I was glad that I had insisted on keeping my window seat from the Argentine woman who had tried to usurp it. Flying into Guatemala was spectacular as one volcano after another plunged upwards through the clouds. Settled into my hostel, I began to explore Antigua. A huge volcanic cone on the edge of town made orientation easy and I wandered the city looking at one destroyed church after another. Walls a meter thick lied in ruin. The Spanish had eventually given up and moved their capital elsewhere. If you live in place of frequent earthquakes, building ever-thicker walls will not save you.
Scribbling out a postcard to my parents in Hawaii, I quipped that the Spaniards had been punished for worshipping Jesus when they should have been worshipping Pele. Then I began to wonder why the pantheon of Mayan gods that I’d read about did not include a Volcano God. Who knows? On to the next ruined convent.
Two men were there to take admission. One of them was unusually large, lumbering, possibly slightly disabled. He seemed to have a little bit of a speech impediment, or at least that was my excuse for the fact that I understood almost none of his Spanish. To my dismay, he began escorting me through the ruined convent, apparently having appointed himself my personal tour guide. This was annoying for several reasons. First of all it is not by accident that I was traveling alone. I liked to visit sights solo and ponder the past in solitude. Secondly, the information he was spouting may have been interesting, but I couldn’t make out a word of it. And of course, I would be expected to tip.
By the time we reached the end of the tour, I had rationalized giving him the money. They had given me the student discount when I paid to enter even though I was not a student. The money I would give him now would make up the difference. I wasn’t sure if I was I contributing to corruption or doing a good thing by putting money directly into the hands of someone who needed it, but I told myself it was the latter. How many work opportunities were there for a disabled man in Guatemala?
Finally, left alone, I began to re-tour the convent, enjoying colors in the garden, studying the thickness of the walls, descending into the cool, underground chambers. As I emerged from one these subterranean rooms a kid (about 8 years old) approached me. “Puedes bajar,” he said. “You can go down.” Or was it, “Can you go down?” Feeling defensive of my quetzals and my personal space, I assumed that he was trying to latch on as a tour guide as well. I told him firmly that I had already seen the underground room, as well as the rest of the convent, but that he was welcome to proceed down the stairs. “No,” he said shivering. “Not alone.”
I had gotten it all wrong. He wasn’t after my money at all. His parents had tired of paying to see ruin after ruin, that were admittedly similar. They had sent him in with the digital camera to see if this convent was worth visiting. And he was afraid to go down into the dark, underground rooms alone.
So I began to make the circuit a third time, going with him into all the creepy corners, and doing my best to tell him the things I thought my previous tour guide had told me. I laughed at myself for being suspicious and hoped that I would remember the lesson of the ruined convent of Antigua. Some things you can count on. Nature usually wins out and people are usually good.Published in