I wasn’t supposed to be there in the first place.
As I stepped out of baggage claim, I spotted the shuttle driver standing off to the side. He held a sign with my name on it and, as I approached, tucked it under one arm in order to shake my hand.
“Welcome!” he said in Spanish. “Welcome!” I said, returning the greeting.
He drove me out of Guatemala City in a rusty van that hacked and coughed its way from side street to main artery, bound for Antigua. It wasn’t the dark of the night or the wheezing of the truck that raised my eyebrows. It was the grunginess of this world surrounding me.
Something isn’t right. How did I get here?
I had committed to the trip, to a year that I’d never have back, and I’d bragged to my friends and family: “I can’t be dissuaded. Get out of my way.” I couldn’t back out. I didn’t want to become like everybody else who says they’re going to take a trip like this.
Then came the question: “Where to?”
I bought a world map, spread it on the wall, and peppered the drywall with the pinholes of notes posted and removed. I read this book and that blog post and—oh, my, it says right here in this magazine that I absolutely shouldn’t skip hiking through Patagonia. I quizzed well-traveled friends about their favorite spots; I posted on Facebook, where I got thirty-eight varying responses from twenty-seven people.
Candace sent me a meticulously crafted e-mail on all of the highlights of Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. Everyone recommended New Zealand.
I took it all in but maintained my discipline. In a year I could see a hundred different places, literally, or more, if I wanted. But then my trip would be watered down, wholly comprising a day-to-day existence of loading my pack and hopping on a bumpy bus or a cramped train, with little time to observe. Maybe it was more important to get to know people. The bumpy bus rides would be there, assuredly, but if I sprinted through this trip, the year would fly by, yielding a memory card bursting with the photos of this gorgeous, wide world but lacking real, meaningful experiences. A scant existence.
I wanted more than a full memory card. I wanted something deeper. So I decided to slow it down a bit—pick eight to ten countries to visit before I hit Europe for the last few months, which would likely emerge as the time for me to, in a blur, milk that overpriced Eurail pass for all I could.
So I started to shape my list. Only two things mattered at the outset: One, stay out of the Middle East. Besides the never-ending conflict from one country to the next—from Pakistan to Syria and down into Yemen—and an enthusiastic aversion for Americans, there had been a recent international incident involving three reckless, brainless hikers from the United States who’d “accidentally” crossed into Iran while sightseeing. The cab driver who dropped them off reportedly told them they shouldn’t be there in the first place. “Oops,” they offered to President Ahmadinejad, who wasn’t exactly known for his leniency. “Just kidding.” But they were accused of being spies anyway and spent several years in jail before being allowed to post the million-dollar bail.
Perhaps it was narrow-minded of me to avoid the Middle East. There are many great places to visit there, and I would like to get to those places one day. But avoiding them for now seemed sensible. (In the later months of my trip, the president of the United States issued an impromptu call for protection of all American citizens after anti-American protests started to escalate throughout parts of the Middle East and Africa. Embassies were attacked. Diplomats were killed. American flags were torn down and publicly burned and shredded.) The timing just wasn’t right.
The second thing that mattered from the outset: chasing warmth. I love to ski, but this wasn’t that kind of trip. Chilly, snow-covered backwoods are for young dudes, bloated with ambition and innocence and hubris; kids who scamper off to eat berries and hunt game and read classic philosophy and by and by become one with nature. They can have that. I respect them, admire them for a grit I don’t possess, but that’s not my style. I paid close attention to the equator and mapped out which months I should be in which hemisphere. July in Belgium is lovely; February, frigid. Plus, I didn’t relish the idea of filling half my pack with a bulky parka.
Out of all of the names, all the dots littered across the map on my wall, one place seemed to linger in my mind. A place that had always struck me as exotic and sunny and begging for exploration: Antigua. Antigua, the land of smooth beaches and soft breezes and clear ocean and nearly unbroken coral.
I started mentioning to people that I was thinking about starting my trip in Antigua and then working my way from there. It looked pretty fun; the whole city sprawled on the shore after all, and the ads splashed across the Internet suggested there would be plenty of young people and Americans to cushion my fall into the exotic. Parts of it looked a little old-school in the pictures I’d seen online, but I stood poised for a history lesson.
As it turns out, there’s more than one Antigua.
There’s Antigua, the land of beautiful beaches (the one I’d been hearing about from friends and family), and there’s an Antigua that ain’t nowhere near the coast. There’s an Antigua that is new and fresh and clean, where someone will deliver your Mai Tai to your lounge chair on the beach, and there’s an Antigua that’s old and full of history, where you walk into a bar and order your own drink. There’s an Antigua on the Caribbean, and there’s an Antigua in Guatemala. The former is where you go on a cruise, and the latter is where you go for culture. I selected, signed, sealed, and paid for the latter Antigua—the landlocked Antigua—before I touched down and realized that it wasn’t the Antigua everyone had been praising and gushing about.
Imagine that. Imagine getting lost on Google, discovering that Antigua also doubles as the Spanish-language-school capital of the world, showing pictures of exquisite beaches and palm trees to your friends, and buying your plane ticket to Guatemala, only to realize that there’s another Antigua—the sun-soaked, dazzling Antigua next to the beach—just seven inches or so to the right on your map.
Sun and beaches and lovely ladies in bikinis in the Caribbean? Nah, I’m good. I’ll take drug cartels, crumbling buildings, and three hours of rain every afternoon in Guatemala, thanks. But you enjoy yourself out there.
Then—in what would be the first of many eye-opening experiences—I walked around the wrong Antigua and discovered that it was the perfect place to begin.
Antigua, Guatemala, my home for the first month of my odyssey, is old, sure, but the colonial architecture proved a charming contrast from the new, chic, shiny buildings I was used to in North Carolina. The old buildings in North Carolina were built fifty years ago with cranes and heavy machinery; the old buildings in Antigua have been standing for half a millennium, ever since the Spanish conquered the Maya and put them to work on the other end of the whip. Every rough-edged stone was placed with care by Maya hands. As I wandered through the cobblestone pathways and trailed my fingers over the ancient stone around me, I wondered how much Maya blood had been mixed in with the mortar holding this city together. How many busted fingers and aching backs built this place? Who were the people who laid this foundation?
But that was long ago. Of the people I wove among that day—the first day I saw this other Antigua—some were young like me. Some had bright and shining eyes that greeted me kindly. Others were aging and bent men and women, their bodies malformed by years of hard labor. A few boys kicked a half-deflated soccer ball around in the shadowed alley between two streets. Their chattering conversations and frequent laughter bounced against the old walls around them before touching the sky. Before touching me, too, and bringing a smile to my face. Even in this place, there’s poverty and wealth. Struggles and the joy of a game of soccer before bed.
Strict rules in this colonial town govern how much you can build, where, and with what size sign in the front. This means tranquility. This means room to walk on the sidewalk. The narcotraficantes are all in the mountains and up near the border with Mexico, while here in Antigua, the museums cradle the art and culture of this world: the ancient churches whose firm walls and vaulted ceilings have sheltered parishioners for hundreds of years; the dazzling fountains in the park that serenade the city with their tinkling water music; and the sweet little Maya ladies, who offer the brightest smiles in an attempt to sell their handiwork, and when that fails, carry a rebuttal to your rejection tucked in their back pockets. Sure there’s poverty in Antigua, just as there’s poverty in your town, but no one ever hounded me for spare change (even though I had extra money from not having touched my sunscreen fund).
I later learned most of this from Eddy, my Spanish teacher in Antigua, Guatemala. He was short, his dark face obscured by a mustache and glasses. A former soccer player, he had brainpower to match his athleticism. He would relate the history of his country alongside mine—“The capital was moved from Antigua to Guatemala City in 1776 after Antigua was destroyed by earthquakes. 1776. The same year as the independence of the United States.” I, however, couldn’t have named a single significant Guatemalan date or landmark.
I was in Antigua, even if it wasn’t the correct Antigua, for one reason: to get back into the Spanish game. I’ve always taken great pleasure in the challenge of speaking a language that isn’t my own, a language that baffles English speakers on the train or plane or in the park. My brother and I worked as waiters at IHOP in high school, where we’d speak Spanish with the staff in the back of the house, learning to say things that none of our peers from the front could understand. We picked up some formal phrases—necessary things like how to locate the bathroom or how to tell someone we really like their shirt—but mostly we focused on learning how to tell a girl that she had really nice nachas. Things like that. My brother, Erik, amused himself by translating the English-speaking cooks and Spanish-speaking dishwashers to each other.
“Erik, could you please tell Manolo I need a large pan, two pots, and a ladle,” Stanley said to my brother one morning.
“Hey, Manolo,” Erik translated into Spanish, somehow straight-faced. “Stanley says to tell your mom thank you for the mint she left on the pillow this morning before she left.”
The summer after my sophomore year of college, I spent a month in Seville, Spain, and a month in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, the following summer. I loved it—speaking Spanish, visiting ancient fortresses, strolling through museums, and lying on beautiful beaches in these extraordinary, far-off lands that I’d never even heard of three months before. Before that, at Merrimack College, I learned culture and history and grammar and conjugations from Professor Brucato, even if I never understood the subjunctive or why the Spaniards would include such a dreadful thing in their language.
But I hadn’t spoken more than six or seven Spanish phrases in the five years before I arrived in Antigua, and most of those included me smiling and explaining to my pops’s bilingual friends that I really wasn’t proficient enough to carry on any kind of serious conversation with them in Spanish. I learned to say flawlessly, “Pops just wants to make me look like an asshole by requesting that I practice with you.”
And for my upcoming volunteer work in Honduras, there was technically no Spanish-language requirement. But when I wanted to have a conversation with a poor barefoot kid, speaking his or her language would be vital—I wanted to talk to him about where he came from and what he wanted to do with his future and what he could do to get there. This was important to me, and I wanted to retrieve some conversational ability. Without Spanish, I would have been just a happy-go-lucky white boy who came down to play for a couple months, pretending to sound like a local by adding o’s to the end of every word: beero, foodo, upset stomacho. A puppet who would soon return to his privileged, air-conditioned life. With Spanish, though, maybe the kids would enjoy kicking the soccer ball around and playing tag with me, and then maybe they would take me a little more serious when it came time to chat a little.
I needed a month to brush up. So I checked the appropriate boxes to sign up for the full package in Antigua, Guatemala: language classes, lodging with a Guatemalan family, meals, and a personal shuttle from the airport. After that tumultuous ride, my driver dropped me off at the house of Beatríz, my Latina mom for a month.
She said, “Welcome!”
I said, “Welcome!”
She merrily showed me her house, her little courtyard, and the shared bathroom, the entire tour in Spanish. My room, a generous room, had two wide beds with thin mattresses, a bookshelf, a desk, a small trash can, and one window illuminating the room and allowing me access to Beatríz’s well-tended courtyard. She told me the times for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. She spoke English only to give me her two rules: “No drink in house. No romance in house.”
I went to bed energized, head riffling through a dozen hopeful imaginings of the wonders to come in the year ahead.