Guatemala 2015, Part 1: Welcome to Guatemala! - Jesse King

In the summer of 2014, Jessica and I began making plans for a trip to Guatemala. Our friends Nathan & Jessica had been living there for over 6 months, and we were excited to visit them and lend a hand in the volunteer Bible ministry in their rural Guatemalan community. Fast forward to January 2015 and all our planning was finally rewarded: We boarded our flight to Guatemala City, not quite sure what awaited us, but excited to find out.

Note: This is Part 1 of a 6-part series. The other parts can be found here:

Part 2 - Preaching in Guatemala
Part 3 - The Beach & Lessons Learned
Part 4 - Las Lisas
Part 5 - Antigua
Part 6 - Goodbye Guatemala

Our flight plan was ideal - an early morning departure from Dayton International Airport was followed by a brief layover in Atlanta, with a final arrival time in Guatemala City of around 1 P.M. (local time), leaving plenty of time to get around in Guatemala City. Being a rather inexperienced traveler, I was thrilled to be airborne, although Jess (a.k.a. "Power Traveler") hardly noticed our takeoff ;)

  • One advantage of our early morning flight was the breathtaking sunrise over the cloud line.

  • Other boredom-eliminating distractions included these handy customs forms!

  • In an effor to reduce in-flight boredom, our 1,800 mile trip was conveniently mapped for our viewing pleasure

When the clouds broke upon our descent toward Guatemala City, we were greeted by a stunning vista of dense housing and beautifully sculpted countryside. At one point I noticed a stunning waterfall down a sheer drop, situated just a stone's throw from a packed housing development.

I had no real expectations for what Guatemala City would be like, but this airborne overview seemed deeply revealing. From thousands of feet up, it was impossible not to be taken aback by the sheer variety. What lay below was a staggering mixture of elements - tightly packed high-rises, gorgeous Mission style communities, tin-roofed slums, beautiful forests and winding plantations, all neatly nestled in the shadows of enormous volcanoes. This vista well foreshadowed the rich mixture of culture we were soon to experience during our week in Guatemala.

  • Guatemala City is a true potpourri of architecture and natural beauty

After landing we spent a little time in the Customs line at La Aurora airport, but were moved through pretty quickly (as compared to our return flight to Atlanta a week later). I was anxious throughout the whole process: As this was my first time leaving U.S. soil, I had no idea what to expect, especially in a place not frequented by tourists. Besides, my Spanish language skills were still pretty weak, and the idea of navigating Customs in a language other than English was rather intimidating. The Ebola symptom surveys didn't help much either.

Once we made our way out of the airport we were immediately greeted by Nathan & Jessica and their friends Tim & Kristy. We hadn't met Tim & Kristy before but they turned out to be pretty okay people (fine -- they were awesome!). It was a real culture shock to walk through those exit doors and onto the noisy, packed streets outside. Hundreds of Guatemalans stood waiting for arrivals or hugging their loved ones goodbye. The sudden rush of color, sound, and smell was almost overwhelming to a newbie like myself, but also very exciting.

Our first stop was, of all places, a shopping mall. The Miraflores mall was home to a number of Americanized stores and restaurants -- and Nathan had been nursing a serious craving for Cinnabon. So we ate, explored the mall, and exchanged some US currency for the local currency - Guatemalan Quetzales. Since I was a paranoid traveling newbie, I felt it necessary to carry small amounts of money in almost every spot imaginable -- two wallets in two pockets, shoulder bag, luggage, each sock -- you name it, I had some money there. It was only when I went to fish out some currency from under my feet in the middle of a crowded shopping mall that I realized I'd gone a bit overboard.

  • The Miraflores shopping mall was decidedly American for our first stop in Guatemala.

  • One of our first stops in Guatemala City led us to, of all things, a Taco Bell

  • Nathan's craving for Cinnabon knew no bounds. We spent an unreasonable amount of time finding this place ;)

  • Nathan breathing in the rich Cinnabony goodness

  • The moment of true delight has arrived!

  • Nathan, immediately regretting his decision: "I can't believe I ate the whole thing!"

After the mall it was back out onto the streets to begin our trip. Almost immediately we began seeing all kinds of interesting, different, or just bizarre sights on the streets of Guatemala City.

  • A rather uninteresting view of a Guatemala City intersection -- until you look closer. Yes, there is a man in a large bag hanging behind a box-truck-turned-trash-truck. Welcome to Guatemala.

  • Phineas & Ferb is apparently a thing in Guatemala, too. My kids will be thrilled!

  • Motorcycles are ubiquitous in Guatemala.

  • Sidewalks in the capital were lined with people trying to earn a few Quetzales from passers-by.

The six of us piled into Nathan's trusty steed, an affectionately worn Chevy Silverado extended cab pickup, for our journey out of the capital and toward Guatemala's southern coast, to a little spot called Casas Viejas, just south of the larger town of Chiquimulilla, near the Pacific coast. The distance from Guatemala City to Casas Viejas was not particularly long as the crow flies, but it took nearly 4 hours as the Guatemalan drives.

If I thought I was experiencing culture shock exiting the airport, I was completely unprepared for what driving in Guatemala was like. Fortunately, Nathan was an expert chauffeur, having managed to survive a year on Guatemalan roadways unscathed. Jess and I instantly realized that any notions of "rules of the road", at least as we knew them, had vanished. Roads designed for two lanes were often jammed 3 or 4 vehicles wide, with motorcycles constantly splitting lanes or buzzing past on the "shoulder". They say in many areas of life that a best defense is a good offense; when it comes to driving in Guatemala City, it's mandatory. There were more than a few moments when we were gripping the seat backs with white knuckles as Nathan quickly dodged around suddenly-stopped cars, found gaps in traffic to make quick exits, and made harrowing passes on the narrow rural roads past all manner of dilapidated transports.

  • A truck of armed soldiers making its way through Guatemala City

  • These soldiers were suspicious or possibly just curious about the truck full of Gringos that kept taking their picture.

  • A typical example of a truck on Guatemalan roadways. Many small pickups were far more overloaded, or even invisible under their towering cargo, leading to Nathan's invention of the "There's a Truck in There Somewhere" driving game.

  • Motorcycles are useful for more than just passenger transport.

  • It was not uncommon to see a couple little heads poking out from atop a towering load of cargo on a tiny pickup.

  • A large brushfire atop a mountain. Nathan told me that they regularly burn grass, and, as I would see later, trash throughout Guatemala.

  • Don't worry, that price is in Quetzales (about 7.5 to 1 USD)

  • A view of an unidentified volcano from the highway leading out of Guatamala City.

  • Many people think building a city beneath a volcano is crazy. Maybe. Maybe not.

  • The Suma Supermercado was our first grocery experience.

  • You mean this isn't how your local grocery gets its eggs delivered? SIde note: Eggs in Guatemala are never refrigerated. No ill effects.

  • Even at the grocery store the most common vehicle was the motorcycle.

Since Casas Viejas is so far from a large town, it made sense to stop for groceries on our way home. There are no fast food restaurants or convenient stores in Casas Viejas, and it wasn't safe for us to eat the local local street food. So, with a great deal of effort, we made our way through two different groceries en route to Casas Viejas.

  • Guatemalan grocery shopping: What started as an exciting novelty quickly became a miserable chore.

Shopping was a real challenge since we had suddenly hit a brick wall of exhaustion. Passing through aisle after aisle in a hot, stuffy and strange warehouse store, we struggled to identify even simple items in Spanish from endless rows of foreign labels and packages. Finally we settled on some basic produce and pre-packaged items like bread, peanut butter and cookies. We traveled on to a second grocery closer to home to get cold dairy and meat items. By that time we were ready to just get to the house and fall into bed.

When we finally reached the little village of Casas Viejas, it was well past dark. Guatemala has an early sunrise year round due to its proximity to the equator; it was dark by 6 P.M. daily. When we pulled into the driveway I suddenly felt overwhelmed with anxiety. Our environment was so utterly foreign, and in the pitch black night I couldn't get my bearings whatsoever. We were surrounded by trees full of all kinds of unknown creatures - birds, bats, insects, lizards, and who knows what else. Had I arrived in the daytime, I could have processed this strange environment much more easily, but as it was I was more than a little nervous about what we had gotten ourselves into.

  • The [daylight] view from the driveway of our house in Casas Viejas, Guatemala.

  • The entrance gate and field beyond.

Our house was a nice 2-story with a beautiful thatched roof over its upper terrace. Inside the construction was simple but attractive; glossy faux-wood ceramic tile adorned the floor and the layout was open and surprisingly spacious. We entered into an empty main room; to the right was the kitchen. Ahead lay the two downstairs bedrooms and a bathroom. Upstairs was the huge terrace -- open to the outside air save for the beautiful thatched roof -- another bathroom, and 2 more bedrooms, one of which would be ours for the week.

  • Two of the four terrace hammocks, aka "little slices of heaven".

Entering the bedroom, we first noticed a wall of seemingly oppressive heat. Though the night air was comfortable in the open due to a regular breeze, our small room had only two small windows with mosquito screening, which provided little ventilation. Worse, Nathan told us that a certain bat had developed a particular fondness for our room, and so he recommended keeping our door shut, further stifling the room's air flow. Our attention next turned to our bed, or as I liked to call it, the Torture Rack.

  • The Torture Rack in all its glory.

The Rack was a special privilege for us. Others who had stayed with Nathan & Jessica had endured it for much longer periods than we would, and wore that fact like a badge of honor. This bed was nothing more than a network of thin metal wire connected to a small frame. Thin wire coils underneath this mesh gave the pretense of spring support, but you can be sure that there was no discernable benefit from this addition. Atop the metal mesh was our mattress: A simple 2-inch pad that was routinely used for padding in the bed of Nathan's truck.

  • Thankfully the Rack's designers included these springs for our comfort.

Laying on The Rack was immediately uncomfortable: Each wire under the pad created a direct pressure point on our backs and sides. But this was a small irritation compared to the miniscule size of the bed. The two of us lay like sardines, with two possible positions each: Stiff as a board on our backs, or with one person on their side, precariously on the edge of the frame. Being 6'2" tall, my feet stuck off the foot of the bed about 6-12", depending on my position. Worse, this caused my ankles to rest with great pressure on the frame rail at the foot of the bed, cutting of circulation to my feet at regular intervals throughout the night.

  • Don't let the pretty flowers fool you; this thing's a killer.

I go into such detail about our sleeping environment not to complain, but simply to share what our experience and initial impression upon arrival was. That first night was a real test. We saw 2" long beetles scampering across the floor; small lizards scurrying on the walls, and bats swooping past us as we sat on the terrace. There were all manner of noises in the darkness outside. I was thankful that our long day of travel had finally come to an end, but I was very unsure about our new environment.

When we finally retired, my only thoughts were conscious reminders to try and keep a positive attitude. We knew this place would be different, and that there would be challenges. We were here, not to rest and relax and be pampered, but to help our friends in a much-needed work: Preaching and teaching promises of hope from the Bible to the local people who were in great spiritual need. This experience would begin the next day, and I wanted to face it with a renewed vigor. Thankfully, I had brought some Tylenol PM.

Check out Part 2: Preaching in Guatemala