Antigua, Xela, San Pedro, and a Mom.
San Pedro was left behind with a little more Spanish under our belts, more memories tucked away, and a hell of a shuttle ride out. It rained hard while we tacked up the road leading out of the lake causing small streams and rivers to form along the asphalt edges. We were sad to leave but excited to see what Antigua held behind it’s name. A seriously last minute airfare deal (4 days prior) pursuaded Elissa to fly her mom out to Guatemala for a week to join us in our journey. The thought of backpacking around with your girlfriend’s mother in a developing country would more often than not cause quite a stir. We, however, could not have been more excited. This was the first time in our journey where someone we knew and loved would be traipsing around with us, seeing and experiencing the adventure first hand. Naturally, we felt the pressure to come up with a solid plan. Our ride dropped us off in the cobblestone streets of the picture frame perfect spread of colonial Antigua. After an hour of backpacking around town trying to find the perfect place for a few days con mama, we gave up and put our bags down at some random hostel. The wet cobbles glistened and the puddles in the streets mirrored the abundance of lighting and ancient buildings. Photographic instincts kicked in and an initial night walk and shoot followed.
We booked a shuttle to the airport in the morning and picked up Caryn in Guatemala City. It was her first time setting foot out of the US in 40 years, and also, coincidentally, the last time she went backpacking. She was enthralled being in a foreign country from the minute she stepped off the plane and it was easy to see it was going to be a week of showing a very different world to a fresh pair of eyes. We kind of needed that sense of complete stimulation overload that only new foreign eyes posses, because the normalcy of traveling tends to desensitize your perspective. After an emotional greeting we raced back to Antigua to start exploring.
Caryn loves woven fabrics so it only made sense that she needed to visit us in Guatemala. Antigua was a goldmine for her. We would often find ourselves walking down the street and turn around to see that Caryn was missing. All the beautiful, colorful, and artistic crafts would catch her eye and she would get vacuumed through the doors. I watched this phenomenon happen several times. We explored artisan markets, stores, shops, and Mayan women roaming the streets selling everything from fruit to hammocks, setting ourselves a few steps back to watch Elissa’s mom interact with the experience. There was a lot of explaining that we didn’t want to buy crafts. When you look at something with any sort of interest here they see a very high potential for a sale. When they see a wide-eyed craft-loving American woman completely fall in love with their goods, they react. Fun was had, and smiles were dolled out from the general gentle Guatemalan demeanor. A glamorous amount of food was also had, because that’s what mothers like to do. Antigua offered a wide array of cuisine to dine on and we tended to gravitate towards the locally owned eateries. Fresh, delicious coffee was also surprisingly easy to procure.
After climbing the hills, seeing the markets, exploring the outskirts, and everything in between, we continued on to Quetzaltenango. Xela has some unique, gothic style looking architecture and a notoriously gritty, but lovable vibe. Xela doesn’t have the omnipresent colonial presence that almost all older cities in Latin America have but instead gives off a late 1800’s feeling. It felt a little bit like the lost towns of my upbringings in upstate New York. Roman style columns held up the roofs of large multi-use buildings, banks, and businesses next to churches with huge, ornate wooden doors. The streets and night life came alive on the weekend with college style bars supporting a live music scene. Getting lost in a new place is how I get to know the areas the best. Walking down random paths you would never normally go usually results in some of my favorite moments and ultimately photographs. This further drives my tendency to roam and these streets kept calling me by my full name. Early one morning I set out before the girls were awake and hung out with Xela before it woke up. Mayan women were carrying goods on their way to the market, dogs were scouting the roads in small gangs, and young men were shuffling on their way to class or to work. It was a quiet, beautiful place to get lost.
An important stop in Xela was Trama Textiles, a cooperative set up for displaced or abused indigenous women to make and sell their goods at prices they all agree upon. A little research showed us that this cooperativa was part of a network of 17 groups of weavers aiming to give these women a safe place to work and demonstrate their weaving skills. We were the only visitors on that day so there didn’t seem to be any weaving classes offered. After browsing and buying a few gifts we were asked by the in-house volunteer if we would take part in a backstrap and general weaving demonstration in order to provide pictures and video for their website. Caryn found herself transported to heaven while she was given first hand demonstration on Mayan weaving techniques. I snapped away while the girls learned the mystery behind the beautiful textiles created daily by Mayan women. Later that day we took a trip out of the centro and into the fast-paced bustling mercado scene to shock Caryn a little bit. We passed by section after section of freshly prepared fruits, vegetables, live poultry, ceramics, garments, and men making furniture. We disappeared into the large warehouse-like buildings with mom in tow. Little ceramic pots were bought as souvenirs as 8Q liquados were bought next to cobblers repairing shoes. Later that night we found an almost unimaginably delicious Indian restaurant before retiring to our family run hotel.
Up until this point we did not try out a chicken bus. I knew that a Guatemalan trip would never be complete without taking a decked out, 1980’s Blue Bird school bus for transportation. Xela was were we met our first chicken bus ride. A quick ride on a city shuttle taught us to keep our eyes close to our valuables. A woman saw me snap a picture with my iPhone and told me to put it away and be careful. After we were dropped off in the outskirts of the mercado we went over some basic street smart guidelines with Caryn. The other sides of Guatemala, the 70% or so that live below the poverty line, was all around us. As we walked single file through the fringe of the mercado we realized that our route was going to carry us right into it’s heart. We were offered everything under the sun on our march to the station. Boxes of live chickens, corn on the cob, tomatoes, razor blades, shoes, belts, hats, deodorant, radios, sunglasses, melons, bananas, pants, boots, water, and ice cream were all at our disposal. I was about a solid foot-and-a-half taller than every living thing around us as we made our way through the maze of elderly Guatemalan sirens chanting out the commodities they had to sell. Women that looked older than the land itself were planted firmly on the ground vending food as they probably have been doing their whole lives. I kept an eye on Elissa and the other on Caryn as we made our way through the buildings towards the light of the bus station. When we breached the mercado it almost felt more secure to be back in there than the pure and utter chaos of a second-class bus station in Guatemala. Luckily a man quickly spotted us and guided us to the bus we were looking for, free of charge. I think these buses are privately run because the ultimate goal is to get as many passengers in it as physically and humanly possible. Forget about getting comfortable on a chicken bus, it’s not meant to be. Before our bus took off I climbed up on the roof to get a picture of the bus station from above. Shortly after two men began placing large portions of sheet metal roofing on top, nearly killing one of the helpers when a piece fell down. All of these details did not ease the maternal mind of Caryn and how her daughter and boyfriend are getting around in developing countries.
After cramming about 60 people on a school bus meant for 40 children we began to take off. Our bags were securely placed behind the last seat of the bus, as were we. What happened in the next 3 hours is a whole story in itself. The ayudante seemed to not understand that there was no more room on the bus. As the bus rolled along it would stop and pick up more and more passengers. Soon we were all sitting 3 adults to each seat with the last person sitting half-floating in the air only suspended by the person across the isle doing the exact same thing. To collect money the ayudante would somehow slither his way through the entire bus. He then opened up the backdoor, while traveling about 70 mph in the pouring rain, climbed up the ladder to the roof, and reappeared feet first at the front door of the bus. All luggage was tossed up to the roof of the bus when passengers came aboard and the ayudante would then tie it down with ropes. At one point, by my best estimate of counting heads, we had approximately 100 people on one school bus, with luggage. It was raining so hard during this trip that the windows had to be shut, thus adding a further degree of discomfort to our transportation situation. Not to mention that we were sitting on seats that had been overused, abused, and punished through years of getting children to school followed by massive amounts of Guatemalan transportation. As we approached the familiar entrance of San Pedro we both wondered how the hell the bus was going to make the almost 180 degree turns down the volcanic landscape into the lake. This question was thankfully answered with harrowing 3-point turns. The man that was the very last soul on the back of the bus would help the driver when he was going to hit the mountainside or go over the edge. Caryn, like any mother in this situation, was not pleased.
When we finally arrived in San Pedro it was raining harder than I’ve ever seen it rain before. We were dropped off at the center of town, no where near any hotel or hostel. Torrents of water were charging past our feet, making solid footing quite difficult to find. By the time we found our hippy hostel (7$ for 3 people per night) we were absolutely soaked through. The rain left eventually and everything took on that fresh, new mountain air scent that only a passing storm can leave. The next few days were spent showing Caryn everything that this Mayan world could possibly offer to an outsider. We explored the tuk-tuk filled streets of San Pedro to show Caryn everyday life up in the market. San Juan, San Pedro’s neighbor, was having it’s annual fair that weekend so we naturally wound up there. This small village had set up a proper fair, complete with carnival rides, dozens of food stalls, cannon-like blasts every 5 minutes, and Mayan families celebrating their culture. We followed our hearts through the streets and our ears to the music. A large crowd surrounded several dozen men, women, and children donning traditional celebratory costumes and masks dancing to live music. A slow, beautiful boat ride to Panajachel gave Caryn the experience of the lake that words can’t describe. We played with a little Mayan family on the boat and the girls were more than enthralled to get their pictures taken and to take ours with their fathers cell phone. An obligatory shopping excursion followed in Panajachel, which has some of the best prices and biggest selection of Guatemalan good’s to bring home gifts for loved ones.
A visit to Rosa’s family was a must so Caryn could see what our experience living here was like. Rosa was surprised to see us and immediately handed Flor de Maria over to Caryn, who was now smiling ear to ear. In English, but still through the universal language of love, Caryn thanked Rosa for taking care of her daughter, to which Rosa acknowledged. She served us up some fresh coffee that her husband grew before setting off on her daily 8AM market routine. We left, gathered up our stuff, and sought out the next chicken bus out of town.
Since it was a chicken bus it naturally did not set off smoothly. Waiting by the church we were informed that there was a bicycle race blocking the entrance and the bus couldn’t make it to town. Instead 25 people were put into the back of 2 pick up trucks, and flew down the bumpy, twisty road hanging on for our lives to a gas station where a bus was waiting. After boarding we waited on the hot, sweaty bus for 1 hour and 45 minutes while cars, bikes, tuk-tuks, and other buses lined up behind us blaring their horns in discontent at the race. Another 90+ person bus ride dropped us off in a random town to catch another bus to Antigua. The bus started taking off before Caryn had both feet in the door, which is not something you should be having your mom experience. After getting back to Antigua we reflected on the absurd but memorable transportation we took Elissa’s mom on. Some of the best memories of a trip outside of your element can quite often feel uncomfortable, dangerous, and completely absurd in the moment. But these moments are more often than not the most real experiences you can have, and often produce the longest lasting memories.
Transportation is a very easy and amazing way to connect with a culture, as long as you are taking the types that the people native to the area are. It’s often more easy (and more costly) to go the travel agency/shuttle route, but the rewards are often greater and give you more of a badge of honor, so to speak. Caryn’s time came to an end with us and a very sad departure ensued. We spent a week as dorm buddies, and in one case triple bed buddies, but had an absolute blast. A piece of home came and left us in Antigua and it took us 2 extra days to recover and leave this touristy but comfortable town.
At this juncture I must apologies for the massive quantity of photos. There was a lot to see that week.