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Published: February 2nd 2019
A Pair of Brown Eyes
The most beautiful man and butterfly
I just spent eight weeks traveling all over Central America. My plan was simple. No plan.
Back when I was 18, and fearless, I backpacked my way through Central America with my best friend Linda. We were just a couple of inebriated surfer girls living off the kindness of strangers with no inhibitions, no limits, no pesos. I look back at that experience fondly, but also as stupid reckless. If nothing less, it was the perfect set up for one of those cheesy slasher movies.
As we hitchhiked our way south from beach to beach, I hardly saw any of Central America. To be fair we were all about thrills, boys, and parties - not culture or history.
The trip ended abruptly in Panama City when all my belongings were stolen including the photographic evidence I was ever there.
Fast forward 32 years and I find myself flying into Guatemala City, ready to act like a proper tourist. Having been in Mexico for a month already, I was fully acclimatized to the idiosyncrasies of Latin America and, my Spanglish was on fire. In other words, everything went weirdly smooth and expedited.
Still there, still majestic
off my heavy backpack at my friend’s family casa on the outskirts of Zone 1, and made the executive decision to fly into Flores instead of taking a 9 hour chicken bus ride. A brilliant strategy because…
in less than an hour, I was greeted by Marlon, sparkly owner of Gem Tours who escorts me out to the UNESCO site of Tikal. I'm starving, so he phones ahead and orders a delicious omelet with spicy red sauce at a roadside eatery. Once we were in the park, Marlon turns on his intense guide mode. Great for me, as I wanted to learn all about Tikal’s history and significance this time. Not just drop acid and climb all over the ruins, posing.
Tikal is massive. Deep within the steamy rain forests of northern Guatemala, it is believed this ancient Mayan citadel was created as far back as the 1st
century AD. It thrived between 200 and 900 AD but was later abandoned for a variety of theories; wars with other Mayan empires, famine, overpopulation, resource depletion.
The grand palaces and temples built by the Mayans for their rulers, awe inspiring. Temple IV, which is 70 meters - the tallest
This is one of my favourite things about Guatemala. Riding the chicken buses. Cheap and very entertaining
pre-Columbian structure in the Americas - makes you feel Godlike standing on the top, overlooking the endless jungle canopy.
Merlin, Marlon’s texting teenage cousin doesn’t speak any English but she shadows us looking ever bored, so I make her giggle by teasing her in Spanglish. We were besties by the end of the day. Marlon wants to avoid the throngs of tourists so he leads us into the jungle using short cuts. Overhead, howler monkeys tattle on us, while toucans cheekily bounce from branch to branch. It’s sweltering hot and it’s only 9 am. Why am I the only one with my clothing glued to me?
We stumble upon a huge procession of decorated townsfolk, led by Mayan shamans in mid ritual, they are kneeling around an alter and chanting, as offerings are burned. We settle cross-legged on the lawn mesmerized by their ceremonies while the saturated heat of the morning rises. Marlon whispers the importance of these ancient and sacred practices as we watch, I feel like an interloper.
Sneaking back through downtrodden paths, a jackal crosses ours, more than likely hunting for the tiny agouti and coati creatures we’ve encountered. Marlon pushes some hillside dirt
So this just happened
Sitting enjoying a nice cup of coffee in Antigua when boom, the volcano explodes.
with his toe and unearths a distinctive piece of clay pottery. It’s everywhere. Stacked in raw earth, exposed only when it rains. He says we are standing on what must have been the citadels’ massive garbage dump.
Back in Guatemala City, I spent a few days at my friend's mother’s house, she dotes on me with homemade chicken empanadas, plantains, thick meat stews, black beans with rice and tortillas. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I’m vegetarian.
Her colonia neighbourhood is cinder block covered in graffiti with metal gates, bars on windows. Dogs bark, sirens wail. Pretty sure I heard a few shots fired.
Behind those walls, a blissful sanctuary. Family member flit in and out to meet me, they are all such lovely, hardworking Guatemalans just trying to get by, survive.
Guatemala City feels under siege, further accentuated by armed guards at every tienda (store) and tattooed gangsters loitering in dark corners.
I go out anyways to do my touristy thing and visit the Palacio Nacional de la Cultura, the Catedral Primada Metropolitana de Santiago, the Popol Vul museum, and the National Anthropology and Ethnology museum. I highly recommend seeing them all.
Fountain in Antigua that represents sirens
With a few strolls through the downtown core and the central city market, I’m done.
Besides, my friend with the Pair of Brown Eyes is in Antigua, working, so I’m going to meet him there.
I order an Uber and Francisco pulls up. An older gentleman comedically drowning in an over sized brown sweater. We wrestle my backpack into his purple Ion and head off for Antigua. He doesn't speak a word of English, but we have a nice chat in Spanglish, I get a rundown of his entire family situation as he zigzags frantically through the traffic gridlock that plagues this city.
I notice his gas light blinking, but Francisco whizzes through 9 gas stations before he finally pulls into one. I think it’s because he’s shopping for the best price...but I’m told later by my friend that more than likely he spotted opportunistic gangsters hanging out nearby waiting to hold us up at gunpoint and rob us, or pull me out of the car and abduct me.
What was supposed to take forty minutes becomes a three hour ordeal to get to Antigua, the traffic is utterly insane. But we finally arrive. Francisco has
Still wearing the traditional frocks in Antigua.
become comfortable enough with me to hand over his phone, he wants me to take photos of all the ancient churches as we bump along the cobblestones looking for the hostel I booked.
Antigua, if I remember correctly, did not look this gentrified and touristy last time I was here. I’ll admit though, it’s stunning and lively in the twilight with all the twinkly lights.
Happily, I find my hostel. It’s cozy and clean and well situated, I don’t have to go far to find some dinner at a busy taco stand by a church. While waiting in line, I chat up some young Guatemalans hanging by this fountain, they stare at me in shock first, unbelieving that a Gringa is talking to them, and in Spanglish.
It turns out they work in tourism and are fluent in English so naturally, we switch. Both girls are insistent on taking me out clubbing. I’m hesitant because one, I’m 50 and two, I’m going to Chichicastenago in the morning and need to have my wits about me, so I settle for a suggested hipster joint with live grunge music, and I’m introduced to this godawful liquor made of Jamaica
Borracho en Guatemala
Drinking with the locals means trying weird concoctions, like this 20% Jamaica liquor with Sprite. Yuck.
flowers and Tamarindo, which they neutralize with Sprite. Eleanor and Stefanie are lovely and we had tons of laughs, they insisted on paying for my drinks and walking me back to my hostel. We all had a big group hug goodbye.
Antigua so far has won my award for best place on the planet. Honestly! Love Love it here.
Early rise, and time for a chicken bus challenge.
There's a huge public market in a town called Chichicastenago, perfect for some preempted Xmas shopping. I feel further redeemed when I board the correct bus. It was Sunday, and the bustling crowds, basking stray dogs, and flower vendors all surrounding their 400 year old church in a swirl of chaos, the Iglesia de Santo Tomas.
After a little bit of touristing, I sit on the stoop to call a fellow Canadian who runs the Treasures of God orphanage for abandoned children with disabilities in a nearby town called Coban. I didn’t make any plans but perhaps I should have. Naomi is exhausted, but currently has an embarrassment of church volunteers staying with her. No room for me. I left a generous online donation for her with a
Such a beautiful scenic place with cone shaped volcanoes in the background
promise to return next year to help. Back on the packed chicken bus to Antigua, I enjoy the bumpy ride and spectacular overhead jingly music.
One thing I hate about understanding Spanish, is no one expects me to. After all, I am a robust, tall, blonde, blue eyed Gringa. I try not to eavesdrop as the two elderly women behind me quietly discuss how scared they are now that I have gotten on their bus. Seems I have upped their chances of being robbed by gunpoint today. How terrifying. I feel so bad, so I turn to apologize. They freeze in horror. I also feel the need to clarify I’m a Canadian. A honest mistake. They nervously smile at me, their metal teeth flashing.
Now I understand why I get such weird expressions when I board a bus around here!! And here I thought it was my size.
Back in Antigua, I’m finding lots of things to do in this fascinating, friendly town, just walking around on the cobblestone streets is entertainment enough, perusing the touristy stores, watching a wedding procession, enjoying good food at endless trendy restaurants, visiting churches and religious sites, going up the hill
Old buildings that have almost survived the earthquakes over the years.
to take pictures at the Cerro de la Cruz lookout.
I also went out to a Macadamia cooperative farm by chicken bus because horticulture is my thang. Owned by an American expat who I can say confidently is completely off his nut. Living in Guatemala for 60 years will do that to you, surely.
He plops himself down at my table as I enjoy a salad in his outdoor restaurant, I’m a captive audience as he rambles on about American politics as his employees nervously flit about behind him, trying to look busy. Now I have dreams of leaving it all behind and buying myself a nut farm in Guatemala. Like that will ever happen.
When it was finally time to meet up with my beautiful Guatemalan, I was so excited! We haven't seen each other in years.
We situationally text a mutual meeting point, and as I was sipping coffee on a park bench waiting for him, volcano Fuego blows up in front of my eyes.
The ground shakes and explosions of ash echo off the buildings, I take out my phone to capture the moment, only to be tackled into a huge bear hug
Full meal deal
A little local beer with a snack in a glass on Lake Atitlan
by my Pair of Brown Eyes. What can I say, he knows how to make a dramatic entrance!
We picked up right where we left off. So much to catch up on. Last time we saw each other was in Mexico.
My Pair of Brown Eyes happily agrees to act as my pseudo guide. After showing me around his version of Antigua, we went to Lake Atitlan for the day to enjoy a nice boat cruise, the cone shaped volcanos in the background, stunning. Then we made our way by chicken bus to the Pacaya Volcano. We are going to trek that bad boy.
Difficult for me because of my pulmonary oedema in Peru years ago. Anything up is a struggle now. Not to mention all I can think about is Pacaya may explode like Fuego did at any moment. Freaking!!!
My Pair of Brown Eyes teases me relentlessly, he knows I’m well capable. We’ve hiked some of the most difficult shit together in our past. “This will be a piece of cake”, he says. Me, I’m eyeing up one of those rent-a-horses with some serious intent
It turned into the most
Always interesting to pop into a Tienda and see what the typical snacks and drinks are
amazing climb on an active volcano! We could feel the ground shaking underneath us as we ascented. Hot spots steam and the Sulphuric air burns your nostrils. Bucketlist worthy.
After our exhausting day, we found refuge at the Santa Teresita thermal baths, soaking our weary bodies into wrinkly prunes.
I’ve missed My Pair of Brown Eyes. He is a cheeky bugger, and refuses to speak English to me, so I’m forced to immerse. I swear at him in frustration but play along.
While in Antigua we stay with some of his friends, and I get to experience the local way, not just be a tourist. When he heads back to work, I start to think about my next leg of my Central America reboot.
I want to stay here forever, but Honduras is calling.
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