The Upside of Armed Robbery

August 21, 2011

You don’t really know what category you fall into until it happens, but there are three of them, I believe. Categories. You either A: Panic, surrender your wallet, and march straight to the police, or B: Remain calm, surrender your wallet, THEN panic, and march straight to the police, or C: You fight back, beat the thieves to a pulp, keep your wallet, and march straight to the police…after you stop for a mojito. Category C people are rare, and should be married immediately if you find one.

I fell soundly into category B. Which is good, because I’m pretty sure the young woman I was with was an A. It worked out perfectly I must say. During the robbery she froze. She didn’t realize what was happening until I told her to give him the purse. He got impatient and cut it off her. When he pointed the knife at me, I tossed him my bag, turned around and we walked away. Calmly. Quickly. Quietly.

THEN I freaked out.

A stream of explicatives only someone with a parrot and a patched eye should EVER utter came rushing out my mouth. Shortly after, my brain froze and I forgot every word of every language that I had ever learned. Thank goodness my companion was now in a calm phase. I was of no help as she tried to explain to the police what had happened, though sadly, it was to no avail. The cop couldn’t understand us, no matter how many times we explained it. Oh well. Welcome to Guatemala.

It sounds cliche, I know, but I don’t mind so much the lost money, or the credit cards, or the hassle that will ensue as I try to replace everything. The guy that robbed us was clearly desperate, probably a drug user as evidenced by his emaciated body, and his life was in far worse condition than mine. No, it wasn’t that. What upset me the most was that fact that the next morning I was still spinning. I hadn’t slept. I cried and cursed alternatively while my housemate peacefully ate her breakfast. It lasted for two days, this state. I spun while she calmly went about her business. Frankly I resented her for moving past it so quickly. I wanted to be like that too, but I wasn’t, no matter how much I wanted to be.

But I did learn a few things. I learned that I’m clear headed in a moment of crisis. I learned that its easy to let go of your wallet when you have to. I learned to keep my money in my bra when traveling in a third world country. And last but not least, I learned that I process stress the way some people fight viruses. They work and work, and never get sick as they do, but the minute they get a free weekend….they’re stricken like dogs. And that was me. Sick as a dog. For two days. Not the way I would have imagined it to be, but it is what it is, right?

So for those of you who have yet to discover what category they fall into and are afraid of what they might find, I offer this. First and foremost, I hope you never have to learn anything this way. Needless to say armed robbery is no fun. Second, unless you’ve been on a SWAT team or served in special forces, chances are you are not a Category C, no matter how much you want to be. And that’s okay.

Third, I discovered that there is an upside to armed robbery, and it’s this. There is great reward in learning something about yourself that you didn’t know before, and then coming to terms with it. Coming to terms with the difference between who you ARE and who you WISH you were is the great civil war we all fight within ourselves. So if an experience like this brings you that much closer to acceptance and declaring peace within yourself, then you’re that much closer to nirvana.

By the way, if you’re male and fall into Category C, call me.

**UPDATE: Tuesday August 24, 2011** 

There is an unconfirmed report that there were at least a dozen robberies the night of August 18th, 2011 in what appears to have been an organized crime spree in the city of Antigua that began sometime around 8pm. A number of victims were allegedly hospitalized from stab wounds.

I personally know of three other people that were victims of attacks that night; a young couple from the states, and an American Expat living in Antigua. The couple was stupidly on drugs when they were jumped on the street and had their passports stolen. The other, a young woman, received a stab wound to her leg when she tried to run away. Her purse was taken. She is recovering.


Shiny Happy People

August 16, 2011

I have never spent more than a week in any one city while on vacation. That’s just how I roll. If I go someplace, I wanna see stuff, which means I move around a lot. (That, and I can’t afford a longer vacation.) So this visit has, for better or for worse, afforded me the chance to stay in town long enough for the real character of Antigua to emerge…past the bars, past the brightly painted buildings, and past the charming mercados filled with crafts. What I have seen in Antigua is much more complicated than I imagined. To see it’s real face, or at least, as much as one can see in a month, is a humbling and educational experience.

Now, this is not my first trip to the rodeo. I spent two and half weeks in Colombia and, frankly, it was a challenge. The language barrier, compounded by illness (and a red-eye bus ride to Bogota through the Andes Mountains that was so rough it was impossible to remain seated on the toilet, let alone get any sleep), was about all this gringa could handle.

This time, though, it’s different. I live here, albeit briefly. I have a family who takes care of me as if I were their own child. An adult child who can’t speak spanish. But like any good parents, they love me anyway.  I am embarrassed to admit that, before coming here, in my mind Guatemala was just another country that had a troubled past. I knew that it was a poor country, but what I didn’t know was that it had been embroiled in an uncivil war that ended a scant fifteen years ago. And as such, the memories here are still fresh. The United States, for all it’s faults, can at least boast of more than a century of relative civil peace. Yes, sure, we had the sixties, but that really doesn’t count.

I daresay that in Guatemala, however, there isn’t a resident here past the age of twenty who doesn’t have vivid memories of the chaos and violence that ravaged the country for thirty years. And the worst part of it is that the United States had a hand in it. I was unprepared for that revelation. It makes it all the more remarkable to me that the people of Antigua can, for the most part, set aside their feelings of anger and resentment and welcome tourists as warmly as they do. Especially since the high standard of life in the US is in such stark contrast to, and in some cases at the expense of, countries like Guatemala.

So now, having seen what I’ve seen, and knowing what I know now, this town looks very different to me. Upon closer inspection, Antigua has lost some of it’s quaint charm in exchange for a darker reality and depth. The streets seem little dirtier, the dogs a little hungrier, and the buildings more dilapidated, but the people of Antigua have taken on a new luster that I did not see before…that of patience, forgiveness, pride, ambition and hope.


More Coffee Please: A Visit to Finca Filadelfia

A coffee plant. Just in case you wondered.A view from the Green Monster as we arrive at the coffee plantation

After six hours of Spanish class every day and a frenzied weekend trip to Tikal, I was feeling a little spent, so I was in the mood to relax this past weekend. On the advice of a friend, I decided to take the tour of Finca Filadelfia, the coffee plantation located just a few minutes outside of Antigua. Getting there is easy. The plantation offers free rides to the farm in its massive, army green, ex-military vehicles. You can’t miss them. They lumber down the streets of Antigua every few hours like escapees from a Monster Truck Rally.

To arrive at this splendid plantation is similar to what it must feel like to arrive at Scarlett O’Hara’s plantation. A huge archway stands guard over the entrance, and past that, the perfectly manicured grounds of Finca Filadelfia. Before you go, it’s a good idea to know exactly what you want to do, because there is much to do there. More than you would expect.

There is a standard tour of the grounds. Visitors are carried via above-mentioned green monsters as you are guided along the coffee beans’ voyage from nursery to coffee cup. There’s also mule rides through the picturesque property if you prefer to go by hoof. For the fearless, there is a zipline canopy adventure that begin in the steep hills that surround the grounds.

I had originally decided it was high time I experience the thrill of the zipline, however two minutes after I arrived, it began to rain. So instead I opted for the standard tour-by-truck.   I can always zipline another time, when the weather is better….like, in my next life. Okay! Yes! I chickened out a little, but I wanted my first zipline experience to be as terror-free as possible. I wasn’t sure that having my face pelted by rain at forty miles an hour was the experience I was looking for. At least, not the first time around.

So it was back in giant green truck for me and about ten other people. We loaded up and headed out. First destination, the nursery, where our young, amiable guide Alex explained how Filadelfia coffee plants are actually a genetic splice of two different coffee plants. Fascinating. Then it was off to see where the beans are processed, sorted and finally bagged for shipment to the US, Germany and other parts of the world. Most interestingly, each individual bean has been, at some point or another, hand selected by a human being. Talk about quality control.

Then last but not least, a tasting. Expresso or Americano stye. Take your pick. There is, of course, the inevitable gift shop where you can buy a bag or two for yourself to take home. I suggest you do, and buy the good stuff if you do. It’s organic. And delicious. It is, as the Guatemalans say, “Vale la pena.”  Worth the cost.

Oh The Things You Will Do

When you stay for more than a week in any town, inevitably you reach the point where you’ve seen just about everything there is to see, and you find yourself wondering how the heck you’re going to kill the rest of your time. My experience has been, once you’ve seen the museum, the national park and the tourist strip in any given place, you’re left standing in the motel lobby browsing the brochures and wondering if a visit to the Worlds Largest Peanut or the I-90 Ant Farm is worth your while.

If you visit Antigua, though, you will never suffer from a lack of things to do. Antigua is well-situated right in the middle of some pretty amazing places. Take Tikal, for example. A one hour plane ride into the heart of the Guatemalan rain forest, not far from the border of Belize, you will find this massive, and I mean massive, National Park that is a member of the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. And for good reason. It is an astounding testament to the great heights of Mayan civilization. Just over the border in Honduras you can find the smaller, yet no less fascinating, Copan ruins. Also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Impressive!

Then there’s the volcanos. There’s three of them here. El Agua, El Fuego, and Pacaya. El Fuego, in a constant state of eruption, is fascinating to watch from the streets of Antigua on a clear day, but even more intriguing is the chance to actually climb one of these monsters. That’s where Pacaya comes in. About an hour and a half drive from Antigua, this volcano was active until a few years ago, when it decided to take a little siesta. I’m told the climb is a tough one due to the steep incline, the sand-like surface and the high altitude. I’ll let you know. It’s on my list of things to do.

There’s also the beautiful Lago Atitlan, a sight so stunning that Ernest Hemingway himself was obligated to wax poetic about it. He reputedly claimed it was the most beautiful place on earth. There are boat rides on the lake and visits to the pueblos that surround the village, like San Pedro and the popular Chichicastenengo, renowned for its lively morning market. Swimming. Kayaking. It’s all less than a three hour drive away.

A mere five to ten minutes away from Antigua is the Finca Filadelfia coffee planation. There’s a macadamia nut farm as well. Did I hear someone say free samples? And pretty San Felipe, so close you can walk. And that’s not including all the sights and activities to be found IN Antigua itself. Cerro de la Cruz, where you’ll find the cross that stands guardian over the town, and the most stunning panoramic view around. There’s the Plaza Mayor, Antigua’s central park where you can sit and enjoy some people watching, hire a walking tour of the town or bargain with the street vendors for some local crafts. There are performances on the weekend near the Arch, an endless array of stunning ruins to see, museums to tour and shops to browse.

In short, if you should find yourself in Antigua with nothing to do, it’s because you planned it that way.

Hail To The Chief

Hail to the Chief

There never seems to be dull moment here in Antigua. It starts early in the morning. First the roosters. Then the firecrackers. Most mornings there are firecrackers. I’m told it is a birthday tradition here. One day in class as I watched a video on Guatemala’s Civil War, a parade passed by in the street. Another day I walked out the door to see the volcano El Fuego erupting in the distance. A huge plume of smoke billowed from it’s peak. As I said, never a dull moment.

Take last Tuesday, for example. I came home for lunch that afternoon as usual. As I opened the door, the matron of the house, Ana Maria Caceres De Reyes, turned to me from the kitchen with an amused smile on her face. She was adorned in a festive apron. She laughed as she raised her arms triumphantly and exclaimed, “Victoria!”. Victory! Upon closer inspection, I saw that the apron bore the smiling face of one of the candidates running for president of Guatemala. I’m told there are twelve candidates this year. Apparently some political supporters had visited the house while I was at school and left this unique promotional item. Clearly I chose a good time to visit, because it’s an election year in Guatemala. And just like the good ole USA, there is no shortage of controversy.

When we sat down to lunch, Ana Maria told me the story of one particularly interesting controversy, the biggest of this election year. It’s an intriguing tale, a combination of political ambition and good old fashioned soap opera. It seems that one of the candidates was, until recently, the wife of the current president. As her husband’s term drew to a close, the First Lady decided that she, too, would like to become president. An admirable goal. But wait, there’s a problem. She can’t run. The Guatemalan constitution forbids family members of a sitting president to run in a following election. Since she is married to him, she is family. End of story. So, she quietly packed up her posters and stable gun, and decided to wait out the four years until she can run for president, free of controversy and constitutional complications, right?

Wrong. In a move that stunned everyone and has set tongues a wagging, she decided she couldn’t wait. So she divorced her husband instead. Her husband…who is still the President of Guatemala. Naturally, this has set off a whirlwind of discussion; moral, legal and otherwise. Lawmakers in Guatemala City have been burning the midnight oil in an attempt to sort out the issues. You can imagine how good this has been for the news media. For the candidates too, no doubt. Remember, this is politics. Just about any press is good press. Just today the local paper Prensa Libre had another front page spread about it. I say, you have to admire the lady.  Hillary Clinton? Margaret Thatcher? Ladies, you have met your match.

Welcome to the Jungle

Well….technically, its the rainforest, but it’s still wild and beautiful just the same. This past weekend I was fortunate enough to see an acclaimed World Heritage Site; the ruins of Tikal. It is a place like no other…a place everyone should see. You will be hard pressed to find more vivid evidence of the ingenuity and resourcefulness of mankind. It is spectacular, to put it simply. And it is less than an hour from Antigua by plane.

Some friends and I spent four hours walking this hidden gem with a guide who was as passionate as he was knowledgeable about the ancient Mayan civilization. In that four hours, we saw only a fraction of the property. It’s a sprawling place, 222 square miles to be exact. If you go without a guide, beware. It’s easy to get lost. The place is so big that much of it will never be uncovered, primarily because the limestone the Maya used to build with is susceptible to erosion. We walked past steep, wooded hills, only to be told that they were, in fact, temples that had been left uncovered.

He explained that the Maya constructed only one temple every fifty years. As I stood gazing up in wonder, it occurred to me that they literally moved mountains of limestone in order to construct gigantic tributes to their gods, their dead, and to their kings. And they did it by hand. Cut it, moved it and even cemented it. One by one. Until it was complete.  Some of them reached hundreds of feet tall, high over the treetops. In their time, our guide said, these structures were brightly painted in yellow, red and green. One can only imagine what an awe-inspiring sight it must have been to the inhabitants of this place. It still is.

As if that were not enough, we had the joy of climbing on top of one of the tallest temples to view the rainforest below. As we ascended, about halfway up, we encountered a family of howler monkeys feeding in the trees. They were so close we could nearly touch them. Small. Black. Furry. Almost delicate in appearance. You would never guess these were the same creatures we had heard bellowing like gorillas earlier that morning. They do make a racket. Ergo the name Howler Monkey I would imagine. A gross understatement if you ask me. To hear them, one would guess they were roughly the size of a Honda Civic.

That’s not all. A large tribe of coatamundi crossed our path and stopped to dig for food. Scarcely four feet away from us, they could have cared less. There were Toucan as well. Small, bright green ones, and large black ones that you may remember from your Fruit Loops box. Incredible to say the least. Our guide told us that he has seen foxes as well as panthers here. We didn’t see any this trip. Maybe you’ll catch a glimpse yourself. But like many of the worlds great wonders, Tikal is fragile. Time, rain and the ever-growing tide of tourists have made this monument to a great civilization increasingly difficult and increasingly expensive to protect. So go if you can. And do it soon. Who knows how long this treasure will last.

Relax. Or Else.

Sometimes it’s hard to remember, while sitting in Spanish class here in Antigua, Guatemala, that this is not a graded curriculum. It’s hard because, first of all, the school is so well run that it’s easy to forget. It functions a lot like a private school in the states does. It is professional, personal and well-organized. Now, some people study abroad in a program like this just for fun. Learn a little Spanish, dance a little salsa, see the sights and enjoy a relaxing vacation. Me, I’m a bit of a perfectionist. As a result, I’ve put a little pressure on myself to do well and advance my language skills.

Those of you with the same affliction are nodding your heads right now. You know who you are.

Anyway, I came here to learn as much as I possibly can.  Because of that, sometimes I find myself sitting in class with my shoulders drawn up around my neck, anxious and tensed, trying to catch all the information that is flying all around me. And herein lies a cautionary tale for all of you perfectionists, and t is to you that I offer this sincere advice:

Relax. Or else.

And I’ll tell you why. Shortly after I began my classes here, I was sitting at the table listening to my teacher, Antonio, talking about the Preterite tense. Or the Imperfect. I can’t recall exactly because frankly, I get them confused. But that’s beside the point. The point is, there I was, listening to Antonio talk, with a fingernail nervously clenched between my teeth. Then I heard it. POP! One of the veneers on my front teeth snapped in half. Oh boy.

Of course I panicked. Silently at first. Class had just begun and I didn’t want to interrupt, so I quietly popped the crown back on and thankfully, it stayed there. I went home for lunch an hour and half later and tried to explain in my broken Spanish to my host family that I had a problem. God forbid I run around for the next three and a half weeks with a nubbin of a tooth and a missing cap. She understood. She had had the exact same thing happen to her. I was so relieved I nearly fell onto her spotless floor.

She explained that she had a dentist that she liked, whom she said did good work, and she offered to call and make an appointment for me. Which she did. That afternoon she called me and left a message on my cell phone that the dentist would see me the very next day right after class. Not only that, but my host mother actually came down to the school to escort me to the dentists office that next day. I could have kissed her right then and there.

24 hours later I left the dentist’s office with good news. He could get me a new veneer if I wanted, or he could just fix the old one long enough to get me back to the states. Either way, he was happy to help. Problem solved. So now you have been warned.

And in case you are wondering, dentistry in Antigua is pretty much the same as it is in the states. The office is smaller, and there are no bells and whistles, but competent just the same. And a lot less expensive. Bonus!