Mayan Coronas

We all fall down
Wednesday 11th March 2020

We arrived late last night to Heathrow terminal 5 and checked into the convieniently connected Sofitel Hotel, ate a spicy Indian meal and washed it down with a couple of margaritas to get into the holiday spirit. Someone in the corner of the room coughed and we all turned around to look.

Over the last couple of weeks the spread of a coronavirus from China had been gathering concern after spreading to South Korea, Iran it reached a little closer to home in Italy where cases have reached over a thousand with many hundred deaths. Cases had been confirmed in most European countries, including the UK, but so far the numbers were still very low.

Rightly or wrongly we had decided not to cancel this trip. We were in good health and had already, for over a week, been practising some form of "social distancing" (a term we would become very familiar with over the coming months) 

So when someone coughed, we all held our breath then washed our hands with some anti-bacterial hand gel. They coughed again, so we decided to leave.

With the alarm set for 3am we were only in our room for a couple of hours before bleary eyed we hoisted our rucksacks on our backs and walked to departures. Our first attempt at carrying the bags failed comically as it almost saw Julie fall back onto the bed like an upturned tortoise! But we eventually got the hang of it.

When we reached the check-in desks they weren't open.  The light's weren't even on. We had to wait until 4:30am before we could send our bags through to the luggage handlers and head through the security checks. Nine minutes later we were in duty free buying our pre-flight ritual bar of Tolberone and multipack of Champagne.

 Keeping our social distance was straightforward as we must have been one of the first people into the departures lounge. In fact most of the shops hadn't even opened yet. That didn't matter as in our sights was the Crown Rivers Wetherspoons pub.

Breakfast consisted of an Egg Florentine and a warm croissant washed down with a bottle of Prosseco, despite it only being 5am. Time is irrelevant in the departures lounge!

We were almost done when an American family walked in. They had the whole pub to choose from but decided to sit at the table right behind us, with their teenage son coughing and spluttering like he had the bubonic plague.

Our prosecco was gulped down quicker than it should as we couldn't get out of there quick enough. Whetever he had, we didn't want to catch it.

Our final destination today was Guatemala City but with no direct flights from the UK we had to transit through Madrid. Julie was still half asleep and with the wine and a diazepam it kept the anxieties subdued as we boarded Tinker Bell, our aeroplane for this morning. Like the lorries of Eddie Stobart  British Airways have named all their planes.    

We took off a little late but nothing to worry about as we had almost three hours wait in Barajas Adolfo Suarez airport to connect with our flight to Central America.

There were so many empty seats which was a little unerving for Julie.  She was begining to unravel but found looking out the window calmed her down. Floating above the clouds gave her a distraction, which was strange as it was visually a reminder we were 36000 feet up hurtling across the sky at 600 mph, but it was working.

Two and a half hours later the short hop before the long haul was completed. The aeroplane parked up at terminal 4S which was convenient as our Iberia flight was from the same terminal. We didn't have far to go, just through the flight connections security and we were in the departures lounge.

We weren't escpecially hungry but we decided to have some lunch and shared a Spanish omelette shoved in a baguette.  At home we wouldn't think of doing that, but it's a combo that certainly worked!  Conveniently, lunch was also an opportunity to top up our alcohol content, keeping that warm fizzy feeling going. 

It was noticable there were many more people wearing protective face masks here although not all had got the hang of it. Wearing one on the top of your head did look a bit daft.  I know he had to take it off to chomp his bocadillo but it made us laugh. 

We relocated to the departure gate, which thankfully was the right one after we almost went to Guayaquil in Ecuador. (I really must get my eye tested!)

Boarding was a little late, but with a 12 hour flight ahead of us a half hour delay wasn't too bad. I had pre-paid for seats towards the back of the plane where there were only two seats together, not the usual three. This wasn't a coronavirus precaution, we just like the freedom of not having someone in the aisle seat blocking us in. I was a little pieved when we boarded the plane and saw the entire length of the plane was a only two seats in a 2-4-2 formation! Well, that was a waste of 50.

I was further incensed when lunch was being served. They had two choces, "carne o pasta?" 

I told him I was vegetarian to which he bluntly said "No, no special meals. Sorry" His apology sounded hollow.

Half an hour later, once they had finished serving, he did return with a tray full of snacks, biscuits and chocolate for us. Perhaps he was a little more sincere than I gave him credit. It may not have been much for a 12 hour flight but at least we wouldn't starve.

Lights were dimmed and we settled into the flight. I watched two films, a Spanish film called Pain & Glory by Pedro Almodovar.  Julie and I are big admirers of Almodovar's films. They're consistently good, fascinating and quirky. Then I watched the new Brad Pitt in space film Ad Astra.

We both tried to get some sleep but we couldn't. A little bored I paid for internet access.

Whilst we were in the air the World Health Organisation had declared the COVID-19 a global pandemic. Governments around the world were formulating their responses. Meanwhile Liverpool were playing in the Champions League against Athletico Madrid, with 52,267 people crammed inside the stadium.  In hindsight that probably wasn't a good idea.

Somewhere over the Gulf of Mexcio we posted on Facebook our progress, as we had just flown over the stunning little island of the Marquesas Keys, some twenty miles west of Key West, Florida. 

Breakfast was served somewhere over the Gulf. I returned the ham baguette to them without making a fuss. I just was grateful for the apricot yogurt. I ate Julie's as well, she's not the biggest fan of yougurt, despite buying it regularly.

We still had a few hours to go, most of which we spent tracking our progress on the map, and out  the window as we travelled down the Yucatan.

About 4:30pm, local time, (10:30pm GMT), we saw the great Agua volcano in the distance and the suburbs of  Villa Nueva and Guatemala City sprawling out towards it and Lake Amatitlan.

We looped around on ourselves and descended gently into La Aurora international airport.

"Oh my God, we're in Guate-feckin-mala baby" I burted as we celebrated our smooth landing.

Perhaps I shouldn't have done so before actually getting our passports stamped. Whilst we were crossing the Atlantic, and given the WHO pandemic announcement, Guatemala who had already declared a "state of calamity" was bringing in special measures, which included denying entry to anyone from China, Iran and Europe, including the UK, from the 12th of March (tomorrow).

Phew! We were in by the skin of our teeth.

Well, not quite. As the queue into the terminal progressed we could see they were taking everybody's temperature. Julie suddenly had a hot flush and I felt a little hot under the collar of my cotton jumper. "What if we're too hot?" asked Julie. Would we be sent straight back home on the next plane or quarantined here in a Guatemalan hospital? Despite having no fever was it possbile to raise your body temperature through stress?

At the front of the queue we were met by a well dress offical from the Ministry of Health. Julie thought she said she was the Minister for Health.

"Welcome to my country" she said. Instict was to shake hands but we just nodded, in almost a Japanese fashion. She directed us to step up to one of the medical staff who were gloved and masked. They pointed a laser thermometer to our foreheads, then wrote our temperature on a piece of paper each.

Next we had to complete the form with our details and hand it to another official who compared our visa form to our COIVID-19 contact details, and checked the recorded temperature. We didn't know what the threshold was. It was an anxious few minutes. I came in at 35.6C whilst Julie was 35.8C. Well below worrying about. I think anything over 37.8C is symptomatic of a fever.

Visa stamped. We were in!

Or at least through to the next level. Baggage reclaim.

Julie's rucksack arrived pretty quickly but mine was taking its time. Whilst we were waiting a sniffer dog came around with its nose in the air. It was a pretty little Collie cross by the name of Seth. He took particular interest in Julie's bag. "Oh, that'll be all the snacks" we explained to the dog handler.

"If the dog sits down I will have to ask you to open the bag" she said matter of factly but politely. Seth sniffed and sniffed, walked away then came back for another sniff. We held our breath, then my bag arrived, which I grabbed. Seth moved on, to the smartly dressed guy stood next to Julie.

Within a flash Seth was sat, the rucksack searched and contraband fruit consficated. He was then escorted into a side room for a more thorough search.

  <scan passport stamp>

With our bags on our backs we headed for the exit, passports stamped, I could now finally say "We're in Guate-feckin-mala baby!"

Waiting for us outside was our driver, holding a piece of paper with my name on it, and the logo of Intrepid travel. His name was Rafa. We followed him to the car park and then joined a long traffic queue through rush hour Guatemala city.

The congestion may have been horrendous but it was never dull because of the colourful public buses. Ex US school buses had been converted into some eye-catching vehicles. Some were just battered old charrabangs but others were super shiny beautiful pimped up rides! "They are called chicken buses" explained Rafa. (Tourists call them chicken buses because you would often share the ride with locals transporting livestock. They're also called camioneta.)

The sun was setting to the West, where we could see Volcan de Agua silouhetted like the perfect volcano cone you would draw as a child. Steep sides with a flat summit where it had blown its top.

The local Maya call it Hunapu, after a lord or demi-god in Maya folklore, which also corresponds to a day of the week in the complex Mayan calendar.

It was dark by the time we freed ourselves from the traffic and began driving along the road to Antigua. Unbeknown to us at the time but part of the route was along the famous Pan American Highway. Julie and I must have managed a little sleep in the back of the minibus because before we knew it we were turning off the smooth tarmac road and onto the cobbled streets of Antigua's World Heritage listed old town. 

After going around the houses, rattling as we went, we pulled up outside our hotel, Casa Florencia.

Rafa rang the doorbell for us, which was an actual bell attached to a rope which you pulled. A very tall amiable guy came to the door and welcomed us in. Once we'd gone through the formalities he handed over the key to room 7.

 It was basic, no air con, and we couldn't work out the ceiling fan to circulate the air but it was clean and homely. Which was a good thing as it was our home for the next three nights, which was the longest we were goint to stay in one place on this trip.

Starving, we headed our in search of food. We asked at the reception and he recommended three restaurants within easy walking distance, on or around Parque La Merced.

Sixteenth century Antigua was built as a grid so it was relatively easy to find. Three blocks down, one across and we reached a small open space in front of the Iglesia de la Merced, a bright yellow church with some fancy plaster work in white. It was something quite wonderful to see.  

Of the three recommendations we liked the sound of Hector's the most, only because if we stopped someone for directions it was the easiest to pronounce! We couldn't find it straight away but eventually came across it on the Southern side of the square.

It was only a small place, about 20 covers; it was also very busy which is always a good sign! 

We took their last table, a pretty tiled table for two and ordered a drink whilst we browsed the menu. They kindly brought out an English language menu for us, and a couple of photocards to help explain some of the specials. 

We began with some fries, or papas frittas served with a delicious homemade tomato ketchup. We were so hungry the whole bowl was eaten in a flash, even before the cutlery had arrived! Only after we had washed our hand thoroughly with anti-bacterial gel, of course!

Next to arrive were the main courses. Julie had gone for the Surf 'n Turf dish on the basis of the specials photocard. She wasn't disappointed. In fact she enthused that it was her best meal in a very long time! High praise indeed.

My choices were a bit limited. They had a veggie burger but I wasn't in the mood for bread, or they had "Vegetarian Quiche". So I went for the egg flan. It made me smile because it reminded me that one of the many indigenous Mayan ethnicities are known as Quiché (also spelt K'iche') and is a region of Guatemala just to the North of here. 

My quiche (the flan) didn't look especially appetising but the flavours were amazing, and when I dipped the quiche in a small bowl of brown sauce it was sensational.

When we came to pay, we didn't have any Guatemalan Queztals with us. It was a closed currency, so we couldn't get hold of any in the UK.  We had the option to pay by US dollars, or we could pay by card, so it was fine. As this was the first time I had used my card here I was a little anxious for it to work. We hadn't brought much cash with us, most of our spends had been loaded onto this pre-paid mastercard.

I entered my four digit pin number and waited. "Autorizado". Yay!

The bill came to 499Q which wasn't cheap, but with two rounds of drinks and a 10% service charge included, the food alone was worth every penny for the high standards.

One block across, three blocks up and we were back at Casa Florencia, ready for bed. It was only 9pm here, but after an epic day of travelling and with food in our tummies we were ready for sleep.

  Next day >  

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