In the week leading up to my move from Sololá to Alta Verapaz, my (ridiculously wonderful) new site mate and I had gone through the wringer trying to figure out how to get me and my belongings halfway across Guatemala. We ended up hiring a truck owned by one of the asocios (members) of my host Co-operative, but we didn’t know how big it was. The description she had from those who knew was that it was “a little bigger” than a Mazda pickup truck (essentially a flete, which was our other option). I prioritized the furniture I have, figuring out what I might have to leave behind… putting my bed, refrigerator, and stove first, and really hoping to get my dresser in after that. I stacked together the best of my dishes and shoved my clothes back into the suitcase and backpack I brought with me from the US, and hoped for the best.
The truck that met me on Thursday night erased all need for such things. I could have easily fit twice what I own in this thing. It was tempting to just load the entire house on the back of the truck whole!
Act I: A Long Slow Start
The actual moving day got off to an exhausting start with cranky digestion getting me out of bed three times in the six hours I had hoped to sleep. I was that much more restless wondering if this was the beginning of an illness that would mean I’d be breaking up our drive with frequent mad dashes for the bushes (thankfully, whatever it was got out of my system by morning). At four fifteen I got up to wrap my farewell gifts for my host family / counterpart and packing up my bedding. At five o’clock the president of my new cooperative was at my door with the three others from my new community who had come with him to help pack me up and bring me back with them.
The loading process had some extra challenges thrown in. When moving into my cottage we drove the truck with my stuff up the driveway and parked it in the patio of the family compound, carrying items the last 35 meters or so up a narrow dirt path, crossing under some low hanging cables as a mini obstacle course. On the way back out, the truck was too big to make it up the driveway. The once open patio was under construction to build an adobe walled kitchen, leaving uneven and narrow pathways with sharp corners. After navigating the original path and the patio, we had another 40-50 meters down the driveway to the truck. Everything was strapped in and ready by 6:20, so I went back up the hill to pay the last of my bills and say goodbye. By 6:40 a.m. we were on the road.
By 7:15 a.m. we were back off the road for a breakfast stop. Almost two hours later we were on the road again after an extended filter cleaning and various bits of mucking about under the hood on our vehicle.
Act II: Things Get Confusing
An hour later we were stopped again by a group of policeman at a checkpoint on the highway, who looked at our registration and informed us it had expired last October. I don’t know if there was a fine paid, an officer paid off, or just a warning given, but 20 minutes later we were moving again.
At this point I started drifting in and out of sleep. The three people around me in the cab (the fourth person was riding in the back of the truck) were chatting animatedly in Q’eqchi’ and I was just as glad they didn’t want to make conversation. My body wanted sleep. As I came in and out of awareness, it became clear we were lost in Guatemala City. I kept thinking that we’d have made it out by the next time I woke, but that was not the case.
Eventually I shook myself into alertness and did my best to figure out what was going on. Every two minutes or so, we’d hail down a neighboring driver or a pedestrian and ask for directions. Our driver would then proceed to NOT follow the advice we received. In one case we were told to turn right and then get on the highway by way of a clover leaf. We drove past the clover leaf instead. In another case we were told to drive five blocks to the Coca Cola factory. The driver counted to three and then stopped to ask someone else. In the distance that he counted to three, I only saw us pass one intersection.
When it finally seemed we were making progress, the president of my cooperative went to jump out the passenger door in search of directions while we were in stopped traffic. As he opened the door, he clipped a passing motorcyclist, whipping the door open, catapulting himself out the door, and sending the motorcycle and its rider sprawling out on the ground in front of us. A traffic officer came up and demanded whose fault it was, and, naturally everyone claimed innocence. Just as things were getting heated the driver of my truck pulled out some cash and immediately everyone was chuckling and slapping each other on their backs.
We made it out of the city with only three more requests for directions, and settled into highway driving once more.
Act III: Charting New Waters
As we turned North and headed into El Progreso, I began to get concerned. Rather, I got hot, and then I got uncomfortable, sweaty, and apprehensive. With four of us in the cab plus Canchita on my lap in a carrier, there was not a lot of wiggle room. My rear felt like it would never recover from sitting in the same position for so long. There was a man riding in the back of a truck on top of a stack of car tires driving in front of us, which gave me heat stroke just watching him. What’s more, it was close to 2:00 and we hadn’t stopped for lunch, nor had we discussed the prospect of doing so. The president was optimistically saying he thought we’d arrive by 4:00 but I knew we had at least four more hours to go. Heat, close quarters, and low blood sugar aren’t a great combination, I have to say.
Thankfully, we did stop for lunch, and continued the journey with only three (plus the cat) in the cab, leaving two in the back. As we worked our way into Baja Verapaz and eventually Alta Verapaz, the weather mercifully turned cooler. All my previous impressions of Guatemala having deforestation problems and a dearth of wildlife were contradicted by the lush countryside we were passing. The hillsides were covered by forests that blurred the lines between shrubs and trees. There were a handful of pines that looked to be cousins of the Ponderosa and Jack Pine in the states, but there were far more massive bushy tree-shrubs that made me think of Honeylocust and Hawthorne trees. Many trees I didn’t recognize at all, but there were some more tropical offerings such as Banana trees sprinkled in as well. I saw hawks and other birds somewhere between the size of ravens and vultures. I began to suspect it is with good reason that so many of the Peace Corps Ecotourism Volunteers head up to this region.
As we neared the end of the journey, the weather turned rainy and the truck turned ornery. We stopped every few kilometers as the engine died, and eventually all unloaded to tilt the cab forward and get in to the engine. They did something to the filter again after telling me there was water in the diesel, and as it got dark we pulled into Cobán at last. From there we drove to my new municipality and turned off to the rocky dirt road winding up, over, and around the rolling (and sometimes diving) hills. With every building we passed I wondered which marked the start of my new community, although I was too exhausted to be very nervous. At last around 7:30 p.m. we pulled up to the Co-operative building and tumbled out of the cab. After a long day travelling away from home, I was newly home again.
There was an overwhelming crowd of people waiting to greet us when we arrived, and all my belongings were unloaded, examined, and commented upon within minutes. Women and men came up and hugged me or patted me on the arm, some speaking to me in Q’eqchi’, others in Spanish, others not speaking at all. Sitemate and I managed to restrain ourselves to a shoulder pat as well, holding in the hugging squealing gringa reaction dying to get out.
A rain storm erupted on us as the last few items were unloaded, and we all filed into the main meeting room where I sat beside my traje-clad (traditionally dressed) site mate in front of a sea of eager and curious faces. Over the roar of rain on lamina (corrugated metal), the president introduced me to the crowd in Q’eqchi’ while a woman translated into my ear. I was asked to give a few words, so I did, and then was prompted to give more when the length of my comments was deemed insufficient by my translator. Other people also stood and spoke in varying attitudes, and on varying topics, and then we were all fed carrot cake followed by caldo de res (traditional festive soup… not my favorite, but an honor nonetheless). Eventually people started taking their leave and late at night my site mate and I were left in the co-op to put my bed back together and marvel at our luck.
And thus, the next adventure begins!