Lerning to Spic

To expand my education as well as my ability to negotiate Latin America, I decide that I need to lern to spic, so over Christmas I head to Antigua, Guatemala, a quaint tourist mecca as well as home to some 80 language schools.

Antigua was one of the three great colonial capitals of Spanish America, along with Mexico City and Lima. Numerous earthquakes caused collapse of most of the major buildings. They were mostly reconstructed, but after earthquakes in 1771 and 1775 the Spanish had had enough and abandoned the city. It remained decaying and undeveloped for the better part of 200 years.

There are lots of ruins: cathedral, monasteries, convents, churches, you name it. After a while, they tend to look the same. Not wanting too much of a good thing, for dinner I head to an oriental restaurant where I find that spring rolls are "Chinese tacos."

As part of my total immersion in espaol I am staying with a local family. The house is very nice, although the student boarders are consigned to the servants' quarters.

Monday is the first day of school. My teacher is Mynor (named after a Guatemalan saint). Luckily, he speaks fluent English since I speak no Spanish. I have him as a private tutor seven hours a day. Plus, I am extra diligent and do three hours worth of homework evrey night. It's a dull week, but not without fireworks.

I mean fireworks. Literally. The Guatemalans are addicted to fireworks. Every day, before dawn and late into the night there are constant explosions, big and small. Everywhere, it sounds like a war zone. One would think that people who had just ended a 36-year civil war might be tired of what sounds like gunfire, but not so. Stall after stall in the local market is devoted to selling only two items, fresh grapes and firecrackers.

During the first week we take a field trip to a nearby village to visit San Simon, a/k/a Maximon, the Wicked Saint, whose effigy is housed in a pagan chapel. He likes alcohol and tobacco, so the devoted pay homage by smoking gigantic stogies and getting drunk (offering him some, of course). He is especially beloved by prostitutes. Candles are lit according to an elaborate color code for specific requests. Because my fellow students won't take my picture while I perform the rites, I light a black candle to put a hex on them. Outside in the courtyard, dogs gnaw at the carcasses of sacrificed chickens.

On weekends we travel. Antigua is a good jumping off point for visiting other places in Guatemala. This weekend I head for Panajachel and Chichicastanango in the western highlands. Departure is at 6 a.m. on Saturday. The drive is about 2 1/2 hours. It is freezing! Although we are at 15 latitude, we are above 5,000 ft. so it gets cold at night. And nothing is heated.

Panajachel is on the shores of Lake Atitlan, a large alpine lake whose shores are ringed with Mayan villages. The program is a boat trip around the lake visiting the various villages. The economy around the lake is devoted to selling stuff to tourists, but it is all fairly low key. The scenery is very impressive.

I figure I had suffered enough during the week and opt for the upgrade hotel, yet my ordeal continues unabated: the TV remote is missing. So, just like the ancient Mayans, I have to get up off the bed and walk clear across the room to change the channel.

The Sunday market in Chichicastanango has been held since long before the Spanish arrived to tell them it was Sunday. It is enormous, a combination of foodstuffs, everyday needs, and tourist junk. At the top of the market square stands the church of San Tomas which features a mixture of pagan ritual and Catholic saint worship. The air is thick with incense as the faithful place candles in mystical patterns and make offerings. On a hilltop just outside of town is a pre-Columbian shrine dominated by an idol which has been "converted" by the addition of a ring of crosses. A steady stream of worshipers brings various animal and vegetable sacrifices. Plus, of course, fireworks.

Monday I am back in school. On Wednesday some local kids come in and present a Christmas pageant. I can't understand a word, which is quite discouraging since I thought I had been coming along so well. Later I find out that no one else could either. Seems that there is a difference between school Spanish and street Spanish.

Thursday is my last day, and the effort to complete the past tense of irregular verbs, rules for use of imperfect tense, and the passive voice causes my brain to explode.

I'm done with school, but not with my trip. On Friday, December 24th I head to Tikal for Christmas in the jungle. Tikal was once was a major Mayan city with a population in excess of 100,000, but has been abandoned for a thousand years. About 20% has been excavated; the rest is still buried. I spend the day tromping around, climbing pyramids, and such overnighting in the park at the Jungle Lodge.

I awake early Christmas morning and climb a pyramid to greet the dawn in solitude. Actually, I am not quite alone, as the howler monkeys vociferously remind me. The park is crawling with wildlife, whereas outside the boundaries most everything has already made it to the dinner table. Toucans are the coolest, but unfortunately I do not have any Froot Loops to lure them down for a picture.

That afternoon I move on to Flores, a tiny, picturesque city in the middle of a lake. The island is only about 400 yards across and is connected to the mainland by a causeway. It has a quaint, colorful, Caribbean look to it. Since it's Christmas Day, I head to the restaurant La Mesa De Los Maya for a traditional repast of tortoise soup and a roast armadillo. I can still recall that savory reptile flavor in every bite!

Sunday is Election Day. In addition to being a national holiday, it is an opportunity for a tropical junket by United Nations observers from colder climes. And they have nice new SUV's to drive. Your tax dollars at work.

I am staying in a nice hotel: I even have a remote so I can get the full benefit of cable TV. I learn from Mexican infomercials of all sorts of miraculous products which, for some reason, are not available stateside. My favorite is the aerosol fat dissolver: after gorging oneself, one need only spritz the affected area. A computer graphic shows how the product penetrates through the pores causing the subcutaneous fat layer to evaporate through the remaining pores. For the skeptical, there are plenty of "before" and "after" photos and testimonials.

Monday is Volcano Day #1. Pacaya is one of the more active volcanos in the world. The start point is a village fairly high on its shoulder. After an hour's uphill walk we get to the fun part. The cinder cone is comprised of very loose black lava at a 55 angle piled 300m high. It looks impossible, but that is only an optical illusion. It's not quite impossible, just extremely difficult and tiring. It's like climbing loose sand -- after every step up you lose almost all your progress sliding back down. At the top clouds of sulfurous steam vent through fissures in the ground. The inner crater spews rocks, bright orange lava, volcanic ash, and poisonous gases at irregular intervals. The ground is too hot to sit on. No safety nazis here! You can walk up just as close as you like. The weenie outfitters won't go to Pacaya because they think it's too dangerous.

Tuesday is Volcano Day #2, the assault on El Agua. Departure is at 5 a.m. Antigua lies right at its foot, so we start the hike well before dawn. No one else was stupid enough to sign up, so it's just me and the guide, who speaks no English. (Of course, by now I am fluent in Spanish. I am able to shout phrases like "not so fast!" "how much further?" and "my feet are killing me!" with facility.) It is miserable. Six hours of slogging uphill with not a bit of encouragement (the guide wants to go home early). Ten miles uphill. Twelve thousand feet (we start at about 5,500.) As we got higher the air thins, so I have to stop every 10 steps to catch my breath and rest every 50 yards to let my heart stop pounding like a pile driver. And it is cold! At least it's a clear day, so I can get a view from the top. Coming down seems twice as far and twice as long. Actually, the descent took four hours, mostly because by then I thought all ten toes were broken. What a terrible idea! Well I'm glad I did it, so I don't have to do it again.

Next day is departure day. I leave at 9 a.m. However, Iberia is flying on Guatemala time, so I don't get to Miami (a 2-hour, 20 minute flight) until 5 p.m.

Trip date: December 1999


My education is not quite done yet. I return at Easter for Santa Semana (Holy Week) and to finish up my grammer. Antigua has one of the more elaborate celebrations in the world.

All night long the faithful prepare alfombras (carpets) make of carefully-poured colored sawdust along the route of the procession. The alfrombra is destroyed as it is trod upon.

They dress up as Roman soldiers or (as they imagine) common folk in Jesus' time.

At three PM on Good Friday the costumes and robes all change to black, because Jesus is dead.

The ruined alfromfras look like modern art,
then the sawdust is swept away.

Trip date: April 2000