Thursday, July 1, 2010

Back to Antigua

Fatima and MJ walking in Parque Central

Wow, it has been months since I wrote on this blog. Sorry for the delay but after our visitors came, I was in Havana and then my laptop died on me. More on that later.

First, let me finish off the narrative on Guatemala. Deb came over to visit after spending a week in Quito where her son, Noel, is doing a Masters on renewable energy. This was Deb’s second visit to El Salvador and she wanted to check out Antigua. I had mentioned it to Dan and he said he’d like to come as well.

Road munchies

Since there were long road delays due to construction on the Santa Ana route, we decided to do the coastal route there and back. This is a faster and nicer drive although it is longer and you don’t get to drive through Guatemala City (although you miss that traffic as well). Immigration this time made all of us get out leaving El Salvador and entering Guatemala (and the same again on the route home). That border crossing is at sea level and it was very hot and humid so it was nice to get back into the air conditioned SUV.

Dan, Deb and I in the Hotel Antigua courtyard

I was able to make reservations at the Hotel Aurora and realized that my recall of the place was correct and it is much nicer than most other places in Antigua. Even more remarkably, it is one of the cheapest places as well. It has a great location and one of the best courtyard flower gardens ... and parking as well. The girls got a room with three beds (one being a Queen) and Dan got the adjacent room with a nice King.

Breakfast is tasty and included

We let the girls roam around the city and Dan and I took off with Michael to the golf course on the nearby volcano. Michael wrote about it at

Clouds rolling in

We park the car beside the only car there and a caddy comes up to us with some kids. They have to call around for a third caddy for our group. I look around and there is no proshop, no change room, no desk, and no cashier. Hmm, pretty basic. We trudge over to the first hole and the three of us promptly lose about 7 balls off the tee box. The course is very hilly (no kidding, being on the side of a volcano) and narrow with blind shots. A lot like Campestre in San Salvador (the club that costs $50K to join and may or may not admit Koreans as members). We play skins and pretty soon I have won most of the holes but then a cloud rolls in and it starts to rain. One of the drawbacks of playing at altitude. We knock off after 9 holes because of the cold rain and because it is hard to see through a cloud. Not a great course but for $10 for the round and $5 for the caddy, it wasn’t a bad place to hack at balls.

What the ladies did while we were golfing

The course has no bar or shop so good thing I brought some beer to go with the cigars. We head back into town, over a long dirt road, and by the time we hit the bottom of the volcano, it is sunny and warm again. We park the car, find the girls and make plans for the evening.

Michael and I at Hector's

We wanted to eat at Hectors so Michael called and went by to make sure they would hold a table for us. Hectors is a tiny little bistro-ish place right across the street from the big yellow Merced Cathedral. No sign but I think it is number 9 and the do put out a chalk board. I had been by there and met Hector and the girls, including an Aussie waitress who was Hector’s girlfriend. They all seemed very friendly and I was looking forward to going back for a nice cozy dinner with lots of wine. We are all heading over in 3 different groups and we ended up getting there half an hour before our reservation. I see the Aussie girl and say that we have a reservation and she says "We don’t take reservations" and I try to explain that we are with Michael but she interrupts me to say "We don’t take reservations" and I try to say that Michael is Hector’s friend and had come by half an hour earlier and she interrupts me to say "We don’t take reservations." Wow, what a shitty waitress. It didn’t matter since the restaurant has 6 tables and only one was taken! We get that table for six of us and order some drinks and wait for everyone else.

This kind of service is typical in Latin America and I was surprised to see it from a foreigner. Her job was too provide service and to enhance our dining experience, not to enforce the little rules established by the business. In many cases, all you get are people who think their job is follow rules and not to help people. Recently, I wired some money to my Citibank account here. They called us saying the funds had arrived and Fatima had to go fill out a form stating what the origin of the funds were. They said the funds would be available the next day ... then they said the next day ... then the next day. I finally went in with her and didn’t like what I saw. There were about 6 customer service desks and I counted 9 people in the area and they were helping two people. We had to wait 10 minutes until someone finally finished their paperwork and was ready to serve a customer. We spoke to the woman that Fatima had spoken to the day before and she said they lost the form and Fatima would have to fill out another one and wait another day. I got upset and asked to speak to the manager who ended up being a nice, older woman. We explained the problem and she asked where Fatima had filled out the first form and she told her at the main branch and she started to say it was their fault the form was lost and I told her that I didn’t care who screwed up, she represented her bank and she had to solve the problem. They had my money for 4 days and I wanted it in my account and I wanted her to waive the service fee. She told us there was no way she could waive the service fee and I asked her how the manager of a bank couldn’t waive a fee and she said that was the way it was. She called in the customer service agent (who had told us the funds would be available the next day without checking to see what the problem was i.e. missing form) but she insisted it wasn’t her that had spoken to Fatima the day before. Anyways, we filled out the form again, she made some calls and promised the funds would be in our account in 45 minutes. It turned out to be only 15 minutes so we were happy about that. What was the problem? Who knows. Maybe these people aren’t paid enough for them to care, maybe their training isn’t very good, maybe people have such low expectations of the level of service.

Turns out that the restaurant is just okay. It got too crowded, the food was pretty average, it got really hot, and unfortunately that Aussie girl stayed on as our waitress. Fatima had the beef and it was tough and of mid-level quality. I had the duck and it was tough as well and no where near as good as the food at Nicolas (but to be fair, it was a lot cheaper). The only thing that I like were the sweat potato fries ... and they were fantastic! I would go back for those. Dan picked up the tab which was lucky for that girl because I probably would have left a shitty tip for the shitty attitude ... reminds me of that saying about who most dislikes Aussie women ... and the answer is Aussie men.

Afterwards, we went to the street with the arch (sorry for the bad directions but if you go there, you will know what I am talking about) and the place was hopping. Clubs and bars were open and lots of people on the street. We ended up at a new place that had just opened up across from the Casbah. We got a nice outside table and were able to smoke cigars (which you can’t inside bars or restaurants). The girls went dancing across the street and we hung out and drank rum. I met an American guy who owns 3-4 hotels and his Canadian buddy as well as the Welsh owner of the bar. All very nice people whom we got to meet because we knew Michael and he was a local now.

Next morning, Dan wanted to take a horse and carriage tour of the city and we did so with MJ translating the very brief descriptions from the driver. He seemed to know names but no dates and no history of anything. Still, it was a nice hour drive in and around the town and I saw a lot of incredible ruins that I didn’t know existed. We made it back to the hotel and drove over to a Korean restaurant for lunch before hitting the road (food was okay but not great).

New (for me) ruins

We shopped around a bit for some artwork and found the prices to be about 10 times the price of Cuba ... with comparable quality. One guy did nice paintings of Antigua landmarks with peasants in their brightly coloured garb but he couldn’t do faces so all the paintings (maybe 5 of them) only showed them from the back ... and they wanted $600 for one of these! Hah, that is a lot of money for a guy who can’t paint faces.

Nice ride!

Drive back was uneventful and quick and Deb’s week went by very quickly and before we knew it, she was gone and that was the end of our winter visitors for the year.

So thank you for all the visits, for bringing down stuff, for bringing clothing donations, and I hope to see you next year.

A quick update of other happenings ... rainy season has started with a vengeance. Tropical Storm Agatha dropped some heavy rains on us. El Salvador saw 10 to 20 inches of rain over three days and some areas got hit by 30 inches! It rained and rained and rained and rained. Luckily, this was at the very beginning of the rainy and hurricane season so the ground was plenty dry and was able to soak up a lot of this rain without causing too much trouble. We just want to avoid another heavy soaking right away. We did have three days of sun and it was great to see some blue sky again. Roads have gotten bad as it does every rainy season as the rains erode the roads and create big pot holes. My friend has had three flat tires this week and I had one driving over a giant 6" bent piece of metal that drove itself into my tire.

Guatemala did not fare as well and lost a lot of bridges and houses. Must have been like the apocalypse with the 5 inches of volcanic ash covering everything before the rains came. And that crazy ass sink hole? Wow.

The new government continues to do a good job and is investigating and prosecuting politicians for corruption. Now everyone expects politicians to steal but just don’t get too greedy or stupid about it! There is a great highway that links the road to Lourdes (and then off to Santa Ana and Sonsonate) past Santa Tecla and right into San Salvador by Multi Plaza and Calle Jerusalem but they never finished the last little bit so it is virtually unusable. I think someone stole funds so companies didn’t pay workers so it came to a grinding stop a few years ago. Now they are going to start it up again so it should alleviate a lot of Santa Tecla traffic and should shave 10 to 15 minutes off a trip to the western beaches.

Apologies about my griping on local service and I think I am getting worse. I have had arguments at several business in the last week and I think I am showing signs of what fellow Canadian Jason Ryan of refers to as "Culture Fatigue". This is where you start getting upset at local cultural norms ... or I am turning into an angry old man! Regardless, time to go up to Canada for my summer trip!