Antigua

6 Months in Central America

 

The Expat Ending

Last year when I came back through the United States I knew I had a series of wrap-up blog posts to write – photo projects, how my planning worked out, how it felt to be done with that trip and moving forward, highlights of places I visited. The list was long and comprehensive.

This year I feel like I should do the same, but I don’t have a list. I don’t really know how to neatly wrap things up like I did before. Going through some pictures the other night I was reminded that my Central America adventure started much like my round the world trip, hopping from place to place seeing the sights of a new region. But in December that got derailed when I decided to stay in Antigua for an unknown amount of time. Over the next six months I built a life there, and that’s what has defined this part of my Travel Abrodge. I became an expat.

And I couldn’t imagine any better way to end this adventure.

One thing that I craved when I set out again in September was to get stuck somewhere. I’d encountered places in my first year that were tempting but I was so set on my moving itinerary that it wouldn’t have been possible to really enjoy stopping. This time though that wasn’t the case. I was intrigued by what it meant to be an expat, to get to know a place on a deeper level. Antigua became that place.

Antigua, the expat haven. It’s not a unique choice for this kind of experience, but maybe that’s also why it was appealing. I entered a place where expats were a huge part of the community. For better or for worse, I wasn’t alone.

I straddled a line between expat community – Cafe No Se – and Guatemalans and backpackers – Lucky Rabbit – in a way that made me feel like I got a pretty well-rounded experience of what living in Antigua was like. And on top of that, I had a more grounded life than I had maybe ever had before. I had a house, I had a relationship, I was caring for two dogs, I started to know people in town, was invited to parties in the city, became a person people would come visit at the bar, and couldn’t walk around without running into someone I knew. For the first time in a long time I felt like I had a real home and it was in Guatemala. A little bubble of Guatemala called Antigua. But it still had the market and the water issues and the language and the characteristics of being a town in Guatemala.

It was everything I didn’t know I was looking for, and even though it came to an end somewhat abruptly, I will forever be happy I experienced that life. My first year away was world exploration, constant movement, the backpacker life. My second year was dominated by this expat life. It’s the best combination that really made me feel like I’ve done it all now. Of course it’s not possible to have “done it all,” it never will be, but without that expat time I would not feel like I could come back to the States. Come back to a job. Come back to a life I never knew I would want to return to. It’s because of Antigua that I realized I did want to return to it.

Thank you to Antigua – to everyone there for making me feel so welcomed, so at home, and to the town itself for being the picture perfect place to stay.

Over the next couple of months I will probably write a handful of posts on concluding thoughts from the past two years. I don’t know what form they will take yet or where they will lead me. I just know that I can wholeheartedly say that I have just lived some of the best years of my life. It is bittersweet saying that it’s over, but if I’ve learned anything from it all, something wonderful still lies ahead. It always does.

Leaving Antigua

Where to begin?

I am leaving Antigua. The place that has become my home, that I have found a community, friends, family, that I have cared for puppies, that I have lived with a boyfriend, that I have talked up as a bartender and become a presence in as a manager, that I have lived abroad. It’s not an easy choice to leave such a place, but I knew one day it would come.

I didn’t know the circumstances under which it would happen. Simultaneously making the choice easy and difficult on the level of leaving San Francisco, there were clear factors that led me here.

I had a one way flight to New York in June. Going for a wedding, staying for a surgery that had an unknown timeline, I couldn’t predict how long I would need to be in my home country. My best guess was a month or two. With an impending trip like this it obviously made me take a closer look at my life, my priorities, my goals for the rest of the year. I haven’t been one to plan ahead too much in the past year but with ideas like Oktoberfest and the fact that I’ve been away from my profession for two years already I started to seriously think about some things.

Oktoberfest. The idea had come up to go with my best friends and, having wanted to experience this epic German festival most of my life, I couldn’t say no. Before I got locked into a lifestyle of limited vacation it seemed like the best way to blow the rest of my savings. And I’ve talked about visiting Europe for a year now to see if I wanted to live there. Oktoberfest could be the start of a research trip that would show me my next move.

I love bartending. I love Cafe No Se. I love the conversations and the people and the atmosphere. I love that my job is making sure people have a good night. I miss architecture. I miss working towards a project, pulling together something tangible, something that I’m proud of, winning a job. I left my career at a crossroads, when I was offered a manager position most people would kill for. I would have at one point. As my friends move into these roles I question where in the ranks I will have to reenter the architecture world. Will I have to start over again as I did at 22? How long can I rely on 5 years of experience? I’ve been away from it almost half as long as I was in it. But the realization that I want to go back to my former profession was enough to make me rethink my return to Antigua.

The people of Antigua made me stay here. The people of Antigua were making it nearly impossible to leave. Brayan has meant so much to me, from the time when we were just good friends wandering Mexico together to the deepest points of our relationship, and I am incredibly fortunate to have had him in my life. But as our relationship ran its course, I wondered if I could have a life in Antigua without him. My No Se family made me think it was possible. In the last two weeks before leaving I felt like I truly had found my people. They had me thinking about coming back when I’d already decided I wouldn’t. They have me thinking about coming back periodically over the years even after I have gone. But I have people at home, people I have missed dearly, that cannot be ignored. I do not take for granted how lucky I am to know so many terrific people that I feel pulled in so many directions.

I have loved being a nomad. The traveler life is one I took to instantly and lauded to any and everyone who would listen to me. Leaving to travel was the best decision I have ever made in my life. But there are things I have started to miss.

I miss winter. I miss cities. I miss walking on paved sidewalks in heeled boots. I miss sipping on a hot beverage because the air is brisk outside. I miss having my things in a place that I know I don’t have to leave. I miss sushi dinners with my friends. I miss the holidays with my family.

Trust me when I say this was a decision that haunted me for weeks before it came to fruition. I am positive I will have moments of doubt, I will look at flight prices, I will consider going back for just a month if I have it between surgery and Oktoberfest or Europe and a new job. And I am okay with that, because it is just further proof that Antigua was the right decision for me. That my time there meant the world to me. And that I will always consider it to be one of my homes.

(May 30, 2016)

200 Days Since I Arrived in Antigua

Antigua, how do I describe you?

Your first impression is among the best in the world. When first walking your streets your charm is undeniable. Your pretty colors, manicured parks, and commitment to cobblestones capture us. Our cameras snap at every glimpse of a wall half in ruins or a gated window holding a flower box. We hike to your Mirador, Cerro de la Cruz, and marvel at your tiny size dropped into the valley between three volcanoes. Your neighbors, the volcanoes, amaze us. We gape in awe at the erupting Fuego. We ascend Acatenango to watch the sun rise over you. We can’t get enough of your beauty.

Your people welcome us. They make us feel as if we belong, that we have found our new home, our island of misfit toys. They say hi to us on the streets after just one encounter. They offers us jobs, that lead to a family. They warn us that we are one of them now, that though we may try to leave we will always return to Antigua.

Your nightlife never ends. It carries us away with it – morning, noon or night – until we can’t remember the last time we didn’t have a drink. For better or for worse, it keeps us going.

Everyone loves you, Antigua. And everyone hates you. You bring out the best and the worst in us. But you make us feel like we’re in it together. You never judge us, you forgive us, you encourage us, and sometimes for good measure, you kick our asses.

Is this a love note or a hate note to Antigua? I don’t know either. All I know is that Antigua will be with me forever.

Cafe No Se

On any given night at Cafe No Se you could find yourself sitting next to an expat from the U.S., a traveler from Europe, a professional from Guatemala, or a local Antigua business owner. You could be part of a conversation about the different things that are valued in a life of travel versus career, the variety of cultural offerings around Latin America, the political issues of the United States, or, of course, the ins and outs of mezcal. Visitors find themselves back in the bar night after night, promising just one more drink and lying every time until eventually the lights turn on and the alcohol is pulled off the shelves. People who have never met before leave as best friends, whether or not their friendship will last past this one night. But one night, one encounter, is all it takes to fall captive to Boshimon’s spell, to understand the vision under which Cafe No Se was founded, to call this place your home away from home.

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The Ladygang Invaded Antigua

One of my main concerns about leaving home was the strain it would put on my relationships with people. I remember a wine-induced breakdown that my friends would forget about me, and immediately being scolded for even thinking such a thing. Throughout the time I’ve been away I have been constantly impressed and pleased by the amount I have been able to keep in touch with people. Of course there are ups and downs, but in the end I know that we still have a relationship and that is what matters. It matters so much that I flew from Japan to Arizona to see some of these people who mean so much to me. So when I decided to stay in one place I naturally extended the invite to come here this time. But I still never imagined that my 7 closest girlfriends from San Francisco would all come together. But that’s exactly what happened. And it was amazing.

It was a whirlwind five days that went by too fast. I tried my best to show them my Antigua, and judging by Amy’s enthusiastic “I love your life here!” I think I did a pretty good job of it. From our first lunch at Rincon Tipico to our last lunch again at Rincon Tipico (a crowd favorite) I took them through the local market with picositas in hand, to brunch at the delicious creperie Luna del Miel, to see the carpets and processions of Semana Santa, to the artisan market for souvenirs, to my favorite rooftop at Zoola for happy hour shots with our feet dangling in the hot tub, to the bars where I spend most of my time, Lucky Rabbit and Cafe No Se, and to the La Piscina pool after party where we danced till the early morning hours to house music.

And I took them up Acatenango. We should not have gone out so hard the night before, but we were just too excited to be all together again that there was no stopping the fun tornado. So we sweat out our hangovers on a 6-hour uphill trek. At times it was pretty miserable – honorable mention to Amanda for keeping her and our spirits up the whole climb – but everyone agreed, as I knew they would, that the view from the top was worth any amount of struggle. We arrived at the campsite around 4 pm, which meant we had plenty of time to sit around with snacks and wine and truly catch up on life. Those hours remain my favorite of their visit. I am so impressed by the group of women who came here, and am honored to call them my best friends. They are motivated, smart, beautiful women who have achieved so much already in our young years and I know that they will go far in all aspects of life. I can’t wait to see what happens with everyone.

When night fell Volcan Fuego put on a show better than I have ever seen it do before. In just one lava-spewing mountain-covering burst it proved its strength and outdid any man-made fireworks show. At dawn we watched the sun peek up through a blanket of clouds as Fuego continued to boom and smoke. We took an obligatory jumping photo and started the trek down. The difficult and hilarious trek down. Almost everyone fell as we navigated the steep descent, I tried to learn how to slide down, and by the end we’d mastered the trot. At the bottom we got celebratory Modelos.

When we got home we ordered Dominos, showered, and took a nap. Everyone was exhausted and sunburned, but happy. Acatenango proved its status as one of the top things to do in a visit to Antigua. And if anyone else ever comes to visit, I will happily recommend a tour guide to go with. Twice was enough for me.

The goodbyes came too fast. It was great having my friends around again, and I knew I would miss them immediately. The only thing that tempered the sadness was the fact that I would see most of them again soon in San Francisco. And that Jessi stayed with me until my flight to the States. And convinced me to get a tattoo honoring our time in San Francisco, some of the happiest years of our lives so far. 1851 Hyde is now forever on my body, reminding me not just of those incredible times we shared in SF but also this visit to Antigua.

I don’t know when I’ll see these girls again, but I know that whenever it is it will be just as wonderful as this was, as September was, as Arizona was. I am no longer worried about my relationship with them. I know that this group is for life. I love you all.

Back in the Swing of Life

It’s been over 150 days since I left the U.S. this round. It’ll be around 180 by the time I set foot on U.S. soil again in a month. But this time I have a return flight back to Guatemala, so this trip is actually just a visit. It’s the first round trip flight I’ve bought since Christmas 2013. That’s been quite a thing to wrap my head around.

Of the time I’ve been abroad, it’s been over 100 days since I arrived in Antigua. I always knew this phase of Travel Abrodge would be different, but I think with  65% of my time being spent in one place it’s safe to call it my expat phase.

Expat life is very different from travel life. I still consider myself a traveler, but I now have ties to somewhere that I haven’t had in years. I can recommend the best weekend activities, the locals’ favorite beers, nightlife according to your mood instead of the hostel flyers, and hidden gems for cheap eats that aren’t mentioned in Lonely Planet. Things that I searched for and thrived on when living in San Francisco and NYC are popping up again here. And this time I’m finding myself in a better position to share that knowledge – as a bartender.

When I work at the little front bar at Cafe No Se I am not just someone pouring drinks, I am a visitor’s guide to Antigua. Where can I get a quesadilla? Where can I dance on a Saturday night? Is the volcano hike worth it? The amount of questions I am asked about this town multiplies every night I work, and I am happy to actually know the answers.

When I’m not at work, when I’m just going about my daily life in town, or when I’m walking the dogs, I have places I want to return to or test out for the first time or just stop into for an errand. And on the way I run into people I know. Small town Antigua is like living on Nob Hill again – impossible to venture outside without saying hi to someone.

I went to brunch with a group of girls friends on Sunday. I’m going to the beach with all the Lucky bartenders for two days next week. These are things that I used to do regularly before traveling, and they’re back in my life now just in a different place with different people. It’s the things that I missed back in October when I started to think about settling down somewhere for a bit.

This the longest I’ve stayed anywhere since I left San Francisco back in May of 2014. I don’t know the next time I’ll be somewhere for as long as this, but I also don’t know when I’ll leave here. People like to ask me that too: “How long will you be in Antigua?” My typical answer: “Ask me when I leave.”

Life in Antigua

I realize it’s been a while since I wrote anything. But that’s the thing about a travel blog – when you stop traveling, what else do you write about? A while back I posted that I had decided to stay in Antigua, so that’s what I’ve been doing lately. Living here.

So what’s that like? Pretty great. In December I moved into a house with three friends and three puppies. That means I have to pay rent. Coming from the States I was a bit in shock how much we could get here for so little money. Two-story house, fully furnished (and not just beds and couches, but towels, dishes, even a coffee maker), two car garage with washer/dryer, all utilities included plus cleaning twice a week, in a gated community a 15-minute walk from Central Park. Sounds expensive right? US$900. Split between 4 of us, that’s US$225 each. I can almost hear all of you packing your belongings and booking flights to move here too.

I did the math and with what I still had allotted for hostel accommodations through the end of March I could actually live in Antigua and do nothing but hang out. That’s sounds boring though. And if I am going to stay somewhere for so long, then I should take advantage to work and save money so I can keep going again later, like I did this summer in Vermont.

So I got two jobs. I have always had an interest in bartending but never was in a place to explore it. Now seemed as good a time as any. First I started working at the bar that had welcomed me with open arms from my first night in town, the people I am happy to call my Antigua family: Lucky Rabbit. It also happens to be one of the biggest parties in town on a Saturday night, hands down my favorite night to work there. Lucky Rabbit is a big part of my life here, I owe it a lot. I started over the holidays, working long nights on Christmas Eve and New Years Eve. Antigua was overrun with tourists and locals alike, meaning I was thrown into the chaos of a popular bar during vacation time. It was one hell of a way to learn. But I thrived on the excitement, the adrenaline, the pure fun of being behind the bar. I quickly moved from last-minute fill in to scheduled employee.

I picked up a second bartending gig at the end of January at Cafe No Se. It is the polar opposite of Lucky but it matches the other side of my personality. No Se is the kind of bar I would seek out in San Francisco. It is a candlelit mezcal bar with live music every night and a rotating cast of characters that share life stories and philosophical idioms for hours over dark beers and shots of Joven. It’s also an expat haven, which is a nice complement to the mostly Guatemalan staff at Lucky. Between the two bars I feel like I get to experience both sides of town and of myself. It’s working great.

Otherwise I just live daily life like you would anywhere else. Well, maybe not exactly like anywhere else. When I go grocery shopping it isn’t to a supermarket but at the local market, where vegetables are piled up on wood tables and meat hangs in tile stalls. When I go clothes shopping it’s at the same market but in the back clothes section, and it’s mostly second-hand items and tables of 2 or 3 Q bargains. But I still cook meals at home (or more accurately Brayan cooks and I open the wine) and celebrate nights off by going out with the girls. And now when I walk around Antigua I run into people I know all over the place. It’s becoming home.

Home in Guatemala. I guess this means my travel blog is now an expat blog, tales of living abroad. Maybe I should change it from TravelAbrodge to LivingAbrodge. Thoughts?

Hobbitenango

After San Marcos I spent a week in Antigua not thinking. I had been too in my head and decided I would let the universe tell me what to do. The universe was very clear, something I wrote about in my post announcing my decision to stay here, and an integral part of that decision was Hobbitenango.

I want to take everyone who comes to Antigua to visit Hobbitenango. All I knew when we set off on our mission was that we were going to a farm in the mountains with great views. We grabbed snacks and a tuktuk to take us part of the way up (we had underestimated just how long of a walk it was) before jumping out to hike the rest on foot. And I mean hike. If you choose to walk to Hobbitenango you will sweat and earn your beer at the top. But me being me, I wanted the physical challenge, and of course found the views to be worth it, so I enjoyed the trek.

When we reached the sign announcing our arrival at Hobbitenango I finally understood where we were going. It is pronounced by most here as “hoe-bee-ten-ango,” but seeing it written I realized it was actually “hobbit-enango,” as in Hobbiton mixed with Acatenango. Looking up past the sign I saw three main buildings built into a mountainside and one more off to the right. Two had circle doors. We were in a fantasy land.

Hobbitenango is actually much more than cool Lord of the Rings-looking buildings. It’s an eco-restaurant/bar/hotel that is built from materials sourced on the land and runs sustainably. It’s been under construction for over 2 years and it will be many more until it’s completely done, but the progress they’ve made so far is wonderful and I can’t wait to see it continue to grow.

Brayan and I had planned to stay just for the afternoon but on our way in we ran into Debbie and Pato, who had to go to work but told us to stick around for the night, they were coming back. That sounded good to us, so on a whim we decided to stay too.

We continued with our leisurely afternoon by grabbing a beer and finding a viewpoint up on the top of the hill from which we could see the volcanoes and green landscapes all around. We chilled on a blanket and watched the nature around us. It was beautiful. Right before sunset we went back down to the main area for another beer and watched the sky turn brilliant colors around a smoking Volcan Fuego from a log that had been carved into a bench. It was a gorgeous sunset. I sat there watching it, thinking only “how could I possibly leave this place?” It was paradise. I was in love with it.

After dinner and the best hot chocolate ginger tequila and chile drink I’ve ever had, Debbie and Pato arrived. We hung out in the dorm living room with the volunteers until the early morning hours, drinking wine, laughing, enjoying each other’s company. In the morning we ate brunch looking out at the still incredible view and went for a walk around the property. We talked about what it would be like if we all moved into a house together. Debbie, Pato and Brayan all wanted to find a new place and I needed one. After the past 12 hours we were convinced it would be the best idea ever. This was the foundation of how I ended up in a house with these awesome roommates.

It was hard to tear ourselves away from the paradise of Hobbitenango, but we had to go back and face the realities of work (at least they did). Not before one final moment that would seriously contribute to my new life in Antigua. On the way back down we slowed for a dog that was standing in the road at a steep curve. In the grass next to her we saw two tiny puppies cowering in fear of our car. The mom, we assumed, did not look good, and these pups were bloated with parasites and covered in fleas. Brayan jumped out to see them and the mom disappeared. It was like she stopped us so we would take them away. It didn’t take long for everyone to agree that we would give these dogs a better life than they ever could have on this mountainside, if they even survived, so Brayan dropped them in my lap and home they came. This is how we got Molly and Mary.

The 24 hours of Hobbitenango were pretty damn perfect. Halfway through my “let the universe decide” week I had this experience, which ended with roommates and dogs. The universe was being pretty clear. Stay, it was saying. And I was listening.