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September 11, 2006

Anne Dalke's picture

In Jane Bowles' short story, "A Guatemalean Idyll," a tourist, discontented in Antigua, asks, "What is the point of traveling?" Maybe, living in Antigua for the next three weeks, I'll find a few answers to this question...?

On this anniversary, rather than looking back to look forward, I'm traveling in Central America with my daughter Marian and my husband Jeff. Marian has lived in Mexico, and is fluent in Spanish. Jeff and I have no experience either living or speaking in this part of the world.

When we touched down in Guatemala City yesterday afternoon, the whole plane load of people burst into applause.

Marian: "This expresses our gratitude to the pilot."

Anne: "Perhaps this suggests an uncertainty that we would be landing safely?"

Jeff:"Are we one or two hours behind time?"

Marian: "Parentals: There is one thing you need to know while living in a new country. You are not going to understand everything. Why people clap. What time it is."

Anne: "Inquiring minds want to know."

Marian: "Your mind wants to know. Your mind needs to change."

At this point, all the old women around us pull their suitcases down from the overhead bins, place them on their heads, and walk free-handed off the plane. Somewhat bewildered (how can they do this, without holding on?), we follow.

The drive from Guatamala City to Antigua is an adventure. There are many cars, quite a few of them stopped in the middle of traffic. The road is winding, mountainous and under repair. The traffic is heavy; quite a few of the cars are stopped, w/ engine trouble or flat tires, in the middle of the road. There are many riders in the open backs of pick-up trucks.

But Antigua (when we finally arrive) is a place stopped-in-time, a beautifully preserved (for tourists?) place: all flowers and ruins, bright and beautiful colors (of buildings and flora and people's clothing), all surrounded by three tall volcanos: Agua, Fuerte y Acatenago (water, fire, and ....?) It feels out-of-time, preserved under glass, not real. I hear echoes of my college years spent in Williamsburg, Virginia. And--in our casita--there's a musty smell, just like the cottage that is Dalke's Rivercliff. We've come very far to experience the smell of home.

I'm larding my experiences here with those of others who have traveled and lived in this place. I've begun by reading both Jane and Paul Bowles, as well as Aldous Huxley, who published Beyond the Mexique Bay: A Traveller's Journal, in 1934. This journal includes several chapters on Antigua, including some commentary I find prescient and accurate:

The Antigua of actuality is all baroque and colonial of the most romantic towns in the world...there is much that is charming; much that is surprising and queer; much--indeed everyting--that is picturesque and romantic in the most extravagantly eighteenth-century style....Wherever one looks fantastic ruins fill the foreground and behind them rise...gigantic volcanoes...What splendid musings [Childe Harold and Chateaubriand]...would have sent home from Antigua! Musings on the transitoriness of human glory, on the grandeurs and eternity of nature; musings on tyrants; musings on liberty; musings on volcanoes and the cochineal insect; musings on the beauties of Christianity or the baseness of popish superstition....There would have been a cataract of pensive eloquent. To-day it is too late. On all these incredibly romantic ruins the Time-Spirit has posted his warning notice: NO MUSING, BY ORDER...Guiltily, we put away our fountain pens and our notebooks, and address ourselves to the more contemporary business of taking snapshots. Soon I'll add some snapshots to this public journal. But I doubt I'll be able to forgo the musing, however belated it may be. Part of what interests me about this place is how far away it seems (for instance) from the events of September 11, both what happened 5 years ago and all the current re-assessment going on now @ home. What difference did September 11 make in Antigua, Guatemala? Perhaps the whole notion of that sort of "progress," of a kind of difference that makes a difference, is out of place here? Hear Huxley, again: In our sort of world, [the belief that each of us is the happy exception to the rule] is, no doubt, a necessary delusion; if most people did not have it, things would never get done, or at any rate would only get done very slowly. Certainly nothing much gets done in societies in which taboos are unquestioninngly accepted and nobody even dreams that he can escape from the operations of any rule whatsoever. It may be that, if there is to be progress, or at any rate rapid change, the delusion of individual exceptionalness is indispensable. In a society rationally planned on equitable principles this delusion would be discouraged....This owould certainly make for social stability. But whether social stability may not in its turn make for the return to the mental stagnation of the primitve stable society remains to be seen. To be seen? To be continued, @ any rate...


Rus's picture

We are blessed with daughters. We need to learn to listen to them more often.
Serendip Guest's picture

I just enjoyed the first installment of your travel log. I wish I was with you on your journey. I'm already jealous of the new adventures you and Jeff and Marian will be having, especially Jeff, I think! Love, Cindy
Anonymous's picture'll be one of my favorites to watch over the next months. But I'm not reading any indented paragraphs of other folks' writing you may care to to me straight from your heart, in Spanish if you like; that's what I want to hear. love, Shaye