Tag Archives: Antigua

Part One: Meet the Parents

6 Mar

PD, Monterrico, Guatemala

It’s been a month since we last blogged. We’re still in Guatemala, and mum and dad left last week after spending three weeks here with us. It was wonderful to see them. But one week into their visit we received some very bad family news, which knocked us for six. The trip took on a totally different hue, as our thoughts and worries were constantly turning to home.

We decided then not to write anything for a while, and so, to catch up a bit, this next post will be in two parts within a few days.

Once it was clear we were going to continue with the holiday as planned, we did everything we could to make the most of our time together, and of mum and dad’s first visit to Guatemala. We’re pretty sure they liked it! Although we stayed in hotels and rented houses while they were here, they got a bit of a taste of our life on the road as we drove around the country from place to place.

Brian and Christine on the boat across Lake Atitlan

Mum and dad on a trip to the supermarket, Lago de Atitlan


One thing’s for sure – it was sometimes a bit weird to see our daily life through their eyes. Now, we are well aware that the roads are fraught with hazards like dogs in the road, kamikaze bus and truck drivers, interesting over-taking manoeuvres, and car-wrecking elements like unfeasibly large potholes and vicious speedbumps. But somehow it looks even worse when you’ve got your mum and dad bouncing around in the back, occasionally covering their eyes and not infrequently mouthing exclamations.

I think I mentioned that my dad is a bit fastidious about cars – he likes them to be looked after. With that in mind, he actually showed remarkable restraint by not swearing at every speed bump we encountered. Likewise, it took him a whole week to finally crack and wash the windows. He’s so zen these days.

We demonstrated that the van can cope with tight spots, by inching through packed marketplaces in Coban, Santa Elena and Rio Dulce. And we showed our navigational skills to the full by, er, deliberately getting lost in Guatemala City – twice – and then rescuing the situation just when things looked hopeless. Well done us.

We were extremely keen to make sure the trip passed off without incident. There’s no denying that Guatemala has its share of road accidents and crime. And most visitors come a cropper at some stage with the food or water. Knowing they would be returning to a stressful situation at home seemed to make this all the more important.

But we didn’t want it to be safe in a dull way. So we got on the ancient-looking canoe and let the 14-year-old ‘captain’ row us down a canyon. We walked round the un-visited part of Livingstone with a bloke we’d just met on the street. We spent an afternoon on a yacht in the nautical hands of an American bloke who’d clearly had more beers than was healthy. Worse still, we sank a few cervezas ourselves and then he let us steer.

The sublime view from our balcony, Lago de Atitlan

And we took the long way round to the far north of Guatemala so we could see a different part of life from the touristy spots, at one point driving the van onto a rusty car ‘ferry’ to cross a river en route to Coban.

And after that two-day journey we made it to the Mayan ruins at Tikal in the northern Peten jungle. Wandering the ruins and the area around our hotel we saw spider monkeys, coatis, toucans, oscellated turkeys, and many other birds I cannot name but which were captured on film by dad, a keen photographer, particularly of wildlife. The howler monkeys were more elusive but made enough noise to confirm they were there.

Because we like to make life challenging, both houses we rented, at Rio Dulce and at Lake Atitlan, were only accessible by boat. So we dumped the van on dry land and hauled our stuff – including most of the contents of our little kitchen – onto little lanchas to get there. Every time we had to go shopping it meant a river or lake trip to town. But for any hassle involved we were rewarded with yet more abundant wildlife and great scenery. And some bloody enormous insects. There was one flying beetle so terrifying large, it made the same lumbering movement and sound as a Chinook helicopter on take-off.

In hot and steamy Rio Dulce we had a rustic wooden house on stilts, with a boardwalk leading to a little bar and restaurant. The ‘hotel’ was really near the town, but a boat was still needed to get there. After our shopping we had to wave or shout in order to get a lift back. Our reserved calling wasn’t enough though, so we employed the talents of a local boatmen who hollered like Tarzan to get the attention of our place’s boat driver and fixer-of-everything, Luis.

Luis was just one of many great people we met. We were glad mum and dad found the Guatemalan people to be among the most friendly they’d encountered. It was nice they could see for themselves that we’re in a great part of the world.

In Atitlan, for our final week, we found absolute tranquillity. Even the scorpion on the ceiling wasn’t enough to put us off the place, an amazing villa high above the lake near Santa Cruz La Laguna. Our balcony looked directly onto two perfect cone-shaped volcanos on the other side of Atitlan, set against a blue sky with the occasional cotton-wool puff of cloud clinging to the tops.

Mum at Rio Dulce

Mum on one of the decks at our Rio Dulce river house


In both places mum revelled in the plants and flowers, while dad – for the most part – resembled a jack-in-the-box. He’d try to sit and relax, and then a hummingbird or bright blue butterfly would flutter by and off he’d trot with the camera.

While there they, and we, also got the chance to meet some other Latin America road-trippers. Via the website Drive the Americas we’d discovered others who were doing a similar trip to us were all studying Spanish at a school in another village in Atitlan. We met for beers and swapped a few stories, and hope to meet again along the road.

Saying goodbye to mum and dad at the airport was even more difficult than it would have been under normal circumstances. But we’ll be home in September for my 40th birthday. A good friend, Sally, whose sister lives in Australia, once told me that because it’s really hard being apart from your loved ones, what’s really important is that every time you say goodbye you should already have plans for the next time you’ll see each other. It was great advice.

More pics soon, but in case you missed this batch from Chiapas, here they are again – Flickr set: Chiapas (Mexico)

Days: 155
Miles: 7148.2
Things we now know to be true: Everything can change.

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Adios and hola!

6 Feb

PD, Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala

Skool’s out. We’re back on the road.

We ended a month in Xela with a slightly raucous ‘graduation’ night at Spanish school (yes, we have a certificate to prove we Tried Very Hard), and lots of goodbyes – to our fellow students, especially Amy and Rob from New Mexico whom we hope we’ll see again some day, and to our host family Guisela, Boris and their much-loved dogs.

Paula near our house in Xela

Me heading to the launderette near our house in Xela


Shame my hangover on Saturday morning caused an even more confused babble of Spanish tenses than usual. As we drove off I think I told them we’d never forget them while we were on the road, but I may have said we’d have forgotten them by the time we got to the end of their road.

It was sad, but the end of school also signalled that a much-anticipated hello was on the horizon – to my mum and dad, who are winging their way to Guatemala as I write. We’re more than a little excited about spending three weeks travelling the country with them, and no doubt drinking a few glasses of cerveza and vino along the way. Roll on tonight.

After a bit of a mid-term slump in the Spanish-speaking stakes, the final week of school was an improvement for both of us. Partly because we accepted that it’s a long game and a period of confusion is a necessary stage of the process. The more we learn the more we expect of ourselves. PLQ is a fantastic school for many reasons, and we really feel they have given us the foundations and confidence to speak up and keep learning, as well as a wealth of knowledge about Guatemala. The homework doesn’t stop here.

Staying still and getting to know a place for a month was a luxury in itself. It was lovely to walk the streets of Xela, waving hello to familiar faces. The mechanics who fixed our van, the woman who cut my hair, the laundry guy, the bloke who cycled past us every morning on the way to school and shouted ‘buenos dias’ without fail.

Saying goodbye to our Xela hosts Guisela and Boris, and their dogs Dumpy and Pany

We even paid a visit to the football stadium to watch the mighty Xela play a league match (1-1), and Jeremy had a fix of five-a-side with the students and teachers each week.

And we got to know one or two bars. One night last week began with bumping into a couple of fellow students and heading for “a beer”. Four hours later we had crashed a birthday party in Xela’s only gay bar and were watching the birthday boy performing a Madonna song before pouring Mezcal straight from the bottle down the throats of all his guests. Those unexpected evenings are often the best.

Our final night in the city was that of our graduation. It’s a traditional Friday night thing at the school, where some of the teachers perform and sing and then all the students join in the with ‘school song’, a Spanish version of the anti-fascist Bella Ciao.

Then all the students leaving that day have to do a turn. I had to follow Amy, who is a professional singer and stopped the room with her incredible voice. And to top that off, she put in a performance like while suffering from malaria, having been diagnosed earlier in the week. Eek. I did a speech in Spanish, with quotes from Fidel Castro that had inspired me during a horrible time in our union at the BBC. Jeremy managed to mix humour, in Spanish, with a poem from Che Guevara. That’s my boy.

What we probably won’t miss about Xela is the cold at the beginning and end of the day. Bloody hell, it was freezing peeling ourselves out of bed and then sitting in the open-air school yard every morning. We realise it’s cold for many people reading this too, but we assume most of you have central heating. When I chatted to Guisela about most people in Europe not only having heating but having hot water taps in their kitchens and bathrooms she couldn’t understand the point of it – what a waste of money!

Paula, Jeremy, Rob and Amy on graduation night

More goodbyes, to fellow students and friends Rob and Amy Rakowczyk

We have now arrived in warmer climes. En route to a campsite near(ish) Antigua we picked up two skateboarders from Guatemala City who had hurtled down this terrifying hill and were looking for a lift back up. Turned out one of them had lived in (our part of London) Tooting Broadway when he was a kid. What are the chances?

After we left them we unknowingly turned onto the worst road we have encountered to date. Not really a road, just a pile of jagged rocks vaguely following the route to the place we were trying to reach. It was a terrifying hour or so, not least when we had to inch past a van that had tipped right off the road. As if they didn’t have enough to worry about, the men who were trying to haul their vehicle out of the ditch helped us get round them safely.

Most annoyingly of all, before that journey we’d got the van all washed and ready for mum and dad’s visit, and now it’s filthy again. My dad is a fanatical car-washer. We’re taking bets on how long it takes him to mention the van looks less than perfect.

More pics soon, but in case you missed this batch from Christmas, here they are again.

Flickr set: Coba to Campeche (Mexico)

Days: 126
Miles: 5961.8
Things we now know to be true: Just because there’s a road clearly marked on the map, you can’t assume it’s actually a road.