I have the good fortune of living in the historic center of Antigua, Guatemala, founded by the Spanish in 1542. I also have the dubious fortune of living equidistant from two churches dating from colonial times; San Francisco El Grande and Escuela de Cristo.
Both are shining examples of Antigua’s “Earthquake Baroque” architectural style
Stone walls built three to four meters thick at the base, taper as they rise, topping off with short bell towers. No tall steeples and spires here like with European churches of the era.
Despite suffering serious damages in the 18th-century earthquakes that impelled the Spanish to abandon Antigua, both are active. Both churches still hold mass several times a week, with full congregations despite sitting only two blocks from each other.
Calling the faithful to prayer
This means they both use a certain auditory call to prayer if you will. No, not church bells. Or not just church bells, I should say (they ring all the damn time, anyway).
The more invasive sounds used to invite the faithful to congregate come from the bombas. These fireworks are like mortar shells, launched into the sky to explode with a frightful BOOM.
At 6 AM on a Sunday, Wednesday, Friday, Monday, Saturday, Tuesday or Thursday, dozens of these shells go up. The sounds are so loud they set off car alarms, laying another layer of sonic assault on a sleeping gringo.
And then the bells ring. Sometimes it’s only a dozen rings, sometimes hundreds of rings lasting forever. One church stops, and the other begins like they are competing for parishioners.
I often lay in bed, imagining a gaggle of small elderly women in black halfway between each church (that is, outside my front door), critiquing the morning’s bells. I imagine them all out there arguing about which mass to attend that morning.
Nobody moves to Central America for peace and quiet. I knew about the bombas and the bell ringing situation when I rented my house. It’s understandable though, how a first-time visitor could misinterpret these early morning explosions.
Especially when hungover and not operating at full mental capacity.
My friend’s intro to noise in Guatemala
A childhood friend flew down to visit for a week, arriving on a Saturday afternoon. After a raucous tour of Antigua’s famous bar scene culminating with mezcal shots at Café No Sé, we weaved our way back to my house in the wee hours of Sunday morning.
Soon after crashing, a frantic knocking on my bedroom door woke me up. I had become accustomed to the explosions, bell ringing, and car alarms and was fast asleep.
My friend, not so much.
Confronted with a look of such panic in a pair of bloodshot eyes, my response was to laugh and assure him the revolution hadn’t started. I told him to go back to bed.
A cultural difference to get used to
The constant noise in Central America reflects a different attitude towards the community. People live close together, and there is more contact than is usual even in large cities I have lived in like San Francisco and Seattle.
There is always someone knocking on the front door. People selling all manner of products from brooms to cheese, or for some unfathomable reason, four-meter-long bamboo poles.
Volunteer firefighters ask for funds. Beggars of all ages knock. Or a kind, older gentleman in an immaculate three-piece suit, wishing to inform me my outside light is on and electricity is not free, joven.
While all the noise, door knockers, and odorous wafts of incense from religious processions may seem invasive, they are only a simple fact of life in Guatemala.
For every spate of Sunday morning bombas causing flashes behind the eyes a sleeping gringo after a night out, there is another moment where you open the door only to find a passing friend who yes, would like a cup of coffee, or a pickup truck laden with tropical fruits parked across the street.
I wouldn’t swap it for the world.
Jake Stamp is a native of Carmel Valley, California with a tendency to wax rhapsodic about his many years of living in Guatemala and extensive travels throughout the rest of Central America. He currently divides his time between Santa Cruz, California and Antigua Guatemala.