THE LATE WRITER Aldous Huxley once wrote that Lago De Atitlán, mere hours from Antigua, was the most beautiful lake in the world. I respect the man's writing but, as he was off his mash on LSD most of the time, I chose to reserve judgment until I'd witnessed the place for myself. As let's face it, a quarry in Scunthorpe would probably look good on acid. As the minibus meandered down the hillside to San Pedro La Laguna, the lake surrounded by volcanoes certainly looked picturesque enough. But I've have been interested to know what Aldous would have though of tripping along the shores of lakes Windermere, Coniston, Garda or Loch Lomond? He might have re-arranged his Top 5. But it's a nice enough place to hang out.
Surrounding the lake are the volcanic peaks of Atitlán, Tomilán, San Pedro and Cerro De Oro. It's estimated that the lake is 4500-8500 years old, and is the deepest in Central America. One disputed theory is that the lake bed in actually a collapsed mega-crater. I wouldn't sit around arguing about it, but it's certainly vast. The waters suffered from blooms of cyanobacteria in 2008 and earlier this year, causing government warnings about the safety of swimming in the lake. It didn't seem to deter many people, although jumping off a cliff with legs akimbo stopped one English lad doing it again. I chuckled as I watched him swimming back to the rocks with a grimace; it certainly was a long way down. Feet together, my son...feet together.
I've never been one for Irish bars, especially when not in Dublin. But Clover in San Pedro is an exception. It's not full of flags, Beamish and Guiness ads...it's low-key, and the food is great. The permanently half-cut owner, Paul, is a great lad, too. I'd stuck to the excellent samosas for most of my stay, and had to laugh when I asked Paul what the chicken curry I'd just ordered was like. "Ah bollocks, that's the shittest thing on the menu...I've been meaning to take it off for ages. I'll go see if I can change it for you." He came back with a shrug and told me it was almost done, so I was stuck with it. You've got to admire a man that honest, as he was right...it was pretty shit.
Atitlán is swimming, literally pickled, in alcohol. It's not just the presence of a few Irishmen, simply that there's little else to do. I was worried I'd end up pissing out my shrivelled liver by the end of the week. You don't need an excuse to drink, and it's always an early start. The town is linked by a few small roads and tight dusty paths. A bunch of good places to imbibe, live music, decent food and a half-decent pool table means it's easy to get waylaid. And drunk. I met another Irishman named Rob who I hit it off with straight away. He reminded me a little of Liam Neeson. Together we drank ourselves into stupors, smoked ourselves senseless and hammered all comers at pool. Apart from Henry, that is...a local lad who grows his own weed, and gets better at the game the more stoned he becomes. I can't complain, as he graciously took me up to the roof every half hour to let me sample his new strains. We also caught Match Of the Day live, which is just about the only taste of home I need when away. A couple of cans of Boddingtons and fish and chips from Victoria Park wouldn't have gone amiss, either.
Due to Antigua's relative expense, the cheap bastard Israelis tend to head for the lake after a day or two. So I was dreading a miniature Jerusalem-On-Sea, especially as Bognor Kim had told me he'd seen plenty heading down there. But, he'd also told me, they keep themselves to themselves. On my first day wandering around the dusty paths, I discovered that he wasn't kidding. There's an Israeli hostel with an adjoining restaurant at the far end of town. Surrounded by high bamboo walls, they've even constructed a bridge over the pathway to give immediate access to their pool without leaving the premises. This place couldn't be more of a ghetto if a bunch of Germans ringed it with barbed wire: the inhabitants never leave. Fine with me, mindyou...the only ones I ever saw outside of a bus were a trio of crusties who hung around the main junction, spending their days juggling and making ethnic bracelets. What a life.
I enjoyed wandering the local part of town, on the hill above. There was a lovely woman who made fresh juice drinks in the shade of a church, and I made a point of sitting and chatting to her during the siesta each day. Only the basic conversations: home, family, travel and the like. But she was easy to understand, so very good practice for me. It was after one such break from the sun that I wandered back to the main pathway and came across a local legend. A sign proclaimed "Tony's Book Exchange: Over 3000 books". I had a recently finished Murakami in my back pocket. Surely I'd find a decent swap here? The door was locked, and I peered though the grimy windows. Stacks of yellowing books everywhere: on the floor, on tables, along sagging shelves. In the middle of the shop, a pile of rags shifted and resettled. I tapped the window, and a squinting face peered in my direction. A figure reluctantly arose and shuffled towards the door. Tony, a Dutch expat, let me in. Another customer followed me in and struck up a conversation with the proprietor. I didn't listen in, scanning the shelves for something readable. Almost three thousand crimes against trees. I sighed heavily as my eyes dismissed the Crichtons, Grishams and Cusslers adorning the shelves. Books from the 60s and 70s I'd never heard of, some unreadable due to the mould infesting the middle pages. There were one or two of interest, but only ones I'd previously read. Walk into any bookshop in Asia, and you are going to be there for hours, spoilt for choice. Deciding which book to take can be a painful choice, as you'll find books you've been meaning to read for years. It's no coincidence that the majority of travellers in Southeast Asia are European, as you can discern this from the choice of books on offer. The majority left here seem to be "beach books" and "easy reads" picked up in US airports. Losing interest in the books, I took in Tony's surroundings in disbelieving horror. His bed was a pile of rags in the middle of the shop; the kitchen was part of the open-plan room, the hob brown with grease, various pots and pans encrusted with filth; dirty cutlery scattered across every surface, including the floor; a cat squatted atop the worktop, finishing a long-abandoned meal. What happens to a man to enable him to live like this? I never got to know Tony's story, but have no doubt he's a very intelligent guy. Rob was on his pub quiz team, and there wasn't much Tony didn't know...which led me to believe that he's got a basement full of decent books tucked away somewhere. But Murakami was staying with me, in the meantime.
Visit the lake, and another local character you'll meet is Little Juanita. She's at least 60, and at least 4 feet tall. On any given night she's wandering through the bars at just the right time, in her indiginous dress, a wicker basket of cakes and cookies atop her head. With an infectious smile as wide as the Rio Dulce, this old lady is absolutely adorable. She loves to give you a hug and a kiss when you buy her baking; I've not seen many people warmer. She knows everybody, and everyone knows her. A genuinely happy character. And her baking isn't bad either, let me tell you.