- I would like to begin this post by telling anybody who stumbles on to my site by accident that you should visit La Antigua Guatemala. It is a unique, incredibly beautiful and special place. When I am an old lady, and still relatively mobile, I shall return to spend the winter months here and potter around the colonial cobbled streets hanging out in my favourite places with a few of the wonderful people that became my good friends. Also you can´t beat the amazing volcanoes that surround the city.
I arrived in Antigua in October 2003 and already had a good Guatemalan contact through a friend in England. Through him, I met a handful of good people who have remained in my life on and off over the years. But that was in the early days when I had come for a 6 month adventure, and not to settle down and have 3 children, which is ultimately what I ended up doing.
Antigua is certainly not representative of Guatemala. It is described by some as Disneylandia, and in many ways this is true. You can enjoy a certain kind of life here that you cannot find in most of the rest of the country. Smart restaurants and shops on every street corner. A McDonalds, a Burgerking, 3 or 4 overpriced delis, travel agents, gift shops, silver and jade shops, art galleries, clothes boutiques, every kind of hotel, millionaires who have come to live like kings in this paradise, lost in the last centuries. And most importantly, it is a wonderful place to stroll around with or without children. There are not many Central American towns that can rival its beauty. It boasts magnificent plazas, bougainvillea and jacaranda-lined streets and easy going, smiley people who have mostly accepted the ex-pat invasion here for better or for worse.
Life is not always stimulating but it is an easy life and a lot of people get stuck here for that reason. Unfortunately, not all of these people are the most talented, although many of them, God bless them, really believe they are. When I lived in Hong Kong there were some wonderful expressions for the passing ex-pats. As condescending as it gets, my favourite expression was FILTH. Failed in London try Hong Kong. A friend commented that people come to Antigua because they are wanted or unwanted. Wanted by the law, or unwanted by everyone else. After she introduced me to this expression, I went through a period of meeting some of the weirdest characters of my life and developed my own expression. The 3 Fs. The fakes, the freaks and the felons. People come to Antigua and they reinvent themselves in more ways than one. The small fish in a small town can easily become a big fish with the right amount of bullshitting. People acquire more servants than they ever dreamed of and something else happens to them, the princess complex. The fact that they have more control over other people can make them a little deluded as to their own importance, and then there really is no going back.
Although I appreciated the ease and beauty of Antigua I can´t say it was ever my kind of place. Brought up in another beautiful small town in northern England by 18 years old I ran from small town life. I was drooling for the city, the gritty, the glamourous, the ethnic minorities, the underground music scene………
I like to be a small fish in a big sea, lucky enough to bump into some big fish worth listening to and I suppose when I left London my life reflected that. I was a few years down the road into a new career path and although I still hadn´t established myself I was meeting some big players in my field. Writers, researchers and visionaries that were inspiring. I was even lucky enough to have found a couple of mentors who were benevolent enough to give me their time and wisdom. When I arrived in Antigua to take a 6 month break and carry on with some of my own research I was still buzzing with these ideas and it was my research that led me to meet my husband on that fateful day 27th February 2004. But I met my husband in Casacomal in Zone 10 in the City and discovered that another world existed outside the slightly fake one in Antigua. The world of my husband and his friends in film and art and embassies. My spanish was still rubbish and it took a while for me to join my husband in his social life in the city, so Antigua was my goldfish bowl.
During my first few months in Antigua, pre motherhood, although I was having fun, I actually felt repressed, limited, frustrated. I couldn´t always be myself and I would have to escape for a few days to have my adventures. I felt as though I had made a mistake. I was too old to hang out with the freshfaced backpackers, to fall for the charms of the young Guatemalans who wanted me to buy them drinks, or even less so for the sad old guys that had come here to pick up women. Too old and cynical for this trip. I was bored out of my mind with the guitar playing, sad faced guys in shabby bars. I missed the cosmopolitan underground of London and my other favourite haunts. Ironically just after I met my husband I already had a flight booked to Buenos Aires as I thought I would go crazy if I spent one more week in the one horse town. Little did I know …..
( Incidentally Buenos Aires delivered everything that I was looking for when I arrived in March 2004, but that is another story ….. coming soon).
Suddenly I had a new life and finding myself back in Antigua in a completely different guise as an accidental (serendipity) mother of a Guatemalan from the city, meant my loneliness drove me to look for things for my children and myself to break the domestic grind of two baby boys. My enthusiasm and openness led me at times into a bland world where I would find myself at the usual Antigua events but feeling as though I was having the blood drained slowly out of me as my eyes glazed over. I was becoming a zombie!
A large proportion of people have come here to keep on living a life of suburban gringodom. La Antigua can wrap you up again in a safe blanket of ignorance which, lets face it, is what most people want. And if I let slip that my husband was an ex guerrilla it would ruffle feathers. My husband had warned me, but at times I would think why do I have to keep it quiet like a dirty secret. I am not ashamed of him, in fact the opposite. When his film came out, I admit I was a little worried that old hatreds die hard but when you watch Las Cruces you find a balanced film more about philosophy than politics.
We now live just outside Antigua and I have given my 3 children the first precious years of their lives in this beautiful place and that has been my mission, to share with them the paradise, as seen through their innocent eyes. They know nothing of the reality of the violence, hardships and sadness. Unfortunately they have seen a lot of guns, overheard a few whispered conversations about kidnappings and shootings, and at times witnessed their mother´s alienation and disappointment. Their father, well he is older and wiser and knows how this part of the world works.
My husband wasn´t too happy to leave his cabaña just outside the city and embrace Antigua life. He was a city boy who already had a great social life established around his world of films and culture, and old and loyal school friends. I, on the other hand, needed the beauty and convenience of Antigua in my first wobbly steps into motherhood. I have never regretted the decision to set up home here although at times the small town mentality has driven me crazy, but I have been lucky enough to find the good people living on the edge. But honestly I had to metaphorically lift up stones and look behind hedges to find my like minded people, and I did. They are an eclectic bunch, but all the better for it, my friends.
But on a light hearted note. Come and live in Antigua if:
– you are a man looking to pull. For some reason there are way to many pretty and interesting woman living here that strongly outnumber the good available men. I was one of the lucky ones!
– you enjoy living in a clique! (pronounced like leek not click). Antigua like all small towns has a multitude of claustrophobic cliques with the usual bored bitching and backstabbing that goes along with it. Sometimes you get into one without realising and it is not always easy to get out. Take care!
– you want to get pregnant. The men down here seem to have pretty good sperm! Although be careful good sperm does not always lead to good genes! I got lucky again.
– you are Catholic. Semana Santa and Hermano Pedro put this place on the catholic map and the cathedrals and churches are wonderful.
– you are an evangelical missionary. Plenty of your sort down here enthusiastically wearing T shirts and building churches and schools where they can put the fear of God into people. You´ll feel right at home!
– you want to recreate a certain kind of imported condo suburban life. You can hang out with bland but very NICE people just like you, have more servants, still buy from Pricemart and Walmart and Trader Joe´s, fly to Miami to do your shopping and have cheaper medical insurance, botox and plastic surgery, work less hours, have more servants, drink cheaper coffee.
– you are an alcoholic. Being a drunk is cheaper and easier in Antigua and there are plenty of bars to be thrown out of, but if you have enough money that will never happen. Its a small town so you never have too far to stumble home. If you pass out in your own vomit and pee in the gutter, don´t worry its a regular occurrence, people will walk round you or step over you.
– you are a painter. Its beautiful and peaceful and you can rent studio space cheaply. The colours and volcanoes are amazing. Also you´ll probably get a solo exhibition in no time in one of the many galleries or bars. But you´ll have to deal with the fact that most of the people are there for the free wine and not their love of art!
– you are a bleeding heart or need some work experience to get you that university place. Plenty of opportunity to get involved with niños in the huge NGO industry that surrounds Antigua and Lake Atitlan. You can talk up your good work in the bars around town too if that is your way.
– you are a middle aged pseudo intellectual male. You can hang out in a bar and enjoy the sound of your own voice seducing naive young women, but boring the pants off the rest of us with your arrogant inability to listen. If you can´t bore enough people in the bar you can even write in a magazine.
– you are one of those people who thinks the world owes you something, you can come and beg here, pretty successfully from what I have seen. Beg for a job, somewhere to live, beg for expensive hospital treatments, flights, meals and many free drinks. I do not understand why these people chose to come here and moan about their sad lives, it seems terribly inappropriate if you look at the struggles of the average local but I suppose everyone deserves a helping hand.
– you are looking for a comfortable base to tour around the region. Antigua is the perfect place to wash your clothes, chill out, eat some good food, take some Spanish classes, potter around, watch some films, replenish your backpack with some vital bits and pieces etc, etc. That was my plan, but serendipity got in the way!
– you are a single mother who wants to work from home. Never an easy thing to do but Antigua supplies you with great internet access, great nannies and hired help and everything else that you might need at a more competitive price.
– you are a crazy new age freak. You will find it all here and great prices. You can do yoga, massage, reiki, crystals, love therapy (??!), meditation, Buddhism for westerners and hot rocks can even be thrown at you if you so desire and a whole bunch of stuff including shamans real and fake. You can join the party and talk up your new found peace or like me find the good people and keep it to yourself ……
– you are a millionaire who pretends to be Indiana Jones but really is stealing and smuggling artifacts from a country where corrupt people can feel at home!
or, last but not least
– you are a thirty something London girl who fell for a guy from the big bad City and needed somewhere beautiful, safe and convenient to bring up your children (and find a great nanny).
So thanks Antigua and your people (especially our nanny!) for seeing me through these years and sorry to our friends in Guatemala City that I wish I had seen more. We are leaving but we will be back. Besos y abrazos.