My first international trip was in 2005—unless you count our family vacation to London when I was eight. But since my only takeaways from that trip were a souvenir photo from the London Zoo of me smiling like a maniac as a photoshopped tiger was about to devour my head and a brief and unproductive obsession with double decker buses, I maintain that my first real international trip was as a high school senior in 2005. And I mean real.
My brother Matt was in the Peace Corps in Guatemala, so my dad and I went to visit him over my Easter break. As soon as I stepped off the plane, I knew I was out of my league. The airport at the time consisted of sticks and sweat (at least that’s how I remember it nine years later), and I’m pretty sure a family of chickens had made the open-air edifice their home.
To me, Guatemala smelled like dirt, corn, burning wood, livestock, and fruit so sweet it makes your teeth tingle all rolled into one fascinating aroma. It was completely different than anything I had ever known, and I L-O-V-E-D it. The strangeness of it all, the sensory overload, the fact that I was an anonymous peon in this crazy loud vibrant country. I was hooked.
A few of the memories that still stand out almost a decade later:
1. Walking through the meat market with flies buzzing past very dead, fleshy pigs and other unidentified meats swinging from hooks. No one else seemed fazed; I had nightmares.
2. Realizing that the large black bucket in the middle of my brother’s modest apartment floor was in fact a “bathtub,” which you use to “clean” yourself. Needless to say, my crash course in pila bathing (pouring questionably clean and certainly cold water over yourself while sitting in a bucket in an attempt to de-grime oneself) wasn’t a great success.
3. Sitting on a stranger’s lap while another stranger sat on my lap in an awkward Guatemalan-Gringa sandwich whilst riding a chicken bus. If you’ve ever been to Guatemala, you’ve seen these brightly colored, “retired” (a.k.a. could no longer pass inspection in the U.S.) school buses that serve as public transportation. Affectionately known as chicken buses, they are always completely packed beyond capacity, and they will kill you if you aren’t vigilant. Even if you are vigilant, let’s be real, your chances aren’t great.
4. Looking out of Matt’s apartment window and seeing rows upon rows of battered tin roofs, dry dirt walls, tattered torn tarps, and barefoot children playing soccer amid fenced in chickens and abandoned rubber tires. This was my first glimpse at true poverty, and it stared me right in the face every single day.
Guatemala changed me in ways that have impacted my entire life. I chose to study Spanish in college, one of the smartest decisions I have ever made (and believe me, I have a lot of smart decisions to choose from … none are coming to mind right now, but trust me, there are a lot; like at least three to five really great decisions). I’ve worked as a Spanish translator at a law firm, an English teacher in Spain, and now at Cooperative for Education, a non-profit organization dedicated to breaking the cycle of poverty through education in … well, wouldn’t ya know it, Guatemala.
It is a bit uncanny that Guatemala remains a constant theme in my life. Guatemala taught me that I knew absolutely nothing about the world, and was the impetus for my desire to travel as often and as far as possible. Last year I was fortunate enough to travel to Istanbul, Thailand and Guatemala. This year, I’ve been to the Cayman Islands, Brazil and … Guatemala. Not only do I get to return to Guatemala often thanks to my job (check out our tours!), but it is the measuring stick with which I inevitably compare other travel experiences.
Guatemala was my first travel love, one that I revisit eagerly and often. It isn’t always easy to be there; the poverty can feel overwhelming. My chest tightens when I witness a stunning sunset over a crystal clear lake surrounded by sweeping volcanoes, and then see the shadows of barefoot farmers ambling down the mountainside after a backbreaking day in the fields, knowing that they are returning home to a few corn tortillas and a dirt floor.
Guatemala consists of equal parts heartache and optimism. I feel this most acutely when I visit the schools we work with, and talk with the parents of the students. They suffer daily, will tell you the most heart-wrenching stories of loss, and yet are so eager and excited for their children to have opportunities to study, opportunities they themselves never had.
To me, the most transformative travel experiences occur when you can break out of your comfort zone, experience something completely unique and return home with a new sense of purpose. Guatemala gave me all three, and for that I will be forever in debt. No matter how far I travel, I always find myself returning to the memories of my first love. The smells, the sounds, the self-realization that I, a freckly, awkward 18-year-old girl, had just changed forever.
See you soon, Guate.
Photo (Flickr CC) by Pedro Szekely