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Published: November 13th 2016
After a day of fun in Mexico City, I was very ready to explore a new country and to sample the culture of a new people. I didn't realise how ready Guatemala was for me either!
I had a stroke of luck in the airport, as there was a complication with my flight. In the confusion of fixing it, I was accidentally upgraded to business class for free. I saw the change on my ticket, but the staff were busy, so I decided not to bother them with this information. I had a few complimentary beers, a few little bowls of nuts, and a decent brunch onboard the plane. This was a good omen, because my first day in Guatemala has been very relaxed.
I hit a Dunkin' donuts for WiFi, and then found out that I would need a hostel after all. I had originally arranged to couchsurf, but it fell through. The hostel was £5 a night, and the people were lovely. They showed me round, chatted away in both English and Spanish with me, and pointed out the nearest food place. I promptly paid a visit to this place, and found out it was both a little cooking stand and a church. Normally, I'm not comfortable in churches, but the people stopped asking if I wanted to do churchy things with them pretty quickly. I told them that I was an atheist, and that I didn't want to burn to death for mimicking religious people. There's always two ways this conversation can go, and they found it amusing. We soon got chatting about all manner of things, mostly Guatemalan culture and food, whilst a few of the kids poked at my beard and shrieked with delight as I made a loud noise to scare them at the moment of contact. I'd originally decided to get the food as a takeaway and eat it as the hostel, but we enjoyed each other so much that I sat and laughed with them for an hour.
I had been told that the capital city paled in comparison with Antigua, which is the city next door. Its an hour from the capital, and I got directions from the gents at the hostel who were still extremely helpful, relaxed, and conversational. I caught a bus to get to the bus stop for buses to Antigua, caught the 'chicken bus' (essentially just a normal bus, but a little cramped, and with quite a lot of stuff tied onto the roof) and settled in for an hour of bouncing around the Guatemalan countryside. I enquired as to the price, and was told it would be 10 quetzales, which is £1. The capital is enormous, bustling, and very alive with markets, restaurants, and whatever amenities you want, and when transport is that cheap... There's no excuse for not exploring! Anyway, as we left the capital, the views started to get quite pretty, and the lady next to me bought some wafers from one of the many vendors who jump on to the bus for 5 minutes and bellow about the quality of biscuits for far longer than you think it's possible to elucidate on the subject. I followed suit, despite thinking that they deserve this much explanation; "5 quetzales in price, quite tasty, and you can choose chocolate, strawberry, or vanilla flavour."
Once we arrived in Antigua, we disembarked and I was immediately greeted by a man who gave me a map of Antigua, asked me where my first destination was, and then drew the route on the map for me. I offered him a few quetzales for his troubles, and he refused them. I then traversed the central square on the way to Cerro de la Cruz; my first destination. I wanted to do this little uphill walk before I ate lunch, and having arrived in Antigua at 10:30am, was in perfect time. It took no more than 20 minutes to reach the bottom of the hill, and a further 20 to walk to the top, from which the scenery is pretty beautiful. There's a volcano to the front, another one to the left, and the panoramic view of the little city that is nestled between them, and beneath you. Worth 40 minutes of anyone's time, and a great place to eat the mini picnic I'd amassed in a bakery and fruit stall before the walk. I perused a little stall of wares being managed by a little indigenous lady and her adorable little daughter. She asked me what I liked in broken English, and I told her that we could switch to Spanish if she preferred. The subsequent conversation was fascinating for me, as she described her life and the paradox of meeting hundreds of travellers a week, and never having travelled herself. She was 20 years old, and her daughter was 3, so it's fairly obvious why. Still, she was very curious, and her daughter was making fun of me at every opportunity; I had picked up one of the wooden flutes from the stall and pretended to start playing it whilst blowing into the wrong end. The little girl promptly maneuvered herself onto my lap and started trying to teach me, but couldn't keep it up for laughing as I said kiddy things in Spanish to her mum. This kind of thing would be extremely awkward in my culture; a young child sitting on a mans lap, but this is just how kids act when they get comfortable with you, and the parents here totally understand that. I often think it's an incredible shame that we've become so paranoid in our culture, and subsequently deprived a lot of kids from the kind of interaction that is most important to them when they're very young; physical interaction. It was an adorable hour, and I could have stayed there all day had it not been for the fact that I only had one day in Antigua, and was still at my first stop. I bought the flute for 40 quetzales (£4) by way of thanks, and went on my way with her daughter still shouting at me to teach her how to play the flute.
I strolled around Antigua, visiting a few different places, and having numerous interesting conversations in the process. If I'm honest, I was more enthused by the people than the city itself. It's aesthetically very pleasing, easy to navigate, and there are plenty of historical places to visit. Perhaps I was not in the right mood for museums that day, but I would love to go back again in the future.
I returned to the capital on the chicken bus, and then navigated a bus station in the city center at rush hour. The journey went without a hitch, and it's worth mentioning at this point that you can go anywhere in the city on the bus for 1 queztal. That's 10p in British money. For the equivalent journey in Britain of about 40 minutes, it'd be closer to £5. Naturally, things are little more cramped on these buses, but that just means you get to sample a variety of perfumes at close quarters.
I finally got back to the hostel for a good long sleep, and after a very good chat in Spanish with the owner, did just that. The conversation was excellent, and we discussed the weirder aspects of my generation (he's in his mid 50s). Selfies, Facebook, and photos came up. We were saying that people from my generation can't just sit and wait for something for long; they pull out a phone, buy something to eat, or whatever. It's something I stray into doing every now and then, particularly when I've got a lot energy. We also talked about Facebook use, and neither of us was particularly enthused about the culture of narcissistic desire to get likes, the use of hashtags, and taking daily selfies that's sprung up during the last 10 years or so.
We didn't just moan though; we ended up talking about Guatemalan tradition, British tradition, and the differences between small towns and big cities. He told me that at Christmas time Guatemalans often set up a table or two in the street, eat Christmas dinner, and have a party with their neighbours. He asked me what we did in my country, and laughed when I said I wasn't very Christmassy. I explained our usual Christmas behaviour being a family dinner, spending lots of money of gifts, and having Christmas parties in the workplace/with your colleagues. He said that he was surprised that we didn't often have parties with our neighbours, especially in the cities.
All in all, Guatemala was a pleasant surprise; I found a safe, culturally distinct, and very hospitable country that has piqued my interest. I also feel like I saw almost nothing of it, and would love to explore it some more. I didn't plan on living there before, but would now be fairly keen on it once I've finished in South America. As always, the people you meet make the travelling fun; it's great to see the amazing natural phenomena and historical sights a country has to offer, but if you don't get on with the people, it doesn't feel the same. There's a lot of travelling to do between sights; buses, trains, and planes. The people you meet make that part more bearable once you're getting tired of being driven/flown somewhere and having to sit still for a long time.
I now have a mere 6 weeks left in Mexico, with my wonderful host family, and working at HELP. I'm excited for Peru, and have a flute to learn to play, more Spanish to learn, and fair amount of Mexico to see during my downtime in mid-December.
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