By Scott Umstattd
While living in Panajachel, Guatemala it was easy to be drawn in by the overabundance of beauty that Lake Atitlan provides. The three volcanoes that nestle this large lake help to create an ever-changing sky as clouds from the Pacific rise up the highlands to make their appearance between Volcanoes Atitlan, Toliman and San Pedro.
Not to mention the fisherman in their small wooden boats casting lines as the morning sun breaks over the mountains awakening the volcanoes from their nightly slumber.
It seemed around every corner there was a once in a lifetime chance to take a picture that no one else had captured with scenes that many would find hard to believe simply because of the beauty and peace that seemed to come into any photographer's frame so effortlessly.
During the rainy season storms that are easily seen across the lake often never make it to the other side. The indigenous Mayan people of Lake Atitlan have a strength of character that is equally impossible to ignore. Lake Atitlan is truly a paradise.
But paradise, as we know too well, is not immune from humanity. Lake Atitlan has no natural drainage. Deforestation, an overuse of chemical fertilizers and simply more people visiting the area are threatening the once pristine lake.
As with all things beautiful, there is another side that can easily be ignored. Guatemala is a poor country that is recovering (some would say has recovered) from a long, drawn out internal conflict.
While we were living in Guatemala, Guatemalans did something that no Latin American country had ever done before. They took ex-president/dictator Efrain Rios Montt to trial for war crimes committed against fellow Guatemalans during his rule in the early 1980's.
Rios Montt was convicted on the charges brought against him after Guatemalans heard numerous witnesses and victims recount their stories of terror and genocide under Rios Montt's short reign.
Though Rios Montt's final destiny is still undermined, the people of Guatemala gained a tremendous sense of justice that will likely serve as an example for other countries in the future.
Guatemala lacks many resources readily available to more developed countries. Maybe the most lacking is access to education. Many children get only a few years of education before demands on the family dictate that they work instead of learn. Access to decent healthcare, food and shelter round out the typical deficiencies found in most third world countries.
Scattered throughout the countryside of Guatemala are cemeteries that feature above-ground graves painted as colorfully as a Lake Atitlan sunset. Friends and family members tend to the graves and paint them with murals that depict the life of the deceased. Or, they simply paint them with bright and vibrant colors to create an eternal resting place that represents life more than it does death.
Just a few hundred yards from the shores of Lake Atitlan in Panajachel is one such cemetery. I was living less than a mile from the cemetery and passed it often as I walked to the lake.
The cemetery always seemed like a work in progress. Maybe all cemeteries are a work in progress. Some of the mausoleums had fresh coats of paint. Some hadn't seen a brush stroke applied to them for years. While others had cans of paint nearby waiting for a fresh coat to be applied.
Some of the grave markers were delicately painted with detailed storytelling done through images of what friends and families felt best represented their loved one. Other markers were painted with almost childlike brush strokes, still depicting with love and care how family and friends remember one who has passed.
In some ways, the cemetery as a whole looked like a Twitter feed of images. There is a limited and well-defined space for each person resting behind the walls of each marker. Those who took the time to paint a story had to do so within a confined area. Everyone was limited in how much space they could use to try and tell or best represent someone's life story.
I think you can tell something about what lies at the heart of a culture and its people by how they treat their dead. In Guatemala, I got the sense that the dead were not dead (at least in the minds and eyes of those who knew the deceased).
The colorful cemeteries seemed more celebratory than mournful. You could see personalities emerging from the past not just perfectly aligned rows of remembrance agonizing over loss.
Below is a series of pictures I took with a GoPro Hero at the cemetery in Panajachel. I often use my GoPro as a travel camera. For one, it's small and doesn't draw attention or burden the muscles on long outings. I'm also a big fan of wide angle photography. Unlike using a zoom lens, a wide angle lens forces you to get close to your subject. Paparazzi would hate the GoPro.
In the pictures below, I stood just a foot or two away from the tombs and their twitter-like paintings. The paintings are confined within a box that is about two feet by two feet and each one is as unique as Guatemala itself and the person's life the mural represents. Other pictures are taken at a distance to provide a sense of scope and perspective for the cemetery as a whole.
What I took away from this series and my year in Guatemala is that we are who we were. But maybe more importantly, how we decide to remember who we were will have a direct impact on who we become.
Guatemalans have every reason to sit in self-pity. They have a past that many may find impossible to move beyond. Everything is not perfect in Guatemala, however. There is still racism to be found in some who have embraced the Western culture against the indigenous Mayan population that was treated so poorly during Guatemala's civil war.
Those past transgressions are in some ways an open wound right now. But with the wound open, healing has begun. The future for all Guatemalans is theirs to control and create. By facing its past head on Guatemala has paid honor and found justice for many who were lost during its civil war. For those looking toward brighter days, they shouldn't be as hard to find.