Guatemala: los primeros pasos

How did Phillip and I end up in Guatemala in early January? Well, it was a combination of good timing, peer pressure, nervous energy, a malfunctioning furnace, and an imminent lack of responsibilities. Conditions were perfect.

December in Seattle: Phil and I resigned from our jobs, we were moving to California before the end of the year, our apartment did not have a reliable heat source, and we were seated around a big table with friends. The conversation quickly turned to our plans for California – Where would we live? Where would we work? My response was lackluster – I dunno. What I wanted to do was travel. An often pragmatic bunch, I was hardly expecting our friends to laud us for a great idea – of course we should travel! We’re both unemployed! We’re both homeless! Suddenly I felt excited to be so clueless!

We started dreaming…somewhere warm, somewhere new, somewhere adventurous. Phil’s brother had the answer right away: Guatemala. He had spent several years traveling up and down the whole of Central America, living in trees, sleeping under the stars, and taking Spanish lessons. A-ha! The desire to learn Spanish would guide this trip; a bit of linguistic tourism. I would get to travel, but I would also develop an important skill. Phillip was on board. ¡Ya está!

Once we packed up and made the drive to California, we crashed at my parents’ house, bought a ticket and left three days later. A red-eye out of San Francisco, a brief stopover in Mexico City, and we were waking up in Guatemala. Stumbling through customs and out of the airport, we were greeted by a line of Guatemaltecos waiting for family members and a couple of shuttle drivers who eagerly pushed through the throng to offer us a ride to Antigua. Ten dollars American and we were on our way – coincidentally, the most expensive transport of the trip but by far the most comfortable.

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We knew we were in Antigua, Guatemala’s former capital, when the driver slowed to a near stop and the van dropped down about a foot onto some very rustic cobbled streets, narrow and uneven, bumping all the way to the tourism office. With no reservation for lodging made, we pulled out our guide book and found a nearby hostel to drop our backpacks. Our bodies longed to lay down in our bunks, but we thought it better to find something to eat before turning in for the night; it was barely 3 p.m. local time.

An enticing paragraph led us to La Canche, a small shop across from the Iglesia de La Merced. It was so unassuming that we walked by a few times before deciding that it was the right spot. The front room is tiny, its one table surrounded by Antigüeños, its cabinets full of bread and packaged snacks. “La Canche,” we later learned, refers to its original blonde proprietress, a women in her seventies who still stands behind the counter welcoming guests, including us on this sunny afternoon.

Phillip and I strung together a few words, intending to ask for a bite to eat. La Canche responded enthusiastically enough, it seemed, though we could only pick out the word “dentro” as being one of a long list of prepositions we had yet to master. Somehow we came to the conclusion that where we were invited to eat was located in a secondary location, to be accessed by exiting the room and walking around the corner, down the block to a back door. We thanked La Canche over and over again before turning on our heels and leaving. Once outside, realizing no “back door” existed, I looked up “dentro” in a phrasebook – “inside.” A-ha! So, a dear elderly woman invites us into her restaurant to eat, we indicate that we very much would like to eat at her restaurant, and then we immediately leave without so much as a goodbye. Muy, muy educados, nosotros…

We sat in the park in front of the restaurant for five minutes, debating on whether the embarrassment that we felt was great enough to keep us from going in and eating what we suspected to be a very special meal. It wasn’t. We went back in and again La Canche was as gracious a host as before. This time we took her up on her invitation and followed her back into the dining room – windowless, dark, and with remnants of Christmas decorations still hanging from the ceiling.

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A woman that we suspected was La Canche’s daughter greeted us, her young son peeking out from behind her legs. She asked us what we wanted to eat, though we had not been given a menu. “¿Caldo de res?” she suggested; she didn’t need to ask twice. Before we could meet our rich, meaty bowls of broth, La Canche made another appearance, this time to drop off a basket of thick, chewy tortillas and two avocados, which she sliced in half and dropped on the table. “¡Que aproveche!” she wished us, shuffling back to her counter.

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Then came the caldo: hot and hearty, with a carrot, potato, güisquil (chayote), corn, rice, and chunk of beef on the side. We tucked in right away, finally feeling hunger after a long day of meager airport offerings and skipped snack times. The broth was thick, the tortillas salty, and humble as it was, that sup of soup felt more like an arrival in Guatemala than getting through customs or withdrawing our first Quetzales. For our first meal on our first day in Central America, we felt all too lucky to be starting such a loosely planned trip in such a serendipitous way: a seat at La Canche’s table and the best bowl of caldo in Antigua.

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