I made a mistake when I decided to go to Antigua, Guatemala, in my long quest to learn at least broken Spanish. Antigua is known for its Spanish immersion schools, which promise to teach even the worst Yanqui dumbbell to stumble along in the language of Cervantes. So I set off for Guatemala with a lot of the Spanish-English phrasebooks and dictionaries I've accumulated over the years – and only a pocket camera.
That was my mistake. In the afternoon hours, when my tutoring sessions were over, I found so much to photograph in Antigua that I wished I had left most of my books at home and instead brought my best camera gear. Antigua is that photogenic.
As in many Central American towns I have seen, the center of Antigua is a plaza dominated by a cathedral. On my first Monday afternoon, this plaza was filled with people. Families took pictures by a fountain. A 12-year-old girl seated next to me on a bench looked after her infant niece, whom she carried hidden in a kind of blanket tied over her shoulder.
On the east side of the plaza, in front of the cathedral, a quincianera, a girl turning 15, was having her picture made. She was dressed in gorgeous mounds of blue taffeta garnished with silvery spangles. A heavy necklace hung from her neck as she sat in a white carriage and posed, the essence of glamor--until she smiled and the braces on her teeth didn't quite match her earrings. The quincianera used to mean that a girl was becoming a woman and ready for marriage. It was her presentation to society, similar to a debut in American and British culture. Now, however, 15 is considered way too young to marry. It's just a reason for a big party, the most lavish the parents can afford. This quincianera's parents appeared to be people of means.
In the plaza, meanwhile, some kind of vacation school or camp was conducting what appeared to be a combination Christmas pageant, graduation ceremony and talent show. Guatemalan kids have their long school break in November and December. Parents in Antigua, like parents in America, want to keep their kids busy. So some apparently send the kids to a gymnasium where they wear their little bodies out doing dance exercises, Tae-Bo and doubtless other things. Kids who seemed to range in age from four or five to eleven or twelve took part in this occasion, with their adult leaders. A big crowd gathered round to watch and cheer.
One group, wearing pink shirts and either Santa Claus hats or reindeer antlers, followed a teacher in what seemed to be jazzercise, accompanied by recorded music. The kids were troupers, though it was tough for some of them to keep up when their shoelaces came untied or their antlers threatened to come lose from their coiffures and droop over their noses.
After the pink shirts finished, a man with a red dojo suit and a black belt proclaiming him a sensei took over a platform. He had a haircut that would have looked fresh on a Marine drill sergeant and what had to be the best sinews in Guatemala. The group he led mostly wore red tee-shirts with “Tae-Bo Kids” written on the front.
I'm not sure, but I'd guess that Tae-Bo means “hard-working.” The sensei certainly worked his kids like a bunch of Marine recruits. For half an hour, to the blaring, tinny sound of driving Latin rock, he had them running in place, punching air, kicking to one side or the other, then running in place some more, but faster. They sweated and sucked air, but they didn't quit. My finger got tired of pressing my shutter button before they finished their routine.
Their reward was a can of soda pop and a sandwich.
I left, alas, without waiting for a group of ladies in black Zumba outfits to take their turn to perform. It was getting on toward evening and there were still pictures on the street that I wanted to take.
I really missed my good camera.