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August 19, 2003


Antigua is pretty much Latin America for Dummies.

It's very easy to navigate, and you'd have trouble contracting any form of culture shock here. It is full of gringos and all sorts of other foreigners.

It is, nonetheless, extremely pretty. It's a world heritage site, so the colonial look is well maintained, with lots of elegant old houses having been turned into restaurants and hotels and sympathetically restored in the Spanish style - a square courtyard with a fountain enclosed by a cloistered porch with rooms off it. The buildings are very close to the street, with no front yards or porches, and they're all finished with plaster and painted brightly in reds and yellows.

There are loads of cars charging along the narrow streets, and these colourful buses they call chicken buses. What's amusing is that half the cars are just like mine - the Datsun 1200 ute appears to be very popular in Central America, and it comes in all sorts of colours here. There are also plenty of trucks. At around 4:30 this morning, one broke down right outside my window and sent a whole cloud of exhaust straight into my room. It was revolting.

All the streets here are cobbled, with narrow raised footpaths that can't fit two abreast. People are crashing into each other all the time, but nobody seems to mind. The atmosphere is very cheerful.

In the centre of the town is a large cathedral with a pretty baroque facade and a lovely park with a fountain. The park is full of seats and lovers, and Mayan women selling their little woven items, and men and boys selling nuts. I don't know why nuts are such a fixation, but they are everywhere.

The weather is excellent - it's winter time, but that means it's warm and it rains in the afternoons. The mornings are usually clear, and the big green volcano that looks down on the town is very magestic. I plan to climb it this weekend. After lunch the clouds start gathering and in the past few days we've had thunderstorms in the late afternoon, and soft rain all night. Our house has a tin roof, so the rain at night is perfect.

I have gotten myself into a very pleasant little routine, here. I go to Spanish class at 8, and in the break I go to a little German cafe and have an espresso and attempt to read the Guatemalan newspaper. Mostly it's about the upcoming elections. After school I have lunch back at the house, where I practice my Spanish with Mireille and her kids. Then in the afternoons I do some writing, read my book in the park and then sometimes have a coffee or a beer with one or two of the other students at the school. I have been hanging about with a Swiss schoolteacher called Julia who likes to laugh at the way I say "beer" and a very chatty Norwegian boy, Didrik (you can see a picture of him here, and I think he'll post some pictures with me in them soon:, who has moved into Mireille's house. After dinner we generally go out for a drink or to see a movie in one of the bars. The bars are all full of foreigners.

Those Dutchmen moved out and are now somewhere at Lake Atitlan - I was sorry because I was starting to become friendlier with them. It took me a few days to warm up after I first arrived. But Didrik is good company, and he'll be here for at least another three weeks (he speaks very good English, like most Scandinavians). A priest from Brazil has just moved into the house, too. He can't speak Spanish at all, and he has no English, either. Like a lot of Catholic priests, I guess, he can speak some Italian. When we're at meals he just issues mysterious utterances in a mixture of Portuguese and Italian, and then he grins optimistically. I am the only one who can understand him at all, because I can pick out the Italian parts, but he is basically incomprehensible. Mireille's children just look at him as though he's crazy whenever he speaks. He is taking Spanish lessons for a couple of weeks before he has to go into the countryside to say mass and make sermons. I wonder what his flock will think.

So I'm having a pretty enjoyable, chilled-out time. Sometimes I get these rushes of happiness, when I am just astonished at my own freedom. Other times I feel kind of smugly self-sufficient, like on Sunday night when I dined at an Italian bar, eating bread with cheese and drinking red wine while I read Travel and Leisure magazine all by myself. Other times I get that weird feeling of fragmentation, like I'm just a piece of nothing much floating randomly about the place - I felt like that when I was hitchiking with those Chileans back to Regina's empty house in the capital after being cruelly turned away by the Salvadorean border cops. And of course once or twice I've wondered what on earth I'm doing here, and why bother traveling, and what's the point in having such a big, varied world when you're stuck inside your own stupid boring head all the time? It's not that pleasant to feel like that, but it's not entirely unpleasant either - at least, I find it interesting.

But mostly I'm just calmly enjoying the surroundings and conscientiously practising my Spanish. It's pretty good fun speaking a foreign language - it makes me feel as though I'm pretending to be someone else.

Here's a photo of me, Didrik the chatty Norwegian, and Jose the incomprehensible priest, having a meal at Mireille's place
dinner table

And here's one of me and Julia, my Swiss friend, standing in front of Antigua's lovely arch near the centre of town.
me and Jules

Posted by Sarah on August 19, 2003 02:57 PM
Category: Guatemala

I'm someone else too. Spending a few days in the Mission district in SF and so far I have said "taco" and "agua fresca." Besos, P

Posted by: Paula on August 22, 2003 10:20 AM

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