The sound made by two women’s hands simultaneously patting corn dough into tortillas bears a strong resemblance to the sound of scattered raindrops falling on a bare roof: staccato thwacks that mean a storm – or a meal – is imminent.
Last Friday evening, in a remote town in Guatemala, I was settling into an 8-by-8-foot concrete block bedroom with Jesus posters on the wall when I heard the thwacks. I glanced outside, past the ripe pomegranates hanging from the branches of a nearby tree, and out to the green hills that towered over Lake Atitlán. The sky was clear, and thus I deduced that dinner preparations were underway.
The tortilla makers were two of my homestay hosts: Graciela Ramos Mendoza and her teenage daughter, Thelma, the third and fourth of the five generations living in a modest cluster of block and corrugated metal houses in San Juan La Laguna, one of about 10 towns that surround Guatemala’s most storied, volcano-lined lake. I left my room, walked past 6-year-old Karol (of generation 5), who was glued to a dubbed American sitcom, and entered the corrugated metal shack that served as kitchen and dining room. And then I did what just about any foreign visitor for whom Guatemalan gender roles don’t carry any stigma would do: I asked if I could help make the tortillas.
Past experience told me that such an act of cultural gender-bending would be greeted with surprised laughter. But Graciela and Thelma had clearly been through this with previous boarders. Nonchalantly, Graciela signaled for me to dig in to the bowl of dough, and said: “When gringos make tortillas, they come out as squares or triangles.”
Now I was the one laughing. I set to work with added incentive to succeed, and ended up with three irregular, slightly ripped ovals – a triumph. I placed them on the metal surface of the wood-burning stove with their rounder brethren, then gave up, sat down and watched as they finished the job.
“Thanks for your help,” Graciela said. I laughed again.
“No really, without you we would still be here making tortillas.”
Was there any other tourist anywhere in Guatemala having as much fun as I was? Could this family be any sweeter? Could I be any luckier?
Homestays have represented the holy grail of travel for me ever since a Y.M.C.A. camp arranged for me to live with a farming family in Kenya for three weeks at age 15. Such arrangements are not easy for the casual traveler to accomplish without signing up for weeks of language classes or joining a long-term volunteer project.
This chance came about by luck and Facebook: Laura Wheelock, a classmate from graduate school whom I had not seen for 10 years saw my status updates saying that I was headed through Central America. Was I coming through Guatemala, where she lived, she wrote? I was, and when I asked for travel suggestions, she replied with a torrent of options.
Among them, my eyes fixated on one: a homestay she could arrange for me in San Juan La Laguna, where she and her fiancé, Markus Naugle, were running Magic Carpet Rides, a gap-year program that places students with local families. They had been informally offering such homestays for travelers of all ages, and have formally started to do so as a joint effort between Magic Carpet Rides and Ati’t Ala’, a nonprofit organization in San Juan La Laguna that works on tourism development, among other things. (Laura is taking over as its executive director this month.)
The families who had hosted gap-year students could now host other travelers for much shorter periods. The fee, $100 a week, goes mostly to the families and includes three meals a day. Call it Bed & Breakfast & Lunch & Dinner.
It’s not for everyone: creature comforts vary by house, and travelers have to be flexible. Laura and Markus have made sure that certain features are in place – hot-water showers, for example – and will do their best to match visitors with families. One of the host families speaks excellent English, for those who don’t speak any Spanish (or Tz’utujil).
San Juan La Laguna is a captivating place to run such a program. Its 10,000 or so inhabitants are almost entirely Tz’utujil, one of the Mayan peoples who make up a significant part of the population of modern-day Guatemala. They maintain their own language, most still use traditional dress, and despite strong attendance at the Catholic and evangelical churches in town, many still depend on Mayan priests to give spiritual guidance and perform traditional ceremonies. The people are touchingly friendly to outsiders, and the streets are cleaner than those in just about any other town I’ve been through this summer.
And most importantly, unlike San Pedro and some other towns on the lake, it hasn’t been drastically reshaped by foreign tourists. The town has cultivated a gentle sort of tourism, fueled in part by the presence of nongovernmental organizations staffed by a mix of local residents, Guatemalans from the big city and foreigners.
Cooperatives have flourished. The fishermen have one and the coffee growers have another, for example, but the most noticeable are those of the traditional weavers. Among the results has been a return to the use of natural dyes, not the bright, synthetic colors you see on fabrics sold at touristy markets around the country. The shops run by the cooperatives have boutique-like feels, and you’re liable to be invited to the back to see women at work, either weaving or extracting dye from natural sources like willow bark or pomegranate seeds.
There is also a homegrown tourism organization called Rupalaj Kistalin, which organizes a ton of activities – a town tour, fishing tours, coffee- and corn-themed tours, and a hike up to the “Mayan nose” (the highest point of a face-shaped mountain overlooking the town), to name a few. All guides are local, and some speak English (but try to arrange for that in advance if you can: email@example.com or 502 5964-0040).
I did two: the cultural tour – led by a San Juan native, Raúl Batz, who took me and an enormous family from Barcelona through town, explaining building styles, pointing out landmarks, taking us into the weaving cooperatives and one of four religious confrarias dedicated to particular saints. (That ran me 70 quetzales, or about $9 at 7.7 quetzales to the dollar.) I also took a fishing tour solo (135 quetzales, or about $18), and was led by 17-year-old Andrés David Yojcom, who took me out in a wooden canoe and showed me the traditional method of fishing with a line tied to a small slab of wood. (We didn’t catch anything.)
But the highlight was watching the rhythm of daily life at the Ramos Mendoza home – Diego getting up early for a breakfast of eggs, beans, tortillas and plantains before heading to his job as a bricklayer, Karol playing with her cats and talking about her big fat white rabbit, Graciela practicing her virtually nonexistent English with Chispa, the mostly boxer puppy who belongs to a Peace Corps volunteer who also rents a room from the family.
Some things I encountered just don’t happen in hotels: when I arrived home from the cultural tour, I found two chicks waddling alongside the cornstalk fence at the edge of the property. “Peep-peep-peep-peep,” they wailed, seeming as panicked as baby chickens can be. I asked Graciela what they were doing there, and she explained: they had found an opening and squeezed through, and now couldn’t find their way back. “Their mom is on the other side,” Graciela said.
We went over to the fence and she pointed out said mom, who to my surprise, was a turkey. I must have looked quite perplexed. But Graciela explained that the neighbors had taken a hen’s eggs and placed them in the adoptive care of their turkey, who was now raising them as her own (along with their much-less-cute adoptive turkey brothers). Happens all the time, she said.
The best part of the homestay was mealtime, when we really got to talk – and eat Graciela’s excellent cooking. A beef broth was dense with flavor and overflowing with vegetables; the fried plantains were sweet and addictive. But the best dish by far was her pipián de pollo, the Guatemalan national dish of chicken in a sauce made from squash seeds, sesame seeds, tomatoes, tomatillos and chilis.
By the way, you can stay in San Juan without taking the homestay option. A cabin overlooking the lake at the Hotel Chi-Ya on the outskirts of town is an excellent deal at 175 quetzales ($23) a night, double occupancy, for example; and there are several other hotels closer to town.
If you do opt for a homestay and need to escape the beans-plantains-tortillas routine (it can get old), you can always head to San Pedro for a falafel. And there is an interesting cafe in town as well: El Artesano, a funky little place that just moved into new digs in a lush garden near the center of town. It serves sandwiches and imported cheese and wine to visitors and outsiders working at the nonprofits in town. But coffee is El Artesano’s raison d’être: though San Juan is surrounded by coffee plantations, instant coffee is the order of the day in homes and local restaurants since the good stuff is too valuable for local families to use for themselves.
I did try an 8-quetzal ($1) espresso once, and it was good; but I submitted to instant to maximize my time chatting with Diego and Graciela, to joke around with Karol, to play with Chispa, and to eat perfectly round tortillas not made by me. The time passed way, way too quickly, and as I write this on a bus headed toward Mexico, I already miss them all. And I could really use a nice pomegranate, too.
(For more information on San Juan La Laguna homestays, write to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you know of similar programs elsewhere, I’d love to hear about it. Stick a comment below, or write to email@example.com.)