Solana Travel Writing, Spring 2021
Outside our room there’s a small courtyard with a weathered spiral staircase leading to the roof. I tell my friend I’ll be right back, knowing she won’t like the looks of the staircase, or the fact that there are no railings on the roof, or that it’s nighttime and it just rained. That last concern is probably fair. “Rain” isn’t the best word to describe what happens in Antigua. “Deluge” or “flood” might be better descriptors. Either way, everything is drenched and there are puddles everywhere.
I survive my climb up the stairs. It’s made for someone smaller than me so it’s hard to make it up without hitting my head, but it isn’t too slippery. I walk along the roof, hoping to see the mountain range where Acatenango and Fuego should be. It’s nighttime so there isn’t much to see, but I stare out into the darkness anyway.
I must be imagining things. Lightning flashes again. The top of Fuego is exactly where the red splattered out of. Suddenly a cracking sound reaches my ears. It sounds like fireworks, but more vicious, as if rocks were being torn apart. The roof shakes beneath my feet.
I return to my room and tell my friend about it. Cris didn’t feel anything, but says that she’s worried since the shaking could have been stronger and I could have fallen off. It’s a good point. I change the topic and we head to bed.
Our reservation includes breakfast, so the next morning we sit at a table in the courtyard and wait for the food to be ready. Long vines with brilliant red and yellow flowers pour down from the edges of the roof to tuck the tables in and away from the rain. Soon after our food is ready the bees arrive to feast on the flowers and our food. So much for a peaceful breakfast.
Later that morning we arrive at language school and I am shown where I will sit with my instructor for the next month. I’m near a balcony that has a view of Acatenango and Fuego. About every fifteen minutes, Fuego belches gray smoke into the air and I get distracted. My teacher smiles. She’s Guatemalan and has lived in Antigua her whole life; Fuego’s interruptions are normal for her.
After a couple hours of class, we are dismissed to the roof for a break featuring coffee and cookies. There are a couple benches with a clear view of the volcanoes. Cris and I bask in the sun, mesmerized by the eruptions, and are late to our next class.
After school ends we walk back across town to our temporary home. Our feet are sore by the end of the walk. The cobblestone streets here are old and have been mangled by time and the continual shifting of the tectonic plates. Her feet are worse off than mine. We’ll need to go find new shoes soon.
By the second week I am starting to get accustomed to the constant eruptions, lighting storms, and pounding rain on our roof. I’m not surprised by it, but I still stop to watch and listen. A lot of the time it rains so hard that we have no choice but to wait. Sometimes we’re walking home and have to wait in a storefront, or sometimes we’re just in the room and the sound of thunder and rain is so loud that we can’t read, watch Netflix, or even talk. So instead we listen and wait.
The volcano’s eruptions still hold my attention and the tectonic vibrations always give me pause. At this point I’m almost able to discern the source of the vibrations that travel through the city’s ancient walls and cobblestone streets. Sometimes it’s the volcanoes. More often it’s just a large truck.
As we near the end of our month in Antigua, we start making a habit of eating at Doña Luisa Xicotencatl’s bakery. We didn’t do the best job of budgeting and Doña Luisa’s lunch special is a good deal, plus it includes unlimited coffee. We usually sit on the second floor near the window. The bakery looks out towards the towering Volcan de Agua. Most days Agua’s immense presence in the window holds us in quiet attention for the whole meal.
By this point we’ve settled into the rhythms of the city: the weather, the noises, even the volcano’s eruptions. Here the world seems to speak and it’s had a quieting effect on us. We can’t forget its presence. It always interrupts, reminding us that it’s alive. Thankfully it doesn’t ask too much of us. Just that we begin to notice and acknowledge it. That we pause for a moment and appreciate the gift it offers.
I begin to understand the smile my Spanish tutor has when I get distracted by the volcano or the rain. She never rushes to bring me back to the lesson. In that moment there’s something to be enjoyed. To be experienced. A gift to receive.
At home in San Diego it’s easy to start believing that I am at the center of the universe and can control everything. Even on the two, maybe three, days of the year when the weather isn’t perfect, I can always hide out in my room or escape the elements by finding respite in my car.
And yet, despite all the control that I feel I have in San Diego, I don’t often feel grounded. To be honest, most of the time I feel overwhelmed and anxious.
But Antigua interrupted me and pulled me out of myself. It reminded me that I was not responsible for keeping the universe together, and that that is actually a good thing. It reminded me that the bigger-than-us presence that sustains life does not depend on us, and it can’t be found solely contained within me.
Antigua made me acknowledge that we live and move and have our being in a Being, a Being that transcends all boundaries and interconnects and sustains all things. And when we are interrupted, and invited to step outside of ourselves and participate in something bigger and beyond us, that is when we begin to flourish.
We don’t have to accept the gift that life offers, and I have spent much of my life declining it. I saw the world as something to be controlled, but in actuality it’s something to participate in and with. And it’s in that participation that we’re able to start to really reflect on what truly matters.
On the questions that have followed humans for generations. Who are we? Why are we here? Are we alone? And it’s in that togetherness that we can start to get a glimpse of what we all crave and strive for: goodness, truth, and beauty.
Thank you Antigua, for your blessed interruptions.
Mark Bunnell is an aspiring writer currently living in San Diego, California. Mark enjoys reading, learning new languages, and exploring new places as much as possible. Most afternoons you can find Mark enjoying the San Diego sun on a walk with the dog or at the beach.