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Category: Pollywog Blog
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It was a bit chilly early in the morning as I got ready for my day trip to visit Iximche (pronounced “ee sheem chay”), a small Mayan archaeological site that
is located in the western highlands of Guatemala about two hours from Antigua, roughly halfway to Lake Atitlán. As we left Antigua, the beautiful sparkling clear blue sky was speckled with just a few clouds including one produced by the Fuego Volcano that had just recently erupted. It was just a small eruption as if Fuego had not yet had its morning cup of coffee.
The drive was interesting as we passed through some small cities and villages, experiencing the bustle of traffic as people got an early start to their Saturday activities which often includes a trip to the local mercado (market). Our van climbed high into the mountains and wound its way through the curvy roads, eventually traveling through a small town, Tecpán, just off the Interamericana highway. Shortly after we left the town, we ended up at the parking area to visit the Mayan ruins of Iximche and to visit a small museum at the site. There were only a few people around as it was still early and not quite opening time. As we exited the van, I was quickly chilled by the very crisp breeze that I hadn’t expected. I suddenly realized we up over 5,000 feet. Unfortunately, I wasn’t prepared for the brisk temperature but at least my thin jacket was somewhat of a windbreaker.
We were greeted by Alexis, a very pleasant, personable and obviously intelligent multi-lingual 20-something Mayan young man who led us to a small
museum to give us an overview of what we would be seeing. There was a power failure in the museum but we were still able to see what we needed to using the dim ambient light and the flashlights on our cellphones. We saw maps of the site while Alexis gave us a detailed explanation of the history. We also saw some human remains since approximately 100 individuals were found, a few with gold headbands (which was simulated in the museum.
Iximche was the capital of the Kaqchikel Mayan kingdom from 1470 until 1524. The site includes a number of pyramid-temples, palaces, and even some
sunken ball courts, all of which are modest in scale. These structures seemed fairly well preserved despite the fact that a times, the site was looted for its building blocks and stones which have been used to construct buildings in some of the local Guatemalan villages. While the site is fairly small, it is located in a beautiful park-like setting high up in the mountains, very green with lots of mature majestic trees. There were 4 ceremonial plazas that had palaces, temples and the ball courts. On a few structures, the original plaster coating could still be seen.
The ball court was interesting but the game played was disturbing. The soccer-ish game used a “ball” which was actually a large stone that could be struck only with the hips and knees. The object was to get the stone though a
ring mounted at head height or higher on the sides of the court. (If you are having difficulty imagining how this game could possibly be played, so am I.) The game was watched only by royalty so it was a great honor to be chosen to play. However, unfortunately the kicker was (pun intended) that the winner was actually put to death as a sacrifice, which was also supposedly an honor (also difficult to imagine).
Interestingly, the area is high up on a ridge surrounded by deep and very steep (90 degrees in some places) ravines which provided safety for the Mayan capital. The rear area of the site is still used today by deeply religious Mayan people who come there to perform fire ceremonies, magic rituals, burning
copal resin, wood, liquor, candles and other items in the presence of the pyramids to ward off illness or other things. We were able to witness a fire ceremony but no photos were allowed in this very sacred area of the site.
After visiting the site, we went back into the small museum to see the rest of the exhibits that explained more about the site including how people lived, dressed, ate and other interesting aspects of the site.
We then headed to the pueblo of Santa Apolonia which is not far away. This village is well known for its handicrafts and earthenware pottery. We were able to visit the home of a poor Mayan indigenous family who was very nice and gracious to us. They talked a little about their life and showed us how they make pottery and beautiful woven items. Some of the yarn materials are hand-dyed using local plants and other materials which they showed us as well.
Interestingly, the pottery is made from very raw materials. Clay soil is purchased locally in clumps which then has to be beaten to break the clumps
into smaller pieces. It is then rolled with a rolling pin against a flat stone until it becomes clay sand. The sand is then mixed with water until it forms into malleable moist red clay. In making large round clay pots, instead of using a potter’s wheel, the woman making the pottery initially forms the clay on the ground into the beginnings of bowl and then keeping her hands on the clay, she runs in tight circles around the clay while forming it into a perfectly round pot. It was actually amazing to see how perfectly round it was! She then put the pottery in a big pile, buried it with pine needles and other dry plant materials and made a large open fire to work as a kiln to harden
the clay which takes several hours. It seems to work very well and it gives the pottery a distinct appearance of a dark reddish brown color with streaks of black.
There were several small houses on the property and there were a few chickens and dogs running around. One or more of the structures was made of mud and sticks. Of course we had a chance to purchase some items so I came home with a small but pretty vase.
We then had lunch at touristy thatched roof restaurant that was decorated in early tiki-Mayan where I had a chicken sandwich with french fries which was more than adequate. We then headed back to Antigua and got back in the late afternoon just as it was getting dark. I hope you enjoy taking a tour through the remaining photos that capture more of my interesting day trip.
Close your eyes and imagine a volcano so huge that it’s crater is 11.2 miles long, 5.5 miles wide and up to 1,120 feet deep. And imagine that this monster volcano is surrounded by 3 smaller yet sizable volcanos, classically cone-shaped, rising high into the blue sky. Then imagine that after a massive earth-splitting eruption some 84,000 years ago, this horrific giant eventually calms down, cools and over time, its enormous crater fills with sparkling clear blue rainwater that also feeds two nearby rivers. Now open your eyes. Welcome to Lake Atitlán, which some have said is one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. It certainly has to be!
Leaving Antigua around 8 a.m., our 3 hour van ride traveled though highways and mountainous roads that wound through a colorful assortment of villages, towns and small cities quite different from Antigua. These places were interesting but many of the buildings were run down and seemingly falling apart. There were lots of tiendas with traditional signs for Coca Cola and Orange Crush, and we even passed the “Alta Seltzer” pharmacy which was using the familiar logo in its sign. One of the small cities called Chimaltenango is apparently known for, among other things, its prostitution (which happens to be legal in Guatemala). The city was heavily traffic jammed because it is located where a number of major roads and highways converge. We passed several motels where scantily clad and heavily made up “ladies” stood outside the doorways eagerly waiting for their next “john” to arrive.
Half way through the trip, we had a 20 minute rest stop at an unexpectedly nice upscale rustic wooded lodge. The air outside was chilly since we were up well above 5,000 feet. The inside of the building was predictablyfilled with a
few taxidermied animals, and the room was smoky from the open wood fireplaces scattered throughout the restaurant (without chimneys) heating the inside. And of course, in the small gift shop and bakery, we managed to find small chocolate chip cookies that tasted just like those wonderful crunchy cookies found at traditional Jewish bakeries. We regretted not buying an extra package.
After the short break, we continued our ride as we made our way into the the Guatemalan Highlands of the Sierra Madre mountain range in southwestern Guatemala. As we rose higher into the mountains, we caught glimpses below of the beautiful green-blue water of Lake Atitlán surrounded by its three renowned volcanic cones casting impressive shadows on the sparkling water. Our view of the lake played peek-a-boo with the hills and trees as we traversed the many curves and slopes of the windy mountainous roads. We eventually made our way down the mountain on some very steep roads. I could smell the musty stench of the heated brakes as they strained to keep the van at a reasonable speed. We continued down the mountain on what seemed like 45 degree angle roads, quickly declining towards the water-filled crater of the lake and finally entering the small city of Panajachel (called “Pana” by the locals) which borders on Lake Atitlán.
When the van dropped us off at our hotel, the Hotel Playa Linda, the
aggressive driver hustled us for a tip which we had planned to give him anyway. The Hotel Playa Linda is a funky, fun and colorful thatched-roof rustic buidling that was decorated in early tiki meets the Mayans in the Caribbean with some Bahamas and Central American thrown in. We loved it! At $50 a night, it was perfect. We were immediately greeted in the lobby by a rambunctious adolescent golden retriever puppy that must have been born with springs in its legs the way it was bouncing off us and the furniture.
We were also greeted by a couple of wonderfully friendly cats, a young tiger-stripped tabby and an older black cat who were both purring loud enough to compete with the motorcycles outside. There were nautical items and all sorts of tchotchkies all over the walls of the lobby and adjoining areas. This place had character plus! There was a lovely small flower-filled garden just outside the lobby with papaya trees heavily burdened with large ripening fruit. There was
also a large aviary and a parrot speaking Spanish on a stand next to the other bird cages. The cats were lurking nearby and carefully eyeing the many birds while urging us incessantly to never stop petting them.
The owner was a very friendly middle-aged guy whose look and demeanor fit in nicely to the nautical-ish tiki theme of his small eclectic hotel. Upon first seeing us, he unexpectedly greeted me by my first name- he obviously was expecting us- maybe we were only two of just a few guests checking in that day since we had arrived during the very slow season at the lake. In his very deep resonant voice, he tried his best to use what little English he knew to tell us about his favorite local restaurants that we needed to try. He gave us the key to our room (a real key, not a key card) and we made our way up the bright orange flight of concrete stairs to our room accompanied by the young affectionate tabby practically under our feet and of course, the exuberant bouncing golden puppy who seemed to fly effortlessly up the many stairs.
Our huge room contained three queen size beds covered in bright turquoise Guatemalan bed spreads and a charming red brick fireplace. A great view of
the lake was visible through the wall of windows that opened onto a very large patio with a couple of aged wood benches. After settling in for a few minutes, we went out to explore the city of Panajachel. We were told that it was off-season so there were not too many tourists although the streets seemed fairly busy. The quaint main street, Calle Santander, was lined with lots of open
shops selling many of the usual items that we’ve seen everywhere in Guatemala including blankets, table runners, clothing, shoes, artwork and all sorts of Guatemalan knickknacks, toys, worry dolls, hats, religious items and even Guatemalan Barbie dolls! The street was filled with people trying to make their way among the bustle of cars, tuk tuks, bicycles and lots of noisy motorcycles.
We enjoyed exploring the area, finding a local bakery and chocolate shop. We walked into a small bookstore and spoke to the gringo-owner, trying hard to avoid talking about the United States politics even though he seemed eager to do so.
We then found Guajimbo’s Parrilada Uruguaya Restaurant (Uruguayan barbeque), a nice gringo-owned restaurant for lunch where we enjoyed chicken filet and ham
and cheese sandwiches along with french fries and Diet Coke. After lunch we explored the central part of Pana finding the municipal area. We stumbled on a typical yet interesting open air market selling all types of fruits and vegetables, and different kinds of meat and chicken that were hanging unrefrigerated and seemingly enjoyed by lots of flies. Nearby,
we discovered a small carnival adjacent to the main church complete with two rickety, rusty and crudely painted multi-colored Ferris wheels that looked like a hazard waiting to happen along with a few other carnival games. We were surprised that these rides actually worked and we had to cringe when the ferris wheel seemed to be going way too fast for the way it was constructed. There were a few other rides as well, most of which looked equally unsafe and put together with spit and chewing gum.
That evening for dinner, we ended up at Guajimbo’s again since besides having
good food, we were lured by the beautiful live acoustic guitar Latin music being played by a couple of local guitarists. We shared a traditional dinner of chicken, rice and vegetables. After dinner, we stopped outside a couple of other restaurants to listen to more live music. One of the groups was a terrific and entertaining Guatemalan “girl band” dancing in unison like the “Temptations.” After a while, we were tired from the days travel so we splurged on a Tuk tuk (15Q or just under $2) and headed back to our hotel.
The following morning, we were up early since we had booked a boat tour to three pueblos or villages located across the lake. We were picked up by a driver in a tuk tuk who sped us to a nearby open-air makeshift restaurant for
breakfast. A young man was the only server, and a woman who appeared to be his mother was the cook. They were busy scurrying around to feed the many people who showed up for an early breakfast prior to the tour of the pueblos. We had a traditional Guatemalan breakfast of eggs, tortillas, frijoles (black beans) and platanos (fried plantains) along with the no so traditional panqueques (pancakes or humorously translated as “bread what what”- people who know Spanish will understand this) and café (coffee).
After breakfast, we took a small bus to the nearby dock. We boarded the relatively small fiberglass skiff that probably sat about 20 people and didn’t look quite suitable for the very choppy waters of Lake Atitlán. Shortly after leaving the dock, the boat’s driver threw the boat into full throttle and we began zipping and skipping across the water, with a strong head-wind blowing our hair and splashing drops of cold water in our faces. The water was so choppy that the boat felt like it was bouncing off blocks of solid concrete rather than water. Nonetheless, we were distracted by the breathtaking view of the lovely blue-green white capped water together with three immense cone-shaped volcanos that were all around us.
It took about 20 minutes to cross the enormous lake when we finally arrived at the village of San Juan La Laguna on the southern shore of the lake. This is a
aquaint, charming and colorful village with very steep streets giving us plenty of exercise. Upon arriving, our tour guide, a pleasant local guy, pointed out that the top of the nearby mountain formed the silhouetted profile of a Mayan man lying down. It took us a while to make it out but there it was — we think. We then visited an artist’s
gallery and also a place where they made cloth items woven with naturally dyed cotton yarn of various thicknesses. They gave us an infomercial demonstration of the plants and related materials that are used to make the dyes. We were also shown how the raw cotton is dyed, spun into yarn, and then woven to make the beautiful cotton items that they were selling. Of course I had to buy something – a small embroidered table runner.
We then walked around for a little while exploring the village and seeing a number of beautiful and interesting murals and several nice shops. I managed to buy a woven multi-colored book bag for school. We then came across a shop which to our surprise had a large
selection of beautiful woven multi-colored yarmulkes which we certainly didn’t expect to find. So of course I had to buy two even though it was so hard to chose which ones since they were all wonderful. And I even learned the Spanish word for yarmulke — “yamaka.”
From there, it was a fairly short but still bumpy boat ride to our second village, San Pedro La Laguna on the southwestern shore. As we approached this picturesque little village with its houses and buildings nestled up the hillside, we noticed a fairly large hotel with an Israeli flag flying high above it. Apparently there is a sizable Israeli population there. The village seemed to cater to the hippie-ish earthy types. There were natural juice shops, yoga studios and restaurants offering organic, gluten-free, sustainable,
locally sourced and non-GMO food. And apparently marijuana is plentiful as well although it is not legal in Guatemala. Again, there were lots of shops selling the usual Guatemalan items. We didn’t stay all that long.
From there, we headed to our third village, Santiago, the largest town on the lake, which is across the lake and southwest of Panajachel. Our tour guide pointed out an older man wearing traditional embroidered lavender stripped pants. Apparently the women wear purple stripped skirts as well. Our group decided to have lunch at a small quaint restaurant that quickly became obviously overwhelmed by our group of maybe 12 to 15 people. We enjoyed a lunch of pepián de pollo (“comida típica”– a traditional Guatemalan chicken dish in a tasty dark sauce with carrots and quisquil (a local green squash-like vegetable tasting a bit like an artichoke heart) together with tortillas, rice and Coke Zero. Lunch unfortunately took a very long time because the restaurant was not equipped to handle the crowd.
After lunch, we took a quick walk to the center of town to visit Colonial Church
which was worth the effort. It was built in 1547 and is one of the oldest Catholic churches in Central America. It was simple but very nice with lots of ornate imágines (religious statutes) around the walls of the church. A memorial plaque along with posted information just inside the entrance commemorates Father Stanley Francis Rother, a missionary priest from Oklahoma who was apparently loved by the local people and considered to be somewhat of a local hero. Sadly, Rother was murdered by ultrarightists in the parish rectory next door to the church in 1981 during the political struggles in Guatemala.
On our way back, a lovely Mayan women demonstrated how to create a traditional Mayan Tocoyal “Hat” or head wrap from a single thick flat piece of woven
colored cotton . She seemed to have fun showing us and there were smiles all around. After our visit, we then headed back to the boat which took us to Panajachel. The water was so choppy by that point that the boat continually smacked the water so hard that we couldn’t wait to get off the boat.
That night, we walked around Panajachel again and then ended up at the Circus Bar restaurant, a really upbeat pizza and pasta place complete with great live music and filled with vintage circus items and posters. It was a very unique and fun-filled three-ring dining experience. Afterwards we walked along the main drag and caught a few more live bands playing in the local restaurants.
The next day, which took another 2-3 hour van ride to Chichicastenango which
is known for its gigantic Sunday open air mercado (market). When we got there, we were greeted by numerous “tour guides” offering to take us around since it was supposedly so easy to get lost in the enormous maze-like market. We took our chances. It was pretty amazing to experience such a huge mercado and no, we didn’t get lost except on purpose. The sights, sounds and smells enhanced the overwhelmingly great experience, especially in the areas where all types of food was being prepared and sold. It seemed like everything imaginable was being sold at the mercado from beautiful fruits and vegetables, to household items, woven products, toys, candles, clothing and more. There was even a woman selling some Guatemalan version of “snail oil.” Her passion was astounding! We bought several dozen sets of worry dolls (you never know when you’ll need them) from a wonderful young family that allowed us to take their photo. We
found a nice restaurant for lunch which was a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of the phrenetic chaotic mercado. We also visited the central cathedral, which was dark inside where we witnessed Mayan fire ceremonies of different indigenous people on the floor of the church burning candles, leaves and other items as they solemnly prayed on their knees.
After spending a few hours there, we eventually made our way back to the small van which was overly packed with passengers. Additional seats had clearly been added. It was a bit nerve wracking to be squished in but fortunately we made it back safely after the almost 3 hour trip to Antigua.
Aldous Huxley, the famous author of “Brave New World” (and who ironically lived on our street in Los Angeles) in his 1934 travel book, “Beyond the Mexique Bay” stated: “Lake Como [in Italy], it seems to me, touches the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanos. It really is too much of a good thing.” I am so glad that Lake Atitlán is too much of good thing since it absolutely must be one of the most beautiful places in the world. (Don’t miss all the photos that follow).
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!
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
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.
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,
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
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
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
“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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 volcanoviolently 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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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!
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,
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.
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.
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.
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 ofBazooka 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.
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?
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?
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.
It’s getting closer. My nerves are steady but emotions running a little on the high side. My WTF beard continues to grow. My psych practice is closed – temporarily.
The travel nurse at Kaiser assured me that my vaccination for Typhoid fever is still effective from the shot I had before going to Guatemala about 2 years ago. And of course, I’m equipped with Malarone to prevent malaria in case I’m going to “mosquito infested areas.” The nurse was emphatic — I need to start taking the medication a day before entering areas where ravenous mosquitos congregate and to continue taking the medication, even after I’ve left the area, until the all the Malarone is gone!
The nurse supplied me with 16 pages (yes, count them) of medical information, instructions and precautions for Guatemala. I’m to use insect repellant containing DEET (highly toxic!). There are guidelines on when I should call for help. I’m to wear protective clothing and to even consider bed nets to avoid mosquito bites which carry Dengue, Zika, and other lovely things, and what symptoms to look out for. I have details on the Guatemala-specific medications I’ll be taking and their potential side effects.
Not surprisingly, there’s a whole section on “travelers diarrhea.” As such, I’ve been given an almost mandatory prescription for Azithromycin, a heavy duty antibiotic, in case things get especially bad with cramps, and worse (TMI?), otherwise I’m to be well-equipped with Imodium. I was even given a detailed map outlining the areas where malaria is present. On this handy map, Antigua, my home base, appears to be just 1/32 of an inch from where mosquito precautions are required. Of course, I hope that none of these insatiable mosquitos living in the adjacent areas are planning any trips to Antigua for free Vegas-style buffets!
I can imagine these smug mosquitos’ having a chat:
“Hey Mack, how’s it going?
“Hi Miles, pretty good but man am I stuffed! I just ate”
“Really, where did you go?”
“I ate at the Huxley Griffith”
“Wow, how was it?”
“Delicious! Man, that place really must like dark chocolate. Boy was it tasty”
“Cool, I’ve been meaning to try it.”
“What part did you try?”
“I think I was near the neck but I hear the ankle is also tasty.”
“Hmm, I’ll have to try it. I’ll go there now.” Buzz you later.
Enough of that.
I’ll be arriving during Guatemala’s rainy season which runs May through October. In fact, since it’s close to the equator, Guatemala really only has two seasons: wet and dry. A majority of the rain is supposed to fall in September (average 9 inches) and October (average 5 inches). November also tends to be wet but by December, it’s supposed to dry up. I’ve heard it can be torrential at times. Plus October is peak hurricane season. That could be interesting.
So the other day, I ventured out to REIto find some (hopefully inexpensive) water-proof shoes and a lightweight rain jacket. Both were on sale so I bought them. Maybe I’m overdoing it. Maybe all I need are those one-dollar ponchos that come so neatly wrapped in tiny rectangular packages. So I ordered a supply of those too from Amazon. It’s cheap insurance. Did you know that you can return anything at REI for up to one year, even if you’ve worn them!? Like shoes?? Who knew?
I’ve been checking the iPhone weather app a few times a week.
It seems to be stuck on only one setting – rain and thunderstorms every day until further notice with daytime temps in the mid-70s and nighttime temps in the high 50s. Not too bad.
I’ve also checked the U.S. State Department website to find the latest travel advisories for Guatemala. It’s not the safest place on the planet. (As if L.A. is??) I probably shouldn’t have checked. It felt like the time I was googling my incessant cough, cold and achy symptoms and concluded that I had some horrendous disease with just months or days to live. Yes, the Guatemalan government is corrupt. (I feel like the pot calling the kettle black.) And yes there are certain areas to avoid. For example, from my previous trips, I knew that once you fly into Guatemala City, for the most part, you don’t hang around and probably don’t come back until it’s time to go back to the airport.
Guatemala is currently at Travel Advisory Level 2 (“Exercise increased caution” due to crime) as of July 27, 2018. There are four levels. It was actually worse when I was there last January when it was at Level 3, “Reconsider travel.” Of course, I had no idea then although we knew to be very careful. The machine gun armed guards at some of the restaurants and places we visited gave it away. Some areas of Guatemala are still at a Level 3. Guatemala is divided into 22 geographic entities called Departments. Antigua is in the Sacatepéquez department which is currently at a Level 2. I’ll check out the situation more once I get there.
I’m told that the devastating and deadly eruption of the Fuego Volcano has settled down.
We had actually seen Fuego having much smaller eruptions both times we were in Guatemala. I’ve got some great photos!
During the eruption last January, Antigua was inundated with volcanic ash since it’s only 9 miles away. So, I’ve ordered a supply of breathing masks (N95 rated for volcanic ash) just in case. Yes, I brought them last January as well since I knew that Fuego had been huffing and puffing for a while and threatening to go off.
At the U.S. Embassy’s suggestion, I’ve enrolled in “STEP” (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program). That way, the U.S. Embassy is aware of my travel in Guatemala in case of an emergency, natural disaster, civil unrest, or family emergency. The embassy can also help family and friends get in touch with me in an emergency. I’ve also been receiving periodic updates on the safety concerns in Guatemala as they have come up. So far I’ve received two, both concerning some civil unrest in Guatemala City.
We happen to live near the Guatemala Consulate so I went there the other day. I had a nice chat with one the officers there. He assured me that tourist areas are safe but there are clearly areas to avoid. So I will.
Since stealing ATM card information seems to be a national pastime in Guatemala, I’ve opened a separate bank account specific to my trip to Guatemala with its own ATM card. That way, I can keep a small amount of money in the account and if my card gets hacked, my other accounts won’t be compromised.
Am I worried. Not really. Am I still going? Yes. Remember, I was at the Silver Lake Trader Joe’s an hour before the tragic shooting. L.A. has its issues as do most places.
I never would have imagined that this sabbatical would have taken so much planning and preparation to pull this off. There are so many moving parts. Oh yes, I even bought a travel guitar at my favorite guitar store, McCabe’s. Now, it’s time to pack.
It has got to be around a year ago that I decided that I was going to live in Guatemala, study Spanish, maybe do some volunteer work, and do a few other things like writing, playing my guitar, and hiking volcanos. I have never lived anywhere other than California, let alone another country. There were numerous reasons fueling this decision in me. That’s a story that currently has unfinished chapters. I plan to be gone 3 1/2 months.
So my sabbatical (isn’t that a great, important sounding name for it?) starts September 1, 2018 — and I’m leaving for Guatemala on September 6th. I admit that I do have a round trip ticket and plan to be back in late December. I am in the process of closing my psych practice – effective August 31st-subject to reopening at a later date. This has not been an easy process on so many levels. And it’s been very emotional.
So much to do. I’m only slightly overwhelmed as long as I don’t think about it. I’m excited, nervous, anticipatory, anxious, calm, scared, brave, worried, courageous, sad, happy. A pupu platter of feelings and emotions which I’ve eaten myself so it’s all laying heavily in the pit of my stomach like a gluttonous mass of fried Asian appetizers. Feels great going down, but then it lays there like a block of concrete!
The immersion language school in Antigua that I’ve enrolled in just sent me an updated confirmation. It’s getting more real. I’ll be living with a Guatemalan family but I won’t find out anything about them until a few days before I arrive. What will they be like? Will they like me? Will I need to hide that I’m Jewish (my mishasgas, not theirs) – or that I’m in a same-sex relationship (another closet to crawl back into?). I’ve got to turn off my projector that’s running overtime.
I have no idea what I’m getting myself into. I am told I will eat the same meals that the family eats, presumably with them. Actually I hope we do. They’ll provide three meals a day, except on Sundays. I’ll do my own laundry. I’ll have my own room, and my own bathroom (an extra charge). They’re supposed to have Wifi (an extra charge). I have no specific dietary restrictions. But since they’ve asked, I’ve requested non-fried healthyish food. Lots of fresh veggies and fruits (and hoping they know to wash them in filtered water!) I prefer mostly chicken and fish. Will they think I’m high maintenance? (Do people in Guatemala even use the term “high maintenance?”) I imagine they must be thinking, Oh, he must be from California. He probably only eats kale and quinoa, and everything has to be organic, locally sourced, sustainable, free range, gluten free and non-GMO. Does everything need to be served on small plates?
I just took an assessment test to help the school determine what type of learner I am. I have no idea how that went or what that even means. I hope I still know how to learn. The next task is a Spanish placement test to see what level I’m at. I initially tried the intermediate test (I guess I was overly optimistic) but I found I was mostly guessing. So they sent me the beginner’s test. I hope I’m at least an “advanced beginner” (my term, not theirs). We’ll see what happens. Más tarde.
faint lines traverse the hiking trail
perpendicular to the path
they appear unevenly
straight and narrow
indistinct and soft and lighter than surrounding earth
unobservant gods in higher realms
don’t notice or stoop to see
a nature searcher
used to watching for birds and animals in the bush
and insects on the trodden track
blinks in disbelief
Is this phenomenon real
or am I just imagining?
Did some hiker
drag a small-fingered branch across the footpath
at irregular intervals?
For what purpose?
the seeker sees tiny ants
not as big even as the small black colonizers
occasionally on the counter at home
and not as many as those roiling around
a small morsel
these few move in fixed path to and fro
making their intention to get across
visible but barely so
Is it water from the stream on the right or
better seeds on the left?
Why so many different roads?
Why not take the highway laid out by other ants four feet further?
And how many ants does it take to change the color of the trail
if only one shade lighter than the rest of the dirt?
Do they kick up miniscule dust
that settles on the grains of sand and makes marks?
And how long do they have to do it to make the line visible?
What hardly noticeable evidence do we leave
on our community journeys?
With lines of poetry?
What marks, however faint—
what kicked up particles of dust—
enough stuff to startle a keen observer
who might seek an explanation
ask a question
while the rest of the universe
much further away and higher up
passes by without noticing?