Lake Atitlan: Damaged Beauty


My love and I spent our forty-fifth wedding anniversary at one of the more beautiful spots I know on earth—Lake Atitlán, in Guatemala’s Maya heartland. I first saw the place in my early 20s, loved it then, and wanted her to have the chance to see it.

We came away awed by the place, and yet disturbed by signs of its abuse.

The setting is magnificent. From the manicured grounds of the Hotel Atitlán, with its sculpted shrubs and colorful flowers of every kind, you look across the blue waters of the lake at three volcanoes rising like sentinels on the other side. At sunrise, they are etched against the horizon, with green lawns and flowers of every hue in the foreground.

Atotlan21Jun13_0907Visitors have only to look around this place to appreciate the handiwork of God, and the generous use of space around the hotel for flower gardens shows the owners’ appreciation for beauty.

And yet there are signs that the lake is not as healthy as it once was.

My memory is that in 1966 I could walk several yards out on the dock, look down into the water, and see stones on the bottom. Not so now. The water is murky. Sister S. read that raw sewage is being dumped into the lake from a sewer plant that failed. We took a hike in woods on the nearby mountainside (all right, yes, she had to make me do it!) and found there were heaps of trash and junk in the small waterways that empty into the lake. Disappointingly, trash can be seen around its edges.

I don’t know how long the ecosystem of this lake may be able to withstand the damage, but if nothing is done to reverse it, Guatemalans may be in danger of losing a treasured part of their heritage—a generous gift from our Creator.

Atitlan22Jun13_0971The hotel is a place to be pampered, if you want. It offers special services such as massages, fine food, and comfortable rooms with a beautiful view from the balcony. It’s located in an area with limited telephone and Internet accessibility, but thanks to modern technology, it has TV via satellite.

We haven’t had TV for eight months. I surfed all 60-plus channels looking for something to enjoy—and found nothing. (Well, there was the last few minutes of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, dubbed in Spanish. That changes the cultural experience.) There were a lot of things I might have watched—action movies, fútbol (soccer), novelas (the Spanish soap operas), endless news. But in the end, there was nothing to which I wanted to devote any large slice of time.

That is unusual for me. I am a child of the TV generation. I grew up when classics like I Love Lucy, The Ed Sullivan Show, and Perry Mason dominated television. I watched the original Star Trek throughout its run, and M*A*S*H faithfully for 11 years. As my brother-in-law once said, all you have to do is hear the beginning of the M*A*S*H theme and you’re hooked. And in my case, I’m also a news junkie. But it doesn’t take very long listening to news channels these days to realize that some fairly trivial things get way too much play.

Atitlan22Jun13_0997I wondered, after surfing all those channels and finding nothing that engaged my mind, how often I have let it be filled with useless things in front of the television or in browsing magazines, etc. How often have I let my mind be filled with what is essentially trash?

If I were to go on doing that, how long would it take before lasting or irreversible damage is done? If I do mindless things long enough, will my ability to ponder important things—great ideas—be lessened or damaged?

And what should I be doing now to avoid letting more trash build up?

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