It took someone saying I couldn’t go to Guatemala for me to make sure that I did. I had been a fan of author Joyce Maynard’s ever since I first read Labour Day a number of years ago. I went on to read her heartbreaking memoir The Best of Us, and two more of her novels, Under the Influence and After Her, which further fuelled my love for her writing. I can’t remember when I first came across her Writing by the Lake retreats in Guatemala, but when I realised that this year’s dates coincided quite perfectly with the end of the 2019 London Book Fair, it seemed too good an opportunity to miss. And so, little more than a fortnight after booking my flights, I found myself en route to central America.
The day after arriving in Antigua I woke early. The morning air was cool, and after reading a couple of chapters of At Home in the World – another of Joyce’s memoirs, I set out to see some more of Antigua before breakfast began. A colourful city surrounded by mountains, the early hour of the morning meant that the streets were quiet; the cafes and bars shuttered closed, the hum of the day only just starting to surface. I return to the hotel to savour my first cup of tea of the morning, and am soon joined by Julie, whose delayed flight meant that she missed the welcome dinner.
We soon set off for the lake, and after gathering in the lobby, load the minibus with our bags and begin our drive to Panajachel, a town on the north shore of Lake Atitlan, where we board a boat for San Marcos. I was glad the only seat left on the bus was a single one, and sat in silence for most of the journey, taking in the unfamiliar landscape, the roads that meander and slope slowly towards the water, the shacks that skirt the side of the streets; the stray dogs walking alongside the traffic with wagging tails and scruffy coats; the litter and the leaves that skitter in the afternoon breeze. Soon we are at Panajachel; the sun is hot on my back as I speak to Peggy for the first time; a mum of three boys, she has big blue eyes, dimples on her cheeks and we laugh together as I recount the near-miss of my flight to Guatemala. Our bags are transferred to the boat that will take us first to Joyce’s house where three of the party are staying; and then onto the small nearby village of San Marcos, where the rest of us will be taking over two of the local hotels. I sat at the back of the boat, my hand trailing in the water, taking in the new surroundings that would soon become routine; the dazzling clear blue of the lake, the faint ripples of white across the almost cloudless sky; the majestic volcanoes that add a magical edge to what is already one of the most beautiful backdrops I’ve seen. There was a nervous excitement as the boat approached Casa de Joyce; the house sits on the water’s edge with its own private dock, and it was a surreal moment for most of us as Joyce came out to welcome us all to her home in Lake Atitlan.
After docking in San Marcos, I meander up the narrow, cobbled lane to Paco Real where I’ll be staying for the next week. I pass pizza restaurants, jewellery stalls, brightly coloured rugs for sale. A small bar is playing a football game on a screen in the corner, two travellers sit cross-legged on the floor braiding each other’s hair; there is a yoga studio, a wellness centre, and the faces of wide-eyed and gap-teethed young boys kicking a ball in the dust. I unpack, shower and change into a floral dress for the welcome party, and soon almost twenty of us are en route to the welcome party. The sun hangs low in the sky as we walk through the village, and soon we are in her garden; decorated with bright bunting and breathtaking views of the lake and volcanoes. A stone path winding down through the garden leads us to Joyce and we are all welcomed with a hug and a cold margarita before the party begins in earnest.
We eat stone fired pizzas and fish and salad and guacamole and chatter excitedly about our expectations for the week ahead. The night passes in a haze, fuelled by new friends, good food, cocktails and conversations about writing and we later travel back to San Marcos by boat, the water now an inky shade of blue; the dark sky scattered with stars, eager and enthusiastic and full of for the week of writing that will follow.
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