Letter Bridge 1: Filling in the Gaps from Guatemala

Antigua Travel Blog

 › entry 35 of 47 › view all entries
Antigua, Guatemala



Jeff had come down to Honduras to wander with me for three weeks over the Christmas holidays in '92. He had a friend leading a Canada World Youth project in southern Honduras. After carousing with him a while, we broke from the others and header for Copan, made our way over to Tela and the Carribean island of Rotan,  and then headed up into Guatemala before he flew back to Saskatchewan. Our time together was a quiet kind of easy companionship, born of a mutual pleasure in exploration and  a consuming curiosity about the lives of others: no expectations or itineraries. We moved with the wind, and with changing inclinations.


After Jeff left, I stayed in Antigua, Guatemala, for a couple of weeks.

Just hanging out. The mix of Indio and Spanish-American culture was still tinged with bitterness and hostility after years clashes, but Antigua  almost felt like the future (with its international mix of lefty expats and the Spanish Guates living a relatively peaceful co-existence with the Mayan speaking indiginous population).


Perhaps because of the earthquake ruins, the town seemed to relax in the realization that the world was large, and that the people on it went around and around. The Guate Mayans in Antigua had schools for learning Quechean right along side the Spanish schools, and the markets were a mix of colour and hopefulness. The clean mountain air was a refuge from Guatemala City's squallor and pollution, and the day trip I took from Antigua, climbing Pacaya's active volcanic slopes, was nothing short of spectacular! Antigua was easily one of the favourite places I visited in all of my travels.


The night before I was forced to cut my Central American voyage short and leave the Guatemala, a 'recruiter' from one of the guerrilla groups knocked on the door of the (off the books) establishment I was staying at. Every backpacker at the time knew there was a good chance at some point that they would get "shaken down" for the cause.

The guirrilla's were generally polite enough: They'd board a bus that they stopped or they'd enter a rooming house or restaurant, and Westerner would be "encouraged" to donate (clothing, walkmen, money) for the cause. Then they would melt quietly back into the background. Me, I had no problem with their methods, given what I knew of them and of the repression that led to their struggle.


In 1992, though, Guatemala semed to be slowly changing. Newspapers were more likely to criticize oppressive government actions against the native population, and Rigoberta Menchu, one of the revolutionary heros whose autobiography I had given a paper on the year previously, was about to come back from exile in Mexico, and would lead a million people through a celebratory march in Guatemala City. My plan was to stay another week in Guatemala, to take in the atmosphere after the rally, and then return to Costa Rica to say good bye to all my new friends there before heading down to Ecuador.


However, I had been up to Atitlan in the week preceding the evening of my unexpected visitor and my equally unexpected departure from Central America, and I had come back to Antigua, tail betwen my legs and extremely ill.

Atitlan child
It took a day to line up flights to get back to Canada, and would take another three weeks to get treatment that would eventually rid me of the parisites I had picked up, and to pack back on enough weight so that I wouldn't scare people when I met them on the road, at future destinations. I was quite skeletal.


I think I scarred my the Guate rebel who banged on my door. He gazed at me, at the pack on the bed of my little windowless closet sized room and gave me a Mayan calendar--my last memento of Central America.


I wished him luck in his cause.


The following letter was my last from Central America. Written to the friend in Toronto who was housing 15-20 boxes of my books in her garage.

Atitlan girl and infant
.. in charge of my happily ever afters, should I ever decide to come back to Toronto and settle down again.



January 25/93

Antigua, Guatemala


Dear Trisha


Another month has gone by and I am no closer to having achieved  anything.  Maybe it has something to do with my complete lack of ambition, or the fact that I set out to escape  achievements?


This is truly a hedonistic  existence

(even if the bad food and consequent illnesses steal some of the romance.)


Speaking of which...

I spent three weeks in Honduras with my best buddy Jeff--an engineer from Saskatchewan who had been bitten by the same travel bug as me, but who was clever enuf to get a degree in water systems management before he decided to wander freely.  He can get a job just about anywhere he chooses now.


And, me, I'll admit that sometime in the future when I'm itching to move but can no longer afford it, I'll think seriously about hitching a ride to his wherever of the year, to act sponge.


         got no pride


But then, when it comes to this lifestyle, pride is the least valued of commodities.  What with 4-5 days passing and only one bucket of brackish water to wash with, or with a constant (bi-hourly) familiarity with dank toilets, or with either freezing or sweating the night away, swatting mosquitoes and sighing with the wind.  Every noise imaginable  making its way thru the many many cracks in ill-repaired slat wood walls.


...Still, the mirror stillness of turquoise waters, clear and perfect for coral snorkeling; the salty taste of a Caribbean or pacific sea-side breeze; powder-fine white sand between my toes; living a Caribbean postcard... well it kinda makes up for the inconveniences.


        especially when you have someone to splash and giggle with


& here in Antigua there's lots to make up for discomforts as well  

( it has food to die for,  for instance, not from  )


I've been taking it easy since Jeff flew back to Canadian blizzards.  This city is an interesting and paradoxical mix of intellectuals and Indios, Hispanic nationals and their Mestizo maids, and wandering ex-patriot hippy types.  The mix has led to a strange conglomeration of businesses and functions among the incredible crumbling facades of the town's colonial architecture.


prime for analysis:

sometimes ironic

sometimes curious

sometimes awed


The huge white-washed 17th century mansions and churches in various states of demise are fitting symbols for a declining colonial mentality and its tarnished dreams.  This town was thrice struck by earthquakes; as a result the grand cathedrals, arches, and administrative buildings of the old Spanish empire now stand (sort of), often roofless, the walls reaching up but supporting only the blue sky, huge gaping cracks in the mortar echoing the global geology of tectonic plates.


           and I've been thinking about Rigoberta Menchu


On Saturdays and Sundays there are Porches and Mercedes parked in Antigua's streets.  Kinda trendy for the rich Guates to pay tribute to a city that was named a world heritage cite.  But when you walk thru the streets, by all the Indian vendors with their incredible serapes, jewelry. jade, hupiles, and stitchery, you can't help but sense the schizophrenia at work.  The people all seem to get along: Americans, Canadians, and Germans as tourists; the Hispanic Guates; the Mestizos; the Indios; the displaced and perhaps misguided intellectuals and northern ex-pats.  Yet, upon closer inspection, the fissures are as predominant in the social structure as they are in the buildings.  A certain patronizing hostility happening as the Hispanics barter with the artisans; a certain sly smile when a bumbling Spanish-less gringo shows an interest in the handiwork (tho, to their credit, the humble Indios stick to their Maya heritage, by and large, and so are able to pull themselves up just short of rubbing their hands together); then there's the desperation in the eyes of some (especially the old or the disabled) as they poke around for food and implore for Guate pennies; and bumping shoulders with it all are the "nose-in-the-air-I'm-living-this" ex-pats.


                 it's all here


Like some microcosmic this-is-what-you-get abridged version of Central America.  Men on the streets with  fuck-you faces, or with the guns and  uniforms that say something similar; or others hampered by the scars, missing extremities and humiliated broken expressions of obvious victims of torture.  It would be depressing, overwhelming, but for the children's quick and clever schemes to get first your sympathy, and then your money. And the Indian women, who make up for everything, by living an irrevocable hope.  They show you their work, their blouses (hupiles) painstakingly decorated with embroidery that must have taken months, all in the colours of celebration; and they have babies almost always, tied to their backs with a shawl.  They play with their children in between bartering over the wares they've brought to town to be displayed on sheets across sidewalks.


There have, of course, been many colourful moments I will cherish in the midst of my learning and my struggle to understand (and I will probably bore people over and over with the details of them if I ever decide to come “home”). BUT, I figure, if I limit myself to one in-depth story for each letter, I won't be repeating myself too much upon my return. --and each day I'm off and rambling, I should get perhaps only one "Shut up Gayle, I've already heard it" to my credit.


            ...keeping me reminded of the perils of tediousness



               for Trisha Morgan's second missive:

               The Story of the Garifuna Village 

               December 25, 1992


The morning seemed to dawn pretty enuf.  We're on the Caribbean coast of Honduras, at Tela.  The handbook said the beaches here are everything you've ever dreamed a Caribbean beach is supposed to be--tho in truth they are somewhat grimy, often littered and the ocean in kinda grey.  (I'd have to wait until Rotan for the post-card platitudes to pay off with perfect Caribbean beaches)  BUT the area is compelling.  it is surrounded by tiny Garifuna villages, inhabited by an interesting people who speak a musical almost unintelligible patios of French, English, Spanish, Carrib Indian, and African.  Their second language is often English not Spanish.  They are a dark skinned bright-complexioned people, and Jeff and I both decided without even having to discuss the matter, that the village 45 minutes down the beach from tela would be a prime Christmas day outing.  We'd dine on seafood chowder cooked in coconut, and take our chances with their home-brewed contraband clove laced liqueur.  There are no restaurants, so to speak.  The villages are a foot-path connected collection of tiny thatched huts set up on the sand, and some of the houses have open kitchen with places for diners to sit out front.


The atmosphere seemed perfect since neither Jeff nor I have sentimental memories of Christmas traditions--both of us coming from “broken” homes that preferred to sit around a table, bicker and hurl insults, or compete intensely at everything from political debates, to cards, to trivial pursuit, to who had the curliest hair, or who could spit the farthest.


Our Garifuna plan was to be an exorcism of all that.


...and it was.  Tho not for the reasons we anticipated.  First there was the rain.  A tropical storm.  The water coming down so thick you couldn't see five feet in front of you. & us caught about 30 minutes into a 45 minute walk, without umbrellas or jackets.  I show up in this relatively isolated village of thatch huts in a dress that has turned transparent (no bra), and both of us with our hair plastered to our heads like drowned rats.  We sit at the first place we come to, Jeff without a shirt cuz I need something to provide modesty.  We drink a beer and watch the Grinch in Spanish as it plays from an old black and white TV.  (No shit: The Grinch dubbed! And this is one of the few establishments that has electricity.)  But the owners aren't exactly thrilled with our bohemian lack of respect for a special occasion; they're not directing us any smiles of welcome.  So, almost dry, I give Jeff back his shirt and we move on to another house: an even smaller hut where a group of eight men as piss-drunk as you can get and still be standing, are having a great time playing traditional conch shell music and singing ballads.  We sit and order our chowder,  and this time they are very  friendly.  They're all members of one family.  The father is the drunkest of all, a big kneed wrinkle-wizened man who looks like he's lived hard all his life. But he knows the best stories.  And he's the one to lead the songs.  Can't quite tell if the ballads are  bawdy or brave, but I make a few words out, like amore and cervessa and rum.  And we are grabbing attention with a couple of the unmarried boys who brave Jeff's largeness in light of his friendly smile; they come over to flirt with me, to practice their English and to teach us the local names for the pieces of seafood in our bowls.  They giggle at my mispronunciation, and the giggling is catchy.  Nefore we leave, they offer us their Christmas hooch. It is delicious if probably not very good for you. The clove aroma lingers like a cylinder at the back of my throat.


On the way back to Tela, feeling warm and dangerous, Jeff and I go skinny dipping and make love in the worried waters of post-storm Caribbean breakers.  The next day we will pay for our adventure, in part with sniffles (easily enuf dealt within this climate), but in part also with that toilet parade that inevitably comes hot on the heels of having stuffed something into our mouths that we shouldn't have.


Okay,  I've babbled away another 4 double sided pages.  And you, having your comps to study for: as if you don't have enuf to read.  I hope everything is going well.  Can't say I miss the academy much, but there are times when I wouldn't mind a little literary chat over red wine and well aged cheese... you know with a good friend... like the one who's protecting my library for me as I play hooky. 


Take care...

Join TravBuddy to leave comments, meet new friends and share travel tips!
Antigua, Guatemala
Antigua, Guatemala
Atitlan child
Atitlan child
Atitlan girl and infant
Atitlan girl and infant
photo by: monky