A packed backpack leans up against the wall of a tidied apartment; the bed is made, the floors are swept, and the garbage bins have been emptied. The plants stand sentinel, and aside from the occasional visitor letting themselves in to quench their thirst, this place will sit untouched until my dusty boots walk back in to flip the calendar to the next month. When I return to this space that has stayed the same, I will be seeing it with different eyes. After a quick look back, I grab my waiting bag and step forward and out the door of, quite literally, my comfort zone.
A big trip like this always starts long before the arrivals terminal – planning, organizing, and packing one’s bag just to get to the point of departure, so it’s an exciting precipice to finally reach. On the far side of the ensuing blur of international travel via buses, airports, and shuttles, the bird’s-eye views and dreamlike time spent above the clouds carry me forward to somewhere completely different.
The terminal of Guatemala City’s airport is mysteriously quiet – no more flights will arrive tonight. The sound of our tired feet echoes off hard walls as clinical fluorescent lighting guides us through the abandoned hallways to a sleepy customs agent. With hardly a glance, he dutifully raises his hand to stamp our paperwork; surely his last effort after a long day of work. Beyond this final barricade we step outside and into the city proper where a wall of people vying for our attention and business awaits us.
Arriving somewhere unfamiliar after dark is always disorienting, and the Spanish noise and beckoning hands of strangers only makes it doubly so. Through it all, a sign bearing my name stands out; a driver is here to take us out of the city to our host. Though he spoke no English and my unpracticed Spanish was weak, suffice to say that in that moment I felt wondrously safe in the back of his rickety old van as we flew through the shadow-filled back streets of Guatemala City. With street lights and blurred figures streaking by the windows, we steadily climb out of the capital towards the volcanic valley that houses our ultimate destination.
A sudden jolt from below sends my head into the roof of the van, telling me in a not-so-gentle way that the streets have transitioned to cobblestone and also that we have reached the outskirts of the old capital of Guatemala: Antigua. As our headlights round one dark corner after another, we zigzag through narrowing streets that clearly predate the vehicles that currently force their way along them. Jostling to a final stop, we shake the cramps from our travel-weary legs as we step out under a single streetlight on a silent street little wider than our van. The driver jumps from his perch in the driver’s seat to knock on the door of an unmarked home, and a woman pokes her head out, catches my eye, and breaks out in a smile as she exclaims, “David! Welcome to Antigua.”