My family recently returned from a “service” trip to Guatemala. No, we aren’t Missionaries or in the Peace Corps. This charity work is the annual tradition of the Princeton Friends School
. Each year, the eighth grade children and parents support a sister-school in Guatemala by providing teaching programs, school supplies, books, and assorted “infrastructure” improvements. The trip also affords a language opportunity by immersing ourselves in a Spanish speaking culture.
Prior to arriving, my household both anticipated and dreaded the experience. Simply put, my lovely wife is extremely open to this type of venture, while even on my best day, I view air travel somewhere between “hell no,” and “spread my ashes in the backyard.” Thankfully, a double-pour single malt Scotch at the airport usually softens this stance. Furthermore, while I am willing to risk my safety, that tolerance shrinks dramatically when it comes to family. Still, my eldest daughter had been looking forward to this journey for years.
As an epic fantasy and sci-fi author, I had already conjured a thousand-and-one tales of death-defying twists and weird dimensional portals mixed with machete wielding trolls. Sure, there were a few outcomes with lost Incan ruins and Indiana Jones-like treasure hoards, but my brain couldn’t focus on these pleasant teasers among the deafening roar. So, to ease my nerves, and in keeping with the best practices of any good Dungeons & Dragons adventurer, I insisted that we hire a guide who knew the terrain… BEST DECISION EVER.
Enter Carlos, aka Guatemalan Guide
. I’ll say it right up front, if you are considering travel to Guatemala, and your political status doesn’t mandate a brigade of armed security as we witnessed for the Queen of Spain who happened to be staying in our hotel, then Carlos is your man. In the airport mayhem, I didn’t have time for an in-depth first impression with Carlos, but it was enough. Our flight arrived with six other flights into Guatemala, and after clearing Customs, we exited into throngs of screaming people behind barricades. Due to scheduling, our family had taken a separate flight from the rest of my daughter’s classmates. As I scanned the crowd, my head kept replaying scenes from the movie The Year of Living Dangerously. Of course, this is exaggeration, but I was relieved to see Carlos in the front of the pack. Although unable to chat, my first impression of him was solid: warm smile, welcoming greeting, a sign for our party, athletic build, rugged outfit.
Once identified, Carlos took the point position while I fell to the rear. In seconds, we were surrounded by a persistent contingent of women and children hawking us junk goods and begging for anything. Note: this was the hardest “sell” over the entire trip, and while disconcerting, was not representative of our experience in this wonderful country. My “you are not in Kansas” radar quieted a notch as we left the parking garage in Carlos’ comfortable van. He had drinks waiting in a cooler, began relaxed conversation with my family, and drove at a leisurely pace. Later, I would come to assess Carlos as everything a “guide” needs to be: a gentleman and "people" person, who speaks several languages… Carlos has an eye for the surroundings, is incredibly flexible as to itinerary and will tailor the activities to your taste. My family calls him “amigo” now and he has an open invitation to stay in our home in Princeton. For those that know me, that says it all.
So, as to Guatemala… this is a country of extremes. On the one hand, the people were friendly, the culture was fascinating, the landscape was exotically beautiful, and the coffee and chocolate (grown locally) were phenomenal… but on the other, the poverty is astounding, the infrastructure needs vast upgrades, and Guatemala City has a tense fickleness that can result in gourmet dining/memorable shopping or a crime statistic. This urban balancing act is also not uncommon in densely populated US cities, so our crew used the same rules: common sense, situational awareness, and leveraging local knowledge - Carlos! Other precautions included the US Department of State's Smart Traveler Enrollment Program which offers continuing email notifications/warnings for your destination country, and arranging for our mobile service. A word to fellow travelers... our cellular provider did not have an agreement with Guatemala, so roaming or accessing the Internet was priced somewhere between absurd and ludicrous. We were informed it would cost about $20 for every single MB downloaded. My wife confirmed this... by accessing the Internet for two minutes upon touchdown in Guatemala... and was promptly notified of almost $250 worth of roaming charges! From that point forward, and absent an emergency, we accessed the Web only via free Wifi sites.
Our first night stay on the side of the volcano at La Reunion
rivaled any luxury resort. We had our own villa with an infinity pool and outdoor shower that seemed almost like a garden waterfall. In the evening, the resort burns an intoxicating incense (helpful with insects though it was not yet rainy season), and as we sat dining in its open air restaurant, thick clouds rolled through the doors lending their magic to the surreal mood.
In the morning, Steph and I awoke before the girls. She wanted to snap photographs in the tropical stillness, which was only interrupted by what we thought was noise from nearby construction. As I scanned the grounds, there was no evidence of any workers or heavy equipment. Then, it dawned upon us... silly tourists, that was the erupting VOLCANO! Gentle shaking rocked the slopes as impressive steam belches puffed into the sky. The lead photo (above) captures the start of one such event.
We soon bid goodbye to this oasis, and headed to the historic city of Antigua. Founded in the early 1500's, destroyed in 1541 by the Agua volcano, and rebuilt with a Spanish Baroque influence, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a must-see. The city's artisans, cafes, ruins, catacombs, local people, and country quaint charm managed to capture our hearts. The streets were cobblestone, and while select buildings featured gorgeous Spanish elements, most establishments to the street-view presented painted cinder block wall structures.
At first glance, not the most attractive to our eyes. But each of these modest entrances belied a curious adventure. They opened to enticing shops, green-fountained courtyards, romantic cafes and music filled havens. Inside, the cinder block yielded to five hundred-year old masonry and inspiring architecture. As tourists, we were careful about spending money. While we naturally acquired the local currency in our dealings - Quetzales - we found the US dollar was widely accepted in Guatemala, so long as the bills were low denomination and without imperfection, i.e., no markings, folds or rips. This required adjustment, and the bills I took home were the rejects. The exchange rate was favorable at just over seven Quetzales to the dollar, and the girls got there first lesson in haggling... though afterwards I would usually find a way to pay the craftsman more for the handmade Guatemalan goods - some products took almost a year to complete. We were reminded of our many blessings in our US lifestyle. Of course, there were also drawbacks... our stomachs were not as prepared for partaking the Guatemalan fare. Thus, our protocol with eating and drinking was very disciplined, and Carlos advised us on which sources were totally fine and which to avoid. Unlike other members in our group, our family never experienced any gastrointestinal moments.
It was hard to leave Antigua for the urbanity of Guatemala City, but this would be our home base for the duration of the service work with the school children. Our initial entry at the Hotel Barceló
was a bit daunting - Carlos talked us through the front gate... barbed wire, tall fence and armed guards with automatic rifles. I appreciated the security presence, but the downside had me asking why such a formidable deterrent was necessary. This was the reality of Guatemala City and in staying in a such fine hotel with comparatively wealthy tourists and prominent business people. Later that week, Queen Sophia of Spain arrived at the Barceló. The security seemed to double, and while we were often bumping against her guards in our hotel travels, she set aside time to meet the Princeton children and parents. She was gracious, accommodating and thoroughly engaging. As for the Barceló staff, I have only great things to say... and they made all the difference in our visit.
Each morning our group would leave via one bus to reach the school about fifteen minutes away (non-rush hour). The children and parents taught lessons (Geography, Math, English, Health) in Spanish, donated books, explained new games, discussed nutrition, and generally helped repair anything that needed mending. It was a humbling and heartfelt "giving" to the community. Upon returning in the late afternoon, there was usually time for a dip in the hotel's pool, journal entries, and other Guatemala City sights.
Meals were fine in the Barcelo, however, our family explored a few of the restaurants in town. We found Jake’s Restaurant
, elegant and upscale, where I met the owner, a flamboyant and gracious NJ born chef - Jake Denburg. He greeted us at the entrance and after sharing our NJ roots - a rare encounter in Guatemala - Jake joined us at the table. He produced a fantastic bottle of rum, made several menu recommendations and offered an insider's perspective from his decades in Guatemala. We sampled spectacular meatballs that brought me back to those I'd grown up with in Atlantic City, and then finished with prime cuts of beef - done to order, seasoned to perfection and mouth watering.
Then, there was Gracia Cocina de Autor
, a comfy bistro style restaurant with Pablo - a bear-sized chef of gentle nature - proud and talented, and so accommodating for our family’s particular diet that he invited my wife into the kitchen to watch him prepare a custom meal for us. The food was delicious, with our favorite dish being a coconut milk, chicken and rice creation - gluten free and organic. Accompanying that treat was a glass of single malt... much harder to find in Guatemala than the Johnnie Walker blended offerings, and a soothing finish to the day.
Our departure from Guatemala was much like the entrance, with the crowds beginning at the street and surging into the airport terminal. This time I knew what to expect, and I had "great" memories of our travels to lift my spirit. There were trucks emptying young student volunteers (dentists, nurses, builders, etc.), and lines of people forming in the heat. I took a deep breath, and turned to Carlos. He had already located two reliable porters to help with our luggage and usher us to the proper check-in counter. As the girls were bumping around in the human traffic, there was no time to explain to him how much he meant to us, or how grateful I was for his guidance to my family. I gave him the "bro" hug, while each of my girls latched on to him for an emotional farewell. I don't know if we'll see him again, but I hope so. Peace to you Carlos, and to your law studying wife, your young children and numerous beloved pets.
With that, I leave you with this picture, designed and painted by a Princeton student, on the wall of the school in Guatemala City... the translation is "kindness and friendship for all."
Labels: active volcano, Antigua, Central America, Gracia Cocina de Autor, Guatemala, Guatemala City, Guatemalan Guide, Hotel Barceló, Jake's Restaurant, La Reunion, Princeton Friends School, Queen Sophia, Travel Review