Literary Travel / Travel

Arriving in Antigua


AntiguaI am hungover and Heathrow-bound on the type of grey London morning that reminds me why I left. The pavements glisten with drizzle, and the wheels from my suitcase drag through a puddle that has formed by the curb as I climb into the taxi, soaking the fur of my Ugg boots. The clouds are low and looming and threaten more rain and the roads are unreasonably busy given the early hour of the morning. While I’m not in danger of missing my flight to Los Angeles, where I have a ten hour stopover before I fly on to Guatemala city, I won’t have the time for a hot, sweet cup of tea to wake myself up; nor to read any more of the memoir by the woman whose writing retreat I’m about to attend. The only saving grace is that this sort of London morning – the jarring drone of radio jingles; the blare of car horns and the insistent light rain against the window pane – makes it all the more easier to leave the place I once called home.

Three tall and tattooed men sit behind me on the plane; their smiles are wide, their jeans ripped; their hair various lengths and levels of disarray. They are Sam, Alex and James and are in a band from a town near where I spent most of my teenage years. We begin chatting about mutual friends, friends of friends, old haunts at which we used to hang, and what brings us to LA. I tell them I am heading to a memoir writing retreat on Lake Atitlan but that I have a free afternoon before my fight to Guatemala City. I am easily persuaded by them to freshen up at their West Hollywood apartment before heading to a bar on the Sunset Strip for drinks.

We load the trunk with our bags and are soon on the freeway, windows down, The Doors playing loud on the stereo. Their rental car is grey and old and reaches 50 miles at best with James’ foot firm on the accelerator. I lived in LA for three months in the summer of 2017, but still I revel in the newness of it all; the faces of the boys that aren’t and probably won’t become familiar, the road signs, the oversized brown circle the sits on top of the Donut King sign, where the air is suffused with sugar and fried dough and petrol fumes.

Their apartment sits on the corner of Fairfax and Melrose; there is a faded ‘out of order’ sign sellotaped to the elevator door and so and we haul our luggage up three flights of stairs. We shower, change, find an old bag of ice in the freezer that we add to glasses of Jack Daniel and Coke which we drink on the balcony to the sound of LA traffic at rush hour.

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Half an hour later we are at a bar on the Sunset Strip. The lighting is low and the table next to us is filled with long time locals who must be in their eighties, but their lips are plumped full of collagen, their eyebrows reach their hairline and their clothes brandish logos that tell me they are rich. The man at the head of the table has a long, grey, permed mullet that I’ve never seen on someone in real life before. We order a round of Margaritas, then Jägerbombs, then more Margaritas. I am three hours from flying to Guatemala but can’t resist a final Margarita, and when the boys offer me the sofa of their apartment for the week, for a fleeting moment I consider in staying in LA with them before ordering an Uber to take me to LAX.

It is just before ten, and the roads of LA are still thronging with cars, and by the time I arrive at the airport my temples are tight and I smell of lime and salt and Tequila. I check in, rush through security, and run through the airport, wild-eyed and worried that I won’t make it to Antigua after all.

I am the last person on the plane. I barely sleep during the four hour flight to Guatemala City. By the time I arrive shortly after 5am, navigate security and find a taxi rank, it has been over thirty-seven hours since I’ve last seen a bed, and I’m beginning to forget what time zone I’m in.

The smell of fumes and the stir of a city coming to life wakes me up; I see schoolchildren with plaid skirts and groaning backpacks walking along the side of the road; there are loud motorbikes and straggly-haired dogs and barefoot men and tuk-tuks that weave along the road side, and the air is laced with unfamiliar smells that remind me of being somewhere new.  We drive from Guatemala to the small southern city of Antigua where I’ll be staying for the night before travelling to Lake Atitlan the following morning. The hotel is a bright palette of terracotta and amber and hues of jewel green and blue. The morning air is cool and wet and I lie on the sofa near the reception desk but am unable to sleep until I am shown to my room. I draw the curtains, pull back the sheets and fall into a deep and senseless sleep.

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I spend the afternoon exploring Antigua and find myself amazed at how different it is from anywhere I’ve been before. The walls are painted Santorini blues, dusky pinks, burnt oranges and speckled whites. The street sellers have carts full of fragrant hunks of fruit, sweet-smelling nuts, linens, colourful placemats, Jade, jewellery, Myan antiques. I pass a window lined with worry dolls; I remember sleeping with them under my pillow as a little girl but until now never knew they originated from Guatemala.

The day ends with dinner at intimate restaurant . There is a pool in the courtyard, where we drink sticky pink Strawberry daiquiris from champagne glasses. Vines hang from the ceiling and the table is strewn with pink petals. The candles flicker and the chatter is quick and loud as women from Chicago and Tokyo and New Hampshire and Burbank and the Bay Area come together. I meet Rita who has lived in Texas and New Orleans and now New York with her husband; I chat with Sue who is a slim, blonde Australian and lives in the Blue Mountains. I sit next to Kia who sells jewels and has lived in Pushka and San Francisco and Devon and now lives in New Mexico; she has travelled more than anyone I have ever met and has the skin of someone two decades younger. She wears a turban and her fingers are adorned with different coloured stones. We eat soup followed by fish followed by ice-cream and a local aperitif. The table begins to empty until there are just four of us left; me and Kia and Shari who lives on the Palos Verdes Peninsula in California, and a woman with the best name I know, Dudley Dudley.

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