Dispatches From the Road: Guatemala: What Not to Bring To A Third World Country

Central and South America, Dispatches from the Road, Guatemala, Solo Travel — By on August 31, 2010 at 4:42 pm

San Marcos, Guatemala is a tiny town on the shores of Lake Atitlan, deep in the Western Guatemalan Highlands. Lush volcanoes and Mayan villages pepper the shore, and with clear views of both, San Marcos has become Guatemala’s epicenter of zen and spirituality. People come here to cook, to read, to study Spanish, to write, to do yoga and to be alone. Precisely what I thought I wanted to do  before $60,000 worth of grad school loans prevent me from ever doing that again.

Turns out, I suck at anticipating what I want. Or what I need. Or, really, deciding anything, at all, in advance.

For example, I came to Guatemala with a rolling suitcase.

I had fretted over this decision for hours. After a semester abroad in Prague, I was well aware that, for me, carrying a pack is like an oompa-loompa trying to tote around a teenage boy. I am simply too small.

Plus, I planned to remain relatively stationary: two weeks at a language school in Antigua; two weeks at a yoga center on Lake Atitlan; two more weeks at school in Quetzaltenengo. I wanted horizontal luggage, with easy access, that I could simply pick up and tote across the occasional cobblestone.

And after arriving in a mountainous third world country with a rolling suitcase, I traveled to a tiny mountain town under the assumption that I wanted to be alone and do yoga for two weeks straight (and yes, at this point, I had procured a backpack.)

However, although I had traveled solo to Guate, I hadn’t been alone since I arrived. I had met someone in the shuttle from the airport to Antigua. We had found a circle of friends, spent every day of the last two weeks together and even entertained a brief affair. I didn’t know what it meant to be alone in a foreign country, much less in a town where hippies reign and it takes an hour to get a pizza because the restaurant has to turn on the oven.

The second day in San Marcos, my friend left to continue his travels, and for the first time since I’d arrived in Guatemala, I was alone. I went to yoga and found someone staring into space at a table under a thatched roof, but when I said hello, they just stared at me with empty eyes and smiled, I assume because they had taken a vow of silence. The soul-searching was so intense, it made me sad.

When the skies opened, and the afternoon rain began to fall, I sat in my hotel room-the private room I had specifically requested–and began to cry. I had declined a friend’s invitation to El Salvador to stay in this town, and now that I had what I thought I wanted, I realized that I’d rather be on a bus towards a friend–even if only for two days–than sitting here alone. I want to share solitude with someone, too.

I threw on an oversized blue poncho and flip-flops and wandered around in the rain, searching for phone service. Unfortunately, San Marcos’ spiritual energy apparently knocked out all phone reception, so I stomped around for an hour, bawling because I was in shock, and had lost my friend, and couldn’t get a pizza, and eventually I stumbled into the hotel restaurant, sopping wet and sobbing. Eight Guatemalan men immediately stopped talking and stared at me.

“Lo siento.” Gasp. “Lo siento.” Gasp. “Necessito hablar contigo, por favor.” Gasp. “Alli.”

The receptionist followed me into the office, and I started babbling in Spanish about how I needed to leave, even though I’d just booked four nights at the hotel, but I was crying so hard, I could barely speak English. Guatemalans are a kind a patient bunch, and he found someone who spoke English.

“Did someone rub you the wrong way?” he asked. “Here, at the hotel?”

“No, no, no.”

“OK, I just wanted to make sure.”

I was so embarrassed I made up a tragic story about my friend in El Salvador, and they returned half of my money for the week.

Feeling altogether silly about myself, I took the first llancha to Panajachel, asked where I could go (Antigua or Xela), spent a minute hem-hawing and then booked a ticket onward to Xela. As per my original plan. I promptly changed my mind three times over the next two hours, ended up in Xela anyway, paid for one hotel, found some friends and a hotel I liked better. “Lo siento!” I cried, as I lugged my bags out of Hotel Horatio. “Keep the money!”

The next morning, I followed my new friends to a sauna on a hill, decided halfway I’d rather check out language schools, visited four, picked one, decided I’d rather go to Antigua and booked a shuttle through a company called Altiplano’s. Then, I met some people visiting some cool villages the next morning, changed my shuttle, heard from my friends in Antigua that they were going to Semuc Chempey, decided I’d rather do that, changed my shuttle back to the original time and then was told it was actually full and ended up taking a 3 PM bus to Antigua, where I promptly had my laptop stolen from under my nose at The Black Cat Inn, while I was giving the receptionist my passport. I needed to file a police report the next day, so I called the shuttle company’s emergency hotline.

“Hello, Altiplano’s”

“Hi, William?”

“Bla-eer! How are you?”

It is a terrible thing when the man at the shuttle company recognizes your voice.

Perro asi es la vida. Such is life.

When I came to Guatemala, I expected to travel to three places, do things that were “Guatemalical,” as my Dutch friend would say, and emerge a stronger being. I had this idea that travel needed to be something independent and fluid, that staying in one place or following the same friends would be a cop-out.

But if I have learned anything from this trip, it’s that one should not hold expectations for anything. For people, for places. For luggage. And though that may be a little sad, somehow a loss of innocence, I also believe it’s also smart. And the key to optimism, both at home and on the road.

And you might even end up in Honduras, scuba diving with these two great Aussie guys instead:

For more information on Altiplano’s, the best shuttle service in all the world, go here.

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