Saturday, January 4, 2014

35 Horas en Antigua, Guatemala (35 hours in Antigua, Guatemala)

I landed Saturday at 9PM and I take off today, Monday, at 8AM. Not nearly enough time here, but it was time well spent.  The first thing I noticed was the lights. As the plane landed in Guatemala City, it seemed that the tallest structures were the street lights, so they hugged the landscape, revealing the sparsely populated rolling hills of what I imagined was a gorgeous country. The drive to Antigua was blind but fascinating, allowing me to glimpse trees in the headlights and feel the winding mountain road under the taxi, but the darkness left the mountainous forest to my imagination.

When I arrived at my hotel I was greeted by Alejandro, whose weak English combined with my weak Spanish allowed us to understand one another just enough for him to show me around as if I were staying in his home.  I learned later that the hotel actually used to be two homes. The owner used to keep one as a summer home, and he was able to buy the next door neighbor's home just about a year ago.  After six months they turned their two properties into a beautiful villa with ten rooms.  Mine overlooked a lap pool and a small yard with a picnic table.  The room itself was gorgeous, with a brick archway separating the bed area from the sitting area, and way more space than I needed on my own.


In the morning I finally got to see Antigua. I was out of the hotel by 8, and started walking around the town. Cobblestone streets and closed storefronts greeted me most of the morning, but a large mountain (that I realized later is actually a volcano), provided a beautiful view no matter where I was in the city. I made my way to "Parque Central," which is more of a town square, and started towards the center, where a statue beckoned for a photo. Called, "The Call of the Sirens," it's four sides feature a woman covering her breasts, from which water shoots through the fingers. As I held up my phone to snap a shot, a man walks up to me and says, "Llamado La Leche Clara, (It's called The Clear Milk)." I answered him in my weak Spanish that it reminded me of a story of Sarah from the Bible, and told him the midrash of Sarah producing so much milk that she could feed all the children of the city. He asked if he could show me around the city, and when I politely refused, he offered to at least take me to the marketplace. Since that was one of the places I wanted to go anyway, I accepted and enjoyed chatting on the way there.

Nothing special about the market, so I spent the morning wandering the streets. Around 10 the city transformed. People started roaming with me, and in no time the streets were overflowing with people. Shops opened, carts rolled out with fruits or ice cream, and peddlers shoved cheap toys or candy in the faces of passers-by.

I found a coffee shop that I was drawn to because of the Hebrew lettering on the sign saying "שלום." I went in and asked the woman behind the counter, "¿Hablas Ebreo? (Do you speak Hebrew?)"  She said no, and I was leaving when she walked out of the store with me to point out the owner. He called himself Chaim, and he told me he had lived in Jerusalem for a year, then Miami, but decided to come home to Guatemala and open two coffee shops. Amazed that I too had spent time in Jerusalem and Miami we had many notes to compare, but when he found out I am a rabbi he would not let me pay for my coffee.  It was my first lesson in the high regard people here hold clergy (a belief I did not have time to debunk in 35 hours). We spent a little while chatting until he had to return to his other coffee shop.  I left on a high from making such a unique connection in such a remote place.

The highlight of the rest of the walk was lunch. I saw a sign that said, "The best terrace in Antigua," so I gave it a try. Up a narrow spiral staircase to the roof of the restaurant, I immediately knew the sign was right. The view was the ruins of a Mayan Temple with the volcano looming in the distance. It was gorgeous. The food wasn't too bad, either. I tried a fish called robalo, and a beer called Gallo. The locals I spoke with had told me Gallo was the beer to try in Guatemala. All I have to say about that is: at least it was cold.

I got back to the hotel around 2, and was planning on a nap when the cleaning crew knocked, so that was out of the question. I wandered out to the hall to sit close to the wifi, and saw a family having lunch. I asked if I could sit and introduced myself, to discover that this was the hotel owner and his family, all of whom were to be guests at the wedding.  Though the conversation took my Spanish to the limits, it was wonderful chatting with them and learning about the hotel, the city, and their connection to the bride and groom. I don't know whether it was how slow my Spanish is or how much I enjoyed the con station, but the next thing I knew two hours had gone by and it was time to get ready for the wedding.

The wedding itself was wonderful. The bride and groom are both models, as are most of their friends, so to say it was beautiful is certainly an understatement.  Two things of note during the party that I find particularly memorable. The first was during the hora.  Guatemalan DJs apparently don't have much access to Jewish music, so the hora included Hava Naglia, Mashiach Achshav, an Irish drinking song, Adon Olam, and a Maccabeats (I think) song I didn't recognize. It was the most ridiculous hora mix I had ever heard, and the guests....LOVED it, even if they didn't know how to make a circle.  During the hora the groomsmen decided to make a line to pass David the groom on their hands. Passing quickly became throwing, and soon the groom's feet were over his head.  Thank God he is so light (model), because they caught him upside down just before he ate dance floor. What did he do next? He got right back up on their hands and let them throw him again. It was an amazing display of perseverance and positive attitude.

The second moment was during the toasts. David's father spoke beautifully about his son and daughter-in-law. One thing of note was the pride he had in his son's accomplishments as a model. He expressed how difficult it can be living in Australia when his son is in New York, then told a story of a time he was driving and saw his son fly past his car.  He realized that it was an advertisement with his son's picture on the side of a bus, and said that because of David's success, no matter where he lived he was never far from his son.

35 hours after I landed, I was sad to have to leave early and excited to head home at the same time. Like the father of the groom implied in his toast, nothing is complete without your family close by.  As great as this trip was, I hope that the next time I come to Guatemala I get to have Natalie and the kids with me. As my wife and children always say, "Everything is better when you share."