Tuesday, September 05, 2006

1. Antigua


Antigua Guatemala is a lovely little city, about a mile square, cupped in a valley ringed by extinct and active volcanoes. In the 500 or so years since it was founded by Spanish Conquistadores, it has been partially destroyed several times by earthquakes. Now, no structure in the city can be taller than two stories. Most are one.

Once, the Spanish ruled all of Central America from Antigua. Its square mile contained 42 churches, as well as convents and monasteries. Every major order had a presence there. When a lone bell is rung on Sunday morning at San Francisco, once of the few churches now standing and in use, one can imagine how the Sunday morning air was once rent by a cacophony of bells from those 42 churches within a square mile.

After one of the more devastating earthquakes, the government packed up and moved to a new Guatemala City, where they thought they would be safer. The churches and cathedral were stripped of their most elaborate interior decorations. Those who stayed behind abandoned the ruined churches, or moved their services into the portions left standing. In the ruins of the great Cathedral of Santiago, you can see where they built walls that redefined the space to exclude the ruins of the once-great nave, the side chapels, and the shady cloisters.

Antigua became a charming backwater. The once-vibrant Mayan colors of the cathedral and the oldest buildings were gradually covered with whitewash. The cobblestone streets remained unpaved. The great houses of the wealthy, with their lush interior patios, fountains, and shady colonnades, each occupying a quarter of a block were gradually broken up into smaller units.

Antigua presents a charming, yet subtly mysterious face to the world. As you walk down its cobblestone streets in the early morning, the stucco façade on both sides is seamless, punctuated by heavily shuttered windows protected by ornamental yet effective wrought iron grilles, or sets of doors, some narrow, some large enough to admit a carriage—or nowadays, a car. These doors present a metaphor that is almost too obvious to use: in the right of each set of carriage doors is set a smaller door, wide enough only to admit a person. In that smaller door is a yet smaller panel at face height that can be opened to talk through. In that small panel is a peephole. To gain entrance, one must pass the peephole, the panel, the door.

You can tell where one property ends and another begins sometimes only when the color changes. The colors are beautiful: peach, ochre, lavender, cream, pink, pale yellow. The high sidewalks are so narrow that two people must sometimes adjust their shoulders to pass, and often someone must step down into the street. Here and there are remnants of decorative paving stones or patterns pressed into the concrete in the 1920s. In many places the sidewalk is crumbling. The curbs can be a foot or more high, and in some places there is a single stone placed as a step to help you up. The way is broken by inclines that admit cars to interior courtyards. Walking is a mindful act in Antigua

Behind those shuttered facades lies the private life of Antigua. Bougainvillea or some other gorgeous flowering vine that I can’t identify creeps over the wall from an interior patio. Charming little domes and turrets peep above the roof. The tops of trees can be glimpsed here and there.

There are tiendas, bakeries, lavanderias, language schools, and internet cafés everywhere, although they very rarely post such a thing as hours of business. Later in the morning, perhaps by 10 o’clock, some of the narrow, unmarked doors on the side streets will be set open to reveal a small shop in the shadowy interior. Nearer the Park Central, wide doors will be thrown open to reveal interior courtyards surrounded by shops selling textiles and jewelry and art, internet cafes, and restaurants.
One would expect Antigua to be quiet, and on the side streets it can be. But on the main streets, such as the Septima Calle Oriente where we live, the noise is deafening. Chicken buses begin roaring by at four o’clock in the morning, spewing clouds of black exhaust and honking their horns with apparently random abandon, as the ayudante shouts, “Guate, Guate, Guate!” and my bedroom shakes. When a bus stops to pick up passengers, the driver of a car behind it will often begin futilely blasting his horn in frustration. Tuk-tuk drivers gun their lawnmower-sized engines and bang and rattle over the cobbles. Walking to our bus stop on the other side of town, we have to shout to be heard. A few times I lose it and scream “Shut UP!” at a blaring bus or particularly obnoxious driver, but no one can hear me. At any time, but particularly at night, there are outbreaks of what sounds like gunfire, but is only someone setting off a handful of bombas. For some people, apparently, there just isn’t enough noise.


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