Sunday, 15 May 2011

Downtime In A Colonial Jewel

AS THE SUN begins to drop behind the Acatenango volcano, the town slows down. I take another rich mouthful of Guatemalan coffee, and watch life lazily take its course in the Parque Central. Elderly locals sit on painted benches beneath lovingly manicured trees, elegant and cool despite the sultry afternoon heat; groups of youths vy for attention from the self-conscious, coquettish young latinas congregating amongst the equally pretty flowers in the square; child shoe-blacks, hands soaked with the polish of years, ply their trade to a background music trickle of the fountains; in the cool, shadowy archways of the municipal building, homeless beggars sleep amid the activity; a breeze catches, whispering leaves mix with the burble of chatter. The only other sounds the roar of the espresso machine, the clatter of hooves on cobblestones as buggies pass by and the laughter of liberated schoolchildren running from class.

There can be fewer towns more beautiful than Antigua De Guatemala. I knew within minutes of arrival that I would stay awhile, and that I would return. I like to get to know a place, befriend a few locals, eat and drink in regular spots and pass the time of day with them. Having a coffee from the same roof terrace day after day, observing the volcanoes. Simple pleasures. Routine is missing when on the road, and it's sometimes nice to actually just be in a place.

Antigua was once the capital of the Americas, and it shows. Earthquakes and time may have faded her beauty, but still she oozes class. The Conquistadors brought Spanish culture and architecture with their bitter victory. I lost count of the days I was content to aimlessly wander the cobbled streets, marvelling at the adobe buildings lining the streets; bell towers and acrchways; strong colours and washed-out pastel adobe, ornate barred windows and heavy, iron-studded wooden doors. Ancient, derelict, tremor-damaged structures sit adjacent to well-tended properties in stunning contrast. Shocking pink bougainvillea flowers cascade from roof terraces. Falling in love with a house became an hourly occurence, as open doorways gave glimpses of shady, peaceful courtyards off the street. I've not seen a town this photogenic since Cartagena, Colombia.

I fell into a pleasant pattern over a fortnight: coffee on Fat Cat's roof terrace in the morning, watching mushroom clouds in miniature erupt silently on the distant Acatenango, the other peaks slumbering; authentic French crepes before an afternoon of Spanish tuition with Mayra, finishing with Scrabble for four, another tutor and her Brasilian charge joing in...obviously the teachers won every time, getting creative with the slang, I suspected. I'd found a great place to stay, El Jardin De Lolita, run by a dotty old lady who could talk for Guatemala, and her sons. I took a room with a communal terrace which was almost private, my room being at the end of a second floor row. It overlooked the garden populated by all manner of caged tropical birds. With views of volcanoes on all sides, and plenty of shade in which to read, write and generally contemplate my good fortune in being out here, it was very easy to get stuck.

At the far side of town sat my usual haunt, Cafe No Sé. I loved this scruffy little place. The first room is tiny, tea-stained walls covered in signatures, scribbles and doodles. A cute bar sits in the corner, while musicians perform in the other. It's very intimate. On passing into the back room, a long bar sits on the right, miniscule tables to the left. Candle-lit and atmospheric, I enjoyed many an evening here; reading a book or drinking with the locals. I was at the bar one evening, a little worse for wear and chatting to a Canadian bartender, when a local man to my right turned and said "Eres de Liverpool?" I laughed. In England, most people take me for a Mancunian, as I have a Lancashire accent with a Scouse lilt. It amuses me how foreigners pick up on my Merseyside heritage where my countrymen fail to. In fact, leaving a Thai island a few years back, I said my goodbyes to a delightful Thai couple who'd been very hospitable; as I left their cafe, I overheard a elderly German fellow asking them "Ist he from Liverpool?" He was old enough to have been around for The Beatles and Liverpool FC's dominance in Europe, no doubt. Stranger still for this Guatemalan, Julio César, to pick it up, though. As he turned to face me in the gloom of the bar, I noticed that he was blind. Perhaps this accounts for a more acute sense of hearing? Despite speaking no Inglés, it turns out that Julio is quite the Anglophile. My Spanish helped by a few beers, we chatted about his favourite bands, which hilariously turned out to be Duran Duran and The Cure, both of whom I grew up with. He even knew that the former had taken their name from a character in Barbarella. I was impressed, and we chatted for a good hour over an almost drinkable Chilean red. Wandering home with a smile on my face that night, I mused on the wonders of travel. You just never know what, or who, is waiting for you around that next corner.

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