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Exploring Antigua and Chichicastenango

We officially woke up at 6 o'clock, but we had heard fireworks and birds starting at around 5:30. We took nice hot showers and headed outside at aroung 7:20. We started to meet people from our group on the street in front of the hotel. It turned out that none of the people on our flight to Guatemala City were amongst the 9 other people in our group. First we met Gerry and Judy from Florida (who used to live in the Boston area). We talked to them for a while and soon after our guide Andre appeared. He is originally from Montreal, but has lived in Guatemala for 18 years. We then met David and Beverly from Sunnyvale and Marsha from Berkeley.

We walked to a nearby restaurant for breakfast but it wasn't open yet, so Andre took us to La Fuenta, a restaurant with which he is somehow affiliated as a property manager or some such arrangement. The restuarant surrounded a nice courtyard with a fountain in the center. Indigenous women were selling tapestries and traditional embroidered blouses called huipiles ("we-peels"). There were little shops surrounding the courtyard, and paintings of Antiguan scenes adorned the walls. We were served a plate of succulent watermelon and papaya. We ordered huevos rancheros revueltos (scrambled eggs in ranchero sauce), frijoles (beans), queso (cheese), platanitos fritos (fried plantains), pan (bread), jugo de naranja (orange juice), and cafe (coffee). The eggs were spicy and the cheese was tart. The orange juice was very fresh. Three other members of our group (Tracy, Margaret, and Ann from Detroit) met us at the restaurant. Rounding out our group would be their friend Marcia, who had not yet arrived in Antigua. She was supposed to meet up with us later in the day.

We headed back to the hotel to check out of our room and place our luggage in a storage room for safekeeping. On the way, we stopped and changed some money at a bank. The exchange rate is 8 quetzales per U.S. dollar. We meandered around the Parque Central (right across the street from the hotel) for a while. There was a fountain in the middle of the park which featured water spurting out of women's breasts. We saw merchants selling "The Passion of the Christ" on bootleg DVD (despite currently running in theatres) and a man offered to sell us a machete, but we declined. We walked down the street passing under a yellow architectural arch called the Arco de Santa Catalina. We went into Nim Po't, which was a neat consignment shop of Guatemalan crafts. We also wandered into a few other shops featuring some very nice artwork and fabrics. We headed to La Merced, a gorgeous yellow and white church not far from the arch. We had hoped to see the alfombra (sawdust carpet) which had been created within La Merced, but the church was closed in preparation for Palm Sunday.

We headed to the Convento de Capuchinas and Andre gave us a quick tour. This was a convent (construction was completed in 1736) which housed the Capuchin order of nuns, who were permitted no contact with the outside world. There were some very interesting rooms whose purpose were not fully understood but it was a nice place to look around and enjoy the architecture anyway. One room of interest was located underground and was quite cool despite the heat outside. The room was round with a domed ceiling and seemed to be a perfect shape for voices to travel uniformly. Andre stood in the middle and quietly spoke to us and we could easliy hear everything he said. There were various cooking chambers as well as meeting room where there were little alcoves where conversations could be monitored.

We went to lunch with Andre, Beverly, and David at Las Antorchas. I had a lomito sandwich and Craig had churrasquito con frijoles (4 oz of beef served with tortillas and beans). Craig had his first Guatemalan beer, a Gallo, and I got an orange Fanta in a glass bottle. Andre had some business to attend to so after lunch we did some shopping with Beverly and David. We stopped at a very nice store called Casa del Tejidos. I saw a gorgeous huipil with embroidered roses. I tried it on but it wouldn't fit over my big American head.

After shopping we headed back to the hotel to meet the group at 2:30. Margaret, Ann, and Tracy's friend Marcia had arrived. We picked up our luggage from the storage room and went downstairs to the restaurant to use the public restroom (near the neon sign for Victoria Beer which was shaped like a large pair of breasts). We brought the luggage outside and loaded it onto a very nice bus. Andre apparently left his laptop unattended on the curb for two seconds, and it was stolen. This made us aware that constant vigilance was necessary. The ride to Chichicastenango ("Chichi") took 2.5 hours, and was harrowing at times (due to a mixture of hairpin turns, steep hills, fog, rain, chicken buses that pass on blind curves, etc). We saw lots of scenery on the ride, including coffee fincas, pigs, cows, goats, political graffiti, etc. We arrived in Chichi at around 5:30pm. There was a lot of traffic coming into town, and a bunch of kids waved to us while we were stuck in traffic. A pair of sisters in a bodega were wrestling with each other, giggling, and waving.

When we arrived at the Hotel Santo Tomas, an armed guard with a shotgun watched our luggage while we unloaded it from the bus. We checked in and relaxed in our room until 6:30. The room was gorgeous. It was light and airy, had a king sized bed, a fireplace, gorgeous furniture, some postcards and a bottle of water. The walls were adorned with Guatemalan textiles. An employee came to the door to deliver a second bottle of water, and to shut the curtains and turn down the bed. Although we already had water we knew you could never have too much bottled water and we always kept it with us wherever we went.

We met our group in the lobby at 6:30 and walked around town. Andre took us to the marketplace where people were setting up for tomorrow's Palm Sunday market. We wandered through the dark half-constructed stalls, and watched people setting out their vegetables and wares. Families cooked hand-made tortillas and other food that was a delight to the senses. We went into a church and saw floats being prepared for the Semana Santa (Holy Week) processions. People came up to us selling items. I bought three dolls from a little girl for $2 and took her picture.

A woman followed us around for quite a while trying to get Craig to buy a tapestry. We bargained, and she didn't want to meet our price. When we started to walk away she agreed, but asked for a pen. Her friend asked for one too, so I gave one to each of them. The second girl immediately tested the pen on her hand to make sure it worked, and we all had a good laugh, including the girl herself. A bunch of kids started asking for pens, but we hadn't brought our supply of pens and notebooks with us tonight. We were amazed by the number of little girls who were caring for their baby siblings. Girls who looked no older than 6 had two-year-olds strapped to their backs, and they took care of the baby's every need while their parents prepared for the market tomorrow.

Our group headed to Las Brasas for dinner. Craig and I weren't very hungry so we split a pollo a las brasas (charcoal chicken). It was delicious, and it came with soup and bread. Craig got a Gallo beer. Dinner was a lot of fun. Margaret, Ann, Tracy, and Marcia were lots of laughs. We really enjoyed everyone's company. Then we went back to the hotel and sat in the bar near the fireplace. A band in the courtyard was playing very percussive marimba music that seemed to be straight out of Tom Waits' "Bone Machine" album. Craig got a Moza beer and I had a Bailey's. We pulled our chairs into a circle and chatted until 9:30, at which point we all headed to our rooms.

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