Tuesday, May 31, 2016

First Week in Antigua Guatemala

31 May 2016

We're currently in Panajachel (pronounced pan-na-ha-CHEL) which is on Lake Atitlan - and I'm not sure how to pronounce that.

We're here because it's not far from Antigua, just a 2 or 3 hour drive.  So it was easy to make arrangements with a taxi driver from Antigua, and not have to ride cramped up in a bus or van.  (Once one gets to a certain age, comfort takes precedence.)

Plus we actually know someone from St. Thomas who is now living here!  (And who we just happened to run into on the main street as we were heading out for lunch!)

And, even better, this is a gorgeous alpine lake surrounded by volcanoes and mountains.  With amazing vistas, and interesting villages to visit.  By boat, across the lake, with gorgeous views along the way.  How charming is that???

So we're here.

But these photos are all of Antigua Guatemala, and I wanted to do a post before we left.  However, the wifi at our hotel there doesn't like Apple computers, or something like that.  Our hotel lady told me, in Spanish, that people with Apple computers seem to have problems with the connection.  And then she explained more stuff than I could understand, which often happens with my limited vocabulary.

So, the photos.  There are several photos of three different churches in Antigua.  The Spanish, over the several centuries they lived there, built something like 28 to 50-something churches, monasteries, and convents in Antigua Guatemala.  (The number depends on who you talk to.)  This was part of their big push to convert the indigenous people of the New World.  Remember, this city was founded in 1543, just fifty years or so after the beginning of the Spanish Inquisition.

Well, there was a huge earthquake in 1775 or so, and all those beautiful large churches were damaged.  Most of them had the roofs cave in.  The front façades seem to be standing, and many have all the exterior walls.  But the roofs were gone.  And never were repaired.  So the ruins stand to this day, and are considered part of the heritage of this historic city.

I asked our driver about this, why the churches were never repaired.  He said part of it was the expense of the repairs.  Then he continued in more Spanish than I understood.  I suspect the technology for removing the debris and building a new scaffolding on a completed church might have been part of the problem.  The other thought is that maybe the remaining structures weren't considered strong enough for any scaffolding to hold workers as they repaired the buildings.  However, I'm looking at it from 225+ years in the future, when I can see that the exterior walls are still standing.  That tells me that the structures were still pretty strong.  I imagine that living through a strong enough quake to topple all the buildings more than one storey tall would make the people very hesitant about working inside one of those toppled buildings.

One of the interesting features of the Guatemalan churches are the statues on the exterior of the buildings.  We saw this at the cathedral by the central park of Antigua (photos in the previous blog).  But the old historic churches had the statues as well.  Although it looks as if Oliver Cromwell or some of his friends came through, as many of the statues are decapitated. 

There's a huge arch on one of the side streets in Antigua, which I guess was built after the earthquake.  It's sort of the entrance to the large church down the street.  But this arch and clocktower are featured in paintings all around town, it seems to be one of the landmarks in Antigua.  So I visited it as well.  (I saw a black cat using it as a bridge to cross the road and avoid people!)

There were all kinds of people selling fabrics, jewelry, carved wooden objects.  And men carrying a giant xylophone sort of instrument down the street!  So there are a lot of people in here, you just need to try to spot them among the buildings.  (I'm always hesitant to just walk up and ask if I may take someone's photo.  I just catch them in with the landmark, and then highlight them.)

I also visited the Iglesia de la Merced, which I think translates to the Church of Mercy.  Interesting church, all in yellow with intricate white embellishments all over.  And I do mean ALL over!  This was one of the most ornate churches I've ever seen, with an exterior that looks like butter yellow Wedgewood china gone wild, or on steroids, or in hyperdrive.  It was beautiful in its own way, but also pretty overwhelming.  Absolutely overdone.  Like wearing every piece of jewelry that you own, all at the same time.  But somehow, it works.  This church is insane or beautiful at the same time!

I really liked the little kids outside "fishing" in the fountain.  They were dragging buckets in the fountain, and I asked if there were fish.  Turns out they were trying to get the money that tourists throw into the fountain for good luck!
There were a few empty lots full of statues, and it was just the weirdest looking collection of religious statues I've ever seen!  Try to picture religious statues for a parade, that's kind of what they were like!  A young man and his little son peeked in, and the man told me the statues were for the Easter procession every year.  So a parade wasn't too far off.  It was odd, because I had just read an article in a local magazine about how Guatemalan Catholic statues are considered to be some of the most emotional religious statues in the world.  The Spanish sculptors taught the local people how to carve statues, but in Guatemala the local sculptors took the carving to a whole new level.  So seeing these statues was interesting, and pretty amazing.  And yes, you can see the various emotions and anguish on the faces.

Okay, last item - I went to a great little café and bakery for lunch (named Ganache, how could I resist!) - and the waiter was quite friendly.  He didn't speak English, but we had a pretty interesting conversation in Spanish.  And he understood that he had to speak slowly and use simple words for me.  One of my questions was if the volcanoes around Antigua had Maya names.  Because one is Volcan de Agua (Water Volcano) and the other is Volcan de Fuego (Fire Volcano).  He said that Volcan de Fuego has several names, and he told them to me.  But that Volcan de Agua had a huge crater full of water, making a really big lake at the top of the volcano.  (I guess this means it was either dormant for a really long time, or totally extinct.)  Well, one side of the caldera broke off, and all the water went rushing down the mountain and flooded the city of Antigua, absolutely inundating the town.  Like a tsunami coming down the volcano!  So that's how it got the name Volcan de Agua.

Okay, that's all for now.  I'll add a map at the end so you can see where Antigua Guatemala is, and where Panajachel is located.  We only flew into Guatemala City, didn't stay there.  And while we drove along the PanAmerican Highway today, I'm not sure of our route so I'm not marking it on the map.  I'm just highlighting our towns with yellow stars, so you can see where we are.  And of course just a few more photos.

More soon!

Friday, May 27, 2016

Antigua Guatemala!

27 May 2016

We arrived in Guatemala on Tuesday, after our flight from Lima with a plane change in San Salvador.  We took a shuttle from the airport to Antigua, which is about 25-30 km (maybe 15-18 miles?) away.  That trip took over an hour, because the roads wind through the city, then through the hills, then through the mountains to the highlands where Antigua Guatemala is situated.

Once we checked into our hotel, we discovered Richard’s rain jacket wasn’t with our stuff – apparently the driver had moved some things around and we missed the jacket when unloading the van.  Our hotel staff were wonderful and called around until they located our shuttle service and the driver; and a few hours later he came back on another run from the airport to deliver the jacket (with the essential reading glasses, sunglasses, and most importantly the kindle in the pockets!).  Whew, that was a relief and a major problem averted! 

Our hotel is small and charming, almost more of a guesthouse or bed and breakfast.  It’s built in what seems to be the traditional hacienda style, rooms and a long portico surrounding a courtyard full of flowers and fountains.  Thus far, we’re the only guests who have stayed more than one night.  And some mornings, we’re the only people in the courtyard for breakfast!

We have a king bed, and our own little hallway down to a huge bathroom.  I think my favorite part might be the stone tiled shower, complete with a brick arch!  It’s quaint, it’s lovely, it’s comfortable. 

The very aptly named Antigua Guatemala, meaning very old or antique Guatemala, is absolutely charming.  Unselfconsciously charming.  Without trying to be, it’s just charming and enchanting and picturesque.  (And of course, that means I have tons of photos and will cram as many as I can into this blog post.)

Antigua is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, based on the unique heritage that is embedded in the culture of this area.  The town is almost a time warp, with Mayan women dressed in their beautiful embroidered and woven clothing, selling various fabrics and other craft items as they’ve been doing since, well, since the town was founded in 1543 by those oh so unfriendly Spanish conquistadors.  The colonial buildings are still here.  The conquistadors stone-paved roads are still here (and they make for treacherous walking!).  The monasteries, convents, churches and cathedrals the Spanish established, where they converted the Mayans, are still here, some in ruins from the various earthquakes over the centuries.  Even the universities, first founded in 1675, are still standing! 

The Spanish are mostly gone, though their descendants live in this lovely town.  As do many Mayan people, though there are also villages in the hills and mountains that surround the town, where the Mayans live in a more traditional, less colonial manner.

As I said, almost like being in a time warp, a mix of 2016 and the 16th and 17th centuries.  All at the same time.

Antigua is the former capital, so there are beautiful cathedrals, haciendas, mansions, all built in whatever was current in Spanish architecture at the time.  There are even edifices with obvious Moorish influences, even though the “infidel” Muslims and Jews were banished from Spain prior to the conquistadors arrival in the New World.

Antigua Guatemala, elevation about 4900 feet (about 1600 m), is also surrounded by a few volcanoes, which loom somewhat menacingly in the distance.  As we walk into town, we have views of Volcan de Agua; once in town, in the other direction, we can sometimes see Volcan de Fuego (fire).  I’m not sure if these are still active volcanoes, nor what their other names might be.  But we’ve only been here for three days, so we’re still learning about the city and the country.

There were a variety of earthquakes, as I said, and apparently the city gets very flooded during the middle of rainy season, with all the rain running down into the city itself.  So the capital was eventually moved to Guatemala City, a huge sprawling modern city that, on our brief ride through, seemed lacking in charm.  Just big, dirty, and poor.  We’ve been told that the poverty rate in Guatemala is about 50%, and that of the half of the population living poverty, most are considered extremely poor.  Destitute.  Small villages without the modern conveniences we deem essential.  Eking out subsistence by farming, or trying to sell handicrafts, or whatever. 

Education, especially among the indigenous people, is minimal.  The government provides schooling up to about 6th grade – or at least, they provide school buildings and teachers.  The government hasn’t budgeted for school supplies.  Or public education for high school.  Plus children are often needed to help with the family farm, or to sell trinkets to tourists, or even to care for younger siblings. 

Peace Corps is here, not in Antigua but in the small villages across the country.  We met a volunteer, who is training teachers in the “Healthy Schools” program – basically, teaching teachers how to teach students about nutrition, cleanliness, prevention of disease, and such.  Simple things like washing one’s hands, boiling water, peeling fruits and vegetables.  Things that seem simple to us, but when one is following the lifestyle traditions that date back several centuries, well, our ancestors didn’t always boil unclean water or wash their hands or even themselves very frequently some hundred or so years ago.

I’m finding it quite unsettling to be a traveler in a country with Peace Corps, where the poverty is so high, where the disparity between life in country and MY life is so huge.  There are tons of tourists here, from all over the world, because Guatemala is charming and delightful.  And yes, we bring our tourist dollars and buy items from the indigenous people and support those working in the tourism industry.  But I feel like I should be doing so much more, especially as a former PC volunteer.

So while I’m charmed by this town, I’m saddened to see small children selling gum and cigarettes in the town square, or wheeling around wheelbarrows of nuts to sell, instead of going to school.  I’m upset by every young teen with a baby on her back, knowing it’s most likely her child, not a sibling.  I’m in love with the textiles, and I want to buy everything to help every woman who is selling these items to support her family or village.  Okay, I’ll be realistic here, I’m ready to give away all my clothes and buy an entirely new wardrobe of embroidered blouses and woven slacks or skirts, even purses and backpacks, the textiles are that gorgeous.

Enough being sad and maudlin.  I’m cheery by nature and this place is beautiful and fascinating and mostly I’m loving it.  But I’m staying conscious of that disparity as we travel around.  I’m also buying small items whenever I can, but I can only carry a small addition to my luggage.

This place really is paradise for an artist, and I’m in a picture-taking frenzy.  The buildings are colorful, as are the flowers that seem to be everywhere.  There are fascinating architectural details that delight me – door knockers, embellishments on doors to prevent battering rams from finding a smooth surface, ceramic signs for motorcycle parking or wheelchair accessibility!  Even the trash cans on the street look like upscale conquistador mailboxes or something!  (It took us a while to figure out that they were even trash cans!)

There are ceramic bathroom signs, ceramic street signs, decorative tile floors, even tiled window sills!  Most buildings seem to have windows with huge sills that extend out beyond the window and building, with ornamental wrought iron bars for safety; these sills have the most gorgeous tiles, and I’m constantly sticking my hand and camera between the bars in order to take photos.  (People either think I’m insane, or they’re used to crazy picture-taking travellers.)

Plus there’s so much color everywhere!  The fruit vendor stands are mosaics of sliced fruit; market stands are like pointillist paintings, dots of colors merging into a picture; and my perpetual favorite, the women in traditional dress selling more textiles, each prettier than the previous one.  And little pop-up "tiendas," small markets in courtyards between buildings, with more women selling their gorgeous fabrics and textiles.  Truly heaven for fiber artists!

The Guatemalan flag has blue for the two oceans (Pacific and Caribbean), and a quetzal in the center – the quetzal being the gorgeous bird with long swooping tail feathers, all brilliant emerald green with a ruby red breast.  Guatemalan money is named for this bird, so pay for everything in queztals or queztales (the proper Spanish plural form).  The money even has the questal flying across every single bill!  And I found hand-made wire and bead queztals, who are incredible!  Yes, the green one is pretty close to realistic in color, I’ve been told.  I’ve never seen a quetzal, despite our time in Central America prior to our arrival in Guatemala.  I’m hoping I manage to see one on this trip!  (Who knows, I may have heard one – there are decidedly unique bird songs around here.)

Even the license plate shows the Maya culture, featuring one of the Mayan pyramids!  This is Tikal, the largest of the pyramids, and one of the places we hope to visit while we're here.

On Wednesday, as we walked around the central plaza, we saw people decorating the cathedral with yellow and white flags.  And suddenly the church bells started ringing, and guns or noise-only fireworks started going off!  Ring ring ring BAM BAM BAM!  We had no idea what was happening as the pigeons in the park all took flight and started circling around crazily overhead.  We had been talking with two US citizens who now live in Antigua Guatemala, and the man said it was most likely some festival or holiday, this happens all the time. 
As I walked around taking photos of flowers, and telling walking vendors no thank you, I finally asked one young woman who seemed to speak English quite well.  She said that tomorrow, Thursday, was the festival of Corpo Christi.  This is when growing up Jewish is kind of a disadvantage – I knew that Corpus Christi meant the body of Christ, but that was sort of confusing since we’re so far from Easter.  And I had no idea if this was a happy or sad festival.  So I asked, in Spanish, if one says “felicidades” for this fiesta, and she said yes.  So I wished them a happy “Felicidades de Corpo Christi.”  (Which does seem somewhat paradoxical.)

Thursday in town was just exciting!  As we navigated our way along the uneven stone streets and sidewalks (which make walking on level ground feel something like hiking mountain trails), we heard more and more of the fireworks, or cherry bombs, or guns or cannons for all I knew.  Homes, shops, and buildings all seemed to have yellow and white decorations on their doors and windows – huge fabric bows, yellow and white flowers, balloon bouquets, garlands of greenery.  Some stores had a metal frame and fabric angel sort of figure, somewhat abstract, with incense burning.

And then I saw a little boy getting dressed as an angel by his mom.  He was so adorable, and the mom and he agreed that I could take a photo of him in his white robe and golden wings.  He gave me a huge smile when I showed him his photo!  We saw other little boys dressed as angels, always with the gold satin wings.  (They looked like the incense burning angels in the stores!)  There were also adorable little girls in white lacy dresses with white feathered wings – one mother said I could take her daughter’s photo, but the toddler started crying when I pointed the camera so of course I thanked the mother and apologized for scaring her little girl (who was just so cute, and I’m sorry I didn’t get a photo of one of the girl angels).

There were various designs in the middle of the road, huge rectangles of some grassy stuff surrounded by yellow and white flowers.  Then there was one place where the grass carpet was decorated with circles and diamonds of colored sand – it really was beautiful in the middle of the stone street!  Cars avoided driving over it, so it was easy to get a few photos.  No idea if this was a Catholic or Mayan or what kind of tradition, it was just really interesting!

We did our usual wandering around, looking at things, talking to people, getting information about shuttles to other towns.  And then there were HUGE loud blasts as two young men set off charges in portable metal containers, walking down the street BAM BAM, and then BAM BAM, announcing the procession!

Again, I really don’t know what this was about.  There was a crowd of people, with a few altar boys and a few priests maybe, all in white robes.  People were carrying ornate metal things on poles.  There was a highly embroidered golden canopy in the center (yeah, it looked like a chuppah to me!), and someone under the canopy carrying a golden mirrored object that was somewhere between a cross and a sun thing.  They were in the middle of a crowd, and it wasn’t easy to see exactly what was happening.  There was a small band at the end of the procession, a few trumpets, a French horn, and a drum.  And, after the procession, a couple of vendors selling colorful bags of cotton candy, or inflatable toys – items that had nothing to do with the religious aspect of this crowd.  The entire group, religious part and sales part, walked down the street and around the corner to the cathedral. (The photos of this are at the end, super enlarged.  Really fascinating to look at the people and the details.  Many of the women have flower petals in their hair, so at some point people are throwing the flower petals around.  As I said, we really don't know what this was all about!)

There were a few more blasts, the church bells rang, and then about five minutes of firecrackers going off right in front of the doors to the cathedral!!!  I mean, how many of us in North America have firecrackers in church???

That seemed to be about it for the celebrations.  People cleaned up the designs on the streets, parents took their little angel-dressed angels home, and the bells and blasts continued intermittently throughout the day and into today (Friday). 

Just to top off the Fiesta de Corpo Christi, we found a bagel place for lunch.  This is where I met the Peace Corps volunteer, with her parents who were visiting.  Anyway, on our way back to our hotel I stopped in at the Choco Museo, thinking I’d have just a small treat for my afternoon snack.  We’d stopped by on Wednesday, but they had no upcoming workshops; they try to have workshops for three or more people.  Well, the staff recognized me and asked if I was there for the workshop that just started, with only one person as the student.  What could I do but join in, right? 

Their procedures and techniques were just a little bit different than in Lima, though our instructor knew my original teacher, Katarina.  (She’s internationally known, I guess!)  We rolled ganache using cacao powder to coat our hands, though I managed to get covered in chocolate anyway.  Then we made molded truffles, though they called these bombones, or bonbons – dark chocolate couverture in the mold, later filled with the Kahlua-laced ganache we made at the beginning of the class.  Then we dipped our rolled truffles in chocolate that we tempered, decorated with a few nuts – I made triple-level truffles by sprinkling my ganache balls with a little hot pepper; dipped in dark chocolate; sprinkled with a few almond or macadamia bits; a second dipping in the couverture; and finished with a sprinkle of the dark pure cacao powder.  WOW they are amazing!  And you know that Richard is enjoying my new avocation as a chocolatier. 

No matter how messy I get!

(Yes, the proper procedure is to lick all that chocolate off one’s hands.  I excel at that part of the process.)

As always, I have more photos than narrative.  These are the photos that look great enlarged.  So enjoy!