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El Lago

David Alan Harvey/Magnum Photos
A boy playing near Lake Atitlán, in the highlands of Sierra Madre, Guatemala, 1975

We called it El Lago. The Lake. As kids, growing up in the Guatemala of the 1970s, we probably never even knew its name—Lake Amatitlán. Nor did we care. It was only a winding, half-hour drive from the city to my grandparent’s vacation chalet on its shore. We spent most weekends and holidays of my childhood there, jumping off the wooden dock, learning to swim in the icy blue water, digging out old Mayan pots and relics from the muddy bottom, paddling out on long surfboards while little black fish jumped up through the surface and sometimes even landed on the acrylic board. Gently, we’d nudge them back in.

One early morning, we all woke up to find two indigenous men floating face down by the wooden dock. They were naked and bloated. Guerrilleros, my father said, his tone far from compassionate or even sympathetic. Guerrilla fighters, probably from one of the surrounding villages. I was still too young to understand that the military used to dispose of some of their enemies there, dumping the dead and tortured bodies into the water. A few weeks later, my grandparents sold the chalet.

*

I became accustomed to falling asleep at night to the patter of gunfire. The fighting between military and guerrillas, a prolonged and bloody civil war that had been taking place primarily in the mountains, had escalated in other areas, reaching even into the city. By then, my father had a bodyguard, partly because of the general growing insecurity in the country, but also because he was getting death threats from workers at his textile factory who wanted to unionize and were demanding better labor conditions.

One day, in the summer of 1981, the military fought a faction of guerrillas just outside my school, in the Vista Hermosa neighborhood of Guatemala City. The teachers hid all of the children inside the old gym, and we stayed there for hours, listening to the rattle of machine guns, and the earth-trembling explosions of tank shells, and the hum of military helicopters in the sky. That same night, as my brother and I were getting ready for bed, our parents told us they were selling the house, and we’d soon be leaving the country.

We fled on the day of my tenth birthday, to South Florida. I quickly and effortlessly began to forget Guatemala, forget my native Spanish (English just took over). I even began to forget about the lake—until a few years later, sometime in the mid 1980s, on a vacation trip back, when I met a girl.

She was a year or two younger than me, and from one of the wealthiest families in the country. Old money. Plantation money. We met one night at a party, and the following afternoon she picked me up in a black Suburban with tinted, bulletproof windows. We both sat in the back, smoking some of my first cigarettes, while her chauffeur—armed with a .38 handgun—drove us along the meandering, thirty-minute road to her family’s chalet by the lake, where we could spend the evening in seclusion.

Everything inside was abandoned. The sofas and tables in the house were covered with pieces of heavy, cream-colored canvas. There were no chairs to sit on, no dishes in the kitchen, no sheets on the mattresses, no glasses or bottles in the bar. All the windows were draped with black plastic bags. But as deserted and neglected as the chalet was, when we walked outside I noticed that the lake looked worse.

The water was no longer a deep beautiful blue, but a murky brown. Scum and garbage drifted on the surface. There were no people anywhere. No one swimming or sailing. No one boating. No city kids spending their weekend there. No locals fishing out Mayan relics. I looked around and suddenly realized that all of the other chalets in sight weren’t just abandoned—they were decrepit, falling apart. Ruins and vestiges of another time.

It was late afternoon. In the failing light, the volcanos were barely visible in the distance. I could hear the chirping of bats flying close to the water and just above our heads. As we stepped onto the wooden dock, I was taken back by the stench of something rotting or decomposing. I quickly understood that what was rotting or decomposing was the lake itself. I said something to her about the awful smell, but she just giggled, took off all her clothes, and jumped in.

*

I was driving to the ocean. Or trying to. I had recently turned twenty-five and had come to the realization that absolutely nothing in my life made any sense.

I’d been back in Guatemala for almost three years, after graduating from college in North Carolina. I had been living in the United States for over a decade, as a student, always with a student visa—and when my studies ended, so, too, did my tenure there. I was forced to go back to a country I didn’t know anymore, to a culture I didn’t understand, to a language I could barely speak. I started attempting to settle in, working as an engineer, in construction, but overwhelmed by a feeling of extreme frustration, of profound angst, which only kept getting worse. Desubicado is the word in Spanish. Out of place. Or misplaced. But misplaced emotionally, spiritually, not just physically. (I wouldn’t stumble into books and literature until a few years later, which probably saved me.)

And there I was, in my car, running away from something, or from everything, trying to get to the ocean on perhaps the worst day to try it. Most of the roads out of the city were blocked for security reasons because of the ceremony taking place downtown later that week: after thirty-six years of war, the military and guerrillas were finally signing a peace accord. The country was already teeming with international observers, foreign presidents, dignitaries, journalists. I was forced to take another route out of the city: the winding, all-too-familiar road that went by the lake.

Even that road, I discovered, was blocked. Not because of the peace deal-signing ceremony in the city, but because of a large mob of local onlookers that had gathered next to the lake. I parked my car on the median, and got out.

The entire shore was a blanket of dead silvery fish.

*

He’d been my pediatrician, in the 1970s. Then he also became a renowned medical anthropologist. And now, as I turned forty-five, he was my son’s great-grandfather.

He was still there by the lake. He had never left, back when everyone else did. His chalet, though old and weary, remained standing, and there he was, standing with it, every weekend. Like a captain who refuses to abandon his sinking ship. Or like one of those Japanese soldiers who hid in the jungle for decades, in their tattered uniforms, looking out for the enemy, because nobody told them the war had ended. 

We lay on two beach chairs side by side, in front of the lake—he, as always, and despite his ninety-plus years, in slim Speedos—while we waited for the volcanic water in the hot tub to cool down a bit. He’d just finished telling me about his kidnapping in the early 1980s by a group of soldiers, who apprehended him one morning just outside his clinic (the waiting room, I recall, was always crowded, not only with wealthy Guatemalan kids, but also with the very poor and indigenous, whom he treated for free). The soldiers jostled him into a military jeep and drove him to the barracks. One of his sons and two of his daughters, one of whom would later be my mother-in-law, were guerrilla fighters, in hiding. The military government of Efraín Ríos Montt—who would eventually be tried and convicted of crimes against humanity and genocide—wanted information on where they were. He didn’t know. He couldn’t tell them anything, and didn’t, despite days of brutal torture. After a month of detention, and because of strong international pressure on the government, especially from the Red Cross, he was released.  

Next to me, on his beach chair, he kept glancing at his black digital watch. I knew why. No drinks before noon.

The lake in front of us was a thick green. A pea-soup green. It seemed emptier, smaller. Its putrid smell was now everywhere. I asked him about the lake’s current condition. He’d been there for over half a century. He’d been witness to its rise in popularity as a weekend destination, and to its inevitable downfall. He’d seen the construction, and destruction, of all the chalets along its perimeter. He’d seen its blue, pristine waters turn green and thick and foul. He’d seen all the little black fish disappear.

It’s in the last stages, he said. Two main causes. First, years of runoff from all the chemicals and pesticides used by the surrounding agricultural farms. Second, untreated sewage and industrial waste coming downriver from Guatemala City, an estimated half-million pounds of sediment per year. It’s suffering from hypertrophication, he said: the excess of minerals and nutrients that is the reason why the water turned green with algae. And it’s also suffering from siltification, which is the pollution of water by particulate clastic material.

He was speaking clinically, emotionlessly: a doctor talking about a patient. He said that, in the end, it all came down to human and institutional neglect. Experts foresee the lake drying out completely within a few decades, the long-term effects of which will be catastrophic for the ecosystem of the entire region. Meanwhile, he said, the indigenous people here have lost their livelihoods, their main source of income—not just their vacation homes, as others had. He sighed. He stood up slowly, almost painfully. Half-grinning, he said that the bar was now open, and went off to the house to fetch us a couple of whiskeys.     

I stayed, lounging in the beach chair, looking out at the green waters before me, trying to think back to the midnight blue they once were. The sky was cloudless. The sun on my face felt warm and pleasant. In the distance, on the opposite side of the lake, I could just make out part of what had been my grandparent’s chalet. The red tiled roof, the front yard leading down to the water, some eucalyptus trees I’d helped plant in the black earth by the shore, the rickety wooden dock. Seeing the dock, I suddenly remembered, word for word, the secret prayer I used to whisper before jumping from its edge into the cold water. Like an incantation. Like some sort of magic spell. I was afraid of discovering in the water the floating dead body of my father’s older brother, or he who would have been my father’s older brother. His name was Salomón. He’d drowned in the lake when he was five years old, next to the wooden dock, and they never found his body. Or so they told me.


This essay is adapted from the author’s contribution to the forthcoming collection Tales of Two Planets: Stories of Climate Change and Inequality in a Divided World, edited by John Freeman, to be published by Penguin Books in April 2020.