Antigua, Guatemala: To Change or Not to Change
“Why can’t I change?” Robert asked between drags on his cigarette. He wasn’t looking for a real answer. It was more of a question to himself. He went on, “I have no strings attached—no girlfriend, no children, no job—I can do whatever I want wherever I want. But I won’t. I know it. I’ll go back to Turkey. I won’t change.” His words carried an underlying hint of sadness, like an addict talking about being clean and admitting it wouldn’t happen. “That’s why I view this trip as a long break, not a radical change. I was raised to have aims and to pursue them. It’s how I am. So I’ll go back to Turkey. My life will be as before.” He paused again and took another drag on his cigarette.
The dim light from the roof-deck bar partially lit his contemplative face. The dozen or so other travelers drinking beers at picnic tables and at the bar nearby were oblivious to our deep conversation. I stood next to Robert. My gaze alternating between his partially lit face, the moon and the tops of the colonial buildings that lined the street. Robert began again, “You know I couldn’t sleep the other night after we spoke about all this stuff. I lied in bed for hours wondering why I was unable to change. I felt so conflicted, so frustrated, like something was wrong with me.” This was our third night hanging out together and the second time we had addressed this issue of change in such detail.
“That’s good,” I interjected, “most people never even realize their inability to change. You’ve already begun the process by recognizing a desire to do so and wondering why you have such a strong resistance to it.” I spoke my words with conviction in an attempt to convince myself of their truth as much as Robert. I too wondered how much I could and was willing to change my life. Robert nodded, “But do you really know anyone who has changed?” He asked. I paused and thought for a moment. “One maybe two,” I said, thinking of my sister Elena’s transformation from girly bartender to hippie medicine woman. “My sister had been accepted to a prominent PhD program in philosophy,” I said, “at the time she was a bartender. Yet despite all the societal pressures to do the ‘right’ thing, she decided academic life was not for her. She walked away and pursued a life living off the land as a hippie. She’s a totally different person.”
“OK, so one, maybe two?” Robert answered with a strained inflection. “And how many people do you know? One thousand? Two out of a thousand is nothing. People don’t change,” his soft Turkish accent rising with emphasis on this final statement. He took yet another puff on his cigarette.
This was my third evening in Antigua and my third evening hanging with Robert. In that time, we had transitioned from travel companions to friends. I, a very recent thirty-three, and he, a soon-to-be thirty-five, were at very similar places in our lives in many ways. From or travel experience to our prior work lives we had much in common. We both enjoyed youthful banter and nights out exploring a city, yet, equally, enjoyed contemplating deeper issues in life, like change. Indeed since our first night hanging out together in Antigua, I too had contemplated the intricacies of change.
On that first night, we had stumbled into the beautiful old colonial town at dusk, meandering her stone streets in search of a hostel. The multitudes of ruins, old churches and picturesque one-story buildings lit up by the dull glow of yellow street lamps. The many cafes and restaurants had a smattering of people inside. The stone streets were also partially populated, while the main square was filled with a nighttime buzz. As we walked, using the map on my phone as our guide, we came upon a large procession of hundreds of locals all well dressed entirely in black. In the midst of the procession, a large shrine was being carried by a couple dozen people while those who watched shook silver containers filled with incense or lined the streets with ornate decorations of flowers and rice. This smoky incense-laden surroundings set the mood for our arrival.
That evening, after checking into our hostel and having a meal of typical Guatemalan food, we found ourselves at a bar called Café No Se. It was dimly lit and had the feeling of an old American speakeasy from the twenties. Inside there were three distinct bars. The one in the back, which had a tiny four-foot entrance, was a mescal bar. Robert and I ducked our heads under the short doorway and emerged in a candle-lit den with a small bar and strange decoration. I ordered us a round of mescal and two beers before beginning to speak with the bartender. Within a couple of minutes, I discovered that my favorite bar in Austin, Bar Ilegal, was modeled after this exact mescal bar. In fact, not only did Bar Ilegal carry the same mescal (Ilegal Mescal), but the bar tender I was speaking with was originally charged with going to Austin to train the bartenders there before a visa issue precluded him from doing so. Robert and I would spend our entire evening within the tiny confines of the candle-lit room drinking mescal and Victoria beers and discussing change. The concept of true change and the possibility to live it dominated our conversation. And since that evening, we had both continued to contemplate this issue.
During my time in Antigua, I counted the numerous tiny ways I had hanged in the last year. I could now speak some Spanish, whereas three months before I knew not a word. I was now able to surf, albeit not well, but I could manage. I had gained more than a modicum of patience during my time on the road and I now felt more confident engaging strangers in conversations than ever before. Yet none of these differences seemed to answer my question. Had I really changed? I thought. And would I? The changes I came up with were all good, yet they appeared superficial when written on paper. Was I only on a long break, too? Like Robert, would I go back to the same life and same type of job I had left behind in the U.S.? The more I contemplated change the more questions I had than answers. I knew in many ways I was different, but in many ways I was still the same. Moreover, whenever I thought of radical change—not going back to law, moving away from Austin, pursuing a life based solely on happiness and not money, walking away from “success” as defined by society—a tiny voice in my head would dismiss these ideas as crazy. And so I continued to contemplate my ability to truly change as the days in Antigua moved forward.
And what great days they were. Antigua was the most picturesque colonial town I had ever seen. Stone streets and sidewalks lined by small one or two-story colonial buildings of deep reds, worn yellows and oranges and the occasional pastel blue. The people were friendly and the city center, which held a large square park across from the main church, was vibrant during all hours of the day. Furthermore, seemingly every doorway in the town led to a café, a bar, a restaurant, an artisan shop or some other trendy establishment. It was so nice and well-kept it almost had the feel of a museum of a city rather than an actual city.
I would spend three of my days learning Spanish from a middle-aged, heavy-set Guatemalan woman named Paula. Six hours a day I would spend with her, no English spoken. It was one of the most demanding endeavors I had ever undertaken. But it was endlessly rewarding. I did not understand everything she said, but I understood most and learned many new words, phrases, tenses and grammar rules along the way. Plus it forced me to speak Spanish for six hours a day and gave me a confidence in speaking that I had lacked up until that point. We spoke about Guatemalan politics, the political structure of the country, a scandal involving the ex President and about lawyers in the country. We discussed how Wal-Mart was a high-end store in Guatemala and how indigenous people in the country were discriminated against. We even touched on crime and corruption in the country.
Paula held the first class in a small classroom on the second floor of an old, small two-story building that had been turned into a school. Our next two days were in a beautiful garden on the outskirts of town. We would sit at a table facing each other surrounded by banana trees, coffee plants, avocado trees and so much more, while Spanish flowed from my lips and gently settled in my ears.
Each night after class, I would meet Robert and we would continue to speak Spanish. Indeed Robert had made it a rule that we could only speak in Spanish and he stuck to it. After seven-plus months in Latin America he was nearly fluent and as a good friend he was willing to tolerate my Spanish struggles as opposed to communicating freely in English. During these evenings, Robert would force me to order and speak to wait staff and bar tenders in Spanish. He was always there with a quick correction or a well-thought-out translation. And, as a result, I navigated and discovered the beautiful city of Antigua in Spanish. On our second evening, we sat down for a drink with a couple from Spain, who spoke very little English. When I realized I was following the conversation and understanding what was being said, my eyes grew wide with amazement. I was learning. In a way, I was changing.
Antigua was the perfect place for me in many ways. I would spend my evenings with Robert, speaking in Spanish before contemplating life and change in English. I would spend my mornings and part of my afternoons with Paula learning and speaking Spanish. I would spend my lunch break trying out my Spanish skills as I searched for typical Guatemalan eats or visited the market. At all other times, I would simply walk around the rectangular center of Antigua passively taking in the simple colonial beauty of the place.
But despite my love of Antigua, my desire for change would keep me moving. After our third evening in town and our discussion about change on the roof-top terrace, Robert would leave Antigua for Lake Atitlan. I would stay behind to finish my final Spanish class, before meeting him there. My final evening, without Robert, I walked for hours around the center. I even tried to force myself to think in only Spanish. Eventually, when my feet had grown tired, I sat at a bench in the middle of the large central square near the main fountain. I pulled out a book and began to read. Soon a Guatemalan man sat next to me. He began to speak to me, asking me if I spoke Spanish. I did, I said.
For the next ten minutes we would discuss the plight of this man—he had lost his construction job and had spent the past few weeks searching for work, without any luck. He told me about his wife and three children who were at home and going without food. I knew this story would end with him asking me for money. But I was fine with that. I told him that my father had recently lost his job as well. I told him that I knew the economic situation in Guatemala was bad and that it was, in fact, bad in much of the world. After a few more exchanges, the man asked if I could help him. I gave him three dollars. He thanked me for my aid and apologized multiple times for interrupting. I told him it was fine. As he walked off, I felt a moment of pride in my ability to navigate a conversation entirely in Spanish.
Fresh off my Spanish conversation in the square, I got up from the bench and went in search of food. The next day I’d head out to the lake to meet Robert. There would certainly be more conversations about change and life when we reunited. I still didn’t know if I was capable of change. I still didn’t know if I believed everything I said to Robert that night on the terrace. But in this moment I was okay with the unknown. I was happy that I’d changed how I could speak—I’d just had a conversation in Spanish. It may have been a little change, but what is the ocean but a seemingly infinite number of single molecules of water. With each tiny change, no matter how superficial they felt, I could become a different person. I just needed to be open to it. And no matter how much Robert and I searched for the true meaning of change, we wouldn’t find it. It was up to us to put whatever meaning we wanted into whatever changes we could make.