Quaking in my botas

There was a magnitude 6.9 earthquake in Guatemala on our first night in our new house. The building swayed, then shook, then rattled, and the bed jumped up and down for about ten seconds. According to my husband.

Fortunately, I had drunk a half bottle of rum before bed. The quake didn’t wake me, but G did so he could tell me about it. I vaguely remember being annoyed.

My mother, who has lived here part-time for a couple of years, phoned immediately to check on us. Then she phoned again at 6:30 to check that I wasn’t repacking our bags for home.

Why? I ask. When the climate is exactly like London (rainy, damp, windy) except there are more insects. Hooray! Ants at every windowsill, a whitish spider in the beautiful bouquet left by our landlady. Sweet baby scorpion next to the baby cot. These are simply welcomed reasons for me to use my overpriced Western vacuum. It’s Dyson-grade, so I know all their little legs will break off and they won’t be able to crawl back out of the hose attachment.

Honestly, if the house can withstand a quake like that, then we’re good to stay. And it’s a lovely little (temporary) house.

The ceiba tree at Ceiba House


Its artist owner really put her heart into this one. It’s also set in a picturesque garden on a lush little path down to the lake.


Even on a cloudy day, the greens are the most vibrant I’ve ever seen. And the flowers are positively prehistoric.

It’s lovely. It’s not….the cleanest. Hence the vacuum. But my need for clean is my own cross to bear. There are four doors and 50 different color-coded keys. I can’t get in or out. Produce has to be washed in a 5% bleach solution. Because of the proximity to the lake, all toilet paper must be disposed of in a bin next to the toilet. All soiled toilet paper. In a bin. Next to you. This is a rule around the lake. It wasn’t a surprise: for the last 3 months I’ve known about this, and I’ve thought about it every goddamned day.

While these inconveniences were not ultimately deterrents to our move, and though I’ve managed to completely ignore the earthquake as if it never was and never will be again, I am not cool with tuktuks.

They are sardine-can death traps that choke out a Siegfried & Roy-sized cloud of smoke with every tire rotation. I thought, ‘Rural – clean, fresh air!’ but I already have black lung.

Of course there are no seatbelts, because there are no ‘seats’. Which means there is nowhere for our giant Graco throne that fits all children, ages 0-25. So A is strapped to me in the Ergo as we dodge and weave and barrel headlong in the wrong lane towards a mac truck. And I clutch the rail in front and weep quietly.

It feels oh-so-unsafe and scares the hell out of me every time. But it’s the only option.

Also, I’m no mother of the year (apparently I am supposed to be brushing her teeth…?), so who am I to judge how babies are unwittingly transported from place to place here? Many are carried everywhere simply because their parents can’t afford shoes.

Keeping this in mind when street sludge, which has its own tidal patterns here, swells up over my feet, or when I find an ant in my bra, inching perilously close to tender nipple, is important. It’s made easier by our neighbors.


Grinding poverty is never far away. And this family has electricity; they’re lucky. Like many places I’ve been, life is what it is and everyone lives piled up on top of each other and tries to make the best of it. Even at the chicest hotel or finest restaurant here, you’re still in Atitlán, Guatemala, and your neighbors have far less than you. I’ll try to keep that in mind next time I go to electric steam-mop the floor.

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