Central America Caribbean
February 24th 2010
Published: February 27th 2010EDIT THIS ENTRY

It was quite a relief for me when Antigua, which meant language school, was only a bus ride away. Although we had been doing pretty well on the Spanish that I already knew, I was keen to learn a lot more, and still feeling very frustrated at not being able to understand as much Spanish as I could speak.

When we arrived in Antigua, we were collected by our new padres (parents), Olga and Hermando, who drove us to what was to be our new home for the next two weeks: a pretty yellow house replete with golden dog called Ringo and volcanic views (literally). Slightly less picturesque than Volcan de Agua, that loomed over the courtyard, was the leather factory next door, where animal skins hung out to dry on washing lines.

The family seemed lovely, though with all the extended members coming and going constantly, I was never really sure who was actually a permanent resident of our house. Jennifer, the six-year-old grandaughter of our temporary parents, proved to be my favourite family member. A beautiful little girl, with the gorgeous shiny black hair that is typical of Guatemalan women, she seemed to find endless joy in trying on our make-up and rifling through our things; picking up a bag or hairbrush and asking ´es de tu o Finnola?´

´Pretty colonial town´is a description in Latin America much like ´college town´ in the States: both are over-used and you do learn to disregard them. But Antigua is a great resemblant of this oft-used phrase. Cobbled streets, pale yellow churches, pretty fountains and big arches make the town look like it is full of big delicious sponge cakes that are too good to eat. This is best seen in Parque Central which is constantly full of international Spanish students, locals selling their wares, and richer Guatemalans who come in from the city to enjoy lunch in one of the countless cafes serving good coffee, smoothies and cakes.
Antigua is also known as one of the safest areas in Guatemala, but as with all rules, there will always be an exception or two.

Our first night in Antigua wasn´t great. We discovered that Antigua - a high altitude place that has cold evenings anyway - was in the middle of a cold snap. This meant thermals and jumper to bed, and painful mornings in our wholly uninsulated room. Furthermore, we experienced our first traveller crime, when some rank opportunist mugged us on our very road! We had gone out for a drink with our old friend Gary from Geary (who had recommended the language school), and on our way home a man grabbed my wrist and demanded ´money, money´. He didn´t get much, but needless to say, it wasn´t an ideal way to start our time in Antigua.

Mugging and cold aside, our first week in Antigua was a success. It was great to have three home-cooked meals a day, and my Spanish lessons were coming along pretty well. Being already in the possession of some basic Spanish, I felt pretty confident with going over the first principles of the language, and my teacher Mayra enjoyed being taught about the proper uses of English insults such as ´wanker´ and úp his own arse.´

Fin and I soon settled into a ´back to school´routine: up for breakfast at 7.15, school from 8-12, back for two-course lunch, some kind of extra-curricular activity and homework in a local cafe; and then dinner at 7 and meeting up with school friends in the evening. For the first few days we would eat our eveing meal with the family, and so practice the day´s Spanish, but with the arrival of three more students in our house, meal times were necessarily divided up between family and students. In our second week, we started eating with the family again because the two wierd Mennonite students had left to go and work in an orphanage, leaving me, Fin and Zack, a Canadian whose unwashed hair won him the nickname ´Greasy One´from Garry. Zack was a lovely guy, but completely lacking in basic manners and hearing. This meant that he spent meal times shouting ´que?´at anyone who spoke to him, and soon became known as ´mas pan´by the whole family. For at every meal - which was always a grand affair - there would be a full breadbasket that Zack would empty without so much as a thought to the other diners. He would then ask for ´mas pan?´(more bread), not even blinking an eye when Olga´s acquiesence to his wishes necessitated going out to buy more bread. At one dinner, Zack actually reached over Hermando´s plate to help himself to the father´s own personal breadbasket. He was absolutely oblivious to the death stare that he received from the head of the table.

Of the extra-curricular activities that made up our daily routine, I was most enthusiastic about my group salsa lessons. After a free introductory session, another student and myself signed up to have further lessons. Somehow these ´group lessons´ended up being partner lessons, with just my myself and an English guy who was referred to by Garry as ´Greasy Two´. Greasy Two had two left feet and no realisation of it. I would spend my lessons trying not to get stamped on by his giant walking shoes and if I wanted to have a go with someone who knew what he was doing, then I could get twirled around by the teacher, who - though highly skilled - was literally about half my height. I let Greasy Two think that I was leaving Antigua earlier than I was, and when one day I walked past the dance studio and saw him salsa-ring with another poor girl, he almost hid his head in shame, obviously under the impression that I would be upset that he had replaced me!

Certainly the most spectacular sight that I have seen so far on my travels was in Antigua, on the day that we trekked up Volcan de Pacaya - a live volcano. On our way to the volcano in the minibus we had some problems with one man, who seemed to be under the impression that he was on his way to El Salvador. He also made us stop the bus half-way there, as he thought that he had lost his bag. Fortunately, five minutes later, he was able to recall leaving said bag in his hotel room. It was quite a relief for everyone, when within five minutes of beginning the trek, this man threw down his bag of beers and his walking stick, exclaiming that he was going back to town.

The hike up to the volcano´s peak took about two hours, and as we left in the afternoon, we were able to see the amazing view from the top before, during and after sunset. There was flowing lava just ten or so yards from us, and the smell of burning rubber, as the soles of some people´s shoes (including mine) began to melt on the volcanic rock. Even with the hopping from foot to foot to avoid the smell of burning flesh, we stayed at the top for a good hour to marvel at the sight of the three volcanoes that stood in the distance beyond the clouds. Being as high as we were, it looked as though you could just walk out onto the clouds and reach the next volcano.

After two weeks we were a little sad, but more than ready to leave Antigua. Although the cold snap had cleared up, it soon became apparent that the family dog suffered from some kind of bowel problem, and at times, we woke up in an absolute stench - the doors and walls of our room being made up of what seemed to be driftwood. Jennifer was upset to see us go, but largely consoled by receiving my non-functioning American phone, and as her waving figure became smaller from our mini-van view, Fin remarked that she would have forgotten about us within the hour. Who knows, but I don´t think either me or Fin will ever forget her make-overs, or the smell of that dog.


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