Central America | Guatemala | Highlands | Quetzaltenango ( Xela) – Vale la pena
Sometimes you have a moment when you know that you were right – purely and perfectly right. That you were right to listen to every hunch, feeling, and instinct in your body telling you to just go. Even if leaving your life behind to trek around Central America for a year sounded a little crazy when you actually said it out loud.
But then you find yourself standing in the back of a pick-up truck, with the wind whipping through your hair, as you careen and ascend higher and higher along the winding roads of the mountains, until you’re actually driving through the clouds – yes, you’re in the clouds … and then it all seems so simple,and you just know – of course, you were right!
The pickup truck is the standard mode of transportation up to the Fuentes Georginas, natural pools heated by sulfur springs. For less than $2, you can bathe in the hot springs, in all of their tranquility, surrounded by soft curtains of the trees and flowers that blanket the moutainsides. The other students and I, guided by one of our teachers, took a bus to Zunil, and then hopped into the back of the pickup, gripping the few cagelike bars as we rounded corners on our way to the Fuentes. It had been a beautiful day and the sun was shining when we started. As we ascended in the mountains, the chilly air blew through our thin sweatshirts and tangled our hair. We held tight to our roller coaster truck and absorbed the scenery – towering green mountains enclosing miles of farmland, from which we get our daily portions of arroz, pappas, cebollas, and zanahorias. Indigenous people worked the land as we sped by.
Nothing really happened, per se, during this afternoon trip, except the momentary, magical confirmation, that without a doubt, I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
Leaving all of my loved ones, two hometowns, and the only career I’ve ever known, was frightening and difficult. And, after only 3 weeks away, it continues to be. Every day brings different, and often confusing, emotions. At the exact same moment, I can have completely contradictory emotions – painful homesickness and liberating feelings of freedom. I have been in the company of many people – mostly other students at my Spanish language school- and yet felt completely and utterly alone and lonely.
This is humbling – pure and simple. I converse like a 7 year old, at best. I have realized my shameful ignorance of Latin American history and the indefensible role that the United States has played in its devastation. I know that I have never known struggle – true struggle – and probably never will, due to the mere circumstance of birth.
But the fried platanos you can buy for one quetzal on the bus – so salty and satisfying – a little sweeter than potato chips! And we have this great bakery – I had this amazing donut yesterday! And I hailed a minivan taxi by myself last night! These are inexplicably exciting moments for me. It is amazing how I am filled with such joy and such profound sadness on a minute-to-minute basis.
But the thrill of the adventure is so seductive – everything is new and unpredictable. When we took a day trip to Chichicastenango last Sunday, to visit the famous tourist-focused market, I felt these slight, excited tremors in my body upon boarding the bus. I absorbed the scenery of mountains and farms, and felt the cool air tickle my feet as we ascended, and… was…. happy… truly happy.
The market was typical – noisy, crowded, overwhelming in the sights, sounds, smells, and energetic selling and bargaining. But the trip back on the bus was an even more memorable experience. The bus was so packed that we all had to squeeze through the aisle towards the back, and stand until seats opened up. I wound up straddling two seats to sit partly in the aisle. About a 1/2 hour into the ride on roads curled like a slithering snake, I suddenly felt something liquid and warm hit my foot. The sick nino next to me had been so quiet, that it took me a minute to realize he had thrown up on my foot. Meanwhile, in the front of the bus, another student had managed a seat next to the driver. Whether this was preferable to standing is debatable. As my friend made herself comfortable on an overturned paint bucket, the driver proceeded to look at her (NOT the road) and chat, and offer some fruit, which he peeled while driving the bus with his elbows.
That is life here – well, for the traveler. I actually have a normal routine. I wake up, and have breakfast (cereal and toast usually). I go to class in the mornings and practice Spanish conversation and grammar with my teacher. In the afternoons, there are different activities organized by the school. And nights are generally uneventful, with a small dinner of huevos revueltos and frijoles negros. Some nights we go out dancing, and I salsa and merengue until I think I’ll pass out from the exertion.
The mundane and the incredible, the joy and the pain, the peace and the fear, all live with me, in me, simultaneously here, everyday. I left my ‘normal’ life to experience this.
Y, “vale la pena.” And, it’s worth it.