After a mere three hours of sleep, I was awakened at 2:30 a.m. by the sounds of people moving around in Ma’s house. Everyone else was awake and getting dressed and gathering up their things. We’d left most of the luggage in the truck, so there wasn’t much to gather.
Ma and Pa were also up to see us off. They offered Cheerios and coffee to everyone, but we didn’t have much time for eating. The trip to Charlotte Douglas Airport from Hildebran would take about an hour, so we needed to hit the road. We needed to get there as early as possible since our luggage contained lots of things customs officials might be curious about.
We gave Ma and Pa a hug goodbye and told them we loved them. It makes me feel fatalistic to be saying “Goodbye” to people because in my mind I’m thinking that it might be the last time I ever see them again. I know it’s probably just me being paranoid, but who knows what might happen on this journey? We could die in a plane crash or be killed by guerillas. Or gorillas, for all I know. I don’t think it’s very likely, being as how we’re essentially on a mission from God. But as Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett pointed out in their novel Good Omens, you can’t second-guess inefability, so I don’t know what God’s plan for us is. I just know that since beginning to prepare for this journey, I’ve been taking steps to ensure that things will be okay on most fronts if I don’t come back from it and part of that is telling the people that I love that I love them.
We arrived in Charlotte at 4:30 a.m.
Ashley and I used to live in Charlotte before departing for the mountain state so she could enroll in medical school and I in library servitude. We like Charlotte an awful lot, but don’t miss the sprawl and traffic very much. Fortunately, the airport is on the side of town we entered from and is easy to get to.
We parked in long-term parking and began hauling our bags to the enclosed shuttle waiting area. Within a few minutes a shuttle appeared. The driver was astounded that five people could have so much luggage and that it could weigh so much. The whole time we were hauling it onto the shuttle bus, he kept questioning us as to what we were really doing.
“You’re moving house, aren’t you?” he asked. “Yeah, you’re all on the run and getting out of town!”
We just smiled and said nothing to dispel this. I knew we must have looked very strange, though, each struggling with two 70 pound check bags and two near 40 pound carryons.
Inside the airport, there were lots of people sleeping. Some were sprawled in chairs, while others—sometimes entire families—had just plopped down on a section of carpet by the window for a snooze. I’ve heard Charlotte Douglas is a good aiport to sleep in, but had never before seen it put into practice.
We met another traveling companion inside, our friend Andrew Bright, now a third year medical student. Andrew has been on two other mission trips with Word of Life in the past, including the Honduras leg of the mission trip Ash went on in 2003. Now we were six.
It’s a good thing we arrived so early, cause we were first in line and had plenty of time to use the handy scale to make sure our bags were within their weight limitations. One of them was 71 pounds, so we took a few bottles of Ibuprofen out of it until it weighed in at exactly 70 pounds.
We were a little worried about another of the bags that contained $450 worth of Enfamil baby formula. Enfamil, for those who don’t know, comes in powder form in giant coffee-can sized tubs that aren’t very easy to pack. Instead of trying to pack them in their cans, Ash had just poured the white Enfamil powder into gallon zip-lock baggies. It made for easy packing, but also closely resembled bricks of cocaine. Ash had stowed the Enfamil labels inside the baggies to help identify them, but no matter the precautions it still looked like a suitcase full of blow. Granted, no drug-sniffing dogs would be attracted to it, but baggage x-ray technicians would certainly want a second glance.
The Continental Airlines desk didn’t actually open until closer to 5:30, but we were there and ready when it did. By then there were lots of other people in line behind us. We got through the line fairly quickly, fumbling in our cheap Wal-Mart passport wallets on strings to find our passports and e-boarding passes, etc. Dr. Allen and Mary Ann had swanky J. Crew passport wallets, but they had to fumble with them just as much. We then moved to the line to get through the metal detectors. Something in my carryon flagged suspicion and the x-ray techs had to run it through again. I still can’t figure out what they saw—maybe my odd-shaped hard-plastic water-bottle that looks vaguely like it might contain plutonium, or maybe the half-dozen juggling balls or metal Hotwheels cars I’d brought to give away—but the bag itself passed on second inspection.
Our plane was one of the smaller jets in the Continental fleet, the kind with two seats on one side of the aisle and one on the other, with very little carryon storage. We even had to check most of our carryon luggage at the jetway so they could store it in the plane’s hold. Ours were the very last seats in the plane, right by the bathroom, with me and Ash on one side and Andrew on the other. I think our stewardess must have had the hots for Andrew, because she kept bringing him more food and beverages and asking if he was hot or cold. Since Ash and I were seated right there, she offered us some extra food too, just so she didn’t seem like she was playing favorites. We knew, though.
We flew from Charlotte to Houston International. I was somehow expecting to have the same hellish experience that I had at Houston Hobby a couple of years ago, but Houston International was a breeze. It’s still a huge airport, but in a comfy sort of way. Even landing 15 minutes late, we were easily able to take the shuttle-train to our next gate and were there in plenty of time. We still wound up an hour late in taking off from Houston, though, and my 3 a.m. Cheerios had long since run out. I needed breakfast and coffee pronto!
On the airplane, little TV screens popped out of the ceiling and we were shown the standard Do This in Case of Emergency film that no one ever pays any attention to. Only this time we saw it twice, once in English and once in lightning fast Spanish. In fact, every time any announcement was made by either the flight crew or the captain, it was made first in standard well-paced English and then a second time in Indy 500 Spanish. I hoped not everyone spoke Spanish so quickly on the journey, or my by-now vestigial Spanish skills would never wake up.
Once we were in the air, they served us a nice breakfast and showed us the movie A Cinderella Story. (It’s a cute enough movie, but I still gave it a C.) They also told us we could keep the little mini-headphones that we used to listen to the film’s audio track. I’m not really sure why they gave them to us, other than to get us to throw the headphones away for them, because the headphone jack had a double plug set up that most CD players do not.
Between bites of food and occasionally paying attention to the movie, I read up on Guatemala from the Lonely Planet entry on it I’d printed out. Like many Latin American countries, this one had seen quite a lot of turmoil in its time, even beyond the Mayans. It was also supposed to have a much higher rate of crime and listed violence against foreigners as a big part of that. Comforting. It was also said to be extraordinarily beautiful in places and had some pretty amazing archaeology on display in some of its older cities. The guide spoke of the Holy Week festivities in Antigua as being particularly of interest to travelers. I didn’t know if we would be anywhere near Antigua at that point, but this was Holy Week. Seemed a shame to come all this way and miss out on that.
Very quickly into our flight, I saw that we were above the Gulf of Mexico. Not long after that, I looked down to see that we were above Mexico itself. That’s when it finally hit me that I was no longer in the United States. Not since I left the island of Guam, where I lived from age 2 to 3, had I been this far from home soil.
The ground below looked very dry and red from my view from the plane. How would Guatemala look?
Within another couple of hours, I had my first airborn glimpse of Guatemala proper.
My first impression was: I only THOUGHT there were big mountains in West Virginia. The mountains I was seeing below us were enormous, and quite often volcanic as evidenced from the smoke pouring out of their tops. I could also see occasional huge fissures in the earth below, caused no doubt by the frequent earthquakes due to said volcanic activity. Things below looked kind of dry and arid too, but then March is in the dry season, so that was to be expected.
Soon we were flying low over Guatemala City itself. It was a pretty big place, though there were very few buildings of any major height. Mostly there were low buildings, spread up and down throughout the hills and valleys of the terrain. And the color! You fly over most American cities and everything is shades of gray and brown. Guatemala City, however, was alive with color. The buildings and homes were often painted in quite vivid shades of red and blue and green and yellow. There were also hundreds of bright red busses with as much chrome-plating as they could fit on around the red. Things looked alive down there.
As the plane landed, I was reminded of some advice given to me by my friend Shoshanna as to what to expect from the Guatemala City airport. She’s been there before and warned me that I would need to keep a very close eye on my luggage, since it would be a big target for thieves. She has had friends who were mugged at knife-point for their bags there.
Well, good luck to them if they try it on us, I thought. Any thief who thinks he can haul away one of these 70 pounders is welcome to try. I thought it would almost be worth blunting the wheels on the bags just to see someone try to drag one away and listen to the “Eeeeeeeeeee” sound as the bag left twin trails of black plastic in its wake.
After deplaning, we went through customs. It was no problem at all; just had to give them the forms we’d filled out on the plane, that stated why we wanted in the country and when we were planning to leave again, and we were through. The customs guy was even nice. Then we hurried to see to our luggage that was even then beginning to make its rounds on the conveyer belt.
The baggage claim area of the airport left little to the imagination. Most airports have the typical conveyer belt that slides out of a mysterious rubber-flap covered hole leading who knows where; a magic luggage spout, if you will. In Guatemala City’s airport, the conveyer belt was set into a giant glass window looking out on the tarmac itself. We could clearly see bag handlers unloading the bags from a truck and putting them on the conveyer belt on their side of the glass. I felt sorry for them as they struggled with our luggage.
We had tied strips of army green cloth to the handles of all of our luggage for easy identification. Andrew, Dr. Allen and I stationed ourselves at different places around the conveyer belt, ready to snatch bags off as soon as we could, then haul them into a pile back where the ladies were standing guard. Someone even found us a rolling luggage cart to pile the pile onto, so we wouldn’t have to haul them by hand. All but one of the bags appeared. That’s right, the Enfamil bag was nowhere to be seen. Now, I realize the Enfamil bag’s contents looked suspicious, and all, but who really tries to smuggle cocaine INTO Guatemala? We decided to write it off and hope it turned up later. For all we knew, it was still sitting in a customs locker in Charlotte.
Outside the airport, the weather was very comfortable and in the upper 70’s. I’d left North Carolina wearing jeans, a t-shirt and a hoody, but could see they would soon be a little warm. We were met outside by Butch Jarrel, one of the higher ups at Word of Life in New York. He lead us through the thick crowd of people waiting outside and told us we could put our bags on the WOL bus. It was kind of a curious thing, though. Having never met any of the local Guatemalan staff before, it was difficult to discern who was a genuine staff member and who was a potential bag thief trying to look like a staff member. It made sense to me that bag thieves might pose as sky-captains or cab drivers just to get hold of your stuff. Then I noticed that all the people helping move bags were wearing Word of Life T-Shirts, so they were probably okay.
There were two more flights arriving within the next hour, so we hung around to wait for them too. It was a great opportunity to people watch and meet some of the other staff members. Rick Brooks, another high-up from WOL headquarters in New York, was there. He welcomed us and told us the most useful phrase we could know in Spanish: Donde es su bano? (Where is your bathroom?)
Among the crowd were a number ladies in traditional Guatemalan dress. Ash told me that you don’t see it as much in the city as you do in the countryside. She’d seen more in 2003 when she was in the mountain town of Quetzaltananga. There were also children who came up offering shoe-shines, or selling fruit or were just asking people for “dollares”.
I was a little uncertain how to behave in the crowd. Part of me wanted to start snapping pictures of everything like a big gawky tourist. However, we’d been told that we shouldn’t take pictures of the locals without permission, particularly when it came to photographing their children. It is apparently a prevalent belief that westerners come to Guatemala to steal away children for rich families back in the States and anyone taking pictures of children can be suspect. From what I understand, this is not entirely untrue.
One of the other flights contained fellow West Virginians while the second was bringing in a team of dental students and dentists from Racine, Wisconsin. I decided to put on my Word of Life name-tag before offering to help move their luggage to the bus. It was a good idea too, as a couple of them wisely didn’t accept help until I’d flashed the ID for them.
Once all of the flights had delivered their passengers, we all bussed up and drove through Guatemala City to the home of Marcello Diez, the man in charge of all things WOL in Guatemala. The journey there was an interesting one.
As I’ve said, I’d never been in a foreign country until that point, so just seeing the way things worked was fascinating to me. You might not think it would be all that different. After all, big cities in America can be just as hectic and fascinating as in another country. However, there’s just sort of a different flavor to it that’s a little hard to pin down at first.
There was kind of a work-in progress feel to the city. It’s a lot like visiting a construction site and seeing all the bits of it that are sort of half-finished; like exposed rebar awaiting concrete or maybe a finished building awaiting paint or an older structure that’s seen quite a bit of wear and is probably next on the list for a face-lift; there are bits of trash lying around that the construction workers have dropped and won’t worry about picking up until final cleanup, etc. Except the whole city feels this way. I imagine with all the earthquakes that happen, there is a very good reason for all the construction and wear.
The cars were another difference. Sure, there were loads of the same sorts of vehicles you see in America and other countries, but there were quite a few I didn’t recognize at all. Some of the most obvious of these were in the form of miniature mini-vans, smaller still than even the smallest mini-van I’d ever seen. They also look like they’re constructed from pressed tin and live in perpetual fear of kids with BB guns.
The Mayan influence was also evident everywhere you look. I don’t even know from Mayan influence, and I could see it.
Like most big cities, there were lots of billboards to be seen nearly everywhere you looked. The ones I noticed the most were for things like Gallo beer, or ads for the movie Robots, but there were plenty of others. The architecture too was far different than I’m used to seeing. Almost all of the homes and businesses I saw were constructed like mini-fortresses. The businesses had gates that could be pulled down over the front of the store, much like some businesses in major U.S. Cities. Most of the houses were boxy and constructed of concrete block. Usually they were brightly colored, often covered with stucco. But they were not open in the front, to reveal the front door of the home itself. Instead, there was usually a high concrete wall topped with either razor wire or broken shards of glass set into the concrete itself, with a wide metal door set into the wall. Beyond that door lay either a front garden area or a garage, but the outside looked pretty tough to get through. I don’t know the true origins of this style of home, but keeping unwanted people out seems to be the definite theme.
Marcello’s house was no exception to this. Though he lives in a gated neighborhood, his house is still very much a lovely colorful fortress from the outside. Inside the metal garage door, there was a tiled floor garage area that was far cleaner than you’d imagine a garage to be. The actual front door to his home was in the garage too, as well as set of tall clear windows that gave a view into his side-yard. We also found a long table upon which a cold cuts tray and sandwich fixings are laid out. We’d not eaten since our breakfast on the plane, hours earlier, so we were hungry.
First things first, though: I had to find the bano.
I’d been holding my bladder since before we landed and had not sought out “facilities” up to that point because I did not wish to be waylaid in the airport bano by someone seeking to steal my carryon backpack. (This is probably a case of over-active imagination on my part, but that’s really all I had to go on at that point in my trip.)
One of the other things I’d been concerned about on the trip was the reality that bathrooms in Central America work differently than in the states. See, most Central American plumbing pipes are too small to accommodate toilet paper. So instead of flushing the soiled paper away after “making stinky” you have to put it into a small trash can beside the toilet or risk clogging up the works. The idea that stinky paper is to be left there to remain stinky is kind of an icky and alien concept to most of us Gringos. However, in practice, it’s really not that big a deal–at least after you manage to train your hand not to drop the paper in the pot, post-wipe. The thing about poopy paper is that it dries up pretty quickly and is thus no longer offensive to the nose. And most of the homes and places I traveled to while south of the border, (I emphasize MOST, as there were definite exceptions), were meticulous at emptying their bano bins on a regular basis. While I didn’t have to make stinky at that moment, I wouldn’t have minded doing so in Marcello’s bano. It was spotless, fragrant and well-ventillated.
After lunch and introductions, we all piled back in our two school-busses to head south of Guatemala City, toward the coast where the Word of Life (Palabra de Vida) camp property is located. We quickly discovered that though Marcello’s house was fortress-like, the busses themselves were not. Some theif had been aboard and made off with two backpacks while we were inside eating. These were only the first of the thefts that our collective 40 plus member team would experience during the week.
The driver of our bus was a man called Oswald. We would come to respect him greatly as both a person and a driver over the week, but our initial impressions were that he was a bit reckless. Driving regulations in Guatemala are a good deal more lax than in the states. I’m sure they have laws to cover it, but most of the time they don’t seem to be enforced. Oswald proved that point by hurtling our massive bus through busy city streets, weaving among the cars like an Indy driver, as we made our way out of town. And while it might have seemed reckless at first, we soon came to realize that Oswald had a great deal of skill when it came to maneuvering that bus. He was aided in this by one of the missionary staff named Alex. Alex was a funny man who was able to convey his humor despite his rusty English skills. Alex’s job was to lean out the door of the bus and make sure Oswald wasn’t running over anything important. They made a great team and no important things were squooshed.
Guatemala City was pretty smoggy that day. You could smell the pollution in the air. That gradually lessened as we left the city limits, moving down past past sprawling apartment suburbs of tiny little terra-cotta-colored-roof fortresses. We also saw some less fortress-like dwellings. They were shacks, really, clustered together in suburbs of their own, a reminder that the poor of Guatemala live far worse than most poor in the United States.
Before getting out of the city entirely, we stopped at a gas-station next to a row of toll-booths so that people could buy snacks and drinks and visit the bano one last time before we hit the open road. Standing guard in front of the gas station was a man with a large black and silver sawed-off shotgun. It’s very off-putting at first to see people walking around with shotguns in public, but this was a commonplace sight almost everywhere we went. From banks to little roadside mom & pop cocinas, guys with shotguns were the “in” dudes to have guarding your place.
Guatemala is quite beautiful. The geology of the place actually reminds me a lot of West Virginia; just mountains and rolling hills and trees and lots and lots of rocks.
Ashley and I talked a bit with the people on the bus, trying to get to know them. Seated next to us was a local missionary staffer named Claudia, who Ashley knew from 2003. Claudia was all smiles all the time. While her English was better than my Spanish, she still didn’t seem to speak very much of it, so our communication was limited to my Spanish and what we could send through interpreters. Our interpreter aboard was Michelle. She’s an American with the Racine dental team who spent some time in Mexico as an exchange student, years back, and picked up the language. I don’t know much Spanish anymore, but Michelle sounded flawless as she conversed with Oswald and Alex.
Marcello, who was driving the other bus, had earlier told us that the camp was two hours from Guatemala City. It was actually closer to three. This was our first example of a phenomenon we learned to call Gringo Time. Gringo Time, you see, is what we gringos are used to operating under. In Gringo Time, things begin when they’re scheduled to begin and when you ask how long it takes to get somewhere, a definitive and accurate answer can be produced. In Guatemala, things don’t work on Gringo Time, which means schedules are rarely followed very closely and everything takes twice as long to accomplish as you’re told it will. The sooner you are able to accept this the better off and much less frustrated you are. Oddly, I accepted it right away and was never bothered much by the delays. It’s actually a far more relaxed and leisurely way to live.
Very soon on our journey to the camp, we found a prime example of why life moves at a slower pace in Guatemala. For as we appproached sea-level, the comfortable temperatures of Guatemala City gave way to humidity and heat. By the time we reached camp, near 9 p.m. I was asleep and sweaty. The dirt road up to the camp property was very bumpy, but not too long. It was slow-going, though, and without the rush of wind through the windows, the heat really started to set in. The humidity felt like it was at full force at the camp. Mind you, I grew up in Mississippi, where July and August are just one big sweatbox, so I figured I could take it. This didn’t mean I had to enjoy it, though.
It was difficult to see anything when we stumbled off the two busses. This was due as much to the surrounding night-time darkness as to the blinding flood-lights on tripods stationed near the camp’s kitchen, which was the nearest building to the gravel parking lot. Beyond the glare of the lights we could see the shapes of some other buildings, further down the slope of a hill, as well as other lights coming from beneath a covered pavilion area. Beneath its roof were rows of covered tables and benches, as well as a couple of Foosball-style games and a ping-pong table.
Though we couldn’t really see much of the camp, it was apparent from the equipment, dangerously exposed sections of rebar right at shin-level and in-progress buildings that this camp was still under construction. We were to learn more about the overall camp project as the week progressed.
We unloaded the van of personal luggage and headed to the bunk houses. There were four bunk houses in all, two for the men up the hill and two for the ladies down the hill, with the pavilion and kitchen building in the middle. Each bunk house was equipped with two high-powered air-conditioners and rows of sturdy bunk beds. I chose a top bunk because I liked bunk beds as a kid and always made a point of taking the top bunk at Summer Camp. This felt as much like Summer Camp as I’d seen in quite a few years. There were even enough bunk beds available that a few of us were able to swipe matresses from the spare bunks to pad out our thin solo mattresses. We had all brought twin sheet-sets and bedding with us, because the camp did not yet have any on hand, so most of us set about making our beds. I’d not had room room in my luggage for a pillow, but found that my hoody jacket wadded up in a pillow-case made for a fine pillow. Andrew came in late and had to take the bunk beneath mine since most of the other spares had been pillaged by then.
In proximity to each set of bunk houses was a bano/shower house. Ours had very large and very fast frogs in it, one of whom I was able to photograph before he vanished in a hopping green blur. I didn’t mind the presence of frogs one bit. I figured if there were frogs in the bano there probably weren’t any snakes. Or bugs.
Before dinner at the pavilion, Rick asked the married team-members and a few other seasoned adult types to meet with him. He explained that the mayor of the nearest town had offered four hotel rooms for use of the mission during the week. Rick wanted to offer them to those of us who were married so that we could stay together if we wanted. It was a very generous offer on the mayor’s part, but it wasn’t one that I wanted to accept. Beyond the issues of having to travel 20 minutes to get to and from the hotel, it would put those of us in the hotel at even more of a personal distance from those in camp. Being away would not lend itself to getting to know the rest of the team and I think would have lessened the mission experience as a whole. (And as for being away from Ashley, I had spent four months in a row away from her while she was on medical rotations, so surely I could survive two weeks.) Fortunately, the other married couples felt the same way as Ash and I did. No one went to the hotel.
After dinner, we had our first meeting of the entire United States portion of the mission team. Marcello, Butch and Rick outlined some information about our itenerary for Sunday as well as telling us about the two clinic sites we would be at during the week itself. Half-way through the meeting, the power went off, plunging us into darkness. This was our first bad omen as far as the reliability of the local power transformer. Turns out that all those flood lights and air-conditioners were putting the hurt on the transformer and it would occasionally spit out a disturbing shower of sparks before losing the will to continue functioning.
Later, Ashley and I saw these sparks first hand while looking for our towels. See, we’d originally packed plenty of towels, but in our haste of packing and repacking, Ash had wound up taking all our towels out of one bag and not remembering to put them back in another. We didn’t know this, though, until we had searched all the luggage that was still aboard the van. This was initially hard to do in the dark, but then Andrew came by to help and brought a flashlight. Soon we discovered that the towels were not there. Now, as a good potential Hitchhiker of the Galaxy, I am never far from my towel and had a spare one stashed in my backpack in the cabin. I offered it to Ash, but she declined, saying she would use a pillow-case to dry off that first night. While we were searching, though, we saw the transformer sparking and then saw guys going up on ladders to fix it after it cut off. I was sure one of them would be electrocuted and we’d have our first injuries to treat, but nothing bad happened.
Andrew left me with his flashlight, which made seeing my way back to the cabin in the dark much less perilous. Only when I was back in the cabin did I remember that I’d packed my own flashlight too. It was a long stainless steel pen-light that I’ve had for a couple of years now and which is almost always with me in my backpack. I retrieved it and made a point to have it on my person at all times, least I trip on one of the many rocks and go tumbing down the hill onto some rebar. It’s good that I did, too, because I managed to misplace Andrew’s flashlight for several days.
During my first shower in the shower house that night, I was mid-way through washing my face and had my eyes securely closed so as not to get any water-born bacteria in them when I heard the distant whine of the air-conditioners cut out. I thought: When I open my eyes, it’s going to be pitch black. Sure enough, the power had gone out again, so I finished my shower in darkness.
The power went off twice more throughout the night, knocking out the air-conditioners and leaving us hot and sweaty until the transformer could be seen to. And please know that I’m not complaining about any of this. I knew things would be different in Guatemala and I’d not expected to have any air-conditioning at all, so having some was a blessing. I kept reminding myself that I had not come there to be comfortable; I came there to help with the mission.
That was a mantra that would be repeated and tested many times during the coming week.