By Jonathan Pearson on Monday, August 26th, 2013
Golf courses and swimming pools. That was the first thing that struck me as United Airlines Flight 1500 from Houston broke through scattered cloud cover and revealed the outer boundaries of Guatemala City from fifteen thousand feet. These common landmarks of U.S. prosperity and lifestyle were barely to be seen. It was the first indication that our plane was descending to somewhere else.
As a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV), it has been embarrassingly too long. Almost twenty years in fact (not including several forays into Canada) since I have been outside the United States. I can’t really say why that is, other than a meaningless, lame “life got in the way” reply. The only thing I can say is that 24 hours into this Next Step Travel-Guatemala (NST-G) adventure, there won’t be another decades-deficient period without a stamp in my passport.
My passport. For the five hours from when I walked through the automatic doors at Baltimore-Washington International Airport to when I exited the terminal at Guatemala City, I reached into my pocket at least a dozen times, feeling for my passport, making sure it was not lost. Likewise as I went through customs and filled out my immigration slip, my international travel skills were woefully out of practice.
Different, yet similar. Just outside the terminal, I come upon a rectangular outline of 400 people, watching for arrivals. Perhaps a less glamorous version of a red-carpet gala. A mildly chaotic first encounter upon touchdown. But all the elements of air travel anywhere are there. Anticipation. Excitement. The pure expressions of love and reunion when family and friends embrace. The entrepreneurs who took one look at me and my wandering about, and had me pegged (Taxi? Need to make a phone call? Shoe shine? Roses?) And of course the dozen or so signs being held by hand, in search of strangers who won’t be strangers for too long.
“Buenos tardes, mucho gusto.” I spot the National Peace Corps Association (NPCA)
sign and meet Orlando Arizandieta and his colleague Nayo, two of our hosts. Over the course of this Saturday, task number one for them is to assemble our group of seven NST-G participants. Three others will arrive within the hour.
I think. I pause. I attempt to ask Orlando a simple question in Spanish, swimming through the words and phrases I have been trying to store away amidst my other preparations. My attempt to ask how far the drive to Antigua will be is surely a grammatical train wreck, and questionable to the point that I ask again in English. Memories of my Micronesian Peace Corps service return. My first language faux pas! I most confidently assure Orlando there will be many more. But just as with many I met during my service, Orlando is patient and willing to navigate my language incursions.
This trip is reviving my interest in studying language and my Peace Corps experience, coupled with the grace and support of my travel partners, gives me the confidence to be willing to try and fail, but learn and hopefully improve along the way.
Our travel group begins to assemble. Kaye White is an elementary school teacher from New York. She has a suitcase filled with school supplies to donate later in the week as we begin our service project. Alan and Marian Ruge arrive from Colorado. They both have two tours of Peace Corps service to their credit (Alan Peru/Solomon Islands, Marian Morocco, both Ghana) and most recently served as World Teach volunteers in Ecuador for a year. With ease, connections start to be made as we leave the airport. We all have some Colorado links to varying degrees. Marian and Alan served in Peace Corps Ghana with Kate Schachter, who I know through her outstanding service to the NPCA as Group Leaders Forum Coordinator and regular Wisconsin RPCV advocate.
The conversation ebbs and flows as we travel across Guatemala City to pick up Philippines RPCV Tony Vaninetti, who arrived several days early and was staying in a hostel. That lengthens the trip time to Antigua, but no one minds at all, as we get to see more of sprawling Guatemala City. Plenty more, as the traffic-clogged streets and avenues grind us to a near halt. We finally break free, climb one mountain pass, and descend into colorful and quaint Antigua, where we are greeted by Guatemala RPCV Tara Tiedemann, the third member of the NST-G team, at our hotel.
We settle in. Tony and I wander about Antigua’s extensive outdoor marketplace. We come back together in the evening. Tara takes us to a wonderful restaurant for dinner. For Orlando and Nayo, there is no rest. It’s back to the airport to pick up our last two arrivals. Honduras RPCV Carolyn Carter of Colorado and Ethiopia RPCV Carol Beddo of California arrive safely and reach Antigua later in the evening. We are all assembled.
The adventure begins.
Learn how you can join future Next Step Travel programs in the Dominican Republic and Guatemala: travel.peacecorpsconnect.org. NPCA’s Next Step Travel program provides hyper-local small group travel: an RPCV-facilitated itinerary featuring unparalleled local access, cultural immersion, non-extreme adventure and volunteer opportunities. Most trips offer both a 14-day and a 10-day option, unless otherwise specified. All trips are accompanied by an NPCA Host.
Join our Next Step Travel (NST) country group, a place to ask questions, get program details, & meet other Next Step Travel travel-with-a-purpose travelers. This group is a place where alumni, future NST participants, and those who are interested in NST can have an open forum to share photos, videos, discuss programs details, and make new friends! Guatemala: https://www.facebook.com/groups/NextStepTravel.guatemala/