photo above from Uspantán
Traveling with a fixed plan doesn’t work so well for me. There is a poor psychology to the whole thing as all too often what is expected simply changes. When things don’t go as they are ‘supposed to’, the result is stress. There are always delays, and no-shows, and lost reservations. Expectations are not met, and it is just that – the presence of expectations – which trips me up.
So instead, as much as possible, I like to travel with an open slate, and an open mind. Little needs to hinge rigidly on prior events and so surprises are generally welcome.
This trip began with a big surprise which came close to being a most unwelcome one. I was flying out on the evening of December 30th. My first flight was to take me to San Francisco where I would catch a red-eye to Houston and then a morning plane to Guatemala City. The plan, eagerly anticipated, was to have New Year’s Eve in some place completely new and exciting. I had been alone, either in front of a silly tv set or sleeping, for far too many New Year’s Eves in recent years.
But along came Surprise Number One – my flight to SFO, and the last of the night from my town, was canceled two hours before the flight time. Worse, when I called reservations I was told it would take three days to reschedule me.
Along came Surprise Number Two. When my son heard what had happened, he told me to get myself ready, he would drive me to San Francisco. In fact this was a tenable solution because it is only a four and half hour drive when weather and traffic are favorable.
The weather was clear (though slightly windy – the airline’s crap excuse for the cancellation) so there would be no weather delays on the pass, we would be late enough that the rush-hour traffic in both Sacramento and San Francisco would be done, and I had a fairly long layover in SF before my next flight. It was also eased by the fact that his grandmother lives in SF so he would have a place to stay and family to visit.
Five hours later, 2 1/2 hours before my flight time, I was at the check in desk at SFO. Surprise Number Three – because my first flight had been canceled, they had removed my entire reservation.
Every time I travel, I value the initial surprises as they get me ready for everything else which is to follow. Despite all this initial mess, at noon on December 31st, my plane was landing at La Aurora airport in Guatemala City, by 1pm I had arrived at my homestay in Antigua. At midnight I was under the arch (being sprayed with stray beer) to ring in the New Year. Three of the people I was currently with would become ‘family’ over the next three weeks – Karen and Hannah – senior year Spanish majors from Wisconsin (aka Las Chicas) – and David from Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
By this time I had already figured out Surprise Number Four. My ‘plan’ had been to spend a week renewing my thirty five years distant Spanish. After two hours in Guatemala it was crystal clear that one week of Spanish study was not going to be enough, not even close. Dream on, oh ye of optimistic bent.
So here is how the story, unfolded:
Three weeks of Spanish class in Antigua with my wonderful maestra Arely who pushed me very hard, exactly as I requested. Every day I visited sites in, and around, Antigua. After the last day of class, I took a lightning quick arranged tour to Rio Dulce, Livingston, Flores and Tikal and on Monday moved on to Lake Atitlan.
In San Pedro La Laguna, I took a week to recuperate from the very long days and nights (always less than five hours sleep per night for three weeks) then studied Spanish for one more week. Then with a scant ten days remaining, at last I headed out to use the Spanish I’d reacquired. In that time I visited Cobán, Semuc Champey, Uspantán, Nebaj (Acul, Chajul) and finally Santa Cruz del Quiché. It was just the test I needed – there was rarely any English spoken, not on shuttles nor transporte publico, not in accommodations nor on the streets.
How glorious to be able to not only navigate relatively easily, but also to find I was able to communicate with the local people – to be able to chat away in Spanish. All the hard work had been so worth it.
Home now, I miss the challenge of functioning in Spanish, find myself talking to myself in Spanish, translating, listening for the occasional Spanish speaker here at home, wanting to retain what I’ve gained, wanting to build it further.
The best part of all this hard work has been finding that my old brain may not be quite so old and half-dead as I had imagined. Yes, I can still learn – new words, new faces, new ideas. Travel brings one close to life. Learning is life. And I learned so much on this journey, about Guatemala, and even more, about myself.