Guatemala. Where do I begin? I feel like it would be cliche to say its like no other place that I’ve ever been, but its the truth. Having been to Mexico and Belize before, I had some idea of little things to expect like brand names, the architecture, and the poverty, the sociocultural differences that are so powerful that one is left speechless at times. These were truths that I have long excepted about traveling to other countries, especially within the Americas. So, naturally although I didn’t quite know exactly what to expect, I wasn’t really worried about it. After all the work that we’ve all put into this trip for the past few months, it was more a feeling of relief when I finally stepped on the plane! Yes! Guate! Finally! Well, finally still took a long time to come around! After three flights, three cities, two different airlines, two time zones, and 17 hours of traveling, I was relieved to be in guate!
The road to Antigua was a constantly changing road of extremes. The drive started off in Guatemala City at the airport in an exceedingly urban area with McDonalds, Shell gas stations, malls, bus stops and so much more! The city was thriving on the the early hours of the night as we drove through, but as we got higher into the mountains, the roads became more curvy and much more steep. The fast foods and gas stations quickly disappeared and were replaced by overlooks of the city below. I was so absorbed in looking around that I was really taken aback when we got off the highway to Antigua because it was a one lane exit that was not marked by anything grand like I would’ve expected a city of its reputation to be, but instead by a small, old sign that was not very visible. What Wilmar told me later was that the entrance we had taken into the city, that one lane marked with that shabby sign, was the one and only way in and out of the city It almost made Antigua seem like it was a secret city, tucked away in the mountains, hidden from the rest of the word.
Today was pretty calm day dedicated to unwinding from hours of crammed spaces, turbulence, crappy, overpriced airport food and lack of sleep. We wanted to take in Antigua for all that it is by just seeing what the city really had to offer, no concrete plans, no expectations, just the five of us, Wilmar, and our walking shoes. Breakfast consisted of heading over to a small market place infront of a beautiful colonial church, untouched by the harshness of time. Its bright yellow paint seemed to say good morning to us as we walked through the vendors. The spicy sent in the air made everything so tempting! I saw a lot of things that reminded me of the food my Colombian family eats, just with a Guatemalan twist. Tamales, arepas, carne, mango con límon. I wound up choosing something called a pupusa, which was like a corn cake filled with cheese and topped with something I guess you could call cole-slaw-ish, salsa picante and guacemole, followed up with mango con límon and spices! ¡Que rico!
The rest of the day seemed to disappear. After the market, we explored for a while, taking pictures, walking around, visiting different stores and people watching. People watching. Probably the coolest thing we did today. The funny thing is that Antigua is filled with so many Guatemalans, but they aren’t all the same ethnicity. There were a lot of indigenous people, but the people had varying skin tones, spoke different languages and dressed differently, yet they all considered themselves Guatemalan. There was some sort of parade and the start of the parade had two young girls carrying the Guatemalan flag and behind them were various couple ranging from 12 years old to probably 18 years old. These kids were a perfect example because they were so diverse in their skin, language, and dress, but the were all in a ‘proud to be Guatemalan and live in Antigua’ parade. The amount of diversity within one group of people is astounding. The one thing that was strange about that diversity however is that it was only within the Guatemalans. There are literally no people of other ethnicities here and a lot of places we went, people stared at Ty, Jade, and Jenny. There is sooooo much diversity here, yet it is not diversity in terms of how we as Americans tend to think of diversity.
The hardest part going to a poor country is always experiencing the poverty first hand. As we walked around the markets, people were selling cheap trinkets, scarves, food, or even just asking for money. The people were mostly indigenous (guessing by their dress and language) and often sent their kids over to talk to us. It was heartbreaking to keep telling them no, especially when they were so young. When you’re born into poverty, its all you know and you often get trapped in it. There were two little boys, probably three and four that came up and asked if I wanted to buy a scarf and when I said no thank you, they switched to english and said ‘just a dollar, can I please have a dollar?’. While it was happening I didn’t think much of it and just said no gracias and walked away, but looking back on it, that breaks my heart. So young. So clueless to the life they are getting trapped in. So young…
The nicest part of the day was coming back to the hotel after a long morning of walking around and taking in the experience. I just sat on the patio on the roof for a while and processed the day. Wow. The view from the patio on the roof was so calming. The sky was a crisp, clear blue, the clouds were a pure white and the breeze blew a sweet perfume from the flowery tree near by. I was only up there for five or ten minutes, but honestly, when do we even bother to take five or ten minutes to appreciate the beauty around us anymore? People always seem to have an excuse about being busy or what they have to do and they forget to take a look around them. I can’t say that I haven’t been one of those people before, but I feel like every time I leave the US it reminds me to appreciate what I have as well as the beauty of my own country.
Part 2 🙂
Antigua seems so long ago and its only been three days! Everything is so slurred together that I have to consciously think about what day it is. Thursday. How can it already be Thursday? That means only two days left, but there is sooo much more I want to do, but at the same time we’ve already done so much and how can you squeeze so much into such a short period of time. One week. One week in Guatemala. One.
So I think I left of when we had just finished our second day in Antigua. I woke up early that morning and Jenny and Jade and I went for a walk to find Pan Dulce or ‘Sweet Bread’. It alwasy amazes me how the human brain works. Some people can remember millions of song lyrics and recite them after not having heard the song in years. Me, well, I can go some place once and find my way there again and not get lost. I had remembered seeing a Pandeleria ‘bread store’ the day before, so we went and got bread, then walked to the central market to get coffee. It was a different experience being the one to translate because usually Emily or Wilmar just does it and I kinda just stand by and observe, but my Spanish being the best of the three of us, I did it. Not to say that Jenny and Jade didn’t hold their own, because they did, especially when I left them alone by accident. You see, I was really caught up in getting some Café con Leche and totally forgot that they might want me there to help them in their translating, but by the time I realized it, they had already figured everything out. Woooops. At least I got my café con leche. Never keep a Colombian from their café…it can only lead to bad things.
The rest of the day was an adventure to try to get from Antigua to Panajachel on the back roads of Guatemala. They don’t really have a highway system in the sense that they aren’t what Americans consider to be highways. They are just a jumbled mix of roads that people use like highways, but they are more like the old ‘Route 66’ that people just know about or know that it eventually goes to a certain place. Well, we got on the guatemalan version of route 66 for what was supposed to be an hour and it turned into a joyful two and a half hour ride to Pana (as the locals call it) where we had lots of quality bonding time with four of us snuggled up nice and comfy in the back seat of Wilmar’s car. It actually wasn’t that bad because the windows were open and Jade wound up sleeping across our laps like a nice 100 pound blanket. The combination of the two simply said ‘go to sleep Alicia. Just do it…. not like nike… but like sleep. just sleep.’ I woke up about half an hour from Pana deep in the mountains because we swerved around another car really quickly. In Guatemala there are no rules for driving. I mean I’m sure that there are, but not really. People do whatever they want and whenever they want. They pass each other without turn signals on two lane roads into on coming traffic, they turn around in the middle of intersections, shoved ten people in one car or in the trunk, and for some reason everyone seems to have an old Toyota truck. For real. En serio. Old Toyota trucks. Anyways, point being that the roads were ridiculously curvy and we would speed up only to have to break really hard two seconds later. Not going to lie, there were times where I was seriously worried that I was going to fly off a cliff in Guatemala.
So it turns out that I did fly off of a Cliff in Guatemala after all, just not in Wilmar’s car, but in the trustworthy hands of Lino, a German paraglider. We got to Pana really late the night before, maybe around nine, so we just walked around, talked with people and ate food from street vendors. Que RIIIIIICO! We had some Atol, a hot, sweet drink made from corn, quesadillas gringas (made with flour tortilla), rellenitos (a been filled sweet made from Plantain) and horchata fresca (a sweet drink made from rice). We were walking to the beach when I ran into a girl I went to high school with, Mariah. What small world. Holy poop. I literally haven’t seen this girl since graduation day and of all the places I could’ve seen her. Guatemala. Holy freakin’ poop. After catching up we went our separate ways ‘until we run into each other in another country’ and we walked to the beach then to bed. The next day we were walking to find a place to eat breakfast when Emily started talking to this guy who heard us speaking English. Turns out he had just gotten back from Paragliding and as any good salesman would do, he was offering us the chance to go. Normally I would’ve said no right off the bat, but how often are you going to be in Guatemala with your friends with the chance to jump off a mountain and fly over one of the biggest, most beautiful lakes the country has to offer? Once in a lifetime. You only live once, so why not live? Did I jump off the cliff…Heck yes I did! Duh!
Emily, Jenny and I were the ones who decided to go, so we left Wilmar, Jade and Ty with our things and we boarded the 1990 rusty red Toyota pickup and ventured up the mountain. The drive was breath taking because as the roads wound their way up the mountain side, the view got better and better. We saw onion fields, lush avocado farms, and the damage the from last years landslides as we climbed higher and higher. Finally after half an hour we reached the jump sight. The ride had taken what felt like a lifetime, but the next few minutes felt like seconds. Parachutes out. Backpacks on, buckled, tightened. Helmets on. One. Two. Three. Run Alicia, Run! I just remember thinking ‘oh my god, I’m about to run off a cliff…you only live once, why not’ then I ran, the wind lifted me and before I knew it, I was floating almost 2,000 feet in the air above Panajachel and Lake Atitlan.
I’ve never experienced a rush quite like that before. My senses were going crazy trying to adjust to dangling in the air with nowhere to go but down. After about five minutes I felt like I was able to take things in again and I began to notice the details on the ground below me. There were some incredible, multi-million dollar homes that looked like they were straight out of Hollywood, but then, just hundreds of feet below them on the same hill, there were shacks that barely had roofs holding them up. Such extremes in poverty, just feet away from each other…That image is vividly imprinted in my mind. Those people were so close in distance, but yet worlds away from each other. I didn’t have a lot of time to dwell on that because right after we went over the shack, my world was turned upside down again, but this time it was physically turned upside down with acrobatic tricks. When my head stopped spinning, we were above the lake and the city. How beautiful. Even on a cloudy day like the one we had, the water glimmered like crystal caught between the volcanoes that exerted their presence with a thick, cloudy fog that encased their peaks. So many rushes, so many emotions, so many sensations, revelations, so many beautiful things, but oh so many things lost to poverty and destruction… so many things… to think about and it all started because I jumped off a cliff in Guatemala…
That night we drove back to the city and got ready to go to The Official Mixed Rural School of El Chupadero and visit the kids! We had spent a lot of time during our nights in Antigua making goodie bags for the kids that were filled with pencils, erasers, stickers, hair ties, toothbrushes and toothpaste. So we packed the goodie bags up and headed off! When we pulled up, the kids saw and us came running to the fence. They were literally screaming and jumping so much that the poor fence seemed like it might break under the pressure. ‘como te llamas señorita!? Alicia?! Mi hermana se llama Alicia!’ What is your name miss?! Alicia?! My sister’s name is Alicia! Oh goodness, I don’t think I’ve ever seen any kids that excited before. It honestly made everything that we went through all semester worth wild. All the petty squabbles that we got it, all the cold nights selling cookies at the phi delt gates, all the time spent making posters, going to meetings, raising money and awareness, loosing sleep, everything. All of it was worth it the minute I saw those kids. So young, so full of life, so much potential, and soooo happy to see us. Little old us. A group of five American girls. Not Shakira or Enrique or any other famous person. Just us…five girls from America.
We said hi to the kids and introduced ourselves to the kids and the teachers, then the kids lined up by grade and gender so we could pass out the goodie bags. They were so cute! All of them said thank you, but sometimes it was in Spanish and other times they tried to use English for us. I was beaming. Legitimately could not wipe the smile off my face. They were so kind and just wanted to love us and show us how grateful they were. I mean…shoot! I don’t remember being that cute or sweet as a child, or any other kids for that matter. Heck. I’m pretty sure I was loud and obnoxious just like most little kids because I didn’t know when to shut my mouth haha. Anyways, after we passed all the bags out the kids were allowed to go home, but I don’t think a single one of them left without saying goodbye to at least one of us by giving us a kiss on the cheek and saying thank you again. After my 200 some kisses, the principle and teachers had a little reception for us, then showed us around the school as well as where our money would be used. Those bathrooms were appalling. They smelled, the doors were broken, and only two of them were semi-functional. I knew in that moment that I would have to come back. I couldn’t leave without promising myself that I would. I wouldn’t be doing my duty to humanity if I knew that those sweet, humble kids had to use those filthy broken bathrooms and eat from such an unsanitary kitchen, and I didn’t help them. I have the power to help them. I have to help them.
After we visited the school, we stayed with Emily’s family at her grandparent’s house in the countryside. It was a quick trip, but probably one of the best parts because it was a really authentic experience. We ate the chicken and vegetables that they grew in their yard, fresh squeezed juice, and homemade tortillas from an open fire. We slept under mosquito nets, got woken up by roosters, and howling puppies (kinda another story, but basically one of the puppies broke its leg in the night and scared the poop out of me and I jumped out of bed trying to find it and everyone was like ‘alicia, shut up, go back to sleep, its fine…I felt like crap when I found out it broke its leg L and I had gone back to sleep) and showered in rain water. We even went for a walk up the mountain side to see the coffee farm that her grandparents own. When we got back from our ‘walk’ which was more like a hike, Emily’s grandma and aunt had made us a delicious lunch! It was a homemade soup made with chicken from their own backyard, fresh tortillas and fresh limeade! Que rico! After cleaning up we said our good-byes, drove around the village, then headed off for the city again! Oh those car rides…lots of bonding J!
We got back a little late from Emily’s grandparents, so we explored the mall for a bit, then retired for the night! Sleep was so good. Trying to do everything we wanted to do and travel everywhere we wanted to go was so draining, but soooo worth it when we finally did get to sleep! Wilmar and I got up and went to the store to make breakfast and then we sat and talked with Tia and Tio for a while before we ventured to zona una! Guatemala city is broken into zones to tell what part is what, so zona uno is where we went to go to the underground market and see the old downtown. The market was a big combination of all the mercados we had been to thus far. It had a little bit of all the trinkets and trades. There were bags, signs, toys, jewelry, crafts, work workings, clothes and so much more. It was incredibly overwhelming to constantly hear ‘pasa adelante’ every three steps and to see people so upset when you didn’t come in to look at their things. They took it so personally. So personally. I remember when we were in Antigua, one of the Indigenous girls was trying to sell Ty some scarfs and Ty kept trying to nicely say no and she finally said ‘maybe later, but probably not’ just so she’d leave her alone. I came over to help her out and we started walking away and the girl went ‘you said later. Business is Business. You’re cheap’. I was so angry in the moment that the girl could be so rude, but looking back on it, it was really quite heart breaking that she was so dependent on begging tourists. We didn’t experience anything quite as upsetting as that anywhere else thank goodness.
Although everything was beautiful, after about an hour it all began to look the same, so we set off to explore zona una! Emily’s cousin Tony took us around the square where the old Presidential Palace and the Cathedral were located. The buildings seemed as if they were trapped in time as solid memorials of the time they were built in. The cent of the square connected the two buildings with a grand fountain and a Guatemalan flag flying high in the sky. The other side of the square was connected to ‘la sexta’ or the sixth avenue that is in the process of being restored to the standards that Guatemala will be applying to all of zona una and the other zones in the coming years. The streets had statues, music, couples dancing, vendors, and new upper scale stores. As we reached the end of the renovated areas, it was as if we were crossing the railroad tracks because one half of the street was filled with color and pretty, clean buildings, but the other was dirty, ramshackled ones that had been neglected for years.
We drove around for a while after that, just taking in the different zonas, the different levels of wealth, the new architecture meeting the old. That’s what it came down to I think. New versus old. Guatemala City was a clash of the old Spanish influence meeting influence of new times. An old soul of a city trapped in a new, high pace world. We wound up at the mall, just walking around and taking it in, but it was so similar to our malls in America. Actually, it even had nicer stores than the malls in Dayton where I’m from believe it or not. I don’t know…its things like that tha make me think that Guatemala is a second world country rather than a third world country. There is so much advancement and so many modern things, so much money, so many stores, industries and technologies, but at the same time amidst that there is so much poverty, destruction, despair and loss.
The last night in Guatemala was so bitter-sweet. I felt like I was finally understanding the Guatemalan dialect of Spanish, I was appreciating the people, the culture, the food, the life, the…well…everything. I fell in love with Guatemala. It may not be my country, but I think I found a piece of myself there, or at least a piece of who I want to be. To come to that realization, then have to leave was really heart breaking. At the same time, the last night was probably the best night I had there. We all just hung out, listened to music, talked, danced, walked around the city, and enjoyed each other’s company. The whole trip was such a bonding experience that I couldn’t have predicted. I mean I already knew everyone from getting ready for the trip, but honestly, it wouldn’t have been nearly as good of an experience if I hadn’t had those other four girls or Emily’s family for that matter. Tia and Tio were so great and Wilmar was so amazingly generous to give up his time to drive us around and haul our butts to the airport at all hours because we didn’t book the same flights… haha woops. Wilmar took me to the airport alone because my flight was so early, but it was so sad. The night before I had jokingly grabbed onto a tree and said “no quiero irrrrrr de guate!” (I don’t want to leave Guatemala!” and refused to let go until I was tickled profusely by everyone haha. I thought about that as I was approaching the airport…Wow. One week. That’s it. One week in Guate. Such as short period of time, but so many long lasting memories, so much fun, so many impacting people and experiences that I’ll never forget. Thanks Guate… De verdad, eres bonita. Mi Guate bonita.