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.
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.