Portraits of Panajachel
They had been splashing the waters of Lake Atitlán for a good half hour, keeping track of an aquatic score updated by a speeding plastic ball. Becoming aware of an audience, their leaps turned more flamboyant and their dives more akin to the pelagic grace of dolphins. As the games drew to a close and their wet skin embraced the warm clothes lying by the concrete steps where we stood, introductions were exchanged.
“What is your name?”, we asked one. “Manuel”, he replied. Faced with the same question, the second boy looked at the first and, with only a hint of a grin, answered “Manuel”. “You’re both Manuel?” Laughter was their reply. A white lie, made obvious by a childish sparkle in the eye, creating a gulf between two outsiders with strange accents and a glinting pair of shoeshine boys going about their business.
In our daily contact with the natives of Panajachel, names are hardly ever mentioned. Meandering through the local market, we haggle over the price of papayas and guavas, choose our bouquets of parsley and enjoy short bursts of friendly banter with the usually female merchants, but our relationships remain firmly bound by the cold realm of financial transactions.
As much as we enjoy our interactions with locals throughout our extraordinary world, we are mostly resigned to being perceived as just another couple of tourists. Barring notable exceptions, we are merely ramshackle blips in their lives, to be acknowledged and quickly forgotten. It would be presumptuous to expect anything else – after all, there are bills to pay and mouths to feed. A smile is easily shared, but more familiar ties require trust and, more relevantly, time.
While strolling along Calle Santander on a sunny winter day, we approached a few people selling their wares and asked for a photo. Some we had met before, others were new acquaintances. Some were happy to oblige, others refused in a billow of giggles. The younger they were, the more uncomfortable they seemed.
In the end, we bought a few items and gathered a small collection of portraits of Panajachel. The men were mainly Manuel, the women Manuela.
“It has changed a lot. Thirty years ago, we could walk along the shore of Lake Atitlán and would only see fruit trees. Now there’s too many people and it’s dangerous to be on your own in the middle of the night. The lake has also retreated – there used to be water where we now stand. But it’s rising again. Some rich people built their houses right by the shore and now you can only see their rooftops.”
He had been selling nuts, pistachios and broad beans to a couple of women sitting by the sidewalk. We inquired about the pistachios and cashews, and his availability for a photo. “Why?”, he asked. “Because you’re a good-looking man”, we replied. The women laughed and the nut seller beamed.
“I hope you bring more people to buy my things”, she said in a somewhat skeptical tone.
“They’re very rude and take photos of us when we’re eating, so we end up looking ridiculous. Most people don’t like to have their photo taken, but they just flash away and go home.” Yes, they’re idiots, but can I take one? “Fine, but only because you convinced your friend to buy our things and my mother-in-law knows you.” Click click click click click. “I thought you said one, but I heard at least five!”
The daughter-in-law, mischievous between her husband and his mother.
“Can I sit down?”, he asked. Sure, I replied. Click. “You’ll be more handsome if you smile”, Elle advised, standing next to me. Click.
A gorgeous smile can usually be found nestled in the eyes.
We had seen her walking the streets of Panajachel, with a remarkably swift pace and a smile holding all the kindness in the world. She sold colorful bracelets and more traditional embroideries, which she invariably tried to sell whenever we crossed her gaze. Even when we politely declined, she never stopped smiling.
We bought our Guatemalan bracelets from her on the first day of winter. She is one of the most strikingly beautiful women we have ever seen.