On Serendipity & Detours

January 21, 2011 in Guatemala, North America, Travelogue

Some days are not what one expects. I should expect this by now; especially when things are going perfectly.


Days when I cross continents, or switch them altogether, are not my favourite days.  Inevitably they begin at a ridiculously early hour, they involved queueing in long lines, a lack of decent food, erratic eating patterns and they always require an extra helping of patience.


Without fail, I’m thoroughly searched in the airport (I fit some, unknown profile) but that’s not even close to the biggest adventure of this travel day.


On the other hand, I appreciate the ability of modern technology to whisk me quickly between loved ones and there has never been a travel day that did not include at least one interesting or serendipitous meeting.


I would never have guessed, standing in the frosty, pre-dawn Boston darkness that this day would have three; nor would I have ever guessed where the day would end.


You meet some of the most interesting folks on an airplane.  I can’t help but wonder about the threads of thousands of lives that weave together to provide the cargo of one particular plane.  Who are these people?  Where are they going?  Why today?  Why my plane?  Is there someone here that I’m destined to meet?  These are the questions I’m usually asking when I take my seat.


This day provided two fascinating men to while away the airborne hours.


The first, a Russian Jew who emigrated in 1979, fleeing political difficulties at home.  He is, perhaps, one of the most brilliant people I’ve met.  An engineer, and an inventor, he’s spent his whole life working on alternative energy and inventing ways to do things better, faster, cheaper and with less of a carbon footprint.


“After Tesla, it’s like science just gave up! No one is asking the important questions and they haven’t been for far too long!  We’re stuck at this energy plateau and we must move further on!” He explained.


What has he invented, you ask? A way to dry lumber that doesn’t involve weeks in a kiln.  Instead, he and his brother came up with a way to use infrared technology to dry it in hours or days. “This is perfect for the small timer, the local logger, or the third world!” He enthuses, “It allows them to become competitive with the big guys, and this is what we need, competition from the creative and innovative little guys to change how business is done.”


He’s also created a single pass fuel filter for reclaiming the fuel at the bottom of a tanker, separating it from and cleaning the residual water.  His invention replaces the current, very costly, five pass filter system in use by the big companies. He was on the ground in the gulf oil crisis this fall, trying to share what he has. Predictably, no one listened.


If any of you know someone who’d benefit from these technologies or who is interested in moving alternative energy forward in some way, please contact me and I’ll pass on his information.


The second plane yielded a man with arresting blue eyes and a face carved into mountains and valleys by a lifetime of smiling and laughter.  His milk white hair sprouted in every direction, rather like long fronds of sea grass on a grey rock.  He’s a priest, headed to Guatemala to work with some nuns in Huehuetenango, north of us a bit, in the mountainous region along the Mexican border. He’s been coming here for 25 years, right through the periods of serious political unrest, and he will continue coming for the rest of his life, if his passion for the people is representative of his intent.


Deplaning in Guatemala is a beautiful, cacophonous collision of worlds.  The glass doors beyond the cool, cavernous, quiet interior of the surprisingly well organized airport open to a wave of heat, noise, color and smell that washes over me and suddenly, I’m home.


Only… I’m not.  It’s still a good three to three and a half hour drive into the mountains and then down 5000 feet into the crater.  I scan the crowd.  I wait a few minutes.  I scan the crowd again, all the while swatting of offers of rides and cabs and buses like annoying flies.


“I have a driver,” I said, for the fifteenth time.  “Well, does he know you’re here? Is he coming?” the saucy collectivo driver asked.  I stopped cold. It was the obvious question, of course.  With a moment of mental irritation I smiled at the driver, waved him off, then began to dig for my Guatemalan cell phone.


It was dead. Naturally. I forgot to charge it in Boston.


Plugged into an outlet on the floor by the bathroom in the airport, one eye on my bags, which were already in the vehicle of the helpful collectivo driver (being guarded by “Tom” my new traveling buddy) I hastily made the calls and ascertained the following:


No. Jairo was not, in fact, coming.


He swore up and down that my e-mail said I’d arrive at 2 a.m. not 2 p.m. (Which is ridiculous, the airport isn’t even OPEN at that hour, which he knows, he drives for a living)


I had two choices:


  1. Wait for Jairo (3 hours at least, 2 if he really put his pedal to the metal) and pay him $100 for not showing up.
  2. Take the collectivo to Antigua and HOPE I’ve not missed the last connection for the lake.


Additional information that factored into my decision:


  1. I’d been up since 2 a.m. (Guatemalan time)
  2. I’d eaten only plane peanuts and two cans of tomatoe juice in twelve hours.
  3. I’d not slept well in about three nights.
  4. I was WAY ready to be home.
  5. I was VERY irritated with Senor Jairo Maca.


And so, I climbed into the collectivo that Tom and I agreed to pay five bucks extra each for in order to have it leave immediately instead of wait for ten more people to fill the seats (no more planes were expected for at least an hour) and set off for Antigua.

I’ve never been to Antigua. The guidebooks describe it as “What Guatemala would be like if Disney created it.”  That was enough for me. We generally try to avoid the super touristy spots and instead prefer little back water places with more local colour.


In this case, that was an oversight.


The collectivo driver apologized profusely as he delivered the bad news: no shuttles up to the lake left for the day.  Tom commiserated with me as I negotiated to be dropped off at a hostel or hotel, “Safe, clean, with wi-fi so I can get some work done, and not too expensive.”


I was deposited at hostel Dionisus.  Dorm bed for 45Q. Roommates from the USA, Germany, Sweden and a kitchen.  It could be worse.


By the time I swam the mercado and cooked myself some dinner my travel zen was returning.


I contemplated my new year’s wish as I scooped the chicken and onions onto the hot tortillas and adjusted my attitude. To live with presence, purpose and joy.


Okay.  Deep breath. Here I am. Not where I want to be. Tired, stuck and unable to change any of it. Perhaps, this is exactly where I’m supposed to me.


It was with a renewed spirit that I met Derek’s blanket question to those of us enjoying the rooftop terrace: “Anyone want to go out and walk Antigua with me?”


“Yes! I’d love to! I’ve never seen Antigua and I’ll get desperately lost if I go by myself.”


With that, began one of the nicest evenings on record.


We walked and walked, in and out of cathedrals, ruins and shops.  We took pictures, got lost more than once and never did find the biggest church that he was quite determined that I MUST see, all the while trading stories, as travelers who cross paths for an evening are known to do.


Turns out, he was heading toward the lago soon too, so of course, I invited him to our place, sure that Tony and the kids would enjoy his lively stories.  He has much to teach the kids from his life as a wildfire fighter in the American west in the summers and his extensive travels over winters.


We returned to the hostel after the staff had gone home, leaving the guests to themselves, only to discover that my bed had been sold out from under me.  This was a test to my cheerful presence and purpose.


This was not a BAD hostel. By Guatemalan standards, it was even pretty good.  However, it wasn’t particularly clean (especially the floors) nor was it insect free.  So.  I was… stuck.  I certainly couldn’t take off walking in hopes of finding something else at that late hour, in the dark, with all my baggage.  It was the floor… shudder… or… share?


What to do, but laugh?  Derek, is an amazingly cheerful, kind-hearted guy with a great sense of humor.  He gamely offered to share his “twin and a half” sized hostel bed and we settled in for a long, largely sleepless, but at least safe and warm, night. It could have been so much worse. I never cease to be amazed by the generosity of strangers. I thought about that a lot as I lay awake in the darkness, listening to the shuffling and snuffling that is the soundtrack to a hostel night.


Needless to say, by the time we’d walked Antigua, spent the night making the best of it, and riding the collectivo three hours up to San Marcos in the morning, we were laughing and great friends. He hit it off with the kids and Tony immediately, and there was much good natured ribbing about the whole experience.


I, for one, am glad to be home.  To be sitting on my patio, enjoying the sun, listening to the birds, instead of scraping snow off of my car.  Perhaps the unexpected journey makes it all the more precious.


Derek is now sleeping in one of our hammocks by the lake, as the house is filled to capacity with Phil, David, Ruthie and their little sister who are here for the week.  The people are, without question, the best part of the adventure.