Category Archives: Antigua – Guatemala – 2005 – English


Chichicastenango, 8 March 2005

We drove to Chichi in the morning and returned to the Mayan Inn.  By then I was getting pretty tired to follow the caravan and to stop at every crafts stand in the market, so I took off by myself and walked back slowly into the church, with its smells of burning copal as overwhelming as ever.  I sense that that tiny church might very well be one of the world’s high places of mysticism,  Candles burn directly on the floor among scattered rose petals and whatever is left of the retable’s colonial paintings has been blackened by the smoke of copal.  I resumed my steps toward the other Church just across the plaza where the market camps on Thursdays and Sundays.  There was a ceremony in progress on the church steps and loud noises of firecrackers exploded one after the other.  Men in the embroidered vest, short pants and colorful headdresses of their cofradía (brotherhood) were dancing on the church steps, playing something like a kazoo and detonating firecrackers attached to a metal sphere that one of the man carried attached to the back of his waist.  They eventually came down the steps, carrying a couple of glass cases with wooden, bearded saints on horseback inside, the cases adorned with ostrich feathers and balloons.  They eventually got lost in the maze of the market.

It was a good idea to set off on my own.  I needed to be alone after those days of tribal living.  I came back to the Mayan Inn, headed for the secluded garden (not quite as secluded as usual, because of the fiesta in progress with its loud, nasal and repetitive Guatemalan  version of country music) from which I wrote this.  Still, I’m alone at last.  There is grass under my feet, the air smells of jasmine and gardenia and the sun sinks slowly above the trees, misty mountains and red tile roofs of Chichi.


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Aboard the Titanic!

Jaibalito, 7 March 2005

We left for Panajachel and headed for Jaibalito, a tiny village on lake Atitlán that can only be reached by launch.   We all climbed down into that nutshell of a boat, strapped on our life jackets and took off for the voyage.  My mother blanched at the sight of the boat but courageously climbed in and then blanched some more at the beating of the hull against the waves that were pretty choppy at that hour.  We docked at Jaibalito and started a long climb, through a garden as dense and variegated as a Rousseau jungle, toward the Casa del Mundo where we had planned to stay two days, enjoying the unique views of volcano summits around lake Atitlán ultramarine waters and boating from village to village.  There was only a hitch: the day was cloudy, misty and the mountains hidden somewhere inside all that steam.  But, the hotel itself made up for this less than inspiring weather.  It was perhaps too romantic for a family holiday with its swinging hammocks, quaint balconies overlooking the lake, cozy rooms with fireplaces and the feel of a ship’s cabin rather than a hotel room’s.

Wednesday morning started off promisingly as we set off by launch toward Santiago la Laguna via San Marcos and San Pedro.  The sun almost looked as if it wanted to pierce the clouds.  We wandered around Santiago, went back to see San Simón and I’m wondering now if the rest of the day was not the Saint’s revenge for my toppling over his candles the last time I was there.  Or perhaps was it the wrath of the Saints in the church for our laughing at their outfits: Christ on the cross wore a hot pink mini-dress, another Christ carrying his cross had a tinselly Christmas garland wrapped around his shoulder, one saint wore a bowler hat, another something resembling a green funnel very much like the Tin Man’s in The Wizard of Oz, and several sported fake Hermes scarves, one with leopard print. 

Anyway, that’s when the rain started.  Not a little shower, but buckets of water, totally out of season, out of character for that time of year.  We ran for cover and managed to find a restaurant to wait it out.  But it just wouldn’t stop.  It actually rained more and more.  An old toothless Indian woman who didn’t seem to have all her marbles kept trying to sell us trinkets and cursing us for not buying.  We finally decided to bite the bullet and catch the 3 o’clock launch back to San Pedro.  We needed to find a couple of tuk-tuks (we’re seven after all) for that, get my mother a plastic bag (alas, none too clean) to cover her perm and sweater and then try and rush as fast as we could into one tuk-tuk, getting soaked in the pouring rain, while mother carefully wiped the seat to make sure she’d keep her behind relatively dry.  The rain was holding steady and showed no sign to relent.  The boat to San Pedro was a large one, closed and more reassuring than the nutshell of the previous day.  At least, we didn’t feel the need to wear life-jackets, not that there were any. So far, so good until San Pedro where we had to change boats.  We stopped for tea while waiting for our boat to arrive, observing the neo-hippie crowd (San Pedro is a big marijuana-growing center and the accommodations are supposed to be the cheapest in Guatemala).  I swear we saw Bob Marley’s ghost, Charles Manson, Bukovsky, Jesus Christ and God the Father (or was it St. Peter?) himself.   Even the birds, unaccustomed to this kind of weather, sought refuge inside.

Our boat to Jaibalito finally arrived.  We didn’t quite know what to think of its name: Titanic!!!  Whoever named it must have been very optimistic or fatalistic.  And the crowd ! Remember the stories about boat people?  All aboard under a blue plastic tarp, one on top of the other?  We had Bob Marley and his dog, a basket of live chicken and off we went for the milk run.  Among the twenty-something of us under the tarp was a Mayan family that looked properly petrified.  At one point, the man leaned over and explained half in Kaqchikel , half in Spanish that if the girls didn’t stop carrying on and laughing like hyenas, the boat would topple over.  That calmed them for a while.  At each stop, we got heavier as more people were coming aboard.  The rain was showing some weakening though.  There was hope.

When we finally got to Jaibalito, where more people were threatening to pile onto the ship, we were told to disembark and walk the last few meters to Casa del Mundo, the pretext being that the weather was too rough and that landing at the pier over there might damage the boat.  Right!  I think they just needed to make space for more passengers.  Getting my mother out of the boat was another challenge.  The step was awfully high and my mother is less than awfully agile.  So everybody pulled and pushed and finally managed to extirpate her out of there.  Yet, we were not at the end of our miseries; we still had to walk the shoreline path, which had become muddy and slippery with the rain, back to our hotel.   The rain had stopped and it was a lovely path, covered with well-trampled golden reeds and meandering along the coast to a rickety suspended bridge with well-spaced planks through which could assess the depth of the crevasse underneath.  Seeing my mother’s face when she realized that she’d have to negotiate that narrow, wobbly passage was worth the trip.  But she made it, trooper that she is!


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Antigua, 5 March 2005

The house has taken an animation that it hadn’t really had all winter since my sister, her family and my mother arrived yesterday afternoon.  My son is still here and it gave him a chance to paint the town red with his cousin last night.  He’s actually been painting the town red pretty much every night, going to play poker with the locals, tomcatting around and finally managing to land a date with a Danish girl last night.

Their first few days were somewhat uneventful, if I skip the handgun pointed at me and the vandalized rear-view mirror of my brother-in-law’s mini-van.  We drove all around town to try and find a place that would cut a new mirror, but in vain.  The only glassmaker in town didn’t seem interested to take on the contract.  So we went back home and glued the whole thing back together.  It gives a somewhat fragmented view of the road behind but it’s better than nothing and we all packed in to go visit Valhalla, the macadamia nut plantation on the outskirts of Antigua.  We stopped several times to ask directions but were given nothing but contradictory information of the type “Turn left” while pointing to the right.  We finally saw a group of well-dressed men who had congregated near something that looked like a real-estate development.  We stopped, I rolled down my window and addressed a little squat man with a moustache who automatically raised his handgun and pointed it at me.  I suppose it was a reflex and he lowered it down immediately.  I was so surprised that I had no reaction whatsoever, asked him politely how to get to our destination, thanked him and we were on our way.  Nobody in the van noticed anything.  Better that way.  At least, the gunman’s directions to the plantation were right for a change.

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Off to Honduras

Copán, Honduras, 25 February 2005

My son and I left Antigua at 4 am.  It’s now 3:30 pm and I feel a bit bus-lagged, as if it were already late at night.  But it really wasn’t so bad, Justin has really turned into an adult and a companionable one at that.  No balking, no complaining.  He even let me sleep on his shoulder while we were driving for two hours in the dark.

We were on the archaeological site at 11:45 and explored every nook and cranny, climbed every temple, every pyramid, burrowed into every tunnel.  It was probably one of the most beautiful Mayan sites I had ever seen and we practically had it all to ourselves.

The Royal Tomb

There is a coziness about Copán deserted plazas (if you can say cozy when thinking of rather grandiose Mayan structures), some shaded by trees, their ground carpeted with fawn-colored dead leaves, silent but for the song of birds.  We took our time, resumed our steps to places we particularly loved, chatted and laughed.  Good thing Justin was there to captain me around or I probably would have irretrievably gotten lost.  The Olmec sculptures had something of an almost Buddhist serenity about them.  They could very well have belonged to an Indian temple: half-closed eyelids and enigmatic smiles.  They seemed far more human, less threatening in their demeanor than most of their Mayan counterparts.  There was a beauty and harmony about the place that seemed to set it apart from the aura of bloody rituals that permeates some of the other sites.  Not that the bloody rites might not have occurred here just the same as elsewhere: the altars were there to bear witness to that, but the human sacrifices might have been performed more gently…

Some theories sustain that the Olmecs were descendants of the Nubians or black Egyptians, thence their Negroid features and hieroglyphic writings.  Is there any basis to that theory? Nobody knows but it would be astonishing that the resemblance between Olmec and Egyptian hieroglyphs be merely coincidental.

An Olmec Face in Copán

We came back to the hotel and that’s where I lost Justin.  There was a soccer game on TV, featuring the famous Madrid team.  Everyone, apparently, should know who they are.  Well, now I know.  We had picked that particular hotel because of its gardens and pool, but the gardens and pool were apparently one kilometer away from the hotel.  Nevertheless, brave me took her back pack, changed from hiking shoes to flip-flops and walked down the hill, on a dirt road among  roosters and hens, expecting very little indeed from that garden and pool.  I was to be pleasantly surprised.  It was gorgeous!  And the soccer game was even playing somewhere in the bar.  Justin should have come.  He could have had it all: the game as well as the misty mountains lushly blurred by a screen of tropical jungle, hammocks, lounge chairs and a cold Corona.  Latin America truly is for me!  I was walking along the very unpromising road leading here, counting my blessings.

Our evening in Copan, for uneventful that it was, couldn’t be described as one of quiet recuperating.  The town pretty much closes at 8p.m., which Justin found out when trying to get one last beer in a bar.  But that doesn’t mean that NOISE stops.  We were both in bed by 8:30 but the racket didn’t stop until 12:30, echoing on each concrete wall of our little hotel.  It was actually mostly the voice of a very loud child, enthusiastically reciting some sort of a lesson while her father was coaching her and egging her on.  Mercifully, her learning zeal didn’t last all night.  There was a lull until about 6 a.m. when all that joyous cacophony started allover again.  Justin, who pretends to be unable to sleep if there is the least bit of a squeak or ray of light, didn’t seem to be bothered.  I was up, dressed and in the street by 7:45, in search of a place for breakfast.  The town was still closed and I had to seek refuge at the fanciest hotel in town from which garden I wrote this, sipping an enormous orange juice and neglecting half of the toasted bread heap I was dealt as a Continental breakfast.  Life is not so tough indeed.


The return trip was…well…long !  And boring !  After the great sleeping green beasts of the Honduran and Eastern Guatemala mountains, as bizarrely shaped as prehistoric animals, the scenery got drier and turned to desert and tree-sized cacti, saguaros perhaps, and then mine-ravaged landscape.  The mountain eaten up, with nothing but its bare bones left.

There was nothing much to do but observe our fellow travelers.  A handsome young Japanese who spoke no English or Spanish and who had a very forlorn look about him;   indomitable Karin, a pretty German lady of a certain age who had explored the world from Easter Island to Kazakhstan and had just come back from a mule trip to the archaeological sites buried in the jungles of the Petén.  Eventually, out of boredom, Justin and I started taking bets.  When would the head of the young Japanese, who was nodding away, end up falling on the shoulder of his neighbor, a very proper Honduran young man?  Nod, nod, a bit more, almost there…while the Honduran boy’s shoulder simultaneously shrunk and recoiled.  Neither one of us won, he always pulled back at the last moment.

Little detail, we were escorted for the whole trip by a police patrol.  You can never be too cautious on those roads.

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Antigua, 16 February 2005

I think I’ve got fleas !  Yeah, yeah, just like the dog !  Don’t know where they came from and why me (no one else seems to be affected), but I’ve been scratching those ugly red welts like mad for nearly two weeks now and what I thought were mosquito bites might very well be fleas’, at least that’s what I’m told.

So, the Exterminating Angel went to work.  Bought two cans of Raid, some special lotion and anti-scratching pomade.  After spraying the mattress and every piece of linen, masked and rubber-gloved and looking like the Comandante Marcos, I deserted the room and went to sleep on the couch where I intend to stay until another bed frees itself.The room is being ventilated, the sheet spread in the sun and laundered and you know what, I just got three more bites.  Just don’t know what to do anymore.  In the meantime, if you’ll just excuse me, I think I’ll go back scratching.

That's me in my "exterminating" outfit!

I don’t want to yell “Victory” too quickly but the rash seems to be receding.  I’ve got it under observation.  I don’t know why those pests always seem to be attacking me.  I must have extraordinarily tender and delicious skin.  Anyway, before I settled their case, those bugs attacked me on my return from Monterrico as if they hadn’t eaten in three days.  For sure, they missed me, their lunch was gone and they had to eat twice as much when I came back to make up for lost meals. I’ll teach them…If my methods don’t work, I think I’ll have to consult…a vet !

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At the Concert

Antigua, 14 February 2005

There is an Arts Festival taking place in Antigua these days: concerts, ballet, theatre, opera (they’re giving Tosca).  Today, at twelve, there was a piano recital in the ruins of San Jose el Viejo.  A young Serb pianist, Misha Dacic, playing Scarlatti, Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninoff.  I didn’t get a very good seat.  Actually, all I could see for the very first part of the recital were two disembodied, white hands on the keyboard and the flash of a black, pageboy-cut mane.  Then when the two seats ahead of me filled up, nothing at all.  But was he shaking that keyboard, and the whole piano as well !  A little too much for my taste.  Or perhaps was it the echo under San Jose’s baroque vaults.  He seemed embarrassed by the applauds, waving them off with his hands instead of bowing, disappearing backstage, apparently impatient for them to be over.  Was he arrogant, cocky, shy or all of the above ?  Then he charmingly addressed the audience in impeccable, unaccented Spanish.  Where had he picked that up?  It said in the program that he had lived and studied in Miami for the last two years, in Miami perhaps.  Things perked up when he attacked the Rachmaninoff, he was in his element at last.  Even the doves seemed to appreciate.  One in particular flew in, perched on a cornice, started to coo totally off key, then proceeded to fly, flapping and cooing even louder, into one of the square niches from which the retable might once have been bolted.  I suspected that the rest of the dove family was nestled in there, since they joined their voices to hers.

I can’t say it was a great concert but it certainly had ambiance…

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Between Monterrico and Antigua

13 February 2005

Well, it was nice to come back to civilization, so to speak, and the best part of it was the half-hour barge trip on the smooth, sleek ribbon of the river from Monterrico to the coast below Iztapa.  I know that I’ve written about it before but isn’t a river forever renewing itself depending on the hour of day?  And it was late afternoon this time, the pretty hour, “l’heure exquise”, the light of ten to eight in summer, the hour of long shadows, the hour of Baudelaire’s Harmonie du Soir, or so I like to think.  Those were the same dense mangroves perched on their forked stilts, the same reeds, but their colors were somewhat different now, less solid then they had been in the morning, fragmented this time in a shimmering, tessellated pattern of dusky to tender greens to straw yellows while, on the horizon, the clear silhouettes of the volcanoes had swathed themselves in filmy, smoky blue clouds.  The birds were rarer at that hour: a few sculptured ibises, streaking yellow-bellies and the occasional slow, floppy flight of a stork unfolding its graceful stem of a neck like a soft, white flower.

As the sun got lower, the reflections of the grassy banks got more intensely reflected, leading you to make out something like and underwater garden not so much mirrored, but existing on its own under the glassy surface of the river.

Then we crossed ranch country with fields so neat and manicured with parasol trees, grazing cattle and a setting sun suspended like a golden medal.  It might have come out of a Constable painting, except that you didn’t feel the need to pull out your umbrella like you do in front of a Constable.  Let’s say Constable after a drought.  Still, the picket fences insisted on going back to wilderness, some of them sprouting branches and leaves.

As we approached Antigua, the Fuego suddenly appeared on our left.  In the dark, its daytime white plummet had transformed itself in a sputtering flame, glowing red over a menacing sky.

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