How I Learned to Expect the Unexpected
It is a long way from Flores to Lanquin, Guatemala. The mini bus is completely stuffed with backpackers, some sitting on makeshift seats in the aisle. We pull over periodically so that a motion-sick Irishman can get out and throw up. “Sorry guys!” he says cheerfully each time.
At the hostel they told us it was an eight-hour ride, but it turns out to be more like ten. I’ve found that one should always add at least an hour, usually two, to the estimated driving time in Central America. It’s overcrowded, hot and uncomfortable, but I don’t care because I’m watching Guatemala pass by the window and it is one of the most beautiful countries I have ever seen. We drive through high green mountains interlaced with rivers, and in every river are women washing clothes, children splashing around nearby.
I love not knowing what tomorrow will hold or what’s around the next corner. I have no idea where I’ll be in a week, who I’ll have met or what I’ll have done.
The fabrics in Guatemala are incredible. Even in the poorest villages we pass through, beautiful woven skirts, blouses and blankets hang on the clotheslines. At one point we cross a river on a ferry that is nothing more than a wood and metal raft powered by what looks like a couple of boat engines attached to the side, and steered by a man sitting in a barrel next to the motor.
At this point, I had originally thought I would still be in Belize, but I’ve found that making plans on this trip is generally fruitless. In order to enjoy traveling, it’s important to let go of expectations, be open to change, and deal with surprises as they come, because anything can happen.
My first mishap happened while backpacking in Belize. I was with some friends in Dangriga for Garifuna Settlement Day, which is a celebration of Garifuna culture and involves fair amount of drinking, dancing and drumming. I was running to catch up with a few friends, in the dark with my hands full, when I tripped in a pothole and went down hard. For whatever reason, my first concern was that I had scraped my face.
How I Learned to Expect the Unexpected
“Is my face okay?” were my first words once I got up. After my friend had told me it was, I noticed quite a lot of blood pouring out of a hole in my elbow. It was an enormous stroke of luck that one of the guys I was traveling with at the time, an Australian, had first aid training and an extensive first aid kit (I packed some band-aids and neosporin and thought I was prepared).
He cleaned the cut up and put a bandage on it, and was a huge help looking after it over the next week. He also came with me when I went to a clinic two days later in Flores, Guatemala, where a nurse scraped out the cut for about twenty minutes, with q-tips, gauze, and a metal scalpel.
The doctor, an elderly, heavyset Guatemalan man put on his thick glasses to peer at my elbow. “There’s sand in it,” he said in Spanish, and then in heavily accented English, “This is death. Muerto. Death.” He prescribed three pretty intense antibiotics to prevent infection, but I ended up going with the lighter option of Penicillin after consulting a Pakistani eye surgeon on a bus ride to the Mayan ruins of Tikal.
When traveling, you find yourself in situations you could never have imagined, sometimes good, sometimes not. What has struck me on this trip is the compassion people show when things go wrong, and the measures they take to help each other.
A few days ago I had given my laundry to the hostel laundry service. They found a single bedbug on one of my shirts (after it had been through their washing machine) and told me I needed to immediately get all of my things out of the room, and that I would not be able to stay there. I was a bit shocked. It was dark, not the time to be wandering the streets alone with a massive hiking backpack, and I had tried two other hostels that were full earlier in the day.
My dorm mate, another Australian, had been in the area for a while. Without me even asking, he walked around with me to at least three hostels, all over town, until I found one. For everything that has happened (though I know for the most part everything has gone smoothly), I feel nothing but lucky, because things would have been so much worse if it had not been for the kindness of others.
I’m now in San Pedro la Laguna, Guatemala, a town on Lake Atitlan. It’s a beautiful place, surrounded by high mountains and volcanos. The three and a half weeks I’ve been traveling have flown by, as I knew they would. Some of the best things I’ve done so far have been completely unexpected.
What has struck me on this trip is the compassion people show when things go wrong, and the measures they take to help each other.
While backpacking in Mexico, in addition to the much anticipated beach lounging and much hoped for snorkeling with sea turtles, I explored an abandoned five-star hotel slowly being claimed by the jungle. In Caye Caulker, Belize, not only did I snorkel with sea turtles and stingrays, as I hoped I would, but with huge nurse sharks. Coming to Guatemala, I knew I wanted to see Tikal, the impressive Mayan ruins, hike on volcanos, and swim in the limestone pools of Semuc Champey, but I never imagined I would explore a cave with only thin white candles for light, nor did I think I would be roasting a marshmallow in the hot, hardened lava near the top of the volcano.
I have said that spontaneity is one of my favorite things about traveling, and it continues to be true. I love not knowing what tomorrow will hold or what’s around the next corner. I have no idea where I’ll be in a week, who I’ll have met or what I’ll have done. Things will go right and things will go wrong, and when they do, I know to stay calm, because the odds are that in the end, everything will be okay. You’ll have scars to show and stories to tell.