Antigua and My Guatemalan Family

San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala

“Much gusto, Richard! Bienvenido a mi familia!” said a smiling Elsa, the matriarch of my new Guatemalan family, as she showed me my new, personal veranda overlooking Lake Atitlan here in San Pedro La Laguna. Struggling to grasp the Spanish word for “view,” I resorted to, well, the English word for “view.” “Esta…uhhh…view…es muy bonita!” Elsa smiled knowingly, looked out towards the lake, and proclaimed “la vista!” And so my Spanish immersion attempt begins, one conversation in broken Spanish at a time.

My arrival at San Pedro La Laguna this afternoon was preceded by an action-packed last 24 hours in Antigua which began with a rousing cultural and historical tour led by the resident historian, Elizabeth Bell. Bell is no amateur historian —  she’s published multiple books on the history and culture of Antigua which are for sale all over town (this includes at least two coloring books of major Antigua sites which demonstrates the depth of the woman’s passion for this former Guatemalan capital). The tour began strong, as Bell showed us around the major sites off the Parque Central and pummeled us with her knowledge of all things Antigua (history, politics, religion, current events, and fun facts, i.e. the 1938 Tarzan movie was filmed in none other than Antigua). However, this momentum came to a screeching halt about an hour and half into the tour as Bell ushered us into the Jade Museum. For those of you who don’t know, jade is a precious mineral found in Guatemala that is popular in jewelry. Then there is a lot of other boring stuff about jade that the Jade Museum covers in detail. After about 45 minutes of that yawnfest of a museum, Bell did capture a bit of the momentum back at our final stop on the tour, the Casa Santo Domingo. The highlight of this stop was a crypt that includes exhumed human skeletons from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. Pretty cool stuff.

After the tour, I meandered around some parts of Antigua I had yet to explore. This was going swimmingly until I met Oleg, a Ukrainian now living in New York City. Oleg asked me to take his picture in front of Iglesia San Francisco. Then his picture from a different angle in front of the church. Then his picture in the church’s garden. Then his picture in the middle of a park down the street. Then his picture from the end of the park down the street. Then his picture in the Parque Central. Then his picture in front of the church by the Parque Central. Then his picture in a picturesque street on the way to my hostel (I was now heading there for “a nap”). Then his picture in front a church next to my hostel. Then his picture in front of my hostel. Then his picture from inside my hostel. Then…OK, so the last two pictures did not happen! But literally all of the other pictures are true pictures that did happen. And when Oleg finally agreed to part ways, I was disappointed I did not receive a tip from him given my instrumental role in the creation of his masterful photo album entitled “Oleg Standing in Front of Places in Antigua, Guatemala”.

As evening approached last night, I debated whether to have a quiet dinner and call it an early night or head back to Cafe No Sé to see if my new bartender friends had anything going on. I opted for the latter given that the first option felt like defeat. Sure enough, Cafe No Sé did not let this wandering soul down. Marissa, an American teaching at a local school that works at the No Sé on the weekends, invited me and my other new friends from the bar (a gay couple from San Francisco down for a long weekend) to a local salsa event. Given that “I know how to do salsa” (said the mezcal in my body at that moment), I agreed and found myself in a school gym with several hundred Guatemalans that were absolutely ripping up some salsa. There wasn’t too much for a gringo like me to do other than watch in awe at the scene, which was highlighted by a legitimate salsa performance by locals in costume. I did make a brief foray onto the dance floor which ended with a small, personal victory in the form of a “compliment” from Marissa. (“I thought you would be terrible at salsa and you actually weren’t terrible!”). After a few hours of this otherworldly salsa scene, my new friends and I ended the night back at the No Sé  in a scene much more familiar to me — in a crowded bar, singing along at the top of our lungs to “Proud Mary” by Ike and Tina Turner.

I pulled out of Antigua in my shuttle this morning around 8:30 am, feeling satisfied about my three days there and properly launched into this adventure. The four-hour journey from Antigua to San Pedro La Laguna only helped to build my excitement for what lies ahead as I listened to the wealth of travel stories being recounted by my shuttlemates. And as I now find myself living with Elsa, Bartolo, Juanita, Elsita, and Bartolito, I am interested to see how the next chapter of my own story unfolds.


Earthquakes, Volcanoes, and Illegal Mezcal, Oh My!

Antigua, Guatemala

As my good friend Mitch informed me via a text this morning, “el terremoto” is Spanish for earthquake (Mitch comprenders Spanish). However, “El” and “terremoto” were certainly not the first words that came to mind as my shaking bed woke me around 11 pm in my room at the Yellow House last night. Rather it was “Wow! This wind is…strong!” As I came to and slowly realized that an earthquake, as opposed to a stiff breeze, was the likelier cause of my shaking room, I hopped out of bed and racked my brain for the proper response to this category of natural disaster. My extensive terremoto training in elementary and middle school taught me to leave the classroom and kneel against the hallway wall headfirst; however, this training was not translating well to the hostel environment. (“Is an outdoor patio the same as hallway? Where’s the teacher? The pretend shaking floors is a for real shaking floor. Hmmm…”). The barrage of panicked, mostly incomprehensible Spanish coming from outside my room certainly was not helping, although the fact that the shaking was slowly subsiding was. In the end, I decided to do what I did in the only other earthquake in which I’ve been involved — leave the relative safety of my shelter and go find some people to talk to about how crazy this earthquake thing is outside. (PSA: This is the #2 WRONG thing to do in an earthquake. Best thing to do is drop to the ground, cover your head, and move under some sturdy furniture if possible. Doorframes are not a good option.) After I socialized with my hostelmates through several minutes more of shaking, the ground returned to its normal, nonmoving status. Once we learned that this earthquake was a whopping 8.1 on the Richter scale (earthquakes of 8.0+ strength quality for the highest grade of intensity — “Great” — on the scale), we were relieved that the effects were relatively mild for our spot in southwest Guatemala; unfortunately, this certainly was not the case further north and into Mexico.

In an interesting twist, a few hours prior to the ‘moto, I had booked a trip to rendezvous with another notorious geological phenomenon — an active volcano. A hike up Volcan Pacaya is actually a standard tourist activity for visitors to Guatemala City and its environs. And it’s certainly safer than a trip into Guatemala City itself. (A fellow hiker on the Pacaya trip reported that a car directly in front of him had been robbed at gunpoint in traffic in Guatemala City; another member of the hike described how he physically fought off three potential muggers at once in the streets of the city — impressive because he actually got away with all his valuables but…really? Downsides to the “fighting back” strategy are extreme.) So this morning, I began my Pacaya adventure from Antigua by packing into a large van with me and 26 of my new best friends. The van drove us roughly 1.5 hours into the Volcan Pacaya park, taking care of a lot of the elevation gain before the hike began. I signed up for the the standard, guided hike, which took us from the parking lot (~5500 ft) up above the treeline (~7200 ft), which offers a fantastic view of the volcano’s dome, the opportunity to hop around an open field of volcanic rock, and a trip to the “Lava Store” (Motto: You will “lava” our trinkets and things.) Aside from coming face-to-face with a real, live volcano (last eruption: 2014), which is, well, friggin’ cool, I enjoyed meeting the other turistas. I spent some time chatting with an international couple (Australia and Switzerland, respectively) taking ~10 months to take the scenic route from Berlin to Brisbane (Australia), an Australian guy cycling (no joke) from Berlin to Argentina (via the classic Berlin to Amsterdam to France to the UK to NYC to San Francisco to Guatemala City to Argentina route), a guy from Atlanta, Georgia in his late 20’s who had quit his tech job to spend some time traveling before moving cities (read: me?), and some British gals that had just graduated from “uni” and were doing traveling before starting Life. At the end of the trip, we all agreed to meet up at Café No Sé this evening, where a Dutch woman I met on my shuttle from Guatemala City to Antigua works. (Don’t worry ladies, she moved here for her boyfriend!) The “illegal mezcal” bar coupled with nightly live music makes this one of the more popular spots in town for those looking for a little nightlife.

I will be in Antigua, which is exceeding my expectations as a town of historic, quaint beauty and tourist-friendly vibes, until Sunday morning, at which point I will grab a ~3 hour shuttle to report for duty at San Pedro Spanish School up in Lake Atitlan. I’ll be checking back in here in a few days for those interested souls. Muchos besos!

Upper left: Volcan Pacaya and I, Upper Right: Roasting marsmallows over a fumarole blowing hot air from the volcano, Bottom: From Antigua, Volcan Fuego spewing ash