I have been putting off this final installment of our Guatemala adventures, in part because I do not want them to end. But there is a stack of photos and a swirling mass of memories. I must put them together before time steals the details from me.
On our last full day at Lake Atitlan, we woke early and took the water taxi to Panajachel, the largest town on the lake.
But Pana (as it is called for the sake of saving a few syllables) was not our destination.
Guided by another hand-drawn map from our excellent host Kat, we walked through town, avoiding such temptations as enormous Guatemalan hamburgers.
As directed, we waited in front of a supermarket until a pickup truck arrived.
We mentioned our destination (the town of San Antonio), and climbed into the back.
These trucks are a form of public transportation, carrying people between the little towns on the north shore of the lake.
We drove through twisting roads to the town of Santa Caterina.
And onward to San Antonio.
The roads were narrow and we traveled quickly, often barely avoiding oncoming traffic. And we were not strapped in, mind you. Had there been some sort of accident, it would have been of the catastrophic variety. But no one seemed in the least bit alarmed. We were in Guatemala, so we did as the Guatemalans did.
Eventually, we arrived in the heart of San Antonio and climbed out of the truck. We walked down a narrow road, not really knowing where we were headed, but not really caring, either.
Eventually, the road ended at the lakeshore, where we looked out at people fishing below the volcanoes.
A bit more exploring brought us to a ceramics studio, where we took an impromptu tour.
They showed us the kiln.
And the painted bisqueware (fired once for hardening of the clay, but not yet fired a second time to set the glaze).
It was production work, but of a highly artistic variety.
We spent some time talking with one of the artists. When he found out that Robbi was a fellow creator, he pulled out his notebook and shared some of his other designs.
In spite of not speaking one another’s language, he and Robbi did plenty of communicating.
The tour culminated in a gallery, of course.
Where we did some shopping, of course. Robbi had previously concluded that my spirit animal is a hummingbird, and so my choice was easy.
While we shopped, some children kept us company. Although I spent most of the week delighted and grateful for the brief reprieve from active parenting, seeing these three smiling faces did raise some thoughts of home.
Back out in the sunshine, we bought a gorgeous, hand-woven scarf for a family member who will remain unnamed until after the holidays.
And then we made our way vaguely in the direction that we thought we had come. The town was small, and there was just one lake, so we had various indicators to guide our progress.
It was a spectacular day. We paused to celebrate the blissful realization that, at that particular moment in time and place and human history, there was nowhere we needed to be, nothing we needed to do, and no one that needed anything from us. Our lives these days are filled with more blessings than we could ever count or chronicle, but moments of blissful irrelevance are never to be found.
And so we did our best to appreciate this one.
Eventually, we turned , vaguely remembering that we had been dropped off in what felt like the top of the hill.
We waited for another truck.
And headed back to Pana.
Earlier that day we had been mightily tempted by a gorgeous, hand-embroidered wall hanging. As it turns out, we were not able walk past it a second time without pulling the trigger.
Our ceramics and textiles and folk art in tow, we got back into the boat, and headed back to paradise.
We went to sleep reluctantly, knowing that the next morning would be our last at La Fortuna.
As mornings do, it came.
We looked around as intently as we could, trying to remember everything, that we might take it with us.
The dock and the volcano.
The dogs that had made us feel so welcome.
The swimming platform from which we had jumped so many times over the past few days.
On her final jump, somehow, Robbi managed to elegantly levitate, as if posing for a Botticelli portrait.
We savored our final swim.
And final tribute to the gods of Atitlan.
And our final outdoor shower.
And our final game of avocado fetch.
And then it was time to go. Steve and Kat were headed to Pana to run errands, so they offered to let us tag along.
Steve and Kat are pretty much my heroes. They had a dream and they made it happen. And they literally cleared jungle to do it. And what they have created is nothing less than my favorite place on earth.
We savored our final ride on the lake.
And when we got to Pana, I savored a breakfast sandwich. I had been warned that eating street food came with certain risks.
But I was in Guatemala, and so I did as the Guatemalans do.
We took a tourist shuttle about two hours to Antigua.
Where we had a room waiting at a B&B called Casa Taanah, a place we found through Kat’s recommendation, so of course it was great. An old and beautiful building with an interior courtyard and tons of fabulous architectural details.
But we wasted no time in getting out into Antigua itself. We had only a few hours of daylight left.
As we wandered the cobblestone streets, we stopped to admire the tiled stop signs.
And the wonderfully odd stations of the cross parade floats tucked into a ruined church on the main drag, waiting for Easter, apparently.
We paused to admire the famous arch. Robbi asked me if I might not enjoy the challenge of jumping over it. I allowed that I was not feeling quite equal to the challenge, given how long it had been since my last meal.
And so we found ourselves a table at a restaurant offering “typical” Guatemalan food.
The menu was rife with grandmotherly secrets.
Robbi first ordered Hilachas, but when our server made a face and explained in broken English that “chop” meant such delights as heart and tongue and intestine, she changed her order to the Revolcado. She was, after all, in search of a “new experience.”
The food came.
It was anything but typical.
I ordered pupusas, little round stuffed pancakes of delight. I ate the motherloving heck out of them. With plenty of pickled cabbage on top.
The result was just what Robbi (and surely all of Antigua’s inhabitants) had hoped for.
We wandered. We discovered. Apparently Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard did something really great for Antigua, as evidenced by this expensive-looking tribute. I am suddenly reminded that my to do list includes an item devoted to discovering what this great thing is. If you would be so kind as to do the research and let me know, I would be much obliged.
Unfortunately, I was still far too put upon by pupusas to sample the wonders of Guatemalan Wendy’s.
But not too put upon, surprisingly, to sample the wonders of the Guatemalan cheesecake that had come highly recommended by an Israeli woman we met one day on the water taxi at Lake Atitlan.
We sat in the central park and ate it with abandon. It was not even sort of awful.
Antigua is a city of constant small treasures, to be found on every surface.
And constant vibrant colors, all of which were perfectly complemented by the bright blue sky.
Everything was old.
References to Mr. Hubbard cropped up everywhere like eager dandelions.
After eating and eating and walking, we found ourselves at the chocolate museum, where we had previously enrolled ourselves in a chocolate making class.
Our teacher was fantastic. She was a law student who ran these workshops as a day job while studying at night.
We started by learning about the various types of cacao fruit.
And learned how to shake the fruit as a means of determining ripeness.
We learned about the process of fermenting the beans.
And extracting the cocoa butter.
We saw how the chocolate is churned for 22 hours.
And then had a chance to select a mold . . .
… and create our own confections.
Bucking all authenticity, we went Disney with August in mind. We were starting to miss the kids just a little, and it felt like a nod to the homefront.
While our chocolates hardened, we went back to the beginning of the process…
…starting with the beans. Originally, cacao was harvested for the fruit that surrounded the beans. It was sweet and soft, in contrast to the beans which were bitter and hard. It was the ancient Maya who unlocked the beans’ secrets by fermenting and roasting them.
Our beans had been pre-fermented, but we roasted them.
And then removed the husks.
Inside, was pure cacao.
But we did not throw away the husks, which can be brewed into a delicious tea.
In fact, we tried a bit.
Next, it was time to “get Medieval” on the beans. As you probably suspected, this part was my specialty.
We used the resulting paste in a number of ways, combining it with sugar and spices and mixing it in the traditional way, which required two jugs and more dexterity than I could muster.
Robbi fared somewhat better but still did some spilling.
Next, we did some hand-grinding, again, the requisite strength and enthusiasm and lack of need for precision or subtlely thus required allowed me to shine.
We were given the opportunity to sample the ground-yet-not-yet-sweetened cacao. It was not delicious.
But then we added sugar. And milk.
And oh what a difference that makes.
Cacao was put on this planet to collaborate with sugar and milk.
Verdict: Should you find yourself in Antigua, we heartily recommend taking a chocolate making class at the Choco museum. Incredibly interesting and rather delicious.
By the time we finished, it was dark.
And so we stopped for sandwiches (homemade hot chocolate does not a dinner make).
And found our way back to Casa Taanah.
Where we were greeted by a cat in a shirt.
The next morning, we headed up to the roof deck to look out at the city. And were once again greeted by cat in a shirt, who seemed to have relocated in the night.
On the recommendation of my good friend Erica, who spent several months living and teaching in Antigua, we climbed the hill behind Taanah.
And found ourselves a stunning view.
From there, we used our guidebook to find and explore some of the many ruins that dot the city.
They are everywhere, a constant smattering of gifts.
Antigua is kind of like Rome, with the contributions of many ages piled on top of one another.
And the evidence of underlying structure showing through crumbling facades.
Antigua was full of well-intentioned signage indicating where one ought not park out of deference to the physically disabled.
The signs themselves were puzzlingly minute, however. And puzzlingly crammed against the wall, and puzzlingly (in most cases) half obscured.
But we weren’t there to evaluate the civic infrastructure.
We were there to look up in wonder.
And there were constant opportunities.
Occasionally, the wonder was to be found at eye level.
As was the case in this artisan market, an utter feast for the eyes. We lamented having brought just the one suitcase, which was already far too full from having to accommodate my poncho.
There were hand-carved masks.
And more hand-carved masks.
And then a few more hand-carved masks.
There were pins and pendants and charms.
There were hand-carved wooden rattles. And shoes and hats and scarves and rows and rows of ponchos.
We returned to the street in search of more wonder. On the other side of this facade…
…is a crumbling interior.
…an ancient catacomb of open air rooms and corridors rife for exploration.
Some of the arches have been restored, creating a eerie quality of a space not of any given time.
Or any given place.
At the recommendation of our friend Neyah, we stopped by the Cafe No Se, but apparently, the Cafe does not open until the hipsters are ready to revel, a thing that happens after our bedtime.
We walked. We gaped.
We stopped for lunch. We gaped some more.
We ordered some guacamole-laden fries that were probably not “typical,” but which were nevertheless stunning.
And then we made our way back to Taanah in a fog of denial that it was our last full day of our vacation. Did I fail to mention previously that there were various motorcycles just inside the door of Taanah?
The next day came. We took a cab to the airport. We left Guatemala. We landed in Atlanta just as the sun was setting.
We drove home. We went to bed. It was very, very late. But we woke up early the next morning. And walked to my mom’s house. Apparently, one of us was ready to see her children again.
There were hugs.
There was a birthday to re-celebrate.
There was normalcy to return to. But I’m not sure what that looks like, and so I will not try to show it in a photo.
I will tell you this. It was really good to get away with Robbi for a while. Our lives are full because we like them that way. We feel lucky to get to spend our days living in a big pile of people and dog, working together, making stuff, and telling the story as we go.
But for a week or so, it was good to step away from all that, and travel to a different world, and let everything stop for a moment or two, to let certain things settle and other things rise.
We are both replenished and ready to dive back into whatever comes next. I’m pretty sure that whatever it is will be the opposite of normal.