September 11, 2006
In Jane Bowles' short story, "A Guatemalean Idyll," a tourist, discontented in Antigua, asks, "What is the point of traveling?" Maybe, living in Antigua for the next three weeks, I'll find a few answers to this question...?
On this anniversary, rather than looking back to look forward, I'm traveling in Central America with my daughter Marian and my husband Jeff. Marian has lived in Mexico, and is fluent in Spanish. Jeff and I have no experience either living or speaking in this part of the world.
When we touched down in Guatemala City yesterday afternoon, the whole plane load of people burst into applause.
Marian: "This expresses our gratitude to the pilot."
Anne: "Perhaps this suggests an uncertainty that we would be landing safely?"
Jeff:"Are we one or two hours behind time?"
Marian: "Parentals: There is one thing you need to know while living in a new country. You are not going to understand everything. Why people clap. What time it is."
Anne: "Inquiring minds want to know."
Marian: "Your mind wants to know. Your mind needs to change."
At this point, all the old women around us pull their suitcases down from the overhead bins, place them on their heads, and walk free-handed off the plane. Somewhat bewildered (how can they do this, without holding on?), we follow.
The drive from Guatamala City to Antigua is an adventure. There are many cars, quite a few of them stopped in the middle of traffic. The road is winding, mountainous and under repair. The traffic is heavy; quite a few of the cars are stopped, w/ engine trouble or flat tires, in the middle of the road. There are many riders in the open backs of pick-up trucks.
But Antigua (when we finally arrive) is a place stopped-in-time, a beautifully preserved (for tourists?) place: all flowers and ruins, bright and beautiful colors (of buildings and flora and people's clothing), all surrounded by three tall volcanos: Agua, Fuerte y Acatenago (water, fire, and ....?) It feels out-of-time, preserved under glass, not real. I hear echoes of my college years spent in Williamsburg, Virginia. And--in our casita--there's a musty smell, just like the cottage that is Dalke's Rivercliff. We've come very far to experience the smell of home.
I'm larding my experiences here with those of others who have traveled and lived in this place. I've begun by reading both Jane and Paul Bowles, as well as Aldous Huxley, who published Beyond the Mexique Bay: A Traveller's Journal, in 1934. This journal includes several chapters on Antigua, including some commentary I find prescient and accurate: