October 21, 2012
Dale and I are not trying to mark the end of an age. When I planned this trip to Guatemala, the Mayan calendar’s expiration date of December 21, 2012 wasn’t on my mind. I just hoped for a safer alternative to our favorite budget destination, Mexico, and its off-putting drug war. And Guatemala was the only foreign alternative where I could use my frequent flyer miles.
Guatemala was the only foreign alternative to Mexico where I could use my frequent flyer miles. (Photo: Antigua)
During our flight, my seatmate has me questioning my choice. Maricarmen, a real estate agent, is returning from Florida. “It was nice to drop my guard and relax in America,” she says. “There’s a lot more violence and trouble in Guatemala, so I’m always…” She hesitates.
“Alert?” I suggest.
That’s not what I want to hear.
We step out of the airport and into the dark at about 10:30, later than expected. I hope our driver hasn’t given up on us. I search the half-moon of expectant bodies pressing toward the doors, relieved that the shouting is minimal. I spot a sign with my name scribbled on it — I used to envy the names on those signs, assuming they belonged to wealthy travelers, but this one merely holds the name of a budget traveler terrified of staying in Guatemala City after dark. Holding our sign is a man with short gray hair tucked under a ball cap.
“There he is!” I say, relaxing. Dale still looks tense.
César welcomes us with an earnest grin, and invites me to sit next to him for the drive to the city of Antigua, 45 minutes away. I chatter with him in my appalling Spanish and translate for Dale, who sits keyed-up but quiet in back. I ask César his opinion of our tentative plans for the next three weeks, which we’ve kept loose in hope of surprises. I’d like to visit Nebaj and the villages of the Chuchumatanes mountains, an area still suffering the aftershocks of this country’s 36-year civil war. César says he grew up in Nebaj, but the war forced him to flee when he was 17.
César says he grew up in Nebaj, but the war forced him to flee when he was 17.
He assures me I needn’t hesitate to ask people about the war for fear of sounding like a turista estupida (stupid tourist). He says some are eager to share their stories, “to unburden themselves in the telling,” while others find remembering too painful. “Most people won’t mind if you ask.” So I ask him, and he shares what he can during our brief drive. His relaxed openness lulls me into this country’s happy-sad rhythm like a hypnotic watch on a chain.
During the war, many villages were burned to the ground, families separated, loved ones tortured and killed. One image stuck with me: “Sometimes people ran away into the mountains with other people’s children,” not kidnapping them, but rescuing whoever they could grab in the confusion. “Many fled through the mountains and went to Mexico,” César says. “Many families were separated for years. Many never saw each other again, not knowing if their loved ones survived.” He says those worst affected were neither military nor rebels, but civilians caught in the middle, “but that’s the way it is with all wars, as you know.” Over and over he repeats one phrase, shaking his head, “Fue muy duro.” (It was very hard.)
César spent much of his life moving from town to town, taking this job and that. He now lives in nearby Ciudad Vieja.
For a brief silence, I peer out at the well-paved highway and tidy assembly of trees. “The city looks so clean,” I say.
“Lucky for us,” he quips.
Later, I’ll realize that Guatemala City is as dirty and dangerous as I feared. But we’re approaching Antigua, which isn’t. An eager gasp escapes me as a conical black silhouette pierces the shadowy clouds ahead: it’s Volcán de Agua.
Three volcanoes hold the city of Antigua in a dangerous embrace: Agua (Water), Fuego (Fire), and Acatenango (I have no idea). Fuego erupted just a month before our arrival, spewing lava and ash and prompting more than 30,000 people to flee, mostly Mayans. So much for a safer alternative to Mexico. Still, I feel a thrill at this possible portent of the Day of the Dead on November 1…or perhaps the Mayan calendar’s end of days. Who says I’m not a turista estupida?
The jitter of tires on cobblestone announces our arrival. “All the streets in Antigua are like this,” says Cesar. “This is a city pura colonial (pure colonial).” We pass the Parque Central, or Central Park, where a large fountain glistens before the nighttime lights of the Cathedral of Santiago.
A large fountain glistens before the nighttime lights of the Cathedral of Santiago.
Two blocks later our headlights illuminate the imposing wooden doors of our small hotel, Posada San Sebastian, a 16th century Spanish home owned by César’s brother. We thank César for the ride. His grin is friendship itself. “Para servirles!” he says. (At your service). I’m certain we’ll see him again.
Inside the posada’s entry, dozens of small chairs hang from the walls.
Inside the posada’s entry, dozens of small chairs hang from the walls — as if winged schoolchildren might gather up there for a class on levitation. The night manager expresses sympathy over our exhaustion and leads us straight to our room, beyond the birdbath in the courtyard, down a hall crammed with antiques, icons, and objets de art: puppets, crucifixes, ceramic baby Jesuses, Mother Mary statues, retablos, phones, masks, marimbas, a piano, and old fumigators (don’t ask me why). It’s hard to say whether Luis is a collector or hoarder, but this eccentric museum atmosphere is what drew us here.
The hotel’s halls are crammed with antiques, icons, and objets de art: puppets, Mother Mary statues, phones, marimbas, and more.
We sink under rough sheets in a cozy roomful of dark antiques and fall into the past. I’m convinced I feel at home, but my id feels otherwise. I jolt awake in the middle of the cool, damp night and cry out, “Dale! Dale! Dale! Turn-the-light-on! Turn-the-light-on! I saw something run across the floor!” I stare at the red tiles until I realize it was a dream, or maybe a premonition…
We sink under rough sheets in a cozy roomful of dark antiques and fall into the past.
I thought Guatemala might be Mexico-ish. It’s not. These first silent hours whisper that this is a place unto itself and the reshaping of my worldview is about to begin.
(to be continued…)