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October 15
After a delicious breakfast, prepared by Blanca, the cook, and a brisk 15 minute walk, I arrive at
La Academie Continental de Español.  This is the same school that Susan and I attended in 2005, but it has gone through several changes in location, a few changes in name and more than one change in ownership.  (kind of like the story of grandfather’s axe).  This location is pleasant enough but it is nowhere near as nice as the large outdoor courtyard we enjoyed on our previous visit.  Teachers and students still sit at little tables with parasols above, but now we are in a narrow cobblestone courtyard.  The most dramatic difference is that there are very few students.  The tourist industry here, as elsewhere, has been hit hard by the tanking of the world’s economy in 2008.  I am the only guest at Cony’s house and one of only two or three students at the school.  There are enough gringos wandering the streets, but the hotels, bars and restaurants are clearly suffering. 

I pay my fees, fill out a form and meet my instructor.  Nery Garcia is a very personable young man, enthused about his job and an excellent teacher.  Right from the start he begins to correct all the major and minor bad habits that I have acquired by learning Spanish “in the street”.  I am more fluent than I used to be, but apparently Nery thinks I speak like an immigrant, “just off the boat”.  While conversing with Francisco and my Salvadorean friends, I just tried to communicate and not worry if the gender of the noun was correct or I was using the right choice of ser or estar and they never wanted to appear impolite by criticizing me or correcting my grammar.  Maestro Nery has no such scruples – he pounces on every error!  Of course, it is exactly why I wanted to take more classes, so I am very pleased by his diligence, although, sometimes it reminds of my mother, endlessly correcting my grammar as a child.

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Academia de Español Continental

My teacher, Nery Garcia

During the last hour of the morning, I think there must be a heavy truck passing by outside, but then it occurs to me that this is Antigua and there is unlikely to be any kind of heavy truck in the narrow cobblestone street.  In a few seconds, it stops.  Nery, who is standing, doesn’t seem to notice anything and I am just about to ask:  “Was that an earthquake?”, when it starts again, only stronger.  It feels like standing on muskeg while someone is jumping up and down, or sitting in your car at a railway crossing while the passing train shakes the ground.  There is a sensation that the cobblestone courtyard is rippling ever so slightly.  Nery’s eyes get big as saucers and he says:  “We have to go outside, right now!”  By the time we reach the door, it is all over, but we stand around nervously in the street for ten minutes in case there is more to come.  There are three active volcanoes in the immediate neighbourhood of Antigua and one of them, Volcan Fuego, has been acting up lately.  Later, the official report says that at 11:52 am, there was activity of 3.5 and, at 11:54, 4.8 on the Richter scale.  In this part of the world, a minor event like this is called a tremblor.  A larger, more destructive seismic event is called a terramoto, or earthquake.  In actual fact, 4.8 is quite strong and greater than about 5.4 is a terramoto.  At any rate it was exciting:  my very first earthquake!

The little town of Antigua is incredibly picturesque.  At every turn, there is a beautiful old building or a tiny architectural detail that has me pulling my camera out.  Like every colonial town or village, the focal point of Antigua is the parque central or central square.  All life (and nearly every shoe-shine boy) revolves around the square.  It is cool and shady under the trees and there is a lovely fountain in the middle.  Around the square, are stately old buildings, housing government and municipal offices, and of course, the cathedral.

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Fountain in parque central

Government buildings on the square

Like most towns in Hispanic America, there are many beautiful old churches.  Unfortunately, the European tradition of building churches of stone did not adapt well to a town sitting almost directly on the junction of two tectonic plates, between three active volcanoes .  Nearly every church suffered in the earthquakes of 1973 and 1976.  A few were completely destroyed and persist only as ruins; others suffered partial damage and continue in use.

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Church of San Francisco with partial damage to facade

Small church of San Pedro

The traditional architecture is beautiful and very appealing.  The facades of the buildings are usually blank walls right on the sidewalk.  Inside, through open doorways, you can catch glimpses of beautiful courtyards, trees, flowers and often a fountain.  The various rooms open onto the courtyard, often through shady arched arcades.  There are a few windows in the exterior walls to catch the breeze, but for enhanced security, each is protected by interesting wrought-iron grillwork.  My favourites are large corner windows, sometimes as large as doors, with grillwork all around.

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Corner window with iron grillwork

Tiny dome on a rooftop is actually a chimney

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Businesses sharing a beautiful courtyard

Old cart decorating the courtyard

An efficient and creative approach to using the larger buildings is evident.  Commercial condominiums have been formed, so that small shops, galleries, restaurants and bars can each use a small portion of an entire building, with the courtyard and infrastructure facilities in common.  It is not only cost effective for the businesses, but it creates an appealing environment for customers.

October 17
Jim, a fellow student, invites me to hike up to the Cerro De La Cruz after lunch.  This is a large stone cross on a high hill overlooking the town.  The moderate 25-minute climb to the cross, on concrete paths is a popular activity.  Jim has been to Antigua several times and has a novia Guatemalteca – a Guatemalan girlfriend.  The three of us make a leisurely trek up to the cross and back down and then we retire to a pleasant bar for refreshments.

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View of Antigua from El Cerro de la Cruz

La Cruz

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Jim and Roxanna

View of the La Merced church from the cross

Life has settled into a pleasant, if relatively uneventful, routine; breakfast at 7:30, classes start at 8:00, no time for lingering over a second cup of coffee.  From my house to the school, is a good 12 minutes of cobblestone streets at a brisk pace, so each day begins with more exercise than I usually get in a fortnight at home.  Combined with the mostly-vegetarian diet, my life-expectancy should be increasing by the week!  The food at Cony’s house is excellent and delicious.  Many of the dishes are unfamiliar and I often have to ask what they are.  Breakfast sometimes features eggs:  huevos revueltas, or huevos rancheros with a delicious salsa.  Once in a while we get panqueques, with REAL Canadian maple syrup.  Lunch is the main meal of the day and typically includes a meat dish.  Dinner is nearly always vegetarian, with lots of amazingly fresh vegetables.  Wine or beer isn’t served but there is a Supermercado just a few blocks away that has Chilean wine on special.  Any country where eleven dollars buys three bottles of decent wine is OK in my opinion.  There is a little fridge in the dining room, so I keep it stocked.  Cony usually joins me for a small glass with dinner.  Very civilized!

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Our classroom

I am enjoying my classes very much.  Neri is an excellent teacher and very personable and we are enjoying each other’s company.  He continues to correct my pronunciation and harass me about my mistakes and I do my best to challenge him on obscure points of grammar.  Some days, after countless corrections, I feel like I will never master this language, but another day, I suddenly realize that I understand nearly all of the conversation between two Guatemalans at a nearby table.

The only real downside is the scarcity of people.  When Susan and I came here in 2005, there were thirty or more students in our school and eight or ten other people in our house.  Mealtime conversation was stimulating and enjoyable and we made many good friends.  I wasn’t concerned about travelling here by myself since I expected lots of company and many opportunities to make friends.  As it is, mealtimes can be a bit boring, especially when Cony is away for a few days and I eat by myself at a huge table meant to seat twelve people.

October 20
When we hiked up to the cross a few days ago, Jim pointed out another interesting vantage point.  El Cerro del Santo Domingo is a private establishment located on another hill, high above the city.  There is a restaurant, an exhibition of modern art and beautiful scenic views.  Feeling cocky after the easy hike up to Cerro de la Cruz, I disdain the free shuttle and set out up the hill on foot.  The road is cobblestone, in good repair, about two Km long – and incredibly steep!  I often brag that I am still twenty-five years old on the inside, but by the time I reach the top, I feel much older than that!

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Road “UP” to El Cerro del Santo Domingo

View of Antigua from the top

The highlight of the visit is an exhibition of the life work of Efraín Recinos, a Guatemalan contemporary architect, muralist, urbanist, painter and sculptor.  I’m normally not very enthusiastic about modern art, but I find his work fascinating.  Large sculptures and murals are situated throughout a beautiful park setting and smaller works are housed in a small museum. 

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Parts of a large, multi-part mural by Efraín Recinos

The hike back down is easier and quicker!

October24
Usually in the afternoon after classes, I head out to find something interesting to do.  There is no end of museums and ruined churches to visit.  Today, I visit the Convento de las Capuchinas.  This large church and convent was consecrated in 1736, and then partially damaged in the earthquake of 1773.  The Capuchins wisely decided there were better places than Antigua to live in a large stone building and moved all their assets to Guatemala City.  The building stood empty for years until the archbishop put it up for sale in 1813.  Restoration began in 1943 and restored parts of the building now house a museum and the offices of the National Council for the Protection of La Antigua Guatemala.  The museum is devoted to religious art and old paintings of saints hold little appeal for me, but the building itself has many interesting features.  It would be nice to have a guide to explain everything but there seems to be none available on this day.

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Cells in which the sisters passed their annual retreats; built around a circular space.

A beautiful bouganinvillea in the courtyard of the cloisters

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The pila where clothes are washed

A domed tower on the roof

October 27
The highlight of my stay so far is an excursion to climb Volcan Pacaya, an active volcano, located about thirty kilometers from Antigua.  Its last reported activity was an eruption on May 27, 2010 that rained ash down on nearby cities.  One fatality was recorded – a reporter trying for a scoop who was conked on the head by a flying rock.  About ten of us pile into a minibus for the 45-minute ride to the base of the mountain.  Entrepreneurs with horses crowd around, trying to convince us that we couldn’t possibly make the climb on our own and we should allow them to take us to the top on horseback.  No one in our group is prepared to suffer such an indignity, but the horses follow us about half way up in case any of us changes our mind.

The climb is stiff and takes about an hour and a half.  Our guide is friendly and entertaining but doesn’t allow us many rest stops (at one or two points, the horse begins to have a certain appeal).  Even though the weather is partly cloudy and the summit is obscured, the views out over the countryside are impressive.  As we climb higher, we walk through fields of black volcanic ash, recent enough that no plant grows.  Higher still, we hike through twisted and jumbled lava flows of black volcanic rock and pumice. 

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Hopeful horses

Newer lava flows (black) and older lava flows (grey)

Because of recent volcanic activity, we are not taken right up to the edge of the crater, which lies another two hundred meters higher (some of us would say that is a good thing!), although we do get to see a fumarole.  This is an inconspicuous hollow under a ledge that would be unremarkable, except for the fact that there are wisps of steam coming out of it and the rocks all around it are too hot to hold in your hand.  Our guide pulls out some sharpened sticks and a bag of marshmallows and we take turns roasting marshmallows in the fumarole -- using geothermal heat.

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Across the field of ash…

…through the lava flow

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Our guide, Jose, and his marshmallows

Geothermal marshmallow roasting

The hike back down via a different route promises to be uneventful but of course, much easier, until we come to a very steep slope, easily several hundred meters long.  The surface is covered more than ankle-deep with volcanic ash that is like deep, soft sand.  The ash particles are round, so they roll under your feet and make climbing down the steep slope very difficult going.  Then we watch our guide and start to copy his example:  lean back into the slope and run directly downhill as hard as you can, taking big, leaping, sliding steps!  It takes only seconds to fly two hundred meters or more down the slope and it’s the most exhilarating experience I have had next to downhill skiing.  At the bottom, I (only half-jokingly) ask if we can go up and do it again. 

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Hiking past an earlier lava flow with new vegetation

Running and sliding down the ash-covered slope   Woot!

By the time we get back to Antigua, I am ready for a serious nap!

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