Saturday, May 4, 2019

Reflections on My Guatemala Trip

I spent two and a half months in Guatemala earlier this year. It was supposed to be three months, but for various reasons, including the fact that I wasn't enamored with the country, I came home early. Of the twenty-four countries I've visited thus far, Guatemala ranks near the very bottom. Here's what I enjoyed and didn't enjoy about my time in Guatemala.

What I Enjoyed About My Time in Guatemala

A Little Earthquake Excitement

Located on the Ring of Fire, Guatemala is prone to earthquakes. During the first week of class, we had an earthquake that hit 6.6 on the richer scale. I was impressed to see how quickly and safely the locals responded. At the same time, it was an eye-opener for me to realize just how vulnerable I would have been, as a traveler, had the earthquake been more significant. From then on, I expanded my supply of extra food and water.

Immediately after the earthquake,
my teacher's Facebook feed was bombarded with quake-related posts.

In my remaining time in Guatemala, I was hyper-sensitive to anything that resembled a quake. I awoke on March 8th at 2:50am in the morning, thinking we might be experiencing another tremor. As I lay in bed, eyes wide awake, I tried to muster up the energy to head out to the safe zone in the courtyard. Just as I sat up and swung my feet onto the floor, I heard what sounded like heavy breathing. This was no earthquake -- the "tremors" were from my neighbors upstairs enjoying a little mid-night love makin'. Geez, Louise!

The Yoga House

I really enjoyed attending yoga classes at The Yoga House. How fun to be able to take yoga classes in Spanish! I was tickled pink to think that a year ago I was studying yoga in India, and here I was taking yoga classes in Guatemala.

Grounded on my yoga mat.

The Piedras

I enjoyed a Xelapan piedra every day. 'Nuf said.

I could eat this photo.

My Experiment With Cleaning Vegetables

My experiment in Keeping the Tummy Happy While Traveling worked out peachily! I had not a single stomach issue during my entire time in Guatemala. In fact, while down south, I would say my stomach was the happiest it is has ever been. Perhaps I should put my fruit'n'veggie cleaning techniques into play in the U.S. That certainly would make sense, as many of the fruits and vegetables we consume are imported from Central America.

A typical meal for me -- rice, beans, and vegetables on a tortilla.

My Solo Study Sessions in the Cafes Around Town

I enjoyed many solo study dates to the cafes around town. While my sanity appreciated the change of study environment, my stomach appreciated the opportunity to sample different types of bebidas de chocolate. Yum!

My favorite study spot was El Cuartito.
I'd sit in the quiet back room and sip on a chocolate puro while studying.

I enjoyed doing some solo book work over lunch at El Cuartito, too.
I'd sit in the bright courtyard, with the relaxing ambience,
and slowly devour a bagel con sopa while studying.

My Friendship with Grace & Wilder

Grace and Wilder lived in the same posada (inn) where I lived. The two met a few years ago and are now engaged to be married.

Me, Wilder, and Grace.

Grace, from California, has spent the last couple of years living in Central America. While in Quetzaltenango, she was working as the English Coordinator at Utatlan Spanish School, where I took my classes. In addition to tutoring online, Grace also had her own personal training business and served as the resident gardener at the posada. I enjoyed many conversations with Grace. If I could have a sister, Grace would be she!

Wilder is from Nicaragua. While in Quetzaltenango, he was working as a tour guide, leading folks on hikes up the nearby volcanoes. Wilder was also one of my English students. He was, without a doubt, my favorite student. Though he had a great grasp of conversational English, he wanted to improve his day-to-day English, as he and Grace would be moving to San Diego in a few months. In one tutoring session, Wilder and I talked about minimalism and the possessions that meant the most to us. I was touched when Wilder said that his horse, Pinto, was his most valuable tangible asset. How sweet!

During my time in Guatemala, Wilder and Grace were dancing the complicated dance of getting Wilder a spousal visa. Wow, what an eye-opener to observe their experience! Gettin' a visa ain't easy; I take for granted what a privilege it is to be a U.S. citizen. You can imagine how happy I was to share in the excitement on March 25th when Wilder got his visa. Woohoo!

Wilder proudly displays his U.S. visa. Congrats, Wilder and Grace!

What I Didn't Enjoy About My Time in Guatemala

I Didn't Feel Connected to Guatemala

My last overseas trip was to India, in early 2018. India was a tremendous trip -- life-altering in so many ways. I was enamored with the culture and the people and the landscape and the experiences. It was deeply spiritual and meaningful. After India, Guatemala felt like such a let-down. I didn't feel connected to anything. The culture wasn't particularly appealing, I didn't connect with the locals, the landscape was somewhat inaccessible (see below), and my experiences, though fine, were not life-changing.

Granted, my whole purpose for traveling to Guatemala and hunkering down in Quetzaltenango was solely for the sake of studying Spanish. Perhaps my experience would have been different had I traveled around the tourist circuit in Guatemala. But I'm not much of a tourist circuit kind-of-a-person. (For what it's worth, I spent my entire time in India in the hill city of Dharamsala. Just sayin'.)

I've said this before, and I'll say it again: I wish Spanish was spoken in India. It seemed that every day, I would whisper, "Calgon, take me away! Back to India!" That's pretty telling.

I Was Bored With My Spanish Classes

As explained in A Bout of B-O-R-E-D-O-M, I was bored with my Spanish classes. The boredom undoubtedly dulled my whole experience in Guatemala.

I Didn't Feel Safe

One of the reasons I chose to study in Quetzaltenango is because the city is surrounded by volcanoes. I imagined going for solo hikes and trail runs in the mountains to get my regular dose of forest bathing. Alas, I underestimated the safety of solo exploring in Guatemala. The locals wouldn't dare travel on their own into the mountains, and so for me to do so would have be ludicrous.

The safety concerns in Guatemala are of a different caliber then they are in the U.S. In the U.S., you have to be concerned about mass shooters at malls. (While somewhat facetious, it's true.) The risk is high, but the likelihood of something happening, in my opinion, is quite low. It's different in Guatemala. While you're not as likely to run across violent crimes, you are way more likely to run into petty crimes, such as robberies. Assaults happen as well, but the likelihood is diminished with common sense.

Walking around town, I never felt completely safe. Though I'm used to practicing street smarts in The States, I felt as though I always needed to be hyper-vigilant in Guatemala. That was exhausting.

There's a bit of irony here. Five days before returning home, there was an unusual and violent rampage in the Lake City neighborhood of Seattle. Four people were shot; two died. Upon returning from Guatemala, I took the lightrail from the airport to the UW Station, and then I took a bus from UW to Lake City. The bus dropped me off blocks away from where the fatal shooting had occurred. Despite what had gone down just a few days earlier in this neighborhood, my safety didn't at all feel threatened. Not one iota. As I walked from the bus to my friends' house, I felt incredibly liberated to be walking on the safe streets of my home city.

I Was Starved for Serenity

As mentioned, I was hoping I could regularly get my fix of forest bathing by wandering off into the surrounding mountains. But doing so wouldn't have been prudent. By the time I left Guatemala, I was starving to be immersed in green. Sure, I could have joined a tour to hike in the mountains, but that's not my thing. To bathe in the forest, I need to enjoy greenery in solitude.

I was also starving for a breath of fresh air. Of the ten weeks I was in Guatemala, there were only a few days of relatively clean air when I didn't feel as though I was choking on smog-filled air with every breath. Guatemalans have a car-is-king mentality, and it seemed that every car that had failed an emissions test in the U.S. had found a new home in Guatemala. The streets were packed with exhaust-producing automobiles, and the surrounding mountains trapped the pollution in the city.

The courtyard where I stayed offered solace. The tall walls dampened the street noise, and the colorful plants and flowers made it an appealing place to relax. But the second I opened the door to leave the courtyard, I was punched in the face with a traffic jam of cars, noise from radios and loud speakers, and swarms of people walking along the hip-and-a-half wide sidewalks.

And then there were the fireworks, too. Guatemalans are crazy about fireworks. They set them off all the time to celebrate everything. Even to celebrate nothing! The first time I heard the fireworks, I thought the sound was from gunfire. I never got used to the sound of the fireworks -- the jolting sounds always disturbed me.

I Was Hungry to Move My Body 

My body likes to move. In the summers, I spend hours each day riding my bicycle. The combination of the constant need to be vigilant while wandering around town and the lack of green in Guatemala meant little movement. There was a track at the Complejo Deportivo, and I often walked the three miles round-trip to get to the track so I could walk laps. But walking laps on a track is like riding an exercise bike; it's unfilling exercise. I considered running, but the smog in the air had already caused me to develop a yucky cough, and I wasn't too intrigued about having to forcefully suck in the smoggy air. The lack of movement made me off-kilter. Even one of my students who I've been tutoring online for a number of months -- a student I've never met in-person -- commented that I didn't seem like my usual cheery self while I was in Guatemala.

I don't anticipate I'll visit Guatemala again. There are too many other places I have yet to see or that I'd love to revisit. I remind myself that this is one of the reasons I travel -- to find the places that call to me. There was no calling from Guatemala.


  1. Wow! It is rare to hear you say you didn’t like somewhere! But reading this I already know i’d Be the same. Can’t imagine being close to mountains and not being able to enjoy them.

    Your upstairs neighbor must have been amazing? He made the earth move for someone in a different room!

    Welcome home and I am glad you are safe.

    1. I'm glad I'm home, too. I'm always happy to fly back to Seattle, but THIS TIME, I was nearly bouncin' outta my airplane seat. :)

      Yeah, no kidding about the upstairs neighbor. He (and likely she, too) literally rocked my world! I was thinking about sneaking upstairs and pouring super glue under the bed posts and in between all the joints of said bed so I didn't have to be an unintended participant in future activities. I didn't manage to do that, but after March 8th, let's just say that I became an expert in distinguishing between upstairs-tremors and true-earthquake-tremors. 😊


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