Another country, another flight, another airport. Similar procedures, similar security to pass, similar scams to deal with. With Guatemala being the nineteenth country on this trip, all of this has mostly become routine for me. I’ve written before about the mixed sentiments of excitement and anxiety I usually have when moving on alone to a completely new country. This time though, things were different. After all I wasn’t just arriving in Guatemala. For the second time this year, I would be reunited with Maria.
She’d been in town since the night before I arrived, and was waiting for me in our double room (to hell with dorms!) at the hostel. Even though we’ve met up in places pretty much all around the world by now, it remains slightly surreal to encounter someone you know so well in a place you don’t know at all. And yet, after just the briefest amount of time you’re reminded of the way you live in the world together, and everything starts to normalize in a profoundly reassuring way. No matter where you are.
We traded Guatemala City the next day for more exciting pastures. The highly uninteresting and rather dangerous capital is nothing more than a rather desolate rigid grid of streets with single-story concrete houses and fenced off storefronts with heavily armed security guards everywhere. Being out on foot at night will almost certainly get you robbed, and there are no real sights to speak of during the day. Although, in the short time we were there we managed to get drafted as star guests in a local street artist’s performance, easy targets being twice as tall as anyone else in the audience. I had to slo-mo battle to not have to leave my better half in Guatemala, she obliterated him in the ensuing dance-off. And everybody loved it.
Luckily the rest of Guatemala turned out to be absolutely amazing. Maria had signed us up for a three-day hike from the town of Xela to Lake Atitlan, and so just two days later we set off into the foothills with a group of twenty others, guided by volunteers from the lovely Quetzaltrekkers organization. The hike was neither too difficult nor too easy and absolutely beautiful, we slept in tiny villages along the way, washed ourselves with buckets in clay-iglo-like Mayan Temazcal steam saunas, and even had a time trial high-altitude hill-climbing competition. Which I do have to elaborate more on because despite daunting competition from the five super fit (and arrogant) ex-military Israeli’s in our group, I summited faster than anyone except the lead guide. The taste of victory and blood from high-altitude trachea dehydration was sweet, yet slightly rusty. We woke up at 3am on the final morning to watch the sun rise over the most beautiful lake I have ever seen. The sharp edges of three volcanoes cutting through the haziness of the morning light, overlooking the mesmerizing lakefronts and sleepy towns dotting the banks. We made our descent into San Pedro town and settled in for a few days of well-deserved rest at Lake Atitlan. During the day we jumped off wooden ramps into the lake, swam and ate, at night we celebrated my first ever Saint Patrick’s Day with a bunch of splendid Irish people from the trek. Sadly we were unable to turn the lake green, but it was a fantastic evening nonetheless.
We were a week in so obviously it was time for a shopping day (or so I was told). But not just any kind of shopping. We took a string of so-called chicken buses to the town of Chichicastenango to visit the biggest market in Central America, particularly famous for its textiles. Chicken buses are essentially decommissioned American school buses (the famous yellow ones from the movies), that have been refitted to suit the needs of Guatemalan public transportation. A stronger engine to brave the sharp inclines in the hilly landscape, more seats to accommodate the approximately 200 people that were on our 60 capacity bus and a sound system pumping reggaeton at decibel levels that would be illegal on most European festivals. And as the name suggests, plenty of room for bagged chickens on the luggage racks. All of that going 60km per hour through sharp bends next to steep cliffs for several hours and you know this has to be the cheapest mode of transportation. But it was hilariously fun and we got where we needed to be. We bargained in broken Spanish for a beautiful piece of textile, sampled some local chicken with rice and beans, and made our way on to Antigua.
As the former colonial capital, Antigua is postcard pretty, and quite touristically developed. We stuck around for a little to recalibrate, before moving on to the warmth of the Caribbean cost, more specifically the mesmerizing Rio Dulce and super laid-back town of Livingston. It’s remarkable how different the people and the setting was within a single country. Darker-skinned people from Garifuna descent, extremely easy-going and helpful. Scores of beautiful storks lining the trees along the rivers and the coast, wild pelicans fishing in the teeming water, lush palm trees everywhere. We crossed the open waters on a tiny motor boat and arrived in Belize, constituting my most unique border crossing to date. There we settled in a tiny coastal town for a week, with nothing but the quiet, sunny beach and salty sea water to entertain us. It was one of the best weeks of my trip.
And just as suddenly as we met, so abrupt was goodbye. One last day at a gorgeous four-star hotel marked the end of our time together, and I am once again on my own. As I continue on to Panama and South America for the remaining four months of my trip I feel excited for the prospect of all the unexpected yet to come, but simultaneously yearningly looking forward to returning home at the end, to everything and everyone I’ve left behind.
April 3rd, 2017