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El Viejo Cafe in Antigua
El Viejo Cafe in Antigua, Guatemala

Sunday Night In Antigua

So it’s Sunday. The family I’m staying with is taking a break today. I’m on my own for dinner.  It’s about 7:30 at night, therefore dark. It’s always dark here at 7:30; that’s what being close to the equator does to your day.

I’m hungry, and for awhile I wander the cobblestone streets waiting for inspiration to strike, which I hope it does not do in the form of a tuk-tuk, the noisy, three-wheeled motorscooters-with-canopy that give cheap, rapid, bone-jarring transportation within the city.

No, the inspiration I seek is gastronomic.  There are restaurants of all kinds on these streets; I have already sampled a few.

I look up from walking – especially at night you have to watch each step, as the sidewalks are generally more uneven and hazard-ridden than the streets: protruding concrete manhole covers and sudden, inexplicable pits into which you could drop your foot as far as mid-shin.

I notice I’m across from a favorite place: El Viejo Café. Its menu-cum-brochure claims it to be the first place coffee was legally sold here, back when Antigua was the colonial capital of all Spanish Central America.

I have regularly bought an espresso here since my first visit to the city in 2000. Tonight is not occasion for espresso, however, so I cross the cobblestones to enter, for the first time, after dark.

The café is lit, as are many restaurants, primarily by candles, the price of electricity being nearly prohibitive. It is high-ceilinged, in the old style, and offers some light from dim bulbs high overhead. El Viejo, reflecting its name, prides itself on presenting an antique ambiance.

The first room you enter off the street contains the old wooden bar and several tables, during daytime generally inhabited by tourists. Tables, chairs, floors, doorway openings, all are wood – surprising here where termites are prevalent, necessitating concrete, masonry, ceramic and other unforgiving building materials.

On the walls hang ancient photographs and equally ancient newspaper stories; above are several thick wooden beams notably damaged by insects; the atmosphere is antiquity and a more or less contented decay.

I pass through the first room, where I have sat many times sipping espresso, and opt for a completely different experience in the second. It is considerably larger than the first, though with an equally-old and equally-dim atmosphere, with pillars for support.

I choose a grilled vegetarian dish and a Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon. The food is superb: sliced mushrooms, snow peas, carrots, red onions, broccoli, eggplant, a summer squash called guiscayo, hot and smoky from the grill and topped with cheese, accompanied by bread slices rubbed with garlic. I find myself wondering why Chilean wine is always so sweet.

My thoughts drift to my surroundings. I notice a party of eight Guatemalans just being seated at a large corner table – they are two generations, from fifty-something to 70-something; they seem to be from the capital, in town to celebrate someone’s birthday, maybe grandma’s.

Behind them, all across the wall, a recessed alcove displays a number of the restaurant’s relics, those objects that support the name Viejo. These items include, but are not limited to: a television, perhaps from the ‘60s; a scale, the kind I remember from shopping with my mother at the A & P in 1953; a 16 mm movie projector, a hand coffee grinder, two approximately 100-lb. bags of coffee in burlap bags. The wall behind has lost considerable stucco in irregular patches which reveal the stone walls, occasionally spaced with brick and mortar.

Something catches my eye, and I turn quickly to the right, to see the waiter, who has just gone to the doorway to smoke. He wears a white shirt and black pants. His back is softly lit by candles on tables in the front room. He is framed in the center of the doorway, on the right of which hangs a chalkboard menu announcing this evening’s fare.

As he leans toward the street, a light from the wall overhead, outside the restaurant, strikes his white shirt along the shoulders and back, playing light and shadow across the yoke and upper back as he inhales his cigarette. A car creeps slowly toward the restaurant, its headlamps throwing into relief the ancient cobblestones and the wooden door set into the hitewashed stone of the building opposite.

Satisfied, full, I walk toward home, but turn as I hear music issuing from a bar some two blocks from my destination. I have been there twice before, to hear live music. Its name is Santo Pecado – Holy Sin. It is a tiny bar with low ceilings, and one entire wall open to the street. Inside all is terra cotta, stucco, except for the short wooden bar structure itself, with seats for probably five.

Several small rooms open onto the area the musicians inhabit, providing opportunities for friends to gather separately from the music. Except for a few small lights the size of Christmas tree bulbs, the place is entirely lit by candles. When I first entered a week or so ago, I thought – as many Americans might -- “like a Mexican cantina....”

Well, perhaps much more like a cantina in Guatemala.

Tonight my longtime wish is fulfilled – to hear the famous Ignacio Elejalde, who once played as a member of Cuba’s famed Buena Vista Social Club, and now plays twice a week in Antigua as part of “Buena Vista de la Corazon.”

I lean against a wall, dark Guatemalan beer in hand, and am transfixed by his drumming, his four congas singing in support of and to lead the others: electric guitar, keyboard, electric bass, maracas. All sing harmony to Ignacio’s lead vocal. At a break Ignacio steps outside; I move to another wall to watch the next set from a different perspective.

When he reenters, he brushes past me. I am in the same position as I was in 1978, with wife and two-year-old daughter in front of the tiger cage in New York’s Central Park, when along came John, Yoko, and two-year-old Sean: what do I say?

In that case, nada. Tonight I offer, “Me gusta mucho su musica.”

Ignacio pauses, smiles, taps his heart twice, claps me on the shoulder, says, “Muchas gracias,” and passes on by.

Descriptions of the evening come to about a thousand words. If only I had a picture.

 

Michael Chrisman

 

 


Michael Chrisman lives in Antigua, Guatemala.

 

 

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