Monthly Archives: May 2017

La Antigua Guatemala

I recently had the good fortune to spend three weeks in La Antigua Guatemala, improving my Spanish.

Despite the length of my stay, I got out only twice with my camera. On both occasions, shooting conditions were far from idea, as the sun was high in the sky and, because the streets of the city are cramped, with narrow sidewalks, it proved impossible to use a tripod.

So, I was reduced to hand-holding my camera and shooting in harsh daylight. These are possibly the worst conditions for image-making but, then again, Antigua is such a picturesque town that it is difficult to take a bad picture of it under any conditions.

The city was founded by the Spaniards in 1521 and underwent numerous catastrophes over the ensuing centuries, including fires, avalanches earthquakes, of course, volcanic eruptions.

The “of course” is appropriate due to the fact the Antigua is ringed by three volcanoes: Volcan de Fuego, Volcan de Agua and Pacaya.

The nearest, Volcan de Agua (lead image), stands on the very edge of the town, towers over everyone and is visible no matter where you happen to be standing in the town.

For those of us who do not live in volcanic regions, it really is an unnerving experience to step out into the street in the morning, look around and see this huge, smoking volcano towering over your head. It’s an ominous, ever-present reminder of one’s mortality and I found that my behaviour changed as a result of living in its shadow. I was having more fun, talking more – and more kindly – to strangers, due to the knowledge that the smoking giant on the edge of town might capriciously obliterate all of us at any second.

The overall impressions I took away from Antigua were twofold: poverty and religion.

The poverty was overpowering and omnipresent. One can see it in everything from the old women who spend their days walking the streets, trying to sell a few meagre possessions – fruit and vegetables, toothbrushes, packs of chewing gum – from the heavily-laden baskets that they carry on their heads, to the women who sit in every doorway, trying to force brightly-coloured fabrics unto passing tourists. Most days, I would buy some fruit, pay the woman twice the asking price for it, then hand it straight back to her, in hopes that she could sell it again later and make a little extra money.

The Spaniards brought the religion with them to the Americas, of course, and, although I have read several reports of the Catholic Church losing ground in Latin America to the Pentecostals and other, newer religions, in Antigua at least, the grip of the Catholic Church remains tight, even five hundred years later.

The dependence of the Antiguans on the church is evident in the fact that, at all hours of the day, the city’s many churches are busy with despondent-looking people prostrating themselves in front of altars, lighting candles, touching the hems of garments draped over statues of various saints or, like the lady in the penultimate image, sitting outside confessionals abjectly apologizing for whatever sin they think they’ve committed.

As for the relationship between Antiguans’ persistent poverty and their devotion to the Catholic Church, now that’s a subject I’d be interested in exploring.

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