Christmas Vacation

As we approached Christmas Day, we queued up holiday movies at the Hardison house. We began a little earlier with Elf, followed that with Home Alone, and then capped things off – on Christmas Eve – with the Chevy Chase classic, Christmas Vacation. My last three Christmases have all been after I left cold Chicago and moved to warmer climes, and while for most of my Chicago years I would be in LA or somewhere warm anyway, it was still weird for me to approach Christmas here (and my vacation) with such warm weather. I’m used to the twenty-one winters of snow and cold that I experienced in Chicago. Believe me…I am not complaining that it was warm and sunny here as December came to its end. But it still felt weird to watch snowy Christmas movies and be surrounded by the warmth of Antigua Guatemala.

One view of the fireworks at midnight on Christmas Eve.

We tried to use a few movies to keep us awake on Christmas Eve, because one way or another, we were going to be awake at midnight. It’s a tradition here to set off fireworks at midnight, and while I was told that “everyone does it,” it wasn’t until I experienced myself to realize how true the statement was. I followed A up onto the ruins next to their apartment complex and was amazed at what I saw. No matter which way I was facing, I could see at least four firework displays going off simultaneously. Turn, turn, turn and there were always fireworks. The bonanza went on for fifteen minutes, at least. The cacophony of bursts had filled the night’s sky and our ears, so when it finally ceased, the silence was profound.

Like the previous few years with my cousins Greg and Tiffani, and their daughter T, Christmas Eve meant a sleepover. So once the fireworks ended, everyone went to sleep. The next morning, I joined the Hardisons in their Christmas morning traditions – retrieving the goodies from stockings, breakfast, a read-aloud from the bible, and then – finally (for the kids) – the presents.

Bethany had helped point me in the right direction for gifts for everyone, and she didn’t lead me astray (not that I expected her too!). I figured out my own gift for her, which she enjoyed. For me, in addition to some sour gummy candies from a local shop, I got two very special gifts: a custom-built wooden box for the tea selection at the bakery; and the apron pictured below.

My new tea box, filled some new teas from the Hardisons (and some of my previous selections).

E and A, and the apron with “flair” they designed for me with Paul.

We have joked a bit about aprons in the bakery, and the “flair” requirement that was discussed throughout the movie Office Space. Well, en route to get me a gift one day, Paul and the boys had a brainstorm to design me an apron filled with flair. While it’s not all visible in the photo above, the apron is filled with trinkets large and small, including a small baseball mitt. It’s fantastic! Both gifts were perfect, and thoughtful. A nice box for my teas had been on my to-get list for a while, and so this was a wonderful, apt gift for me.

E putting his Christmas gift to use right away.

E really likes to climb and build, so Bethany had recommended that I get him a bunch of rope and carabiners. Sure enough, he was excited about the gift and was up a tree soon after we finished with the presents.

Paul and I had been talking about golf in the recent past, and the one golf course anywhere nearby was worth a look. Neither of us has clubs here, but we thought maybe we’d see what the place was like, how much the greens fee was, and if they rented out clubs. We learned that the resort, La Reunion, also has a miniature golf course, so we made it a group outing!

One of the ridiculously impossible holes on the mini-golf course.

We made an appointment for the mini-golf course, as the website recommended. But there was really no need. There was no one there. In fact, the mini-golf course was so far away from the resort’s clubhouse, where we had needed to check in, that we had to get back in the car and drive nearly back to the entrance (a five-minute drive) to find the place. And we were given the keys! We thought at first that we’d just unlock the cage where they kept clubs and balls, but a woman was waiting for us when we finally located the (poorly-marked) course.

And what a course it was! The kind woman who met us there explained that the nine-hole mini course was modeled after La Reunion’s full-size golf course. That sounded like an interesting approach to the design. However, as we began to play, we noticed something peculiar: the holes were all completely made out of concrete. Only the greens, as the very end, had the fake green grass we in the States are accustomed to seeing. And considering the twists and turns on this “replica” course, you can only imagine how frequently our balls bounced off the concrete “fairways” and off the course.

We were laughing so hard throughout the experience, because…what else could you do? The woman, who we expected to let us be, escorted us from hole to hole. She offered to keep score, too, but we said we would handle that. But after the first hole’s bounces and miscues, we didn’t even keep score. We just tried to stop laughing long enough to hit our balls straight. It was another one of those things that is truly Guatemalan – a mini-golf course seemingly designed by someone who has never played actual mini-golf before.

A much closer view of Fuego from La Reunion.

When we finished our round, we drove around the La Reunion property. It sits much closer to the active volcano, Fuego, and we all loved seeing from much closer how the recent activity had impacted the mountainside. You could see the patches where lava had wiped out everything in its path, leaving smooth land behind. If we’d been here on the night of the big lava flows, it would have been an amazing show!

Macadamias on the tree at Valhalla.

E sorts macadamias at Valhalla.

On our way back to Antigua, we stopped at a local macadamia farm, Valhalla. They grow macadamia nuts there, and have a shop and restaurant. None of us were hungry, despite how enticing the menu looked (pancakes made with macadamia flour and white chocolate? Yum!). But I enjoyed seeing the place for the first time (the Hardisons had all been before). I tried to find out about bulk buying of macadamia nuts for use in the bakery, but the person I needed to talk to wasn’t around. (Nor did they have any macadamias for sale, except for one solitary four-ounce bag.)

Back at the house, there was work to be done. When Bethany and I had been shopping for gifts a few weeks earlier, we ended up at a shop with a large collection of puzzles. I always loved puzzles, and asked if they did too. After hearing that they did, we thought it would be fun to get a few to work on together during this Christmas break. We started with a 500-piece puzzle on Christmas Eve, and saved a 1000-piece puzzle for Christmas Day. I don’t think I’d ever done a 1000-piece puzzle before and was quite intimidated once we got going. While the first puzzle had held everyone’s interest almost completely from start to finish (which was maybe two hours), this one caused quite a bit of disengagement.

However, over the ensuing days, we made more and more headway. I began to believe that we could pull it off. Once we completed the New Yorker section at the top, I was inspired. People moved in and out on the puzzle, with the boys spending very little time on it, but Bethany led the charge, with Paul and I putting in decent hours. (Yes, hours. Plural.)

The 1000-piece puzzle we never thought we’d finish.

E got the honors of placing the last piece.

Finally, on Wednesday morning, before we headed out on a journey to the city, we finished the masterpiece. It was both a relief and exhilarating to have accomplished this. I’m still not sure whether it’s inspired me to do more 1000-piece puzzles or to never touch one again. TBD.

We had decided on a city day during this first week of the break. Originally, a movie was going to be part of the equation…but there was nothing in theaters here that seemed to work for everyone. Paul was taking the boys up to Ixchiguan on Friday, so that ruled out movies. Bowling was discussed, but also cast aside.  Instead, though, we did some shopping and some exploring. Our journey included Bethany’s first visit to Superb, a very good spice shop, as well as stops at Oakland Mall, PriceSmart and Save-A-Lot. However, the crown jewel of the journey was our visit to La Esquina.

Months and months ago, Carlos and Mindy went to La Esquina for the first time. As Carlos described it to me, it was a brand-new food hall, with all sorts of delicious options. But what made him specifically excited, for me, was that one of the kiosks there featured a gourmet doughnut stand. And that made me even more eager to check it out.

E eyes the doughnut display at La Esquina.

La Esquina is located in Zona 4, a little bit to the north of where our travels in the city usually take us, but not overly so. Before heading inside to get doughnuts, we walked around the neighborhood. It looked like an up-and-coming area, with the food hall being just one of the newest places. There were a few streets surrounding La Esquina that were filled with new-looking shops, restaurants, and more. While we considered a few places for lunch, we decided that the food hall would give everyone the most options. There was pizza, tacos, burgers, ceviche, paninis and more.

Our three picks – Oreo, Maple Bacon and Lemon Poppyseed.

We started with doughnuts because…why not? And while all three of them tasted good, they were – as I had suspected from looking at them – just like District Donuts in New Orleans: all one dough. And while I understand that it makes life so much easier in a bakery or doughnut shop to just use one master dough and then do a variety of toppings, to me it takes away from the experience. The upside, of course, is that because they all basically tasted the same (except for the toppings), I didn’t feel any need to finish anything. Plus, they were enormous!

A segment of the food hall, La Esquina.

Lunching at La Esquina.

We walked around, made our lunch choices and waited for our food to be brought to us. And, of course, we ordered too much. By the time we all stopped, we were stuffed. It was good we’d had the doughnut “snack” to start…because there would have been no way for me to try them if we’d waited.

A strange sight on the streets of Guatemala City.

Cute kitties at Casa Hardison.

Garlic knots for Northwestern football.

At some point in the past, I’d mentioned the famous garlic knots from Milo & Olive to Bethany, and since they were entirely vegan, she was very excited to try them. I kept procrastinating on making them, until she finally pinned me down a few weeks before this and said I needed to pick a date! So I chose the day of the Northwestern bowl game, and thought it would be fun for us all to have them as we watched my team play.

The only wrinkle in the plan was that Paul and the boys ended up leaving that morning for the mountains, and so they didn’t get to enjoy this treat. It was just a special batch for Bethany and I to enjoy as Northwestern narrowly escaped Kentucky for their first back-to-back bowl wins ever!

The rest of my vacation was filled with plenty of relaxation – reading outside, walking around, eating at Caoba (multiple times) and hikes up to the cross. New Year’s Eve featured midnight fireworks, just like Christmas, but there was no staying up to wait for them. I chose to have them wake me up! I laid in bed, listening and watching what I could out the window, and then went back to sleep once they stopped.

On New Year’s Day, I was excited for my Chicago friends, Stephanie and Jack, to arrive for a short visit. While they’d been discussing it for a little while, the purchase itself was kind of spur-of-the-monent, just a few weeks before. I couldn’t wait to have them here! After they arrived, we relaxed a bit at my house, where Bethany and I were watching her and Paul’s team (Auburn) play in a bowl game and working on some bakery projects. After that, we headed to Bethany’s, so that they could enjoy some outdoor time and relaxation. We all chatted and hung out all evening, and ordered in some burgers from Monoloco for a casual evening.

On Tuesday, Stephanie and Jack went on a coffee tour with De La Gente, while I stayed by the bakery to make sure Alis and Jeffrey were all set. After being shut for ten days, there was plenty of stuff to work on and I didn’t want to be high up on a volcano in case they needed anything. Plus, I had some errands to run! That afternoon, the three of us walked around Antigua for a little while (even though Jack and Stephanie had been moving all day) and then headed back home to relax. The day ended with dinner and trivia at the Londoner for Pub Quiz, where both Bethany and Carlos joined us. We finished in 2nd place, which I know is no way for me to treat guests!

Getting ready for granola testing.

When I reopened the bakery on Wednesday, we began testing out the granola that Bethany is going to be making and selling. We had sample cups of both vegan and traditional varieties available, and had plenty of positive feedback. Many people asked right away if we were selling it. Not yet, we said…but soon!

Midday, I left the bakery and went on a street food tour with Jack and Stephanie. Led by Arianna (who has taken Cary & Mike and Beth & Mark on the same tour), we ate and chatted and explored Antigua. It was a beautiful, sunny day and a perfect one for walking around and eating. They rested for the rest of the afternoon, and then did some shopping, while I finished up at the bakery.

Dinner at Tartines on Wednesday night.

I love this restaurant and having spotted the terrace on Tuesday, while we explored the ruins behind the cathedral, Steph and Jack were eager to try it. None of us have a need for a fancy dinner, but this is such a wonderful spot that it would have been silly to skip it! And they were gracious enough to continue to include Bethany in our evening plans. (Just like me, once they’d met her, they wanted to keep spending time with her!)

On Thursday, their final day in town, I took Stephanie and Jack to the mercado. They enjoyed all the sights and sounds from the vendors, both inside and out. We wandered in and out of the maze of stalls, and then headed next door to the artisan’s market. Everyone there was hawking something and every aisle we walked down, we were accosted by vendors. They found a few things they wanted, and decided to save the rest of their shopping for Nim P’ot, the traditional textile place near the arch.

Stephanie and I during our walking tour.

Thursday night dinner at Caoba.

After another casual afternoon, the four of us headed to Nim P’ot for the guests to shop, and then we all walked down to Caoba Farms for a farewell dinner. It was a little chilly out there, but still a fun way to bring their trip to a close. With a 6:15 am flight on Friday morning, we didn’t let the night get too late at Caoba. Then it was off to bed and ready for Raul’s 3:30 am arrival. It was a short visit, but a fun one and it was nice to get to spend so much time with them.

Additionally,  I’ve known Stephanie for so long (we met over twenty years ago), and she’s been part of and/or seen the different paths life has taken me. So it was special to have her here to see what this next step in my journey is like, and meet the wonderful people who help make my life here what it is.


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