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Friday, April 21, 2006

Lack of water, Lack of guide.

Day three brought me to Antigua, a mountain town about 30 miles out of Guatemala City. As I emailed hotels for lodging, a small villa/hotel next to the hotel I had my eye on emailed me back in about 10 seconds. Alex, the proprietor and fellow New Yorker, was Chatty Cathy on email, the place seemed nice, and so as not to have hassle, I booked it. She would send a shuttle for me the next day, 12:30 PM – wait in front of my Guatemala City hotel. Possibly I should’ve known that my next 24 hours would be off when the shuttle was an hour late and Alex, when called on it, responded “Yo no se.” But, this is Central America, after all, you roll with the punches, right?

Driving into Antigua, I was automatically enamored. It’s this quaint little town with cobblestone streets and multi-colored one-story buildings, behind the doorways of which were lovely inns and posadas with grassy courtyards and cozy environs. Arriving at La Capilla (I have to find out what Capilla means in Spanish…), completed the experience. Like the posadas I passed, La Capilla was a large villa of 5 suites, surrounding a lush garden with a fountain as center. Alex, an attractive 40-ish brunette, came to the door, addressing me by name to her large, but gorgeous, blue-eyed mixed breed of a dog. Even the dog didn’t put me off (yet…). Into the villa I wandered, realizing what a special place this might be. After settling into my room, Alex brings me around back to a tiled pool area. There, I find three very young, very tanned boys lounging. They’re all under 20. Danes and Americans, the trio are a few of the many “boys” that Alex keeps around. They are world students in Antigua to build houses for the poor and study Spanish. Alex calls them all “Hon,” they eat her food, drink her beer, plug their Ipods into her sound system, smoke her cigarettes and order pizza to her villa. No, they don’t live there, they just hang there. They met her playing poker in town, and are the half-naked, massage-giving pool boys for Ladies Tuesdays, the DJs for BBQ Thursdays, and the chefs for Ceviche Saturdays.


After a couple of games of backgammon that I begrudgingly lost to a hot Dutchie with great hands, I decide to head into town as Thor arrived. Thor is a nerdy local expat from the States who is packing an extra 30 lbs and a baby girl whom he forgets at the entry of the pool…until she starts to cry about 20 minutes later. The Dutchies remind me that I must come to Ladies Tuesdays tomorrow, they’ve got new costumes: mere bowties! Into town I head for a breather, a walk around the Plaza Central (eerily reminiscent of Cusco, Peru but on a smaller scale) and a snack before heading back to La Capilla. Alex is leaving as I return, she gives me a cell phone to reach her in case of emergency. Ok… There I am, completely alone in a huge villa, all other amenities of which have been completely padlocked, and there’s nary a staff member around. I’m not sure how to handle this. I wander around a bit, highly aware that should I want for anything, I’m locked out except for my room and the pool. So, I look on the bright side – a whole villa to myself – and go to take a shower. Turn on the faucet…no water. I go from room to room (the other rooms aren’t locked, the padlocks on them deceiving) to check the water. Nope, it’s the same. What the … ?!?! I turn on my computer. No service. Hmmm… What has happened to the bustling La Capilla in the past three hours? I call Alex on my designated cell.

Alex: Hola, Marie Elena, que pasa?
Me: I’m so sorry to bother you…
Alex: Then, Hon…why are you bothering me?
Me: Well…there’s no water.
Alex: Really? What do you mean?
Me: Um….there’s just, well…no water.
Alex: Weird. I just checked the tanks before I left. Are you sure?
(No, I’m not sure…)
Me: Um…yeah, quite. Nothing as I turn on the faucets.
Alex: Oh. Wow. Ok. I’ll be right back, then. You sure?
Me: Yes. Again, sorry to bother, but…
Alex: No, no….I’m coming back.

Alex arrives, pours herself a scotch, takes off her jean jacket and opens the tanks. Yep, no PSI, no pressure, no water. She checks the computers. They’re on, but not connecting. Shit, she’s about to lose her only guest. “This is when you need a man,” she says. Enter Elliott. A man. Elliott is a local textile exporter, originally from Jersey. Elliott is ten sheets to the wind, pours himself a scotch from the now-unpadlocked bar, tells Alex she should’ve told him about this earlier because he has “a guy” and sits down near the pool, slurring through our introductions (and two more scotches). We all look at each other for a while, as I smell the waft of non-powdery, mucho-alcoholy Elliott from afar. Finally, giving up, Alex makes a call to the place I originally wanted to stay at next door, books me a room at the same price she was charging me, packs up my room with an unstable Elliottt, and has yet another “boy” move me out of La Capilla. Guatemala is shaping up to be VERY interesting…

Next day, after waking up in my fabulous Ralph Lauren-via-Guatemala room at my new hotel, I decide to see the town, the many churches (which are gorgeous) on foot for the first half of the day, and the surrounding mountainside on horseback for the afternoon. After some help from my new, 24-hour hotel staff, I embark on a three hour journey with Paco, the ranch hand. Well, I ASSUMED he was a qualified ranch hand – he had the flannel/jeans combo with the big buckle belt, he had the cowboy hat with a ribbon of red yarn around it, he even had the requisite gold front tooth. I explain to him that I don’t want to walk all day, I’m a qualified rider, I need to be able to gallop my way through the day, not trot. Si, Si, says Paco. And, we’re off. But not before trading horses, because my stirrups were too short, on the last hole, and couldn’t be lengthened. Ditto my ranchero’s horse after the swap. I felt like a jockey with my knees up WAY too high, but decided to make do (though I’m regretting it a little, I have a shooting pain down my right leg, still…the trials and tribulations of height with respect to Guatemalan saddles). Now trotting on cobblestone, let alone galloping, I’ve come to find is not so fun. I definitely wore the wrong bra and am starting to rethink my little “Let’s gallop” conversation. I guess it’s not often that the tourists of Antigua see people in the cobblestone streets on horseback and I unwittingly became the subject of many photographs taken by people with fanny packs and Jams. But, as we got into Candelaria Park, the terrain changed, as did my guide’s willingness to move through the mountainside. Trot, Walk, Trot. Uh, Paco…mas rapido, es ok? Si, si, says Paco again. So, off I go. Cut to the next scene, it’s about 20 minutes later, and Paco, who had been right behind me in the beginning of the Park, is nowhere to be found. I wait a few minutes, then a few minutes more, then start to head back to find him. When I do, he’s OFF his horse, walking in front of it, panting like the horse just rode him.

Me: “Paco, que pasa?”
Paco: “Es un buena cabellera! Muy rapido!” (Translation: You’re a good rider, very fast! Note to reader: I was VERY proud of this observation of Paco’s…as many of you know, I love my horseback riding…)

But, Paco’s supposedly my GUIDE. What is happening here?!?!? I’m utterly confused. So, as Paco, seemingly embarrassed mounts his horse again, I take off. Twenty minutes later, same scenario. I go back, he’s on foot, about to keel over, horse grazing the bushes behind him. So, I explain that I’d prefer NOT to wait and can I just meet him back at the hotel, the pace is too slow. So, he ties up his horse to a tree, says “sure” with a wide smile, takes out his cell phone and CALLS FOR A RIDE!!!! He says he’ll meet me back at the hotel, he’s through! I mean….You can’t ditch your horse and call for a ride!!! What’s up with that!?!?! So, there I am, riding solo through the streets of Antigua, astride a horse, being stopped by cops asking me where my guide is, that I shouldn’t be riding alone. I have to explain. In Spanish, no less. Blah blah…. Now, I’m even more of a spectacle – the solo gringa on horseback. And, when I get back to my hotel, there’s Paco, with a stable attached to his little pick-up truck for my horse! He’s not even riding the horse home. He’s towing it! Who ever heard of such a thing? In Guatemala, no less. Antigua has just been one crazy experience after the next.

Hope you all had an equally fun-filled week.
I’m headed to the Mayan ruins at Tikal in northern Guatemala next, after having spent a couple of days at Lake Atitlan (beautiful) and the market town of Chichicastenango (say THAT three times fast), which was authentic and oh-so-colorfully-Guatemalan. There, I dusted off my bargaining skills…successfully, of course. Gotta go figure out how to fit the three new skirts into my luggage…. (Yes, Cher, one’s for you. I will WOW you with trip presents yet. I’m wholly determined.)

More soon,


Next up: Central America...

Back in Latin America…and it feels good.

After a hectic couple of weeks in New York wherein my sister got engaged, my best friend got married, and I had lot of friends and family to catch up with besides, getting on the plane to Guatemala City was a welcome departure. During that flight I tried to reflect on my trip to Asia, but I must admit, there’s something unsettled about it for me. Possibly it was the inability to digest it properly once back in the States because of loyalties at home which required my attention; possibly it was the pace at which I experienced eight vastly different countries, each requiring focus and learning, patience and perserverence; possibly it was the fact that I didn’t head-over-heels-love everywhere I visited in Asia and I very much want every stop on this journey to be entirely magical – but, newsflash: life isn’t always magical. So while Asia was one of the most outstanding experiences of my life, it’s still not an experience I’ve come to complete terms with yet. Nor may I ever. I guess I’ll have to learn to accept that. And, slowly continue to process it.

However, the rhythm of this trip I’m on is constant, so I must go forward.
So, first stop, next leg: Guatemala.

I’m not sure what I expected of Guatemala, or what I expect of Central America on the whole. I adored Costa Rica when I visited a few years back, but the Central America part of this trip came about when I fell so hard for South America. If I wasn’t as flexible as I’ve started to allow myself to be (haha…), I’d be in Australia right now. Anyhow, all I know of cities like Guatemala, Honduras, Panama are the things that my dad would tell me after his frequent trips when he owned a manufacturing business: Don’t go. So, I had little to go on other than I loved the culture and there HAD to be redeeming qualities to these places, to the homes of ancient Mayan civilizations of old, no? Yes. I’ve been here for almost a week, and Guatemala is most definitely underrated. It’s a gorgeous country, reminiscent (for me) of Peru, rich in culture and customs, and short little people in colorful outfits, cowboy hats, and the friendliest dispositions. Guatemala has helped me get my travel groove back on.

I arrived in Guatemala City to the sounds of a mariachi band outside the airport terminal – husbands playing guitars to Spanish songs, wives whipping up tortillas for sale nearby, and smelled the familiar smell of the Latin world. For some reason, the people of Latin America have this powdery smell, almost like a baby, that is instantly recognizable, and actually, calming. They fly by but leave the talcum and I love it. Sheets at authentic posadas smell this way too – maybe it’s not the people but the textiles – either way, I’m into it. Other than the lovely nasal and auditory re-entry to Latin America, Guatemala City is bland and worthy of little mention other than that I spent Easter Sunday there, which was a trip since I’ve never seen a holiday mass in my own country, let alone another one.

Easter was pretty amazing to witness – the parades of statues of saints and Jesus’ that made their way into the churches, hoisted on the shoulders of 20-30 men each who, like pallbearers, took severe honor in the task at hand. Each statue was followed into the church by throngs of people clapping and cheering for their chosen saint or God. I made my way into the church behind Jesus, being carried by the flow of the people making their way in front of me and behind me, but no worries, I was EASILY a head taller than any single person in the church, so no matter where I stood, I had the best view. The Guatemalans are teeny, hardly over five feet, any of them. Being 5’6”, I felt like an absolute giant, but the upside was that my vantage point was definitely the best going. There were bleachers outside the churches for the overflow that the pews and floor spaces (lines with lawn chairs and grannies in visible knee highs) inside the church couldn’t hold. Men, women, children, holding umbrellas to shield them from the sun, listened to the mass, which was broadcast over a huge sound system, allowing all to participate in the ritual of Sunday Mass. After mass, everyone converged on the square, or Plaza Mayor, outside of the church to celebrate in a carnival-like way. Hundreds of booths that sold everything from clothes to toys to food to souvenir trinkets to religious relics lined the square. Men with ice-blocks bigger than themselves shaved frozen pieces into paper cones for the kids. Clowns making balloon-animals, shoe-shine boys, photographers, magicians, and singers hooked up to sound-systems on nearby pick-up trucks entertained, while whole families set up fast-food outlets to feed the Guats. It was a holiday circus that was easy to wander through for hours on end. time there last about 2 hours, at which point, I had enough “Easter” and took solace in the pool at my hotel, paying respect to my very favorite resurrection…the sun.

Happy Holidays.
More soon...