The Jewel of Guatemala

Antigua, Guatemala

October 25, 2001

I remember the young Guatemalan waitress in the hole-in-the-wall restaurant looking at me quizzically, and then with wide-eyed alarm, as I tried to order dinner. I fumbled with my Spanish-English dictionary, and then eventually seemed to get my point across, that I hoped for something without meat, without lard and without salt—seemingly the three favored ingredients in Central America! Finally, curiously relieved, she trotted off to the kitchen to rustle up some rice and beans. Douglas began flipping through the diccionario, and smiled.

“You originally told her—I think—that you like to eat vegetarians,” he said.

| | The ironies of life in the 21st century* * *| After linguistically stumbling through Cuba and Mexico, one of the goals Douglas and I set for ourselves this year was to learn Spanish, a language in which neither of us has had any training. We were determined to really work on it here in Guatemala, a country renowned for its high-quality immersion-language courses and its clear accent. While we were backpacking around the highlands, we started by spending a week in a Spanish-immersion course in the city of Quetzaltenango: four hours a day, for five days, each of us with our own teacher who spoke almost no English. At first, my head was splitting from so much grammar, but by the end of that week, my teacher, Yadira Ordonez, and I were discussing in Spanish—granted, quite fractured Spanish—the economic situation in Guatemala, how the military works, the power of the evangelical religious movement here, information about our families, our work, and our personal lives. I was beside myself with excitement to be having these (very painfully slow!) conversations in a language in which, a mere one week before, I’d barely been able to ask for directions to the loo.


That week studying in Quetzaltenango showed us that to get serious about learning Spanish, we needed to enroll in an immersion school for a minimum of three weeks, so upon returning here from the U.S., we decided upon Antigua as the place we’d most like to hang out. That’s where we are now, enrolled in school from 8 a.m. to noon every day, each of us with our own teacher, and then studying on our own all afternoon. (It’s a little like being back in college, only with a roommate you have permission to sleep with.) This is week two, and already we’re talking up a storm in our halting but eager Spanish, and ambling through one of the most beautiful little cities in the Americas.

| I just love this town, especially in the fall. We’ve been here four times now, and seen it from many angles. The first time was a few years ago, back when we were making a living! We came here for a quick holiday on the way home from Salvador; and we stayed in the best hotel in town, the breathtaking Casa Santa Domingo, a restored Dominican monastery dating back to 1642. When we came a couple of months ago, while I was dealing with my thumb doctor in Guatemala City (it’s only a 45-minute ride between here and the capital), we chose other digs.

We’ve seen Antigua in different seasons, and we like it best in the fall. There are fewer tourists; the weather is still warm, and most of the college kids have returned to school in their various countries. The cobble-stoned streets, lined with magnificent 17th-century buildings, are quiet, the bougainvillea is still in bloom, and the air is perfumed with the aroma of roasting coffee. (Antiguan highland beans are reputed to be some of the best in the world.)


| | In almost every direction, you can see the volcanoes that surround Antigua. Founded in 1543 as the capital of Guatemala, after an earthquake damaged the city, the capital was moved to a new site, Guatemala City.* * *| Antigua is nestled between three dramatic volcano cones, all of which my _maestra_ (teacher), Fabiola Chiquito, and I could see from our assigned desk on the rooftop terrace at Instituto Antigueño de Español, one of more than 60 schools here. As we sat privately and talked, we could look over the terra-cotta roofs to admire _Volcan Agua_ and _Volcan Acatenango_. In the distance _Volcan Fuego_ (fire) still spews a plume of smoke. Fabiola told me that the earth is very hot up there, and on clear nights you can look up and see the volcano’s dramatic red glow.

Douglas and I are living at Posada La Merced, a sweet little hotel with a colonial courtyard garden of flowers and a gurgling stone fountain right outside our room. It’s a perfect place for us, and close by we have our favorite places to hang out in Antigua. We bargain with the locals in the mercado, a couple of acres of vegetables, fruit, cheeses—everything you can imagine, and ridiculously cheap—and we cook many of our meals in the guest kitchen at La Merced, eating at the courtyard tables. When we want to splurge on dinner, we walk a few doors down the street to a four-table restaurant called Fernando’s, where Pepe, the Spanish chef, makes mouth-watering tomatoes flambeed in rum, gazpacho Andalusia, and paella. Dinner for two there is about $6. For a dessert treat after class, sometimes I cajole Douglas into going with me to Cafe Condessa, where we split a big piece of warm blackberry-apple pie with cream; berries are in season here and we can’t get enough.

| | La Merced, Antigua’s most striking colonial church, was built in 1548, and rebuilt several times after earthquakes. Douglas and I can hear the morning bells in our posada around the corner. At six a.m. the bells have rung anywhere from 47 to 83 times, and we’re entirely baffled by the system. But we’re up!* * *| There are little cinemas in town, too—rooms off cafes, really, with a few couches, a television set, and a video-player—where for about a dollar we’ve seen a slew of movies (some in English and some in Spanish with subtitles) that focus on the politics and wars in Central America—_La Hija del Puma (_Daughter of the Puma_); I am CUBA; Buena Vista Social Club; El Che: Investigating A Legend; The Riddle of the Maya; Fresa y Chocolat; Traffic; A Place Called Chiapas_; and_ Carla’s Song._ Antigua also has plenty of internet cafes, new and used bookstores, laundries, and_ El Sitio_, which is a beautiful cultural center of dramatic and visual arts. Sometimes at night we’ll walk over to the Hog’s Head, a British bar that shows CNN and BBC, so we can catch up on what’s happening at home.


Last week, Fabiola and I went to the mercado, and she explained to me in Spanish what certain unusual-looking fruits and vegetables were. She identified concoctions for different maladies—indigenous Guatemalans remain devoted to herbal medicine—and introduced me to her novio Tomas, whose family runs a modest stall in the mercado that sells men’s clothing. I felt I already knew her fiance, as he’d been featured in so many of Fabiola’s Spanish ejemplos over our time together. Tomas asked me all about the United States, if I’d ever been to Alaska, what it was like, had I ever seen a bear, and what did snow feel like, what fruits grow in the U.S., what does the Grand Canyon look like, what does my father do, what was New York like after the attacks, was my family near there, and are they scared? Tomas brought my hobbling Spanish to the brink of desperation, but Fabiola jumped in with the odd word and bridged things whenever I found myself grinding to a halt.

| | A favorite breakfast of ours is fresh local fruit, yogurt, granola and honey at a place nearby called Perlito—all for about a dollar.* * *| It was a breakthrough conversation for me, although it must be said that I’m still only dealing with the present tense. If I can’t say it in the present tense, at this point it doesn’t get said, and last week I actually had to ask Fabiola to slow down and stay with the present tenses longer than usual, until I felt I had it down. Douglas, on the other hand, rushed with his _maestra_ headlong into the past tenses—a perfect statement of the differences between us as people. I’m perfectly happy in the present, where I am. He loves to dwell in the past. “It’s a Jewish thing,” he joked when I brought this to his attention. “I’m looking forward to doing future tenses too, so I can talk about how bad everything’s going to be!”

This week, simply for the purpose of getting a different perspective, Douglas and I both changed teachers. He moved from Mercedes to Julio and is enjoying their time together. (“Mercedes was good,” said Douglas, “but I couldn’t ask her to teach me las vulgaridades. I need a guy for that.”) Meanwhile, I moved from Fabiola to Amalia Jarquin, who is a private Spanish teacher, and I’m bowled over by her. College educated in international relations, Amalia is an excellent teacher who’s not only making previously indecipherable things sink into my head, but offers an incisive perspective on world events. Part of my vocabulary now, thanks to my talks with Amalia in Spanish, are words such as atacar, miedo, seguro, antrax, sintomas, sufrir, poderosa, pobre—attack, fear, safety, anthrax, symptoms, suffer, powerful, poor—as she and I spend a little time every morning with the newspaper discussing (still slowly, mind you!) the affairs of the day.


| | A fountain in the courtyard of La Condessa. Most of the buildings in Antigua were constructed in the 17th and 18th centuries, when the Spanish were in power.* * *|

| | The sounds of the marimba can always be heard somewhere in the evenings.* * *| So this is how Douglas and I are spending our time right now—out the door by 7:45 a.m., Spanish school from 8 till noon or 1 p.m. or so, studying till dusk, or until our heads are ready to burst with new words and tenses and ideas. Then we walk in the _Parque Central_ with its towering stone fountain in the shape of Mayan women with water spewing from their breasts. We watch the villagers who’ve brought their weaving to sell. We listen to marimba bands playing Guatemalan love songs. For a few quetzals, we eat _empanadas, chile relleños,_ and_ pupusas_ stuffed with local cheeses. We talk about life, and this cool town we’re getting to know—sometimes in our halting Spanish—and we wait for hurricane season to end.


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