Three volcanoes strike Antigua’s skyline with their pointy tips, grand bodies set starkly against the blue. Tall green peaks envelope the town, but in the streets the colors are red and yellow, taking turns. If a house is yellow, its neighbor is red, and they go down the block like that, a bright white or a thick blue coming into the mix on occasion. A vibrant settlement with paved streets, ghostly church ruins, and preserved colonial style, Antigua is the country’s most visited destination, equipped to accommodate the daily infusion of tourists.
By the end of the first cup, I learn that she has 5 children waiting for her at home, and a sixth growing in her belly. Her oldest daughter, born when Elena was fifteen, watches over the rest of the children, including her own babies. The fathers aren’t in the family portrait. “When the new baby comes, la dueña will give me two weeks off,” Elena says. Otherwise, the only keeper at the hotel, she works twelve-hour days, six days a week. The monthly reward is 800 quetzales–a hundred dollars– a striking mismatch in a town where the price of living is determined by those who make living in dollars.
Not to say that there aren’t spiritually aware and generous proprietors in the village. They organize responsible travel, green volunteering, and programs with the kids, only some of great activities in San Marcos. But up in the hilly, tall parts where the villagers have been slowly entirely pushed to, there is no more room to grow crops; only the coffee bush grows everywhere and a few streaks of corn. The villagers have to buy most of their food, something they had never had to do in the past. And once again, the native peoples of peaceful and pristine lands have been hired by newcomers– building their houses and hotels, selling them bananas, taking them across the lakes in boats an canoes, a disturbing replica of the colonial times.
The dynamics of buyer-and-seller, of entitled ones and those who serve them, has permeated the social life, the conversations between guests and locals; it sets the tone. Money is like one of the elements: it shows up in everything. Both grandmothers and kids offer themselves as guides, pose for pictures, and they know their price well.
|In the hills of the village of San Marcos|
“I thought we’re friends,” I offer with a touch of offense, “What’s with you all? Everyone asking money. Isn’t there friendship?”
They look embarrassed for a moment, consult each other in Kaqchikel, the oldest one insists on something, then she turns to me: “What is your name?” I tell her. “It's fine, you can take a picture,” she says, and they assemble quietly for a priceless shot.