For a few paragraphs, I won’t cover up the truth. Much of what I and my kind—travel writers—write tends to be on the positive side, glossing over the warts and barbed wire of a place, getting to the “heart” of a country rather than the gloom and doom. A. We (maybe just I) want readers (friends and family mostly) to fight feelings of jealousy, and B. I (maybe we) don’t want to let ourselves succumb to being less than amazingly worldly in our acceptance of things.
In the case of Antigua, I’ve done my best to dazzle, compiling persuasive lists of the wondrous venues on offer, noting the breathtaking vestiges and fantabulous views to behold. The humble amount of readers I garner with each entry have no doubt taken notice, put Antigua Guatemala on their life itinerary for some point in the near or distant future, and are awaiting yet another installment of nudging in this direction.
Ha! How in for it are they today. Today I’m going to reflect on the despicable, the loathsome qualities in a place I, and most who visit it, find pretty damned pleasant. Today I will take each pleasantry, turn it on its ear, and reveal the oozing wax beneath the surface. These are the hardships an Antigua expat has to deal with day in and night out:
Oh, I’ve spoken of them highly before, and undeniably, an old-worldly piecemeal roadway is something quite beautiful to behold. That is until you twist your ankle because, like southern Louisiana pavement, the surface is grossly uneven with street goblins just stalking there to trip you up and make you look a fool in front of flouncy touristas. Or, let’s say you drag your feet a little when you walk, some might say it will jerk the sole right off of your shoe.
And, should you try to outsmart the road, get yourself some mode of transportation, be prepared to be rattled like a freaking maraca at a salsa bar. You’ll get off that moped with shakes worse than a few days of not drinking. Hell, I’d rather take an extra twenty minutes to risk my ankle a-walking.
Now, imagine my dismay, when on Sunday morning, I head out for a jog. Hmmphf.
Sidewalks, You Say
Undoubtedly, the wisecrackers who’ve stumbled upon this are questioning my intelligence: Ever heard of a sidewalk, they are asking under their breath. And, why yes I have, and in fact, for every cobblestone nightmare Antigua boasts so quaintly, there is a pair of sidewalks running right alongside it, each one wide enough to handle traffic in both directions.
Unfortunately, every ten or twenty feet, there is also a concrete windowsill that protrudes a good shoulder-width into the pathway. The result is either the outside person stepping up and down from the street or the inside person pausing at the obstruction until the path is clear of those other damned pedestrians. Often what happens is a lose-lose game of chicken, one swerving into the windowsill while the other plunges off a two-foot curb into a cobblestone crevasse.
Worst case scenario, you aren’t paying attention, and right in front of those flouncy touristas, you walk headfirst into the damned window. Hmmphf.
Indigenous Flute #246
Guatemala is a land of handicrafts, a country rich with vibrant textiles, clever woodwork figurines, and artisan chocolates or bracelets or juggling balls or hammocks or any number of trinkets. Nobody visits here and goes away wondering where all the souvenirs are, especially not Indigenous Flute #246.
It happens to me multiple times on a daily basis. There I am walking down the street, the same street I do every morning, passing the same vendors, and regardless, I hear a little tweedle-deedle-do and can’t resist looking over to guy selling souvenir flutes. It just a dude making a living, and I can’t fault him for that. However, if I don’t start getting recognized as a non-tourist gringo, I’m going to shove a flute…let’s just say he won’t be tooting that thing at me anymore.
Furthermore, the guys generally at the corner of 6th Avenida and 4th Calle who, after I’ve rejected their flyer for the hundred-and-fifth time, follow up with a whispering offer of cocaine or marijuana. It’s hard work looking like a tourist in this place, much less a beardy, dirty hippy.
Chicken Bus Alley
Despite the cobblestones and sidewalks, I like being able to walk to work: The crisp morning air still chipper with dawn, the absence of the pedestrian calamity, and less chicken buses making their way down 1st Avenida (norte), what I’ve come to recognize as Chicken Bus Alley. If you’ve ever sat at the basketball court at the end of the avenue, waiting for the one Aldea El Hato bus to Earth Lodge, you know why. There are just so many.
Don’t get me wrong: I love chicken buses. Commuting for 57 cents is a-okay in my pocketbook, as are the funky paint jobs, the chrome tributes to Jesus and Mary, and the patented “Guate, Guate” call of the ayudante (transport touts). It is an iconic institution in modern-day Central America. But, the problem arises when you get behind a chicken bus, long past their prime US school buses, and the tailpipe of that old International (how ironic) is coughing black smoke in your face.
Oxford Language Center is at the far north end of 1st Avenida, the corner of Antigua most opposite where I live. Thusly, I ingest an unhealthy dose of engine tar every week.
Sexual Hissing & Ensuing Ogles
Life as a gringo, as the husband of a gringa, just sometimes isn’t fair, not when it comes to the Latin American libido and the freedom with which many of the local hombres feel to express it. Emma is, of course, more familiar than I with the tsst-tsst that occurs when a foxy female passes. Call it the equivalent to the wolf whistle, but realize its occurrence is far more omnipresent, so much so I’ve been told that some local women are unhappy when they don’t get it.
What’s more is the shameless eye-groping that occurs. Even when the tsst-tsst is absent, there is often blatant head-turning, a telltale moving from chichis to culo as the unoffending lady negotiates her high heels on the cobblestone or cinches her backpack on a little tighter. Those of us raised by my parents have been taught to operate with a bit more tact, i.e. using peripherals. A smidge uppity with my prudish nature, I tisk at the corner boys tsst-tsst-ing and staring so hard at the fair maidens (no doubt) that be.
About a month ago, on one of those Sunday jogs, I was passed by a dump truck literally filled with young Guatemalan men, many of whom treated me as if I were running in high heels. I felt like just another chica, as if the boys didn’t really mean it.
Hey, no matter how wonderful a place is, nowhere is paradise. Sometimes there are hurricanes or mosquitoes or cobblestone streets always under repair because, well, they are old-ass cobblestone streets that are still hammered into place by some poor bastard on his knees in the middle of road. Sometimes an expat writer needs to vent about the situation. Then, we can get back to “living the dream”, relaying the highlights to our enamored audiences.
The truth is, when I leave a place, I almost always look back on the quirks as fondly as anything else, even if only to say, “I survived that.”
In 2013, I took a year to work part-time and pursue a travel writing career on the side. Part of my mission was to explore the depths of one Central America's great tourist attractions and take from it what I could. These are thoughts on Antigua Guatemala.