Saturday, May 03, 2008

Antiquing in Antigua

Mom, dad and I left Panajachel and headed over to La Antigua Guatemala (the Old Guatemala), better known as simply Antigua. Antigua was the capital of Guatemala until a series of earthquakes over the course of several centuries persuaded the authorities that it was going to be cheaper in the long run to move everyone to the new capital than to rebuild every couple years, so the capital was moved to La Nueva Guatemala (the New Guatemala), aka Guatemala City and the former Guatemala City was renamed La Antigua in a kind of Istanbul/Constantinople thing. (Dear Antigua Guate: Them's the breaks / You just simply had too many 'quakes.)

It's a charming town stuck several centuries in the past because its main industry dried up and has been unintentionally preserved while its neighbors modernized, like Rothenburg ob der Tauber and and Bruges in Germany and Belgium, respectively. While at first it was by chance that things stayed the way they were, it is of course now carefully preserved, as the town is very conscious of its status as an attraction for tourists.

The earthquake-damaged ex-cathedral reminded me of some ruins in Rome, particularly the Basilica of Constantine, in certain ways.

The place is indeed crawling with gringos, and not just tourists, it seems. Someone told me (or maybe I read it, I forget) that some astonishingly high proportion of Antigua's residents are foreigners, somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 percent. That seems way too high, and though mine was at best a cursory survey I would say the figure can be no more than 25 percent.

They also sell many textiles and other souvenirs to tourists and others, and we of course bought some of that.

A nice little town, all in all. The next day we took a cab over to Guatemala City to get on the bus to head back to Honduras, but on the way passed through the "Plaza Estado de Israel," I imagine a monument to Guatemala's role in the establishment of the Jewish state. (As I'm told, Guatemala's position and intention to vote in the United Nations in 1947 was not pre-announced, and put Israel over the top in a key resolution.

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Great day

I'll interrupt this recounting of the events of March 28 - April 5 to note that today/yesterday, May 2, I had an absolutely wonderful day. Everything went my way, pretty much, and I've been in a terrific mood. To wit:
  • The good times started yesterday when I went to La Campa to help Ellen with a computer problem at her computer center. I popped some RAM chips in and out and reformatted the drive, but I couldn't fix the problem (nor even diagnose it) but the staff arranged for a thank-you lunch for my efforts anyway. And Ellen, an excellent baker (mistress bakeress?) had banana-chocolate chip muffins to give away. I got a jalón about halfway back to San Manuel, and then, in an Ascension Day miracle, the bus was not way overloaded; by contrast, there were even seats empty!
  • I came back into Gracias and Santa Rosa to get some medical supplies today (Friday) and after a fairly (but not disgustingly) full bus ride, I got another jalón to Santa Rosa within ten seconds of arriving at my favorite spot.
  • One of my randomly met travel companions in the back of the pickup truck left behind her cell phone when she got out, so I was able to return it to her later in the evening after calling the most recently dialed number to explain the situation. Makes me feel good about doing the right thing.
  • I got to see my friends Kate S., Sean and Shannon serendipitously on the streets in Santa Rosa, without any particular planning or foresight put into the rendezvous. (I love chance meetings; the many times nothing significant happens makes the occasions when something neat does happen makes it just that much cooler when it does.)
  • My hair was getting dangerously shaggy and I was glad to get a much-needed haircut.
  • I opened a new bank account which, if I've understood the terms and conditions correctly, will pay me a rate of interest easily ten times what I'm currently receiving. On a deposit of $250, I should be getting $6-7 every month. Just for leaving it in the stupid account!
  • I got my medicines, huzzah for anti-allergy pills!
  • I saw and said goodbye to Paul who is heading out in the next few days. His apartment was pretty bare and I was able to relieve him of some random items in his "up for grabs" box.
  • Paul and I had good times in one of Santa Rosa's department stores when he was looking to buy a new piece of luggage, but the one he wanted had a wheel that was messed up. I was able to fix it but it broke again (a reinforcing plastic chip had fallen out and was the source of the problem) so instead we bargained with the salesperson and made a variety of jokes about buying one or another and asking for discounts because the included lock wasn't working, and then of course getting the discount! And Kate S. was there too (again, randomly; I say that not that she wanders town at random but that it was not a pre-arranged get-together) and so we all enjoyed the fun bargaining atmosphere.
  • At the big supermarket in Santa Rosa, evidently Fridays and Saturdays they usually have free samples of a lot of things, so as I was shopping I was munching on this and sipping on that. I'm never going to shop on any other day of the week.
  • I participated in salsa night in Gracias at Guancascos, and didn't trip anybody or fall myself. I did manage to always creep back towards the wall and have to readjust towards the center of the room, but I think I have the basic motion down. Nacho salsa is great, but this is surprisingly fun as well.
So that's it, just a series of great happenings, any one of which would be smile-worthy, and the whole series of them is simply fantastic. It's been a long time since so many things went so right for me all in the same day, but here's to hoping that it's a frequent occurrence from here on out.

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En la feria de Atitlán
Yo compré un violin.
Lin, lin, violin,
Lon, lon, violon,
Nete-nete-nete, clarinete
Tara-tara-tara, la guitarra.

¡Vaya usted, vaya usted en la feria de Atitlán!
¡Vaya usted, vaya usted en la feria de Atitlán!
So sang Ian Everhart the second grader as he walked through Walnut Street in Shadyside on several afternoons after having sung that song in Spanish class at Liberty Elementary School in Pittsburgh earlier in the day. More recently, I was able to visit Lake Atitlán, if not the fair itself, which was our next destination (but not stop) after layovers in San Pedro Sula and Guatemala City. The road is long and winding from Guatemala City to Panajachel, the principal town on the lake's shores, especially the second half, which elicited advisories that they were feeling carsick from mom and dad and from me the mostly-successfully suppressed desire to say "Wait 'till you get to San Manuel!"

Our hotel there was the beautiful Hotel Atitlán, which sits on the edge of a natural preserve and counts a beautiful garden among its many refinements. On several occasions, mom pronounced it to be the equal of any of the many nice places we have stayed on our travels around the world.

Mom's initial judgement was confirmed by (presumably) that of Guatemala's wealthiest, who come to the lake by helicopter (to avoid the many hairpin turns on the road) with such frequency that the hotel has not one but two helipads (which made me think of my as-yet-unrealized plan to establish the Hanszen Helipad with a can of yellow paint on the patio behind the Upper Commons).


Upon arriving, we had lunch and proceeded to do nothing but chillax in the pool which overlooked the lake.

The next day we took a series of boats across the lake (going on a public water ferry as well as hiring our own private lancha, as they are called). We first stopped at Santiago Atitlán, which from our incomplete survey seemed to be almost exclusively comprised of stalls selling various textile souvenirs. Looking at a map later, it seems we didn't make it up to the main part of the town, but mom's bad knee probably wouldn't have made it both up and down the hill, and dad's "banana* bag" didn't have much more space after buying so much stuff.

We then "chartered" a ride over to San Marcos which has the reputation of being the most hippified of the villages on the lake since it has been adopted by the holistic and transcendentalist medicine crowd as their favorite location to offer massages and acupuncture as advertised, and, one imagines, also drink a lot of herbal tea. It seems that the owners of many of the restaurants in the "Gringo quarter" of San Marcos close their businesses (coffee shops, restaurants) on Tuesday and/or are just uncommonly lackadaisical about being helpful to potential customers, since we visited at least two establishments--both of them a fair trek off the main road--which were closed that day, without any such indication on the many signs pointing us to the hard-to-find-in-any-case entrance to the Japanese restaurant or the other restaurant that they would not be serving lunch. After a brief flirtation with a vegetarian restaurant featuring two shirtless guys talking over some organic beverage ("Well, I've been here eight weeks already and might move on if I hear back from the Co-op in Portland but I really like the vibe here so who knows, I might stick around another few months and take a leave of absence from college next semester," goes the conversation, one imagines.), we finally settled on an Italian-inspired restaurant where my micro-pizza took so long to come out, I can only assume they were airlifting the mozzarella in from Naples. We explored a little more and, partially to my surprise, once you stepped out of the Gringo quarter, it was a regular little Guatemalan town, and for all I could see, not that different from many Honduran villages, for that matter.

We rounded out our day with another boat ride to Panajachel and a drink at a lovely restaurant overlooking the lake, and then hired another craft for a quick jaunt back to our hotel, which next to the helipad had a dock for just such arrivals as ours.

* So called because on the Hedman Alas bus from San Pedro Sula to Guatemala City, we used it as our one allowed carry-on to bring my laptop along, and also tossed in water bottles, a sweatshirt, various maps, books and, you guessed it, a banana or two, which inevitably exploded somewhere en route to leave dad's reading material and the back end of my computer bananafied. We got most of it cleaned up but it was an exasperating mess to pick out banana from the port interfaces on the back of my computer, which, fortunately, did in any event not impede its function. Guess what object we won't be putting in the same piece of luggage as fruit of any stripe next time?

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Craving an enclave

I've never been to the Panama Canal Zone when it was under American administration (nor was I even alive during its existence) but I have to imagine it was a lot like the Telamar resort. A 1964 article in Time Magazine says that the Zone's urban centers of "Balboa and Cristobal are model company towns with look-alike houses, bargain-priced groceries [and] liquor." At Telamar, the company wasn't the U.S. government running a canal, its locks and military bases, but the United Fruit Company exporting bananas and wielding undue influence in the years when Honduras was the prototypical "banana republic." The premises which contained the residences of United Fruit executives were converted into a beachfront hotel some years back and the place is now the resort par excellence on the north coast of Honduras. And it was our first stop after my parents arrived at the San Pedro Sula airport in their nine day visit to Central America.

Telamar is a beautiful property but bizarrely isolated from the surrounding town of Tela, which I suppose is the point of it all. When my brother came to visit with a group from our church a year ago, four of us stayed in a "cabin" that was in fact a spacious three-bedroom house no doubt once occupied by some banana administrator and his family. This time we looked at the rooms in the more modern buildings but chose were a one-room townhouse-esque cabaña which seemed more suited to a bachelor banana man and was also very nice.

As I say, the older housing had a certain colonial feel and also emitted a strange Stepford vibe since the many fine houses and the streets they lined were utterly vacant but well-maintained and all of a certain style (a feeling that, as I reflect upon it, can be replicated in many American suburban gated communities during business hours). But this was one week after Semana Santa (see previous posts) and probably a fairly low season after many, many people had been at the coast the previous week. Of course, it all had an institutional feel of controlled development, since, like a suburban developer's project or a university campus, building projects were presumably under the control of just a few people making all the decisions.

But it's a lovely place and while I can't speak to the availablilty of groceries, the food and beverages, as in the Canal Zone, were priced well, either at the main restaurant (which has a great view of the beach) or at the "Tiki bar" which lies at the end of a short boardwalk (and, sitting right on the beach, also affords an excellent view.)

The pool is an attraction as well. We decided that the three "lobes," isolated the one from the other by low footbridges, would serve to make the place seem less crowded by blocking the field of vision when one large open pool would allow the eye to sweep over all the bathers in one view. The waterslide (known in Spanish as a tobogán) was fun, as was the in-pool bar. Just like the Diani Reef resort in Mombasa!

After checking out of the hotel, we drove to Tornabé, a mostly Garífuna village a few miles down the coast. The beach was just as nice as at Telamar, but we were clearly no longer in the colonial enclave but the real Honduras, which is what mom and dad had come to see.

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