Volcanoes near AntiguaWhy do we love Guatemala, with all the obstacles it puts in our way?

One night I heard a deep, reverberating boom outside. It sounded like thunder, but we were in the dry season and I knew there was no approaching storm. A large truck rumbling by, perhaps? It seemed unlikely. I got my answer the next day when everyone was talking about the nearby volcanic explosion.

Volcanoes don’t scare you? One evening after eating dinner at a restaurant, I stood up and turned around and the entire staff of the restaurant was behind me talking. “You didn’t feel the earthquake?” they asked. “Everything was shaking!” Nope. I was oblivious. I just hope such things never reach a level where even I notice them!

You like having a reliable supply of electricity? Don’t come to Guatemala. One evening while eating in a restaurant the power went off in that section of Antigua. Grabbing candles from all the nearby tables, my friend and I finished our dinner by candlelight. Afterwards we walked out to the pitch-black streets and walked home by feel, wondering if some ladrón would try to take advantage of that shield of anonymity to rob us. Fortunately, we got home safely!

Power outages are even more common in El Hato. One morning during my recent volunteer stint we arrived at the school only to find that the electricity was out. Unfortunately, we had to scratch the computer class that day. The next day when I walked into the English classroom, the kids again warned me, “No hay luz.” (There isn’t any electricity.) I must have shown a very concerned look, because they immediately added, “Broma!” (Joke.)

El Hato Water TruckElectricity is good for a lot of things besides computers. Probably no coincidence, but that same day we lost electricity in El Hato, the municipal water supply also wasn’t working. That meant the toilets didn’t fill up by themselves. To accomplish that seemingly trivial task, I went searching for a bucket of water, but most of the water storage tanks weren’t flowing either. I finally found one with a little trickle, and thankfully was able to flush that toilet!

And of course, the toilets of Guatemala (most of Latin America, really) can be daunting to gringos. (Gringo isn’t a derogatory term, it’s just what they call us.) You’re not supposed to put toilet paper in the toilet. (Maybe that’s why it’s not called toilet paper in Latin America. It’s called hygienic paper.) Instead, there’s always a handy little trashcan next to every toilet. Some gringos simply can’t adjust to this, and sometimes they just forget. But the consequences of putting papel higiénico into a toilet can be dire, including big messy clogs with raw sewage spilling out onto the floor. The plumbing just isn’t made the same way down here! And you don’t want to be the person who has to clean that up. If you are, you might just use the word gringo in a derogatory way.

But even without running water, electricity and flushable toilet paper, toilets are nice to have. So it was disconcerting when the Las Manos crew arrived at El Hato one morning during the “summer session” and we found that the keys to the public school bathroom had mysteriously disappeared. (In Guatemala, “summer” occurs when it is late-fall and winter in the United States, even though they’re up here in the Northern Hemisphere with us. That’s a whole other story.) To be honest, the El Hato public school doesn’t really have the nicest bathrooms anyway, so most of us volunteers attempt to make sure we won’t need to use them during our daily visit. But bad or not, toilets are always a plus, so when the toilets aren’t available, the children will go home, or use the woods, or, as I found out one day, water the garden outside of the bathroom.

Considering that the people of El Hato don’t even have a reliable supply of water, it seems almost callous to complain about the shower in my apartment. But here goes. I can’t turn the pressure up high because I’ll quickly run out of hot water. Even so, the supply of hot water is so uneven that I have to adjust the knobs about five times every minute to keep the temperature even. But that’s a lot better than another common situation: no hot water at all. A friend of mine who lives in a house without hot water told me she dreads taking showers and contemplated skipping her shower altogether during her last few days in Guatemala – holding out for the luxurious warmth of her shower back home.

RACHELAnd then there’s the slow and unreliable internet in Antigua. In truth, bad internet is actually a great time saver, because there’s no need to click on all those video links on Facebook. They simply won’t work! But at least it’s better than the internet in El Hato, which is nonexistent. Las Manos has made the best of this situation by making the RACHEL program available to the students. This program has a snapshot of Wikipedia, as well as a number of educational resources. It’s really quite impressive – the next best thing to being on the information superhighway … the information dirt road, if you will.

I could go on and on about my First World problems. (The reality is that whatever inconveniences I put up with are nothing in comparison with what the people of El Hato and other Guatemalan towns like it have to deal with every day of their lives.) So why would someone come here when you can’t even put the toilet paper in the toilet??? –Because Guatemala more than compensates in many other ways!Antigua Volcano

Natural beauty is everywhere you look. During my last visit, every morning when I walked out my door I was greeted by a beautiful view of el volcán de Agua. Every day I said to myself, “That’s beautiful! I need to take a picture.” Now I have at least thirty versions of that photo.

In Antigua, you’re never far from some impressive Spanish ruins. During colonial days, Spain made Antigua the capital of Central America, and constructed a number of majestic buildings here. An earthquake or two later, they realized that wasn’t such a smart idea. But the ruins and the colonial architecture remain to this day, and it really is wonderful to see it.

Tital ruinsIf the Spanish ruins don’t impress you enough, you can go back further in time and visit the Mayan ruins of Tikal. They’ll take your breath away. If you’ve already seen the Mayan ruins in Chichén Nitzá, Mexico, don’t worry. The ruins of Tikal are even better.

Indigenous women all over the world are frequently known for their colorful clothing. (Admittedly, I know this mostly from National Geographic.) But I haven’t seen any clothes anywhere more beautiful than the traditional clothes of Guatemalan women. The indigenous people take great pride in their weaving, blending bright colors into intricate patterns that really capture your attention. Guatemalans are quite artistic and it shows in many aspects of their culture.

El dia de los muertosThe artistic Guatemalan culture particularly shows itself during holidays. For example, many Guatemalans spend months building huge, colorful kites, which are proudly displayed on el día de los muertos. Also on that day, many Guatemalans adorn the cemeteries with an abundance of colorful flowers and other memorials to their deceased relatives. But they really surpass themselves during Semana Santa, building bright, ornate carpets of dyed sawdust and flowers on all the streets of Antigua – only to have them smashed to bits a short while later by passing religious processions.

Semana SantaIf you want to learn Latin dancing, go to Antigua. They love salsa, bachata and other Latin dances, and there will be many great teachers waiting there for you. You can take a private lesson for $10, which is less than many group lessons, and far less than a private lesson, in the United States.

They call the region around Antigua la tierra de la eterna primavera – the land of the eternal spring. Even though Guatemala is relatively close to the Equator, Antigua itself is nestled away in the mountains, and so never experiences the oppressively hot temperatures of equatorial coastal regions. In fact, it can sometimes be surprisingly cool (but never cold by Pennsylvania standards!). Year-round high temperatures are in the 70s (low 70s in December, high 70s in April). Lows are in the 50s or 60s (again depending upon the season). As a result, the Antigua region overflows with lush vegetation and flowers. For me, these moderate temperatures are a very welcome respite from the dry air and bitter winter weather of Pennsylvania.

Restaurant in AntiguaI also love Antigua’s restaurants. Antigua is a small town. You can walk from one end to the other in 15 minutes. But small as it is, it’s filled with great restaurants with delicious, affordable food. I’ve probably eaten in at least 70 of them, and there are still many more I haven’t tried yet. One of the nice things about the restaurants is that almost all of them offer al fresco dining. Eating outside is part of Guatemala life. When walking down the streets of Antigua, you’ll be surrounded by colorful walls. But walk into a restaurant and you’ll see what’s behind those walls: beautiful open-air gardens.   In fact, I don’t hesitate to say that even the Antigua McDonald’s is a treasure. The food is the same as any McDonald’s anywhere, but their enclosed garden is spectacular.

Antigua’s enclosed gardens are all over the place, not just in restaurants. Often we don’t get to see them because they are hidden behind high walls painted in bright colors and adorned with flowing plants. But once in a while you’ll catch a glimpse inside one of those walls and be stunned by the beauty hidden away there.

Finally, there’s the Guatemalan people. They are generally happy and very friendly. This makes a stay in Guatemala very pleasant – especially for volunteers, who have extended contact with Guatemalans. And that can be said even more so for those working with children. For example, the children of El Hato are so full of energy and enthusiasm, and so quick with a smile or a joke, that you can’t help but open your heart to them, and all those little First World problems are forgotten.

-Pete McManus

El Hato Preschool