It Doesn’t Cost Nothing For Just Looking #Guatemala #Antigua

Wandering through the cobblestone streets of Antigua is an amazing kaleiescope of sights and sounds that soothe, stimulate, entice and assault all my senses. The delightful smell of bread baking makes my mouth water which is then suddenly thwarted by the pungent stench of car exhaust.

Arco de Santa Catalina, Antigua Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

Around the corner, the thick oily smell of frying tortillas envelops me like a heavy old blanket, as the odor intertwines with the mouth-watering aroma of fresh homemade chocolate from the Choco Museo. This delight is then alarmingly erased by the synthetically sweet smell of a cleaning solution that seems to be widely used here. And then suddenly without warning, a firecracker blast causes me to jump a bit off the ground.

As I quickly cross the street while cars, motorcycles with multiple riders, and Tuk-tuks come at me from all directions, my nostrils sting from the nasty sharp odor of gasoline as a revving deafening motorcycle races in front of me. The smell gets worse as it mixes with the odor of musty burning brakes from an old rusted car which bounces in front of me like a bobble head doll.

Family on Motorcycle, Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

Half a block later, my eyes sting from a wood oven’s smoke which then gets woven with the unmistakably delightful fragrance of baking cookies, Of course, I go right into the charming little panaderia and buy myself a little something sweet and delicious, usually a pastry with chocolate that I don’t wait to eat. I easily strike up a conversation in Spanish with the pretty shop owner.  She seems happy to speak with me but I sense she’s disappointed that I only bought one thing. I leave a few minutes later.

Once outside, I look around some more. And then I pause. And breathe. This is Antigua, charming, lovely, tranquilly chaotic, periodically frenetic, muti-faceted, and at times, magical.  My astonishing walk continues.

I stroll into a tiny shop where indigenous women tirelessly weave vibrantly colorful and intricate fabric. I immediately recognize the pattern which is later confirmed as being from the village of San Antonio Aguas Calientes which is not far from Antigua (I had done volunteer work at this village while working with Nueva Generacion, a wonderful organization headed by Cindy Schneider which provides scholarships to poor school children, builds homes and helps in so many other ways).

Floral weaving in Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

I am readily greeted with a warm smile and welcoming words in Spanish. I meet an old women whose face is careworn, deeply lined and I can see she is missing a few teeth as she gives me a wide jack-o-lantern smile. Her adult daughter smiles too and says “bienvenidos” (welcome). She has learned the ancient skill of weaving from her mother and proudly shows me gorgeous things to buy. I want one of everything. They are both from the the village and I tell them about the volunteer work I’ve done twice before. We chat away as they kindly ignore how poorly my Spanish must sound to them. They both never stop smiling nor do I. They like that I am a student at a nearby Spanish immersion school. And we talk some more. When I leave, they make me promise to come back another day.

As I look around outside, the clouds have cleared just enough to see Fuego volcano sputtering another small eruption as gray smoke rises into the sky.

Small Eruption of Volcan de Fuego outside of Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all right reserved.

This happens a few times an hour but the skies are often filled with huge billowy clouds making it difficult to see at times. This is actually the same volcano that violently exploded and erupted on June 3, 2018 killing and injuring nearly 200 people and many more are still missing.

I’ve been taking daily long walks to orient myself. Everyday is an adventure and I never know what I’m going to find. I’m never disappointed.

Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

The Spanish tiled buildings are all painted in a limited palette of different shades of blue, yellow, gold, terra-cotta and white which gives the streets a uniformity making it difficult for me to remember where certain places are located. (There are strict building codes that only allow specific paint colors to be used.) The small city that refuses to call itself a town or even a pueblo is a chessboard of 8 to 10 perfectly square blocks in each direction surrounding a lovely central park square with a flowing muti-tiered fountain in the middle.  I let myself get lost on purpose.

The cobblestone streets are quaintly charming but they make walking a bit of an obstacle course as do the uneven sidewalks, some of which are very narrow. As I’m trying to watch my step, I also need to be wary of numerous decorative wrought iron adorned window sills that jut out of many of the buildings, sometimes at mouth or forehead level. I take time to talk to shop owners and I visit many — bookstores, bakeries, the cleaners, souvenir shops, candy stores, a cookie shop — everywhere.

Volcán de Agua, Antigua Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

I speak to the the vendors in the local market which is so huge and maze-like that I’ve gotten lost in it. I strike up conversations with the street vendors selling their woven goods and trinkets in the central park square. Everyone I’ve spoken to seems very friendly and eager to converse – we only speak in Spanish. I admit that I often don’t understand everything that is said but it’s usually enough to get by. Once I tell these people that I’m studying Spanish at a nearby school, they often try to help me to pronounce difficult words correctly or put things in the proper verb tense –which is needed very often. Anyone who has studied Spanish will understand the challenges of the past, present and future verb tenses among other things in this seemingly complicated language.

While there are apparently air emission limitations, you wouldn’t know it from the dark bluish exhaust and toxic fumes coming from many of the vehicles.  The black smoke that belches out of the Chicken Buses is certainly cringe-worthy. Horn honking is illegal and the drivers seems cooperative with each other.

Iglesia de La Merced, Antigua Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

There are no traffic lights anywhere in the city. There are stop signs which apparently only really mean “yield.” There are lots of stray dogs running around the streets who don’t seem to bother anyone. And the Guatemalans are (unfortunately) very fond of firecrackers. I hear them daily. They are used for all types of celebrations and almost anything can be a celebration –church services, weddings, birthdays, New Year’s, Christmas, and any other day of the week for no particular reason. I really dislike them but I’m trying to get used to them since they are clearly not going away. The family I’m living with burst out laughing every time I jump. “No me gusta los cohetes” (I don’t like the firecrackers) I tell them en Español. They just laugh.

I arrived on Friday, September 7th just before Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year which was the following Sunday. When I was here to do volunteer work last January, I  met a very nice Jewish Guatemalan guy. He kindly invited me to join him for Rosh Hashana services at Temple Adat Israel in Guatemala City. I figured why not? The congregation is fairly small. There were about 35 or 40 people there and services only took about 40 minutes (note to self to tell our rabbi at home). I knew a couple of people there from when I had been there last January. They don’t have a rabbi so the services were led by two impressive 20-somethings, one of whom had an amazing voice.

The whole service was in Spanish and Hebrew – no English so I was a bit more lost at services than usual. However, many of the prayers and songs were still the same as the ones from home so I didn’t feel quite as much of an outsider. Everyone was very nice and welcoming. Afterwards, we all had dinner together around a large U-shaped table. I actually felt as if I had gone to someone’s home for dinner. In a way, I had since the congregation meets in a converted home. Look at me going to services in a foreign country– who knew?

The street vendors, while mostly nice, can be very persistent.  Like very persistent!  And a little annoying. I immediately tell them “no gracias, no necessito nada” (No thanks, I don’t need anything). They often respond, “It doesn’t cost nothing for just looking.”

Street/Park Vendors in Antigua, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

They all must have learned this phrase in street vendor school. (I imagine them getting together each night after work and comparing notes.) If you’ve been to Guatemala, you’ve no doubt heard some version of this phrase. They also tell me “business is business” and they have the “best price” just for me. I can keep saying no and they come up with other things or reasons to buy. “Para su esposa?” (for your wife?) “No tengo esposa.” (I don’t have a wife.) “Su novia?” (Your girlfriend?).” No tengo novia.” (I don’t have girlfriend). Then I get a funny look and they often switch to English while I persist in broken Spanish.  “For your friend?”  I’m tempted to say I don’t have any friends but that would be pathetic. “My friends don’t need anything.” “Your enemy?” (Then I laugh) and it stops. Thankfully!

Toys for Sale in Antigua, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

But sometimes it doesn’t. Ugh!  If I tell them “maybe later,” they kindly say okay, nice to meet you, they ask me my name and they tell me theirs. That’s a big mistake. It can be days later and if I happen to be in the central park square, I suddenly hear my name being called. That’s right, it’s them.  And it all starts over again!

As I was walking around my first weekend here, I happened to notice what looked like another outdoor market in the distance so my curiosity pulled my feet in that direction as it often does. Soon I found myself in the middle of a huge outdoor bustling mercado filled with vendors selling fruit, vegetables, flowers and lots of other items – and then it hit me — there were no tourists! (By the way, I don’t consider myself a tourist.) I felt like I had entered a sacred Guatemalan space free from outsiders (I’m also trying not to consider myself to be an outsider. I mean, after all, I’ve been here two weeks!). Despite my love of taking photographs, I didn’t dare take a photo of this other-worldly place. I was sure the people didn’t want their photos taken and more importantly,

Mercado in the Distance, Antigua, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

I wanted to be completely present to embrace this wonderful and unique experience rather than focusing (excuse the pun) on the best possible photo opportunities. The vendors were obviously very poor. The women were beautifully dressed, wearing their traditional outfits of vibrant colorful floral woven skirts and blouses. Kids were running around and playing despite the crowd, while some were being breast-fed. It was one of the most amazing and spiritual cultural experiences that I can remember during any of my travels. It literally took my breath away!

During another walk, I noticed a fire truck coming slowly down the street. I realized that it was a funeral procession. A casket was riding on top of the hook and ladder truck with a gathering of uniformed firefighters and other people walking slowly behind the truck. I stopped what I was doing and stood still on the sidewalk out of respect as I watched it go by. The sadness was palpable.

Arches in Antigua Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, All rights reserved

Firefighters (bomberos) in Antigua are volunteers and they are often seen in the streets with collection cans asking for donations to fund their work. I’m happy to contribute.

So here I am, all settled in. It’s been two weeks. I feel right at home. I have my place at the dining room table and I get 3 homemade meals a day except Sundays. My name sometimes gets called out at meal time to come and eat just like when I was a kid. We eat together most of the time and we only speak in Spanish. There is another student here from a different school and three other visitors staying at the modest house who are all very nice. These visitors were originally from Guatemala and the Dominican Republic and they hardly speak a word of English despite the fact that they’ve lived in New York for over 20 years. I admit I’m lost most of the time during the conversations but I try to just listen and speak when I can. I nod a lot and say uh-huhs quite a bit pretending that I know what’s going on. No one at the table is fooled.

The food is made by the “cooker” who is the energetic feisty petite housekeeper whom I met upon my arrival. The food has been has delicious. Breakfast can be eggs maybe 2 or 3 times a week along with frijoles (mashed black beans), plantains, and fresh fruit.

Waffles for breakfast in Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

Other mornings, I get pancakes which are light, delicious and decorated with bananas and strawberries, waffles or corn flakes and fresh strawberries or papaya, or both. Lunch is the main meal of the day although the portions are not huge. They often have small amounts of chicken or beef together with  lots of vegetables, rice, beans,  potatoes and fresh homemade corn tortillas. Hearty soups are often served which is common in Guatemala. Dinner is much lighter – sometimes pasta, hearty soup, rice salad, vegetables and potatoes. Some of the vegetables are not familiar to me, nor are the cuts of meat, but I eat them anyway. Today, I was told that the vegetable was a type of cactus (no thorns) and delcious. The carrots can be 3 to 4 inches in diameter! And there are vegetables that seem related to the squash family. Dessert has been served about once or twice a week which has consisted of a refreshing slice of fresh pineapple (which is amazingly sweet and not acidic) or cooked plaintains. Maybe I need to introduce them to the idea of chocolate desserts and that dessert can and should  be served a little more often! There has been so much going on. I can’t wait to share more of my adventures.

Guitar Player in Parque Central, Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in …….. #Guatemala #Antigua #Travel

So I’m living in Guatemala! The nutshell version so far – it’s been great!  
So many feelings came up during my last few days before I left. Of course, it was sad saying adios to my partner, family and good friends. Not surprisingly, I had a few butterflies like the one’s you get before starting a new school. And in some ways I was going off to a new school, not to mention to live in a foreign country. I bought some new clothes, a few tee shirts, socks, some waterproof hiking boots and a lightweight rain jacket. And I had buzzed my hair just I did when I was a kid – then it was called a “butch,” remember? (Little did I know that a butch haircut would have such a different meaning all these years later as do the words “gay” and “queer.” I still miss the sweet candy-like smell of butch wax and the piece of Bazooka bubble gum that Daisy, my barber, would slip into my breast pocket.)


My departing days seemed to take on a bit of a ominous feeling as well. While I was excited about leaving,  people seemed worried about me. They were asking me where I wanted to go for my last meal before I left civilization. Were there any favorite foods I wanted to eat, fun things I wanted to do or places I wanted to visit before I left?  Why Guatemala? Isn’t it dangerous there? Isn’t the government corrupt? Why do you want to learn Spanish? If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.  I began to ask myself just what had I  gotten myself into? Was I missing something? But then I caught myself. No, I was fine. I was determined. I couldn’t wait. Why not Guatemala? If you’ve been here, you’d know why. And why do I want to learn Spanish. My best answer: Just because.  And off I went.

I had a flawless arrival in Antigua  (not Antigua in the Caribbean). I somehow breezed through customs. A really nice guy drove me from the airport directly to the house where I had arranged to stay with a Guatemalan family.  We had a nice conversation despite my very broken Spanish.  Arriving at the house, with my luggage and guitar in hand, I felt a little like Maria Von Trapp being greeted by the housekeeper who clearly runs the place and I was shown to my room. The modest house is quite nice, Spanish style with white walls and dark brown woods. The property  is entered through a dead bolted front wooden gate which opens into a long driveway and courtyard with a short walk to the front door of the house. Several  cars were parked in the driveway.

The two-story house has a smallish living room, formal dining room, family room and 3 bedrooms downstairs and 3 upstairs. There is a small charming atrium inside the house and a separate beautiful garden with a fountain. There is also a roof top deck patio with nice views of the hills and nearby volcanos. Fortunately there is wifi which works most of the time except during thunderstorms when it tends to go off and on. Many of the ceilings are beams of dark wood holding back terra cotta tiles.

I’m in my bedroom temporarily since the mom is out of town and there currently are other guests occupying the other bedrooms. This room is decent size, and I have my own bathroom. The bedroom has a small skylight which is nice during the day but the flashes of lightning that come through at night into the otherwise pitch-black room can be a bit unsettling. Since it’s the rainy season, we’ve had thunderstorms every day late in the afternoon and often at night. The rain is torrential at times which I’m actually enjoying. The house has a corrugated steel and tile roof so the percussion from the rain gets pretty loud. However, I’ve been enjoying watching the storms from the roof deck which is partially covered and has a great view of the nearby volcano.

View of Volcano from Roof in Antigua, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

The house is in a great location. It is near the area where the Chicken Buses depart and arrive (more on that later) and it is down the street from the huge outdoor and partially covered mercado. There is a decent gym around the corner (that I’m thinking about joining) and a supermercado about a block away that seems to have everything and it’s all very inexpensive. Towels for $2.99?

Chicken Bus, Antigua, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

The house  is heavy adorned with Catholic religious artifacts and artwork including a large stitchery rendering of the Last Supper hanging in the dining room, crosses, statues of Jesus and other saints, biblical phrases on the walls, bibles and other items. My room alone has 3 crosses, one large, one small and one that lights up, several rosary beads including one on the wall, a bust of Jesus above my bed, several angelic pictures of the Virgin Mary on the wall and taped to the lamp on my nightstand, several bibles and other religious books. I find all of these items strangely comforting. There’s no need for a mezzuzah – I’m definitely covered! However, there is no place to put my clothes except for a small portable clothes rack – the drawers and cabinets are filled with the clothes and belongings of the family members. Of course, I’m in their home! So I’m partially living out of my suitcase- which I really don’t mind considering how happy I am to be here.

The members of the family are hard-working and middle-class. It is headed by a widow in her early sixties who has 4 children, 3 of whom are twenty and thirty somethings and still live here. One is married with 2 young kids, a girl age 5 and boy, age 11, so they live in an adjacent smaller house on the same property. The mother, the son-in-law and the 2 kids left for vacation the same day I arrived. I briefly met the mother who seems lovely. I also met the 11 year old boy who was playing video games in the small family room right outside my bedroom. He seemed nice and very mature for his age. His gelled-hair was combed perfectly as many of the younger Guatemalan guys seem to wear.  They will be back later today at which time I will apparently move upstairs. And yes, there is the housekeeper/cook who has been with the family for around 12 years. She is very pleasant, competent, full of tenacity and has a very strong voice for being so petite. And they (we?) have a beagle. We became fast friends the first day I was here. He might be the mellowest dog I’ve ever met- yet his tail doesn’t stop wagging every time he sees me. He even barks in Spanish! (Don’t ask me how I know this.)

My small bathroom is more than adequate although we’re not supposed to drink the water so I use bottled water to brush my teeth. And I found a strange thing in the shower. At first, I thought they had gone to a lot of trouble to install an electric massaging shower head. But it also worried me because of the electric wires connecting to it and the way it looked. I quickly figured out that this was a water heating shower head. Yikes! Of course, I googled it. I mean you’re not supposed to mix electricity and water, right?

Electric Instant Hot Water Shower Head in Antigua, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, All Rights Reserved

Apparently these shower heads are very popular in Guatemala and probably other places in the world. I have to run the water  fairly slowly to get a warm shower- any faster and the water gets cool quickly. I guess because of the safety issues, this type of shower head was actually discussed during my school’s orientation on my first day there (more on this later). We were cautioned not to touch it with the water running. No kidding! And the shower drain has to be opened and closed after each use to prevent little brown bugs, (and maybe other things) from crawling into the shower. I already have a couple of them in my shower- I guess the smaller ones can get through the drain. We don’t bother each other. And I haven’t asked if they bite- it’s probably better that I don’t know. 

My room has a small television and the shows are all in Spanish (of course!). I was thrilled the first night to find the movie, Toy Story en español (in Spanish) especially since I thought it would be easier to understand because it was for kids, right? Wrong. The dialogue was very fast and the cartoon voices made it harder to understand. It was still fun watching it – who doesn’t love Toy Story? There are a number of familiar shows that are all dubbed in with Spanish. It’s funny to see familiar actors or personalities speaking in Spanish and hearing voices that are not their own. Although I’m actually impressed at how well the voice-overs are done along with the attention to detail. Of course, the lips don’t quite match. 

So at this point, I’m all settled in at my new home. Actually, it didn’t take me very long – just a few days.  I’ve started my Spanish lessons and I’ve been exploring the town. And I was lucky enough to be here for the Guatemalan Dia de Independencia, their independence day, September 15th. More on my adventures next time.