Friday, August 8, 2003

Bad Spanish

I am tired, frustrated and failing miserably at learning Spanish. We landed in Guatemala City four days ago and took a taxi to Antigua. It is a charming, small colonial town about an hour south of the capitol. We arrived late and had a little trouble finding a room for the night as it was Saturday and Antigua is a popular destination for the locals as well as for the tourists. I guess I was a little hyped up about all the tourist warnings and was a little bit agitated upon arrival. Rule #1. Don’t listen to the tourist warnings. Antigua is safe enough for old ladies to walk around the streets in the middle of the night.
We ended up paying too much for our first night here ($38) but we were tired of looking around. We tried 4 other places but they were full. The streets were filled with people and performers. Bands, dancers, people wearing huge puppet costumes, and more. It was loud and exciting. I could hear the festivities throughout most of the night from our hot little room. Maybe it was just because it was attached to a bar. We moved our belongings the next day to another and cheaper hotel. $12. Like the night before, we had to try several places. We ended up in a place with a nice garden, but it was next to the main drag out of town. When big trucks or busses rumbled down the street, the whole room would shake. Actually the room I am sitting in right now is doing the same as we ended up living with a family that lives on the same busy and dusty street. It’s about a 2 minute walk up the very noisy road from our school.

Bed Bugs and Courtyards

I have 37 flea bites on my legs. I look like I have the Chicken Pox. Two days ago I woke up to a few red itchy splotches and chalked them up to a mosquito. By yesterday morning, my legs had exploded with red welts. Our brown, dingy, stained, 10-year or more old mattress had bed bugs! A very approachable guy named Enrique works at the school and appears to be the lodging manager. I showed him my welts and he called Señora Lilly, the woman who owns the house. Undaunted, she walked into our room later that afternoon with a device that could have been used by Wile E. Coyote: a long, blue tube followed by a bulb and a lever for pumping. The whole thing measured about 12 inches. Geoff watched her pump the device to create puffs of insecticide. The mattress was treated, the walls were treated. Everything stank. We returned from class some 2 hours after ‘Operation Fumigation’ to find the smell still present but fading. We discussed changing houses—an option offered to us by Enrique—but decided against it. The income of two students in her home is no small sum for Señora Lily. She had tried to remedy the problem and a couple of days of exposure to the fading fumes are more of a discomfort than a health risk, so we decided to stay. We slept fully clothed, wishing to minimize direct contact with the mattress and I didn’t get any new bites. The room still smells a little, but it’s very bearable.
Geoff and I opted out of boiled vegetables, boiled rice, boiled whatever and tortillas for dinner and headed out to a restaurant for a nice meal. Antigua is an amazingly deceptive city. At first it seems very minimalist, even dreary. Long sometimes crumbling plaster walls, painted yellow or white, line the narrow cobble stone streets with sidewalks almost too narrow for a child to walk on. Most shops and houses have few if any windows and if they do, they are small and obstructed by iron bars. Doors are made of uneven wooden planks marked by peeling black paint. But walk through those doors and past those walls and you will enter a European village. Narrow doors open into long inner brick passages lined with beautiful courtyards, shops and restaurants. The passage I explored this evening started with a book store selling everything from children books to Yoga books, to books on learning Spanish “the easy way”. Through the book store I found a romantic open air garden. The sun shown down on trees, Gardenias, and Ivy and the fountain centerpiece. It was surrounded by tables in the shade—which was hardly necessary because it’s a comfortable 75 degrees day and night.
We sat at the table and ordered European-style food. Antigua is so sensitive to the needs of tourists that it is possible to eat raw vegetable here without getting sick from the water used to clean them. Past the café was a cozy bar and off to the right was a store selling hand-made paper products. It’s easy to forget the outer chipped paint and crumbling plaster and bed-bug’s bites from my view of the fountain.
Almost all the buildings—whether for business or for housing—have inner courtyards. Many of them are simply utilitarian. Señora Lily’s courtyard is used for drying laundry and the fountain that is off to the left is not running any more. But even here there are potted Gardenias along the wall. I’ve come across many court yards like the one I have described and will be looking for more in the days to come. I’ll take the bed-bugs for the opportunity to find the gardens.