A love letter to Guatemala

I’m writing this on Monday, on a bus bound for the Belize border, and in about an hour or so, I will leave Guatemala behind after about three and a half months in your clutch.

In a way, it feels as though I am leaving home. What a wild journey it has been.

I showed up to your border in August, thinking I might spend a week or two with you before continuing south through Central America.

That joke was most certainly on me.

Instead, I fell in love with your architecture, your culture, your landscapes; your passion and patience, your intelligence, your liberal smiles.

I swam in your lakes, I shopped in your markets, I walked up your hills, I fell in love with your people. And I found I couldn’t leave.

I arrived at Lake Atitlan on a whim — making a last-minute pitstop on my way to Antigua. I wound up returning, for a month, struck in the heart by the blue expanse set up against volcanoes, the bounty of surrounding towns, the blazing sunsets melting over crumbling docks.

In Antigua, I was charmed by breathtaking ruins, cobblestone streets, the multi-faceted food and drink scene.

Cobán snatched my intrigue with its bustling, overflowing markets, its churches, its hills.

Flores, despite the night heat, bony boxsprings and smelly bathroom drains it delivered, compelled my camera at every turn, flaunting its quaintness and beauty, its underlying mystery, its strong connection to the water. And my heart hurt again, to leave.

Even Guatemala City, with its grisly reputation, eventually worked its way into my soul with its grit, its big-city feel, its diversity of restaurants and bars.

All this time, I’ve soaked up the lushness, the ever-blooming hibiscus, the palms, the avocado trees. I stamped my passport twice more after my first arrival, returning twice to the land of eternal spring.

I ate many doblados, rellenos, garnachas, enchiladas, chuchitos and churrascos. Overflowing plates of beans and rice. Anything garnered from a crowded market stand. And enough bags of Elotitos to cover half a mountainside. I loved kak’ik and caldo, those nourishing and sustaining soups. I drank gallons of rich, complex coffee. Cooled off with narajadas con soda. Snacked on luscious fruit, the streetside coconuts, and meaty, crispy chicharron. Your decadent street cakes and pies. And oh, how I feasted on your crackling whole-fried fishes for dinners, the flaky bits doused with lime and salsa verde, washed down with cold beer. I started out buying Modelo and Corona when I could but I came to prefer Gallo.

Your lack of vegetables, your persistent fryers, the presence of corn on every plate got old sometimes, if I’m honest. So did the proclivity of everyone to dress up a simple dish with every sauce and topping imaginable (if I asked for a plain donut, it was likely to arrive on a huge plate doused in whipped cream and jelly sauces and a liberal toss of *extra* sugar). But I understood that it was your way of making something special. And sometimes I appreciated that too, like those Panajachel street hamburguesas, all gooey with mayonnaise and spicy sauce and a dripping fried egg.

I spent my evenings in the vibrancy of your night markets, my nights with the company of unfettered breeze straight from the stars. I partied in your graveyards. I bought your beautiful wooden and textile goods — macrame bracelets and woven coin purses and tiny, carved canoes.

You were all so damn friendly, despite that I was a white, bumbling tourist. You bought me drinks, you showed me your world, you invited me into your homes.

You helped me learn your language; you tolerated my stumbles. You spoke slowly for me, and showed me when necessary. So many of you took pride in becoming one of my many teachers. But besides schooling me in the nuances of past imperfect verbs, you also taught me to appreciate what I have, to bask in simple pleasures, to see my privilege in a new light.

I was humbled by the Mayan tradition — not just in places like Tikal with its time-defying ancient pyramids, but in everyday life, the lasting persistence of its many indigenous languages, customs, food and garb.

I felt small against the unending vistas, the great majesty that waited over every hill.

I adored the street dogs. I marveled at the iguanas and lake birds. I got used to the roosters.

I managed the beds, the cold showers, the intermittent WiFi. I never found tranquility on the shuttles with their crammed quarters, makeshift seating and circuitous mountain routes, but I learned to prepare for them, and they got me where I needed to go.

And now that place is away, for who knows how long, and maybe forever, with continuing travels, beginning in Belize. But no matter what, I realize now I will never be fully gone.

Guatemala you were maddening and enchanting and so, so full. I’ll carry a piece of you, no matter how far I go.

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