It is altogether familiar and like nothing I have ever known. The shuttle, the bright day, the trees that are like pines or redwoods but are not pines nor redwoods. The dog with the lame foot wandering between the people, taxis, motorcycles and old cars, eating scraps off the ground. The people gathered at the fence to watch the planes take off, or wandering the dirt paths carved into the hillsides alongside the highway, or riding in the backs of trucks.
As I leave the airport in Guatemala City, I see the booth offering shuttles to Antigua for $12 a person. My trajectory is not a strange one. Many travelers wait outside the next shuttle out of the city. Guatemala City is a sprawling, busy mess. I imagine it would make a great location for a movie- a detective story, or a drama thriller, perhaps, but it is no place for the uninformed, lone tourist. Between street markets and adobe apartment buildings there are warehouses and box stores. Street dogs periodically lounge in front of car repair shops or taquerias, or galavant up and down the street.
The shuttle driver wastes no time, cutting across parking lots and side alleys until we reach the highway. I note the bright flowers, so exotic to me, and the signs I cannot read, writing down on a scrap of paper all the terms I don’t yet know. I listen to a Finnish woman who speaks perfect Spanish explain to the driver where all of our hotels in Antigua are, and trusting her confidence and flawless accent, no one interjects. We have all been sitting in near silence, which is almost terse but in truth seems more fueled by shock than any tension. I feel vaguely surprised that I have made it to this place but otherwise seem unable to form any opinion or strong emotion, so I simply observe. It seems to be the common feeling throughout the car.
It is Christmas Day. When we pull into Antigua there are a lot of cars honking and rolling slowly over the cobblestone streets, alongside motorcyclists, dogs, three-wheeled taxis (called tuk tuks), bicycles and families who call up and down the street to each other. One gets the feeling they are all headed to a secret rendezvous point.
I am one of the last to be dropped at my hostel, and as I enter, the silence and polite distance I experienced on the drive over is broken by the receptionist
“Hola! Who are you?” Asks the person behind the desk. He is not so tall, thick but not fat, with an round face, tan skin, a backwards cap and spectacles with thick black frames.
“Annie Doran,” I say.
“You are new here, I can tell,” he says in English.
“I like your hairstyle.”
“Thank you,” I say.
He shows me to my room and points at the top bunk, and dismisses my worries when I try to wrestle open my locker.
“Do that after I give you the tour,” he says, “People don’t steal in here so much.”
He shows me around, The whole place is a series of rooms surrounding an outdoor courtyard and a off a corridor. It is decorated like a surf shop, and the Rolling Stones are playing over the speakers. In the courtyard there is a fountain, a simple bar with three stools, a hammock, some couches, plants, a single tree and two plastic lounge chairs. A sign says that the first beer is free, in honor of the holiday. Most of the people appear to be under 35, and most of them do not look Guatemalan. The bartender has a similar hairstyle as me.
Once I have locked my things away and let my family know that I made it safely, I ask the man at the front, who has introduced himself as Choco (A nickname he tells me means “blind”, because of his glasses) where I can get some dinner.
“Well, it’s Christmas,” he says, “So you can go to Dominos pizza.”
“What? But I could eat that at home!”
He shrugs, “It’s a holiday. Everywhere is closed.”
Hunger overtakes preference and I walk the block to Dominos, wait outside watching traffic and endless streams of local people go by as my pizza is warming. Again, I have this feeling that there is something happening that I cannot be privy to, as all the people of the town go by as if heading to a central meeting point. Fireworks go off in the distance. Cars and tuk tuks honk at one another in greeting. My pizza comes and I walk back to the hostel. I ask the bartender for my free beer.
As I sip my Cabral and eat my Dominos pizza, the bartender makes herself a tea and talks to a customer. I look around the hostel. It seems as if I could be at a friend’s beach house. I think to myself that this environment has been curated just for me. America and Europe has spread its influence far and wide. I sit in a hostel in a country where I have never been, but it feels as if it could be my best friend’s backyard.
When I am done I go out into the street, and this feeling of everything being prepared for me begins to fade with each step. Antigua is clearly a tourist town, and yet it certainly cannot be defined so simply. I pass doors with signs printed in English for photocopies, coffee, jewelry, massages and Italian food. I also pass closed doors with names I do not know written in small letters, and church entrances with groups of people with their backs to me and houses where I get only glimpses into the courtyards full of Guatemalans. The buildings are mostly one story, and each painted a different bright shade with the color faded and peeling in places, giving each the effect of a rippling sky at various times of the day. People are milling by, all on their way somewhere. Where, I am still not sure. Occasionally, fireworks go off in the distance.
Eventually, I duck into one of the only two story buildings in town so I can watch the sunset. The sign outside reads “Sky Cafe”. It is packed with people, mostly people from other countries, as far as I can tell. The view of the volcano over the houses and the streetlights that glimmer on one by one is amazing. I can’t find a seat anywhere.
The waiter sees me looking around and gestures to a table where two men are sitting. I point at the free chair and they nod. I sit and gaze out for a while, taking into my soul the place where I have arrived.
Finally, one speaks.
“Feliz Navidad,” he says, the one with the glasses, “Que tal?”
“Doing very well,” I answer in Spanish, “I arrived today.”
“Very good,” the other one continues, still speaking Spanish. He has a tan, wide face, “What a Christmas for you.”
We keep speaking in Spanish, although it becomes apparent through the conversation that both of them speak English fluently. They keep buying me beers and it helps the words to flow as I become less and less concerned with perfect grammar and conjugation. Both of them are from Guatemala, one of them lives in the states, the other, being well travelled, now lives in the capital city. They are having a reunion for the Holiday.
They tell me many things: what foods to try, how much is fair to pay for a tuk-tuk, where and when to drink the water, the signs of malaria, and they explain the timing of the fireworks which seem to go off all at once at random intervals.
“It’s because every six hours after Christmas eve is another six hours that Jesus has lived,” says the one with the open face.
I come to realize they are my first bridge into this world. Each of them at home in Guatemala and yet they appear as if they could have been born in the states. They carry the ease of knowing that they can pass through space, and I feel their ease rubbing off on me, and their information seems to inoculate me with the seed of knowledge that may come to bloom in this place.
It is dark now, and the enormous volcano that these men tell me occasionally sighs smoke over the town falls away into the darkness like a huge animal that has learned to hide in the night. Then, the man with the glasses points.
I turn, and see the candle lanterns drifting up out of the tree line. From here they look like stars that have broken free of the sky to wander on the wind. More and more emerge from the ground until it is as if the milky way itself has come loose in order to drift above the little city of Antigua. The light is within my vision, it enters me through these little portals of light in the sky, traveling through my eyes and into my mind and heart, but I cannot touch them, feel their warmth or see the hand that releases them. I wonder if I ever will, if I want to, if that closeness is meant for me or if it is something that must remain held apart, for others to touch and for me to bear witness.