THE TRAVELING SITTERS

THE TRAVELING SITTERS

Adventures While House Sitting

OUR FIRST GLIMPSE

Antigua's Central Fountain.  Fresh flowers daily.

 

TO GUATEMALA – OUR FIRST GLIMPSE OF CENTRAL AMERICAN LIFE

We arrived at LAX (Los Angeles Int. Airport) at 11:30PM. Our connecting TACA flight to San Salvador would not be boarding until 7:30AM the following morning. We had some time to kill. We wandered around until 3 AM when we noticed people were beginning to line up for our flight.  We placed sixth in line and realized that one by one, those in front of us were having serious discussions with the only agent behind the counter. Clearly something was wrong but since we do not speak Spanish we had no idea what was going on. A young Mayan woman directly in front of us grooved to her IPOD.  Occasionally she would look back at us and roll her eyes as the conversations with the agent became longer and longer.  A well to do middle aged Mayan couple was behind us and every time I turned around they would smile kindly and try to indicate ‘we are used to this, what can we do?’ by shrugging their shoulders. 

Forty minutes passed and still there is only one very patient agent at work even though the serpentine line of passengers was about to overflow outdoors.  We were glad we had gotten in line early.  Every passenger had at least two suitcases the size of steamer trunks plus a rolling ‘carry on’ bag.  Families had carts piled high with these extra-large bags. When a passenger finally made it to the agent a long discussion took place, lots of head shaking, sighs and gestures followed, then a few moments of silence and deep thought followed by another lengthy discussion.  Finally a decision would be reached and the first bag hoisted onto the scale.  Off the bag would come and right there on the floor in front of the agent the bags would be spread out, opened and repacked.  The bags would again be weighed and again repacked.  This was repeated until the goal was achieved-a 50lb per bag limit. Meanwhile the line seemed to grow exponentially and the agent seemingly oblivious to the waiting passengers.

It did not matter how long it took a family to re-adjust there bags, nor did anyone seem shy about tossing around personal garments etc… and not until the weight restriction was satisfied did the next person inline step up and the process begin again.  I couldn’t help but laugh at the foreignness of it all and especially when considering that only one agent was working and apparently expected to handle a line of people that, by now, extended out the doors and beyond our view (in the end over 180 people boarded the plane) and yet the agent appeared unflustered and no one inline was losing it. 

Thus began our initiation into Central American life…PATIENCE!

Finally we stepped forward and learned that our flight had been cancelled due to a storm.  The agent had a strong Spanish accent but spoke English and we complimented her for having such a good attitude.  She told us she was a nervous wreck.  We assured her that we couldn’t tell and she was doing a great job.  We were offered generous vouchers for future TACA flights and rerouted on a direct flight to Guatemala City.  We were to board that flight at 11:30 AM. Our bags passed through easily and we gave a thumbs up to the older well-to-do couple as we departed the congested area. They smiled big.  I felt that if we spoke Spanish this couple would have become our first Guatemalan friends.

Later we went to see the person who was passing out vouchers and were informed that we could not enter Guatemala without a return ticket.  I had already learned that airlines will try to enforce what IS a Guatemalan regulation (but one the government never enforces) in order to increase sales.  Because I thought we might encounter this problem I had bought round trip tickets for our Alaska Portion hoping this was sufficient evidence that we planned on returning to our home.  After several calls to the authorities, some pleading, assurances and many thanks the agent allowed us to walk away with our vouchers and no return ticket.

We had some time to kill again, but kept a close eye on the flight boards which continually changed our flights arrival time and periodically stated the flight would be delayed. The board also failed to provide the correct flight number and gate.  We wandered the tarmac in confusion and found a seating area that had familiar faces.  We sat and sat.  The original boarding time came and went. People were getting fidgety; it seemed no one knew what the holdup was.  We were surrounded by dark skinned people, speaking a foreign language and right there in California USA the announcements were all in Spanish…we were clueless.  I felt like I had already left the states.

Eventually we heard names being called followed by a lightning speed run of indistinguishable words.  People would go up to the counter then sit back down.  This went on for an hour. Eventually David was called but I never was.  I went up anyway.  The agents checked my ticket against their list then started talking amongst themselves.  I stood waiting for some directions or information but none ever came my way so I finally went and sat down. We waited.  Eventually a line started forming to board the plane and we joined in.

Once on the plane we sat for another forty five minutes and in the brightly lit tight environment I began to get a feel for the culture. I noticed that ALL the women wore perfume; they also dressed very modern, very Chic.  The wealthier women were quiet vocal and animated, the men more sedate.  A middle aged woman sitting next to us shouted loudly but with humor something that seemed to indicate hurry it up!  That was the most outward show of impatience we had seen. Everyone else was chatting and laughing, babies cried and children played.  Had this been a North American flight I believe we would have seen a very different collective attitude.

Unlike North Americas flight services, this one included all that free baggage allowance, a full course meal and free movies.  We flew over the Pacific Ocean, sparkling blue in the late afternoon sun, then over dry rugged mountains dotted with an occasional community or farming area, then it was dark.  In the inky blackness Guatemala City appeared as a sparkling jewel; blues, teals, gold’s.  The largest City in Guatemala was a drop in the bucket compared to Los Angeles.  The city wound its way around high unpopulated mountains forming rivers of light in the valleys.

The Guatemala City airport was clean, modern but not pretentious as were the Asian & Middle East tarmacs back at LAX.  The tile floor shone like glass, crisp lit-up advertisement screens were aesthetically placed between pillars, armed guards stood at rigid attention.  We held our breath as we passed through customs.  A small dark man looked at us questioningly, held out his hand, we passed him our passports and drivers licenses he stamped our passports and said Adios.  Wow, we expected the third degree; where were we going, why were we in Guatemala, for how long etc…etc…

We finally found the baggage claim and waited and waited.  Again the familiar faces assured us we were in the right location.  Bags started to slowly trickle in. One of our three arrived.  Then the bag handler seemed to say “That’s it” and the conveyor stopped.  A communal sigh went through the crowd.  My worst nightmare, lost luggage in a city far from our nights lodging.  Suddenly a white uniformed man was on a cell phone giving orders.  The carousel started moving again and eventually everyone’s bags arrived.  After a couple of failed attempts to exit the airport we finally had to stop and watch other people in order to figure out how to get out of the airport.  We went through another customs which requested the form we filled out on the plane.  We expected our baggage to be thoroughly searched but instead the agent asked me about the garden seeds I had declared but in the end seemed unconcerned.

We stepped outside to a covered area choked with exhaust, honking, voices shouting, car lights blaring, attendants holding up signs and calling out hotels and locations.  Not a single minivan to Antigua was evident.  We had been assured that these minivans run back and forth between Antigua and Guatemala City regularly and that several would be curbside when we arrived.  We stood dumbfounded and exhausted since we had not slept for 42 hours.  Finally a young man seemed to be asking if we needed to make a call and handed us his cell phone.  I called the hostel we were scheduled to stay at in the ancient city of Antiqua to see if they would provide transport at this late hour. 

Obviously the website I booked our room on was incorrect when it stated Bi-Lingual since the woman on the other end spoke only Spanish.  I finally hung up – problem unresolved.  A line of dingy looking Guatemala City Taxis were lined up against the far curb.  Each Taxi had Zona 1, Zona 10, or another Zona decaled across the cab.  I had researched enough to know that Guatemala City was a very dangerous place especially after dark and that the different zones (at least in part) indicted the various level of danger.

We had no choice and so began haggling over the price to Antigua located 45 minutes away. The price took off at $50 and landed at $35. We actually saved $5 over the Mini Van fares.  The dark and rough looking taxi driver kindly assisted us into the back of the cab.  We scootched in as I made sure our bags made it into the trunk.  Off we went winding through the cities’ narrow streets which were dingy, poorly lit, congested, seemingly topsy turvey. What a contrast to the sparkling jewel I saw from the sky.  

There were plenty of signs but none said Antigua.  We headed south for about 5 minutes on a busy boulevard and I began to get concerned, I knew we had to head north.  Suddenly the driver made a U Turn at a break in the pavement and I took a deep breath. Rough, very rough.  I can’t really describe the city except to say Mexican border towns look better.  We rode along for about fifteen minutes, briefly passed through an upscale area, descended back into a rough district and then pulled into a gas station.  David and the driver went into the store.  I locked my door.  David bought some cold drinks and the Taxi driver offered to pay for them and did. When the driver got back HE locked the doors. That is when I noticed I could not have opened my door if I wanted to since the handle hung lifeless. 

Back on the road, weaving, honking, still no Antigua sign.  For a moment I entertained the dreaded thought that we would be left in an alley somewhere with no baggage or funds and maybe not even our lives.  I had read that these things and worse happen to dumb gringos like us.  I felt the powerlessness of being a stranger in a strange land.  Suddenly I saw ANTIGUA on an overhead sign and sure enough we followed the turn.  I relaxed. We seemed to be on a ‘freeway’ now.  Soon we passed a broken down truck with a load of loose onions that nearly smothered the vehicle with their bulk.  Onions were falling off the sides it was so heaped up. The truck was blocking traffic on the ‘freeway’.  Our driver barely missed a Police officer as he veered right and drove past the stopped cars and right against the freeway railing.  The driver was utterly confident and just kept honking his horn.  I expected to be halted at any moment but apparently Taxis are privileged. We soon left the city lights and choking exhaust fumes behind.  On this narrow dimly lit two lane ‘freeway’ we careened around mountains on hair pin curves and steep downhill runs.  We were driving through a mountain pass lined on both sides by rough stone walls overhung with vegetation. We veered right and the road changed from pavement to stone. Suddenly it seemed we had gone back in time 500 years.

At the bottom of a long and very steep hill we turned again into what looked like an alley and bumped over the rocky surface at 25 MPH, our heads nearly hitting the roof of the taxi.  A momentary fear grabbed me as it seemed we were heading deep into the unknown and not into a well-lit city. I hoped we were nearing the Historic City of Antiqua, once the capital of Guatemala and built in the 1700’s.  It dawned on me that we could test the driver if we gave him our address and study his response.  I needed to see a reaction. He indicated he knew the place. I felt some assurance.

I began to understand the alley was an Antiguan ‘street’ and we started seeing people on mopeds, hanging out in tight circles in front of block after block of car lined streets barely wide enough to let us pass.  We turned sharp corners and sped through more ‘streets’.  It felt like we doubled back on ourselves a couple of times and then the taxi abruptly stopped.  Blocking the single lane of night life traffic the driver unloaded our baggage and pointed.  He also tried to get David to pay him 20 Consales for our cold beverages the equivalent of $2.50.  But David had the receipt and we had been looking at it and figured out the drinks were less than .50 ea.  So David paid him $1 and gave him an $8 tip.  The driver was happy and we were relieved.

We stood in the middle of the street surrounded by our luggage trying to adjust our eyes.  Obviously Antigua’s night life was going strong; we could hear loud music coming from behind solid wooden doors up and down the street.  French style street lamps provided dim lighting and we worked our way through the tightly parked curbside cars lined up one after another on both sides of the street.  We squeezed and stepped onto the ‘sidewalk’ which is about 18-24” wide and difficult to negotiate due to ramps, steps and windows that bump out from  the solid stucco walls that run as far as you can see.  At the far end a lit Mother Mary Figure radiated golden yellow light from her perch over a cathedral entrance.

We approached a solid iron door (the size of a garage door) and knocked.  A small head high door opened and we said our names. The wide door swung open and we entered a tiled hall which led to an open courtyard with a large fountain and tropical plants.  Eventually we were shown to our room which consisted of damp adobe windowless walls, dark wooden ceiling, two beds, a desk and a glassless window with old wooden shutters and iron bars.  The window looked onto the inner terrace.  The exterior windowless walls were fine since it dampened down the party noise across the street.  The air was moist and musty. The entrance to the room was through ancient French style wooden and glass doors that opened onto the wide terrace surrounding the fountain courtyard.  We discovered the shared bathrooms (not private in-room) and also, that in Guatemala, the hand sinks are rarely in the bathrooms they are almost always outside the bathrooms in the public hall.  In this case the sinks happened to be immediately beside the food ordering counter which was located directly beside the laundry drying open air courtyard.  I am still wondering if those sweet little maids wash everything by hand?

We had an extra day and night in Antigua before heading to Lake Atitlan. We rested well and the next morning enjoyed the breakfast of fresh fruit, eggs, toast and coffee in the courtyard with bird song for music. Breakfast was included in the price of $15 dollars per person.  We took showers which were warm enough to be comfortable and then stepped out of the walled compound.  Looking up and down the street we saw one continuous wall on both sides with various types of doors and signs. Clearly zoning was not enforced here. Locals negotiated the tight cobble streets on mopeds, in small trucks and small vehicles unlike anything seen in the US.  The car exhaust was thick blue and nauseating. 

We oriented ourselves with the volcano that looms over the city – we knew that was south.  We turned north and headed for the city’s plaza walking sandwiched between those long tall walls housing who knows what mysteries and the endless line of curb parked vehicles.  We went up and over ramps, ducked around wrought iron window frames sticking out into the narrow sidewalks; we squeezed against inset doors to allow others to pass and occasionally walked in the streets while dodging traffic.  Clearly these ancient streets were not made for automobiles.  There were no stop lights and every street was named UNA VIA…very confusing, of course later I learned UNA VIA means ONE WAY.

We passed many wrought iron stick-out windows with dogs, cats, children, laundry, flowers or cactus sitting in them.  We arrived at the Plaza and found a large pleasant park with luxurious trees, ornate sitting benches and fountains decorated with beautiful fresh cut flowers in giant bouquets. Locals were hocking their wares, small horses pulled creatively designed buggies, and armed police patrolled.  I had never been to a place so old.  Beautiful ornate buildings surround the plaza and people casually strolled around.  We saw very few whites – since it’s not yet tourist season.

We spent the day visiting shops, various markets, jade shops (jade is Guatemala’s most prized gem) and old partially tumbled down buildings.  In one beautiful building, now in shambles and with no roof, we were happy to find a trade school.  Small stalls with tin roofs lined the crumbling walls of the ruin.  Each stall had a wooden sign: Blacksmith, Carpenter, Electrician etc… teens worked closely with instructors.

During our day’s journey we passed bakeries, banks, foreign owned restaurants, small mom & pop stores packed to the ceiling with goods, appliance stores, bars, hotels and Mayan restaurants.  Even Mc Donalds and Taco Bell morphed themselves into the ancient Antiguan architecture; a simple wooden sign hung over a door leading to a dark interior.  Just another hole in the wall; one of thousands.  The one startling fact was that guards and policia, in a wide variety of uniforms, stood armed with shot guns at all the banks, ATM’s and upscale businesses. Frequently I nearly bumped into them when rounding a doorway.

The open air markets were segregated: fruits & veges, fly infested meats, used clothing, arts & crafts, food carts, typical Walmart junk, books, bundles of firewood etc…the further from the plaza the cheaper everything became.  I bought two Guatemalan woven headbands.  The one I purchased near the plaza was $2.50, but many blocks away at the arts and crafts market a near identical one cost only $1.   I found the vivid bright beauty of Guatemala’s art and textiles captivating.

We paid 45 cents each for Orange Crush in large worn recycled bottles and sat on a dirty street watching the chicken buses come and go.  These buses where vibrantly painted and trimmed in chrome, they came and went faster than we could keep track narrowly missing each other as they seemed to bend around each other.  Attendants were yelling out the names of towns – next stop…then they would hoist the passenger’s big bags of stuff onto their backs and climb a ladder tossing the bag onto the ‘luggage rack’ atop the bus.  I never saw anything tied down. Here we saw, for the first time, how much laughter and light heartedness illuminates the daily life of Guatemala’s people.

We had dinner at a locally owned restaurant and headed back to the hostel.  The street traffic was quieting down to a soft murmur.  The day had filled us with vibrant Mayan colors, savory new Hispanic fragrances and tastes, melodious sing song conversations and soft pleasant music… I became fascinated by the beautiful old ornately decorated wooden doors that separated the busy congested life of Antigua from the seeming quiet personal lives of its residents.  I imagined families sitting down at old dark wooden tables polished smooth and shiny by centuries of use, heaped with small hand pressed corn tortillas, piles of fruits and veges, rice, beans, shredded meat and a plethora of picante as they enjoyed another warm evening in their courtyards, just as they have been doing for hundreds of years under the sleeping Pacaya volcano.

 

 
 

 

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