Author: Nicole Vander Meulen
Date of Trip: October 2015
After three weeks in the Yucatan, consecutive nights of hurricane-level rains pushed me south to Guatemala. Some people linger in the capitol for a day or two while others try to avoid it altogether. I opted for the latter—and a cab directly to Antigua, an hour west. I’m surprised at the number of family and friends who had already passed through the cobblestone streets of this colonial treasure and its iconic lemon arch. Like all the must-sees on the Gringo Trail, I’ll have to get used to following in the footsteps of others. It’s all been done before.
And like most gringos in Antigua, I signed up for a Spanish language course: eight continuous days of intensive, one-on-one (that’s mano-a-mano) lessons with an old Guatemalan named Juan. Small in stature, with a few missing teeth, he’s been teaching Spanish for over thirty years. Although, he preferred telling chistes rojos, or dirty jokes, to dredging through monotonous grammar with an American girl whose brain stopped absorbing and regurgitating classroom information almost a decade ago. At the end of four hours, I couldn’t tell him my name in English, let alone otro ejemplo of a verb ending in “-ar.” My tongue won’t miss stumbling, instead of rolling, over double Rs, but I will miss that gapped-tooth grin imparting colloquialisms like “que volcán,” which is how Guatemalans say a girl has big boobs: how volcano! I can’t say my Spanish has improved much.
Afternoon classes, early sundowns, and late nights left me little time to explore the city’s architectural relics or cultural activities during the first week, but walking out the front door each morning with Volcán de Agua greeting me as a friendly neighbor would do, felt like enough.
Agua wasn’t my only good neighbor. I encountered an entire cast of characters who consider Antigua home, whether they were passing through with their backpack, bike, or van; or had already made the full transition to expatriate—neighbors whose journeys began on opposite sides of the globe, but ended up on the same side of the continental divide: a convergence of misfits.
The individual decisions we made that landed us all in the same place at the same time deserve their own storylines, and we don’t have time for that here. We don’t even have time for mine, but the sum of my decisions led to an afternoon stroll through Antigua. It’s a barrage of colors. Twisted vines, orange and purple blooms crawl over the marigold walls, trying to touch the jade stones in the sidewalk. There’s a rainbow of fruit begging to be eaten on the corner. Watermelon pink, mango mango, and orange green match the hand-woven tapestries and rows of sugar skulls for sale in the market of artisan goods.
I want to knock on every massive wood door. Whose eye would eye see in the peephole? What secret garden are they hiding? I peeked into one particular storefront, Dyslexia, a used bookshop, and fumbled through the yellowed pages of a few titles. I decided on the Pulitzer Prize Winner A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek after very little persuasion from the bookstore’s curator, Bill. He and his silver goatee hail from Tennesee. But the real selling point was the free beer ticket to the adjoining bar, Café No Sé. Both are owned by John Rexer. Ten steps later, I cracked open a Victoria and the front cover of my new book in the candlelit back bar. No filaments here.
One drink usually leads to seven, but I held my ground. I moseyed back to Casa Del Sol, my Airbnb, only to discover that the property manager is the accountant for Ilegal Mezcal, the handcrafted Mexican liquor originally bootlegged for consumption at Café No Sé. He doles out literal tokens of appreciation for staying with him, good for one shot of Ilegal Mezcal at nowhere other than Café No Sé.
My neighbors, the longterm Casa Del Sol residents, had already spent their tokens, and consecutive nights at the bar, as evidenced by their matching Donald Trump tee shirts. Ilegal Mezcal sponsored the “Take a Shot at Donald” fundraiser at Café No Sé. Supporters bought five shots of Ilegal Mezcal; proceeds went to support undocumented children in the United States, and the shot-takers got a free shirt emblazoned with “Donald Eres Un Pendejo.” The same poster hangs in the bar. It compliments the other rough, eclectic décor, which is a reflection of No Sé’s crowd—musicians, artists, vagabonds, and lost souls.
I’m not highly political, but drinking for charity will always be a good idea. Give me a drink token and a cause, and I’ll belly up to the bar in a heartbeat—with my neighbors. I spent my drink token, and a few more nights at Café No Sé. I also bought five shots of Ilegal Mezcal and added a statement piece to my travel wardrobe.
Rumor has it, when Rexer opened the bar, he didn’t know what he was doing or what to call it, hence the name No Sé. I also doubt he knew it would be the watering hole where our walks of life would converge, or the ripple effect it would have on our futures.
Even Tinker Creek winds its way through all of this—another common thread and conversation piece, like Trump tees. I’d never heard of the book before, but one of my Casa Del Sol neighbors had read it, of all the books, as a recommendation from one of his favorite teachers. A small thread no less, but this neighbor also happens to own a Volkswagen Vanagon, a purchase I thoroughly considered as an alternative to a one-way ticket earlier last year. My imaginary van already has a name, and a paint color, and pets as passengers who also have names and nicknames—all part of a van life fantasy I crafted with a friend in the States, whose name is the same as the driver of the van parked in Antigua’s Policia Turismo lot. My friend in the states was in Antigua early last year; I am his shadow. And a few days ago at the beach, I found a handwritten note, next to my Ilegal Mezcal bookmark, in my Dyslexia book, from another new friend who just so happens to know my vantasy building friend at home.
That’s hard to follow, but just understand that our world is as tiny as it is big. Run-ins like these lead to a lot of talk about synchronicity down here. According to Carl Jung, synchronicity is “the coming together of inner and outer events in a way that cannot be explained by cause and effect and that is meaningful to the observer.” I don’t know if I think these encounters are coincidental, serendipitous, or synchronous. Or if they’re the result of the sad predictability of white people all getting drunk at the same hot spots along the Gringo Trail? Either way, I’m satisfied with my book, beer, and B&B purchases.
After eight days of Spanish, I was free to give my attention to more than Antigua’s barstools and desk chairs—a chance to enjoy the main draws and everyday Guate living. I finally bought unrefrigerated eggs in a bag; the shells didn’t crack, and I didn’t feel guilty for eating the creamy, golden yokes. I wandered the streetside shops for Christmas gifts. I hopped in a tuk-tuk for the first time, to the police compound no less, to tour the three VW vans camping there. The only late-night sandwich lady in town won me over with her sass and spicy chicken.
There are a handful of hillside attractions with funky art installations and sweeping views of Antigua like Cerro de La Cruz and Tenedor del Cerro. And just outside the city, there’s a little-known nature sanctuary, where mountain spring water fills three public pools where you’ll find only locals. Beyond the pools, is the entrance to a bird-watching reserve. Hummingbirds buzz in and out of canopies boasting bougainvillea and other bright, tropical flowers. And eventually, the footbridge path gives way to a jungle trail. I hear you can see Guatemala City from the top.
Antigua is enchanting, no doubt, but its charm and churches pale in the shadows of the surrounding volcanoes. When it’s clear, Volcánes de Agua, Fuego, and Acatenango are all visible from rooftop terraces throughout the city, and when it’s cloudy, you know they’re still there on neighborhood watch. Volcán de Fuego’s activity adds to the spectacle. With a rumbling belly of magma, it spews smoke and lava skyward, sometimes erupting every ten to fifteen days, other times, every ten to fifteen minutes. Like Dyslexia to No Sé, and Room 2 to Room 3, Fuego and Acatenango are neighbors. Overnight hiking tours ascend Acatenango daily in an attempt to get a front row seat to Fuego’s lightshow.
It will come as no surprise then, that three of us from Casa Del Sol, or Café No Sé, if you prefer, hiked Volcán Acatenango. Beyond physical ability, weather plays an important role in the success of this hike. Even if lungs and legs are capable of powering through 5+ miles and 5,150 feet of soft volcanic soil and thin air, blankets of fog and sheets have rain have been known to smother the view.
We were the luckiest; a difference of one day in either direction and we would have cried along with the clouds. Moments after unloading our packs and setting up camp, Fuego erupted in a fury. In my excitement, I mimicked the explosion, leaping and throwing my hands in the air like captain of the cheer squad—embarrassing, but necessary.
Fuego spit fire all afternoon and into the clear night sky, lava glowing and cooling as it tumbled down all sides of the cone. The mountain was growing, the earth changing right before our eyes. Sitting around our smoky campfire, Orion’s belt shone like rhinestones, but the Milky Way wore them better. Thunderstorms raged on the horizon. In one instant, Fuego torched the heavens, a shooting star sizzled through the darkness, a bolt of lightning pierced the curve of the earth, and the thunder roared along with Fuego. It was magical, and the night was loud and sleepless in our blue tent.
As if we needed to witness anything more spectacular than that flash of geological, meteorological, and astronomical grandeur, we emerged from our sleeping bags at 4:00 a.m., headlamps and hiking shoes on, ready for a sunrise summit. At 13,045 feet, Acatenango is Central America’s third tallest volcano, and at that elevation, each big step required more oxygen than our lungs could provide; the going was slow, hellish.
But the experience at the top was a different kind of breathless. A strong, steady wind burned our faces and froze our fingers. The other girl and I huddled behind a boulder for shelter—the VIP section. Fuego continued to hurl molten earth as the sun crept up, casting light on the freshly formed crust. Atitlán, the Volcán and its Lago, sat quiet in the long shadow of Acatenango. Antigua and the Pacific were also visible in the panorama. Rise and shine, indeed.
No one wants to come down from that kind of high, and no one wants to say goodbye to those kinds of neighbors, but it’s inevitable. How we all converged in Antigua, yo No Sé. But I have a good feeling, whether dictated by the invisible world of synchronicity or the predictability of the Gringo Trail, it’s also inevitable that most of us will see each other again.