It Hadn’t Happened in 800 Years– Until Now!

The celebration of Diá de la  Independencia (the Guatemalan Independence Day) was great, however I never could have imagined the magnitude of the enormous religious procession coming up just 9 days later on September 24, 2018!  El Jubileo De La Merced, an unbelievably impressive procession, was to commemorate the 800th (800th!!) anniversary of the founding of the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy (Orden de La Merced or Order of Merced) on August 10, 1218 in Barcelona, Spain, some 558 years before the founding of the United States!
Iglesia de La Merced, Antigua Guatemala, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

This Order, known as the Mercedarians, established a church here in Guatemala back in 1548. The original church was destroyed by earthquakes and re-built a couple of times until the current structure dating back to the 1800s was built here in Antigua. The Iglesia de La Merced (Church of the Merced), where the procession began, is probably Antigua’s most ornate church and is quite beautiful. It is located just up the street from the Spanish school that I attend. This “jubilee” was a one-time celebration, not something that has happened ever before! And I was lucky enough to be here! 

I learned that this was the procession of Jesús Nazareno de La Merced together with Nuestra Señora de La Merced (Virgin Mary). I had seen a map of the route and I noticed that it was actually coming down our street (where I live with the family) the day of the procession by early in the afternoon.  On actual the day, I was eager to see the procession so walked up the route in reverse to try to find it. As I did, I came across beautiful alfombras (street carpets) that people had made or were in the process of putting the finishing touches on. Some were amazingly stunning! 

In preparation for the procession, many neighborhoods and families had

Alfombra, Antigua Guatemala 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

created these beautiful alfombras which are made of sand, colored sawdust or plant materials such as pine needles, and decorated with plants, flowers, fruits and vegetables. (Alfombras are also made during the week before Easter so these are well-known in Antigua). Many people had begun very early in the morning to create them, constructing them directly on the cobblestone streets of Antigua. 

Alfombra, Antigua Guatemala 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

In order to prepare the area for the alfombras, the cobbestones are covered with a layer of leveled sand to create a good base. Then plant materials such as flowers, leaves, flower petals and pine needles, or natural and colored sawdust is then used to create the carpets. The sawdust is prepared by sifting it through a screen to keep any rough pieces from ruining the intricate patterns that are soon to be created. Richly colored dyes are then added to the sawdust. Once the colored sawdust is ready, the beautiful carpets are created by spreading the prepared sawdust over the layer of sand. Then various designs inspired by Mayan tradition, 

Alfombra, Antigua Guatemala 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

religious beliefs or nature are created using carefully hand-carved wooden stencils. Some of the stencils have been passed down from generation to generation but new ones are also created every year so the designs of the alfombras are always unique. People spend hours creating these amazingly intricate patterns. To keep wind from blowing the alfombras away, people use watering cans to keep the sawdust and plant materials wet and compacted.  

As I continued to walk the alfombra-lined route in reverse, I passed a small

Getting Incense Burners Ready for Procession, Antigua Guatemala 2018, Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

group of men dressed in dark suits preparing incensarios (thuribles, or religious incense burners), for the procession that would soon be arriving in the area. I eventually found the street where the procession was approaching very slowly about a block away. Powerful firecrackers split the air and rattled my eardrums periodically as part of the procession. Lots of people had gathered on the route and were eagerly awaiting the procession to arrive. There were lots of street vendors selling the usual toys, inflatables, candy, cotton candy and other food treats and balloons. 

As the procession got closer, it was lead by people in religious clothing and 

Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

robes, some holding masts with banners and other related items. Some people, children included, were were swinging thuribles or religious incense burners producing dense clouds of grayish brown musty-smelling smoke. In the distance, I could hear the band playing sad dismal funereal music. Also in the distance, I could see what I thought was a float bearing statues of Jesus, Virgin Mary and a couple of other people, maybe saints, coming down the street. While I thought it was a float, I couldn’t figure out why it seemed to be swaying back and forth from side to side. It was huge and tall so ahead of it, men holding special long poles were lifting the overhead electric power lines up even higher to make sure the “float” could get through the narrow street. 

However, as it got closer, to my disbelief, I was astounded to see that this

Anda, Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

“float” was actually being carried by a huge number of people! There were  no wheels! No wonder it was swaying! Essentially, they were carrying an enormous beautifully carved dark wooden platform or “anda” upon which were several giant, deeply dramatic and intricately detailed religious statute-like figures called imágenes católicas (Catholic images). They included an antique Baroque piece of Jesús Nazareno de La Merced bearing the weight of the cross he is carrying, dressed in a cardinal red velvet tunic with gold threads. There was another imágen of Nuestra Señora de La Merced wearing a beautiful gown in white and gold, and several others that were also very impressive. Each of the imágenes was magnificent. 

Anda, Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

It took at least 80 cargadores ( people who carry the anda), more than 40 on each side and one or more in the middle of the front and several in the back to carry the huge anda through the streets and avenues of Antigua! It actually is an honor to be able to carry it and people apparently pay money to be able to carry it for about a block and then another cargador rotates in. More than 4000 cargadores, both men and women wearing dark suits were lining the path in front of me as the procession slowly went by. These cargadores walked along waiting patiently for their turns which seemed to be organized very methodically and systematically. I could clearly see the pain in the cargadores‘ faces as they

Man Holding Incensario, Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

strained to hold the immense weight of the massive imágenes-bearing anda. The procession route was also lined with thousands of parishioners and visitors who came, some from great distances, to witness the once-in-a-lifetime procession. The anda was followed by a large brass band playing very solumn funeral-like music that I read was written by Frederick Chopin and Guatemalan composers. 

I literally stood in awe as this amazing procession passed me, the likes of which I had never seen. I waited for it to pass and then in my further disbelief, I realized that the beautiful alfombras that people had worked so hard to create were trampled and destroyed by the procession!  I quickly learned that this is

Remains of an Alfombra After the Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

actually part of the tradition. Apparently, the making of the alfombras in Antigua is sacrificial in nature. The people here believe that just like Jesus Christ sacrificed himself for mankind, the people of Antigua dedicate themselves to making these beautiful street carpets only to have them destroyed by the procession. Therefore, as soon as the procession passes, the cleaning team of  men with shovels and brooms, along with a bulldozer and dumptruck are right behind it cleaning the sand, flowers, plant

Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

materials and sawdust. A few sprinkles of colored sawdust of what had been unique beautiful works of art were all that remained. 

Once the procession passed, I quickly made my way back to the house where I am living to meet up with the family. They were on the sidewalk outside the house waiting for the procession to arrive and they were excited to see me.

Alfombra made by the Family I’m Living With. Procession, Antigua Guatemala 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

The family had actually made their own beautiful yet simple alfombra. A few days earlier, they told me about the procession and that they would be making an alfomfra. They said I was welcome to help them but by the time I arrived back to the house, they had already finished it. Nonetheless, it was a great time experiencing the procession a second time, especially this time with the family. Because the procession moved so slowly, it actually lasted 11 hours until it returned to the Church of the Merced! The next day, on my way to school, I saw additional crews working to clean up any materials that remained from the procession. As it turns out, my maestra at the Spanish school is a congregant at the Merced church. During class, she explained more about the procession and we actually walked up to the church which is just a couple of blocks up the street.

The giant anda was still inside the church being held up on giant sawhorses waiting for it to be moved to its storage area. It was so enormous, it had to be divided into 3 parts. Up close, I could see the intricate detail of the beautifully carved antique wood and the slightly-padded indentations where the people stood when carrying the anda on their shoulders during the procession. Each of the indentations were numbered to help organize the rotation of cargadores as it moves along. It was amazing to see this gigantic masterpiece close enough to touch it. Unfortunately, no photos were allowed inside the church.
The following additional photos were some of my favorites that helped capture this increíble  (en-cray-eeb-lay – incredible) day that I will never forget.
Alfombra, Antigua Guatemala 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Alfombra, Antigua Guatemala 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Alfombra, Antigua Guatemala 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Alfombra, Antigua Guatemala 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Alfombra, Antigua Guatemala 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Procession, Antigua Guatemala 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Procession, Antigua Guatemala 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Pushing the wires higher for the Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Jesús Nazareno de La Merced, Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Nuestra Señora de La Merced (Virgin Mary), Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Alfombra of Sawdust, Procession, Antigua Guatemala 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Anda, Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Boy Holding Incensario, Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Anda with Jesús, Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Selling Treats for the Procession, Antigua Guatemala 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Nuestra Señora de La Merced (Virgin Mary), Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Balloons and Toys, Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Bubbles for Sale, Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Family Standing Where Alfombra Had Been, Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Angels for Sale, Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Toys for Sale, Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Clean Up After Procession, Antigua Guatemala, 2018. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

Diá de la Independencia

It looked like a walking flock of blue and white flags of every size fluttering on the nearby street corner. I had just arrived in Antigua, had breakfast and I was off to explore the city. There must be a person in there somewhere. Eventually I saw a head pop up as he turned around. I actually wasn’t sure if these were Guatemalan flags that he was selling since I couldn’t recall ever seeing one. Or I wondered whether these could be flags for some other purpose. Was an anti-government protest in the making? Was soccer fever in the air? Maybe it was just Guatemalan patriotism so I kept walking and exploring, and I didn’t think much more about it.

As the days went by, I continued seeing these flag vendors occasionally in the streets. So I asked the next vendor that I saw about it but I coudn’t understand exactly what he was trying so say. “Diá de Independencia, diá de independencia.”  I struggled to understand.  I knew he wasn’t saying “oil can.” I heard “Independencia?” Oh, independence. Was this about seeking independence from what many people here believe to be a corrupt govenment? Could the Guatemalan Independence Day be coming up or was he talking about something else?  I really wasn’t sure. So of course, I googled it. And I asked the family that I was living with about it too.  Sure enough, I soon realized that the Guatemalan Diá de la Independencia (Independence Day) would be celebrated the upcoming Friday and Saturday, September 14 and 15th. What luck! I couldn’t have timed my arrival in Antigua any better. I had no idea.

There was going to be a two day celebration beginning on Friday and continuing all day on Saturday and into the evening. I then started to hear something about the torch runners but I wasn’t sure what they were talking about. However, during the days leading up to the holiday, I started seeing groups of mostly youngish guys running through the city streets making lots of noise.  

Runners in Antigua, Guatemala in Preparation for Independence Day. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

I stood and watched one of the groups run by and it seemed to be good-natured fun and a chance to be a little rowdy. Guatemalans seem to like noise. I also found it hard to believe that they were actually running on the cobblestone streets since it can be so difficult to just try and walk on them! The family  that I’m living with told me that the running of the torches is part of the celebration but they didn’t seem to like the idea and thought it was somewhat dangerous. They were probably right. 

Doing a little Goggle research, as I tend to do when I’m curious, I learned that the torch represents the “the flame of liberty.” “La Antorcha” commemorates the independence from Spain on September 15, 1821 of Guatemala, and several other Central American countries including Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Carrying the torch through the streets represents the night before the historic day when riders at full gallop went through all of these Central American countries carrying the news of independence, proclaimed in Guatemala with the signing of an act by civil and religious authorities. Also on that night, independence hero, Maria Delores Bedoya, ran through the streets of Guatemala caring a lantern as a symbol of hope for the nations liberated. Now, the running of the torch preserves the tradition, and modern day participants seem to have lots of fun carrying the torch, making noise and trying not to set things on fire or sprain their ankles on the cobblestone streets of Antigua. 

During the days leading up to the holiday, there were lots of firecrackers going off (more than usual) and there seemed to be a buzz of excitement and anticipation in the air.  I noticed flags being hung all over the city’s buildings and they were flown in other places as well. I heard that there would be more torch runners and that there would be parades on Friday night and Saturday during the day and evening.  

I had just started the Spanish immersion program a few days earlier on Monday just after I arrived in Antigua. The school invited everyone to a  fiesta at the school that upcoming Friday to celebrate Diá de la Independencia. The fiesta was actually very nice. There was a  large marimba band playing while local foods and drinks were served. Watching the marimba players was fascinating and the music was great. Marimba bands are extremely popular here in Guatemala.

Marimba Band at Christian Spanish Academy, Antigua, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

And once you’ve had a chance to watch and hear one of these bands, you can easily see why. They’re wonderful. There’s something about marimba music that just makes you feel good. The coordination among the many musicians is really impressive to watch and even more impressive was the fact that the songs they play are fairly long yet none of the musicians were reading music-it was all memorized. As part of the celebration, they sang the national anthem which is actually quite long and has numerous stanzas. I enjoyed hearing the many voices as the local students and teachers sang with pride for their country. The speakers talked about the inaccurate reputation of their country and how it actually has many good qualities along with its vast beauty.

The food was interesting and tasty, mostly finger foods with the sauces made from tomatoes, tomatillos, cheese and avocado. They had chicharrónes (fried pork skin) which seems to be a Latin favorite. I passed- I’ve had them before. With some of the foods, I wasn’t completely sure what I was eating but it was all really flavorful. They also served the rice-based cold drink, horchata, that is sweet and tastes of cinnamon or other spices which I found quite refreshing. I ate with one of the teachers and a pleasant middle aged couple who were learning Spanish to help with their missionary work. They apparently go to many countries especially in Latin American and carry the word of Jesús to the indigenous people living there. They uniquely use puppets and costumes to do their work which creates lots of attention and attracts lots of people. 

Walking home after school, I continued to feel the energy and mounting excitement all around me. After dinner, I walked to the central park square. The evening parade had already begun and seemed fairly short, comprised mostly of musical bands of school age kids.

Marimba Band for Independence Day, Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

There was a big marimba band playing in the corner of the park with colorful spotlights making the area very festive. The music was great but the thumping bass was so loud, I could feel my insides vibrating. I saw a couple of torch runners run by in small groups attracting lots of attention and some cheers. I also saw some motorcycle riders getting ready to carry there torches on their motorcycles through the city’s streets.

Torch Runner, Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, All rights reserved

I found myself somewhat on edge as I anticipated the loud deafening boom of the next firecracker that I was sure would go off any second. It did and I jumped-of course! And then there was another. And then another.

Motorcycles Get Ready for Torch Ride, Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, All rights reserved.

The following morning, I got up early to make sure that I had a good spot on the parade route. The parade started at the central park punctually at 8 AM. It was an amazing assortment of marching bands, a firetruck, dancers, people in masks and on stilts, people wearing traditional Guatemalan clothing and of course baton twirlers. 

Independence Day Parade, Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

I loved watching the parade but I also enjoyed watching the crowd along with the colorful street vendors selling everything from parasols-it was sunny that day-multi-colored cotton candy, inflatable and other types of toys, balloons, bubble blowers and many types of sweet and savory food treats. 

Inflatable Turtles for Sale, Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, All rights reserved

The parade lasted for four hours. Yep, four hours!  I stayed the entire time since I didn’t want to miss anything. As things seemed to wind down, I decided to walk to Cerro de la Cruz (Hill of the cross), where a large oversized 1930’s cross sits on a hill directly north and right in the middle of Antigua. On the way, I ended up walking through an interesting neighborhood that reminded me of some of the hilly neighborhoods around Silver Lake or Los Feliz in Los Angeles.  I climbed the many steps to get up the hill marveling at the work that must have gone into making them. It was a pretty walk through a very green and heavy wooded area which took roughly 15 minutes.

View of Antigua from Hill of the Cross, Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

The climb was well-worth it as the view was incredible! The entire city of Antigua was visible along with dramatic backdrop of the inactive Volcán de Agua in the distance directly south. There were numerous street vendors there as well (of course). While I was up there, I met a nice couple from the U.S. and their Guatemalan daughter. The mom and daughter ended up being students at my school. 

By then, it was already getting late in the afternoon and the sky of dark clouds was threatening rain. As I came back down through the city streets, to my surprise, I intercepted the bands again from the parade and some of the dancers.

Independence Day Parade, Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

Apparently, all of the participants in the parade had marched up to the local stadium. And evidently, they were now doing the parade in reverse back to the central park! I found myself direcly on the route of the parade as it was returning. While I watched for a while, I decided to head back down to the park which was packed with people by the time I arrived. Some of the bands were surrounding the park and all of these bands were playing their different songs at the same time.

It was a cacophony of  unrecognizable loud musical mush of brass instruments, xylophones and drums. This went on for quite some time. And it was loud.  

Eventually, the bands got quieter as some politicians who had gathered on a prefab stage in the park started to speak. The whole crowd sang the national anthem which went on for several minutes given its length. I enjoyed hearing the many voices in surround sound singing the pleasant sounding anthem in unison.

Independence Day Parade, Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

I felt a little self-conscious not  joining them but of course I didn’t know the tune or the words. When a female politician began speaking at the podium, the people in attendance started to boo but I had no idea why. In fact, I wasn’t initially sure that they were actually booing.

Nonetheless, it had been a long day and it was starting to lightly rain so I decided to leave. As I was walking away, I asked a couple of local Guatemalan guys why the people were making noise. Apparently, it was booing. The woman was the mayor of Antigua and she evidently had done some things regarding water rights impacting Antigua that had angered  a lot of people. (Sounds a bit like California.) As I got further away, I continued to hear the booing of the crowd intercepted by an occasional smack of a firecracker that split the air. And of course, I jumped. The following photos capture more of my amazing day. It was such a great unexpected surprise to have arrived in Antigua just in time to experience the wonderful celebration of the Guatemala’s Diá de la Independencia.

Independence Day Parade, Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Independence Day Parade, Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Independence Day Parade, Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Independence Day Parade, Antigua, Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Independence Day Parade, Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Independence Day Parade, Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Independence Day Parade, Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Independence Day Parade, Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Independence Day Parade, Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Independence Day Parade, Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Independence Day Parade, Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Independence Day Parade, Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Independence Day Parade, Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Independence Day Parade, Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Independence Day Parade, Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Independence Day Parade, Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Independence Day Parade, Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Independence Day Parade, Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Independence Day Parade, Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Independence Day Parade, Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Independence Day Parade, Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Independence Day Parade, Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

 

 

From Penny Lane to Pretérito

Of course, I am 15 minutes early. “Hola, cómo estás, bienvenidos.” The friendly secretary at Christian Spanish Academy (CSA has no religious affiliation- it used to teach missionaries and has an excellent reputation) greets me by name as if we’ve met before. Well, in a way we have since we’ve been emailing back and forth for months about my attending their Spanish immersion program and living with a Guatemalan family. She has been incredibly courteous and very patient in answering my many questions — including whether she and her co-workers were okay after the Fuego volcano violently exploded and erupted last June. Fortunately, they were. However, Antigua was covered in lots of volcanic sand since the volcano is less than 10 miles away. (Many people here have told me that they thought it was raining only to go outside and suddenly realize that it was actually volcanic sand, not water or even ash falling from the sky and covering everything!)

A few minutes later, I am introduced to my teacher or “maestra” who is smiling warmly and greets me in Spanish. She is petite, pretty and professionally dressed in a smart looking uniform bearing the school’s logo.  She enunciates so clearly and slowly that I start wondering whether I’ve actually enrolled in adult Spanish kindergarten. Maybe I have. She seems to be a bit like a female version of Mr. Rogers but much younger. As I stumble to greet her in my very broken Spanish, she instantly starts correcting me and I erradically struggle to find the right words but my brain’s auto-correct is “no funcionando” (not working)!” This one’s gonna be fun” she is surely saying to herself en español. I feel a slight irritation begin to percolate inside me as I wonder whether she is going to continue correcting every few words that I’m trying to say. I keep smiling and remind myself that this is why I’m here. Fortunately, her corrections slow down and I find her both pleasant and likable. We’re off to a good start.

We move to our table- a small 2 by 2 foot table with a white board on an easel next to us. The school is very nice.

Christian Spanish Academy, Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

Numerous tables just like ours are scattered around the first floor in a garden-like setting surrounding a central open courtyard (like many of the buildings in Antigua) sprinkled with a few wooden patio tables and chairs shadowed by large red umbrellas. Many students just like me are facing their teachers busy at work. A low murmer of unrecognizable Spanish sounds fills the area. This is one-on-one instruction. So I find myself facing my teacher at this tiny table. I’m a little uncomfortable and self-conscious, but it eases after a while. We continue talking in Spanish. Refreshingly, she has never heard of Starbucks or “Hamilton.”

Courtyard at Christian Spanish Academy, Antigua Guatemale. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

I feel her assessing my abilities and level. I come up with a few words and sentences that even impress me. I’m sure she’s not. She’s been doing this for years.

Prior to arriving, I had to take two on-line assessments or tests. One was to assess my learning style. The other was to assess my level of proficiency. For some reason, they were unable to find the second assessment. I tell them that I did it several weeks earlier so they look again. They are placating me. I think to myself that maybe the test never went through – I know our home’s Wifi isn’t terrific. They look skeptical but they smile anyway. I feel like I just told them that my dog ate my homework. They apologize and tell me they can’t find it. I will need to take it again. Damn. Fifty questions. Now. My first day.

School Desk at Christian Spanish Academy. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

So I re-do the assessment as my maestra patiently waits. I’m done and we go over it. I am told that I am in grado (grade) “A.” I’m a beginner- I hope I’m at least an advanced beginner (my term, not theirs). There are 7 grade levels, A through G. I feel a little embarrassed but I’m not sure why. But grade “A” turns out to be a good thing. It’s meant to lay a solid foundation for what’s to come later. Solid is a good word for it as I have come to find out – it can be very hard.

School started for me on Monday, September 10th after arriving in Antigua the previous Friday. Going to school again feels a bit like a second childhood. And you can see why. I get up, shower, get dressed and make my bed. I go downstairs for breakfast at 7:30 a.m. After eating a good breakfast, I walk to school- it takes about 10 minutes. I carefully cross the streets after looking in all directions. I attend school for 4 hours, 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. We get a 15 minute break (recess-my word, not theirs) at 10:00 a.m. After school, I walk home. (I don’t stop at “Rudolph’s drug store” on the way home – only a few people reading this will understand what that means). I change my clothes and then I hear my name being called that lunch is ready. Lunch is at 1 p.m.  I come down stairs and have a nutritious hot lunch. After lunch, I go out and play. (Usually a walk to the mercado (market) or el parque central (the central park square, look around and often strike up conversations in Spanish). Then I come home and do my homework. Do you see what I mean?  Melrose Avenue elementary school all over again. But as you will see, that’s where the comparison ends.

Walking to school is very enjoyable and always different!  I realize I have actually developed my own version of “Penny Lane.”

Penny Lane, Liverpool, England. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

I walk by the bank and say good morning to the armed guards standing outside. (I don’t see the banker with a motorcar.) Their friendly smiles strongly contradict the fact that they are both holding extremely lethal-looking rifles in their hands.

Appliances, Computers, Stoves and Motorcycles for Sale, Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

Then I say good morning to the guy who works in the corner store- he sells an unusual assortment of things such as computers, stereo equipment, stoves, televisions, washing machines and motorcycles! I pass a tiny panaderia (bakery)which tempts me but I resist. Then I pass a couple of barber shops, one of which is named “Hunx” and another called “Elegante VEGAS Barber-Shop” with a sign trying to copy the famous “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign (Both are closed this early so the barber isn’t showing photographs of every head he’s had the pleasure to have known.)

I proceed to pass my favorite coffee store, “Guatejava” (cute play on words) across the street. And I pass the Antigua gym. I turn up the street and walk by a pharmacy, a school, and a lavanderia (laundry). Sometimes I drop off my laundry at a different lavanderia near the school. I pay Q45, or less than $6. My laundry is ready by the time school is over and comes back neatly folded and tied with ribbon!

I also pass a  a tiny butcher shop.

Elegante Vegas Barber Shop, Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

The butcher is busy cutting some part of an animal as very large irregular portions of unrecognizable reddish-brown meat hang unrefrigerated over the front counter. Who knows how long they’ve been there. One morning, a whole beef carcass was hanging in the back of the little shop as the butcher was busy cutting it into manageable-sized pieces. I’m not even sure how he was able to fit the whole thing into such a small space. I cringe slightly and decide against taking a photo. Now I regret it.

As I walk, I keep checking behind me to see if the nearby volcanos are visible (since it has been cloudy) and whether Fuego is erupting as it does fairly often. I pass a fancy pastry shop appropriately named “Ganache.”

Further down the street, I greet a friendly woman with a big smile named Glinda who is making homemade tortillas over a hot griddle near the front of a small restaurant. She has attractive Mayan features and she is wearing the traditional floral woven clothing. (She’s the only Glinda I know besides the good witch of the north.) One morning, after passing her and smiling a few times, I just walked in and introduced myself telling her that I was a student at the school up the street. Now we say hello every morning and sometimes we chat a bit.

I proceed to pass a veterinary clinic, a fresh juice shop, another pharmacy, some cool ruins of una vieja iglesia (an old church- there are a number of these types of ruins around Antigua along with some beautiful churches) and another bank (still no banker, motorcar or children laughing at him).

Church Ruins with Fuego Volcano Erupting, Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

Up ahead, there’s a larger panaderia across the street which is just down the street from my school. I resist going in knowing that I will probably go there during the morning break. And then I enter the school saying hola to everyone at the front desk.

School for me starts at 8:30 a.m. I decided against starting at 8 a.m. because it brought back haunting memories of all those 8 a.m. chemistry, biochemistry, physics and other horrendous classes that I took in college as a zoology major. School ends at 12:30 p.m. I walk home usually by a different route. I enjoy seeing everyone out and about – tourists, school students, street venders and  locals. I periodically stop in a shop and look around or converse a little, or take some photos even though by this time I have hundreds.

So how is school? As I am just competing my fourth week, the short answer is-there are some days that are fine, but then there are those other days which are very demanding and challenging. Without complaining, which I’m not, and in the spirit of honest blogging and journaling, I feel it is important to capture my reality. And for me, at times, school is going well but there are those times that it is hard, frustrating and very challenging indeed.

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

My teacher reminds me “Spanish is not easy.” She’s right! And at the same time, somehow I’m enjoying the process, I like the challenge and I look forward to school each day. But there are those days that I question what in the world was I thinking. Like today. I was overwhelmed, discouraged and lost. My teacher assured me that everyone has difficulty with conjugating reflexive (reflexivo) verbs (verbos). It was difficult enough dealing with present (presente), past (preterite or pretérito) and future (futuro) verbs. So after days like this, I take a walk, catch my breath, have a little something sweet to eat and take time to regroup. I’m determined. I know that once I sit down with this stuff, it will start to come together. So far it has.

After my first two weeks, I started to question whether my teacher was the right fit for me. Although she was very bright and nice, she seemed to be looking up a few too many things on Google translate. One day, she had given me homework that was a word search puzzle. It was a waste of my time and taught me nothing. We talked about it and she agreed it probably wasn’t a good idea- I think she thought it would be fun for me to have something different to try. (The other homework she had given me was worthwhile.) Also, I felt as if we were proceeding a little too slowly. But I had nothing to compare it to.

As it turns out, right around the time I had these questions, she was absent one day after she unfortunately burned herself while cooking at home. I was given a different teacher until my regular teacher returned. It didn’t take long for me to realize that this new teacher was a much better fit for me so I asked the school to change  and they gladly accommodated my request. (They make these changes all the time.) My new teacher is wonderful. She is very professional and extremely bright. At the same time, she is very pleasant and fun, has a great sense of humor and has made our sessions very tolerable and enjoyable. She even rides a motorcycle to school! (Motorcycles are very popular here in Antigua- they’re relatively inexpensive, use little gas and are easy to park.) We get along great. She’s so happy and bubbly all the time that I hope that some of it will rub off on me. She also talks about the local McDonalds a lot especially because she has young children.

McDonald’s Patio (with Ronald McDonald statute at left edge of photo) Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

(This has to be the nicest McDonalds on the planet. It has a beautiful garden patio with a central flowing fountain. Also, the food is supposed to be much better than in the U.S. – much fresher and local. The food does look better although I haven’t tried it.) My teacher knows when I’m having a tough day and she tries to encourage me. Fortunately, she’s very nice and extremely patient. And we enjoy some good laughs together.

I get homework every night including the weekends. I have been making flashcards for the hundreds of new vocabulary words and verbs I need to learn. (Can you believe that I sit and make flashcards?) We spend the time in our sessions having detailed conversations, doing written and oral exercises, reading short stories and answering questions about them, taking down dictation and learning massive numbers of new words and verbs along with their seemingly endless tenses and conjugations. And I found out that need to pass a 2 to 3 hour written and oral exam to make it to the next grade level. This clearly puts some skin in the game and set my nerves a bit on edge. This is obviously a no-nonsense program. I admit that I didn’t exactly know what I was getting myself into when I enrolled. But I knew it wouldn’t be easy. Again, I’m not complaining- I’m really not.

I’ve made some friends with other students but the students here are very transitory. Some are starting while others are leaving. Some come for just a week, while others like me are here for several months or longer.  Most students seem to be beginners but there are a few more advanced students or those who have been here for a longer time. I enjoy meeting other students from all over the country and other parts of the world. We share our experiences about school and about living in Guatemala. And yes, most of the time, I admit we speak in English as our brains need a break, at least for a few minutes.

On a few occasions, my teacher and I leave the school and go on a “field trip” (my term) to places like a nearby church, the public library and we plan to go to the local open mercado. We only speak in Spanish and of course, there are lots of new vocabulary words that arise during our field trips that, of course, result in many more flashcards. These outings are very enjoyable and fun. And it’s nice to get out of the school setting for a while.

Hombre and Perro, Antigua Guatemala. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

There’s a phrase in Antigua that everyone here seems to say: “poco a poco” or little by little. When I meet people and tell them –in Spanish– that I’m studying and that it’s difficult, they almost always say this to me. The family that I’m living with continually remind me of this- especially when I share with them — in Spanish–the challenges that I’m experiencing in school. No me gusta los verbos (I don’t like the verbs). Poco a poco they keep telling me.

At times it’s great. At times I’m discouraged. At times I’m overwhelmed. And at times, my brain is on overload and it feels like there’s no more room on my hard drive. And at times, I’m thrilled when I actually remember the Spanish work for something — like today– the word “peach” is “durazno.” Thank goodness for flashcards! And most of the time, I’m really glad to be doing this.

So there you have it. Each day, I go from Penny Lane to Pretérito.  They both have something in common- they both involve things in the past. I’m looking forward to the day that my current struggles in Spanish are also a thing of the past. And to help make that happen,  I’ve got to get back to my tarea (homework). Poco a poco.