North of Antigua a coffee plantation covers about as much land as the town itself. Within the plantation is a museum that explains the history of coffee, its origin in Ethiopia, introduction into Latin America, and why Guatemala is considered one of the best coffee-making countries of the world (they believe it's the organic techniques and hand picking). For a non-coffee drinker, this holds only minor interest, but the same museum also has a section on the history of music in Mayan culture over the centuries, which really struck a cord with me. Pre-Spanish conquest, music was only used for ceremony in Mayan culture, and there was no need for tune or rhythm to get the attention of the gods. All the instruments were designed to make as much noise as possible. The earliest instrument was the conch shell, but these were reproduced in clay as whistles. Over time, ocarinas were shaped into various animal forms, then into representations of people. To these were added shakers and drums. Some drums looked like clay jugs, but my favourite was a turtle shell. Turned upside down, the belly-shell made three different tones depending where it was hit. With Spanish influence, and the idea of music for entertainment, these were replicated in wood and eventually guitars, marimbas and other more familiar instruments were added, but you can still buy the wooden drums on the streets of Antigua today.
One of my new friends was held up at gunpoint on his way home a couple of weeks ago. He had moved just out of town to an airbnb where another friend had been staying for the past two weeks. Locals are shocked because this kind of crime hasn't happened in Antigua in fifteen years, especially in broad daylight. The theory is that some gang members from the capital were out cruising on the public holiday and had seen a gringo turn off the main road and begin walking down a quiet side street. They followed, pulled up beside him and pointed a gun at him through the window. He lost his bag with his phone, camera, and worst of all, his Spanish homework. Another student told me that there were five types of police working in Antigua. When I asked my teacher, he explained that these were municipal police, federal police, traffic police, tourist police and private guards. Each has a distinct uniform, but the only police worth going to when in trouble are the federal police in black, mainly because they won't run away, but also because they know how to fight both with weapons and unarmed. Unfortunately, none patrol outside of the town limits. Guatemalan people will also run away from a cry for help, he told me. The history of violence in the capital and of people being kidnapped outside of the towns has left them scared, though this is very rare now - once in fifteen years, apparently. According to my teacher, the best thing to do when in real trouble is to shout 'Fuego!' (fire) because Guatemalans are no different to the rest of us when it comes
As my Spanish has improved, I've discovered more about the family that is hosting me. Amanda has been fantastic, ensuring we're comfortable, ready to talk without being nosy, and runs a very efficient B&B. We asked why she doesn't actually register to AirBnB, and she said that people didn't want to stay so far out of town. My teacher suggested that Amanda puts in more effort than other host families used by the school for just this reason. It's further away, which I don't mind, but the large, clean rooms and diverse menu of very decent food make up for it. She doesn't manage the whole service on her own. Ilya, a Mayan woman, has a room on the ground floor where the family live, which she shares with her daughter, Fatima. Unlike other families I've seen with 'help', the relationship here is very positive. Ilya works very hard, cleaning the whole house each day and doing laundry in return for the room and food, but Amanda spends as much time in the kitchen as Ilya, helps with other chores as well as taking care of the church bookkeeping, and helps Fatima with her homework. After asking Ilya for guidance with my Spanish homework one day, I had the horrifying thought that she might not be literate, but I've also seen her helping Fatima learn her letters. They joke that Fatima has two mothers and two fathers. I haven't asked where Fatima's biological father is, and they haven't shared that information, but Amanda's husband Paco and her oldest son both act as father figures for her. Paco co-owns the metal workshop, which we walk through to get to the front door, with his brother
Yesterday was my last day of Spanish school in Antigua (for now), and I realised that I haven’t written much about how it works. Every morning for the last four weeks, after a quick breakfast, I walked along the cobblestone streets for a bit less than half an hour to reach the garden. My teacher was always there before me with the table set up. We had two hours of lessons before the break, but we could easily take up half of that chatting about poor service at banks, his views on feminism, cooking, music or Marvel films. It was usually listening practice for me, which was really useful, but I got some opportunities to discover how many words I don’t know how to say. The lessons were entirely on verb conjugation (present, future, past, imperfect, indirect, conditional), which was frustrating. I know from learning languages in the past that I can get my message across with a base vocabulary and that once I’m having real conversations, I pick up the correct conjugations by osmosis. Here, I felt I was spending far too much time on the conjugations and finding that I don’t know enough words to get my message across so knowing the conjugations didn’t get me far. I was going to give this feedback to the school, but then realised that I can learn vocabulary on my own, and really need a teacher to understand the conjugations, so I’m taking the next week off for self-learning while I explore the towns around Lake Atitlan. The students all gathered in groups during the break to eat cheap tostadas, prepared by a local family, and to give our minds a break. The second, shorter
I climbed Acatenango last night with a group of 14 and 2 guides. Others who have done it have said it's the best thing they've ever done. I've already climbed beyond 4000m, have climbed an active volcano and have watched the sun rise from mountain tops, so I wasn't fussed whether I did this or not, but I'm glad I did. We went with Gilmer Soy because they're known to have an amazing campsite and because part of our fees goes to helping the local communities. We weren't disappointed. The pick-up wasn't smooth, and we all thought it would be better if they just told us to meet in the town centre, but we were at Soy Base by about 9am, collecting lunches, borrowing bags and jackets and renting walking staffs, gloves, scarfs and beanies. After my experience on the Inca Trail, I decided to rent a staff this time. We were probably walking by about 10am, and as I'd been warned, the first hour was pretty tough. We were out in the open, and the trail was steep with loose stones. The next 3 hours were mostly under the canopy of a rain forest, and we took regular breaks, so the climb flew past. At some rest stops, locals have fresh coffee and hot chocolate available as well as biscuits and chips. We walked past a number of campsites to arrive at ours, which seemed to be the last, and almost faced Fuego, which is very active. It erupted to welcome us, sending a plume of black smoke into the sky and rumbling like thunder. It turns out I've been hearing this sound over the last few weeks, thinking it was actually a
My Spanish classes are in the morning and my school holds cultural activities every afternoon. A favourite of all students is the visit to a family-owned artisanal chocolate maker. It's in a house only 1-2 kilometres from Antigua, but the traffic and narrow roads make it a 20 minute trip in a chicken bus. The teacher leading the tour explained that the prices here are way below market rates and begged us not to try to bargain for bulk discounts. One of the family explained (in Spanish) that chocolate comes in pods of about 40 cocoa beans. She showed us the raw beans and the much darker roasted beans, then crumbled the skin / shell off the bean and crushed it into nibs. These are apparently really nutritious and tasty when added to muesli or in cooking. I can confirm that they're quite tasty on their own because she crushed a few more and passed them around. We then saw a demonstration of the nibs being ground with water in a machine in the main room, but I assume there's a bigger machine out the back somewhere. They then added raw cane sugar and honey to the resulting chocolate paste, and explained that lots of other flavours could be used. The shop used cardamom, chilli, coffee, mint, cinnamon and even rice to flavour the chocolate. I'm not sure how it gets from the runny paste we saw to the next stage, but we were taken to another room to observe a group of people pounding about 40kg of chocolate into shape on a reed mat. They were behind glass, which I hope was to ensure a sterile environment, but the pounding was done by
I'm not in Latin America for a holiday or even just to learn Spanish. I'm here to find a new life. My dream is to find somewhere affordable to live, pick up some work that will allow me to contribute to the local society and meet people. In my experience, everyone has fascinating stories to tell, and I'd like to be able to collect those stories and share them with the world. Having lived in Australia, Asia and Europe, Latin America is my first choice for my new home, but my Spanish is nowhere close to useful, so I have come to Guatemala to correct that. Learning Spanish and staying in a homestay also provide a routine and a ready social network that reduces the anxiety I fear I'd have just turning up entirely without a plan. My plan, such as it is, involves following my instincts, letting the wind take me from town to town, focusing on learning Spanish, but keeping my senses tuned for opportunities to use my skills and for people or organisations that need help. You can imagine how happy I was to stumble across a flyer for an NGO presentation in Cafe Rainbow, a great local café, in my first week. The presentation was by New Dawn to generate support for a Mayan community who are trying to improve education for their kids and to preserve the local Mayan dialect and dances. The children performed a number of traditional dances, which included activities such as making tortillas, sneaking away for trysts at the water hole and ceremonies honouring the cardinal directions. I spent some time after the presentation talking to Vicky from New Dawn, who was extremely welcoming, inviting
Driving off the bitumen main road into Antigua is like stepping back in time. Antigua means 'old' and it was the capital of Guatemala before Guatemala City. As a UNESCO site, Antigua has kept the traditional feel, right down to cobblestone streets and Mayan colour scheme, which is based on natural elements. The town square is almost dead centre and the streets run north-south (avenidas) and east-west (calles) throughout most of the town, with tall, narrow footpaths on each side. The cobblestones are treacherous under foot, and extend the time it takes me to walk to class each morning, but they add bolsas (bags) of charm to the place, and when they're drowning under the deluge of the afternoon rain, the sight is truly special. The local churches are largely still being restored from a ruinous state so the facades are much more impressive than the interiors, but the Iglesia de San Francisco and the Iglesia de Merced are well on the way to completion. My hosts are actively involved in the church of San Francisco, and I attended on my first Sunday in town to hear them sing with the choir. I've also found Amanda, who runs the homestay, with the churches ledgers spread out over the dining table, making sure everything is in order. Looking beyond the town, you'll quickly see volcanoes in every direction, and some of them are very active. I plan to climb Acatenango next weekend. From the top you can watch Fuego spewing lava that quickly settles on the sides. Others who have already done the trip tell me it's the best thing they've ever done. It will have to be spectacular to beat Cappadocia, but I'm hoping
I've always wanted to speak five languages. It's an arbitrary number, but if you include English and Japanese, which I already speak, Spanish and perhaps Arabic and Mandarin, you could go almost anywhere in the world and be able to converse with locals. This week, I started on the path to Spanish fluency by enrolling in classes at Antiguena Academy in Guatemala. I was recommended to start in Guatemala because the people speak slowly and clearly compared to other Latin American countries, and Antigua because it's such a quaint, friendly city. I'm not sure whether Antiguena is the best school, but it's cheap, they arrange daily cultural activities on top of the lessons, and my teacher makes the classes interesting. In one week, we've covered all present tense verb forms and a number of useful phrases. That may be fast because I've studied Spanish before (then lost it learning French while living in Belgium), but it seems to be the standard curriculum. Best of all, the classes are held in a private garden on the edge of town, with fifty teacher-student pairs scattered throughout. It's ringing with laughter, yet otherwise tranquil. Tostadas and other local dishes are available very cheaply during the morning break, when students gather on the garden's lawn to catch up and plan their weekends. I plan to spend a few weeks here, but am open to studying in other towns in Guatemala or further afield. Do you know of other Spanish schools worth trying in Latin America? What's good about them?
My new home is on the northern edge of Antigua, hidden behind a metal workshop and surrounded by greenery. The open-air home is walled well enough to keep out the dust of the town, but the raised roofs allow fresh air to flow down from the rooftop patio, past the dormitory-style bedrooms to the kitchen and living spaces on the ground floor. I’m currently sharing the first floor with the owner’s brother and two other students, which leaves four free rooms. The family sleeps in similar accommodation on the ground floor. For US$85 per week, I’m provided with 3 meals a day, 6 days per week and plenty of opportunity for practising Spanish. I start lessons tomorrow, so my attempts so far have been pretty poor, but last night we worked through my story of drinking mice in Peru.