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Guatemala Part Two: Christmas a lá Tat


You know, I actually hate Christmas. Its over-commercialized pre-Christmas routine bores me, the stress around it seems to me ridiculous. But it’s not the main reason of my disliking. I always feel very sad and lonely on Christmas, as I don’t have my family next to me to celebrate with. All my friends are with their families, so usually I feel unwillingly captured in this to me unfamiliar tradition. There is a chance that some friends would invite me to spend the holidays with them, which I truly appreciate. However it is not really an option, as I feel kind of delivered, and again lonely. I’ve tried to travel on Christmas and have so far no satisfying results to report about. The places reachable within a reasonable radius from Frankfurt offer me the same lonely and boring christmas experience – but for more money!

Day 11: 23 December 2015

Arrived in Antigua

Antigua welcomed us with sunshine and breezy cool air. The charming colourful town with cobbled stoned cosy streets is the harshest possible contrast to Guatemala City. Beautifully located in sweeping highland valley at over 1500m altitude, Antigua is surrounded by volcanoes Aqua, Acatenango and Fuego, which shaped the history of this enchanting colonial town. Their frequent  eruptions caused heavy earthquakes and destroyed homes and churches of Antigua. The low baroque-style colonial buildings you find here now are supposed to resist better the further earthquakes, the church ruins scattered around the town are the evidences of the past destructions. Due to the higher altitude the conifers dominate here.

Antigua has both tranquility and cosmopolitan flair, attracting the home sick travellers with its high-level international gastronomic scene and perhaps best Spanish schools in latin America. The downtown of Antigua is as touristic as it can get: tour operators on each and every corner, villagers mingling with tourists and selling souvenirs and handcraft wares, hotels and hostels in every second building.

Luckily my street was very quiet despite the central location. I had a room in a Spanish school called Casa Linda, in a beautiful colonial house just a few blocks away from the Cathedral and the main square. Two patios were giving wonderful atmosphere, isolating my room from the street noise. I felt so comfortable immediately, I felt home, really loved that place.

…then something started bothering me.

It began with my first cup of coffee. After I checked in at Casa Linda, I went out to explore the city a bit in search of my first good coffee guatemalteca! After all I haven’t had any decent coffee since the begin of my journey. Well, after a few coffee shops I gave up and got a Latte for almost about 3 Euros. I felt frustrated as I could find whatever european or american cup of coffee, except anything local, Guatemalan. Plus I ended up paying the same price I would pay at Starbucks in Europe, knowing that the overhead costs of the shop here in Antigua are far not the same as the ones in Europe or North America. Later on we failed to find a decent Guatemalan restaurant to dine that night. A mexican place called Cactus was as close as we could get to “la tipica comida guatemalteca”. Despite the great meal we had there, all of us went home extremely frustrated. 

May be we were not homesick enough to want some european or international food, so that Antigua was the wrong cosmopolitan little town for us. As for me, I didn’t feel like travelling for over 11.000 km to eat italian or indian food. But even if I would be very much into pasta that night, I have massive problems paying 10-15€ for a regular dish, knowing that the average daily wage of locals is just a fraction of the price for one meal. By the way, I don’t usually pay that much even in Frankfurt, where people are much wealthier.

Later on watching the bars and the restaurants, unsurprisingly I didn’t see there any locals enjoying themselves. The fronts were clearly separated – we, gringos, were on the consuming side, the locals were on serving side. That really bothered me!

Day 12: 24 December 2015

Chicken buses all day long.

We needed some real local life. It was time to get out of this false touristic melting pot and discover the true Guatemala! To do so we decided to get out of Antigua and explore the surrounding villages. Our first aim was the village Chichicastenango (or Chichi) famous for its artisanal market on Thursdays and Sundays. There are direct shuttles from Antigua leaving at 7am, which we were to late to book on Wednesday evening. So we had no other choice but to take a chicken bus!

The bus station in Antigua bet all our expectations. Basically it was a huge, noisy, dusty and extremely crowded market, with a bunch of beautifully retro decorated school buses crossing the crowd. We failed to find any ticket booths, any schedules, any platforms or any signs outlining any order. Our german minds were overwhelmed. So we decided to ask a guy how things work here and how to get some tickets??. He looked lost at us, as if we were talking about space ships and black holes. With arched eyebrows he said “The buses work!”. That didn’t help us much, so we decided just to try any bus going in any half way familiar direction. And it worked!!!

So here how it goes: forget tickets, forget schedules and find the place to catch the outgoing bus stream and stand there. Two people are running a bus: one is the driver, the other one is the conductor (probably a cousin or a bro), managing the stream of the passengers and charging them. While the buses drive out, the conductor keeps screaming the direction and calling the people to get in. Everything goes fast, but you have enough time to reinsure the place you are going and get in. Later on the conductor goes around the bus and charges the travel fees, depending where you get off. We paid something about 3-10Q (0,25-1,2 EUR) for a ride.

We had not much of comfort riding the chicken busses, however it was the most authentic and fun experience we had in Guatemala. The real life took place right there in the bus and the villages passing by one after another. These buses are the main transportation for locals, as the villagers can’t afford the comfortable shuttles mainly purposed for the tourists. We were the only gringos in the bus in the most of cases.

Choosing a trip on a chicken bus be prepared for an overcrowded, bumpy ride, hurling you from side to side while the bus goes unbraked into the curves of serpentine roads. We literally felt every single turn of mountainous landscape. The locals seemed to be very unimpressed by the temper of the driver, while we were desperately trying to keep our balance and have any decent look. I guess the kids had huge fun watching us 🙂 They were observing us with their huge, shy, curious eyes. Eventually our eyes met, they rewarded us with such a shiny smile. We smiled back. I think that day I smiled non-stop. Never felt this happy on Christmas.

The Plan B

We never made to Chichi that day. While balancing squeezed in the bus crowd I asked someone how long would us take to Chichi as if I had some strange gut feeling. His relaxed “about 3,5 hours..” scared me. I reinsured I understood him right. Someone else from the crowd reconfirmed… Crap! We definitely would not be able to get back the same day to Antigua. We had to act fast and decided to exit on the next stop to see what to do. Another guy came up with helping recommendations about the next villages, he happen to get off there too. What a relief! He even watched us to get a tuk-tuk, instructed the driver to take us to the local Maya ruins and agreed a good price with him. Amazing,  how much care and help we got despite our poor Spanish.

Speaking of help: the locals were very attentive in terms of assisting or advising. Seemed like they had a little sensor detecting the question marks I had in my head. Each time I needed information, direction or any help, they came up with assistance even before I asked. Such a great feeling!

Iximché, the mayan ruins we visited then, was almost empty. There were only us and a guatemalan family having a picnic somewhere there. The most interesting thing on this site was the mayan altar, which is still used for sacrificial rituals. Later on we witnessed more examples of mayan traditional spiritual rituals merged in modern guatemalan live.

It was early afternoon when we left the site and walked toward the villages with the hope to find a place for a lunch. We met many villagers on our way smiling us and calling “¡Feliz Navidad!” and “¡Adios!”. We found ourselves again in non-stop smiling mode.

Learning #4: Guatemalans passing by are greeting with “¡Adios!” instead of “¡Hola!” or the like.

The Christmas Lunch.

We found a little grill station on the main road of one of the villages we passed. There was an old man grilling tomatoes, meat and sausages right at the doorway of his home, some of his family could be seen in background sitting in the doorway. All was smelling so good. But what really captured our attention was the round white cloth table next to him. It looked so festive and disconnected with  the village atmosphere.  The decision to eat here was made within a second. With our outstanding poor Spanish we ordered whatever he recommended. We got the best guatemalan lunch we could ever imagine, very basic but so real, all homemade, so delicios. Was such a treat! Now it comes: the bill was something about 8$ for 3 persons including the drinks!

The grandpa told us proudly he made the sausages himself and asked where were are coming from. The exotic “Alemania” caused a long “Awww!”, afterwards he asked us, if he could take a picture of us. I guess it was the first time germans were visiting his restaurant 🙂 We didn’t know how to show our appreciation for such a wonderful meal without being inappropriate. He felt happy and honoured of our compliments and the generous tip, which was in fact really nothing. We left this place with huge happy smiles wishing him and his family“¡Feliz Navidad!”.

Before we reached the crossroad out of the village to catch our chicken bus back to Antigua, we made a quick stop at the local market. Anja and I got some local clothing for the church service on Christmas Eve. We found inappropriate to go to Cathedral on such festive occasion in casual traveller look. Our Christmas outfit was basically a traditional skirt, consisting of a rectangular piece of  handwoven fabric wrapped around and a belt holding all together bundled tight on the waist.

As expected I didn’t understand much of the service. However the cathedral ambience, the music and the smell of the incense made me drift away to my family and friends. I talked to my Dad in my mind. Everybody began holding hands and embracing each other toward the end of the service. There was an older lady sitting next to me. When she embraced me I closed my eyes and imagined as if she would be my mother. That felt good.

Antigua celebrated the Christmas with a lot of fireworks. They set them off everywhere in town all night long, and then days after that. I was too tired to wait for the fireworks to begin around midnight, so I just sensed it acoustically while falling asleep with a smile on my face. What a happy Christmas!


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