’09 Feb: Antigua, Guatemala

The town center is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a very cool place to visit.

Everything went near-perfectly yesterday,…

February 22

Everything went near-perfectly yesterday, they even had snacks on both Continental flights it took to get from LA into Guatemala City. And on arrival there was Enrique, just as promised with a sign and a smile.

Basically no one had much good to say about visiting in Guatemala City so I decided to go straight to Antigua and since I was arriving very late I wanted to have a driver and hotel lined up, and so…Enrique and the Casa Cristina. Enrique and I had a lovely chat and a drive in the dark over the mountains from Guatemala City to Antigua.

The Casa Cristina, my hotel for the first two nights, is the umber colored section, the third one down.

My room is at…

My room is at the end of this hall. It’s a very modest place but mostly clean and very central, and with in-my-room wifi so I’m happy.

I think that 10 pictures in a day is plenty enough to tell a story and not too many to become boring. I’ve just loaded 26. Too many! Maybe some of them will go when I wake up tomorrow morning and realize what I’ve done…

Out for a first…

Out for a first morning spin around the ‘hood.

This place is locked up apparently being left to rot, and not even on my map. Look at that detail in the carvings. Being the first thing I stumbled upon I wanted in there Badly. Little did I appreciate at the time that there would be dozens more.

A family was hanging around in the park where I’m standing as was a vendor of deeelicious looking fruit (which I will be buying as soon as I get some cash-o-la!).

I asked them what the name of the place was and if I could get in. San Sebastián one of them said, and no they all agreed. All in Spanish too!

…and the ones that…

…and the ones that look like this.

Notice what they have in common – they are both paved in carefully formed ankle capturing patterns, designed to test your concentration and stability. Maybe it’s the survival of the fittest?

Also another reminder of how much a skyline can be muddled by all those wires.

The church is San Agustín.

San Jeránimo School. …

San Jeránimo School. It’s a long story like they all are because not a building ever survives long because of earthquakes. Every town gets wiped out every hundred years or so, and that’s not counting the volcanoes.

In Guatemala the indigenous…

In Guatemala the indigenous Maya people are strongly represented and account for what we think of as the culture…it seems to me anyway. They are not one people by any means, more tribal, with unique languages, styles of weaving and dress, etc.

There are also the Ladinos. From Ms Wiki: The ladino population in Guatemala is officially recognized as a distinct ethnic group, and the Ministry of Education of Guatemala uses the following definition: “The ladino population has been characterized as a heterogeneous population which expresses itself in the Spanish language as a maternal language, which possesses specific cultural traits of Hispanic origin mixed with indigenous cultural elements, and dresses in a style commonly considered as western.” Consequently, the population census include the ladino population as one of the different ethnic groups in Guatemala.

The chicken buses! making…

The chicken buses! making their way around the city and with destinations far and wide. They are colorful and entertaining outside, inexpensive to ride and very old and very crowded inside, sometimes, I hear, with chickens.

Catedral de Santiago bordering…

Catedral de Santiago bordering the Central Park.

Antigua was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in large part due to all these churches, most in ruins, and they all have a similar story – they were built, they fell down in earthquakes, they were or were not rebuilt. And in the rebuilding they became more or less handsome.

It’s the same for every one of them, and although I saw many on this first day, there are many many more to come.

La Merced Church. …

La Merced Church. To the side of this facade are old decaying walls like all the others.

This is Sunday so the few active churches were full and I didn’t go in. I hope they aren’t locked the rest of the week.

Arco de Santa Catalina…

Arco de Santa Catalina built to connect two parts of a convent where the nuns were not allowed to see or be seen. This street is a pedestrian mall on the weekends which is always nice.

I went back and…

I went back and caught the show just at the end. The plaza was full of local people and plenty of tourists too.

I’m thinking marimbas must be a popular and traditional instrument because this is the second big marimba band I’ve seen in one day. There were also wooden flute players like the Peruvian flute bands play, and even the sounds and rhythms were familiar.

Since I’m going to…

Since I’m going to a homestay tomorrow, and since I don’t have any local money yet, I treated myself to a credit card dinner out at Café Panchoy. It was amazingly surprisingly potentially addictingly delicious. I couldn’t believe it, really. Now I can hardly wait to eat more!

The local beer, Gallo, yum.

It’s Monday and time…

February 23

It’s Monday and time to get organized. So instead I hang around half the morning at the hotel because I’ve got internet in my room and it took a long time to do all of yesterday’s pictures.

Ok, hittin’ the road. Everywhere you can easily walk in Antigua but if you don’t feel like walking for any reason there is always one of these tuk-tuks at hand. I haven’t used one yet but it seems handy and even sensible to have them around.

On my way to…

On my way to the school I’m going to try first because Michi said they had a salsa school connected to them… I decide to take a detour and go inside La Merced.

This is the view from the ruins on the roof. That’s the biggest volcano in the distance and it has been like that, the top in clouds, ever since I got here.

Really REALLY unexpectedly, I’m…

Really REALLY unexpectedly, I’m wandering down the street in my usual foto-fog and out of the mist comes ‘hey… Hey… HEY Plane Girl’ and my eyes focus to the distance and find John and Diane from my Dallas-Guatemala City flight.

We were aisle neighbors. They are off to do a project with Habitat for Humanity. Very Cool to see them again!

Which reminds me about that plane ride. There was also a very large group of medical people going to do a volunteer stint at a clinic, and there was a group of missionaries too although I didn’t get their affiliation. There has to be a lot of organization behind all these projects and the government must be cooperating since these volunteers were clearly just plain folk.

Here’s a shot of…

Here’s a shot of the school and the study facilities. I saw many, but just a very small percentage of the dozens of schools that operate in Antigua.

They are all the same in that all the lessons are one-on-one. Students and teachers are situated face-to-face or side-by-side, mostly in outdoor space. They will arrange a homestay and any activity you want but it’s rarely free.

They are different in the physical appeal of the space, location, cost, materials. As to the teachers, I can’t say, but I think they are all independent contractors and go wherever they are called to work.

If you’re looking for a school in Antigua: I chose Acadamia Colonial because a friend recommended it. It was fine. On the downside it was noisy in the study courtyard. On the upside it was a fresh, clean place. It’s a small school meaning intimate but not so sociable as some.

During the course of my stay I stopped by many other schools and they mostly all looked very fine too. I heard from my teacher and others that all the schools draw from the same teacher pool. I recommend you get into an email correspondence with the schools you are interested in and see which place feels the best for you.

This is my across-the-street…

This is my across-the-street neighbor! I’ll get more pictures of my homestay but this is what sold me on the place. Between the church, San Francisco, that is still in use and all the associated ruins, it takes up two blocks surrounded by old walls and blooming bougainvillea, and so the street is quiet and lovely.

A few words about homestays. It can be a wonderful unforgettable way to experience a place however you can also end up in a virtual dorm situation. Or you can join a family. I like to join a family. (I do travel solo and it is easy and a joy for me to join in.) If the school takes you to a place that doesn’t feel good for you, you can ask to be taken to another. It’s your time and your money and the school and the homestay want you to be satisfied so don’t be shy.

Also bear in mind that wherever you stay your hosts are will to take strangers into their home for very little remuneration. They simply don’t have what you have and you need to have reasonable expectations.

You can really understand…

You can really understand how these monumental structures would awe a farming culture. They awe me. This doesn’t do justice to the soaring height of the main space and then the dome.

I went to The…

I went to The two most oft recommended hot spots for foreign students. Of course I went around 4pm when it was nice and quiet…

This is one, Café Sky, also called Sky Bar. The other is Café No Sé. I’m going to talk about them later because I got an interesting picture today that’s not loaded yet. I’ll also tell about the school, my teacher, the missing mystery salsa man and his not so mysterious reappearance.

Yesterday I said I…

February 24

Yesterday I said I was going to talk about the two big language student hangs – Café Sky, also called Sky Bar, and Café No Sé.

You can see both places in this picture. The two story building is Café Sky, maybe the only two story place I can remember right now except for the churches and the government buildings around the Central Park. Café No Sé is the one nearest, on the left. It all looks so plain from the street but you never know what lives behind those blank walls.

Y mi familia! …

Y mi familia! It’s grandma, her daughter, and her grandson. Her brother lives there too and I’ll have to get his picture later. They have been completely delightful hosts and patiently wait while I look up words in the dictionary.

The schools tell the homestay families to not speak English and for the most part it works fine. The brother (a mature man I should add) is studying English in night school so he likes to say what he can in English and his sister, the Madre of the house, hassles him to stop. It was funny since I did his homework last night…

Here is that same…

Here is that same place from a distance. People have been universally friendly, even the local people in native dress hawking their crafts. No one ever fails a Buenos Días and a welcome nod as you pass in the street.

But it’s not like India or China or some other places where people, especially the men, go out of their way to stand in your photo.

What a )(*&%^ coincidence…

What a )(*&%^ coincidence – I was just going to tell about this wonderful place where I am sitting right now and a guy just came by to say they were closing early for fumigation. This is a great place and now I have to leave and I’m not done yet!

No more email, no more stories, no more icanhascheezburger until tomorrow. Adios!

Here’s my Spanish teacher,…

February 25

Here’s my Spanish teacher, Rafael. First we went through all the lyrics to Linda Ronstadt’s Canciones de Mi Padre and it took a day and a half. I still can’t follow it when I listen, but more than before.

Here is a conversation between me and Rafael R: you speak Spanish like a Mexicana. M: not like a Gringa? R: no, like a Mexicana. He said this with a half-smile and not entirely as a compliment. I replied eagerly, Muchas Grácias!

This is the outside…

This is the outside of the Internet Café I have been enjoying each evening. It’s the place I wrote about yesterday where they closed early for fumigation. That picture was from the inside showing where I always sit. Why that exact place is always available I do not know since it’s the best seat in the joint.

I reeeally like this place. They have blazing internet And it’s a real café where you can stay online with your own computer for as long as you can make that one beer last. This is not so easy to find when you’re on the road.

Every day I get…

Every day I get to eat the most fabulous yogurt made by the Madre in mi casa. These are the steps. The problem is getting the starter. I’m going to take these pictures around to Central American markets and restaurants when I get home and see what they say.

YUM. It’s one of the joys of homestays even if you don’t always get exactly what you would have ordered off the menu, you’re going to get something interesting.

And here are the…

And here are the other two. You can’t see Pacaya, the most active volcano in this area, from here but it’s only maybe 10-miles away and I heard it is now so active that all the tours to see it have been canceled. I wasn’t going to go there anyway since they call it an Adventure Tour if you want to see the lava.

I went for a stroll this morning with mi profesor.

No names yet on…

No names yet on these places… I always ask mi profesor in the morning and now I’m not going to have any more mornings to ask him. I’ll have to find another source.

I’ll say again about the ruins because it is amazing. This is another of the soo many abandoned churches. Inside those walls the ceiling has collapsed and all the rubble is just there. It is amazing.

Salsa Man! I…

Salsa Man! I have had a few classes with this guy, and his name is… Miguel. He’s a good teacher I think, in explaning things and he does loove to talk and looves to demonstrate how you should be able to do all this by yourself… and hence… not so much Dancing for me.

Plenty good fun none-the-less. Of course My Guanajuato Miguel still holds his premier place in my heart!

Home from school today…

Home from school today and look what I find on my door! Is that not as sweet a thing as you ever saw. I am actually their very first student doing a homestay and the whole family is going so much out of their way to make me feel comfortable and welcome.

Antigua is known for…

Antigua is known for its tranquility. Tranquilidad is one of the favorite words I hear when talking to local people about Antigua. Here is one of the many little neighborhood parks, this one a few blocks from my house. Muy tranquilidad.

And then…

…it becomes Friday afternoon…

…it becomes Friday afternoon and the central plaza becomes a different place entirely. The streets around the plaza are packed wall to wall and around every corner is a line like this one waiting at the banks (which there seems to be one on every corner) to cash their pay.

And the police turn out in huge and very visible numbers because, they say, of all the cash that will be floating around Friday night.

This was the first…

This was the first Friday of Lent and so there were some special activities too, to add to the numbers. Sunday there are going to be processions, bell ringing, prayers. It’s supposed to be the second biggest Sunday in Antigua, the first being Easter itself.

This is a little…

This is a little clip from a far-away hip shot. For some reason I never feel the least hostility here from anyone nor have I ever been hassled about buying anything, or anything. It’s almost weird even, but still, I have a reluctance to ‘get caught’ taking a picture like this one.

I read that Guatemala was rather a more formal country than you might expect and I think that’s true. I’m thinking now that tourism is working here for everyone, it can happen, and I’m glad to enjoy it.

Most of the buses…

Most of the buses are really cool to look at from the outside but inside it’s another story, so crowded and run down. For long-haul travel the tourists take the Pullman buses where everyone gets a seat, and I’ll be doing that too!

The women in the…

The women in the picture from the park were young ladies out for a promenade. These women are housewives.

Just to note again that they do not wear their clothes as costumes for the tourists nor do they wear them out of any religious requirement but rather, or so I’ve heard, because of simple tradition.

I don’t mind too…

I don’t mind too much when there is plenty wanting photophoto. This was a demonstration area. The style of scarf she is wearing on her head and the color tells what village she is from.

First, some background. …

First, some background. Antigua is THE place to be for Semana Santa – Holy Week. Edwardo, my homestay brother has been at me since day one to come back for Semana Santa. The entire city shuts down for the celebrations culminating in Easter Sunday. Today is the first Sunday of Lent and Edwardo says a 10% version of what happens during Semana Santa.

So we’re having breakfast in the park and I hear the sounds of a band playing New Orleans funeral style, and I can tell they are moving down the street. Gotta Go!

These ladies are about…

These ladies are about to walk more than 3 kilometers carrying their load. And the whole process is very very slow, one will occasionally hand off to another woman and the whole group would occasionally swoon to one side or drop down like they are going to fall. That guy is directing the whole process.

You can’t stop from…

You can’t stop from moving to this style of music. There is other music which you will hear about later. Ok, so it was me. I got those kids to do some stepping because they were so cute for the photo.

You can see Else and Mette in the background there. It was now that we parted ways since there were two more kilometers to the church and I was going to continue on.

It’s Sunday when your…

It’s Sunday when your homestay family gets the day off from you and it is also the day of a street food Bonanza.

Check it out – black corn tortillas. I said to the woman patting out the tortillas, (en español…I’m getting pretty much good enough to handle street transactions) oh! look, blue. And she corrected me. Not blue, no, black. Ok, got it.

This was my favorite…

This was my favorite thing. It’s lightly sugared figs. It has this crusty crunchy texture on first bite and then oozes sweetness as you chew. YUM. Good thing this cart is only out on Sundays.

I also had little tamales, an avocado salad, a quesadilla kind of thing, and…

…this. They save…

…this. They save the trouble of a stall by selling out the back of the family station wagon. There were others too. Some had stools and bbq grills set up too for a more extended offering.

So I make my…

So I make my way home and Exactly in front of my front door is this.

What follows is a pass-by of one of the much bigger processions than San Felipe.

Now you have to…

Now you have to imagine the approaching sound of a huge band blaring out a dirge of monumental proportion – sloooow, Loud, well-played, approaching slooowly slooowly…

…and they’ve arrived. …

…and they’ve arrived. Still you hear the booming dirge get louder and you can hear the sound of the robes and feet of the bearers getting louder and louder.

They pass over the carpet that had just been made of flower petals…

The band follows. …

The band follows. Here’s the brass section with the woodwinds in front and the percussion behind.

They were wailing on that dirge which they must play 100 times during the 3 hours, twice(!), afternoon and evening, that they are doing the procession.

And the band is…

And the band is followed immediately by the clean-up crew. Before you can no longer hear the music there is no evidence on the street that anything has passed.

Actually the whole town is amazingly clean. One evening I was walking home and encountered some unpleasantness on the sidewalk. By the next morning it was entirely gone.

I have a few pictures from the evening’s processions as the crowds had become so thick I was getting claustrophobia. So I joined a procession! and walked along with band, like the old days. Major fun but awkward for photos.

If this was 10% of Semana Santa…yikes. And then the next morning con muchos abrazos y besos from my homestay family I’m off on a long haul bus to Lago Atitlán.

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