The Way to Antigua

Plaza in San Marcos, Guatemala

The first morning I woke up in Guatemala, I made my way through the tarped-over market already set up for the day just outside my hotel, and stumbled into bright sunshine outside. A few blocks’ walk found me a cafe where I could get a halfway decent cup of tea — how quick it is that lipton becomes halfway decent. I sat on a bench out in the plaza and and took in the mix of crisp mountain air and car exhaust and the smell of soap from cleaning sidewalks, decided that this San Marcos was alright, actually, and took some satisfaction at being out of the book. There was something quaint about the place, but mostly gritty and decaying. People seemed pleasantly surprised to have a gringo in town, almost proud, and went out of their way to wish me a Buen dia.

The quetzales Maya had given me were gone, so I looked around for an ATM, and after some wanderings I found one, something like a brightly colored phone booth off the street, and took out enough to get me to Antigua. I would discover several days later that this was a fateful moment: there would be significant consequences to this withdrawal. All sorts of sources had warned me to only use ATMs that were inside banks, or otherwise observed, and I knew this, but couldn’t find a bank with one inside, and was tired of looking.

After breakfast I caught a combi for Xela, packed with 15 people in a van that should seat 10 tops. San Marcos is not far on the map, but we took two hours of winding mountain roads through green lush Guatemala, hairpin turns and steep declines and reckless passing maneuvers. A trip not recommended for people less than a week removed from traumatic bus accidents. Partly because of this disturbing morning ride, when we got there I decided to pause my journey for a couple hours.

Xela (officially, but called by no one, Quetzaltenango) is a city I’d wanted to visit for a long time, a favorite of my friend and Guatemalan aficionado Ryan Riedel. I had meant to spend several days there, but time in Mexico had gotten away from me. Took a taxi downtown for double the cost I’d paid to get from San Marcos, and he took me to the Parque Centro Americana, a gritty and charming plaza with buildings that had a gothic feel, gray and imposing and grand. Had a restorative pot of herbal tea at an excellent café with a hidden courtyard, and wished Ryan could come hang out there; a good lunch of Guatemalan chilaquiles (here meaning deep-fried battered quesadillas covered in a red sauce) served by a friendly Nicaraguan lady at a comedor nearby, and walked a few blocks around to get the lay of the land. The city streets were curving and hilly and rough stone. A real city, busy but composed, a place worth coming back to. Ever since the bus crash in Chiapas I’d been seriously feeling the necessity of taking some Spanish classes, and Xela has a reputation as the best place in Central America to do that.

Caught a microbus back to the Terminal Minerva, the chaotic, exhaust-filled lot in back of the massive city market that passes for a bus station, with a hundred chicken buses, plus combis, taxis and walking sellers of all type of goods and services. It is amazing to me that this gaggle of vehicles and people are able to get in and out of this place constantly without serious mishap.

The Minerva part refers to a bizarre full-size concrete roman temple on the outside of the market, built by a dictator long ago with grand aspirations, now fenced off and empty. The microbus drops you off on the Temple side, and it appears the only way to the Terminal is to walk through the narrow passageways of the gigantic market, con permiso-ing my oversized baggage between stalls and carts and people coming through in part darkness.

The efficiency of the Central American bus system is such that a man immediately identified me and my destination “Antigua?” and showed me to a waiting bus amidst the madness. The inefficiency of the system meant that my bus wasn’t actually going to Antigua, but to Chimaltenango, where I’d have to change buses.

I suppose this is a good time to explain the chicken bus, a staple of Central American life from Guatemala south. I should also say that this term is not used by local people- they call it a second-class bus, and there are almost never any chickens involved. The term refers to an American schoolbus, which has outlived its initial lifespan- I believe at 150,000 miles they are auctioned off and brought down here. In their second life they are revamped to some degree, but perhaps this mostly refers to exterior decorations, which can become quite extensive and elaborate, and likely also to the addition of a sound system, on which the latest reggaeton hits will be played. Some of the least-decorated still have the name of its former US school district on the side.

You don’t get an actual ticket on a chicken bus, or any guarantee of a seat; in fact I have yet to witness one too full to take on more passengers. The seats remain the little benches from the schoolbus days, and though they really only fit two adults, a third and fourth person will squeeze in, and then after that people pack the aisles. Anyone can flag down a chicken bus from the side of the road, and likewise passengers can get off at any point along the road. Any baggage usually goes up on the roof, and people do significant amounts of shipping of goods and materials via the chicken bus.

Terminal Minerva bus yard

Though I’d been on chicken buses before, this day’s trip was going to give me the full experience. Sitting on the bus, I was starting to feel quite the confident backpacker, having stopped over in an unknown city, found the centro and taken a little afternoon tour, then extricating myself and getting on another bus. I bought two seats (theoretically, since seats are not in any way reserved), an extra one for my bags, because the skies were threatening and I’d just gotten everything dry again from the previous day’s storm.

Before long as we drove out of the city, it started to rain, and it seemed like I’d figured everything out until the bus stopped in about the fifth little town we’d passed through, and this time just stopped there and turned off the engine. We waited fifteen minutes there until the next bus pulled up, and with no explanation they ushered all of us onto the other bus, even though it was already full (in any reasonable sense).

The drivers on the second bus didn’t care that I’d bought two tickets, and my pack got tied to the roof, in the rain, and I shared a three-foot-wide bench seat designed for children with two other people. I felt wronged, and like maybe not such a competent traveler. Since I was sitting in the first row of seats, I complained at some length in broken spanish to the driver and his barker, but customer service is not part of their responsibilities. The bus, with about seventy people on it, just kept plugging up and down mountains in a steady rain, picking up more people from the roadside.

One other fun factor of the chicken bus is that it doesn’t necessarily take you to the bus station in the town you’re going to. When we got to Chimaltenango, they just let me off on a dark street corner and said a bus for Antigua would pass by. So I had to stand there in the mist waiting and watching, and after awhile got tired of it and went into a shop to buy an orange soda and some peanuts to tide me over. Of course when I did, the bus came by, and I missed it and had to wait another half hour. Finally I boarded an Antigua bus, and it was only half full, so I got a whole bench seat to myself. As we took a back way down a little mountain road, driving fast in the dark and rain over potholes and speedbumps on an ancient schoolbus with destroyed shocks, rattling my insides, I told myself that I was too old for this, and would stop taking the chicken bus. This vow lasted for about a month, that is, the length of time I was in Antigua and not traveling anywhere.

Came into Antigua, where I was to spend the next month, feeling frustrated and battered, a gloomy damp night. I don’t know what it is, but cities in Latin America never look very good in the dark. Found a cheap hostel with a dorm room with no one in it, went out for a mediocre fried fish with liquefied beans you had to eat with a spoon and bland rice accompanied by a metallic-tasting Brahva beer. Why couldn’t I have just stayed in Mexico?

In the morning the sun was out and when I went out on the street several things struck me. Antigua was just as charming as I remembered it, with buildings painted in rich solid colors, grand wood doors and cobblestones. The places that were well-kept were positively shining in the morning sun, and the rest are decaying in such a picturesque way. I’ve never seen peeling paint and cracking plaster look so good. This I remembered. What I’d forgotten is that this fantastic setting is accompanied with a certain quality of light, something in the angle of the sun or the way it comes down over the mountains, that is particular, and poignant. The last thing, that I saw as I turned a corner was the volcano, Volcan Agua, that absolutely towers over the south side of town. I’d forgotten that too, just how imposing its presence is. The sight made me feel better.

It was to be a day of figuring things out. I needed to check in at my school, do laundry to be presentable for class, and most importantly, find myself a room to live in for a month. I first went to the school, Maximo Nivel, in an old colonial building with a lovely courtyard with trees and a fountain. Maximo Nivel has two main components: an English school for Guatemalans, and a Spanish school/volunteering center for international travelers. They also provide month-long TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) training courses, which I’d signed up for. There was all sorts of hustle and bustle that morning, many Guatemalans and international folks talking and coming and going, and I made my way through all of it to the Client Services desk. I asked various questions, including how a person might go about finding a room. They recommended a few cafes in town with bulletin boards where housing is listed.

Within an hour, I found several leads in my budget (everything I’d seen online was far outside of it) and even met a lady who was posting signs about her apartment. Her name was Alenca, and she was very kind and excited to have a student staying in her place. We made plans to meet in a couple hours for a viewing. Then I went back to Maximo to use the office phone to call people, where I had awkward, confused conversations in Spanish trying to make appointments. I find that trying to understand another language over the phone is far more difficult than in person. Found a little hole in the wall comedor around the corner where I had a fine meal of thick handmade tortillas, chorizo and black beans. The shy young woman made the tortillas fresh, and grilled them on the big circular griddle in front while I waited. It was the best meal I’d had in Guatemala thus far.

After an afternoon’s worth of room-viewings, I was down to two choices. One was Alenca’s place, a studio apartment with a tiny kitchen, off a little alleyway on the north side of town. It was close to the school, maybe five minutes’ walk, would be quiet and peaceful, and an excellent place to study. Alenca lived right through the wall, and while she was friendly, also seemed like she might be a very hands-on landlady, with all kinds of concerns and little rules about living there.

The other was the Casa Matilda, fifteen minutes walk from the school on the south side of Antigua, a guesthouse kind of place run by a sweet and dimunitive Guatemalan woman, the namesake for the place.The setup was a big courtyard with all sorts of climbing greenery and tropical flowers with rooms set back in corridors on two sides. The room had its own bathroom, and was really as big as the studio apartment. The kitchen was quite rustic, and situated in a kind of shed on the rooftop terrace. This roof was also full of flowering plants and succulents, and offered good views of all three volcanoes.

Volcan Agua from the kitchen at Casa Mathilda

Matilda told me that most people staying there were students or volunteers, and that they often shared meals together. She spoke very little English, but her Spanish was easy to understand. She’d lived for a decade in San Francisco, and we had an easy connection that way. There was a ping pong table and a common sitting area with couches and a lot of old books.

Alenca’s would clearly be a better place to study, Matilda’s better for enjoyment of life and meeting people. Matilda’s was also $215 for the month, seventy-five less than Alenca’s. In the end I think it was the volcanoes that put me over the top. I called Matilda from the school, and told her I would get some money and then come give her a deposit, and move in the next day. I was feeling very pleased with myself, that I’d been able to find what seemed like a great place to stay in half a day.

Went to the central square and to use an ATM, and it didn’t work. Tried the next machine over. Declined. Figured it was this bank, and went to another, and then another, making my way around the corridors of the Central Parque. No luck. I went back to the school to check my email and see what was what, and sure enough earlier that day my bank had blocked my ATM for suspicious activities. Borrowed the phone from the client services desk for the fourth time that day, and after I explained my situation, they very graciously gave me the code to make some international calls.

My first thought was that I was just a victim of an overly cautious fraud prevention department, which had happened during previous international travels. I hoped to quickly be able to inform them that yes, I was indeed in Guatemala, and unfreeze my card. The first person I talked to at my bank, in customer service, told me that my card had been compromised, and someone had my card number and pin and had attempted to take out money in six different locations in Guatemala already. I confirmed her suspicion that I had not been in Guatemala City or the other places. The first two withdrawals had gone through, but after that they’d frozen the card.

Disaster. This card was my only access to money. The first and only time I’d used it in Guatemala, two days earlier in San Marcos, there must have been a skimmer on the machine. I had been careless, and they’d gotten me. My bank was going to reimburse the two withdrawals, but they had to cancel the card. They would ship me a new one, but only to my address in the states, and that would take ten business days, and then someone would have to ship that card down to Guatemala. So I wouldn’t have access to money for three weeks at least. The only saving grace was that I happened to be in a place I would be for a month.

The next thing to do was to order a new card, but I had to deal with Fraud Protection to do that. They transferred me over, and things went from bad to worse. In order to do this transaction, I had to answer a series of security questions about my previous financial history, such as: which year did you open your savings account, or what was your street address in Berkeley, CA? After two failed attempts, it was clear that I was unable to pass this test. I learned later that consistently almost all of them were trick questions. The right answer was generally “none of the above”. The only alternative to passing the test was to send them pictures of my passport, driver’s license, and both sides of my debit card, including the signature on the back.

I was so frustrated, after having my card (and any access to money) blocked and compromised, to be thwarted by my own bank. Getting emotional, I started saying things like: “I just need someone to help me. I’m in a foreign country, my card has been compromised, and I need help.” They insisted that there was nothing they could do.

So I walked the five blocks back to my hostel to get my passport, and while taking a picture of the back of my card realized that I never had signed it. I tried to, but none of the pens would write on the white rectangle, it would just dry them up. I took a picture of the card without a signature, emailed all of the pictures to the address they’d given me, and went back to the school to call again.

They informed me that the receipt of my personal materials was not sufficient to allow any discussion of my file, and wouldn’t tell me what was insufficient, though I figured it had to be the lack of signature. I borrowed pens from the office, trying to sign the damn thing, but nothing. Had to go around the corner to an office supply store and try various pens to see if anything would work. Finally a thin-tipped sharpie was able to make a faint marking resembling a signature, and I went back to the school, sent out another email, and called them a few minutes later.

I was finally, miraculously approved to discuss my own account, and did two things. Ordered a new card to my Dad’s house, and requested a second card, in case this whole thing happened again. They said they couldn’t do that without a special waiver, and I’d have to discuss that with Customer Service, which I simply did not have the heart for.

I was now several hours late to meet with Matilda. I called her and tried to explain what had happened in Spanish and not sound like a completely sketchy character who didn’t have the money. Said I wasn’t going to be able to come that day, but that I would come tomorrow after my school was out, and asked her to please save my room. She sounded confused, but said that would be okay, don’t worry. I figured I could come up with some money somehow in 24 hours.

The next step was to see if it was possible to send a wire money transfer to yourself. I had a bank account with plenty of money, but no way to access it. I went back to the banks around the plaza and the people I talked to did not seem at all empathetic to my situation, and very confused at what I was trying to do. By the third bank, a woman who spoke a little English explained in several languages that they could only accept money transfers, not send them from the U.S., and this thing I was trying to do was not possible.

Went out to the Central Parque, to sit and breathe and let out all this stress. Men came up to me selling handmade painted flutes and helados, flavored ices, and women with finely woven blankets and shirts. When I told them that I couldn’t buy any of it, this time it really was true. It felt especially not enjoyable to be seen as a fount of money when I had no idea when exactly I might have any. Luckily, I had enough on hand for dinner that night and breakfast in the morning before my first day of class, and after that I’d have to figure some things out.

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