There's too much ground to cover in one somewhat-rushed blog post from a cafe in Antigua, but I'll try my best. Thus, my apologies for the choppy writing to follow. It's been one incredible week. I've relearned my favorite lesson: you're never actually alone when you travel solo.
After arriving late on Saturday evening, I took stock of my surroundings in a very dark and never quiet Antigua and settled into bed, with tuk tuks and chicken busses whizzing past my window until dawn. Sunday was a pretty standard day of acclimation, snapping photos and tasting the local fare of pupusas, fresh juices, mixed plates of beans, rice, meat and plantains.... and crepes. For some reason, the people of Antigua love themselves some Nutella crepes. And who can blame them?
The city itself is a mix of so many things. It sits in the valley of two gorgeous (and active) volcanoes whose summits are intermittently blocked by clouds, creating sunsets that pop with pastel color and cool breezes that drift down from high above. The buildings are brightly colored and the streets are made of cobblestone, with a steady mix of transportation options to avoid being run over by. It reminds me of a smaller, hotter, more colorful version of Madrid, minus some of the more ornate features. I've been continuously told how cold it is here, to which my usual reply is "you haven't been to Boston in February." While most wear mittens, coats and scarves at night, this native New Englander skips about in flip flops, tank tops and jeans. With a pashmina for good measure.
I'd blindly booked (as I tend to do) an all-inclusive surfing trip to El Salvador, but the day before I was to depart, the plans changed. Apparently the situation in El Salvador is not ideal for travel right now (although I urge you not to listen to what ignorant people tell you about places they've never been) so I was scooped up by a van on its way to El Paredon, Guatemala instead. I've never been more thankful for a change in plans. Sometimes having no control of a situation leads us to the very thing we need to receive. In my case, it was five days of sunshine, surf (sort of), black sands, tequila, and a diverse group of new friends. When there are "friendship shots" on the menu, you hardly have a choice.
El Paredon is worthy of its own feature, which will be written as soon as I get back to Boston, but let's just say it's a place that steals a little piece of your heart when you're not looking. Just two hours from Antigua, this 12km strip of Pacific coastline is practically desolate. Three surf camps sit on its shoreline, with exquisite views of the ocean and the hottest sand your feet have ever touched. You can watch the sun rise and set on the same plane. That's how expansive the strip of beach is. Yet hardly anyone occupies it.
Those who have been know that won't be the case for long. The land is being bought up at lightning speed as the community braces itself for an onslaught of surfing tourism. When you venture outside the camps into town, you'll find the warmest, kindest, most hard-working people you can hope to meet, offering meals, tours and smiles from their modest homes. They seem shocked but pleased to have visitors wandering their sandy streets, which is a nice change of pace from stray dogs. At one locale, you can walk to a woman's house in the morning and pre-order ceviche from the afternoon's catch. At another, a man built a clay oven in his back yard to cook some of the best pizza I've ever had.
Over at The Driftwood Surfer, things were far less quiet. At any given time, about 30-35 of us were lounging there. Folks drifted in and out of the water and the one shuttle that runs from Antigua to El Paredon each day. You never knew who you were going to meet or where they were going to be from, though odds were you'd be finding out over a "friendship shot" later that evening. There will be much more on El Paredon in the future, so I'll save the details and photos for then, but I came away from the experience with a solid group of friends from Australia, Norway, Britain, France, Nicaragua and America, and we departed on Friday with sunburns and liver damage to head back to Antigua.
Last night, most of the group started on the next leg of their Central American journey to El Tunco, a black sand surfing beach in El Salvador. I was uncomfortably close to hopping onto the same bus, canceling my flight home and carrying on blindly. But I thought better of it for now. In chatting with so many folks who are traveling extensively, I've realized it pains me to not be doing it. It's going to take some saving, some sacrificing and some perseverance, but I know I'll make it happen. Next time without a return ticket.
Which brings me to today. Today was a depressing day. Those who are traveling onward moved on, and I find myself sitting in Antigua wondering what's next for me. Try as I may, I can't stop pondering how to make my experiences last longer. How do I hold them in a box and keep them forever? Where's the nearest time machine? I guess that's the thing about travel, isn't it? It's not real life. It's fleeting. Which is what makes it so precious. Everyone eventually has to move on.
I was fortunate enough to meet a kindred spirit just when I needed her this morning. Terry is the owner of Revue Magazine, an English-speaking Guatemalan magazine with stellar circulation and 25 years worth of publication. On top of that, she and her husband own and operate an animal sanctuary in the mountains that overlook Antigua. They moved to Guatemala after extensive travel through Central America in the nineties and built a beautiful green house in its center. Surrounded by avocado trees, flowers and massive aloe vera plants, it's the perfect place for abandoned dogs and cats to rehabilitate and receive the unconditional love she and her staff dole out on a daily basis.
When I came to her with a heavy heart about my next steps (and coming to terms with the reality of my looming unemployment), she gave me one of the best pieces of advice I've ever received: "When people tell you you're crazy, you're onto something."
Terry is a walking example of what it means to live your passion. She refused to play by a specific set of rules in life, instead writing a list of all the things she wanted and watching as they slowly came to be. A few tears welled up when she told me about the horse she dreamed of since childhood. At the age of ten, she put soap and water in a jar in her bedroom closet and told her parents when she awoke it would be a horse. She had no doubts about it. It was her certain belief. Much to her dismay, however, the dish detergent didn't morph into a stallion over night. And it would be years before her dream yielded results. But last year she acquired her beloved horse Rosie, completing one of the final piece in the puzzle that created her ideal life. The one she trusted the timing of and the list that made it into a reality.
After some good Guatemalan coffee, a tour of the sanctuary and the chance to play with a thousand dogs and cats, Terry sent me on my way back down to town, not before handing me a special rock to keep in my pocket. It's heart-shaped (coincidence? I think not) and sienna with light beige spots and a smooth surface. She told me to hold it when I feel myself spiraling, as a silent reminder that what I'm doing is right, even if I can't quite see it yet. I just have to feel it.
Tomorrow I'm off to Lake Atitlan, where I'll meet even more people who were put on my path to help illuminate the way.
But first I have a very important list to write. And I hope you'll do the same.