Early in my process of learning Spanish, I decided to write a story in that language to expand my vocabulary. On a lake surrounded by volcanoes, a young girl named Golondrina—the Spanish word for swallow, the bird—lives in one of 12 villages that surround the lake. The village, called Santa Maria de Los Diez, sits at approximately the position of the ten on a clock and is part of an annual ritual among all twelve villages when one family of a certain size moves from each village to the next. After a new family arrives in Golondrina’s village, one of its members, a boy named Arrendajo (mockingbird), is impressed by her fishing ability. Their friendship results in an inadvertent disruption to life on the lake that the two young people have to work together to repair.
When I showed the story to my fluent Spanish-speaking friend, who would later become my spouse, he said the story reminded him of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. Then he took out his red pen and corrected my errors.
I translated the story into English and it became a children’s book, Golondrina and the White Butterflies.
From that time on I wondered about this lake in a country I had never before visited. My first trip finally came during Holy Week, including Good Friday Eve when the streets of the colonial city of Antigua are covered with intricate carpets made of colored sawdust. Later, we traveled to the Mayan ruins of Iximche, followed by a long ride on what is known in Guatemala as a “chicken bus.” At the end of the bus ride down a winding mountain road, we arrived in the tourist town of Panajachel. From there we took a launch to a rustic bed and breakfast on Lake Atitlan where we were treated to an incredible meal by the German couple who owned Arco de Noe (Noah’s Arc), the name of the B&B. The meal was followed by a mystical night in a screened-in circular room surrounded by creatures moving through the evening air while we nested like insects in a Mason jar. And happily so.
The next morning after breakfast, we stepped out onto the dock ready to explore other villages on the lake. Bobbing boats surrounded us as we waited for the public launch to approach through the stunning blue water. Before it arrived, I looked at one of the small white fishing boats nearby. That’s when I saw the name: Golondrina.
Coincidence? Likely. But I’d prefer to think that the lake itself is alive, with the ability to influence a story conceived hundreds of miles away. And I want to believe that the spirit of Lake Atitlan might have been whispering in my ear one day while I looked up words in the Spanish-English dictionary and envisioned a village on a volcanic lake where a girl named Golondrina would save the place she called home.