Tag Archives: Antigua

Synchronicity

The past week has been filled with lots of simple pleasures… a lot of time with spent with new friends, delicious food, poking my head around doors for a stickybeak, taking photos… i also took some more Spanish lessons (yo tengo muchos verbos, pero es necesarrio que la practica mi conjugacions. Yo soy retarda.)

Monday night, I went back to Reilly’s to host trivia but they had another bloke lined up (they had forgotten to tell me) so i wound up drinking instead. No problema. I swapped the prep work I’d done for a t-shirt and a shot. It was a good night. They’re a fun bunch of people who work there. I hung out at the back bar which Heather was working. It was nice to meet a girl close to my own age. We hit it off, and she invited me to join her at a spa later in the week to celebrate her birthday.

On Wednesday, i went out to run some errands (astounding how you can still come up with a ½ decent ‘To Do’ list, even when you’re just bumming about in Central America). I was standing outside a little cafe i hadn’t been to yet perusing the menu, when two older blokes waved me in – insisting the food was terrific. And it was. I had a tasty felafel in a pita with lots of fresh salady stuff, and a spicy red home-made shrimp picante that was to die for. I had a quick chat with one of the blokes, Stan, before setting off. I didn’t think much of it at the time.

Aussie Dave & Kiwi Suze (who Sparkles had introduced me to) invited me around for dinner that night. We shared some wine & a tasty feed of quesadillas. Dave and Suze are really well-travelled and good conversationalists. I really enjoyed their company – even though Dave decided I was a bit of a bogan. We had a good laugh. We ended up in a bar called Lava, and met the owner – a dude from Perth who insisted on buying us drinks. We figured it’d be rude to say no. Afterwards they took me to the Van Man. A man who sold carne tortas from the back of his car down in the sketchy part of town for 20 pretzels. Finally, drunk food!

I later got to thinking about the bar owner… ‘how does one end up owning a bar overseas?’ I wondered how easy it would be. What kind of money would it take? Did he make a good living from it?’ While I don’t seriously think I’d venture into hospitality, and I’m not sure it would be in Guatemala … the idea is definitely something I’ve parked.

The next day I was out to lunch at a great lil Asian place with Shelby, when who should walk by, but Stan! I called him in and he joined us for lunch. I can’t think of too many situations where I’d invite a random old man to join me and my young friend for lunch. But it’s starting to feel like the norm, now.
Stan is sharp. He used to be a bigwig for a major financial institute in the States. He’s been living in Antigua for three years. He kinda fell into this business exporting jade jewellery, all centred around the Mayan zodiac. When he learned of my professional background, he asked me to do some consulting work for him. It’s totally feasible I can do this while on the road. Earning money while I travel. What’s not to love? I’ll let you know how I get on with this.

I spent some time hanging out with Shelby, just listening to music & gossiping. I did a bit of sweet negotiation and got her a good price on my apartment, so she could move out of a shitty host family situation. She was absolutely delighted. And so she should be. My apartment feels like a real home. (Albeit a noisy one, on the chicken bus road into town.) I have been very happy there. Blanca and Enrique are good landlords. And with our teacher Phil, who’s an ex-cop, living next door, she’ll have someone who’s got her back.

Shelby informs me I’m older than her mum. Which kinda of weirded me out. But she also reassures me I’m much younger than her mum in many ways & that she could hang out with me for days. I guess there is a big part of me that’s become quite maternal over the girl. She’s incredibly brave and smart but she’s also giving to a fault, and a bit naive. Shelby’s going to learn a lot of lessons the hard way – the same as the rest of us, but she’s going to be doing it in a foreign country and without the usual networks to rely on. I reckon Shelby’s got guts. And you could do a lot worse than to have a daughter like her.

I also spent a bit of time with Jenny. And the more time i spend with Jenn, the more I want. She’s an incredibly solid bird but she’s led this rich & full, risk-taking life. The older people I have met here in Antigua all have one thing in common – they’ve all got these lively eyes shining a light on their bright minds. They just radiate energy. They’ve all got stories. And they’re still making stories. None of this getting old business for them. And Jenny’s no exception. She was very generous in sharing so much of herself with me. It’s funny, because Jenn is old enough to be my mum and I feel like Shelby, I could just hang out with her for days. She’s simply inspiring. You’d be a very lucky person to have a mum like Jenn.

There was around about 20 years difference between Shelby and me, and about the same again between me and Jenn. Although we three are incredibly different, I felt like Shelby showed me how far i’ve come in the past 2 decades and Jenn was showing me what i can look forward to.

And I’m crying fiercely as I write this because I realise that meeting these two gutsy gorgeous girls isn’t about connecting for a moment, it’s about connecting for a lifetime. And that’s something I never expected to get out of doing the TEFL course.

On my last day, i got up early to meet Heather and another one of her friends. We went to this stunning spa resort built from stones, high up on a hill in a place called Lago Amatitlan (not to be confused with Lago Atitlan). We spent a very girly day in thermal pools which were filled with water from Volcan Pacaya. We enjoyed a sauna, and then had massage, facial and chocolate scrub. It was 6 hours of sheer bliss. And all for the price of a massage back home. By the end of the day, Heather was talking about possibly coming to meet me in Colombia for Christmas. I hope she does.

I had one last Spanish lesson with my wonderfully nutty teacher, Sandra and said goodbye to girls in the office of my school. I dropped in on Jenn on my way home to squeeze one last hour in. I couldn’t actually bring myself to say goodbye to Jenn: “Nos vemos” translates to “See you later” and I hoped I would. I got home, knocked on Phil’s door and was happy to find him home. I told him I would collect him to have a couple of last socials at La Sala, so I could say one last farewell to Shelby.

Well of course two drinks is never two drinks, especially when your drinking buddy is double fisting. We ended up at Gaia where his friend, Patty worked. We had a few more there and then got some takeaways. It ended up being a very late drunken night, a lot of talking shit and some damn fine home-made drunk food.

I ended up falling into bed with less than 2 hours til the alarm was due to go off at 3am. I woke up still completely dressed (always a good sign) to the sound of my doorbell going off. I had turned off my alarm, and fallen back asleep. So despite all best intentions for a completely different night and a relaxed wake-up, get ready – it was a stupid mad scramble to get my shit together and get out the door as quickly as possible. Miraculously, I didn’t forget anything or fall over. I did however forget to brush my teeth. So, here I am on bus after 14.5 hrs seriously considering a month off the booze. And my teeth feel furry.

Welcome to Honduras.

Running up that hill

Last Monday, we had our second last day of class. We had a paper and a portfolio to turn in the next day, but I managed to get 99% of it done by the time London Mike bowled in from San Andres that afternoon.

I had somehow managed to score myself a ‘job’ hosting trivia up at the Irish pub and I was due to start at 7, so I made arrangements to meet him beforehand for dinner & drinks.

I was having a post-class bevy the week before, minding my own business, when I got the gig. I got talking to the bartender who suggested I stick around for trivia that night. I mentioned that I used to host a night in Sydney, the boss overheard me & asked me, “Would you like to host ours next week?”

Sure. Why not.

He gave me a one pager which answered most of my questions. I asked him how much he’d pay me. He said he’d pay me with a dinner and all I could drink. I laughed and asked him if he knew I was Australian. We shook hands, and that was that.

London Mike and I had met in San Ignacio Belize, had met up again in Flores (in the north of Guatemala) and had kept in touch while we both studying. Sometimes when you meet people on the road, they remind you of friends back home and it instantaneously feels familiar. It’s like that with Mike, who I had nicknamed Sparkles. We were both looking forward to catching up and letting our hair down a bit.

It was a pretty international crowd at Riley’s and they got rowdier & rowdier as the night went on, but it was a fun night. Sparkles pitched in with the scoring and music round, so it was an easy night for me. I drank like drinking was a sport, and I was representing Australia. We stayed until stumps. Sparkles walked me to my door and stumbled off into the distance to his hotel.

On Tuesday, I woke up with a raging hangover the size of a Whopper burger. I only just scraped through that last day of school, and somehow managed to finish all my work.

I called Sparkles, when I knocked off. He was having a social in a nice little courtyard bar with Dave – an Aussie bloke he’d bonded with during a small bus crash up north. I met them for a beer. We later met another one of Sparkle’s mates on a rooftop bar, a young Scottish lad by the name of Cameron, who would come to make a really big impression on me in a very short space of time. We ended up in the bar where Shelby sells shots on Ladies’ Night. You can get a plate of nachos about the size of a horse’s head at Monoloco’s. I kid you not. And damn good they are, too. So we did. Many beers later and I have to say I don’t really remember much of the night.

I collected Sparkles on Wednesday morning, we went to the markets to get some stuff for dinner, and then went for a walk up to Cerro de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross). I can see it from my lil casa. It’s lit up at night, providing a nifty navigational point if you’re really drunk. I’m sure that’s not what it was designed for, but it’s come in handy a couple of times. There’s a great vista of the city from up there. It was a cracker of a day, so we decided to go back to the Sky Cafe to get the photos we missed the day before. We ambled about a bit more and then went our separate ways for a few hours.

I had him and my lovely teacher, now neighbour (just call him Stalker Phil) over for a roast dinner. Phil’s from Watford and there’s not a lot of English folk here, so I thought he might appreciate Mike’s company and a traditional English meal. I did a bloody good job of it, even if I do say so myself and we had a very civilised night.

Thursday, Sparkles and I were up at 6 to climb Pacaya, an active volcano about 1 & ½ hrs drive from here. After being dormant for a century, it erupted violently in 1965 and has been erupting continuously since then. The last time was in May last year. It rises to an elevation of 2,552m which is just slightly higher than Mt Kosciusko, NSW.

I leaned in to talk with Sparkles at one point on the bus trip in, and all I could smell was booze. I don’t think I smelt much better, truth be told.

It was a hard 1 & ½ hour hike up a pretty steep incline. I was bringing up the rear of our group, huffing & puffing and behind me were about ½ dozen caballeros – basically dudes with horses. The word translates to gentlemen in Spanish, but they were pissin’ me off by breathing down the back of my neck and asking me if I wanted a “taxi” the whole freakin way. As much as I would have loved to have jump on one, I knew I would regret it if I did. The only way you’d get me on one of those things is if I was with a particular group of friends and we were in fancy dress. You know who you are.

I made it. And it was totally worth it. Even though, we didn’t have the clearest day, it was simply stunning in a very surreal way. It was like standing on another planet. Volcanic ash is like rough, rocky black sand. There was a remarkable amount of tenacious greenery growing. Smoke billowed from natural potholes. We climbed into a big one and it was like stepping into a natural sauna in the cloudy chill cloaking the mountain. We toasted marshmallows, and breathed in the sharp crisp air.

I had an afternoon kip, and later that night, met up with Phil, Sparkles and Cameron and a few others at Gaia – a gorgeous hookah bar with lush cushions and beautiful decor. We had a few drinks and easy conversation, while an awesome local band played. Albeit too loudly. But hey, it’s Latin America – they don’t do ambience here.

Friday afternoon, Sparkles, Cameron and I had a very cultural afternoon. We stopped into La Merced, which is a building I’ve walked past nearly every day. It used to be an old monastery, which was built in the 1700s. Outside, there are all these intricate white religious carvings, niched into the happy yellow walls. Inside is surprisingly massive and the courtyard features the largest water fountain in Antigua. From the top terrace, you’ll get a great view of Volcán de Fuego, which you can see almost everywhere from this pretty little city. But not like this.

We then walked up to a place called Casa Santa Domingo, a glorious old hotel which is situated in the stupidly beautiful grounds of another monastery. We wondered around for a while, oohing and ahhing at the gardens and the statues
and the art and the relics and the pretty Scarlet Macaws, which are kinda like rainbow lorikeets but bigger and brighter.

From there, we got a ride in a fancy golf cart to a place called El Tenedor del Cerro (which translates to “the fork on the hill”). It’s essentially a wedding reception venue / high-end restaurant, but the reason we went there is because the place offers what has to be the best views of the city, and all throughout the grounds is this eclectic collection of completely unexpected weird-arse large-scale sculpture by lauded local artists. We spent a good couple of hours there, taking photos and fooling around.

We missed the return shuttle so I flagged down a fancy car to hitch a ride back down the hill. The wife of the Guatemalan driver was an American lady, all decked out in jewels. I asked her for her story and she told us she had been living here on-and for some 30 odd years. Her mother was a missionary who took in 58 orphans and gave them a home. She told us she was still in contact with many of them. Amazing story right there in a 15 min drive. Awesome stuff.

We parted ways for a bit of downtime. The boys had to pack as they were both leaving the next day. Cameron back home to pick up his studies back in Scotland. And Sparkles was headed for Honduras. We met up one last time at Monoloco with all their mates. Many beers and many silly photos later, I bid my farewell to them both rather unceremoniously, given how much I had enjoyed their company. It’s very likely Sparkles & I will be able to link up again in Nicaragua. and I wouldn’t be surprised if Cameron rocks up on my doorstep one day.

I’ve spent the last two days just chilling out, mucking around on my new netbook, listening to music, watching movies, cooking meals and drinking wine. I did venture out yesterday afternoon for a tasty Asian meal and a poke around a contemporary artist’s workshop, but apart from that – it’s been
pretty quiet since the boys left town. Which has been fine by me…

Mysterious ways

Religion on the whole, doesn’t really blow my skirt up. Very little of it makes sense to me. The do good, be good bits do. But it’s not hard to work that stuff out on your own, is it?

It’s easy to write off folks with a faith because… well, there’s evolution for starters… but really, I think because there are so many freaking religious nut jobs out there. Ranging from those who live in pretty green countries who are warring with their neighbors, through to racist grandmothers who go to church every Sunday, and the pedophiliac priests who don’t think my gay friends have a right to be married.

Having said that – I have met some wonderfully smart, incredibly articulate, well travelled, open-minded and completely inspirational people who are religious.

I don’t think I had ever met a nun, before I was invited to have dinner with ACDC’s Aunty Ivy. She totally fits my definition of cool. She is interesting. And interested. She’s quietly spoken by nature, but you can see how rowdy she’d get at Rabbitoh’s game. She’s got a gentle spirit but I don’t think you’d be wise to be messin with anyone she loves. She struck me as someone who likes her creature comforts but she’d also happily sleep on a dirt floor in an African country to do volunteer work with kids in need. I just loved all the contradictions. I don’t know why, but it never occurred to me that you could be a nun and like a tinny or two.

A couple of years ago, I met this bloke at a party full of fitness freaks. Short and ruddy with an unruly beard and a gruff voice – his name was Graham Long and he was the larrikin pastor of a well-known chapel in Sydney’s red light district, a place called The Wayside. Their ethos is giving people a hand up not a handout. They provide a range of services to people who have fallen, well… by the wayside. Everything from showers, to referrals for health and home agencies, advocacy, and I love this: “a judgment free space for those just looking for a chat, a coffee or a quiet place to think.” God only knows, we all need that. I remember him (Graham, not God) saying to me that he came home “at the end of every day completely spent, but completely energized” by what he did for work. And that he didn’t really consider it a job. He’d do it even if they didn’t pay him.

A few weeks later, I was reading an article about a woman who was coordinating a singles / charity event. I really liked the idea of mixing the two. Fail to meet the right bloke? That’s okay. You still get to feel good about yourself, because you’re doing something for someone else. She said, “I don’t have a job. I have a life I love.”

Both of these things have been rattling around in my head for a long time.

I suppose you could say I’ve done some interesting stuff for work. I’ve been the voiceover in upscale department stores. I’ve sold everything from ice creams, to ‘sexy giftware’, to cars. I was the production manager on a low budget film shoot. I did a short stint in the medical imaging field. I once wore a bunny suit (man, those things Smell. Bad.) I was the graphic designer of an independent newspaper. I worked in the engineering industry for a while (loved those boys. They swore like sailors and introduced me to French champagne). I worked for a wee while at one of London’s top ad agencies as a proofreader. I waited tables (that only lasted 4 hours). I have hosted trivia nights and been the MC at weddings (although i did the latter for love). And most recently, I was one of the Marketing Managers for one of Australia’s most famous icons (the pointy white building on Sydney Harbour).

I’ve spent a bit of time over the past year thinking, what would make me feel like the pastor or the social entrepreneur? What do I want be when I grow up?

Things that kept popping up time and time again: writing, teaching and / or training, having my own consultancy…  I also harbored romantic notions of owning  an old-school pub and spending my days listening to old sea dogs swill stories around inside their schooners.

So, when I decided to take some time out this year to travel – I also decided I would work towards effecting change in this part of my life… To that end, I found myself signing up for a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) Certification.

It has been a particularly intense month. I haven’t done any formal study (apart from a few professional development courses) for a decade, so it was a complete shock to the system. I don’t know what planet I was on – but I really did think I was just going to swan on in to our pretty lil Spanish colonial school for a few hours of class, maybe do a bit of homework in the gorgeous garden with its statues and water fountain…  and then breeze through a couple of prac lessons. I mean – there couldn’t be that much to teaching English. Surely.

On day one, our teacher told us to not make plans for the last two weekends before the course ended. And now i know why. We’ve basically squeezed a uni semester’s worth of work into 150 hours. We’ve had 6 hours of practical teaching which has necessitated hours of lesson planning, prior. We’ve had reading almost every night for anywhere between 1-2 hours. So I’ve seen the inside of the classroom, the computer lab, my text books, and my eyelids. And very little of Antigua.

We had to study grammar. And then we had to study how to teach grammar. And then we had to teach grammar.

In the 70s, grammar wasn’t on the Australian curriculum. So it was just as well, from a very early age – I had taken a personal if not rather peculiar interest in the way our language was constructed. I read a dictionary like a normal book. Like from front to back. I was editing the high school newspaper at age 13. I took a 2 day intensive course on grammar at Sydney University. Of my own free will. (nerd.)

A native speaker simply acquires knowledge of grammar through common usage. We don’t need to understand it. I intrinsically understand what goes where and when. I just suck at knowing what it’s called and knowing why we use it. And i wouldn’t be all that bothered, except you do kinda need to know this stuff if you’re going to teach English to others. And you need to be prepared that some of your students will know more about grammar than you do.

I still don’t remember what past perfect progressive is.

Anyway, I was absolutely fine with it all until I had started having The Meltdown, which began on Wednesday night. All the feedback I was hearing (& I should make the distinction between hearing and receiving) was so damn ‘constructive’ – I was wondering if I was in the wrong place. Maybe i wasn’t cut out to be a teacher after all.

My good friend Andrea prompted me to recall how it felt to start any new job. I don’t know about you, but I always end those first few weeks in a new job, thinking maybe I’d rather just work in a record store.

The Meltdown bubbled and boiled for two days. Apparently The Meltdown is not uncommon among TEFLers. One of our classmates dropped out. Another got quite ill. My stress just manifested through my leaky eyeballs.

Then at the end of my last prac lesson on Friday – my students made an announcement (in English) saying they wanted to host a party for me to say thank you. Then they laid out a little spread of home-made Guatemalan food in the garden. And sung me happy birthday. (My birthday’s not until November.) And well, that just sent me right over the edge. There were tears. Of gratitude. And i admit, of relief. But mostly of gratitude. These people have so little and yet were being so generous towards me. I was just lost for words.

For the last few days, I had been of the mindset that I wouldn’t actually pursue any teaching jobs. Because I felt like I sucked at it. And because grammar could go fuck itself.

But then last night we had a wee graduation party at our school. And of course, as fate would have it – a lady who had taken the course with our teacher in Feb and who was now teaching in Costa Rica had come up to Guatemala for her border run. She had walked past the school earlier that day, swung in to say hi and ended up at our party.

We talked, and she told me she had gone through EXACTLY the same thing. She said it was entirely different, once you were out in the field. She said it was far more relaxed than she ever imagined. And all the students wanted was to practice their English and to have a laugh. And then she said this: She didn’t feel like it was really work, she had so much fun everyday.

And I was reminded of the social entrepreneur and the pastor. Maybe God does work in mysterious ways.

The long and winding road

I am exactly where I am meant to be.

I believe that we all have a bunch of lessons we’re supposed to learn in this life, based on what we’ve learnt in previous lives.

I believe there are a number of ways that we can go about achieving these predetermined objectives.

We can linger on a lovely lane, ride a rocky road, stagger up stupid street (my preferred MO) or do the sensible thing and take the most direct route (no alliteration necessary).

We can go via limo or in a tuk tuk (sometimes people have no choice in terms of the vehicle and i am of the view that it’s completely irrelevant, anyways).

I also believe certain people will come into our lives to test our knowledge or confidence of where we are going. Some will come into our lives to distract us (and this can be a bad thing or a good thing). Other people are sent to help us along our way.

So I always try and tune into this concept of “Am i in the right ‘place’ (and i use this word in the broadest sense) to facilitate whatever it is I’m supposed to be learning?” (the big one for me at the moment, after seeing an amazing TED talk by Brene Brown is ‘vulnerability’. I’ll save that for another post).

So, what I want to know is this: Do you ever experience déjà vu?

I usually experience déjà vu when I’m having a really inane conversation with someone I’ve known for ages… You know we’re talking about the price of broccoli or something equally fascinating. Or I’m with a colleague I’ve worked with for years, and we’re mulling over a spreadsheet. So when it’s in this context, you can kind of write it off as a weird-arse / boring version of a memory (or a glitch in the matrix, if you prefer such things clad in cool black trench coats).

I have long harbored an image, that my brain is a room that contains a raft of filing cabinets. And there’s this really tiny & wiry old man who’s been keeping the files for years. And he’s lovely and all, but while he used to be good at his job, he’s getting a bit slow and doddery these days. He forgets where things are. Or it takes him a long time to retrieve a file. Sometimes he snoozes on the job. And he doesn’t maintain the room as well as he should. The lights above the cabinets are a bit sketchy.

When I have déjà vu, I feel like the light bulbs are just flickering on and off momentarily.

Now… i did a bit of reading about this, and psychologists make a distinction between déjà vu (which translates to ‘already seen’) and jamais vu (which translates to ‘never seen’).

Jamais vu describes that sensation you have, when you feel like you’ve been there before – but you know it’s simply not possible.

I’ve experienced this 2 times here in Antigua. And it kind of freaked me out. I got all goosebumpy. And shivery. And hairy. You know what i mean, right? But post the mini-freak, I found there was also something slightly reassuring about it.

It made me feel like – I am. exactly. where I’m supposed to be.

I don’t know what’s going to happen next. I don’t actually care. I trust that the Universe knows what’s she’s doing.

I trust that I am on the right road. And as far as I’m concerned a tuk tuk is way cooler than a limo.

4 August

PS: I’m particularly keen to hear your stories… What have been your weirdest experiences of jamais vu.

Don’t worry, be happy

Sometimes it’s not the big adventures, but the small pleasures that gets me springing around and acting all crazy in love like Pepé Le Pew.

I never intended to come here. I was going to go to Costa Rica to do my TEFL course. I met a few people on my travels who’d discouraged me from CR saying, that while it was utterly stunning – it was almost as expensive as the States. They suggested i might enjoy Guatemala more. Everyone who’d been, just raved about Antigua. I got the impression that while it was far from being off the beaten track – it was completely worth it.

So, I flipped a coin, and Guatemala won the toss. A few days later I was here.

The school arranged my apartment, and to be fair to them – i didn’t really brief them properly as to what was important to me. I ended up in a pokey little hotel room above a deceptively lovely Italian restaurant run by a friendly Swiss man. It was a stone’s throw from Central Park and a block & a bit from my school, which is just un-fallible in terms of location. But it had these extraordinarily tiny windows up near the ceiling, looking up and out to concrete walls. My biggest deal breaker when it comes to a home is natural light.

I realized very quickly, I didn’t really want to spend any time in the place. Which could be viewed as a positive -because it meant that i would get out and see a lot more of the city. But, if you’re going to stop somewhere for a month – you don’t want to spend the ENTIRE time in cafes & bars. You want to feel like you can chill out at home. And invite new friends over for dinner. And what-have-you. Otherwise, you may as well stay in a cheap hostel, right?

So, I ‘moved house’ today. The change i felt when I walked into my new place was instantaneous. And it all came down to the natural light.

My apartmentito is in an old stony colonial building. Upstairs, in the kitchen & living areas, there are these low-set bay windows with rustic wooden doors which open inwards… They offer a view onto a busy & beautifully wonky cobblestone calle and beyond that, I can see a small mountain range, called El Rejon. One of the montañas is called Cerro El Narizon (or “Big Nose Mountain”) & it reaches an elevation of 2,247m (approx the height of Mt Kosciusko for my Aussie readers).

I unpacked all my worldly possessions & immediately went out for a walk, so I could orientate myself at this end of town.

And i got excited all over again…

Antigua is a city that reveals herself slowly. On her own terms.

Depending on what day it is & what time of day it is, sometime she will be closed for business: All her heavy-laden, impenetrable wooden doors with their intricate wrought-iron door knockers: You daren’t knock, for fear of what beast you might stir.

Sometimes she flirts with you…teasing you with what could be yours…
her doors ever so slightly ajar: Showing you an insight into everyday lives: Extended families & friends all noisily coming together from school & work, wherever – to enjoy a late lunch of the most simple but sumptuous food, in a big homely kitchen you can’t see but can absolutely smell and almost taste.

And other times, she flings her gates wide open and invites you into her come-on-in courtyards with insidious ivy twisting over stone bricks that have weathered all sorts, for hundreds of years: waiters dressed in vests who warmly welcome you with a “bienvenido” and tempting you with just one wine…

Never is this on the same street at the same time. So you can have a completely different experience of a street, each and every time you walk down it…

That feeling of newness hasn’t left me.

I went to the grocery store, and standing in the checkout line – it dawned on me, again: I’m in Guatemala!!!

I jumped in a tuk tuk and spoke only in Spanish to Saul…  we bounced along the bumpy road to my new house. Saul was sweet enough to help me with my bags all the way to the door and farewelled me with a kiss on the cheek (this is such a commonplace event between complete strangers in Latin America, that even a driver kissing me on the cheek doesn’t take me by surprise anymore).

I celebrated mi nueva casa with a couple of different types of cheese, some spicy salami and a gorgeous bottle of Chilean Cab Sav which cost me the princely sum of AUD$6. Simple pleasures, indeed.

The Cave

It’s a long drive from Antigua to Semuc Champey. But I’d met a few people on my travels who’d advised me I absolutely needed to get my arse there if I ended up in Guatemala.

A minivan picked me up from my school at 2pm on Friday… I made small talk with the compact Korean girl sitting next to me, and slept on and off for the 9 hour trip.

The last 11km took over an hour. An absolutely nutty fuck-off cobblestone road – and I use that term loosely. Road, that is. Not fuck-off. Shockies are evidently optional on vehicles here.

At 11pm, the driver dropped most of the folk on the bus off at one ‘hotel’ (basically, a few wooden sheds with some camp beds); and then there was just me and a Spanish couple left. He then dropped just me off at a separate hotel. I made jokes to the Spanish couple about how they would be last people to see me alive if i ended up being chopped up into little pieces. I don’t think they saw the humor. And I suddenly realized there was absolutely no one in the world, (who cared) who knew where I was. At least the school would think something was strange if I didn’t come back. Surely.

Clearly. I was. Tired.

The next morning, I woke up, kidneys in tact. I had some brekky and was picked up by the minivan for our tour to Semuc Champey. I was very unprepared as to what to expect. I knew there was going to be some hiking and some swimming involved – but that was it. They don’t believe in brochures or briefings or the like in Guatemala.

It was about a 1/2 hr drive to the entrance of the site where we were greeted by the ferrety Toto, who told us in pidgin English what we were about to do. I got about 1/4 of it.

Semuc Champey sits above the Cahabón River. It’s a decent hike of around an hour through a rough walking trail in pretty dense jungle to the pools, which is why we were here.

The whole time, the tiny Toto was yelling at us, “VAMOS!” which translates to “Let’s go!” I wasn’t the only one sweating bullets by the time we got to a lookout, which gave us an amazing view of what we were about to experience: A series of eight tranquil limestone rock-pools featuring the most luminescent aquamarine waters, have formed over many hundreds of years, between these two massive rampaging waterfalls.

Once we got down to the ‘top’ pool, we stripped down to our togs (that’s bathers or swimmers for you non-Australian readers) and followed the very energetic (read, hectic) Toto.

We’re in one of the most peaceful places on earth and again with the “VAMOS!”
Tranquilo dude. Tranquilo.

Each of the subsequent pools were stepped down a little lower than the last. Toto had us rock-hopping, scrambling, slipping and sliding from one to the other. It was way cool. At one point he and one of his amigos sat us down between their legs, made us cross our arms, and pushed us like a human bobsled down a natural slippery dip into a pool below. It was at once both terrifying and exhilarating.

We hiked back to where our bags and boots were, got dressed and walked back to where we started.

After ordering our lunch from a little cafe, we were then led across a crickety old wooden bridge, which reminded me of that brilliant scene from ‘Stand By Me’ when River Phoenix and Corey Feldmans’ characters dare the fat kid to run across the tracks before a train.

We were given the inner tubes from tires and off we went down a muddy river, following the fast currents, avoiding obstacles and getting yelled at by Toto. It was all over in 15 minutes and in retrospect it was a rather weird little diversion which I suspect was to give the folks in the kitchen time to cook our lunches more than anything.

We had some much needed tucker which was truth be told, pretty average, but better than the MacDonald’s we’d been led to the night before for dinner (WTF!?)

After lunch, we were led up a track to the mouth of the K’an-Ba Caves. We then spent the next couple of hours caving by candlelight! I’m a very inexperienced caver but I coped with the multitude of obstacles nature presented us here.

The water levels varied from ankle deep to neck deep but what made it tricky was holding a lit candle out of the water and trying not to slip over. Anyone that knows me, knows I’m capable of tripping over on a skirting board.

There were all manner of ridiculously unsafe climbing aids made of a variety of materials that would satisfy absolutely zero ISO standards. At one point, we had the opportunity to climb a rope ladder up through a waterfall. I had a crack at it, but missed my footing on the second rock ‘step’. I couldn’t regain my footing. I couldn’t hear Toto (even though I knew he would be yelling at me from somewhere). And I couldn’t see anything but the waterfall in my eyes. I lost my nerve and backtracked down, opting for the far ‘safer’ bamboo ladder instead.

A short while later, “we’re-not-in-freaking-Kansas-anymore” Toto demonstrated how we could jump from some high rocks inside a cavern into a tiny pool. Now that, I knew I could do, having done my fair share of jumping from high rocky ledges into the Georges River on summer days when a bunch of us would decide it was just too hot to go to high school.

We regressed more or less the way we came into the caves. It was a completely different day to that we had left behind: it was CHUCKING it down. Soaking wet, we were ferried back to our respective hotels.

My newly allocated room lacked a towel, a toilet seat (why this is a challenge for Latin America, I will never understand. I mean, they come as a set, si?), oh and hot water. I’ve been a week in Guatemala now and am yet to have a hot shower. Guatemala is not the Caribbean. Call me a princess but if it’s okay with you, I would like a hot shower at least once a week. Thanks. Especially when it’s raining. And I’m wet. And cold. Grrrr!!!

Anyways, a bit later on, we all reconvened at my hotel which conveniently had one of the few bars in town, for some dinner and drinks. Absolutely knackered – we all called it an early night. I slept like a log.

We set off early for the long drive back, and I have to say I’m chuffed we did it during the day. We made our way through windy roads and passed dozens of locals making their way to gorgeous colonial churches in these pokey old villages that were surrounded by these lush green forests and were shrouded in clouds.

The word ”Guatemala translates to ‘land of the trees’. And I now know why. The flora here is among the richest and most varied in the world. There are some 8000 species of plants in this country. That blows my mind.

I also saw skanky chickens and scrawny goats and skinny horses. And more dogs lying in the middle of the road than anyone could possibly count. I saw a big fat boar on a leash getting cajoled up the road, more than likely to the dinner table. I saw many many randoms dressed in colorful clothing just standing in the middle of fields, looking like they were waiting for a sign. Families of four on the back of mopeds. Ancient women catching rides next to 18 year olds in the trays of the Guatemalan equivalent to an Aussie ute.

And all of this was underpinned by the omnipresent marketing, on rocks (now there’s an untapped media!) and makeshift billboards, for the local and presidential candidates. These became more and more frequent the closer we got to the City. I decided the candidates all looked like real estate agents or soap opera stars. Except for one little old lady who looked like your typical Guatemalan granny in traditional clothes. I also decided if I was allowed to vote – I’d vote for the dude that looked like a Guatemalan version of Buddy Holly.

I was beaming by the time we got back to Antigua. I’d had an absolutely amazing adventure. The lactic acid was rapidly building up. My muscles were getting sore. Big time. I had felt like I was a 20 year old contender in Survivor the day before. I felt like I was about 50 now. But I was so so happy. Even happier when I discovered my shower in my apartment had been fixed and I was finally able to have a hot shower. Call me a goddamned princess.

Sunday 28 August

One more cup of coffee

I crossed the border to Guatemala with relatively little hassle all things considered, and caught the collectivo to St Elena. From there I caught a cab to Flores. But only after having the usual argy bargy with the driver over the agreed fare. I remember my friend Claire saying she never tipped cabbies on the assumption they were taking their tip anyways. I suspect she might be right. Got no change, my arse. Fucker.

It was pissing down when I got to the gorgeous rainforesty Los Amigos Hostel (this was the impact of Tropical Storm Harvey who was making headlines and making his way to the Belizean coastline). I was welcomed by London Mike and the two Carolines. Mike showed me where the ATM was, so i could withdraw Quetzales. We agreed it was just easier to call them Pretzels. We got stuck into the drinks, played a few rounds of Pigs and then I snuck off for a nanna nap. Toowoomba Caroline woke me up for a skinny dip. Some people love getting their kit off in public. I am not one of those people. However, I was totally up for a night swim in the warm freshwater that surrounded the tiny island. We later went out for a few drinks at a couple of bars, where we watched an excellent 7 piece band squished into a space that we’d see 3 musos in, back home. I got my first chance to observe the locals. First impressions? The females ‘carry the race’, as my Dad would say. Meaning the girls are much better looking than the boys.

They all left the next morning. Because I am traveling slower than everyone else, I feel like everyone’s always leaving me. I’m getting used to it now. The upside is, I’m constantly making new friends.

I had brekky in a cafe with a vista of the lake, revising my Spanish notes and then spent the afternoon taking photos.

On Monday I got up at 4 to take a tour of Tikal. Of all the Mayan ruins I’ve seen so far, this has by far been the most impressive. I won’t bore you with all the historical details, here. What I will say is this: The area the National Park covers is approximately the size of the Byron Bay shire. It is also one of the locations for the original Star Wars films. Nerdcool!

I retired early after being bored to bits by a very earnest Dutch boy who wanted to talk stats pertaining to world economics. Should have crapped chatted him, but I was so dang tired I couldn’t be bothered.

Next morning I jumped in a tuc-tuc to the tiny airport to get on a tinier plane for the flight to Guatematla City, where I was picked up by a driver from my school to take me to Antigua.

We drove past what seemed like a million billboards for a multitude of candidates running for President. The election is on 11 Sept. One woman has divorced her husband so she can be eligible to run for office. There have been reports of politically related violence including the murder of three candidates since campaigns started in May. Checking the smarttraveller website, it warns I should reconsider my need to travel. Mmmmm.

It’s hard to image why. Antigua is so ridiculously pretty with it’s quaint cobblestone streets and colonial buildings. It’s nestled between three impressive volcanic mountains, which wear cloudy cloaks. This time of the year, it’s mostly Spring-like sunny days with the ocassional afternoon shower which provides a perfect excuse to duck into a very European-feeling cafe. Guatemala has what is considered to be (among) the world’s finest coffee beans and what’s more: they know how to make it here!!! It has its own Central Park, where horse-drawn carriages wait for a fare. Young lovers steal a furtive but passionate kiss. And bored armed policemen watch the girls go by. It’s a big city and from what everyone tells me – it’s not without its problems of petty crime. But there’s a very cosmopolitan international feel to the place and it’s all wrapped up in this old world charm. Yes, there are many expats and tourists and students but still the locals look you in the eye, smile and say ¡hola!

I just know I’m going to be very happy here for the next month, while I undertake studies and training to become a teacher of English to students for whom English is a second language (TEFL / TESOL). Teaching is something that takes my interest as a potential alternative career (I’ve been in marketing for 12 years and prior to that I was a graphic designer). This seems like a good way to test the waters. I’m also hoping it will help my own pursuit of a second language. And additionally it may become a source of income to help sustain my travels for a bit longer. (I just may need to take on my stage name for professional purposes.)

Wed 24 Aug