Laguna Chicabal, a sacred volcano lake, or: How I Learned to Stop Being Impatience and Love the Slowness

The evening before our trip to Laguna Chicabal, we watched a cartoon called Zootopia. Don’t judge! When spending all day going to Spanish classes and trying to cram as many irregular verbs in your head as possible, we all need time to cool down our slowly sautéed brains. For those less educated in animated films, Zootopia is about Judy Hobbs, a rabbit from Bunnyburrow who tries to make it as a police detective in the big city.

Assigned a case about a dozen missing predators, Hobbs and her unlikely partner Nick Wilde, a red fox, head to the Department of Mammal Vehicles to have a plate run. Alas, the department is staffed entirely by three-toed slots which are stamping and stapling forms at a speed that would make the latter Pope John Paul II cringe. It’s easily the best scene of the film, and I laughed my head off. But Anete, as ever more prescient, asked: “Would you be laughing if it happened to you?

Probably not. I’m the world’s most impatient person. I try to validate my impatience by telling myself it’s a virtue. That my success, if I have any, stems from this quality, from not sitting on my lazy ass for too long, but from push-, push-, pushing. I’m a doer, and I don’t want to waste my life waiting. But, I have to admit, sometimes even I get annoyed by my impatience.

Rubber time

It’s kind of ironic that we regularly travel to countries with a very distinct culture of slowness and procrastination. Indonesia, where we lived for a year, has a concept called ‘jam karet’, which translates as rubber time. It’s a good indication of how people look at things. Time is not set in stone, rather it’s fluid, elastic. The Indonesian word ‘besok’ literally means tomorrow, but can also indicate any moment in the near or faraway future. In practice, it often means that things will never happen at all. And who doesn’t know the mañana attitude of – let’s use a sweeping generalisation here – the whole Latin America?

The lifestyle and the bureaucracy in those countries automatically clash with my personality. Anete’s day job during our trip is to try to extinguish the volcano next to her, continually erupting with fire and fury over any possible delay or any waiter taking what’s in my opinion too much time. It’s a hard dog’s life. One day, I’ll probably knock out a poor secretary at a desk somewhere and then I’ll have to follow an anger management course and all will be fine. But until then, the impatience still burns and burns and burns.

The trip to Laguna Chicabal was such a stern test for my patience that it was almost cartoonesque. After reading a bunch of blogs, we knew we had to leave early. The lake tends to get overcast with clouds by 10 o’clock in the morning. On top of that, it was Sunday, when buses are less frequent. We woke up very early and spent the first hour of the day standing idly next to a road. The right bus refused to show up. Every passer-by we consulted had a different opinion. The first one said the bus would come any minute, the second that it wasn’t going at all on Sundays and a third that we’d better go to the main bus station in Xela, Minerva. In the end, that’s what we did.

Champagne for everyone!

Arriving at any Guatemalan bus station of a certain stature, a hectic scenario will ensue. At least one man, but more often multiple, will approach you and ask you where you want to go. As soon as you tell them, they’ll grab your backpack and dash towards the correct chicken bus. These are scenes of hysteria. You’re Tom Cruise and you have to save the world and it’s a matter of seconds or everything will explode. You run, of course, what else can you do?

As soon as you arrive at the bus, huffing and panting, you’ll notice that the 100-metre sprint you just did wasn’t necessary. You’ll see how the driver is still sleeping in his seat. A hundred pieces of the engine are spread out on the tarmac and the mechanic looks increasingly more puzzled. An overweight old lady has her eyes on a free seat in the back of the bus and tries to squeeze herself and her luggage through a space that even a catwalk model after a diet would struggle with. The options are endless, but the result is the same: you’re not going anywhere yet.

It was no different when we arrived at the Minerva bus station. “We’re leaving in 15 minutes,” said the bus driver. He might as well have announced he was going to treat the whole bus to champagne. It was not true. When we moved, at last, the driver still was not in a hurry. I know canned sardines with more space than the people on the bus, but the driver wanted more passengers. He slowly scouted the streets of Xela, looking for additional human cargo. Alas, he only found the token medicine sellers who claimed to have the cure to all men’s problems, pressed together in a little box that cost Q20.

Japanese pee stop

The first two kilometres of the trip took one hour. When we finally approached the city border, I thought the worst was over. I couldn’t have been further from the truth. A roundabout distributed traffic into two different directions. Instead of taking a left turn, the driver halted his bus, exited and sat down in front of a shop, ordering coffee and a pack of chips. The bus was so packed that some people couldn’t even touch the floor with their feet. They hung in the air, compressed between fellow travellers. Nobody left the bus, for fear the bus driver would get going as soon as they ordered their morning snack. The driver, meanwhile, enjoyed his coffee. And worst of all, it was probably instant coffee.

In front of us sat half a dozen Japanese girls, accompanied by a local woman. Later we learned that these were language students on a day trip. One of them regularly checked her wristwatch. It must’ve been quite a shock for these Japanese. After all, they’re used to bullet trains and schedules followed to the nanosecond. We had been driving for quite some time when one of the girls pinched herself through the crowd of passengers to the front of the bus. We stopped, the girl hopped off and found herself a bush. Nature called. That’s how long our journey had already taken. Luckily, she was very Japanese – i.e. efficient – and we soon resumed our trip.

The Dancing Procession of Echternach is an annual tradition in Luxembourg. Pilgrims take three steps forward, two steps back, and so on. At times, our bus ride to Laguna Chicabal had a strange resemblance to this parade. It took us 2 hours to reach San Martín Chili Verde, a mere 20 kilometres from Quetzaltenango. “Next time, we’re walking,” I said to the busboy as we got off, happy that a week of vigorous Spanish study allowed me to do so, “that would surely be quicker.”

Human sushi

Unlike earlier that day, we were Tom Cruise. Now, it really was a matter of seconds, or the clouds would kick in. Would we make it to the top of the volcano in time? We held an emergency consultation with the Japanese group and decided to hire a local young man with a taxi service to the top. We climbed on a 4WD with a half-open container with seats on its back. That went well. For a while. Until the slope got steeper and the jeep roared and screamed from the effort, trying to get a grip in heaps of greasy mud. We were almost turned into human sushi when the car nearly toppled over. Continuing by car was impossible. We had to walk.

Of course, we didn’t make it up in time. The clouds had already formed a fluffy carpet on Laguna Chicabal. Once in a while, we could catch a glimpse of the emerald lake. But, munching on our snacks in the viewpoint hut, I suddenly realised it didn’t matter. The clouds gave the place a much more mystical atmosphere. Since then, I’ve seen clear blue sky pictures of Lake Chicabal on the internet. They didn’t look half as unique. And no, we didn’t see any of the volcanoes in the surroundings, but I had stopped caring.

Sign of "No Nadar", or "No swimming", in front of Laguna Chicabal

“No swimming.” This is a sacred lake.

No drinking dogs allowed

We descended into the crater and spotted a group of Mam Maya on the misty shores. They knelt in prayer. Some offered flowers to the lake and stayed around for a picnic and drinks around the fire. For the Mam Maya, Chicabal is the centre of cosmic vision. It hasn’t always been like that. When the lake was in a different location, so a legend claims, local ladies washed their clothes in it and dogs drank from it. The gods didn’t like that very much and made the lake disappear. Only when shamans asked for forgiveness, it finally re-appeared on the current location.

Now, it’s forbidden for locals to wash their clothes or for dogs to drink from the lake. For the same reason, swimming is prohibited. Not that the weather upon our visit raised any inclination to swim. Instead, we hiked around Laguna Chicabal, a beautiful walk through the fog. It was haunting to hear the whispering chants from the other, invisible side of the lake. On the way back, a family of Guatemalans picked us up with their car. We had seen them before when their 4WD got stuck in the muck, and they had to dig it out with shovels. They never made it to the lake. That bus driver wasn’t so bad after all.

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