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Stepping Off the Gringo Trail

My Travel Writing Scholarship 2011 entry - My Big Adventure

USA | Tuesday, 1 March 2011 | Views [162] | Scholarship Entry

Stepping Off the Gringo Trail

     What a crazy, impossible plan. The hiking map was pure fiction. We had no tent. One day of water. And we didn’t speak Quechua. We thought the hike to Lake Atitlan, Guatemala would take a day or two. Climbing to the top of the first ridge had been the most strenuous thing I’d ever done. But from there the Lake was barely visible on the horizon several ridges away. A “comerciate”, business man, passed by. Secured by a strap around his forehead was an enormous bulging bundle of thread, cloth and a sewing machine. He walked this route repeatedly and knew: we’d be lucky to make it in four days.
     That night we literally stopped in our tracks, laying down plastic sheeting to sleep on the path, wondering if we were lost. In the morning we spotted cooking fires and went in search of drinking water. The surprised villagers led us to neighbors who spoke Spanish and we filled our canteens. They had lots of questions: “Where are you from?”, “Why are you here?” (“Solo para conocer", we said. “ just to know”) “How much does a pencil cost in the US?” Their meager store had just two items: warm Coca Cola and canned sardines. I couldn’t believe guys trudged up here with bundles of Coca Cola! That night we came upon a desolate hut used by a farmer in his remote field. With some trepidation, we laid out our sleeping bags. The rustles and chirps of the forest surrounded us in the dark.
     A giggling parade of children welcomed us as rare visitors in the next, larger village. They took us to meet their teacher Alfredo who invited us to stay in the schoolhouse. Recognizing a teachable moment, we traded words in English/Spanish. “hand/mano, book/libro…” He asked us to sing our national anthem. Not our finest moment. Women crouched on their casita floors stirring pots. Aromas of wood fires and beans cooking wafted through the thatch. Chickens darted from soccer balls kicked by barefoot children. After a night sleeping on the wooden schoolhouse benches, Alfredo invited us to accompany him. Every weekend he hiked home to his wife and children. Every Monday he traipsed back to teach the kids Spanish. “Muy importante” for the children’s futures”, he proudly said.
     Four hours down the mountainside. Trotting to keep up. And then a grey concrete block house. Wearing a brightly embroidered huipil, his wife waved. The baby squealed as Alfredo swung him from her hip in a playful circle. In the near distance, we could see the Lake. Finally. Before we left the next day, the family dressed in their finest clothes and posed for a snapshot. They huddled together, dignified and serious for their first family photo. Alfredo scrawled a post office address for a nearby town. Weeks later, I sent them a copy of the same photo that is pinned up now on our crowded travel wall. It reminds me of the best reason to travel: para conocer.

Tags: #2011writing, travel writing scholarship 2011

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