La luna negra

Day 17 - Antigua

The retrospective nature of these writings means there is a good chance you already know we made it but create an artificial suspense now if you like. Antigua was the colonial capital of all Central America until leveled by an earthquake in 1773. Siting the town between three volcanoes would seem to invite such destruction I would say. It still retains a handsome charm and, given its tourist draw, would be an ideal place to spend a few days and let the accumulated miles ease themselves from our sweaty, dirty bodies. The Danes pointed us in the direction of a hotel but rooms were hard to come by. After fruitless wanderings we took Michael's detested and feared option of a dorm. The fact that no-one shared it with us for more than one night can only be a coincidence. Antigua, in common with much of Guatemala (and I suspect, Central America), has issues with crime. Over here Security Guard is a job for life. From the guys at the bank with the sub-machine guns to the one outside the dollar store with a pump-action shotgun (certainly the weapon of choice here) there is no shortage of heat on the street. A little spot up on a nearby hill affords a fine view over the city. The book advises the company of a tourist policeman when walking to it so we didn't take one. Perhaps the robbers were on siesta, we were unmolested. The experience might also have given us a rather hubristic view of our climbing ability but more of that later. We took dinner in a delightful restaurant whose food sat temptingly in big clay pots. All along the lines of stew I struggled to follow the explanations of ingredients and simply plumped for the most appealing looking pot. One bite revealed the catastrophe of my choice. Liver. Just writing the world brings watery unease to my mouth and here I am chewing the ghastly organ. My appetite disappeared to be replaced by queasy discontent. It got so serious my taste for beer was even diminished. A memorable eating experience and probably the most expensive mouthful of food I have ever had. I think Michael has also decided he is not the unqualified fan of tongue that he professed to be, another indigestible choice. Happening on a raucous Irish pub full of Guatemalans dancing on tables was an improved course. A gringo trying the same thing took a bruising tumble off the bar. We had to return to Reilly's the following night due to the irresistible lure of a pub quiz. Our team swiftly expanded to 5 with Dale, Jessie and Justin too. And what a team it was sweeping all before it to win by a clear four and a half points. Our winning quetzals bought tequila shots for the losing teams with enough left for the victors to get throughly tired and emotional. Since my amigo usually handles the finances and had departed early the matter of an open tab rather slipped my mind before I too left. We would not be back for a third night. Breathing hard and impatient, lungs pulling at thin air. Feet slipping and hands bleeding. Down was far, up was further. Step by torturous step we climbed the volcano. Stunning views gave no comfort to our draining labour. I am not fit, my limbs have certainly seen better days and yet I was blasé about a challenge such as this. The foothills gave no warning of the desperate exhaustion that lay ahead, thousands of feet of it. But the summit grew no nearer, only steeper, and I felt I had no more to give. Pause, breathe. One more step. Dig in with your toes. Push up. One more step. The ground slipped beneath, magnifying the effort and slowing us to a figurative (and literal) crawl. I think a level of intoxication from the previous night sustained me through the first hour but the second one was Satan's playtime. Of course I'll say it was worth it with a rose tint even brighter than that of my cheeks but looking down into the brooding maw of a volcano is a worthy sight. No lava alas but hot, sulphuric fumes emanated from the rocks warning at what lay below. A passing cloud temporarily enveloped us as we sat panting with satisfaction and relief. The climb down is best described as like skiing without snow or, indeed, skis. The scorched, barren landscape gave a sobering reminder that the last eruption was only a year ago. Truly the most physically demanding thing i have ever done. Our last night in Antigua was a quietly pleasant one. We ate at a restaurant accessed behind the counter of a tiny convenience store, whose menu comprised just two items. Thankfully the Pepian de Pollo (chicken stew) was excellent and I ate heartily for the first time in days. We rounded off the evening in a venue where the barmaid committed the error of letting me make music requests. We'd probably still be there now if we didn't have an early bus to El Salvador.

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