AKA: A dramatic re-telling of my first week in Guatemala.
This past summer I decided that if I have to be “intermediately proficient” (whatever that means) in a foreign language to graduate, I might as well learn the language in a place it is natively spoken.
I had taken a few Spanish classes, and when I decided I wanted to study abroad I began searching for the *cheapest* program to a Spanish-speaking country that my school offered. (Come to think of it, I definitely deserved everything I had coming to me on this trip).
I found a brand-new program in Antigua. (Not the Caribbean island. Antigua, Guatemala). This was the first year this specific program was being offered, it was surprisingly affordable for being 6 weeks in another country, and the country was only a level 2 according to the U.S Department of State’s travel advisory information page (one level below “reconsider travel”…aka, perfectly safe. Kind of).
I applied, got in, and began to embark on what was quite literally “the trip of a lifetime.”
Let me preface this by saying I had never been out of the country before. Not even Mexico. Or Canada. Or even much more than the southeast region of the U.S. I didn’t even have my passport before applying. (That was a whole other ordeal, but apparently it is completely normal to have to go to the international office four times before they let you get your passport, which is equivalent to walking on a pile of legos made of glass shards, so I won’t re-live that).
I prepared in the months prior to departure taking advantage of the internet’s plethora of (super helpful) information and searched things like: “How to pack for 6 weeks out of the country,” “How to NOT look like a gringo in Central America,” “How many volcanoes are in Guatemala?” (37), “How many ACTIVE volcanoes are there in Guatemala? (3),” “Probability of dying if I hike a volcano,” “Probability of getting caught up in a drug war,” “How do you say ‘I have no idea what I am doing’ in Spanish.” (All of this being super important information and not the slightest detrimental to my sanity, or my mother’s).
I bought travel insurance, packed my bags, found out my flight was out of Dallas instead of Austin two days before departure and frantically called my grandfather for a place to sleep and a 4am ride to the airport (thanks grampa), then I left.
As a master procrastinator I thrive on making myself anxious to the point of combustion. Therefore, the fact that I had not really processed what I was doing until I stepped out of the terminal into the airport in Guatemala City did not really surprise me. But the airport did. There was no one speaking English (clearly), I couldn’t understand half of the signs (cool), there were armed officers around every corner (expected, but still shocking), and I had absolutely no idea why I decided to do this.
I found the UT coordinator, met up with the girls in my program, and we took a bus in the pouring rain from Guatemala City to Antigua. The streets were flooded with brown water. There were children driving motorcycles. There were chickens roaming free like they ran the place. The streets were so curvy I got carsick 5 minutes in and almost missed all of this. It was awesome.
We got to Antigua and dropped the 4 other girls at their homestay (which was clear-across town from mine), then I got to meet my host family and the other students living with me. I ate lunch, unpacked, and I learned that it is not common to sleep with more than one pillow, which compared to my 12 pillows, felt like sleeping on the ground.
Despite my lack of pillows and air conditioning I managed to fall asleep okay (I attribute that to the fact that my brain had been running the equivalent of about 12 marathons in like 19 hours or something) and woke up to go to my first day of Spanish school.
I met my professor and found out my classes were one-on-one, which honestly may have kept me from going if I knew that beforehand, I spilled my 32 oz bottle of water over everything he owned the second day of class making a great first (second?) impression, and other than that I had a pretty uneventful week. Until the volcano erupted.
I know what you must be thinking. No way. What are the odds?
Except yes way. (And apparently 100%).
Let me start from the beginning of the weekend. Friday after class I met up with the other girls in my program (who I didn’t get to live with for the first three weeks because the family had dogs and I had mentioned I was allergic. Yet I ended up there anyways…and they got another dog while I was living there. So really what was the point? I digress…).
We went to one of the artisan markets, appropriately titled: Mercado de Artesanías, and I told myself since I was going to be there for 6 weeks I would not buy anything right away. Then I spent 25 dollars on pillowcases.
It rained more in the first few days than it had in Texas the past year, and the umbrella I bartered for had already snapped in two places (though I used it for the remainder of the trip so who is laughing now Mr. Market Man?!? (Probably still him…I way overpaid for that umbrella. Then because it broke I pretty much got even more wet than I would have without I, as it collected water to dump it back on my head).
I ate all three meals alone with my host family on Saturday and discovered I understood about 50% of what they were saying but I could only respond with about .01% of the Spanish vocabulary. Everything was going smashingly.
The rain finally let up on Sunday so me and the girls decided to do a coffee tour a few miles outside of Antigua. We took a shuttle there and learned about the history of coffee and how it is made. We watched them handle the beans. We smelled stuff. I thought the whole time about how I don’t even drink coffee. It was great. Then, when we were exiting the bean room, it began to rain. Ash. From the sky.
Picture black sand, except bigger and harder. And from a volcano.
We asked the tour guide about it and he said sometimes that happens but not to worry. Except he said it in Spanish. And he didn’t seem super convincing. Since there was nothing we could do about it we took our time taking pictures and videos and talking about how crazy our lives were.
It took an hour to get back home because no one could see out of their windshields and wiping them off consisted of: getting out of the car, pouring a bottle of water on the glass and rubbing, getting back in the car and driving 8 feet until you couldn’t see again, then repeating the process.
It wasn’t until we got back to the girl’s homestay that we watched the news and discovered that the normally active (but fairly tame) volcano “El Volcán de Fuego,” which was 9 miles away from Antigua, had erupted with the biggest eruption in Guatemala in a century. As we watched the news that night we heard about multiple casualties, hundreds of injuries, and thousands of evacuations. It was a pretty somber evening, and the first natural disaster I had experienced. Though I could not understand everything that was being explained I could feel everyone’s sadness in the room. I could also feel my mom’s distress all the way on the other side of Mexico.
The next day Antigua ran out of face masks as everyone in the city was told to buy one to protect their lungs. As an asthmatic and allergetic (Allergy-bearer? These are not words. As a person who can only breathe out of her nostrils about 3 weeks a year), I made sure to head straight to the store (4 stores) to get a mask after class). There was nothing you could do about your eyes. It just felt like there was glass in them for two days. People were sweeping the streets. They were sweeping inside their homes. They were sweeping the roofs of their businesses. Fuego was still smoking.
There were piles of ash in the street for the next week.
Among the seriousness, when we got to class on Monday I moved up to the next level of Spanish because I hate myself. (And because I needed the credit). I tried some new food. (Guicoyitos might be the best vegetable on the planet. Papayas *are* the worst fruit on the planet). And I took a free salsa dancing class and considered going pro, until the next lesson in which I remembered that I can’t dance. And that I would rather be eating salsa than dancing the salsa.
Overall the week felt both like 2 days and like a whole month. However that’s possible. And it is my unfortunate pleasure to tell you it was all downhill from here. (Except that one time I hiked a volcano in the middle of the night. That was very much uphill).
(As a side note, I also collected some of the ash from the eruption and kept it in a bottle to bring home with me. Which almost gave me a heart attack going through customs because I felt like a drug smuggler and was positive they were going to arrest me and put me in an airport holding cell in which they would interrogate me in Spanish and I would burst into tears and tell them it was my first time out of the country and I had no idea what they were saying and they would feel sorry for me and let me go but mostly because I am very white and that means I have a really ugly crying face and that would probably freak them out).
P.S. I didn’t get detained at the airport and now I have a jar of volcanic ash on my desk. (So win-win). Also it’s magnetic. (Win-win-win).