Guatemala, Through My Eyes

Visitors Galore, Round 1: Krista


During my Peace Corps service, I was completely spoiled with visitors from home raining down on me off and on for nearly a year. Not all of my readers are aware of this because I haven’t written anything about it yet. However, these visitors were extremely important to the third goal of the Peace Corps, which is to create a better understanding of people of other cultures on the part of Americans. (And it also meant I had great company and a little taste of home every now and then!) So although my service has ended, I believe each set of visitors deserves a tribute chapter because of the time they took and effort they made to come down to Guatemala to experience the country, food, culture, and way of life here as well as get a little taste of the Peace Corps experience.

I had a total of 7 visitors on 5 trips (due to coupled visitors) who came primarily to be with me which made for a grand total of 53 days of visitors. In the Peace Corps world, saying to another PCV “I am having a visitor” was code for “you are probably not going to hear from me or see me the entire time my visitors are here; I’ll talk to you again when they go back home.” It was understood that any of our visitors deserved our full-on attention—or as much as they wanted. It was an honor for us to get visitors and so we all strived to plan enjoyable, unforgettable adventures for our guests. (This in part was why I never immediately wrote about my visitors: while they were with me, I put my life on hold and once they left, I was so busy playing catch-up that I, again and again, set my writing to the side.)

For each visitor or set of visitors, I created an itinerary—subject to change—tailored to the interests, activity level, and budget of each person as well as the number of days they had in country and the current weather conditions of Guatemala. To be completely honest, having visitors was exhausting in many ways because we PCVs generally fill the roles of host/hostess, tour guide, translator, cook, bodyguard, money manager, and best friend all at the same time, depending on the needs, capabilities, and social confidence of each guest.

For example, I filled all those roles when my mom was here except for full-time translator because her Spanish was amazing! Mari and Russell didn’t need me to host them full-time because they were perfectly capable of managing on their own. They, as well as Krista, helped out a lot with the cooking. And my brother didn’t need a bodyguard; instead he served as MY bodyguard! And since it was Christina and Andrea’s first major trip outside of the USA, I think they really enjoyed learning the money management magic of traveling in a place where just a few dollars can go a long way.

Although hosting visitors might not have been the easiest thing to do, it was SO rewarding. First, knowing that my friends and family members were willing to put complete trust in me and come to an unknown place, possibly facing uncomfortable situations or surroundings, was both exciting and humbling. All of my visitors were open-minded enough to take public transportation (and thus get a couple chicken bus experiences of their own under their belts), try Guatemalan food, and practice their Spanish with locals. Also, at my home in my town, every single visitor I had learned to take bucket baths and washed some of their clothing on the cement washboard in my pila. I was so impressed!!!

Before I launch into Krista’s trip to Guatemala, my last general comment (for now) regarding visitors is that I will always have a special Guatemala bond with each of them since they came here and had their own Guatemalan experience and now have a different sort of understanding of this unique country and culture. I understand that a handful of more friends/family members would have loved to come down here, but for financial, professional, or personal reasons, it just didn’t work out. Life happens and sometimes it is just bad timing. I don’t count who didn’t come, but I will always remember who was here. There is not only value in the bonding experience from spending time together and having a bunch of fun adventures, but also in the fact that I had the chance to step back and see Guatemala through THEIR eyes, and relate to them as they each internalized the impression this country made on them.

After being in Guatemala for 13 months and having taken one trip home during the prior December fro a wedding and family time, I got my very first visitor in May 2012. Krista is one of my best friends from home. We first met when we were 19 while working at Macaroni Grill, the Italian restaurant, in Milpitas, CA. We only worked together for about a month and a half before Krista got a job at a bank, but we remained very close and kept up with each other while I was in college. During my senior year at St. Mary’s, Krista proposed that we take a trip to Italy together during my spring break and we actually made that happen. It is my only experience backpacking in Europe (thus far) and we had the time of our lives with only a rough plan, but we managed to make it to six different cities in only eight days.

Since we had already been travel buddies in the past, Krista and I both knew what to expect from each other and how to be flexible. She planned to be in Guatemala with me for 10 days, and I knew she could definitely keep up with an activity-filled plan; in fact, she doesn’t do too well sitting still so I knew I HAD to keep her busy!

When I got to the airport to pick her up, we were SO happy to see each other. It seemed surreal from both sides: she couldn’t believe she was actually in Guatemala and I was getting used to the idea that someone from home was actually here with me, in person, on my new turf. It was great! We had so much to say to each other and to catch up on. We headed to Antigua for that first night, shared a meal, and tried to get a good night’s rest. Travel days always take a lot out of you, but that didn’t suppress any of Krista’s excitement for being there. That night reminded me of some of our old sleepover nights when we would stay up for hours talking instead of sleeping!

Instead of sending expensive care packages, my visitors were able to deliver the goods in person. Krista brought some of the necessities with her: giant jars of peanut butter and Nutella!

The next morning, we got up early to hop on a shuttle to take us to Semuc Champey (“seh-MOOK sham-PAY”), one of the natural gems of Guatemala, where freshwater pools have naturally formed and flow from the river over cascading limestone formations in a part of Guatemala where jungle actually DOES exist at an altitude of 1,000 feet, give or take. (I hadn’t been here before and wanted to wait until I had a visitor because it is a touristy spot and can get pricey; I saved a little money each month so I had a little extra to spend when my visitors came.) We got situated in a jungle lodge in the small town of Lanquín right next to the river and fell asleep to the sounds of nature that night, mostly insects singing and buzzing away. We were awakened by nature the next morning as well: the roosters crowing before the crack of dawn made Krista sort of want to have rooster for dinner…

A view of the natural limestone formations and crystal clear pools of Semuc Champey from the lookout point just before we went down to swim in them.

Our full day spent doing the Semuc Champey tour was excellent from start to finish. We began with a limestone cave tour where we ventured into dark water-filled caves with nothing but our bathing suits, sandals that were tied to our feet, and a large candle to light the way. There were parts of the cave expedition that required us to be completely swimming with only one arm while we held our candles with the other. It was really exciting climbing up waterfalls and jumping into “deep” pools in the cave essentially underground and only by the glow of our group’s candlelight!

Krista, in the back of the pickup truck that drove us down to Semuc Champey to start our tour.

The rest of the tour included a 10-minute tubing activity down the river, a couple jumps off a rope swing, and the opportunity to jump off of a very high bridge into the river below—all of which we participated in. Then we crossed over to the national park side and hiked up to the “Mirador,” the best viewing spot of the famous pools below. Our tour ended with spending an hour or so playing in the pools, riding down natural rock slides, and exploring the tunnels and caves in the various layers of the pools. It was refreshing and fun! We also made friends with a couple other people who were traveling together as well. Whereas I tended to keep some distance from short-term travelers and backpackers during my service in Guatemala, everyone who knows Krista will confirm that you can’t take her anywhere without her collecting more best friends along the way—and that is exactly what she did!

Krista and I playing around at the Semuc Champey pools with our faces painted with natural dyes from seeds.

A couple initial observations Krista had about Guatemala included the trash system and the housing tendencies. She noticed so much garbage all over the sides of the roads and in the countryside. Also, she commented on how interesting it was how Guatemalans set up their houses. There is often no porch, yard, driveway, or even a particular design or fancy architecture; the general housing trend tends to be something like a box on the side of a hill or a road or in the middle of the jungle. It’s practical. It works for them. And I thought it was so funny when we were driving through dirt roads in jungle towns and Krista couldn’t believe that the towns were actually populated because she couldn’t see where they could live. This trip was not only Krista’s first to a truly developing nation, but also to the jungle.

After a fun-filled weekend, it was time to get off the tourist track and head back to my site, San Andrés, for some down time for Krista and some work time for me for a couple days. She loved my place and made herself right at home; she even gave my cat a new name: “Squeakers,” because her meow supposedly sounded a lot more like a squeak than a normal cat meow. And I loved having company!!! It was the first time I had had someone spend the night at my place since one of my PC friends the September before. I had someone to share every meal with for a couple days straight! It didn’t bother me at all having another person in my space—despite my space issues—because having one of my best friend’s with me for a handful of days took precedence over practically everything! Plus, Krista is a great cook so we teamed up in my kitchen and she shared ideas with me like enhancing my smoothies with various other ingredients like oatmeal to make them heartier. Over the years, Krista had always hosted me in her homes, but this was the first time I had a place and kitchen of my own to host her so it was a new, but really fun experience.

Krista felt right at home and was able to relax and nap in my hammock, with “Squeakers” also lounging in a sunny patch nearby.

I had a women’s group activity and cooking class scheduled for Monday so we were off to that practically as soon as we put our stuff down the day we got back. Krista didn’t really know what to expect. I made sure I found some part of the activity that she could participate in. The lesson was on nutrition and what protein is and why it is important, then we followed it up with a Sloppy Joes made with Protemás (an inexpensive form of fortified dehydrated soy that comes in a package and serves in place of meat as a complete protein). Krista was wide-eyed the whole time, taking everything in and laughing with the ladies the whole afternoon. Afterward, she told me that she was so surprised by how outgoing and funny all the ladies in my group were, especially since they were all indigenous women. She loved how they were joking and laughing throughout the entire afternoon. And she also thought it was neat to actually see me “in action” considering the majority of people at home really had no idea what I actually did on a daily basis—or if I even did anything at all! Lol!

I put Krista to work during my protein charla, managing the “store” where my ladies were using their earned points from selected foods (higher point value for foods with higher protein content) to “buy” puzzle pieces that, when all put together, formed a human face/head.

On Tuesday, I took Krista out to Pajquiej with me to do a handful of house visits to my health promoters and ended up leading her up and down hills and across the river—twice—before we finally settled in at Carmen’s house for lunch. During one house visit, we were offered some bread and juice by Isabel, one of my promoters who is indigenous and lives in a very simple home on the side of a mountain, surrounded by cornfields. Krista commented afterwards that she couldn’t believe how generous it was for Isabel to give us a simple snack and something to drink considering how little this family clearly had. To the ladies in my village, it was an honor for them that I brought Krista to meet them; to Krista, it was an honor that these women were so kind, open, and giving just upon meeting her.

Krista in Pajquiej.

That day we had lunch with Carmen and Queylan and there Krista went, making best friends again! All three of them are so outgoing that they bonded instantly. Krista also had a lot of fun using her Spanish and getting a recipe for the Guatemalan dish that we ate for lunch, salpicón de res, from Carmen so she could make it for her family once she got back home. Krista was completely in her element! When we got back home that afternoon, we took it easy. Then, on Wednesday, I didn’t have anything planned so we could relax a little bit and take care of some household chores and laundry during the day. Later that evening we headed over to Tayra’s house to cook dinner together, play some games, and chat. It was really a typical week for me as well as a perfect snapshot of my social life at that time as well. Krista got to meet everyone who played a part in my daily life and loved them all.

Krista and Rubidia passing out “Sloppy Joes” at the end of our cooking class.

Thursday was our last full day in my site so we went back out to Pajquiej for a health promoter training I was giving. It was our first review session for the course so it ended up taking extra time, but it was a little different from the other group so cool for Krista to be a part of. We walked home just as the sun was going down, feeling satisfied with the workweek, then prepped for the last leg of the trip that night. It was really a privilege to have so much time with Krista. There is nothing like being with someone in person to get back on the same page. She is like a sister to me and when we bicker like sisters do, we both know it is out of love (most of the time! Haha!). It was neat to listen to her thoughts about where she was in her life, about to make a big career change and free herself from everything holding her back, ready to let God lead her into the risky unknown. She was in a really good place mentally and emotionally, ready to take an a fresh start, and I felt so lucky to be able to share that with her for real, despite how much of “stuff from home” I wasn’t a part of during that time.

Krista at her finest during a hike to see the “Cross on the Hill” in Antigua.

For the last leg of our trip, Krista and I headed to Lake Atitlán with the plan to meet up with our friends who we met the weekend before at Semuc Champey and hike a volcano, but unfortunately, we got rained out of that as the beginning of wet season moved in right at the end of May. Instead, we were left swinging lazily on hammocks at a PCV-favorite hostel, Iguana Perdida, in Santa Cruz la Laguna and sipping hot chocolate while watching movies in a cozy little den with a view of the lake. We did manage to get in a little hike to another lakeside town where we sat in an infinity pool and hot tub, sipping beverages and chatting while enjoying the view of the lake yet again. Not too shabby for a back-up plan!

Krista swinging in a hammock at Iguana Perdida. She makes a great pea-in-a-pod, right?

After the lake weekend, we spent one final day in back in Antigua the day before Krista’s flight out in order to do her final souvenir shopping, hike up to the cross on the hill, and have one last meal with our new friends. It was a really nice way to end her visit out here, and she went home completely refreshed and eager to start the next chapter of her life.

Me, our new travel friend Camila, and Krista eating dessert crepes at Luna de Miel, a specialty crepe restaurant in Antigua owned by a couple of French guys. Delicious!

Little did Krista know at the time, but her decision to leave her job after more than six years to take a new, exciting position as a tour manager for Columbia sportswear would lead her straight to the man of her dreams and future husband. Chase proposed to Krista this past March and they are both currently living and working in Portland, OR. They are planning their wedding for spring 2014 and both extremely happy. I’m pretty sure they haven’t yet come done from Cloud 9, and I don’t know that they ever will… I’m looking forward to meeting this guy who stole my best friend’s heart upon my return home from my travels. 😉

Krista and I on the porch of Iguana Perdida with Lago de Atitlan and the lake volcanoes in the background.