Guatemala

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.

A Different Kind of Driftwood Trip

When my schedule was changed last minute and I found myself with two days off in a row my first thought was “I should go somewhere.” Then a few hours later, I was being invited to the beach for those exact days. Call it serendipity or the universe sending me a sign or call it nothing at all, whatever aligned at that moment I couldn’t say no. So I went back to Driftwood Surfer.

It was a totally different trip this time around. Polina, Virginia, and I were going to relax, decompress from Antigua, read books and give no fucks for a couple of days. It sounded perfect and it was.

We were happy to arrive to a calm Driftwood. The party starters weren’t there, the large group of rambunctious Aussies weren’t there, the friendship shots weren’t happening. Thank god. Instead we spent our days exactly as planned, taking long walks whenever we pleased, getting in some good hammock and book time, and, of course, hanging out in the pool at the pool bar. Even after day one I already felt like a different person, back to my chill self.

Of course we are the girls of Cafe No Se, so it wouldn’t be right to go three days without mezcal. Luckily Driftwood had a couple of bottles on hand, so we decided to lighten their load and take a bottle of Joven off their hands. For ourselves. Which we completely devoured over the course of 8 hours on day two. Bottle service of Ilegal Mezcal to the pool please and thank you.

By the time we boarded the shuttle back to Antigua on Wednesday I felt refreshed. It was exactly the trip I needed. Not just the escape from Antigua and time in the sun (my tan was entirely gone), but the company. I wish I had known earlier just how well the three of us got along. It was a joy to get to know Polina and Virginia beyond our work interactions. I feel lucky to call them my friends.

(Photo credit to Virginia)

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.

12744147_10100138649162848_6517801016836768065_n

 

Back in Antigua

So I came back to Antigua. When I left in September I thought that my return to San Francisco at the end of March would signal the end of this Phase 2 of Travel Abrodge, yet here I was, sitting on a plane on my way back to Guatemala. Much like on the way to San Francisco I knew I had a lot to look forward to upon my return to Antigua. I had my puppies and my boyfriend and a new role at work to begin and people to catch up with and a few events in April I was looking forward to, plus it was about to be low season so I would get to experience Antigua outside of hectic tourist season.

When my airport shuttle hit the cobblestone streets I was genuinely happy to be back home. Town looked bright again, like it did when I first arrived, and my house welcomed me back with comforting arms. But as time moved on I realized that I was not the same person who had left. My trip to San Francisco had messed with me more than I had realized at first, and more than I ever thought it would. Every day I woke up was a coin toss – would I want to live here today or yearn for the place I had just left? I found myself unhappy for no good reason, riding an emotional rollercoaster with no end in sight. I wrote this.

I knew I had to wait it out. There was a reason that I had decided to stay in Antigua, made a life for myself here, decided to get on that plane to come back. Removing myself from the bubble to go back to a life that was familiar, comfortable, loved, was a risk, but it didn’t mean that was the life for me right now. Right now I was here, living as an expat, living out a bartending dream, living with a new family I created here with Brayan, Molly, and Mary. Right now I was doing this. So it was time to really do this.

Spanish classes three times a week. Volunteering at Caoba farms. Going for walks and runs. Creating a perfect work schedule. The uncertainty didn’t go away entirely, but it faded with every day.

I celebrated my birthday in Antigua. I didn’t want to do anything big, 29 is just another year, I’ve had enough birthdays in my 20’s to let this one go by like any other day. Brayan and I went to lunch at a place I’ve always wanted to eat and for a good craft beer. And it isn’t a birthday without stopping at San Simon for a delicious cocktail. And then the day turned into a bar crawl. A friend had invited me to a pop-up DJ show. I walked around with Brayan promoting Ladies Night at Lucky Rabbit. Which of course ended at Lucky Rabbit. Everywhere I went everyone said Happy Birthday. People bought me drinks, gave me hugs, were so happy I came back from the States, and had big smiles as they called me the Birthday Girl. When I got to Lucky they broke out the party hats, free shots, and an embudo in my honor. There’s nothing that makes you feel more welcomed and loved in a new home than everyone you know wanting to celebrate your birthday with you.

I leave for the States again in a month, this time with a one way flight. This is already messing with my head again. Everything was going great and here I am again, unsure about how I feel. People are leaving all around me, should I be one of them? Or will this little reprieve make me happy to return again? Who knows. But for now I’m trying not to focus on that. I’m trying to focus on all the greatness that I did experience here before and after the last round of U.S.-induced emotional turmoil. I’ll let you know how that goes.

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?