Antigua is my happy place. The imposing and picturesque volcanoes are alluring. They allow me to appreciate the power of nature, de la tierra. The climate is always moderate, so much so that they call it the land of eternal spring. The people are warm and accepting, always willing to help each other, and you, if you need it. The streets are cobbled and ruins are scattered hauntingly everywhere. People come from all over the world so it feels like an international hub where a café chat can take you on a journey towards deeper understanding. It’s a place of connection. It feels like me – worn, wise, charming, bright, and always open to the possibilities.
And although I only make it here every 6-7 years, it calls out to me at unexpected times almost as if it’s calling me home. This time, I hadn’t planned to come. My fingers just started clicking on the keyboard and before I knew it, less than an hour later, I had booked a flight. I hadn’t even told my family. I hadn’t checked to see if my host family that I typically stay with had space for me (they didn’t). And I didn’t have much money to splurge because my summer classes got dropped. No me importa. As soon as I booked the ticket, there was a settling in my soul. I felt at peace and was ecstatic about the possibility of getting there again, in mere days.
Truly, I just wanted a space to be. That’s it. No big agenda to write the next great American novel. No itinerary to do yoga in San Marcos. I just wanted no-thing. No responsibilities. No distractions. No mierda. I just felt the need to be. Still. To live simply and off the grid. I’m a firm believer in manifesting what I want. I don’t believe in complaining about anything unless I’m willing to change it and I’m well aware that the only one who can bring me back to myself is me, so I did what I needed to do in order to recalibrate. See, I’d had a long, grueling academic year and was exhausted – mind, body, and spirit. The year had been filled with new developments, big and small challenges, relentless grading, several successes, and a little growth. It was a good year, but an emotionally challenging one that often brought me home feeling haggard and disjointed. I was ready to recharge and do for me and me alone, guided by nothing but the moment.
So that night, I packed a tiny overnight suitcase and less than two weeks later, I boarded a plane to paradise. I was greeted at the airport by a handsome and familiar face that had grown up way too soon and he whisked me away to Antigua. The first day, I settled into an AirBnB that I intentionally chose outside of central Antigua because my spirit needed silence. I was running away from noise, the clamor of constant movement, the squeaks of external expectations and the grunts of over-stimulation. And I had finally reached nirvana. The home was a lovely two-floor hideaway complete with a meditation room, garden, koi pond, Guatemalan sauna, mini library, and rooftop deck with unobstructed views of Agua, Fuego and Acatenango. As luck would have it, I even got the entire home to myself for a mere $315 for 14 days. Yes, I had hit the jackpot and I couldn’t wait to bask in the lujo of it all.
The next day, I decided to walk to town (40 minutes away) to re-acclimate myself and grab some groceries. I’d taken a few snapshots and had a few “oh, I remember this street” moments before I decided to go to one of my favorite little spots, Café Condesa. While taking in a modest breakfast of an over easy egg, black beans and a single panqueque in the patio area, I was asked to move inside because it was about to rain. I happily obliged and settled for watching the flitting hummingbirds from a distance. It’s the rainy season (with a forecast of rain each day I was scheduled to be there), so I just figured my luck for the day had run out. I finished eating and stepped outside where there were dozens of people standing under the terrace. As I was stepping into the street, I saw the same sweet face, Leo, who had picked me up from the airport and he told me to stay put because of the “rain.” He told me, “Tinita, look closely.”
I noticed that it was raining something that looked like mud drops. It quickly covered cars as those driving in it tried fruitlessly to clear the sludge from their windshields. He told me it was ash from Fuego. I was in amazement at what I was witnessing and my friend told me that it happens occasionally and that we just needed to wait it out. We were none the wiser. None of us in central Antigua had any idea of the destruction that was occurring at that very moment, as there is no alert system in place for these types of catastrophes. We thought it would be like the other minor eruptions that blew ceniza, arena or polvo all over the place. See, Volcán de Fuego is an active volcano and is one of the beautiful attractions of Antigua. There are 37 volcanoes in Guatemala and three are active at this time (Pacaya which I climbed in 2004 and Santiaguito). I chose a home with a rooftop deck just so that I could see that mesmerizing lava snaking down the side of Fuego in the evenings when all is calm and dark. That wasn’t the scene this time.
News reports later revealed that this was pyroclastic lava spewing hundreds of feet in the air and careening downwards between 30 and 90 miles per hour, demolishing everything in its path. Unwittingly, I’d found myself bearing witness to a catastrophic natural and national disaster that would take many lives and disrupt the lives of many others. What I saw was citizens and tourists taking immediate action once they realized the tragedy at hand. The grocery stores and streets of Antigua were filled with people buying and donating goods to support those in urgent need. Firefighters stood in roadways soliciting donations in between saving lives. Rusted pick-up trucks carried volunteers and supplies to and from the sites of tragedy.
Fortunately, the eruption didn’t have the same tragic impact where I was staying. Outside of lots of clean up, as there was ash everywhere, and the fear of breathing in ash or it getting into our eyes (most wore masks), we were quite safe in Antigua which is about 9-10 miles away from Fuego. Those living in places near the base of Fuego such as Alotenango, El Rodeo, and San Miguel los Lotes were heavily impacted and that’s where the majority of the casualties were. The news reported that Antigua was the place of the destruction because as one of the biggest tourist hubs, it has name recognition. That’s why I got dozens of frantic calls and texts from concerned family and friends asking if I was safe. I was. I still am. I’m not a martyr nor an adrenaline junkie, so if I felt unsafe, I’d leave. And so I remain.
There’s a saying about how life is what happens when you have other plans. My plan was to have an uneventful, insulated time in Antigua, but this event has taught me some valuable lessons.
- I can’t run away from external stressors. They will find me anyway. So instead of running to an imaginary sanctuary, my focus has to be on developing better emotional responses to my stressors. I feel things and people deeply and this has always been my gift and my curse. I need to work to care while simultaneously detaching, putting down baggage that isn’t mine and managing the baggage that is. And thank you to my dear friend Tory and sage Pema Chödrön who helped me to arrive at this revelation. My sanctuary has to be internal, starting with my mind and spirit, then my fantastic support system of family and friends. I am blessed to have the type of top to bottom support that I do.
- No matter where I am on God’s green earth, I am connected to community and with that comes responsibility. People checked on me and I them. We worked together to do our part in making things better on the ground. There were no heroes, there was no centering of the self involved. It was about prayer, direct action and service to others, to our global family. We are one.
- Being sola is still really, really good for me. I’m a loud ass introvert, though most of y’all still don’t believe it and I need time to myself, my thoughts. I love going days without having to talk or exchange energy or explain or silence myself due to the fragility of others or share my space. The quiet time, this alone time, is restorative in a way that cleanses me and makes me feel very much alive and free.
- Destruction and profound beauty can co-exist. I wanted to get away from the U.S. for awhile. The energy of the nation had me sad, anxious, angry, and spent often. Well, I hopped from one type of destructive setting (under Trump obviously) to a natural disaster. And through it, there was still tremendous beauty, love, light, and joy to be found. This holds true as well in my own home of America, if I allow it. While I fight for justice or fight battles at work, I can take all the time I need to revel in the beauty of life, shifting the energy to be one of love and light simply because I exist. I must tap into my power much more frequently.
- No place is perfect. Paradise is an illusion. Life is what you make it, no matter where you are or who you are, so make that shit count. Every day. Live.
If you’d like to donate funds to support those impacted by the eruption of Volcán de Fuego, a trusted friend’s partner is coordinating efforts in Antigua. Click the link:
A la buena vida, Tina