I looked up and realized there was no ceiling above us, nor did the metal roof connect with the walls. The kitchen window had curtains, but no panes. I was feeling the wind blowing in from outside. Where most houses seek to shield the occupant from nature, this house was one with its surroundings.
Philippa and Luis kept separate bedrooms. Hers was to the right of the main room, his to the left. In Philippa’s room, a wild beehive hung from an exposed lightbulb, which was fixed to the top of the wall opposite her bed. Bees buzzed idly around the room. Philippa explained that she had believed the hive would move on naturally after a couple of weeks, but it got bigger and bigger, and she eventually grew to like it—the bees never stung her, but they stung Luis when she was angry with him. Luis’ room was on the opposite side of the house, and sparser. A guitar sat in the corner. On the floor was a little pile of sand bordered by stones. This was Luis’ bed. He insisted that it was the coolest place to sleep in Jobompiche’s murderously hot summers, the only drawback being that he woke up covered from head to toe in white sand. While I would sooner rip my fingernails out than sleep in a sand bed or welcome wild bees into my bedroom, I couldn’t help but nod approvingly. How could I not admire Philippa and Luis’ uniqueness, their ability to live unapologetically as themselves?
We returned to the main room, where a black kitten peered at us from the top of the opposite wall. Luis, knowing how much I loved animals, plucked the kitten from his perch and placed him in my arms. “His name is Zumo Limonada,” Luis said—“lemon zest” in Spanish. Without hesitation, Zumo went slack, trusting me as though he’d known me all his life. As his tiny lungs expanded and contracted against my forearm, I pictured myself as Zumo must have seen me: belonging to a world like this, where I could trade in my screens and modern convolutions for the honest work of gardening to feed myself, with time to paint, to knit, to write, and with no one to answer to. It occurred to me that I could do it if I wanted. I could leave it all behind to live simply and boldly like Philippa and Luis. I wasn’t as brave as they were and the cost would be too damn high, but the question would remain forever in the back of my mind: what if you just ran?
It was high time for hen soup when we finished our house tour, so we walked a little further up the hill to the home Goomer and Estuardo, the neighbors who had invited us. We passed through a small gate onto a shaded lot, about a third of an acre with a one-room wooden house. Puppies and pigs and comically proud turkeys waddled around the yard, and a group of men—the slimmest and darkest of whom was Estuardo—sat at a picnic table making small talk. Just inside the gate, four or five women, ranging from teenaged to elderly, huddled around a griddle and smiled at us. Philippa introduced Goomer, who had bright eyes and a wide smile. “They’re making tortillas,” Philippa said. “Do you want to learn?”
Nick and I nodded yes. Goomer scooped a yellow lump from a bucket and placed it in my open hand. I squeezed it like I did as a child with play-dough, my fingers creating valleys and ridges and the lines of my palm carving an intricate web, before shaping it into a ball like Goomer’s. She showed us how to press and spin the dough simultaneously to make a perfect circle, which I struggled to replicate. The women laughed and cheered each time Nick and I placed a lopsided tortilla on the hot griddle, where it would hiss and brown, and I silently wondered at the fact that any government, much less my own, would want to exterminate such people.
Once we had a bucket full of steaming tortillas, we sat down to enjoy the fruits of our labor. We were served clay bowls of clear, spicy broth with drumsticks (as guests, Nick and I got the juiciest ones) and pale purple root vegetables. We washed it all down with sweetened rice water, then Goomer beckoned me across the yard to where her sister was braiding a little girl’s hair. She asked if I’d like one, and I sat down on an upturned log to be coiffed. Goomer’s sister said something in her native Q’eqchi’, which Goomer translated into Spanish for me, giggling: “she’s scared to touch it. She’s never seen yellow hair.”
“Tell her not to worry,” I laughed. “It’s just hair, same as yours.”
Goomer and I made small talk while her sister yanked my scalp. She told me she was 22, married with children, and had been in Jobompiche all her life. I looked around at Goomer’s little universe, and saw it was filled with the tangible things that I so craved: she squashed lumps of dough until they were thin and round, grilled them, and presto, she had tortillas to feed her family. When she did something, she knew exactly what the point was. I envied her that. I wondered if she envied me, too, and just as I’d imagined myself here in Jobompiche when Zumo Limonada was in my arms, I pictured Goomer in my place, with a diploma in one hand and a passport in the other. Would she have been a doctor or a lawyer, given the opportunity? Would she read poetry on a beach in the South of France? Would she even be married or have any children? Goomer seemed content as she was—she was respected and self-possessed, and maybe she would change nothing even if she could. I didn’t pity her. But I wouldn’t trade the freedom of my beautiful, cluttered, maddening life for her constraints, not for all the clarity and simplicity in the world. And for the first time since we arrived in Petén, I breathed deeply.
Goomer’s sister secured my plait with a faux pearl barrette, then the sun began to sink. We all knew it was unlikely we’d see each other again, and we took photos of our little tribe in every possible combination, crystallizing the memory into something we could cherish. As I gathered with Nick, Philippa, and Luis to begin our walk back down the hill, I began to pull the barrette from my hair to give it back.
Goomer and her sister motioned for me to keep it. Though I knew I should insist on returning the barrette, something possessed me to take that small slice of Jobompiche and leave behind a sliver of myself in exchange. So I left the barrette in my braid, and I handed Goomer the glittery claw clip I’d come with. I thought of it as a sign of thanks—for the hen soup, for the freshly grilled tortillas, for feeling unburdened. I may never drink the water of Petén Itza, but the lake had given me what I’d asked of it.