Two weeks of Spanish lessons later I´m still a bumbling gringo who mangles the language with verve. I´ve been at a different language school this time around with a different maestra for each of the past two weeks. One was a 20 year-old psychology student who dreams of following her friends who´ve already snuck into the U.S. (very common here). The other was a 40 year-old, hardened veteran of the Xela language schools who insisted that I stop mangling the basics before moving onto the tougher stuff. It helped. Heather and I decided to take it easy for a while in Xela - she´s nearly always battling an unfriendly stomach - and stick to studying, cooking, and sleeping. At the end of last week we packed our bags and headed to the famous lake here, Lago de Átitlan. It´s an enormous mountain lake that formed in the crater of an ancient volcanic eruption, and has been shaped by the three volcanoes that have arisen on its banks. It is ringed by small pueblos, each having its own character - one known for marijuana, another for yoga and meditation, another for gringos shopping, and a few of them for the traditions of their non-tourist cultures. The area is absolutely overrun with travelers. I hate it. The land is spectacular - deep green forests, steep mountainside farms, towering volcanoes, and the blue water - but being inundated by vendors selling textiles and trinkets when we walk, turn, sit, sneeze, or eat is a bit more than I´d expected. I´ve learned that tourism is Guatemala´s largest "legitimate" industry (in the formal economy), surpassing the influential agricultural exports that I´ve been learning about for a year. [Photos: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7] This region around the lake was one of many particularly hard hit by the 36-year civil war that officially ended in 1996. A UN-sponsored Truth Commission report released in 1999 indicated that some 200,000 people died in this war. Almost all were indigenous people killed by the military or closely-aligned para-military groups - the commission calls it genocide. Today in Santiago Átitlan, on the lake´s southern shores, we went into a church with a memorial commemorating an American-born priest killed by the military, ten other civilians murdered while working on their farms, as well as hundreds more who died or were disappeared during the war. Everyone with whom I´ve spoken about the war has stories of friends or family who were killed or disappeared. However, life in the cities where we´ve spent the majority of our time was fairly well removed from these difficult-to-grasp realities. The peace accords were signed nearly a decade ago, but many people here are convinced that aggression, coercion, and killings still occur in many rural areas, although it evades the mainstream press. I´m in my final days in the country and Heather and I are having every opportunity to buy souveniers. The widely known market at Chichicastenango was a remarkable spectacle [photos: 1 2 3 4 5 6], as have been the views around the lake. Tomorrow we´ll say goodbye, Heather will leave once again for Xela and four more weeks of Spanish classes, and I´ll head to Antigua for a day before flying home on the 7th. Happy birthday Mary and I hope no one loses and eye playing with fireworks. Your comments to this blog are dying off, but I´d love to know that someone out there is reading this. Salud.