The last year and a half of living in Guatemala has been an unexpected bonus in my life. Somehow a three-month visit/art project turned into a series of delayed departures and fantastic opportunities to remain in a place that I’ve come to affectionately refer to as home. There is so much to appreciate while here, so much to miss when I’m gone, and alas so much more of the world to see.
This will be my last blog entry (at least for this go round) about Guatemala as a travel destination. In November, Emma and I will be embarking on a long-awaited adventure to South America, a trip we’ve managed to forego at the end of our two previous stints as expats here. Knowing we can always return, as we’ve done twice now, our desire to see more of the world has finally outweighed our desire to stay here longer. It’s no reflection on Guatemala (or our great friends here) but more on the equally inescapable intrepid traveling spirit.
For this grand finale, I thought that, rather than rehashing all the great things yet again, I would compile for my dear readers an easy-access collection of all the articles I’ve had published about this place, a source of great inspiration, over the last eighteen months. So, I hope this finds you on a lazy afternoon or in a state of procrastination in which you are able to explore just exactly why we keep returning to Guatemala and why we find it so difficult to leave.
Teach English in Guatemala (published by Transitions Abroad): An overview of my experience as an EFL teacher in Guatemala, specifically Guatemala City, as well as links and thoughts on the nuts and bolts of getting a job here
Entering Tikal, Jungle Heart of the Mayan Empire (published by BucketTripper): A quick look at Guatemala’s premier archeological site, a beautiful Mayan city over 1000 years old
Dual Voluntourism: Help More for Less (published by Transitions Abroad): A guide to working at hostels as a means to helping with the cost of living while volunteering with NGOs
On the River at Finca Tatin in Guatemala (published by Bucket Tripper): An appreciative remembrance of an awesome trip into the bio-diverse jungles surrounding Rio Dulce
An Expat Rite of Passage in Guatemala (published by Matador Network): A labor of love that delves into what is enticing about living here, a country noted for being a difficult mix of danger and beauty
Feeling Antigua, Guatemala's Local Vibe at Earth Lodge (published by BucketTripper): A well-deserved love fest with Earth Lodge, where Emma and I have spent two fantastic years living and working and playing
New Life in Old Guatemala (published by Travel Thru History): A look at the history and historical progression, the making of, one of the Central America’s top tourist destinations, my home, Antigua Guatemala
Swimming in Sacred Water: Semuc Champey of Guatemala (published by BucketTripper): A brief how-to on experiencing one of the most beautiful and tucked away places in Guatemala and, many would say, the world
Ode to Antigua: Central America's Tourist Capital (published by BootsnAll): A confession of love for Antigua and an expat coming to the defense of this fair city, often referred to as the Disneyland of Guatemala because of the abundance of tourists that frequent it
The Shopping ‘til You Drop Tour of Antigua (published by BucketTripper): A blow-by-blow walk through Antigua in which followers get inside info on all my favorite shopping spots and how to make that spree a little more culturally defensible
Your Guide to Traveling Long on the Cheap (published by the Expeditioner): Another look at the hostel culture and tips on how to stay here indefinitely by doing work-trades with hostels, guesthouses, and eco-lodges throughout Guatemala
Most Popular Destination Blog Entry: La Antigua Detestable--A look at the really irksome things about living in a wonderful place
Well, welcome to the end of the list. Hopefully, an article or two enticed you to read on, but looking back at the collection, I notice that it doesn’t take reading all of these to know what a special place this is to me. Let's sum up: Highly recommended.
Guatemala by Headline: 3 Quick Vignettes of the Month Gone--Earthquakes, College Football, and Independence Day in September
Whole Lot of Quaking Going On
“You feel that?” The question kind of hangs in the air, everyone twisting their heads a little as if switching on the sensors, faces growing blank with concentration. Then, the whole damned building starts wiggling, continues wiggling, completely nullifying the need for the head-twisting and focusing: When shit is rattling all around you, there’s not much question as to what’s happening.
Earthquakes have been making a comeback round these parts, and this past Friday (6 September) a six-point-five eye-opener shook the tattoo shop for a good thirty seconds while we resisted the urge to run flailing to safety. It just kept going. I’ve probably experience a dozen earthquakes here, ones that registered on my fairly dull internal Richter meter, but I’ve never felt one go on so long.
For those of you unfamiliar with this Guatemalan pastime, earthquakes, along with volcanic eruptions, a regular occurrence here, are part of what makes the Antigueño/Chapin lifestyle so exciting. In fact, quakes are the very reason that Antigua Guatemala (“Old Guatemala”) is not still the Guatemalan capital. In 1773, the Santa Marta earthquakes laid waste to Antigua, then known as La Cuidad de los Caballeros de Santiago de Guatemala (the Second—the first was destroyed by mudslides coming down from Volcan Agua).
Hey, in some ways, we should be thankful. These days, we get to this beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Site because of the temperamental earth below it. Otherwise, Antigua might have been lost to industrialization and stoplights.
Mono Loco Displays Impressive Clout
The LSU Fighting Tigers have been a regular feature on Mono Loco’s gargantuan flat screen TVs for three weeks running. Hey, I’m a shameless college football fan. Shameless? Hell, I’m a ridiculously proud college football fan, and praise be to Boudreaux for whatever satellite connection Billy Burns has mustard up over at Mono Loco. I talked to him in early August about the possibilities of getting the games with lesser opponents. He assured me, with IPA-infused confidence, that I’d at most miss one game. I was impressed if not a little doubtful.
Sure enough, though, come game time in week two, there it was: LSU vs. UAB. UA-who? Emma had asked, as we watched the Tigers commence to delivering a lethal romping. Week three, the stakes went even a little higher (or lower, depending on how you are gauging things) when LSU took on Kent St. Where are they from? Emma had asked. I couldn’t even answer her. Kent St.? But, Mono Loco had it and, not just that, broadcast that puppy on one of the prime screens for me.
In return, it’s time to deliver a heartfelt shout-out to my hosts at the Funky Monkey, “where everyone knows your name”. Thanks for understanding the demands of college football fans abroad. Not everyone graduates to the NFL. It has been a delightful start to the year, both because of LSU’s rockin’ offense and because, unlike years past, I’m not constantly reloading my live feed on a weak internet connection that causes me to miss half the game.
Independence Day—Not Just a US Tradition
Growing up, I never really thought of the fact that other countries couldn’t give two smoked sausages about the 4th of July or that, in fact, they had their own Independence Day, like say September 15th. This past weekend, Guatemala and Central America at large set off even more fireworks than normal in celebration of the expulsion of the Spanish so many years ago. And, a lot of us—foreign and local alike—got a couple extra days off.
I’m perhaps a little remised to say that we largely skipped the holiday. Emma grew up in England, where there is no Independence Day because…umm…it was the British half the countries were winning Independence from. She never got to experience M80s in toilet bowls or disposable patriotic picnic-ware. For me, I don’t know: Aside from a day off, what is an expat supposed to say about the independence of the nation you’re not from.
Penning this on the 16th of September, having spent the 15th indoors watching “Sunday” movies with Emma, I feel a bit like I’ve signed onto Facebook and discovered I missed an old friend’s birthday (Sorry, Ellen). It’s a guilty feeling but one I (and Ellen) have learned to live with over the years. Regardless, just as on Facebook, happy belated birthday wishes are due. Guatemala, you may be getting old, but you’re still looking good.
Until next week…
Nearly every morning, I write in The Bagel Barn, a rather westernized coffee/bagel shop near the southeast corner of Central Park in Antigua, Guatemala. I sit in the corner at one of the bigger tables, where two two-tops have been pressed together to make a four-top with plenty of space to spread at my collection of notebooks, mouse pad, and coffee mug. Mostly, I come here for that space, for the WiFi I need to work, and for the fact that the staff just lets me at it—one cup of coffee and to work. I come here so often that, when people need to find me, they don’t call, they just stop by here. My old boss, Bri, says I’d be an easy man to assassinate.
On the surface, Bagel Barn is not an especially cultural experience. The food is vanilla in that, if anywhere in the states, even rural Louisiana, you’ve been exposed to 90% of the menu items. At least 50% of the clientele is foreign, many of them plunking down large backpacks next to their chairs as they are fresh off of shuttles or awaiting departure. Others, like me, meander in every morning with laptops and focus, and we are pleased to be here rather than another Starbucks. Well-to-do Guatemalans, the more westernized side of the population, come here, but I’ve yet to see a woman in traditional traje (outfit) stopping in for a quick jolt. The staff is Guatemalan except for the Swiss manager, Isabella, who immediately befriends all.
Still, it’s possible to order in English, and the waitresses—who don’t speak English—have heard it all so many times that they can decipher orders in a foreign tongue, even the hold this-es and add that-s, and manage to get it out right. Isabella knows me by name, smiles at me and always offers a “Buenos dias” and little conversations, making me practice my Spanish rather than her practice her English (which is better than my Spanish). Every day, one of the staff asks me to turn on or turn off the switch behind my seat, adjusting the fan to people’s demands. They often give me a free Maya nut cookie—over a full box’s worth now. Recently, they stopped adding the automatic 10% gratuity to bill, depriving themselves of a quetzal a day (about 12.5 cents).
As a traveler, this is the type of place I’d probably scoff at—hissing at the overtly tourist-y set-up, ostensibly pining for the “real” experience. However, in reality, that authentic experience is something I never really want: Life for most locals is very poor, difficult, and involves an abundance of tortillas, not by choice but bargain necessity. I’ve seen lots of backpackers on lots of tight budgets, but I’ve not seen many so penny-pinched that tortillas and salt is their daily sustenance. Truth be told, as a traveler and/or resident, I rarely deny myself anything I want—beer binges abound, as do well-fatted breakfasts and however many freshly prepared cups of coffee I desire.
As a resident, I feel I’m allowed certain liberties, or more brashly put, I live here so if some tourist-traveler wants to tssk me for being sell-out and frequenting a bagel shop in Guatemala—well, I’ve always got that “This is my home” ace up my sleeve. In my case, I’ve lived here three times, including a stint in Guatemala City, where most people are scared to go let alone live, and nearly two years in Aldea El Hato, a village small enough that most Guatemalans I’ve met away from it have never heard of it. So, can’t have my coffee wherever the hell I want without any authentic experience guilt hanging over my head. Is it really necessary to question that?
In general, Antigua is the destination equivalent to a Bagel Barn. People scoff at the clean, preserved feel of the place, at the abundance of tourists and tour groups running around with cameras and matching t-shirts, at the ready availability of pizza and WiFi and English-friendly locales, and whatever else—the fact that a group of expats regularly frequent a bagel shop at the corner of the what-should-be culturally iconic Parque Central with our laptops and flip-flops and websites/blogs/social media accounts to maintain. For backpackers hell-bent on experiencing the country, this side—though most certainly a real part of modern-day Guatemala— is not particularly suited to their tastes, which are not particularly salivating for the aforementioned vanilla-familiar eateries that much of the world is moving towards.
Living in a place like Antigua is wonderful, unconcerned with the motivations of the raging traveler looking for places where no foreigner has ever tread. In fact, it’s a town where I say hello to Donald, a computer programmer, every morning for the simple fact that we work in the same place (A stout shout-out to Donald for helping me with web-hosting problems last week). It’s a town where my fifteen-minute walk to work might yield a dozen hellos, high-fives, or nods to folks I know or recognize. I’ll see lots of cars. I’ll get offered taxi rides by the same group of taxi drivers I pass everyday because, after seven months of walking this same route, many of them still don’t recognize me from the other internationals. Maybe I should introduce myself? Would that be weird?
Anyway, my time here—the end of it—is nigh again, with less than two months to go, and for the first time ever, leaving Guatemala this time feels less permanent, as if there is little doubt about returning at some point and likely some point soon. This has become a home of sorts, for a person who has all but abandoned “home”. And, one of the main reasons for that warm feeling, that welcoming feeling, is that it’s such an international place, such a small place, where neighbors are often neighbors you know and from somewhere else. It’s not the sort of place I’d want everywhere in the world to be like, but it is the sort of place in which I like to stay and to which I want to return, not to get away from it all but to feel comfortable. A bit like The Bagel Barn, I suppose. I've always enjoyed loitering in breakfast joints. I'm not sure it's something to be ashamed of.
It’s a few past one, Saturday afternoon, and I’m two drinks in on slow start to the weekend. I think I originally vowed, at least to myself, not to move down here and start becoming a promotion whore for places, but Y Tu Piña, Tambein’s recent renovation and menu reboot has left me feeling charged for the second weekend in a row. I’m writing this not as a service to them but more as a service to the world: We need more breakfast joints/cafes geared specifically towards thwarting (or starting) the hangover, coffee shops with more cocktails on the drink chart than different ways of saying coffee with milk. Y Tu Pina and Illegal Mescal have won my heart all over again. Here's how in two steps:
Step One: Finding My Weakness
A friend of mine once said, “If you can’t drink a beer for breakfast, you’re not on vacation.” Antigua’s indie-vibe coffee shop, Y Tu Piña has picked up on this need and run with it. My drink of choice: the Illegal Maria, a combination of Illegal Mescal and amped-up Bloody Mary mix with chunks of garlic and coarsely cracked peppercorns. It comes in a beer tankard. There are other worthy choices, twists on morning drinking classics like the tequila sunrise (also done tankard-style with mescal), Bloody Marys, and screwdrivers. Coffee, con or sin leche, is available, but the hair of the dog is the feature, i.e. your choice of cocktail with your brunch.
I’m not vacation, but by god, after a morning at Y Tu Piña, I feel I should be. I even had to talk myself down this week: I went Thursday morning to do a little writing—a coffee and loiter type affair—when my mouth started watering for one of those Illegal Marias. A slight perspiration on my brow, a little shake in my typing hands, I kept my head down, kept working, and prayed it would pass. I had teaching to do that afternoon, and it’s probably a good thing I did, else my wife would have come home from work to find a slightly slurring spouse. I’m just saying they are good.
Step Two: Funking Up Breakfast
I love going for breakfast. I love it so much that, when a college student, I’d come home from bars at three and eagerly wake up at six when my father would call me to meet him. While I neither go to bed that late or get up that early anymore, my affinity for hash browns, grits, and biscuits—all that Southern heart attack medicine I grew up with—has not diminished. Not to say, Y Tu Piña offers any of it. However, they are offering something a little different than the same old, same old running around town.
So far, my favorite has been the "desayuno erecto", or shall we say erect breakfast, which more bluntly put inspires a bit of a breakfast erection, aka morning wood all over again. Two fried chicken drumsticks, four donut holes, and a handful of sweet potato fries are skewered and hovering above a spiked breakfast beverage. It’s artful, it’s magical, and it’s picturesque enough to make me question eight years of vegetarianism. Other options include the Cheesus is the Way fancy cheese grilled cheese sandwiches with a likeness Christ branded into your bread or the "egg mcfuckin' muffin".
So, if you happen to be in Antigua, I’d definitely say it’s worth a shot, and that that morning shot at Y Tu Piña, Tambien is more than worth it. If you are not here, then do what you can and ride that vacation vibe. It’ summer people! Get some alcohol in your system before the day turns into grocery shopping and laundry baskets. Eat something fried and fattening. There is always tomorrow to get back to the straight and narrow.
Hey, I said it a couple of months ago: I will not be defeated by the rains. I’ve already had some sketchy moments this year: Several times our Tuesday/Thursday pick-up basketball games were canceled fifteen minutes in because a fresh storm rolled through. Last night, Emma and I went to meet a friend for dinner and had to wear flip-flops and short pants because crossing the street involved wading through ankle-deep water. More often than not, the deluge happens just as I’m about to leave work. Sure, it can feel a bit like being taunted.
But, I’m not giving in so easy. In effort to lift my own spirits and perhaps of folks feeling waves of the same twitchy “it has begun” anguish, I’ve devoted this week’s blogging effort to celebrating the season, an ode to rain if you will. Without further ado, and before that next thunderstorm starts, join me in the rain dance of verbiage, this teasing of Mother Nature, the refrain being that she just can’t beat us down.
1. With the rains comes the excuse to be lazy, to spend many an afternoon camped under a blanket with a good read or drool-gazing at another episode of CSI/Criminal Minds on cable channel 12. Why not snuggle with your sweetheart, put a few “skyrockets in flight”, and then, there are two excuses for taking a nap.
Oh, rain, you maiden of mischief, thank you for your valid reasoning to lock myself in for the day.
2. With the rains comes nature a-blooming, a solid recovery from the dusty duskiness of late dry season when the leaves have just about given up the fight, the ground has cracked like a dried-out foot heel, and let’s face it, some of us have grown to miss a little rat-a-tat-tat on our tin roofs from time to time.
Oh, rain, you savior of sumptuous greenery, glory be to the gardens growing from thou moisture so abundant.
3. With the rains comes a daily fresh shower for the city, and may each dog turd squeezed upon the sidewalks be washed into the culvert and clear from my feet, the cigarette butts and candy wrappers cleaned free from the fissures of cobblestone roads, the roving knick-knack sellers given a break while Antigua beautifies.
Oh, rain, you scrubber of our filthy ways, how you start us anew each day, forgiving those travesties foisted upon the world.
4. With the rains comes out our full wardrobes, all those sweet-ass hoodies closeted for heat of yester-months, the trendy rubber boots—so much more than just staying dry, another justification to wear ponchos, validation for lugging around all that long-sleeved, full-length, fleece-lined gear that had matriculate to the bottom of our backpacks/shelves.
Oh, rain, you fashionista of necessity, how you know the ways of worry, stuffing bags with precautionary measures for no good reason until you show, forces full blast.
5. With the rains comes true appreciation, the recognition of those sunny afternoons when grey clouds have been swept briskly beyond by Pacific winds, the mass migration of all to get outside and make the most of the moment we’ve been given, and take another fresh look at what a beautiful place we live in.
Oh, rain, you rubber of eyes, cleanser of corrupted contentedness, blessed is he (or she) who has been started anew by your graces.
Ah, it feel goes to shake a fist at the old, weepy bitch, to give myself a little something to fall back on when the rains go awry again, another tropical storm breaks wind upon us. I invite you all to do so yourselves, to add to our list of the positives of precipitation: Leave a comment, your own paragraph of praise and rant to rain. Something tells me by late August I’m going to need all the help I can get.
Isn’t it odd how we become so complacent in the places we are, be them a hometown defined by our knowledge of shortcuts and old haunts or (oh, I don’t know, let me see…) the enchanting streets of Antigua Guatemala. A craving for something new, some slice of adventure, becomes consuming. I think old people call it stir-crazy, or mountain people call it cabin fever, or island people call it trapped on an island. Nowhere, no matter the tropical paradise outsiders may see, is immune to such abandonment. Where there are people, there are people who want to go.
That’s right. It’s been quite a while since this place has completely blown my skirt around my ears. It’s great and all, real sexy for a 16th century town, still curvy in all the right spots with curiously arousing wrinkles, but Emma and I have been around this joint long enough. We have routines: the shopping day, particular routes for walking to work, a place for restless Sunday afternoons when we don’t want to be stuck in the house. In simple terms, it’s become home. As the last eight years certainly suggests, sometimes, we aren’t good with homes.
Therein comes the topic of today’s musing: What to do when the complacency, an overly familiar feeling for a place, overtakes you…me…us, when you’ve done all your favorite things again already. One thing I try to do is remember all the things I haven’t done. I find new things I want to do. I like to make list, so I make lists of this stuff, something I can check off with a sense of satisfaction. Rarely, even after a lifetime, has every nook, corner, and cranny been explored.
So, here as Emma and I are rounding the corner into our halfway mark, five months in and five to go, I’m looking at a few of those items still remaining on my list for Antigua. I’m reminding myself of how much remains unaccomplished, what waits around the bend. In an effort to help the world, or at least the world around me, that’s you my dear readers, I’m inviting everyone to make their own lists. To share them with our little blog community, with others in Baton Rouge, England, Antigua, and beyond. I won’t end this year without doing these things:
Excuse for Not Having Done It Yet: This one is legit. I’m waiting for Emma’s mom to visit us in August. Why can’ It do it sooner and again when she comes? I think it has to do with paying twice for something I probably only need to do once.
Excuse for Not Having Done It Yet: This one for sure is money. Old Town handles incoming adventure tourists who have the first-world funds to find the adventure. I will, I think, eventually succumb to the price, but so far, the budget has gotten the better of me.
Excuse for Not Having Done It Yet: Two words, one man: Bryant Hand. He talks it up. He lives the dream (the dream being eating those macadamia nut pancakes) from time to time. He’s invited us once, at about 11:00 on Sunday, which is when wealthy small business owners wake up and long after I’ve eaten breakfast.
Excuse for Not Having Done It: I’ve already bought like three or four pair of “indigenous” pants that I don’t wear anymore. I’ve been to markets in Guatemala City and Antigua, shopped in Panajachel and Flores—seriously, do I need to peruse more Mayan textiles and crocheted juggling balls? Apparently, I do.
As I compiled this list of five, not all that trying of a task, lots of other things sprung to mind: Restaurants I want to try, volunteer opportunities, and propositions I’d like to undertake. Funnily enough, when I think back to Memphis, Moscow, Istanbul, wherever, it’s easy to find those next five things I’d like to have done, things that complacency kept me from while they were there at my fingertips. Summer is nigh people, and I propose we find a way to right these wrongs, to adventure locally—respectively—this year. We check off our list items and put another handful on the horizon.
This was a lesson I unfortunately didn’t learn until I moved myself halfway across the world and left all the richness of the US in my dust. Pretty soon, I’ll be doing the same thing to Antigua—more or less, for the third time in my life (left here with things unfinished in 2008 and in 2010). I’m fairly sure I’ll be back round this way again, but it isn’t going to be because I didn’t do these five things. “Seize the day”, aka “carpe diem”, is a commonplace utterance, a cliché as we say in the snub-nosing world of writing, but one that we all ignore far too often. Screw that.
I’d be really interested for you to send me your list of five (firstname.lastname@example.org) and keep me updated on how the checking off is going. I’d love to put together a blog or two, or the occasional aside, about what sort of mischief, mayhem, and memories people get themselves into. Go forth and live inspired, fair readers of the blogosphere. I have spoken thusly.
A couple of weekends ago, I got to take a little Sunday retreat up to Earth Lodge, an occurrence that isn’t all that foreign to me, a presence not all that surprising for the folks up the mountain. Earth Lodge, as is often the case, was hosting yet another fun-loving event on its serene and hippie-friendly front lawn. However, this time I’d come hungry for blood, my competitive spirit on heightened alert, my taste buds thirsty for…Brooklyn.
For those of you unfamiliar with Guatemala’s suds selection, for many years it basically boiled down to Gallo, which (like Budweiser or Michelob in the US) has several varieties that are fairly similar, or Brahva, the equivalent to Natural Lite. However, unlikely as it sounds, Guatemala has recently become a massive outlet for Brooklyn micro-brewed beer, imported into the country by none other than Mono Loco showman extraordinaire Boston Billy Burns, a Yankee-hater and world-class…cornholer.
Cornhole—that’s why I was arriving with a mean competitive streak. For those of you unfamiliar with cornhole, a beanbag game invented in the states, it is one of those “sports” that both yields a lot of poop-talking and is best played with a beer in hand. And this is why Boston Billy and his Brooklyn brew have suddenly entered the picture: Brooklyn was sponsoring the fourth annual tournament, with discounted beer and proceeds going to our favorite NGO, Las Manos de Christine.
Now, for yet another fact to clue you in on: When I was a resident of Earth Lodge, I was known to be one bad mammi-jamma on the cornhole boards. Some might even have said (at my heavy suggestion) “the best they’d ever seen.” However, like so many greats before me—Dan Marino, Ted Williams, Pistol Pete Maravich—I had never won the big one, never taken down the best Antigua had to offer. So, Brooklyn in hand, I attempted to remedy that situation.
What I learned that Sunday afternoon, however, is that without regular practice, as I had when living at the Lodge, skills diminish. All was going well. Emma and I had taken our first two games with relative ease, never really breaking a sweat. Then, we hit a buzz saw in competing couple, Bryant Hand (Las Manos founder and cornhole amateur at best) and Mari (Las Manos teacher and professional gardener). They smacked us around: 11-1.
Shaken but not completely stirred, we rested confident that we were still in this thing, a double-elimination type situation. Then, we had to match up against Boston Billy himself, and his wife Kate, hot off a win and rolling their way towards the finals. Kate was so cocky as to have played a couple matches with a baby strapped to her chest. They, too, handled us as if we were a pair of LeBron James clones in the 2011 playoffs. From there, I had no choice but to became a spectator, something akin to washed up has-been cheering from the sidelines.
In the end, it was the Cinderella team of Jeff Duncan (husband of Salina, the Las Manos leader), and Elias (a basketball-enthused Swede) who took down Billy and Kate in the finals. Handshakes were exchanged, celebratory and consolatory beers hoisted, and in the end, we all accomplished what we’d set out to do: Had a great time raising some cash for a great cause. On a mission to keep the spirits of us losers up, Drew (owner of Earth Lodge) made the rounds with Earth Lodge’s new freshly smoked cheeses on the house. It worked. thirty minutes after the tournament, pick-up games with side bets commenced and the heavy tension of stoic competition dissipated.
I love this about living in Antigua, a place with some serious business and equally as serious support happening. It seems just about every weekend something tremendous is going down, something both fun and philanthropic to be part of: Runs, barbecues, music shows. Without a doubt, swilling some Brooklyn brews over games of cornhole at Earth Lodge to raise money for Las Manos de Christine basically sums up the ultimate amalgamation of fundraising for me. I just wish all my friends, from Baton Rouge to Russia, could be part of it.
Until then, I'll keep you informed. Cheers.
The city of Antigua, at least many of its many expats, cringes a little as the Holy Week grows nigh. The streets begin to clog a bit more readily than we’d like. The cacophony of dying trumpet, bongo beats, and ice cream bells interrupts our otherwise honk-free days. For a short while, there is no slowing down the processions, not that they are moving particularly fast.
During the six weeks of lent, Sunday crowds seemed to expand each week that passed. I’d go for weekend jogs around the outskirts of the city and run into a whole new assortment of food stalls and makeshift markets. Streams of people would all be moving with purpose in similar directions. The clear sky, the molten sun of dry season—they were normal, but the pulse of Antigua was quickening.
The streets finally completely spilled over with procession a couple of weeks before Easter. Emma and I, out for our customary Sunday morning pupusa, got caught up in a crowd that blocked every path we needed, people lining the streets to witness yet another grotesque depiction of Christ swaying under his cross. Not unlike my well-versed reaction to Mardi Gras parades, a shrugging recognition of repetition, I wondered what was so great about this Jesus float.
We weren’t even to Holy Week, and that evening cars stood for hours in gridlock on 7th Calle. Not to mention the climb in tourist numbers, an obvious increase in the average age of the artificial Antigueños. Suddenly walks to work became infested with map-totting pensioners and church groups, navigating the ruins and breakfast buffets. I was looking forward to get out of town for a while, getting a breather down in the stifling jungles of Rio Dulce.
It’s a strange and privileged position to live in a place everyone is coming to visit, to leave that place at the exact time everyone wants to be there. Emma and I had confused our departure with visa requirements and vacation time, but for sure, a large part of leaving was avoidance: not another procession, not another blocked street, another group of sightseers following a hand-held flag.
Of course, we’d predicted feeling this way weeks in advance, booked our tickets early, and left the morning of the Saturday that jumped off Semana Santa. Not to be total humbugs, we’d made arrangements to be back on Wednesday, in time to see the main events, so to speak: Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, when Antigua is nonstopalfombras andprocessiones.
Getting back after dark on Wednesday night, we headed out for dinner, unaware of any great thing happening. Outside the restaurant-bar, the familiar, off-putting wail of the trumpet blasted through the street once more. We hadn’t even been back for an hour. Emma plugged her ears as the float glided passed the window. But, when we realized it was the Wednesday before Easter, (what I now know as “Spy Wednesday” or the day Judas spilled the beans) a new sort of reverence resonated with the event. This one actually meant…more?
I went home that night feeling ready to take it in, prepared for the intensity of the next two days. I wanted to mingle with the crowd, feel the unique vibe, and see the beautiful carpets of flowers and fruits. I even resolved to subject myself to at least one of the horribly somber processions, largely lacking the debauchery and pectoral displays of my native Mardi Gras parades. I was glad to be home. I was glad to be a tourist if only for a couple of days.
Using Que Pasa, a free circulation magazine out of Antigua, we plotted the next two days of the full-on experience: The Thursday evening church crawl, the midnight street stroll in the wee hours of Good Friday, and the culminating tour de alfombras on a sleep-deprived Friday morning. It was the least we could do: Participate in one of the great famous festivals of the world, you know just outside our front gate.
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.”
Sure, it helps that Antigua is—to use a cutesy souvenir word--nestled in Panchoy Valley, tiny and innocent at the base of a 12,000-foot volcano, a collection of ruins wedged between storefronts and restaurant-hotels. It helps that there are beautiful plazas and a Southern California climate six months of the year (the other is more rainy, like say Florida in autumn). However, there is a lot more to do in Antigua than sit in awe of its greatness.
Might I suggest:
1. Having breakfast. It seems so obvious, like something you’d do everyday anyway. Not to mention, Antigua is a sanctuary of coffee. This joint is full of places to start the day off right: Y Tu Pina Tambien (indie coffee shop atmosphere), Bagel Barn (the Guate, Guate sandwich), El Portal (sweet diner-style breakfast bar), Escolonia (the beautiful restaurant/garden center at the south end of 5th Avenida), Café Condessa (a swanky taste of the tipico)…
2. Perusing the markets and shops. Again, obvious, as there is a big, bright souvenir market, but there is also a really funky, functional market just north of it—with a paca (cheap clothes warehouse), vegetables and such, a sometimes horrifying maze of cafeterias, and odds and ends of all description. It’s a more eye-opening experience. Also, keep curious while roaming the streets because there are loads of surprise markets that overtake courtyards and alleyways. Still, though, Nim Po't (on the north end of 5th Avenida) is my favorite place to get the occasional tit of tat.
3. Reading in Parque Central. Always littered with loiterers, I was never that much for just sitting around the city’s main square until I recently began walking my wife to her afternoon job. I began veering off on the walk home, finding a bench to stretch out on and read a chapter or two. The fountains are tinkling, people are strolling, and often there is live music or street performers to distract any literature from getting too involved.
4. Visiting all the ruins. Before the notorious 1770s earthquake, there were nearly forty churches here, many of which still remain in different states of disrepair. I’ve been passing them for years now, but to really take a day to simply visit them all (or several) is really quite humbling. As an Antigua regular, it’s easy to forget on the brisk trip to work. As a first-timer, it’s just freaking incredible how many there are.
5. Sampling certain Antigua institutions, even if they aren’t particularly Guatemalan: The ridiculously sized platter of nachos at Mono Loco (5th Aveida), the mescal in the hidden bar behind a tiny refrigerator door at Café No Sé (1st Avenida), those the-idea-is-better-than-the-product choco-bananos (everywhere), Dona Luisa banana bread (4th Calle), love the gelato at the little place tucked next to the pharmacy at the corner of 7th Avenida and 3rd Calle, and definitely pick up an issue of the local expat mag La Cuadra.
6. Taking Spanish classes. It’s easy enough to get around this city with only whatever rudimentary language skills one arrives with, but it’s also easy enough to find private Spanish classes for $5/hour. Every morning, the little grass courtyard at the entrance of my apartment complex (El Rosario—5th Avenida again) fills up with little two-top tables of outdoor classes in session. Or, try one of the dozen or so language schools offering.
7. Making chocolate. I’ve yet to do this myself, but there is a new thing going on in Antigua these days, the opportunity to visit a chocolate museum and make your own delectables. Of course, Central America is the land of cocoa, and the local Mayan culture prides itself on being the originators of the world’s most beloved sweet. The Choco Museo has been one a crowd-pleaser amongst the tourists I’ve met this year.
8. Seeing a movie at Bagel Barn. There is a chalkboard at the door (on 5th Calle near the square) with the weeks’ selections. A film is shown every night, and usually the week will include at least one feature relevant to the Guatemala.
9. Exploring the streets not immediately in the city center. The residential areas of Antigua make for a pleasant walk, and I’m constantly discovering little bakeries, tortilla stands, and specialty shops that are especially un-touristy. For anyone who thinks Antigua is nothing but fantasy land, they haven’t spent enough time getting lost in the spots where crowds aren’t. Take a stroll (or jog), take a wrong turn, and see where it brings you.
10. Getting the hell out of Antigua! On the outskirts of the city, you can tour coffee farms, hike up an active volcano, go on a zip-line canopy tour, mountain bike, motorbike, as well as visit the world’s best view at Earth Lodge for some beer-riddled hammock time with a view. Also, there are NGOs—educational, developmental, agricultural, and otherwise—to see and support and at which to volunteer. Touring Camino Seguro is one of the most eye-opening experiences I’ve had anywhere.
And, then again, one of the great things about Antigua is that, when all is said and done, you don’t have to do much of damned thing. It’s a town highly conducive to lazing, lounging, and drinking one’s self into a stupor or shaking, caffeinated fit. There is such an array of bar stools, benches, couches, and comfy chairs that one can quite contentedly wile away days doing nothing more than basking in the glory that is.
The Bagel Barn
Café No Se
Y Tu Piña Tambien
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.