I’ve moved to another house.  A woman who went to a peace dance retreat in Mexico needed a house-sitter (in Central America, you don’t want to leave a house unattended for two weeks). So while she’s at the retreat,  I have my own little retreat in her house, which is out past the edge of town, around 2 kilometers from the center, and it’s up a long steep trail above the road and the lake, in the woods. Luckily I have a bike.  Now that I’ve learned something about who’s who and what’s where in Panajachel, I don’t feel isolated out here.  It feels peaceful.

I’ve mentioned that Cush and I are going to play for a book reading, and our little group has grown to four, including a Guatemalan drummer and a French pianist who speaks Spanish but not much English.  So I’m happy to say that in spite of myself, I’ve fallen in with a Spanish-speaking group and I’m associating with locals.  They say music is a universal language, but how you talk about music is anything but.  The way you name notes and chords is totally different, so communication is challenging and interesting.

I’ve observed that these lake towns have dual centers.  For the natives, there is the traditional town center with a plaza, a church, and a market place.  For the foreigners, there’s a separate commercial center with hotels, bars, restaurants, yoga studios, art galleries, and gift shops.

And related to this, I’ve started to get a picture of the retiree community. A bunch of people of baby boomer age have found that they can live comfortably on social security in the communities around Lake Atitlan.  There are also wealthy people living in mansions, but I’m talking about a population with a more counter-cultural flavor, living on a budget that would not support them in North.  This is not for everyone.  A lot of people don’t want to live with a foreign language and diesel exhaust and wood smoke and roosters crowing all night, and they want to be able to drink water without filtering it and eat vegetables without disinfecting them and flush their toilet paper down the toilet, and have hot water coming out of a tap.

Being who I am, I project my jaundiced view onto the future.  A significant population of boomers is going to face a dilemma of survival in their post-working years.  A thin slice of the pie, but still quite a few people, will follow the vanguard who have already found a solution at Lake Atitlan.  This will further disrupt the already pretty disrupted community values of the indigenous population.  

So the picture I see is, a few foreigners can live as sort of cultural parasites in a poor place, enjoying the laid-back indigenous culture and living well on what to them is little money.  The relationship is symbiotic to some extent, because the foreigners are spending money and helping to raise the material level of the natives, creating jobs for them.  But as you get more foreigners, then I don’t see it working so well.  Prices go up for everyone, which is especially hard on the natives, and the traditional values that hold the native community together are lost. Instead of a friendly laid back place, it becomes a place where everyone is hustling to survive and get ahead.  

Not to say that, as problems go, this is a major one.  It is nothing compared to  globalization, deforestation, over-population, corruption, violence, degrading water quality, migration of campesinos to the cities, and so on.  It’s just a little window I happen to be observing, into a particular tropical paradise for foreigners.

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