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“Atitlan” from “Beyond the Mexique Bay” by Aldous Huxley

By Aldous Huxley, pages 128-130, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York and London, 1934

ATITLAN–Lake Como, it seems to me, touches the limit of the permissibly picturesque; but Atitlan is Como with the additional embellishment of several immense volcanoes. It is really too much of a good thing. After a few days in this impossible landscape, one finds oneself thinking nostalgically of the English home counties.

Detail of the Frontpiece map of "Beyond the Mexique Bay" by Aldous Huxley

Panajachel, the village nearest to our inn, proved to be a squalid uninteresting place, with a large low-class mestizo population and an abundance of dram shops. Aguardiente and a lick of the white-wash brush go together in these parts. The Indians till the soil and act as beasts of burden, and the half-castes sell them raw alcohol. Commerce is higher in the social scale than manual labor.

San Antonio Palopó, which we visited by water (it being almost inaccessible on the landward side, excep to goats and the indefatigable natives) is a purely Indian village. There seems to be only a single family of mestizos in the place. Painfully squalid in their ragged European clothes, a couple of sluttish women came and went about their house; and it was sadly characteristic that the only child who tried to beg from us should have been a little boy belonging to one of them. The lower class ladinos feel themselves vastly superior to the Indians and have therefore scornfully rejected the traditional decencies of their behavior, without, alas, acquiring any of ours.

San Antonio has its own private national costume. The men are dressed in a shirt and drawers of striped cotton, with a long female-looking kilt made of a checked blanket wound round the waist, and a jacket of blue cloth. The women wear a red bodice with full sleeves, striped in red and white, a dark-blue cotton skirt, and quantities of beads and buttons made of gold and silver glass. These last are from Woolworth’s or its equivalent and have presumably taken the place of the old necklace of coins. Aesthetically, the change is for the better. These gaudy, Christmas-tree ornaments make a splendid showing.

There is no weaving at San Antonio. All the cloth required by the inhabitants is made in two villages at the other end of the lake. San Pedro and Atitlan are the Manchester and Bradford of this small, isolated world. San Antonio is the local Argentina or Saskatchewan; its inhabitants exchange the surplus from their almost perpendicular maize field for the manufactured products of the other villages.

Photo from "Beyond the Mexique Bay"--photographer unnamed.

Cloth is not San Antonio’s only import. In the middle of the plaza between the church and the cabildo, or municipality–the only level place in the whole of the village–an itinerant vendor of pottery was showing his wares to a group of women. From the covered terrace of the cabildo the chief men of the village looked on at them and at us with that magnificently dignified aloofness which is characteristic of the Indians. Compared with these utterly impassive aristocrats, the English milord of old French novels is a chattering and gesticulating dago. Nil mirari is a motto they constantly live up to; and they have carried the art of looking through people, of treating them as though they weren’t there at all, to a higher pitch than it has ever reached elsewhere.

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