Alcohol may be the most obvious of coping strategies, but it was travel that got me through college without committing any acts of domestic terrorism. Between the ages of 21 and 24 I traveled to 17 different countries, snatching every sliver of opportunity I could create for myself. I was young and miserable and determined to gather all the rosebuds while I may.
I lived a life of incredible balance, asking all the important questions, like:
“How many weeks must I survive on cheezits in order to afford a flight to Istanbul?
“How much grunt work will it take to convince the boss to approve 3-weeks off?”
And, most importantly: “How many classes can I miss before I fail?”
I was just starting my senior year (for the 3rd time, at least) when I got the itch. Like a vision, it assaulted me with a list of demands:
Central America. Margaritas. Volcanos. Near Death Experiences.
After failing to come up with an appropriate excuse for missing over a week of class, I opted to go with the truth and tell my professors “I have to go to Guatemala” without any other explanation. Amazingly enough, they accommodated this need and never questioned what sort of serious life situation forces someone to HAVE to go to Guatemala.
The next step was to convince my roommate Shleisel to follow my lead and abandon academics for the sake of adventure. I eventually won this fight, but not before she made the biggest mistake in international travel: She googled “Guatemala.”
This was a bad idea, because the US State Department likes to keep tabs on things like car jackings, armed robberies, beheadings, and kidnappings. They even went so far as to issue a “no travel” warning. Not one to take personal safety lightly, I resolved that we would just leave our cell phones and other valuable items behind and keep cash hidden in various places all over our bodies.
We’d been so eager to book the cheapest flight on the internet that we hadn’t paid attention to the arrival time, which left us landing in Guatemala City—apparently an incredibly violent place— at 11PM.
But hey, no worries– according to the internet, our hostel was just down the street from the airport: Take a right, turn left, ring the bell. Surely we wouldn’t come across a gang initiation or government beheading in such a short distance.
On the connecting flight I was sandwiched between Shleisel and one of few other Americans.
“What on Earth are you girls doing in Guatemala?”
“Adventures… stuff… gathering rosebuds while we may…”
“Do you know someone in the city who can keep you safe?”
This was a bit much for me—It was enough that I had Google and the State Department on my back, I didn’t need this guy too.
“Do you even have somewhere to stay?”
I was miffed. Of course we have somewhere to stay! It’s down the street, you take a right, you turn left, you ring the bell.
“You can’t walk. You just can’t. It’s not even safe to take a taxi because of the car jackings. I’ll have to give you a ride.”
Absolutely not. This wasn’t the first guy on an airplane who had offered to “give me a ride.”
“Nah, we’re good.”
“Please, I can’t let you do that.”
He held his hand out for me to awkwardly shake from the side.
“I’m Enrique, and my friend Ricky is picking me up. I can take you wherever you want to go.”
I’d also heard that one before.
We resolved to lose him in the crowd after the plane landed, but there wasn’t a crowd at all—just hoards of Mayan women with baby-laden backs and some stray goats wandering around. Beyond that, the city was dark and sinister. We changed our minds and began looking everywhere for our new friend.
“His name’s Enrique, we can trust him.”
Thankfully, we found him and he let us ride in the hatchback of Ricky’s white Volvo, piled amongst all his baggage. Unsurprisingly, the ride to the hostel was much more than “take a right, then turn left” and as we drove through the menacing streets of Guat City, I accepted the fact that we would have died without Enrique.
At the hostel, a guy named Juan took our quetzales and set us up in a room on the second floor. There were no other guests, other than Juan’s girlfriend, who looked like a BRATZ doll. It was warm, so we slept with the door to the roof propped open. In the middle of the night, I woke to the sounds of gunfire in the streets below.
Keeping with the trend of my life, the next 7 days were an endless pursuit to be kidnapped or murdered. We started in Isla de Flores, a quaint little city of cobbled streets and pastel buildings where lots and lots of drugs are sold. Another guy named Juan, who owned a boat, offered to take us for a ride—anywhere we wanted.
We trekked through Tikal, climbing all the Mayan ruins, except for one that someone had died on the previous year. After that, we paid yet another guy named Juan to strap us to some ropes really high in the rainforest canopy so we could zipline “at our own risk.”
Eventually we ended up at Lake Atitlan, in a hostel that is only accessible by boat and surrounded by volcanoes. We met several other Americans (including Jonathon from Seattle, who we were pretty sure was a serial killer) then proceeded to get so wasted that we broke our flashlight and were given a candle to find our way back to our $5-a-night treehouse. No surprises here, but I managed to blow the candle out mid-trek then fell into the rainforest and sustained bodily injury.
Antigua was our final stop—it offered gorgeous colonial architecture and the opportunity to follow a Danish man to the top of a volcano. Like savvy travelers, we took marshmallows with us and roasted them in the lava. The top of a volcano is unlike anything I’d ever experienced—you’re on top of the clouds and surrounded by black volcanic rock. Smoke and fog swirls around and you can’t help thinking the cast of “Armageddon” is about to space walk up to you.
The hostel in Antigua nearly kept me– it was run by a loose gang of expats who lived without a plan and put cash in their pockets by working at tiendas and giving tours. Our first night there we cooked Greek food and shared a bottle of rum. I could see myself staying in this city forever, buying produce at the market and earning a wage by scamming tourists.
Alas, we had to beat the odds and make it back to the airport without being beheaded or burned by lava in some sort of Mario Brothers scenario. As we were sitting in the waiting area, mourning the end of our adventure, a man walked up to us.
“Excuse me, are you Aussa?”
I braced myself for a beheading, or for him to tell me that he wanted to give me a ride.
“Enrique told me all about you two! He mentioned the bright red hair and to be honest, you’re the only Americans I’ve seen around here in a long time.”
Apparently he worked for the same NGO as Enrique. I didn’t catch his name, but I have a feeling it was Juan.
Have you ever accepted an offer from a stranger? What’s the most dangerous warning you’ve ignored? Do you feel like you’ve gathered your rosebuds while you may?
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