Monday, August 1, 2011

Fourth Week in Antigua

This was the fourth week in Antigua for both of us, but it was the last week for Br. John. And it was a short week. Last Monday (July 25th) was the day that Antigua celebrated its original name day - St. James, or Santiago - and all the schools in town were closed, including the language schools. But there was plenty going on in town.

Two of the major public events were the two parades, one in the morning and the other in the late afternoon. The morning one was the very long one, with all the schools of the city represented through bands, student groups, pious displays, the equivalent of prom queens and kings, along with a host of other things. Seeing Miss Teen Antigua in the plaza that morning, Br. John commented on the dubious privilege of competing so as to be able to walk through cobble-stoned streets in high-heels. It's clear that this whole thing is a long-standing occasion and everyone gets into it. All the students from Colegio La Salle lined the main street during the parade, with their logo wear quite prominent, cheering on their band and generally having a good time.

That evening, another approaching band drew my attention and I went outside to investigate. The shorter evening parade was approaching. Led by dressed-up characters and representatives of the society overseeing the parade, this was a giant float with the statue of Santiago, taken from his normal location in the cathedral and placed on this 1000 lbs. platform. Those carrying the float looked to be students from various schools, and they would switch out with another group after going a certain distance. The whole thing took very careful planning and supervision, since it was like moving a schoolbus-sized float with 40 drivers. But it went off without a hitch, with the civic band bringing up the rear and breaking out into a Souza march every now and again.

Br. John had a new teacher this week, Mercedes, and so he planned to attend school on Tuesday. Br. Francisco had invited us to join him and Julio for a trip to Lake Atitlan, since Tuesday was a holiday for the school. I decided to go along, using my rule: "Do that which you would most regret not having done later." I don't follow the rule all of the time, but this time I did and I'm glad I did.

We left very early in the morning and drove north. Along the way we stopped at a popular road-side restaurant for a traditional breakfast. Inside, I was reminded of a lodge in Yosemite. In the corner, but fairly prominent, were two ladies who were making tortillas without stopping. And when you received your tortillas, you could tell that they were right from the grill. It was a fine way to begin the day.

After a lot of driving, the lake was in front of us and we stopped to admire the view and to take a few pictures. Every nook and cranny along the road had vendors lined up, ready to sell you something. But they were nice enough and after a while we simply drove on to our destination, Panajachel, one of the lakeside towns. The place was real busy around the market, but the beach area was practically abandoned. Apparently, the action doesn't really begin until later in the day, and this tourist season hasn't been all that good anyway. We parked the car and were immediately offered a place to eat, a boat ride, a tour, whatever. Francisco and Julio are pros at this and simply feigned some interest.

After speaking with one man, we were led to one of the private boats and they negotiated a price to travel across the lake. If we'd taken the "public" boat, it would have taken half a day to get to Santiago Atitlan, our destination, since that boat stops at every town along the lake (and there are 12, with all of them - except Panajachel - named for the apostles). It was great to have a private ride across the lake on a wonderful day with a steady breeze and a great temperature. The lake was practically deserted, with only the occasional boat far away.

On the other side, we made our way into Santiago Atitlan, where we spent some time wandering the little streets, stopping by various vendors, and generally enjoying the atmosphere. We visited the ancient parish church, dating back to the early 1500's, where an American priest was martyred some 25 years ago and is still remembered and venerated. One of the photographs I took includes a lens flare that appears above the banner of him that hangs outside the church. Inside, even though it was morning, a number of people were praying. The place was still decorated for the feast of Santiago, since that had also been their patronal feast the day before. Outside, a carnival had been set up for the evening's activities.

Gradually we leisurely made our way back to the dock and from there back across the lake. The gas for the outboard motor ran dry in the middle of the lake, but the boat operator had an extra can of gasoline handy. It would have been an interesting adventure to be marooned in the middle of Lake Atitlan for a while. Once back on the other side, we drove back to Antigua, stopping at another restaurant for our lunch. This one was also quite impressive - although very reasonably priced - with a wide open kitchen when you walk in, and seating areas radiating out from that central kitchen. We returned to the community in good time to have a short siesta before evening prayer.

Classes continued as usual as the week progressed. Yes, that is the main reason I'm here, but it makes dry reading for a blog. My understanding of Spanish is improving bit by bit, especially when my teacher is able to make connections between a variety of word forms or sentence structures. It's those kinds of relationships that I find most helpful. Not that I think about those rules all the time, but I believe that for adults, rules or relationships provide a supportive structure around which we can build our conversation journeys. That's what's working for me right now, anyway.

On Thursday, John and I and our teachers were invited to join a group going to a local pueblo called San Juan del Obispo, where there is a convent that used to be the bishop's residence and where there are many shops and craft tiendas. So we decided to take the class on the road. Each of us continued to talk with our teachers, and they continued to teach us, only now using the experience itself as the basis for our conversation.

I thought that we were going to take a camioneta again, but instead an apparently full van stopped and we were all urged to stuff ourselves into it. The place was a sardine can, but it seemed to work. I counted 25 people in that converted van, all quite cozy (if you like that sort of thing). Thankfully, the journey was short and soon we piled out near the old convent and had a tour from one of the sisters there. After the extensive tour, which included the preserved rooms of the former archbishop, we were led to a nearby house where the man made wines out of various fruits. We were urged to take samples, but John and I decided not to participate. (We were prejudiced for the grape, don't you know.) That little visit took a while, but gradually we left and went to another house where the proprietor was the third generation to make chocolate from scratch. She showed us the entire process, complete with samples, and many of us ended up buying chocolate blocks. Who can resist?

The final stop was at a carpenteria, which took a little searching. At the time, they were making bookcases and serving trays. One of the workers gave a complete description of the process (in Spanish, of course, always in Spanish) while John wandered around the shop like a kid in a candy shop. He's a long-standing woodworker and enjoyed being in his element. He asked questions, tried some of the tools, and checked out the wood. His judgment: a pretty good place. Then it was back to school in a real, relatively roomy camioneta and on to the afternoon classes.

On Saturday, John had arranged for the two of us to take the bird-watching tour at Filadelphia, a local coffee plantation that is covers over 650 acres of the valley and hillsides, reaching way up into the cloud forests above Antigua. We were picked up at 5:00 AM outside of our door and spent the subsequent 7.5 hours wandering around their very impressive property (coffee factory, 5-star hotel, restaurant, recreation facilities, horses, etc.). Our guide, Roberto, was an avid bird watcher himself. As he was driving he would often stop and point out a bird he'd noticed from the cab. The other passenger was Carlos, our guard. Against what, I don't know.

Every once in a while we would stop and walk around a bit, waiting for birds or following their songs in the hopes of seeing one. We heard many more birds than we saw. Both Roberto and John could pick out particular species simply by their song. I thought their music was nice but often could go no further. We spent a good deal of time at an observation deck that doubled as a restaurant on the weekends, and later on went up into the high country (8,300 feet) and the cloud forest. Lots of lush vegetation there, along with natural orchids, dense undergrowth, and chiggers (more later). We would walk the paths or follow the songbirds, gratified with just a peek of one of them. John thought it was great simply to be able to see so much of the property and the natural surroundings.

The following day, and especially today, the evidence of that journey is tattooed on the lower half of my body. The chiggers (or niguas, as they call them here) have implanted themselves in about 100-150 places on my skin. They're less than a millimeter big, so you can't really see them. But I can sure see the evidence of their presence - worse than mosquito bites and itchy / painful to a significant degree; reminds me of poison oak. Apparently, this will last for two weeks with the main symptoms lessening after 3-4 days. All I know is that right now it's almost impossible to sleep, let alone lie down. But I'll spare you the gruesome details. Suffice it to say that next time, if there is a next time, that I go somewhere "natural" or with tall grasses, I'll take all my clothing and wash it immediately after such a trip, along with taking other measures.

On Saturday evening, we went to Mass next door at La Merced. Right next door, at the arch, they were having a political rally with music, speeches, bombas, and everything else thrown in. It was a rather interesting experience of our contemporary church to have the priest drowned out occasionally by loud explosions, music, and speeches. Thankfully, the homily was short. Afterwards, we were in time to see the fireworks, which were sent up from the street. OSHA would have had a field day.

On Sunday, we had a goodbye party for John. That afternoon, he had taken the community out for lunch - we took a community photo on the street along the way - and that evening the Brothers decided to have a little fiesta for him. It was a fine evening affair outside along the courtyard of the house, with the sharing of favorite songs, stories, and the like. Between the Spanish we knew and the Spanish that we should know, we did just fine.

This morning, at 5:00 AM, John was picked up outside of the house and brought to the airport for his journey home. We said hasta la vista and that was that. It was great to travel here with him and to share our time together in Antigua. Now we just have to speak Spanish to each other when we're both back in Napa.

For more photos than you might like, with their captions, click on the slideshow below: