Las Antorchas de Independencia

Last Friday was a day of celebration here in Guatemala. Not only was it Kiara’s seventh birthday, which we celebrated with a piñata and cake at our language school, it was also the day that Guatemalans celebrate their independence from colonial rule with the Recorrido de las Antorchas de Independencia (Tour of the Freedom Torches).

I have to confess that my knowledge of Central American history was, and remains, very limited (something I’m excited to change over the next 2.5 years). I did not know, for example, that all five original Central American countries celebrate the same Independence Day (September 15th); nor did I know in what century -never mind what specific year- Central America won its independence from Spain (1821). It was such a joy, then, to learn about and celebrate this history alongside Guatemalans last weekend.

Guatemalan Flag

Guatemalan Flag

Quick history lesson: In 1821, the leaders of the Kingdom of Guatemala (which was composed of modern-day Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and southern Mexico) declared independence from Spanish colonial rule. Two years later, all of those countries except Mexico came together to form the United Provinces of Central America. Although the nation of Central America did not last even 20 years before splintering into five separate countries, the citizens of those five countries share a sense of pride and joy in their common history of independence.

One of the ways in which Central Americans commemorate their Independence Day is through the running of the torches. All across Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, groups get together to light a torch and run with it from city to city. The torch represents freedom, and people run with it from city to city because that’s just how the news of independence was spread!

Early in the afternoon last Friday (after Kiara and Adelina had thoroughly demolished their unicorn piñata and stuffed themselves with chocolate cake), our family of four joined a large antorcha group from our language school. None of us knew exactly what we had signed up for (I didn’t even realize that we would actually be running until I saw everybody in athletic clothes), but we were excited nonetheless. The energy level when we boarded the language school bus was amazing, and our group of Canadians, Americans, Guatemalans, and one Kiwi sang and danced all the way to our destination: Parramos, a small village 13 km away, high in the verdant mountains that surround Antigua.

There, we lit our torch and ran!

Antorcha 3

Our Finca del Niño family in Parramos

As we wound our way steadily down the mountain, we passed by coffee plantations and villages of cement and tin homes. Villagers crowded outside to cheer us on and – as part of the fun – to throw buckets and baggies of water at us. At one point, Kiara expressed disappointment that people seemed to be specifically trying not to hit her, which, given Guatemalans’ love for children, was almost certainly true. (We finally asked someone from our language school to throw some water at her, just so that she could enjoy the full experience.)

Our bus followed behind our running group, and we could hop on and off for a rest as needed. Kiara and Adelina, always thrilled to do something that would never be allowed in the U.S., were particularly delighted to jump on and off the moving bus. We didn’t spend very much time on the bus, though: Kiara impressed everybody by running nearly all 13 km, and Adelina ran at least half.

Running with the antorchas de independencia was absolutely one of the coolest cultural events I’ve ever experienced. For Kiara, it was an extra-special way to celebrate her seventh birthday. For all of us, it was a fun, energizing, unique adventure that we will never forget!

¡Feliz Día de Independencia!

Antorcha 4

Our family on the run. Note: it takes a crazy international adventure for me to smile like this while running!

Un Paseo por Antigua (A Walk through Antigua)

Eric and the girls are in language school, but I have the morning off so I’m going to do some shopping. My destination is La Bodegona, the only supermercado in Antigua. It’s located on the other side of the city, but Antigua is quite small so it should only take me 15 minutes to walk there.

I exit our AirBnB’s front door and cross a small courtyard to an orange metal door. Eric and I chose this AirBnB because it was reasonably-priced and appeared, from an online map of Antigua, to be close to our language school. As a matter of fact, this particular casita is actually attached to our language school. Passing through the orange door, then, I walk right by Kiara, hard at work studying Spanish with her teacher. I see Eric and Adelina with their teachers as well, but I hurry past, lest Adelina see me and become distracted.

Cobblestone Street

Cobblestone street in Antigua

Outside, I cross a one-way cobblestone street, careful to time my crossing with a break in the stream of cars, motorcycles, and tuk tuks that traverse the city. Since there are no crosswalks, it’s best to dart across the street mid-block; that way, the vehicles are only coming from one direction. If this were a family outing, Eric and I would insist on holding the girls’ hands and keeping ourselves in between them and the traffic. Alone, I’m able to move more quickly through the city.

Antigua, the one-time capital of Guatemala, is built on a grid so – calle por calle (street by street) – I make my way steadily northwest. I pass by Iglesia San Pedro, where Eric and I attend Mass on Sundays. Although Kiara and Adelina understand very little Spanish, they do a good job of sitting still during Mass, enticed as they are by the promise of earning helado (ice cream) in exchange for good behavior. (Eric and I are not above parental bribery.)

Iglesia San Pedro

Iglesia San Pedro

Attached to the church is a hospital where physicians (mostly from Canada and the U.S.) volunteer their time with clinics and surgeries. The public hospitals have all been closed since before we arrived, the doctors and nurses on strike due to poor conditions in the hospitals. Antigua is a thriving, bustling city with every amenity we could want (WiFi, hot water, a sports pub for Eric to watch Notre Dame beat Michigan), but the reality of Guatemalan poverty is never very far.

Walking through the Parque Central, I make an easy target for the many indigenous peddlers vending their goods. They sell everything from drinking water in plastic baggies to Guatemalan instruments to selfie sticks. Women, dressed in gorgeous bright traditional clothes, show me woven bags and purses while swaying their babies in colorful slings. I smile broadly, but I’m firm: “No, gracias. No hoy.” (No, thank you. Not today.) Eric and I try to buy from these peddlers whenever we can. We see them carrying their heavy loads, often from villages miles away, working tirelessly to eke out a living in a country where nearly 60% of people live in poverty. If I want to buy a pelota (ball) for the girls, I might as well buy it from the man carrying dozens of them on his back.


Vendors in the Parque Central – I bought the rainbow shawl

In the distance, the Volcán Pacaya looms large, one of several volcanos visible from Antigua. Last weekend, our family hiked Pacaya, taking in its breathtaking views and roasting marshmallows in its active lava river. Tourism is among the strongest economic drivers of Antigua, with travel agencies all around the city advertising (in English) their many excursions. We were happy to take part; as I told Kiara and Adelina during our descent from the volcano, “I don’t think there will ever come a time when that doesn’t rank among our coolest life experiences!”

Volcán Pacaya

Volcán Pacaya

Just a few more blocks to go. I pass by the many tiendas (shops) that line the street. The city of Antigua is designated as an official Unesco world heritage city, so all buildings must adhere to certain aesthetic regulations. Thus, the Taco Bell and Dunkin’ Donuts blend quite seamlessly with the city’s many colonial churches and courtyards.

I nod to a street preacher, whose dedication I admire (if not necessarily his message): he has been here each and every time I’ve walked to La Bodegona, holding his Santa Biblia and admonishing passersby for their spiritual indolence. Antigua is a very Catholic city, but – as it is throughout Latin America – evangelical Christianity is growing here.


Colonial arches near Iglesia San Pedro

Finally, I arrive. La Bodegona employs far more people than an average U.S. grocery store. Dozens of employees stand at the end of aisles, smiling and encouraging me to try a free sample: of fruit, of soy milk, of rum, of cheese. There are ofertas especiales (special offers) advertised on neon placards throughout the store: Buy this bag of refried beans and you’ll receive a packet of salsa verde (conveniently taped to the side of the beans) for free! The first time I shopped here, I was hungry and exhausted and I found the whole store to be somewhat overwhelming. Today, I know exactly what I’m looking for and where to find it.

I make my purchases – socks for Kiara and leche en polvo (powdered milk) for our family’s breakfast cereal – mentally converting the quetzales I’m spending into dollars. I’m grateful that I finally remembered to bring my own bag and I won’t have to buy one. It is curious to me that the store has so many employees distributing free samples, but nobody helping customers to bag their groceries.

Despite the early hour, the sun is already high in the sky as I make my way back home through the city. I hug the side of buildings in an attempt to stay in the shade, vowing to wear my hat next time… and to never take for granted these incredible moments and memories in Guatemala.

Arco Santa Clarita

Arco de Santa Catalina in Antigua