October 22, 2012
Right before I wake, I dream that I walk out of our hotel and see an armored truck full of armed men driving down the street. One of the men jumps out and executes a woman, point blank. The shots blow her head back, spraying blood onto the wall of one of Antigua’s colorful colonial buildings. When I wake, I tell Dale, “I must be more stressed about traveling here than I thought.”
I walk a couple of blocks to one of the banks around the Parque Central.
While he dresses for breakfast, I walk a couple of blocks to one of the banks around the Parque Central, or Central Park. When I turn the corner, I almost barrel into a man who steps out from behind an armored truck cradling a black semiautomatic rifle. He’s simply transporting money for the bank. Still, it’s an unsettling moment, following on the heels of my dream.
Inside the bank, I change money under the watchful eyes of two armed security guards. It’s a lot of weapons to spot in a short time, but I suppose a foreign tourist passing a pair of cops in the U.S. would feel even more intimidated. These small young guards smile and nod at me in welcome.
As the restaurant name suggests, the place features a display case filled with Cookies.
Armed with quetzales, Guatemala’s currency, Dale and I walk to breakfast at a restaurant called Cookies. The Spanish-speaking waitress listens to my order with friendly but strained patience. Antigua is a center for Spanish-language education, and those who live and work here are clearly used to foreign students practicing on them. I get the unflattering impression that my ten years of Spanish classes doesn’t show.
The fresh rolls are heavenly, but my chilaquiles taste more like nachos. Perhaps it’s a mistake to order Mexican food in Guatemala? As the restaurant name suggests, the place features a display case filled with Cookies: chocolate chip, oatmeal, cinnamon, chocolate peanut butter… They’re pretty, but not enough to tempt me.
Volcanic eruptions and earthquakes have toppled and cracked many of this city’s buildings.
We spend most of the day without agenda, aimlessly wandering between the 16th and 20th centuries. Volcanic eruptions and earthquakes have toppled and cracked many of this city’s buildings. Some are mere husks, others restored, but all make me feel like a time-traveler traversing the past: Iglesia el Carmen, Catedral de Santiago, Arco de Santa Catalina, and more churches, churches, churches.
All make me feel like a time-traveler traversing the past: Iglesia el Carmen, Catedral de Santiago, Arco de Santa Catalina.
The rainy season isn’t quite through with this highland valley, and it’s a day of fickle weather: wet and cold, wet and warm, cold and windblown, hot and sweaty. On with the jacket, off with the jacket, on with the jacket — oh, screw it.
The roof of our hotel, Posada San Sebastian, has 360 degrees of the prettiest views in town.
In the afternoon, we buy café con leche (coffee with milk) and carry it back to the rooftop of our hotel, Posada San Sebastian. Our roof has 360 degrees of the prettiest views in town: curving cupolas, red-tiled roofs, carved porticos, and other embellishments create a second world floating above the one below, all balanced within a cirque of lush green volcanoes and hills. Watercolor flowers rise, hang, and twine from rooftop gardens and sprout from cracks in clay, brick, and rock. From here Antigua looks empty of people, its invisible population scurrying, motoring, and biking over cobbled lanes tucked out of sight.
Our friendly, well-traveled host, Luis, tells us a bit about his collection.
Downstairs, I meander among our hotel’s hodgepodge of art, artifacts, and ephemera. Our friendly, well-traveled host, Luis, tells us a bit about his collection. Luis bought the dark red wooden marimba outside our room from a local family that owned it for more than 100 years. Several generations of their family played the instrument, and two aging brothers once had their own band. But the brothers no longer play, and their children never took up the family tradition, so it will die with them. These are the bits of history Luis collects. He hammers out a few resonant, bell-like notes, as do most people who pass by our room — day or night.
“So you play?” Dale asks.
“A little,” Luis replies with a Guatemalan blend of pride and humility.
A local family owned this marimba for more than 100 years. (Dale & I both try it out.)
The cloudy sky starts to darken at 3:30, and we while away the fading light at the Parque Central, where everyone in Antigua ends up sooner or later. Generous trees and flowers surround an X of pathways, all of it intersecting at the central fountain. The fountain features maidens with water shooting from their breasts – the milk of Mother Earth? The park is a great place to people-watch and feel the relaxing pulse of the city.
The fountain features maidens with water shooting from their breasts.
Or it would be relaxing, except for the shoeshine boys and men who harass Dale every few minutes, insistently offering to shine his ratty old hiking boots.
One boy gives it three aggressive goes before offering to do it “gratis,” which is, of course, ridiculous.
“Stop bothering us, please!” I admonish the boy.
“No?” he asks meekly, but grins as he walks away. He’ll be back.
Dale stares at his blown-out, worn-down shoes. “Why would I shine these?”
La Fonda de La Calle Real has an old-world feel: with earthy décor around an open-air courtyard.
We eat dinner at one of three restaurants called La Fonda de la Calle Real. La Fonda boasts old newspaper clippings from a visit by U.S. President Bill Clinton. The chair he sat in bears a brass plate with his name on it. Other chairs bear the nameplates of celebrities, such as actor Ben Gazara. Despite the celebrity worship, the place has an old-world feel: with earthy décor around an open-air courtyard. I order the Pepián de Pollo, a Guatemalan chicken dish in a dark brown sauce. It’s good, but we’ve been warned that Guatemalan food is not memorable, and that’s true. However the carrot cake is moist and delicious in its little puddle of cream.
My day ends as it started.
After that, we curl up in bed with a 20th Century movie on Netflix. Equilibrium is a dystopian tale in which Christian Bale plays a kick-ass master of the “gun katas,” martial arts moves that allow him to shoot dozens of opponents without getting a scratch. So my day ends as it started, with gunfire, in bed. The bullets aren’t Guatemalan, their American. I brought that fear with me, from my culture, my imagination, my dreams.