As an adult, my knowledge of Spanish was limited to, “Como esta usted, Sr. Mendez,” a line left over from a conversation from seventh grade. Several years ago I decided I wanted to be fluent in the language of the country south of my own.
When I began studying Spanish, one technique I used to build my vocabulary was to write a short story for children. The story centered on a community on a large lake surrounded by twelve villages, each named for a saint and for their position as if they were located on the face of a clock. The name of the lake was “Cuadrante” or “clockface” and the name of the village where the story takes place is Santa Maria de las Diez, or Saint Maria of the ten o’clock position. The characters are all named for birds, and often have bird-like features; e.g., one man has eyebrows like wings. The main character is a girl named Golondrina, the Spanish word for “swallow” (the bird). Golondrina is a magnificent fisher and helps to save her community after a good intentions result in a disaster for all the towns along the lake.
When my Spanish-proficient spouse read the story, the first thing he said was, “This sounds like Lake Atitlan in Guatemala.” Lake Atitlan, a large and very deep lake, is surrounded by towns with names like San Marcos, San Juan, San Pedro, and San Pablo—Saints Mark, John, Peter and Paul. I had never heard of the lake, much less been there. That in and of itself should have given me a clue that something else drove this simple narrative.
Eventually, my spouse and I travelled to Guatemala with a stop in Santa Cruz la Laguna, one of the villages on Lake Atitlan that is home to a well-known B&B at that time owned by a German couple and named for Noah’s Ark (Arca de Noe). After a wonderful night in a screened in room, lulled to sleep by the sounds of nature, we awoke to a tremendous view of this volcanic lake.
After breakfast, we stepped out on the dock and waited anxiously to be picked up by a launch that would take us to explore another of the villages across the lake. Alongside the dock, blue and white boats bobbed on the water, waiting to carry someone to another part of the lake. Before the launch came, I looked over at one of those boats attached to the dock, waves lapping at its side. The name of the boat painted in black: Golondrina.