Living and Working in Antigua, Guatemala

I finished my degree in May 2015 and immediately felt that sense of… What will I do now? I have to function. Get a job. I wasn’t ready to begin my career work just yet, so I saved some money, signed up for a TEFL certification course, and headed out! Six months later I was in Antigua, Guatemala ready to start teaching English abroad.

When I first came to town, I took up some bar work as a means of keeping myself afloat until I began teaching English. I was working in this tiny cigar bar, when a small man approached me.

“Ey, gringo…” he grumbled with a smile.
“Yo soy Irlandés.” I responded in my very, very limited Spanish.
“IRISH?!” he shouted. “What is this craic?”

We talked for a while, both in a broken version of each other’s language. His name was Juan and he owned a microbrewery. He wanted me to work at his bar.

“You love the Guinness, yes?”
“Es bueno, si.”
“I make the Guatemalan Guinness. Is very nice,” he said.
“You must try many beers,” he grinned at me.

The following Friday, I was behind his brew pub bar serving a variety of craft beers, each one more delicious than the last. Hazelnut stout was my favorite. I don’t love bar work, but I enjoyed this place. I met a lot of good people—passers by and locals alike. It definitely helped ease me into my new space in Guatemala.

Maximo Nivel Antigua, GuatemalaIf the bar work and craft beers eased me into Guatemala, teaching abroad ripped me up by the bootstraps. I arrived at the Instituto Maximo Nivel with my newly minted TEFL certificate ready to teach English abroad. I was assigned six classes, most of which were basic levels, in which the learners speak essentially zero English. The first month, to say the least, was difficult. Teaching the Basic levels requires a lot of preparation and attention to detail. Initially, I spoke far too quickly while teaching my classes. I could see my inquisitive students, ready to learn, staring bemusedly at me as I asked a question about the past tense… and was offered the word “backpack” as a response.

“No, Marco. The past tense of I walk is not backpack.”

That first month, although the most difficult, was an invaluable learning experience for me. No doubt, I became a far better teacher of English. In month two, my TEFL training kicked in and I began drawing and miming my way through teaching verbs, nouns, and adjectives and really worked at making my students speak in English. Now, in my fifth month of teaching abroad, I have a wonderful relationship with my students. I can play abstract games with them, such as speaking and structure games whereby my learners must write and recite sentences using words that all alliterate. My favourites thus far are “Did Dianna die dancing, drinking daiquiris?” and “Dumb dogs don’t die doing daily drawings.”

Living in Antigua, Guatemala

Outside of teaching English, I’ve made some trips beyond the confines of Antigua town. Most recently, I went to Semuc Champey, which is a series of natural pools in the jungle near Lanquin. It took us 10 hours to get there, but it’s a magical place, not only for the pools, but the general atmosphere, and especially the caves. We hiked up to the viewpoint, around 800 steps straight up into the Guatemalan jungle, and from there you can take “The Picture of the Pools.” Type ‘Semuc Champey’ into Google images and you’ll find the exact picture. What struck me was the irony of people hiking up to such a height, sweating like pigs, only to reach the summit and immediately take a selfie!

Semuc Champey

Semuc Champey, a series of natural pools in the jungle near Lanquin.

From the viewpoint, we made our way down to the water where we splashed around for an hour or so. Because it was a holiday weekend, there were loads of people there, but it didn’t deter us from our fun. After the pools, we headed back for lunch. To save money, I had brought some chicken from home, but when we got back to the hostel I found that jungle ants had had their fowl way with my meal. Leave nothing in your rooms. They will find it!

After lunch, our guide took us to the caves. Having handed us a candle each, we plunged into the darkness, wading in waist-high water. Amazingly, the deeper we went into the cave, the freer I felt. The caves brought out a feral, primal side of my mind. I felt like I should give it all up and stay there, exploring these caves until I died. I got carried away with my friend Matt and we frolicked ahead like excited children splashing and laughing in the dark. When you’re in a cave, you have no concerns other than the immediate. I was able to let go of a lot in there and think about some simple concepts—time for example. We’re the only animals that measure or care about time, and it drives us all crazy. In the caves, I had no sense of time. No daytime, no night time, no sense of obligation. It was freedom. Eventually, we left the darkness of the caves and moved back into the sunlight. That feeling of moving from cool darkness into warmth—like being baptized—stuck with me… for a week at least anyway.

After the caves, we were led to the river’s edge where young boys sold cans of beer. We each purchased one and hopped into our tubes and floated down stream. I lay back and looked at the sky through the trees. The water tickled my neck and I closed my eyes. I felt blissfully at ease until I was suddenly awakened as my tube plundered into an imposing bolder that sat in the middle of the river. Local children laughed from the bank as I floundered in the water, desperately grasping for my tube, which was floating downstream without me!

As short as it was, my time at Semuc Champey feels a lot longer now, three weeks later. It’s easy to get caught up in work and life in Antigua, to the extent that one rarely leaves. My advice would be to leave when you can, because the surrounding area has so much to offer. Although Antigua is a comfortable place to live you need to make sure it doesn’t become too comfortable. You’d be wasting your travelling experience if you didn’t make the most of this brilliant location and explore beyond the basecamp.

I hope to visit Moterrico’s coast soon. I miss the ocean coast, as it’s been such a consistent presence in my life, having come from Ireland’s east coast. I also want to visit the Mayan ruins in Tikal, before I finish my time here. It is apparently one of the most fascinating places in Guatemala.

I love living here in Antigua, Guatemala and I feel privileged to have the lifestyle, as modest as it might be, that teaching English has given me. On a weekly basis, I enjoy small adventures out of the town centre and there’s always excellent local markets and food!

antigua-guatemala-park

I’ve also been lucky enough to join a football team. One of my local friends, Pablo, plays locally and asked if I was interested in joining a team. I was, and he signed me up immediately. The team operates within a league of teams from Antigua and surrounding villages who play each Sunday morning, often as early as 7:00am to avoid the heat. I am used to playing in Ireland at perhaps 150 meters above sea level. I now play at 1,500 meters in a far hotter climate. My teammates have made me feel incredibly welcome, a trend amongst most Guatemalans I have met since moving here.

Now, approaching the final 6 weeks of my agreement teaching English abroad, I am unsure of my next move. I have many options. Plans tend to go out the window once you find yourself somewhere you like. Beyond teaching my students the best English I can muster, I don’t have a lot of obligations. I’m free, like I was in the caves, which I quite like. At the moment, I’m still just enjoying my time here and becoming more and more aware of how much I’ll miss Antigua if I go.

P. Murtagh