When my parents asked me how long I planned to stay, my answer was, “Three months or three years.” I guess I never considered the possibility of falling deeply in love with this country. Or that I might never leave.
I think back to that first day, the girl standing under the relentless midday sun on the corner of a crowded intersection in Guatemala City. The clamor of this big city traffic likely mirrored the urban chaos in other developing countries, but I had never really traveled outside of the US so I had no frame of reference. Brightly painted chicken buses trailing black plumes of exhaust whizzed by with horns blaring, recklessly passing other cars and buses with cut-throat precision. Ayudantes hung from open bus doors screaming the names of their routes, jerking to stop for a fare and push new passengers inside. Seemingly every square inch of available space had been filled and yet they consistently shouted with assurance, “atras hay lugar! atras hay lugar!”, even though there was clearly no more room in the back.
As I waited for my bus, I struggled to stand upright under the weight of my overstuffed backpack, passing an enormous duffel bag from hand to hand as my arms grew tired. I hadn’t slept the night before and the load was burdensome, but I was too nervous to set the bag on the filthy ground.
A kind friend from back home had met me at the airport. She was experienced in navigating the chaos of the capital city so I felt safe despite my daze. We changed buses at a busy street corner and while we waited she treated me to an orange soda from a street vendor, para llevar, Guatemala-style: the contents of the unrefrigerated bottle poured into a plastic baggie with a flimsy straw. The lukewarm, syrupy liquid was a relief despite itself.
Oppressive heat. The choke of exhaust. Jarring horn blasts. The grimy smell of street food cooked in burnt oil. Men shouting phrases I could barely decipher. A novice adventurer, I was carrying far too many of my worldly possessions. (Who needs that many books while traveling? Had Clarice Lispector’s novel ‘The Apple in the Dark’ ever traveled to Guatemala in a backpack?) When our next bus arrived, my bags were taken from me by one helper and heaved up to the top of the bus where another ayudante was waiting to tie them to the roof. I was exhausted but exhilarated, an electric undercurrent of excitement pulsing through me. Everything was strange and unfamiliar but somehow I still felt like I was in the right place.
In a million lifetimes I couldn’t have written the story that would unfold in the months an years to come. The story of that girl waiting for the bus, sipping her warm orange soda in a brief moment of pause. A still point in the blur and dust of commotion that surrounded her. Climbing up the steps onto the bus she had no idea that she was walking through the door to the rest of her life.