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Dave and Jan's travels, day 217:
Antigua Guatemala

22nd December
We've been in Antigua Guatemala for three weeks now, which is longer than we've spent anywhere for seven months. The reason for this catalepsy is that we're trying to learn to speak more Spanish than "I'd like a room with a double bed for two nights and please answer yes or no or I won't be able to understand what you say." The rest of this article is about life around town: if you're more interested in sights and and adventures, then try Around Antigua instead.

To further our education, we have joined the Don Pedro de Alvarado school, who as well as providing lessons and taking our money, also arranged for us to board and lodge with a local family. We've been here so long that we've even got a routine: up at 7.15am, breakfast and off to school for an 8am start. Four hours of school, back to the house at 12am, play with the kids until lunch around 1pm, then play some more before spending the afternoon in a mix of pootling around town, odd jobs, reading and homework (don't laugh, the shock to the system has been quite strong), before dinner at 7pm and either more reading and homework or a visit to one of Antigua's myriad hostelries.

A word about our education. The Don Pedro school is quite splendid. They have trained teachers who always work one on one with their pupils, and the environment - a pretty garden - is conducive to concentration. Just as important is our stay with the family, though, who have been hospitable above and beyond the call of duty. It helps that the children (Ernesto is 8 and Jorge 12) are both energetic, entertaining, and quite happy to spend hours helping stumbling gringoes to talk proper. Their parents and grandmother (the latter is Christina who cooks for us) also eat meals with us and make a great effort to communicate. I don't know how they keep it up with a continuous stream of students all year round.

The town itself used to be the capital of Guatemala, until an earthquake in the eighteenth century moved the administrators to the present capital. Antigua remains quite small, but is enormously popular with visitors as a town with a laidback air, and convenient access to neighbouring attractions including local villages and volcanoes. Over a long period of time, it's evolved into a magnet for the backpacking brigade, with the result that there are now literally hundreds of cheap hotels, good value restaurants and bars, opportunities to see recent movies and an array of internet cafes. The last is quite startling: there's something quite ironic about walking past a door and seeing 20 or more hippies, all confident of their own uniqueness, in a line, at identical keyboards, for the most part using the identical application (for the cognoscenti, that's Hotmail).

All this is surprisingly pleasant. The local people are remarkably tolerant, and for the most part are quite friendly to various wanderers, even though most of them aren't directly involved in the tourist business. It probably helps that the majority of the foreigners are attending language schools, so there's a lot more communication than in many other tourist destinations. Local culture continues to flourish virtually untouched, and this includes the continued everyday use of traditional dress, bizarre religious practices, and a host of fiestas and processions. It seems like every few days a bunch of people will parade down the streets of the town playing music and waving torches. They also let off a lot of rather anti-social and very loud fireworks, but then nobody's perfect.

We've met a lot of pleasant people here, from all over the world. I sometimes become a little conscious of the fact that most of them are fifteen years younger than us, but for at least one of us that works out quite well in terms of matching maturity levels. That, plus the simplicity of knowing where each day's three fine meals are coming from, and the relative space afforded to us living in a house rather than a hotel room, has made this a most relaxing time for us. I just hope that returning to the road won't be too traumatic.


   (click thumbnails for a larger picture)

Traditional dress (1)

Traditional dress (2)

Vulcan Agua by night

Vulcan Agua, Antigua Guatemala