I cannot seem to find the inspiration to write anything new tonight. It seems to me that when I have the luxury of a few hours to simply sit, curled up on the couch and listening to blues, and write write write, the words do not cooperate. So, I am pairing these photos with something that could not be farther from towering buildings and wrought iron bridges — a little excerpt from a book project that I am working on, centered around a trip I took to Guatemala in 2010.
We move on, leaving the little crossroads town and winding up, up, and up farther and farther into the highlands. Once again, I lose myself out the window. A mist descends – or maybe, I just finally am high enough to notice it – and caps the jagged hills at their crown, hiding the place where they meet the sky completely. We wind our way always upwards and toward it, the light filtering down hued with a soft bluish tint, making the hillsides themselves look a most spectacular green. I am mesmerized by the way the mist dances and plays with the hills, filling in a pocket here and revealing one there. It is haunting… ghostly… a kind of beauty that seeps into your heart, changing you in some way you are not sure of but know is permanent.
Finally, we hit the mist. It is not dense, but instead seems to swim loosely around the van, sparing the windows of condensation but chilling the air. We drive, still farther up. The land grows wild now, with more and more distance between the farms and settled areas.
With about three hours left in our journey we leave the highway and hit a choppy dirt road. The van slows, maxing out at about 40 miles per hour, and we all get quiet. The villages we pass now are just that – villages. I feel as if I am staring out the window and into a page from National Geographic magazine.
I have never in my life seen such extreme poverty.
We pass mud houses. Literally, houses constructed out of bricks made of mud and straw. They have dirt floors. Empty windows and corrugated tin roofs. Many of them are little more than 8” by 8”. Some are falling down with holes worn in the walls by the weather. Many have no doors.
For the first time in my life I feel so completely out of my element – so awestruck by my privilege. Seeing images of mud houses in a magazine with pretty pictures is completely different than seeing it in real life, and I am flooded with feelings that I cannot interpret. Something in me clenches, a wrenching and twisting feeling in the back of my throat and also deeper inside, somewhere where my soul hides. I want to cry, I want to scream, I want to be angry, I want to charge out of the van and do something, I want to run away.
As we drive along, we pass an old woman walking in the mud. Everything is wet from the mist, and she is barefoot. Our van creeps slowly by on the narrow road, and I turn in my seat as we pass, wide-eyed and innocently staring. She is wizened and weather-beaten and reminds me of the old-timers from back home in Wisconsin – farmers who spent their lives outside in the elements. Wiry grey hair peeks out from under the brightly colored highland-textile shawl she wears over her head. She holds it in place with one hand, etched in cracks as if made of clay left to bake in August sunlight. For just a moment, her dark eyes meet mine.
Curiosity. Strength. Exhaustion. Resolve.
The mood in the van is somber as we roll into Chaculá. The mist swirls around the van, adding to the Village’s air of foreignness. We park in front of a building that is, thankfully, made of cinderblocks. I do not know why, but I am scared. Excited as well, but scared. And maybe a bit overwhelmed. Unspeaking, Laura and I share a look, and I can see my emotions reflected in her blue eyes.
Squaring my shoulders, I take a deep, shaky, affected breath and stand up and step out the door.