So I realize why it’s been so hard to get going on the blog. So much happened in the first three weeks in Guatemala — I was living there more so than traveling there — that it just seemed daunting to try to capture it all. (The other thing is that I keep taking new photos every day, and I prefer editing the photos to writing). As I started moving more quickly, my experiences in any given place were more limited and lent themselves to being captured in writing and pictures more easily. So I’ll write a bit about Guatemala now, post some stuff about other places in Central America, and then come back to it.
As I mentioned in my last post, Antigua, Guatemala is the third of now four capitals for this relatively young country. The second capital, now called Ciudad Vieja, was built on the side of a volcano and was destroyed by a mudslide following an eruption. Appreciating the dangers of building your capital on one volcano, the Spaniards decided it was far more sensible to locate their newer capital in between three volcanos, and hence the city we now know as Antigua was born.
Antigua today is a city of about 50,000, but I think it has more ruined 300-year old churches per capita than most cities have intact ones. The center is fairly touristy but in a relatively authentic way, if that makes any sense. There’s a strict building code ensuring that all the buildings in the town center are painted certain colors, aren’t more than three stories, and don’t have any signage hanging out in the street. That last requirement makes it difficult to identify which street you’re on at times; the only way you can tell what stores are ahead of you is if they’re painted onto the door jambs: tienda, farmacia, libreria.
I’ve arranged to live in a homestay – i.e., with a Guatemalan family, while I’m studying Spanish. I’m picked up at the airport by the school and dropped off at my house. My neighborhood is called El Manchen. I initially speculate, based on phonetic cognates, that the neighborhood is named after a mansion; there isn’t one visible, but maybe it was torn down at some point? Subsequent investigation reveals that the word translates as “stain,” which seems much more appropriate.
It’s not that it’s not a safe neighborhood, but though it’s only five minutes walk from Antigua’s tourist center, the Manchen feels like a completely different town. The orderly grid of Antigua’s town center gives way to a winding road and steep paths up a hillside, with tiny houses stacked nearly on top of each other.
My first friend in Antigua is my housemate Adam, a laid-back nurse from the states, who has been traveling north through Central America for a few months. The first thing he tells me is that I’ve massively overtipped my driver from the airport. He’s right, but I haven’t adjusted to Central American prices quite yet. The next thing he does is translate for me as I meet Irma and Cornelia, the women of the house, and the oldest two of the four generations of women in one family who live in adjoining houses. After introducing myself, I’m completely at a loss in the conversation while Adam seems like he must have been here for months, with his knowledge of what time meals are, when laundry can be done, and all that. In reality of course he’s only been there for a few days, and in a few days more, I’ll be the one in Adam’s shoes, helping bewildered new arrivals get oriented.
The other occupant of our house is Dewars, the dog. He is named after the whiskey but the Guatemalan pronounciation is something like de-WAHRs, which is being constantly screamed at him by Irma when he’s misbehaving, which is often. Dewars is allowed to roam freely in the streets with the many other dogs of the neighborhood but he’s usually pretty close to the house. When the family is gone, he’s locked on the roof. His favorite activity is barking at girls who walk by. As they approach, he does nothing; the moment they round the corner of the house and are walking away, he chases after them barking wildly. Once they’re safely out of range, he trots back to you with a satisfied look on his face that says i did it! i got rid of them! i did it!. Good job, Dewars. Man’s best friend.
Adam introduces me to an Australian who is also named Adam; you’d think this would make names easier to remember but I of course forget both their names immediately. Through the school and the other homestays, there’s a whole crew of new people from all over the world, mostly with the same general plan: pick up some Spanish before long term travel. There’s a Danish guy who spent six months in Guatemala City, a couple of Australians who seem to be perpetually hungover. There’s two 18 year old girls traveling alone; one from the US, one from the UK. There’s a Slovak girl who immediately starts giving me shit; the other students are all amused by this, but for some reason it all seems a little too familiar and I’m not amused.
The nice thing about the neighborhood, besides starting my day with views of the volcano Fuego belching smoke and plenty of street dogs, stray and otherwise, is that most of my fellow students are in homestays in the same neighborhood. When I acquire a Guatemalan cell phone and want to give a certain classmate my number, i simply go down to the corner shop across from the concrete basketball/soccer court and bum around for 15 minutes until he walks by. Antigua in general has an incredibly small town feel; it’s almost impossible to spend more than two days there without running into somebody you met the day before.
There’s somebody going out to the bars just about every night. We are, after all, students again. The Antigua nightlife circuit leads to another set of characters: Chris, who plays up his resemblance to will.i.am, and Paco, who runs Sal Si Puedes, a one-room bar with a leaky ceiling (which is to say, like most ceilings in Antigua) that serves cut-rate Cuba Libres near the Merced. Ladies’ night is still a big thing in Antigua, and there seems to be one bar every night that ends up packed as women line up for their 2 or 3 free drinks.
Closing time is 1 am and I’m generally not out even that late; breakfast is at 7:30 and class starts at 8 so I try to get to bed by midnight. But sometimes nights get out of hand and if you’re trying to keep the party going, there are standing after-parties until, I’m told, 5am. The two I know of are in the same place every night, but the louder one always seems very paranoid about the possibility of police presence. It’s impossible that the police don’t know about a party that happens literally every night of the week, but you deal with a lot of having the music turned down, being prevented from leaving, etc. The other after-party in the Merced is much chiller. The dancing is salsa, not house, and it’s possible to have a conversation.
There’s security risks of course. One of the Australians, I hear, has been robbed twice. He seems like the kind of guy who wouldn’t be a mugger’s first target so I ask him for the details. “Well the first time, this guy at the bar handed me some weed, and I smoked it, and I thought, ‘that isn’t weed,’ and I woke up and all my money was gone.” I asked him about the second time. “Well a guy at the bar had some blow, and I did a line, and I thought ‘that’s good blow,’ so I did another line, and I thought ‘that’s good blow,’ and I did a third line, and I thought ‘that’s not blow,’ and I woke up and all my money was gone.”
This was all very novel to me. As far as I was concerned the biggest security threat in Antigua was the cobblestones. I nearly rolled an ankle every day.
After a particularly active weekend night at the dance club La Sala and after-parties, I was walking through the town looking for food when I ran into two of my classmates I had last seen the night prior, while I was dancing with a girl from Guatemala City. “How are you doing?” they asked with unusual concern. I was doing great and I told them so. “And your stuff?” That really confused me, until I saw the aforementioned Australian a few hours later. The only way to describe his appearance was worked over. I had seen him talking to a girl in an extremely tight dress the night prior at several bars. I asked him how he was. By his appearance, I really couldn’t expect a positive response. “Oh man, I had a hell of a night. I met that Colombian girl at the bar, took her home, we fucked, and I woke up, and all my money was gone.”
So Antigua can be dangerous after all, it turns out.