Hola, my millions of friends and fans! Hold your breath no longer — the fabled Guatemala blog has arrived. Please, let me warn you… this is likely to be the longest blog, ever. EVER! If you’re not interested in that, and just want to see my photos, they are posted on my new experimental gallery. Any of you web gurus who know of better gallery programs (not smugmug, people), please give me some input.
Then sit, and hold palaver with me.
Some of you have wondered, “Why Guatemala?” (No, it was not a mission trip, though that would have been nobler.) This trip has actually been in the works for years. I met my good friend Maria Fernanda (better known as Mafer) Madriz at Harding University about 7 years ago, when I was still young and in college. My sophomore year, Mafer roomed with several of my closest friends. Since this is already the longest blog ever (EVER!), it is as good a time as any for you to hear about D16. If you care enough to read all my ramblings here, you should know of D16, for it is difficult to understand me without understanding such a crucial influence in my life.
Ah, yes. Good ol’ apartment D16. To this day, it commands only the warmest and fuzziest of feelings for me. At Harding, guys are not allowed inside a girl’s apartment (yes, I know, crazy rules… get over it), and so I spent a good portion of my days and nights that year camping outside the door, until (a) the girls came out to play or (b) their R.A. kicked me out of the complex at curfew in our nightly ritual.
As far as blood siblings, my little brother, Leslie (whom I love and respect deeply), is all that I have. At that time, though, the girls of D16 were big sisters to me, and that is how I thought of them. Well, let me be honest, I did think of them as sisters — except they were kind of like the hot older step sister that you would date if you could, since you’re not technically related. My friend Anibal Tamacas and I were in this boat together, along with some other guys (we alone were the faithful two.) When the girls spent time with other guys, we were jealous, found out who they were, and ran our own background checks. Regardless of how said checks turned out, we would still scowl and look at these interlopers with disdain. I recall spending more than a few cold winter nights outside the apartment (the wind made things worse in the corridor) pretending not to be cold, just so I could be near them.
In short, I worshiped the ground they walked on, and, had I been able to find a God-pleasing way to marry all of them simultaneously, I would have. There are many great stories I could tell, but suffice it to say that I thank the Lord for the influence of each of these Godly women in my life, and for the impact that they have had and will have in the Church. Below is a picture of them all. Starting left to right, we have: Nivia, Danette, Buffy, Mafer, and Nene. Nivia didn’t actually live in D16, but I was very close to her as well, and she is as much a sister to me as any of them. I explain about D16 mostly so that you will get to know some of the people who have helped make me who I am today, but also for you to know how it came to be that I have a friend in Guatemala.
About a week after my birthday in August, I realized that it would be possible for me to take a week off work, and that it would be relatively cheap to do this Guatemala thing (less than $670 for a round-trip flight with Delta from Pensacola). Half a dozen e-mails later, I had a plane ticket and Mafer had managed to produce an itinerary for the entire week. As many of you know, I began to spout repeatedly that I was going to Guatemala and that I was going to climb a volcano. On 9/23 around 6:30 a.m., I boarded a plane for Atlanta.
If you travel internationally much from the United States, you probably have been through concourse E in the Atlanta airport. Arriving there sent me back almost 5 years to when I left for Greece. It made me happy. The moment didn’t last long, as I needed to get on the plane for Guatemala. I was little-kid excited again, for the first time in a long time. It was a good feeling. I got on the plane, (a little small for an international flight, I was thinking at the time), and sat down next to a lady who looked to be about 55.
As I almost always do, I said hello and tried to strike up a conversation with her. She barely answered and didn’t seem interested in talking. Of course that doesn’t typically work with me, so I tried other avenues of conversation, still to no avail. I was a little baffled, especially since I am a supremely charming (and humble) individual with loads of interesting things to talk about.
About 30 minutes into the flight, I noticed she was reading something. Being my usual nosy self, I looked at her book, and noticed it was in French. I started talking to her again (this time in French) and got much better results. I found out that she was with a group of women from Quebec giving humanitarian aid in Guatemala. They were going to be there about a month, so they are probably still there now. Who says French is a useless language? We talked for a good bit of the flight, and I was happy to have salvaged a good talk out of the ordeal, thereby ignoring most of the on-flight movie (X-Men 3, which I actually like) and honing my much neglected French skills.
Surprisingly, the flight to Guatemala from Atlanta was only about 3 ½ hours long. During the final approach, it became evident that Guate is an intensely beautiful country. It only boasts the landmass of, say, Ohio (yes Lis, I know, go Buckeyes…), but it has almost every type of geographical feature you could imagine, from beaches to jungles, to volcanoes. We landed in the midst of an intense lightening storm; I knew I was going to love the place.
After I retrieved my backpack from the luggage-go-round, I made my way through the maze that is Guatemala International Airport (they are doing some major remodeling there). It ejected me through an exit on the side of the building, where I was greeted by no less than 300 Guatemalans, presumably waiting for someone(s). I have no idea who or what they were waiting for, but after a quick survey, I concluded two things: 1) they were not waiting for me (this came as somewhat of a relief). 2) none of them was Mafer. I paced back and forth in front of the doors for about 15 minutes, hoping to catch sight of Mafer. I declined several offers to purchase souvenirs and taxi rides.
Soon after my short introduction to the country, Mafer arrived in her VW Polo, which I don’t think VW manufactures in the U.S. I refrained from tackling her (I wasn’t sure how my 300 buddies would react), but it was a joy to see her again after so long. The whole ride back to her house, I chattered as any 4-year old does on the first trip to Disney world. First, we went to Mafer’s house so I could see her abuelita (grandma). I had met her at Mafer’s graduation from Harding. It was good to see her again; she is a very sweet lady. Next, we went to meet the Purcells, a very kind missionary family who let me stay in one of their rooms for the week. You can see pictures of them in my gallery, but this is their house where I stayed:
That night, we went to my overall favorite Guatemalan city, Antigua. It is quiet, and has a very cool park in the middle with a fountain. It has cobblestone streets and reminds me a little of downtown Barcelona. We decided to eat dinner at an Italian restaurant called Tre Fratelli. Afterwards, Mafer showed me the Hotel Casa Santo Domingo. It has a really nice outside garden area in the middle, some old catacombs underneath, and an outside chapel.
That first night, they were having a wedding in the chapel, and several hundred candles illuminated the entire garden. It was really beautiful. We were the only people not dressed in suits, but it was really nice to walk around quietly and appreciate all the effort that undoubtedly went into the decorations.
One thing I failed to mention is that at this point, I had not slept for nearly 2 days. The night before I left, I saw Oklahoma at the Pensacola Little Theater with my friends Sara and Courtney from Montgomery. I did not sleep at all, because I needed to finish packing, and I was too excited to catch more than maybe 2 hours of sleep during the flights. So, after a few hours in Antigua, my body was about ready to crash. We went back to Mafer’s house and I met her little cousin, Javier. He is learning to play the guitar, so we jammed a bit. When I could no longer keep my eyes open, Mafer took me back to the Purcell’s, and I finally slumbered.
The next morning, I went with Mafer and her abuelita to the market. It kind of reminded me of a flea market here because it was inside. Also, all the vegetable, fruit, and meat vendors had their own stands and you paid each one separately. There was one guy with a machete cutting up fresh pineapple with giving out pieces to taste. It was delicious. There were a lot of flies, but honestly, that didn’t bother me at all. Abuelita taught me the names of pretty much every fruit and vegetable there, and was very patient with me while I massacred Spanish.
After the market, we went to Church at the congregation Mafer attended when she was little. It was definitely different than the congregations I’ve typically attended. They had a talented worship band; I learned some new worship songs in Spanish, too. They used to have a preacher, but sadly, he died about a year ago. This led to something that I totally did not expect, which was the fact that his wife has been doing most of the preaching since then. Now I imagine those of you who read my blog may come from varied religious backgrounds, so I’m not sure whether that would come as a surprise for anyone else. Anyway, I’m not going to take a long time explaining my views on the subject, but if you care to find out why it surprised me, read 1 Timothy 2:12.
After Church, we met up with some of Mafer’s friends and her siblings, and we prepared ourselves to climb the volcano called Pacaya. Mafer and her family are in shape, I guess, because all the way up they barely drank any water and didn’t seem tired. They spent a lot of time waiting for me, and I am probably the reason it took a couple of hours to climb instead of 45 minutes. At the top of the first trail, the mountain levels out a bit. At this point, the ground turns from dirt and stone into black, brittle rock. This is actually lava that has cooled and solidified. This section is only about the width of a football field or two, and then the terrain becomes steep again as you ascend towards the crater. The day we climbed, there was a small river of lava flowing from the side of the volcano. It was about 8-9 feet wide and was incredible to behold.
I thought we were not going to go any higher, but Mafer’s siblings wanted to climb up the side of the last peak and summit at the actual crater to look inside. To get to the last peak, you actually had to cross over the little river of lava that was flowing from the side of the mountain. At the mouth of this lava fountain, there was some caked up lava that had ostensibly solidified enough to support the weight of a human. It was still hot enough to melt your shoes if you stood on it for more than 2 seconds, though, and one of Mafer’s friends who was with us found this out personally. She could not climb up the last peak because of this, and her husband was kind enough to stay with her. I did not have confidence in this little half-cooled bridge, and so I decided to stay as well.
I was more than a little concerned that Mafer was climbing this peak for a few reasons: the sun was already setting, the crater itself was spewing smoke, and the entire (very steep) peak was composed of brittle lava rock that had disintegrated into a sort of sand, so it was difficult to climb. I waited with Mafer’s friends for about 2 hours, and I began to get a little worried. Apparently, on the way back they had lost the trail (it was pitch black) and had been headed directly towards a pool of lava that had accumulated at the bottom. They could not find a way around, and the lava-sand continued to cause them to slip downward. They ended up having to climb back up to find the path, but they did find it and make it back safely.
It took us another hour or so to climb back down, because on the way back, all of us lost the initial path. We ended up on the wrong side of the lava rocks, and we couldn’t see anything. Fortunately, we ran across some other hikers who helped guide us back, and we escaped from the volcano unharmed. One day I would like to go back and climb up the crater myself, but definitely not after nightfall. We didn’t get back to Guatemala City until very late, and we were all exhausted. Bed felt really good that night, my legs were beat.
Mafer had to work on Monday morning, so I got to hang out with her abuelita for the day. Abuelita doesn’t speak any English, and my Spanish is pretty poor, so we had a good time. We ended up going to a supermarket, and she told me about her daughter who lives in California, how she didn’t have a land-line telephone in her house, and how she believed there was no trash on the streets at all in the States.
We had to walk pretty slowly, and this poses a problem in Guatemala. There, the pedestrians have no rights and pretty much look out for themselves. On the way back from the market, we had to cross a street, and as we got to the middle, I heard this engine getting louder and louder. I turned around and realized that there was little hope for us to make it. To make matters worse, she fell down (probably because we were trying to escape the oncoming car) in the middle of the road. Fortunately, the driver of said car had mercy and did not kill us. Mafer is still making fun of me for pushing her elderly grandma down. That’s just the kind of guy I am.
That night Mafer and I went to a movie. I don’t recommend The Breakup (or Living with my Ex as it reads in Spanish) unless you like listening to Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn yell at each other for 2 hours. The company was good, though, and I like going to theaters in other countries.
Tuesday and Wednesday were great; Mafer had both days off and we had a great time. Initially I had wanted to go explore Tikal, but we were already tired and I think relaxing was the best call anyway. Tuesday we went to Panajachel, a city that hosts Lake Atitlan. It is definitely a tourist town, but it was fun, there are good places to eat, and it is very relaxed. We went to a hotel and paid them to use their parking lot (this reduces the chances of having your car stolen) and their pool.
We swam a little, but mostly we read books and slept in the sun. I started reading Blue Like Jazz, which I finished later in the trip. (I liked most of it, and am glad I read it.) There’s something I love about sleeping and doing nothing when I’m traveling overseas. It’s so decadent, like you have all the time in the world to do whatever you want. When I was backpacking in Europe, I split up from my group and spent a day alone in Paris. I slept in until noon. That was a great day.
Before we left Panajachel, Mafer needed to visit a friend, but she couldn’t leave the car unsupervised because we didn’t have any legal places to park. I sat by myself in the car, and this was the result:
Wednesday, we went out to Puerto San Jose, on Guatemala’s Pacific coast. Once again, we rented a parking spot and pool usage at a hotel. Right as we went out the back gate directly onto the beach, the attendant warned us about the riptide in the water, and said it was very strong. I’m so very glad he did. When we got to the beach, the first thing I noticed is that all the sand is completely black. This makes it much hotter than the white sand that I’m used to in Pensacola. We lay on towels for a little bit, but the heat was brutal, so we went in for a quick swim.
Usually I would swim out a few hundred feet to enjoy the water, but thanks to God, the man at the hotel warned us of the riptide. Because of the warning, I only went out to where the water reached my knees to test it. Within a minute or two, it became apparent that the under toe was vicious. With the water only up to my knees, it almost pulled me out. Mafer was actually a few yards closer to the shore than I was, and it actually knocked her down and began to drag her out. Usually I don’t have the presence of mind to act quickly in a situation like that, but I’m sure God was watching out for us, and I was able to get over to her and hold her in place until she could get up and we could get out of the water. It was a little scary for a bit, and we did not get back into the water afterwards. Once again, we are indebted to that man (and to God, of course) for warning us and keeping us out of a much worse situation.
We explored the beach for awhile (we pretty much had the whole shore to ourselves) and then headed back for home. That night, we went back to Antigua and had dinner at a really nice restaurant in the hotel there. Afterwards, we found a museum that connected underground between the parking garage we used and the hotel itself. If you ever make it to Guatemala, definitely visit Antigua.
Thursday morning, Mafer had to work, and she took me along with her so I could see the office. She works for Compassion International. If you’ve never heard of them, their goal is to help impoverished children out of difficult situations and give them opportunities that all children should have. I met some really cool people, but mostly read the rest of my book while she went to meetings.
Next, we went to a Christian bookstore; I finally got my Spanish Bible. That afternoon, we ate Japanese for lunch, and then headed to the Purcells. Brenda had made an appointment for me to meet with one of the directors at the school where her children attend. Apparently they’re looking for teachers, so they showed me around and gave me some information about the school. That meeting went pretty well, and it seems like a good school, although if the Lord called me that route, I’d have to raise my own support to do it, since they do not have a salary.
That afternoon, we went to McDonald’s to meet Mafer’s Dad. He works a lot, so I was really thankful he took the time so that I could meet him. He is a very funny guy, and knows all the lyrics to Red Red Wine, Killing Me Softly, and several other classic songs. He also had some good tips on life, including going to bed early and putting your legs vertical for a little while each day to provide your brain with some circulation. He seemed like a nice guy, and I had fun talking with him. From there, we met up with Brenda and her daughter, Leah for dinner at Chilli’s (yes, there was one in Guatemala.)
Friday and Saturday there was a huge conference at one of the churches called El Shaddai. It was the annual global leadership summit connected with the Willow Creek Church, where Bill Hybels is the minister. I didn’t see Mafer much during those two days, as she was working pretty non-stop. Her friend from Compassion, Julie, hung out with me the whole time and was very nice to me. Julie used to work in advertising, but decided she wanted to go a different direction, and that is how she started working with Compassion. She is a remarkably caring individual, an incredible guitarist (blows me away), and a talented linguist as well. She was very patient helping me with my Spanish.
Friday nights, the youth group at Mafer’s congregation has a Bible study, and they were very kind to let me lead it. Of course, Mafer had to translate almost everything because of my poor Spanish, but I really enjoyed getting to meet the kids there. They really seemed to have hearts that were seeking the truth, and they all seemed happy to be there, not as though they were sad to sacrifice a Friday night in pursuit of the Word of God. They were in John 8, which I think God really worked out for me, since we are also in John 8 at the Sunday morning high school class that I teach at Church.
Saturday night, after the conference was over, Mafer and I went one last night back to Antigua for dinner. Most of the night, we just ambled around the city talking. I did my best to take it all in and forget that I had to leave the next day. It is hard to worry or think too much when you’re with a good friend in a city with cobblestone streets.
Sunday morning, I said my goodbyes to the Purcells and then went with Mafer and her abuelita to the airport. We stopped at a little plaza beforehand to get some souvenirs and a necklace for my Mom. Mafer bought me a really cool rope-type necklace I’d been trying to find for awhile, the ladies actually made it right there on request. They are much more talented than I. After that, we went to the airport for a sad goodbye. Lord willing, I plan to return as soon as I am able.
The flight back was mostly uneventful, though I did meet a couple of cool people on the way. At the airport in Guatemala, I met a girl who worked for Delta who was flying to the states for a wedding, I believe she said. I think her name was Melissa, and she really helped me get through all the mazes coming back to the States through Customs. Also, on the flight to Pensacola, I met a guy named Mike from Alaska. He gave me his number and invited me to go fishing for some monstrous Salmon up there. I might very well take him up on that one day.
Well, if you’ve gone this far with me, then you’re either very bored, or probably a close friend of mine. I hope you enjoyed the recounting of my adventures, and that I’ll have more stories to tell before too long. May God give all of you the chance to climb a volcano one day.