(photo credit: Holly Wilmeth)
The first thing I noticed as six of us poured out of our big, blue bus in Antigua, Guatemala, was the softness of the air. It wasn’t the rainy season, but the moisture could be felt right away, especially as we’d just flown in from the more arid Mexican high plateau. The second thing was the volcano rising beyond the wall that encircled our house. Antigua is ringed by four magnificent volcanoes; the broad sloping shoulders I saw that evening belonged to the one named ‘Agua‘.
Agua (water) was to became a dominate theme over the next two weeks, starting with those first few earthbound minutes. We were admonished not drink the tap water, not even wetting our toothbrushes with it. We were then offered a visit to the small pool and hot tub that came with this particular rental. Donning bathing suits, we swam and soaked, washing off the long travel day. The next morning, we set off to see more of this lovely town, starting with breakfast at Cafe Condessa.
Like many towns and cities in this part of the world, Antigua’s center is anchored by a broad, square, tree-filled park. From it, the streets extend out in a fairly orderly, grid-like fashion. This makes navigating the sprawling blocks much easier- except most streets were one way and named in ways I never figured out, even once I found the signage. The round fountain in the center of the jardin is ringed by carved stone mermaids, with plump breasts and perky nipples which sometimes give out a stream of water. Milling about were Guatemalans offering their services as guides, little boys with shoe-shine boxes, and lots and lots of European backpackers. The air here was clear and lovely this November morning; the light almost as lovely as San Miguel’s. In another couple of weeks, though, the annual burning off of the sugar cane fields would start, and the air quality would diminish markedly.
We made our way to the next stop on our meandering tour of Antigua: the large, waist-height sinks for clothes washing. These open air laundries are another common feature in this area of the world, where machines and dryers can be an unthinkable luxury. Set under a portico, with a view towards sentinel-like palm trees, the area had an added detail I had not seen before. Beside each square sink was a large round indentation where the washers could set their scrubbing stones.
A few more sights completed our morning perambulations: churches, a souvenir market, and another church (or maybe it was a monastery) destroyed in one of Guatemala’s numerous earthquakes. Its walls were mostly still intact, its garden paths beautifully re-planted, and it made a stunning venue for… weddings. In Antigua, as in San Miguel, destination weddings have become one way to boost the economy.
Twenty-four hours in, and I was feeling antsy to ‘experience’ Guatemala more viscerally. Our second morning arrived, and after another wonderful breakfast we boarded La Gua-Gua Azul and headed for Lake Atitlan. Our drive, in a nutshell, looked like this: jog briskly along two- and four-lane roadways, then hold tight for the snaking up, over and down the mountains that ring the mile-high lake. I had to keep looking out the window facing the side hillside, or focusing on the back of the seat ahead of me. It was the first of many wild rides. As we pulled into Panajachel, our bus lumbered to the very edge of the lake where it was met by a flock of young boys. They gathered around, eager to help carry luggage the few steps to the water taxi. Their hustling skills were well-honed, with the leaders pocketing the quetzales we handed out.
I am pausing here a moment, for a little confession. I assume most people reading this blog enjoy a certain level of creature comfort. I certainly have for most of my life even during my more ‘frugal’ years. And ever since an old boyfriend hollered at me for eating ‘Iceburg’ lettuce (lecturing me the horrible conditions the Filipino migrant workers had to endure), I’ve shied away from going anywhere near it. Well, in most parts of Guatemala, ‘Iceburg’ lettuce is what you get when you order a salad. And because pretty much all of their best coffee beans are exported, it is nigh impossible to get a good cup of coffee outside of Antigua. What you do get is referred to as ‘te de calcetines‘. Shrug your shoulders, give it a half-hearted slurp. Sock Tea.
This is not a complaint. It is much more a commentary on the route my self-observations took over the course of this trip. When I moved to Mexico about 14 months ago, I made adjustments to my lifestyle. A year in, and I am now accustomed to a slower-paced life with fewer of the ‘amenities’ we had in the US. However, we eat extraordinarily well in Mexico, what with all the organic farms around San Miguel. Unbeknownst to me, I had come to Guatemala with some expectations: strong coffee to kick start my brain in the morning, the taste of familiar fruits and veggies, and meal times that fit my body’s needs.
It was only after I opened my Kindle and began to read up on the history of Guatemala that I began to get a much better sense of the country I was visiting. Yes, you would think that I would have done a bit more of that prior to the trip, but I didn’t. That reading brought me to tears, dissolving the tightness of disappointment that had been building in my chest. I will readily admit that I am a creature of certain habits, and amidst the hubbub of traveling with 9 other companions, I had been trying to re-create some of the little routines that anchor the rhythm of my life. Thus far, my efforts were not meeting with much success. I had not taken in to account the extreme trials and tribulations Guatemalans had endured for decades, for centuries. It had somehow slipped my mind that those trials would make being a tourist in the country look, feel and taste different from the one I had most recently grown accustomed to.
My own personal waterworks continued to well up throughout the rest of the trip, as I opened my eyes more and more to the people and landscape around me. Luckily, after we motored along the coast of Lake Atitlan to our next rental house, we found time for a swim. And in the waters of that great body, sacred to the local indigenous peoples, I began to arrive more fully. It’s hard not too, when you’re a water lover like me. There was no resisting the lure of that sweet, cool, deep freshwater lake.