When we suddenly find a flight to Antigua, Guatemala after a last-minute change of travel plans, we’ve got to act fast. In the next 24 hours, we need to find lodging, a list of top sightseeing stops, a few active outings, and a way to get around. We do an obligatory Google exploration and then hit the search bars on the websites of a few blogging friends we seem to remember have been here (thank you, Alison and Don and Nicole!), and in a few short hours, we have a preliminary plan.
We quickly see what we expected to see: the cheerful metal of the chicken buses, the alabaster church fronts, the small Mayan women wrapped in jewel-toned garments and stooped under their loads of street wares. The chock-a-block markets, the volcanoes that loom over the town and stud the countryside. The chocolate, the coffee, the jade.
And then a strange thing happens. We really have no major objectives here; in fact, we have a perfect excuse to just be – we’ve had no time to plan! – to take things in, to let the city in through our eyes and our minds for a few days. We slooowww down, and J patiently lets me stop and photograph things that do not tell a typical kind of travel story.
Writers and readers love whole, substantial things – buildings and shrines, temples and monuments. Histories, records, narratives. The more we amble aimlessly around Antigua, the more I am drawn to its pieces, and the bits that draw me the most are the walls – both the scuffed-up sides of ordinary buildings and the decaying exteriors of the enormous number of ruins in this earthquake-terrorized town.
What draws me so insistently to these panels of imperfection? At home, I like modern architecture and clean lines, sleek surfaces and a dearth of clutter, yet the chipped and faded paint on the crumbling walls pulls me in, as do the hulking structures, half hollowed out, strewn around the town, their deterioration conjuring the past even as they sit among the trappings of modern life.
They please the eye first, a patchwork of color and texture, a random splash of shapes not specifically formed by man. The elements have crafted this art; the rain has faded the reds, the volcanic dirt has darkened the yellows, the brush of body parts and clothing has burnished the blues. Then they begin to work on memory, evoking time gone by both here and everywhere – the rise and fall of civilizations, of peoples and ideas.
Which color came first? Was it the oxidized reds and ochres that appear most frequently? The yellows seem old, too, and so soft, almost as if they were done in colored pencil.
I imagine the whites being added later, maybe the blues also, as later generations cooled the colors down, an attempt to add a little crisp cleanness to the hot, dusty town perhaps.
Paul Cooper, writing in a BBC art and culture article, says “[ruins] are places an observer can get lost, where time slips away.” I feel this happening at the sanctuary of San Francisco, a complex of religious structures outside of the main streets that is without question my favorite place in town.
There is a functioning church here, a faded beauty after multiple earthquakes altered its form over the years, but it’s the gardens around the church where a trance sets in and time does slip away. There are fields of stone rising from the earth, heaving up from the grass and among the palm trees.
Bougainvillea languishes on a shattered stairwell; splintered archways admit huge ovals of sky, and more gaping holes yawn in pitted walls. New green growth sprouts from dirt-filled crevices between stone and brick; I’m transfixed by the apposition of destruction and regrowth.
At a certain point, though, I snap to, and begin to question my infatuation with the decay. Is this like disaster tourism, wanting to exalt for the sake of art and literature what was a horrific time for generations of Guatemalans? Am I imposing a developed world appreciation for those “artistic” mottled walls on the modest city shops when they are really just a result of poverty, a fix that is simply unaffordable?
Cooper comes to my rescue on the first count. “Mankind has always lived among its own ruins. Since our earliest history, we have explored ruined places, feared them and drawn inspiration from them, and we can trace that complex fascination in our art and writing.” I study the pockmarked walls again and decide they have been left this way on purpose, and thankfully so. They are stunning and warm, simple and inviting.
We do hike our volcano, climb up to the cross on a hilltop overlooking the town, stray into a church or two, but for the most part, this stay is all about wandering and wondering for me.
Antigua – so aptly named – is a reminder that we carry the past, both good and bad, with us always. The things we build may not last what the earth throws at them either, but what is left has its own beauty and power. Especially here in Antigua.