There comes a time in a gal’s life when reality finally meets dream, dream meets real life, and real life meets perspective. If you’re confused, I blame the missing fragments of my mind. They’re lying like shrapnel somewhere between the cobblestone streets of Antigua and an ethereal cloud forest near Lake Atitlán, Guatemala.
(Though, they could also be lying in the bottom of some drainage system in the jungle, beside the remnants of a pulled-pork tortilla I violently threw up less than a week ago. Could be?!)
In February, I hosted She Walks the Walk’s first official GWA!! That’s Global Walking Adventure, if you’re new to these parts.
Overall, my heart is a soaring, squishy place filled with great memories and renewed aspiration. It’s hard to put into words seeing this thing get off the ground after all the universe has dished out these past few years. I am grateful. I am humbled. And, my mind has been blown.
Here is just a fraction of the learnings I’m taking away after traipsing through this gorgeous slice of Central America.
Expecting North American urgency in a Central American country is ridiculous.
We were three average ladies with a common goal: find our way to the host hotel in Antigua from the neighbouring village of Santa Ana, a quick 25-minute jaunt away. Wouldn’t the answer be a no-brainer for a company called She Walks the Walk?
Myself and two early bird guests had spent the night at my parents little home in Santa Ana. It was the perfect set-up to begin our adventure, but we now stood agog at the unfolding situation: copious duffel bags and travel packs surrounded us with no tuk-tuk in site. Not a single, sputtering one.
Naturally, we took to Uber:
“Your ride is 16 minutes away.”
“Your ride is 4 minutes away.”
“Your ride has been cancelled due to the number of people and bags.”
You don’t say!
This fun game went on until Sam finally accepted that Uber was toying with us. We eventually had the brainwave to contact our hotel who graciously agreed to send a cab. And then we waited.
And waited. And waited. Again, this place is JUST AROUND THE CORNER. But schlepping all of our bags was honestly not in the cards. Our gear situation was designed to be transported for us; we’d carry only water and any snacks/rain gear in our daypacks.
Otherwise, every nook and cranny in our duffels had been stuffed to the brim with school supply donations. I’m talking socker balls, heavy pads of construction paper, crayons, and calculators galore. I was also personally carting around a few extra tents of the non-lightweight variety to bring to my friend Mario.
So, the hotel. Surely they could sort it, right? Unbeknownst to us, they summoned a cab from Guatemala City. This might be a good time to point out that Antigua is approximately 45-minutes to 3-hours away depending on traffic.
“They’ll be there shortly.”
After watering a gentle street-dog who wondered what the tizzy was all about, we came up with a solution. I must have plenty of other contacts in Guatemala to leverage; after all, I’d been coming here for more than a decade! Maybe Matt knew someone who could come and fetch us? Of course he did.
(Not unlike the street dog, you may also be wondering why I did not have this piece of logistic buttoned up. Well, it’s because I didn’t. I’d always been told Ubering was possible in the town of Antigua, and since we were a wee hop, skip and a jump away, it shouldn’t be a problem to transport a small team of women and their respective hiking gear just 2.3 km down the road, right?)
The morale here is this: if you’re heading to a foreign country, throw away the rulebook that promises an entitled you fast and efficient service (talking to myself here, but if you want to take notes, I’m not going to stop you!) Their ways are not inferior either. They’re just, different. And isn’t that the point? Aren’t we here to slow the f*** down and stop stamping our demanding feet?
Things will go wrong.
I mean, it’s travel, right?
People will get sick.
Protests will shut down the roads.
And Mayan Shamans will have family emergencies.
(Yes, even spiritual gurus fall victim to “something urgent has come up” moments.)
The important thing is not to panic! Life gives us a work-around for everything. Take Jen, for example.
After enduring THE MOST STRESSFUL PASSPORT RENEWAL SITUATION I’ve ever heard — enter the sleek white passport, fit for dignitaries and emergency situations alike — Mother Nature sucker punched Jen. And I mean, hard. Didn’t she end up down for the count after our first day of hiking… What kind of travel God does this to someone after all they’d already endured just to get there?
It seems travel is the great equalizer. You can do everything right, bathe in hand sanitizer, not eat the lettuce and still find yourself saddled with a queasy tummy. Imagine being sick in the cloud forest of a foreign country, shacked up with a veritable stranger in a tent. (Granted, those tents WERE the bomb. And her roommate was the absolute BEST. Still…) Nobody wants to be anywhere but in their own bathroom when that storm of nausea wakes you up. Seriously.
Jen opted to roll with this literal punch.
When she stuck her ashen face out of the tent that morning and squeaked out the deets of her painful night (local camp dog, Juliet, confirmed the contents of Jen’s stomach were unfit for any living thing), it was obvious that she’d not be hiking with us. Day Two of her Walk was not to be. It meant she’d forego crossing the famously rickety sky-bridge she’d dreamed of for months. It was supposed to be her bad-ass Indiana Jones hiking moment…Instead, she’d settle for a day’s sojourn in the Trek Truck with our camp crew.
Understand these lovely men don’t speak English. And Jen doesn’t really know them, nor does she speak Spanish. What could possibly go wrong?
As it turns out, nothing if you have the right attitude!
Jen got the chance to bond with Juan Carlos and Patrizio, something I missed out on altogether! They treated her with the same care they would their sister, worried about her well-being (“Sam, she is not eating”) and trying to keep her entertained (“it was boring… we had to get gas and groceries”). But Jen didn’t need entertaining. She was seeing parts of Guatemala we didn’t get to. It was all back roads and tiny Mayan villages for her, gaining a legit glimpse into everyday life for these hard-working beautiful people.
I’m proud of Jen! And she inspired me to remember a truism I’d almost forgotten. Most of humankind cares about one other. Although we often focus on what divides us, when we see someone down, our inherent nature is to pick them up. This is a universal tenet I am grateful to have witnessed.
Not everyone values what we value.
A big part of our GWAS is the inner journey. I’ve taken great care to curate an experience that forces us to go within. From meditations to a journal filled with prompts, I was MOST excited about this part of the adventure. After all, who doesn’t want to know themselves better?
What I learned is that going within is UNCOMFORTABLE (reports of literal pins and needles came trickling in) and not for everyone. This doesn’t mean it isn’t valued, or can’t come to be valued. And in fact, a few of our participants were moved to tears on a couple of mornings. (Oh, how I love a good cry… In myself, in others, let it all out, baby!)
But I’d forgotten that some people already know themselves quite well. Others may find it daunting if the answers they seek are evading them. I also realized that leading this kind of spirituality requires me to drop my own defences. And you already know I’m sometimes tangled up in insecurity.
Something we find important, beautiful or “cool” (like a hotel with 110 stone stairs you must first traverse in order to reach your room) may not be so “cool” in the eyes of others. We can curate “cool” as much as we want, but beauty is always in the eyes of the beholder.
Conversely, magic is found in the unexpected things.
These are the unscripted moments we didn’t anticipate… Like, a team of random strangers coming together to form such an authentic, caring bond. That we’d vibe so well was not necessarily unsurprising, but something I’d not stopped to consider either way. How magical it was to just be ourselves! To giggle while leaving a trail of farts in “Snake Gully”… To metaphorically piss ourselves when a proper English lady lets out an indelicate belch after her well-earned campfire beer. These are the moments I’d never considered would make such a difference.
And I’ll cherish them all!
Did you have parents growing up? Did you have the option of going to school?
One of the most profoundly mind-blowing moments for me personally was meeting local guide, Lola, in the Mayan town of Santiago. I knew that Lola was a graduate of the MAIA Impact School, an organization I’d been closely following for a number of years. What I didn’t know is that her strength, grace and determination would affect me so deeply.
As a young Mayan girl, Lola’s options for her future were already limited. The three strikes against her? (1) Being female, (2) being Mayan and (3) being poor. She’d be expected to help take care of the family and by virtue of the aforementioned circumstances, there was a high probability she’d become a mother before the age of 25. Education would typically end at age 12, with the pressure mounting to stay in the home and help her younger siblings.
But Lola endured a trauma no child or (human being, period!) should ever have to come to terms with. She’d witnessed her father’s murder when she was just ten-years-old, and not long after, her mother was also taken from her. The role of parenting moved down to her eldest sister, thus creating a complex system of expectations that she’d stay within the family to give back.
Lola had dreams, though.
She longed to be educated. To be independent. She also had significant drive and talent, something the MAIA Impact School picked up on. Her family discouraged this education because it would take away from their own survival needs; how dare she put herself before them?
With perseverance, Lola was eventually given a scholarship to attend the school that has helped shape her current life. Today, she is working on her Masters and very focussed on her career. She remains closely-knit to her family of origin and gives of her time and money as much as possible. Now married, she’s also contending with a husband who puts up a fuss when she hangs out with her sister (who recently became a first-time mother at the age of 40) and any of her other siblings.
The woman is a tower of strength! And proof that we don’t need to accept the circumstances into which we are born, or that may be thrust upon us as we grow older in life.
Lola also shows that it’s okay to have dreams for ourselves. Her siblings are so proud of her. They’ve accepted this path she’s on, one that will prove an invaluable example of empowerment as her new niece grows up in this challenging world.
It only takes one person who understands your vision to keep the motivation going.
Our first day on the Trek was challenging. Nobody but me knew what to expect, and nerves were all over the place. What would the terrain be like? How long would this steep incline last? If this was considered the “easiest” day, what about the others?!
Added to the great unknown was the altitude. For some in our group, it was their first time exposed to less oxygen up at 2,400M+. Huffing and puffing would be our new normal until bodies had time to acclimatize.
We were all working out our own kinks and moving forward in our own ways. Spirits were high. Because, Guatemala! We were walking in sublime territory, surrounded by lush vegetation and misty cloud. It felt as though we could touch heaven (at least, for me, it felt like that; I imagined myself being as close as ever to my father…)
Just before our lunch break, Jen and I took a moment to marvel at the view. I could see her getting emotional, and since I’m an empath, I also became emotional. We’d been chit-chatting our way through some aches and pains. But then she turned to me and said, “Sam. I get what you’re trying to do here. This is hard for me. But I’m walking in Guatemala, and I need this!”
An outpouring of tears cascaded down my cheeks; tears that held three years worth of hair-pulling uncertainty. We exchanged hugs and a few selfies to commemorate our moment of bonding. It was then that I realized I needed just ONE PERSON to tell me that they understood. That they could see and feel the vision I’d been trying to offer.
Jen did that for me, and I will forever be grateful.
All we want in life is to feel seen. Standing at that viewpoint in all her vulnerability, Jen reminded me that one person can make a difference in our lives. It just. Takes. One.
They want what we have and we don’t want what we have.
Doña Paula lives with her sister-in-law, mother-in-law and two of her children. All three ladies are talented back-strap weavers, producing intricately woven goods for the surrounding villagers and now, us vagabond tourists.
But Doña Paula is living out a real-life nightmare — the kind of thing we’d hear about on the news and over which so much debate has divided our countries. Her husband and two of her kids have left the country “the hard way” (please read between the lines) in search of a better life across the border.
Her story is not even that typical. People are fleeing in mass exodus, driven out by brutal gang violence, joblessness (only 3 out of every 10 Guatemalans have a formal job) and even religious persecution. Most are already living in poverty. Many are living in poverty along with fear and terror.
They want what we have. Freedom. Opportunity. Education. A chance to thrive.
What they don’t realize, is that our society is not all that its cracked up to be. And don’t get me wrong. I love Canada. I’m grateful to live here. But looking around, it seems like most of us are always whining about our lack, burning ourselves out to get ahead, and for what? An extra purse? I see waste. I see greed. I see squandering of opportunity.
If only we could step into each other’s shoes just for a short time. Our evening spent with Doña Paula, learning how to roll out round, flat tortillas (for the record, this is not easy!), made me question our two realities side-by-each.
What would I be doing at that exact time back home?
Probably watching Netflix. Probably complaining about something not being as I wanted it to be.
Here: the simple act of creating a meal for THAT day (refrigeration is a luxury most don’t have there) put me smack in touch with what I’d learned long ago, but had quickly forgotten:
Our society is NOT better. Our ways are NOT the best. If we could tone down our greed a little and maybe redistribute some of the world’s equity, wouldn’t that be a good thing?
And there she was… Doña Paula. Smiling, laughing with us. Inside, probably aching to see her babies. Her family now living very divided lives. One side sent off in search of something better, with no guarantees of anything. The other side, holding down the fort as best they can until their turn to make a move arrived.
To quote my brother who has spent years in Central America and married a beautiful soul from Honduras:
“We have our perspective and they have theirs. We want what they have (escape the rat race??) and they want what we have access to. It’s like that riddle: what is it that poor people have an abundance of and rich people want? NOTHING.”
And the most mind-blowing thing I learned:
That although our geography is different, our skin may look different, our circumstances, viewpoints, beliefs, desires — different… What unites us is that we all seek the same thing. We all have dreams, fears, family we love, family with pressures. Hopes for the future. Hopes for today. Sorrow over loss. Over what could have been. Over what was and never transpired in the first place.
We are here on this human journey for a nanosecond. And what we do with our time is up to us. Guatemala has restored my waning gratitude, making me realize how lucky I am just to be alive. The kindness of its people, they’ve blown my mind. Adiós por ahora, Guatemala 💗.
This post is dedicated to an elderly driver named Bruno, who walked half hour in the heat of the Tikal jungle to find me a “healing tea” native to the area, after hearing about my wretched night of sickness. And yes, it worked!