It could have been an airline to Denver, ...up until the moment our pilot dipped the wings to an erupting volcano out the right windows of the crowded plane. Twenty minutes from Guatemala City, and a murmur of excitement rippled through the aircraft. Dorothy and Toto were not in Kansas anymore!
My anticipation that we were truly going to experience another culture was enhanced by the bustle at the airport as we disembarked. We stood in long lines at customs, at the cambio, and at the baggage area. Our bags were piled high and doled out by stern guards. Vendedoras, street children, and small men with strong backs pursued us as we made our way to the taxis. We were surrounded by small brown people and the babble of a language I barely understood. We glanced out the taxi windows as Guatemala City flew by in the dark. We glimpsed only a few signs of American influence glaring in neon as we passed. We slept in a small, quaint, and comfortable hotel and left before dawn for our flight to Flores.
At the airport in Santa Elena, America disappeared. As we drove to Tikal in vans with luggage piled high, we saw women washing clothes in the lake while their naked children played at the water's edge. Women in bright clothing carried colorful pots and bundles on their heads. They walked gracefully past white-washed huts with thatch roofs, hammocks swinging in the open doorways. Men rode small shaggy mustangs near the roadway, looking more like cowboys than Texans do.
We spent the day in the Mayan ruins at Tikal. We learned about the rainforest. Small creatures, ants and termites, break down decaying growth so new trees can sprout in the vacancy left behind. The young, soft trees grow quickly and soon give way to sturdier growth. Smaller plants and fungi take root in any crevice deep enough to hold necessary nutrients. The result is an incredibly intertwined abundance of life. We saw critters, coatamundi, spider monkeys, and parakeets, and we heard the howler monkeys scream at sunset. And we marveled at the pyramids of the Mayan people and their gods. We peered at the ancient carvings, touched them, and climbed upon them. From the top of Temple IV, breathless and still shaking from our climb, we looked across the ghost town of the Maya and tried to conjure a vision of life in this world over 2000 years ago.
By late afternoon the next day, after a long and strenuous walk in the rainforest reserve of Cerro-Cahuí, we were deposited into a water taxi, una lancha, and ferried across Lake Petén-Itza to the village of San Andrés. We were greeted by the pigs at the pier and by an increasingly curious and amazed populace as thirteen of us and all our luggage struggled up the broken concrete to the language school that was to be our umbilical cord. We found our way and were soon on our way further uphill to be left with our host families for the week. Saundra was the first to meet her family. Introductions were brief, and she disappeared inside the doorway of a small tin-roofed house with blue doors and a TV glaring inside a darkened room. My house was next, just around the corner. Rosa greeted me and brought me inside. The others said goodby and trudged on with their luggage up the steep hill.
Rosa is small and thin. She is somewhat pretty with a toothy smile and looks older than her 24 years. Her children are shy, but friendly. Dorian is seven, the toothless oldest child. I learn that he goes in the mornings to the school across the street, and that he is the man of the house while his papa is working at the ranch during the week. Roger is five. He is friendlier than his brother, but has to be persuaded to go to his preschool each day. Monica, at 18 months is my favorite. She toddles precariously through her small world, tasting everything as she goes. It seems I can watch her learn each moment.
The house is small, plain, and neat. My room is at the front of the house with a double wooden door and one window that opens to the street. There is a small bed with a red coverlet, a table next to the bed, a wooden chair with a yellow doilie on the back, and a mirror on one wall. The inside walls are pressboard. There is a small kitchen behind my room that opens to a dirt courtyard. The kitchen has a propane stovetop, a table with two chairs, and a small sideboard. There is another room on the corner where the family sleeps, and I am not invited into their sanctuary.
Altogether four houses open to the courtyard, Rosa's, a small single-room house where the tia lives, the house of Saundra's family, and the old house where Rosa's husband grew up. The old house has mud walls and a thatch roof and stands high on the back of the lot. It is used now to make the tortillas each day and as a respite from the heat for Rosa and her children. The courtyard has an outdoor shower, una pila for storing water, and an outhouse with a concrete "throne". There are some colorful crotons growing out of the packed dirt which is swept each day, and there is a tree with small chilis that are picked during the week, with or without permission, by an assortment of neighboring children.
From Rosa's house my daily routine begins at about 6:00 am with a simple breakfast of pan dulce and cafe. I walk down the hill to the language school. From 8-12 my teacher, a thin young man named Milton, patiently talks with me in Spanish and plies me with Spanish verbs as my comrades struggle with Spanish of their own at tables nearby. We take a break around 10:00 am and cross to the vendadoria for Pepsi or Mirinda. We talk for a few minutes and watch the children from the private school across the street.
At noon I huff back up to Rosa's for a simple lunch and the best we can do with conversation. Each afternoon is a field trip of sorts with a goal of experiencing as much as we can of the culture. Monday we walk to the lake and bathe as the natives do when water is not available. Tuesday we work with the teachers from our school to rebuild a public beach area. The day is hot, the work is hard, and we reward ourselves with a dip in the lake when we finish. Wednesday is a trip to the bosque above San Andrés where we again see the cycle of the rainforest and its treasures. Thursday we visit Flores and shop at the markets. We finally acquire some treasures of our own, momentos to show our friends back home, proof that this was indeed a different world. Friday is a trip to the zoological gardens at Petencito.
Dinner each evening is back at Rosa's, and then we return to the school to listen to lectures and watch videos that explain more about the land in which we find ourselves. Each night I return to Rosa's exhausted. I lay under a single white sheet and mosquito netting and wait for my body to cool and for quiet and sleep to come.
Leaving this world was difficult. Antigua on Saturday was pretty and interesting, but anti-climatic after the intense experience of living in San Andrés. These people are kind, and their family ties are strong. They live in an envious harmony with their environment. Their day-to-day routine is simple, but they are a content people who want little more than what they have. I was glad not to see America plastered all over their world, but came home thinking that there is a need for Americans to be more like the people of San Andrés.
Edited by Carlos R. Solís