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Up to the Light: Guatemala

IMG_5062There is a wonderful contradiction that lives in me, one that makes it so I am both a rabid homebody and an intrepid traveler. I am someone content to never leave the house again so long as I have a little land to range around and a book to keep me company, and also someone who is compelled--time and time again--to go, seek, discover what is just around the next bend. I find travel thrilling and exhausting, an adrenaline rush and an energy suck, the best of times, the worst of times. There is in me a desire to know, to be filled so full with new that everything I know myself to be gets crowded out, and I am filled with the potential of what if. The stories I tell myself are challenged and changed, my imagination stretched, when greeted with the beauty and the terror of leaving home.

To see the otherness so often talked about, to be able to examine it, hold it up to the light--that is a gift.

I try and remember this, while we’re there. It is late night in Antigua, the night warm and busy. The narrowness of the cobblestoned streets make it feel more crowded than it is, so when the low-slung buildings give way to the main square I am startled by the sudden openness. Porticos line the sidewalks along the square, the light from storefronts glittering darkly off the fountain in the middle of the park. We can’t see, really, but more can feel the hulking power in the dark masses surrounding the little town—volcanoes sitting silent, for now. We are hunting for food now, driven by instinct in our exhaustion (it has been a long day) and for a while we can only gesture at the things that surprise us, the things we want to remember to talk about later when we both have more clarity of mind. There are times, on the road, that it is hard to see anything other than what’s exactly right in front of you, no matter how much you try and force yourself to appreciate the beauty in each detail.

Sleep, when we finally get to it, is a relief. The night holds a twisted world for me (as it does, almost without fail, any time I truly am somewhere new. The first time I remember a true travel dream coming from the depths of my subconscious was when I was 8 or 9 and we went to England as a family, and I dreamt all night of an endless parking garage with honking cars whizzing by while I desperately tried to find the one I belonged to) and tonight is no different, I am lost in a world of confused languages and new sounds, and when I wake up I feel sorted out, as if my mind has gone and done some catching up to my body.

Last night we operated on autopilot—forcing ourselves to do the bare minimum—today we are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, eating breakfast at the skyline, laughing a little at our good luck. The clay rooftops of Antigua scatter out before us, the volcano reaches up to wave hello the sun, hanging high in a bluebird belly sky. It is bright and clear, and the main square is coming alive beneath us—the fountain now clearly illuminated, the local stray dogs stretching out long, stiff legs and heading for a morning drink.IMG_5101

We spend the next few days holding it all up the light—what is the same, what is different, and what does it mean? There are the obvious things, of course—language is one, I end up speaking a confused mix of Spanish, English and French (quisiera una botella de agua, s’il vous plait, wait—I mean please, no por favor, merci, sorry thank you, ugh—sorry, lo ciento, gracias) and illicit blank stares from many a vendor. Our surroundings are different, a startling contrast of extraordinary beauty—Antigua, a small colonial town with its low garden walls, bougainvillea bursting forth from every nook and cranny, the verdant green volcanoes our constant backdrop. Cobblestone streets and ruined buildings, a fluorescent orange cathedral tucked into the back of the city, a market we get lost in—dark, cramped stalls with dried fish and candles stacked next to each other, the smell so reminiscent of Senegal I both gag and feel like crying (I get to feeling so far away from that time, you know). We wander into a hushed, ruined cathedral—a crumbling secret, a sacred space brought to its knees by Mother Nature, an earthquake mightier than a human’s altar to God. All churches should be open air, Alexa says as we meander through chapels turned to gardens, and I agree. We are quiet, contemplative, squinting up to the sky—elevated somehow, here, from the height of the former nave. A depth of history left in brick and mortar here, something to meander through, we have that less at home.IMG_5007IMG_4965

But here’s what I always end up finding, whenever I go—wherever I go—at our core, in our hearts, we all mostly want the same things. We succumb to the same fears, needs, desires that are common to humanity. It’s one thing to say it, it’s one thing to read it, it’s another thing to live it—that we are not so different after all.

I see a vendor put out food for the same stray dog both mornings we are there in Antigua, the dog slinking up to the door with a deep, ingrained mistrust of humans—you can always see it in their gaze, they’ll never look right at you—and the man calls softly to him, sets the bowl down, and stands just inside the door watching the dog eat, a grin on his face. He sees me, and raises his eyebrows—a self-satisfied smile—see, it’s working. A few people have dogs on leashes, a puppy plays with two kids in a yard we drive past in a tuk-tuk, the little guy parking while the girls dance around him, waving their arms. We watch men yawn as 3 p.m. nears, we watch as women get irritated by the heat, we watch at twilight a man on the lakeshore cast for his last fish of the day, contemplative as all fisherman are as the light dies and the big one remains elusive.

We pull up to a dock on the public boat at one of little towns along the lake and there are kids bouncing around, chattering at the sight of the full boat. One crawls over the edge of the dock and gets his little feet onto the edge sill of the boat’s side. His Dad, or someone in charge, catches him—Cuidado! Cuidado! Then something else that was a scolding of some kind, he hops back on to the dock, chagrined and we pull away, smiling. Because all kids get yelled at for stuff like that, even me.

For all the new I seek it is also the reassurance of familiarity, that little bits of us live in each other—the startling joy of finding someone else is a dog lover too, that you weren’t the only one who was scolded for playing too close to the water. The reassurance of a small world, for as vast as it is, for as different as we are, there is something common to be found in most things, in most places. The mundanity of life, what we make of it, that exists everywhere. In the end, life is life no matter where you are, and I am who I am wherever I go.