Over the past couple of days, I’ve had the chance to visit two wonderful cities here in Guatemala. Both have allowed me to experience the culture and lifestyle of the country, but comparing the two has really opened my eyes to many hidden differences.
One of these is Antigua, which was our first stop upon arriving in the country. The city was vibrant, colorful, and touristy, with higher- class stores and restaurants. It was an interesting mix of old world charm and modern day customs. On our walking tour of the city, we saw beautiful cathedrals with ornate pictures and impressive architecture. We strolled through one of the parks, which was bordered by an old pila, or washing area for women to do laundry. And we walked under El Arco de Santacatarina, which was like a covered bridge above the street that used to allow nuns to travel between the convent to the school without being seen. But among all the old artifacts was new life. Cars, trucks, and motorcycles speed down the streets, careening in and out of traffic. Merchants sell their goods on every corner, waving cloth and jewelry and other wares at the tourists. And despite the fact that we’re in a foreign country, it is surprisingly easy to find people who speak English. Antigua has it’s own unique feel, a palpable energy that’s reflected in the people- both locals and visitors.
In stark contrast to that is San Lucas Toliman, which is where we’ve stayed the past few nights. This city is sleepy, dark, and definitely not touristy. It’s located on a lake and nestled in the mountains, so the air is foggy. The streets are lined with trash, stray dogs walk the streets and sit on sidewalks, and we get weird looks from the people in the markets. Gringos, they must be thinking. The people here are more conservative and agriculture is more prominent, with the women wearing traditional clothing and carrying baskets on their heads, and men hauling wheelbarrows and unloading trucks. Clothes are washed on stones in the lake, then splayed on the bank to dry. But despite the culture change, people still reply when we say hola or buenos dias, and a simple smile always reflects back at us on the other person’s face.
This trip hasn’t been about being a tourist. Although each new city allows us that opportunity, I’ve enjoyed being an anti-tourist the most. Walking the streets and meeting the people, observing the interactions between the locals. Watching a group of kids play basketball, or walk down the street to school together. Listening to local women tell us about their lives, and what they want for their children. One of the women we spoke to told us that money isn’t everything. Although I already knew that, it’s nice to be reminded, especially in a country other than my own. Happiness can easily be found in the scenery around me: smiles received from people walking down the street; a group of young girls singing to us while we work in the garden; being able to carry a conversation in broken Spanglish. Taking pride in the work we’ve done so far, and having nothing but excitement for the adventures that lay ahead.