Leaving the Zephyr Lodge in Lanquin, the dirt roads gave way to groomed pavement and civility. I was told that it could take about 8 hours by bus to get to Antigua. I made it in 5 ½ hours on the bike. Riding a motorcycle in Latin America certainly has it’s advantages. For example, the 2 hour traffic jam over the mountains to the east of Guatemala City only took me 30 minutes to navigate. Simply riding up the middle of the two lane road saved me a boatload of time. There were certainly risks, as I only had inches between the cars and the oncoming traffic. I usually gave way to the semi trucks. They don’t slow for anyone. Nor do the chicken buses. Passing through Guatemala City was also an experience. Diesel rules the motor industry here. Cars, trucks, and buses were all spewing black soot into the air. A city with 3 million people and a big traffic problem. I’m pretty sure I got black lung riding there.
On to Antigua, I arrived at the hostel which was recommended, and to my luck it was full. As I was getting directions to another hostel, a man walking by offered a place to stay in his Spanish school. The door of opportunity once again opened, and I stepped through. For $10.00 a night I had a private room, and a queen size bed. It was a nice change from the hostel life I had been living for the last few weeks.
(The Arch of Antigua)
I would only be in Antigua for a few days before heading to Lake Atililan for my Spanish lessons at Orbita Spanish school. A school recommend by my friend Aaron Mitchell who had taken lessons there.
Antigua is a quaint tourist town. Like San Miguel or San Cristobal in Mexico, there is a significant expatriate settlement here. For learning Spanish, Antigua is not the place even though they have lot’s of tutors and schools here. Everyone here speaks English. Before heading off to the lake, I stopped into a place called Mototours CA. A motorcycle rental, touring company, that has a hostel, and a bar. There I met Jose the owner. Later we would become friends, but first off to Lake Atililan!
Only a three hour ride from Antigua, the main road to San Pedro gets interesting towards the end. A steep winding, tight twisted, road that leads to the lake. My back brake actually started to fail from overheating. You can’t go fast on these roads. There are hairpin turns every 200 meters with a 50 meter drop in elevation.
Entering in to San Pedro I could sense a different vibe here. It’s a funky little town with a mix of traditional families, fishermen, and hippies. The village is build on the hill and is full of little alley ways you can navigate by bike. The tuc tuc's also use these to transport you around the town. It’s easy to get turned around here. Down by the water is where all the gringos work and stay. There is an abundance of bars, cafes and hostels. Finding my school, I signed in and waited for my host family. There is also a strong religious presence here. Religious signs are on every corner, and fanatics drive and walk the streets playing their preaching over loud speakers. One irony is the amount of drunks passed out on the streets here as well. There is a liquor store to compliment every religious sign here in San Pedro.
(The market street in San Pedro)
(Tuc Tuc's waiting for a fair. There are 142 Tuc Tuc's in the small village of San Pedro)
(Fishermen on Lake Atilian)
(A missionary preaching the bible)
The school offers a variety of options for students. Most sign up for classes and to live with a host family. The host families speak little English. Some families can host a couple of students. My family was new to the program, and I was their first student. Manuel or “Meme” as he likes to be called came to meet me, and brought me back to the house where I would meet the rest of the family. Imelda, Marisol, Meme, and Jose would be my family for the next two weeks. Imelda, the mother, was very excited about having me. She is a retired school teacher, and was longing for something to continue her legacy. Marisol, her daughter still lives at home, and works with a church youth group. Meme and Jose both have their own homes. Jose is married, and Meme was married on April 8.
(My Spanish Family)
It was a bit awkward to live with a family where I speak little Spanish and they speak little to no English. Marisol spoke more English than the rest of the family, but it was still difficult to communicate. My Spanish has been improving in some ways and declining in others. I can tell people about who I am, and what I am doing. I can read and order things off a menu, and have small chopped conversations. But if someone starts talking to me in Spanish without a concept of what the conversation is, I am usually lost. What makes it more difficult is my bad hearing. Sometimes for me, it’s hard to hear what a person is saying in English where I recognize the words just by inflexuattion. With Spanish, I am not familiar with the words, and when someone starts speaking, I can’t tell if that was one world or four words. F me.
The next day I started my classes at Orbita. Teresa, my teacher was a lot of fun. We joked a lot, and she was a really good teacher. I’ve never been the best student. I have difficulties retaining information. I’m dyslectic for the most part. I spell and type words backwards which make things extra fun when trying to pronounce a new word and I can’t read it properly. Nevertheless, Teresa was awesome, she really did help me with my Spanish.
(My teacher, Teresa)
(My view from the classroom)
(Having a coffee break)
The two weeks went on. I made some friends at the school and my Spanish was improving. Poco poco. The first week for me difficult. I was feeling defeated because I wasn’t communicating in the way that I hoped. Dinners with my host family were becoming awkward and I would retreat to my room and watch the only English channel on the television. By the second week, I felt I had new momentum and was making more progress. Learning a new language is difficult, but to learn Spanish as a first new language is extremely difficult. Conjugating verbs, and speaking in form are so different from other language’s. I’ve pretty much conceded that I will never be fluent in Spanish, but it’s not going to stop me from trying. Returning to Antigua, I will pursue more lesson before moving on to El Salvador.
Antigua is a lovely little town surrounded by mountains and an active volcano, Volcan Fuego. Because it is a popular settlement for expatriate's, prices here are bit higher than other places in Guatemala, but it is a modern city that maintains its historic charm.
Staying at the Mototours Travel Hostel, I befriended Jose, the owner, and it didn’t take me long to be the busy body that I am. I was constantly lending him a hand with bikes, and even talking to customers about the tours he offered. So, when he had an 8 day tour coming up, he asked if I could help with the tour. Gas, food, and lodging would be covered. Of course I was happy to help, and the next week we would set off on a tour of Guatemala. This was also a good time to leave Antigua for a while as it was Samana Santa (Holy Week) and Antigua would be flooded with people, and religious processions. Antigua is a clusterfuck during Samana Santa.
The tour guests arrived on Friday night, 4 French men, and two Belgian's. They were all friends and had met on a tour in Mongolia. The next day we set out on a day trip exploring the surrounding area of Antigua and Volcan Fuego. We rode mostly dirt roads, with the highlights being 5 shallow river crossings and a suspension bridge. We would spend the night back in Antigua, before heading out on a tour of the county.
For 6 days we rode and explored the different environments of Guatemala. From Lake Atilian, to the mountains of Chichicastenango, the Jungles of Launquin, and the cloud forest of Quetzaltenango. It was a really good tour, but in the tradition of the French, there wasn’t day that went by without a complaint. Sometimes I was the leader, and sometimes I road in the back. Everyday I stressed to the tour group, to look behind you and make sure the rider behind you was there. So, of course, when I was in the back, and had a puncture. The group left me behind. 4 hours later, I caught up with them. Needless to say, I was not happy, but as this was not my tour company, I bit my tongue and smiled.
(riding through the streets of San Pedro)
(Wandering the famous market at Chichicastenango)
(At the bird sanctuary)
(A rare sighting of the Quetzal - Most people in Guatemala have never seen their national bird)
In the end, the group was happy with everything. I knew this because of the way they complained about things.
For the next few weeks, I will remain in Antigua, making my final ditch attempt to learn more Spanish before moving on the El Salvador and Honduras.