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Dave and Jan's travels, day 222:
Christmas in Antigua

27th December
Regular readers may be on tenterhooks to discover where we passed the last Christmas of the '90s. In fact, we stayed in Antigua, where we continued our Spanish language studies right up to lunchtime on Christmas Eve. I've already written at length about the charms of this city. Suffice to say that it has a pleasant laidback feel, and is a good size: big enough to support a range of places to go and things to do, and small enough to sport a real town centre and an anti-lorry policy throughout the centre of town.

One really nice things about the town is that art is something that everyone does, definitely not an esoteric pastime of a small elite. This becomes very clear in the lead-up to Christmas, when every church in town features a lovingly crafted Nascimiento or nativity scene, designed and constructed by the congregation. These are stunning and elaborate affairs, and we spent a happy evening touring them. Another manifestation of this public creativity are the many processions that move around town at this time of year, featuring more creations, this time floats, as well as hordes of people, torches and music. It's a lot of fun.

We passed Christmas with the Soto family, who have been our hosts throughout our tuition. The classic Guatemalan Christmas involves staying up until midnight on Christmas Eve, then opening your presents. It might sound like this would make it hard to keep the kids amused, but in fact there's plenty to do. First, you've probably made about a hundred tamales in advance, and you can expect a steady stream of visiting friends and relations throughout the evening who will arrive to scoff them. They're made from maize corn wrapped in banana leaves, along with various other ingredients according to someone's grandmother's secret recipe. Opinions differ on them: Jan, for example, quite likes them.

The second diversion is fireworks. As a good citizen, you should really have bought at least a few hundred firecrackers, and the good parent is out on the street at regular intervals with children, teaching them how to light and throw (in that order!) fireworks. They cheerfully acknowledge the danger and the number of handless kids that this creates, but they don't actually stop doing it.

Finally, midnight arrives. This is the cue to bring out the really big fireworks that you've been holding back. Big in this context means loud, as opposed to pretty. Then the presents are opened, the adults drink a toast, scoff yet more tamales, and everyone turns in.

Christmas Day dawned bright and early, and we leapt out of bed about five hours later. We said our last fond farewells to the family Soto, who have been more hospitable to us than we'd dreamed possible. And we moved off to spend two nights at the far end of town, in a (by our recent standards) rather upmarket hotel with hot water and cable TV. 36 hours and five films later, we were heading away from Antigua.

Our next stop was El Salvador. However, this was a brief encounter, brought on entirely by the vagaries of Guatemalan bureaucracy. Although we are allowed to spend ninety days in the country at a stretch, our car is only allowed thirty. So, it was off to the border for a new permit. That's about a five hour round trip for a piece of paper. This is about as ludicrous as it gets.


   (click thumbnails for a larger picture)

Bus, Antigua Guatemala

Public washing facility, Antigua Guatemala

Don Pedro Alvarado Spanish School