It’s Not That Scary: The Guatemala Stories (Part One)

“You’ve only known these people for a week?! Pam, you are so brave!”

“Some would call it ‘crazy.’”

Even saying I’d known my traveling partners for a week was being a bit generous. We’d had two meetings over that week, and a few frantic emails on my end. Total amount of time I’d known these people before I left the country with them: about three hours.

I was thirty seconds away from my apartment and texting that I was still alive when someone laughed and said: “I suppose I’d do the same thing if I just got into a car with a bunch of strangers who were taking me to Guatemala.”

But first she had made her joke in Korean. Of my Good Neighbors USA traveling group, I am the only one who isn’t Korean. (This will be useful to know later.)

Three things will forever remind me of my time in Guatemala: the smell of a burning fire, the sound of two hands clapping tortillas, and the sound of roosters.

If you’re new to this story, I recently went on a trip to Solola, Guatemala, to learn about Good Neighbors USA’s newest project there — Project Cookstove — an initiative to replace the traditional “dirty stove” firewood method of cooking with new, safer, energy-efficient cookstoves. They will soon be kicking off a year-long fundraiser for sponsors, and I’ve been asked to help give their campaign some attention. (I’ve written about it previously here and here.)

Rather than doing a day-by-day assessment of this trip, I’m going to break it down in the way that I will remember it – by the items I needed in my emergency supplies.

I have you guys to thank for this, as you were extremely helpful in telling me what I might need, what I will absolutely need, and what I might want to have on hand just in case the worst happens. On my trip to Target with Cat and Dana the day before I was to leave, there was a bit of teasing about some of the items I was purchasing. But as I look over this list of what I packed in my limited amount of allotted baggage, I have to say it’s pretty impressive just how much of it came in handy.

Z-Pack / Cipro

I’ll start with that because it’s the one I just finished using. About three days after I returned from the trip I got hit with a nasty cold or lung infection. It was either from being in the embrace of about fifty little girls who were sneezing/coughing/sniffling or it’s from basically living inside of a house fire for five days.

I’m going to be writing a bunch of stories here that are mostly about what it’s like to travel with a bunch of strangers, but I do want to start with the real story, why Good Neighbors is there, replacing stoves, needing sponsors for Project Cookstove. We installed two cookstoves during our time there (each stove takes two days), and visited one family who’d had a cookstove for over a month. I remember this feeling I got when I walked outside of the house in San Paulo, after we’d installed one stove, where I looked over the rough, jagged streets at the hundreds of houses, each spewing a steady stream of firewood smoke, and was hit with that overwhelming feeling of not being able help everyone, that nobody can do this alone.

The air quality in Guatemala City is one thing, but being in the hills of Solola, where every structure contains an open fire, makes the air thick with soot and ash. Sometimes we were inside these structures for thirty minutes or more, to film or shoot pictures, and it’s difficult to see, nearly impossible to breathe. Within just a couple of minutes my face hurt from the heat, my eyes were burning, my lungs were spasming. This is where people live. This is where children sleep, every night.

I would get a headache minutes after exposure, right between my eyebrows. By the third day the headache would come back just as soon as I smelled burning firewood, a sense memory ache caused from merely entering the town. At night we were all coughing, blowing our noses. Black gunk would run out of us. We were so busy working, gathering footage, interviewing people, it was easy to forget that we were spending our days inhaling smoke and ash. By Thursday we were all waking up sore and ill.

My backpack of medical supplies came in handy, pretty much constantly. By the third day Bryan joked, “Your backpack. It has first aid. And second aid. Third aid, fourth aid…”

Benadryl / Sleeping Mask

The first things I used from my backpack, so that I could sleep through the red-eye to Guatemala City. I was soon passing Benadryl capsules to my travel companions, which kicked off my backpack as a common conversation topic. Joking about what could possibly be inside my magical backpack started as good small talk for four people who were essentially strangers (and only speaking English to be kind to this girl who doesn’t know a word of Korean), but by the end of the trip, it seemed there wasn’t anything my backpack couldn’t fix. (You’ll see.)

Sewing Kit (part one)

Flying with me were Good Neighbors Manager Bryan, Videographer Robin, and Photographer Jeff. Before the plane took off, Jeff showed us how he’d already somehow ripped his shorts. “I have a sewing kit,” I said. “I could fix that for you.” He thanked me and said he’d probably be okay, but added, “Who brings a sewing kit?”

“You have a sewing kit?” Bryan asked. “With you here?”

“Not in my backpack, but in my suitcase.”

“Why would you bring that?”

“In case. I don’t know.”

“Is it for skin? Like a gash or wound?”

“I hope not.”

This is a good place to give you my quick impression of anyone we met once we were in Guatemala:

“Hi. My name is so-and-so and it’s really nice to meet you. This scar you see on my neck is from when I was kidnapped and forced at knifepoint to give up all of my belongings and I almost died. …. [THEN, WITH A HUGE, WELCOMING WAVE OF THE ARM] So, anyway, this is Solola! It is beautiful here, as you can see.”

Everyone. Everyone had a story, and not just the Guatemalans. The people I was traveling with, their stories often began, “Well, in Haiti…” or “When I was in Afghanistan…” and then it’s stories of bank heists or intentional car accidents for robberies or kidnappings or – no lie – “When he was in Chad a bug bit him or stung him and now every six weeks he has to drain it at the hospital because nobody knows what it is other than possibly a parasite.”

Even when I tried to compete, with my whole “I almost got robbed in Prague on my birthday” story, it was quickly trumped, although not in a snotty “That’s nothing!” one-upmanship sort of way. You guys, I was traveling with the nicest people on the planet, each one somehow nicer than the next, so polite and honest, that even swapping terrible stories began with manners.

“That is so scary, Pam,” Nikki said when I finished my story about getting my bag sliced on the Metro by a guy holding a box cutter. “Something almost like that happened to me once” and then her story had a loaded gun and people screaming and running for their lives and theft and fainting on the streets and it was SO NOT LIKE my story at all, which involved me quoting wisdom from The Gift of Fear and nothing getting stolen from me in the slightest. But as soon as she was finished saying some words like, “he held the gun to my ribs” or “I should be dead” she turned toward the car window, broke into a huge grin and said, “And here we are in Antigua! It is beautiful here, as you can see…”

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