A Guatemalan Inserimento

Last week I called for your travel “inserimento” stories–settling-in tales about arriving in a new location for the first time. Several of you have responded, so here come the stories! – Sarah

By “WanderN Wayne” Hammerstrom

As WanderNWayne, people assume my wandering travel is directionless, without destination or arrival. Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat tells Alice in Wonderland, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road’ll take you there.” Anywhere and somewhere are wonderful travel locations discovered by random wandering, but I often need to go to a specific destination, and that’s when unintended adventures begin.

I had volunteered to help at a rural school in Livingston, Guatemala, approximately 150 miles from my location in Guatemala City. Google mapped my northeastward route with public transportation: bus to Copan, in Honduras, for a 3-day exploration of ancient Mayan ruins, then bus to Puerto Barrios, Guatemala, where I would have to take a boat to Livingston, which is a water-only-access community adjacent to the Caribbean shore. My itinerary was made with good intention, but like the crumbled Mayan ruins I had finished exploring at my first stop, Copan, the schedule and route quickly fragmented.

I nearly missed the hotel shuttle that took me to my second, connecting bus. My limited Spanish vocabulary is sufficient for making small-talk, ordering a meal, a beer, or a place to sleep, but not for navigating details like bus routes and schedules. When I didn’t hear my destination announced, I assumed that shuttle wasn’t going where I was. Wrong, my destination was en route to the final stop.

After 15 miles, the shuttle driver assisted me, his geographically confused passenger, onto the bus going to Puerto Barrios. To reduce my continued anxiety, I calmly walked the isle past local commuters as an experienced world traveler, who carries his personal belongings in a backpack. My confidence returned, and soon was sharing songs on my phone with adjacent passengers in broken English and Spanish conversation. Music can bridge cultural gaps and languages.

My musical reverie was interrupted later by a bus assistant silently waving me to bring my backpack to the front of the bus where I was unexpectedly let out at an unmarked, rural transfer point. Alone. Somewhere or anywhere, but not at a busy bus terminal. There was no sign or indication of being an official bus stop, only a metal bench placed on the sandy roadside. Two people came to stand with me, assuring me that this was the route to Puerto Barrios.

A rural gas station in Guatemala, photo by WanderNWayne

A 15-passenger van, already filled with perhaps 20 people, stopped to load the three of us onto the front seat with the driver; my pack pressing upon my lap. Uncomfortably, we rode silently through the hot afternoon sunshine. The van driver asked me where I was going and I simply stated, “the port of Puerto Barrios,” because I didn’t want to try describing a destination I knew nothing about. He nodded his head and continued erratically swerving around slower vehicles and driving on pedestrian sidewalks whenever left-lane passing was unavailable. His route wouldn’t take me directly to the boat dock I needed, so later he stopped the van and motioned to the left as a direction to the port. Hefting my backpack, I exited the van and walked in that direction as dusky shadows were beginning to conceal my destination.

In darkness, a small boat filled and slipped quietly into the busy shipping lanes of the port. Mine wouldn’t depart until a number of paying passengers made the voyage financially viable. My arrival in Livingston, by boat from Puerto Barrios, took more than an hour of listening to slapping waves against the hull, looking at residential lights on the shore, and hoping we’d see, or be seen, by other vessels on the black water.

At journey’s end, I was both exhausted and stimulated by the 5-day adventure that took me well out of my language and location comfort zones.

 

© 2017 Wayne Hammerstrom

Wayne Hammerstrom has been a lifelong traveler who now wanders (WandrNWayne) serendipitously on journeys near and far. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

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About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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