Guatemala I: I’ll be home for Christmas (but only in my dreams)

 

Damn you, advertising industry! Perhaps if those in the business of selling everything under the sun didn’t expend quite so much of their energy on depicting the perfect family Christmas, we wouldn’t have such high expectations.

Perhaps ‘high’ is the wrong word. I’ve never been away for Christmas before, and really consider it should be spent sitting on Mum and Dad’s sofa, fighting over the best Quality Street in the tin and watching Dad find pound coins in his Christmas pudding (he’s a magician, that man). In short, our Christmas needs are few, but homely – and those are the most difficult things to find when away from home.

One of the stipulations of a round-the-world ticket is that you can’t just go home for a couple of weeks, so we always knew we’d have to deal with Christmas far, far away from Mum and Dad’s sofa. In fact, we couldn’t even spend it in our house in Mexico, as someone with far deeper pockets than us had decided to take it for the Christmas period. So we packed up (leaving the bulky stuff with friends) and took the shuttle bus from San Cristobal to Antigua, Guatemala – a journey that we were assured would take between eight and ten hours.

Never trust a travel agent, especially a Mexican one. I won’t dwell too much on the particulars of the journey, except to say that the minibus was populated by the usual traveller types including ‘man with beard who cannot stop swearing’, ‘gap year student who describes his various stomach ailments in excruciating detail’ and ‘woman who eats granola out of a bag and spends the whole time reading a meditation text whilst sitting in the lotus position’ (tricky in a minibus). I’m sure they have their own comments to make about us, too, especially since I’m sure I gave all of them my Christmas cold over the THIRTEEN HOURS we spent in that bus (sorry chaps, you’ll have your voices back in, oooh, about a week and a half…). However, our girls are stars when it comes to travelling – and after 36 hours on an Indian train, we ought to be able to cope with a little discomfort.

What can I say about Antigua? Described as “the most charming colonial city in the Americas’, it is like a bit of Disneyland plonked down in the Guatemalan highlands. If you’ve seen our pictures of San Cristobal, it is similar, without the ‘edge’ (no Zapatistas/no graffiti/far more tourist-oriented) and full of Americans who come down for the holidays. It was pretty strange to have crossed over from Mexico to a country that is nominally poorer and yet to find somewhere so developed. Every building is beautiful, every street cobbled, every corner filled with picturesque Mayans selling handicrafts. The fairylights were breathtaking, the food fantastic, and the prices correspondingly high. And then there are the volcanoes hanging over the city – including Fuego, puffing clouds of ash almost every day, just to heighten the fairytale atmosphere.

So yes, Antigua is beautiful, and a good place to find Christmas comfort. Imported tea? Tick. The only mince pies in Central America? Probably – and, since these are vital of course for Santa’s visit on the 25th –- this was just as well. Antigua is also expensive, which is how we came to be staying in a hostel-type affair, with some very loud German boys, a comedy night watchman, and the worst breakfasts known to mankind (and that includes those from Myanmar). At least by day three we’d persuaded the duena to let us cook our own.

The Christmas run up was always going to be different, but thankfully we had some things planned. We very much enjoyed a chocolate making course (with thanks to Grandmere), at the Choco Museo, where we ground cacao beans, learned the history of chocolate, and made three different types of hot chocolate drinks and our own flavoured chocolates under the tutelage of ‘proud Mayan’ Pablo.

We enjoyed hanging round the central park chatting to the locals (particularly Hortensia, Pablo and Pablo – are you sensing a name theme here?) who were just terribly excited to see photographs of trains. The girls fed the pigeons and chased them, and we visited many of city’s seriously picturesque ruins – Antigua is seriously affected by earthquakes and volcanoes, to the point that it reminded me of that bit in Monty Python’s Holy Grail movie where the king keeps building castles that sank into the swamp. The ruins are very photogenic, and good for hide and seek – and because Antigua is so tourist oriented they also have clean bathrooms (useful for the Clover/diarrhoea related incident that I shan’t go into any further).

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Does Santa come even in Guatemala? Turns out he does, despite the night watchman’s incredulity when we helped the girls sellotape their stockings to the chiminea. “But Santa’s not going to come, is he?” he remarked morosely as we took the girls up to bed… But of course we proved him wrong, though we couldn’t find a glass for Santa’s traditional sherry (or any sherry for that matter) so Santa had to swig wine, classily, out of the bottle.

Christmas lunch was at local classy restaurant Panza Verde, which doesn’t usually allow children. Paul convinced Clover that she had to pretend to be a very short brain surgeon, and Daisy, a civil engineer, so they were a little worried. Fortunately all were charming, and the turkey stunning, and the new Ever After High dollies from Santa got a table of their own, and some beautiful starched napery to sleep in. Extra cranberry sauce ensured that the girls ate a very grown up Christmas dinner, with no roast potatoes or Christmas pudding.

Continuing with a traditional theme, we introduced the girls to (travel) Monopoly, and obviously they had chocolate coins for breakfast, just as they would at home.

So yes, as the Grinch found out in that famous Dr Seuss Book, Christmas did “come just the same”, despite the strangeness of location and distance from home. But that’s not to say that everyone found it easy. There was a lot of Skyping, a few tears from both girls on Christmas Eve, and a lot of grumpiness from me when the computer trackpad on the Mac broke on Christmas afternoon. In my defence the Mac is my workhorse and I had deadlines to meet (not to mention a pressing need to watch Netflix).

In the end we saw off the Christmas Day grumps with a trip to (ahem) McDonalds, where the children wolfed down mcnuggets far faster than they had roast turkey, and we wondered at a city where even the golden arches is a colonial marvel. Finished the day off watching fireworks explode over the city, and two girls asleep in their new pyjamas. All in all, Christmas abroad was quite kind to us, but we did feel very far away, and missed friends and family lots.

Went to bed reflecting that Christmas far from home is hard enough when you have a home to go to, and profoundly grateful for it, and made a sobering donation to a couple of the Syria refugee appeals. Christmas is a time for home and hearth, after all, and so many don’t have one.

 

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Mexico II: The earth moves for us

I wish I could find the scientific study that I read once, that stated that time seems to pass more slowly if you are doing the same thing all of the time. Which is why, when we’re at home and in a proper routine, the term seems to go in a flash, and yet we’ve travelled round ten countries in the same space of time and seem to have been away for ages.

That same study probably explains why the last three weeks have gone so quickly. We’ve made our home in San Cristobal at Casa Berta – the sweet house we’re renting on the hilly side of town. The children now go to school every day (well, they’ve just broken up for Christmas, but up until the 18th they were there Monday to Friday), while Paul goes in with them to help with the translation. I stay at home, work and have Spanish lessons.

With a routine back in place, time has really flown, but within all of the routine there have been some things to report.

1) An earthquake

At 6.6 on the Richter Scale, Wikipedia informs me that “everyone” should have felt this week’s earthquake in Chiapas. Everyone, that is, except Clover, who informs me she didn’t notice a thing. Readers, I am ashamed to admit that I was asleep when it happened (had just finished a feature and had got up early to do so, in my meagre defence for napping at 1pm) – and was in enough of a stupor to blame the builders next door for the rattling glass windows and the fact that the tiled floor was moving around like a snake. By the time Paul and I had worked out what was going on, the ‘temblor’ (as they call them here), was pretty much finished.

Daisy’s account, from school, is that she was planting things in the soil and then it started shaking and everything fell off the soil and they all had to sit on the floor. Then everyone was screaming “un temblor”. Clearly that’s a word she’s not going to forget in a hurry. All a bit too exciting, but nothing damaged except the local post office (St Cristobal is very low rise and fairly earthquake proof), and it’s a good story to tell. Wouldn’t want to be in a stronger one though.

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 2) Settling in at school

Perhaps it is unsurprising that life at the Semillas de Luz Colectivo, San Cristobal, is very different to life at Dalmain Primary School SE23. There’s a lot more sitting round a candle and talking about your feelings, to the accompaniment of music that would be more at home in a patchouli-scented massage parlour for a start.

Then there’s the aerial dance rope – can’t see British health and safety allowing that, especially when it’s hung over a foam mat only a couple of centimetres thick. All the children like to do crazy somersaults from this, having twisted themselves up to near the ceiling before spinning down. Clover has made herself feel sick several times by spinning too much. Such is the commitment to aerial gymnastics that the girls are insisting on taking classes twice a week, and can already hang upside down with the rest of them.

Then there’s the yoga, which Daisy says is ‘just waving your legs about Mum,’ even though the teacher says she has a ‘natural gift’. She likes the lion pose because you get to roar a lot. Other classes include permaculture (a grand name for watering the plants) and English (doing OK with that one…) while Clover spends most of her time stroking school cat Bigotes – whose name means whiskers, or moustache or croissant, depending on your point of view.

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But are they learning anything, I hear you ask? Yes, Spanish in the main. They’re already putting together words and starting to try sentences (though the verbs are mostly missing at this point). I’m awed by this – I think they’ll be better than me very soon. Also so impressed that they are willing to get out and about with their new friends – going to lots of parties just as they would in the UK. Unfortunately they then have to come home and keep up with the UK curriculum – but you can’t have everything.

3) Seeing old friends and making new ones

It’s been great to catch up with the friends we’ve made in San Cristobal, so we’ve already been to birthday parties, and had people round for dinner and tea. The girls have enjoyed hanging out with Itamar and Pablo – our godson and his sister. Although they struggle to communicate in words, they still play beautifully. The international language of Lego and rough and tumble seem to work just fine.

San Cristobal always seems to welcome wanderers home with open arms so it is easy to slot back in to life here. Even my old Spanish teacher has been willing to have me back (and has been very polite about how much I’ve forgotten) so I’m working hard on convincing him I do know what I’m doing. Reggie remains a hard taskmaster, with his interest in international economics ensuring that my mind works hard on both language AND content (we moved swiftly in the first lesson from the typical ‘describe your daily routine’ to ‘what will happen now China has joined the IMF’).

New things we’re trying include a particularly crazy form of Pilates, run by a woman who seems determined that we all need to be able to get our legs behind our heads. It certainly increases my vocabulary as I try to listen to her explaining how to contort myself into various ridiculous shapes. However, I worry that she thinks I only know one phrase: ‘no puedo’ – I can’t do it.

4) Just getting on with it

Routine is bliss when you haven’t had it for a while. Making breakfast? So exciting! Working in the sunshine and nipping upstairs for a cup of tea and a view of the mountains? Sublime. Cooking chocolate chip cookies with the children? A massive treat. We’re trying to make the most of it all. Especially since over Christmas we’re on the road again – down to Guatemala while our landlord rents out our house to someone with far deeper pockets than us. We’ve had an earthquake – it must be time for a festive volcano now?

 

 

Mexico: Putting down roots

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Ah, Mexico. Given that half the people we know think we’ve been here all along, it’s good to report we’ve finally arrived. Mexico is our second home, though the girls don’t really remember the two maternity leaves we spent in San Cristobal de Las Casas, walking each of them through the dawn streets wrapped in a sling, and taking them to Spanish classes.

Despite all of our good intentions, neither of them speak a word of Spanish (we were SO going to teach them from birth, but rather like feeding them only organic carrots and never allowing them fizzy drinks it just hasn’t happened) so six months in Mexico was always going to be quite a shock – especially since it is about time they went to school.

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We broke them in gently. Four days in DF (Mexico City), giving them a crash course in Mexican culture, including the Diego Rivera murals in the Zocalo (though they mostly wanted to stroke the cats rather than look at the pictures of the Aztecs making maize and sacrificing each other) and the surprisingly good zoo in the Chapultepec Park. We learned that Daisy still likes refried beans, but that neither of them really like tortillas (bit of an issue really). Of course, in DF, we continued to speak in English, so it was a bit of a shock to them (and me) when our good friend Enrique picked us up at Tuxtla airport, and we had to reignite the Spanish on the way up to San Cristobal. The girls, predictably, were somewhat silent.

And so here we are. Staying in a wonderful house called Casa Berta, where we’ve slightly more space than we need, and finally a kitchen that is a joy to cook in. The girls are getting accustomed to the San Cristobal market, which comes complete with chickens held by the feet and lots of colourful indigenous women selling beans and spices.

It’s hard to explain the appeal of the city if you’ve never been, but imagine an old Spanish colonial city, high up in the clouds, surrounded by mountains and forest. Cobbled streets full of low-level coloured houses ensure that the city is a magnet for Mexican tourists from elsewhere in the country as well as independent travellers, while the city is at the centre of a ring of indigenous villages where both men and women still wear traditional costume and practice traditional culture – and speak their own Mayan languages as well.

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In the streets, indigenous men and women mix with ‘coletos’ – traditional San Cristobal dwellers of Spanish descent. And then there are ‘los hippies’ who have made San Cristobal their home. Many arrived to support the Zapatista uprising in 1994, when the indigenous people rose up against their post-colonial overlords under the charismatic leadership of Sub-Comandante Marcos. Almost 20 years later, some land outside the city is still in Zapatista territory.

‘Los Hippies’ bring their own culture to mix with that of the Coletos and the traditional Maya. Think Stoke Newington in the Cloud Forest. So if you want your Mayan calendar read, or to practice yoga on any given day you won’t struggle to find someone to help you. You may not be able to buy a cagoule (it rains quite a lot) but you can buy a lot of weavings, friendship bracelets and pseudo-Mayan medicaments.

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Thanks to this, San Cristobal gives us a lot of educational opportunities to choose from for the girls. The only thing we can’t do is send them to state school, since we’re here on tourist visas (and since the state teachers have been on strike ever since we’ve started living here this is probably just as well). From the many options we’ve chosen Las Semillas de Luz, just round the corner. Given that the school is called Seeds of Light, you may have some idea of its ethos. Yoga features very heavily. I’ll write more to explain how they are settling in very soon…

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Canada: There’s no place like home (even when it’s someone else’s).

After over three months on the road, we finally got to cross the dateline – travelling fast enough to get ahead of ourselves. Lucky us, we ended up with a whole lot of Friday 13th (can’t imagine why it was so easy to find flights for that day), but since the worst thing that happened to us was a bit of wind flying into Vancouver and a slight delay on the baggage carousel, we really can’t complain.

Why Canada? We’ve been asked that a lot – especially since we’re flying directly Canada to Mexico, bypassing that whole big country in the middle. I’ve heard that Hector Hugh Monro quote (“Canada’s alright really, just not for the whole weekend”) more times than I care to mention.
But, in the absence of any ruby slippers that can get us home with a few clicks of the heels, Canada is the nearest to English-speaking normality that we’re going to get for a while. It’s home to Nat and Mike – friends of Paul’s from Cambridge. It’s also home to Lauren, Paul’s cousin, and her family. And when life has been very foreign for a while, turns out that home is exactly what you need).

Vancouver first then – or in fact just outside. Nat picked us up from Vancouver Airport and drove us to Maple Ridge – and then kindly allowed us to be jetlagged in peace. There were children (Liam and Maya, who made the girls so welcome) and normal food. And normal meals. It might have bigger skies and lakes, and much bigger portions – but all in all Canada was charmingly normal. We loved it.

We visited Fort Langley, the birthplace of British Columbia, where the children ran around like nutters and attempted a bit of blacksmithing. I became almost geekily interested in Native American salmon fishing rights (stay with me on this, they are more interesting than they sound). We went to Vancouver Aquarium, with my schoolfriend Ruth, who now lives in Victoria, and whom I haven’t seen for an embarrassing number of years. She’s garnered a Canadian accent and two beautiful girls since then- we were thrilled that she took them out of school for the day to hang out with us, as well as with Vancouver’s sea otters, dolphins and a false killer whale called Chester who was definitely checking out Daisy’s drawing of him through the glass. It was so nice to be in a country that is a little more relaxed about education – I suspect trying to take your children out of school to see your friend from England would not meet with a great deal of approval in the UK nowadays, but in Canada it seems quite normal – and everyone still seems able to read and write and stuff.

From Vancouver we flew to Edmonton, home of Lauren and family, who made us equally and wonderfully welcome. The girls hung out with Brooklyn and Riley (are they second cousins? I can never work that one out) and we visited the famous and huge West Edmonton shopping mall (complete with rollercoasters, pirate ship and no pagodas or temples to visit), the excellent science museum (where we watched a robot solve rubix cubes in a matter of minutes) and the ice rink. I think it may be a while before ice hockey is our preferred game, but it was tremendous fun.

It was cold, of course. We’re not really used to that yet – but the much-promised snow didn’t fall until our last day in Edmonton – kudos to Lauren for managing to drive us safely to the airport in that!

We loved Canada – but most of all we loved homeliness. It’s what you crave after so much time in hotels and hostels. And we are so grateful for the hospitality and acceptance we’ve received. So Saki is wrong – two weeks wasn’t even enough to do two parts of Canada justice.

Ruby slippers duly clicked, we fly onwards to Mexico via Dallas – the United States gets a whole three hour visit from us on this trip. With six months (with side trips) planned in Mexico, looks like it’s time to slow down for a while. We’ll be glad of it, I think. After all, there’s no place like home.