Landing in Guatemala
I am waiting in line to pass through US customs before my flight out of Calgary. I wonder vaguely what country I’m in. Still Canada, the logical part of my brain tells me. But all along the walls are enormous canvases, depicting American imagery.
The Golden Gate Bridge, The Statue of Liberty, the Grand Canyon. They tower above me, each twenty or thirty feet wide. The Empire State Building — the Cathedral to American modernity — pierces the clouds.
Another canvas depicts three black Navy sailors, standing behind a group of children. It speaks to American values. Multiculturalism. United we stand. And, you know… boats and guns and shit.
On yet another canvas, a boy plays minor league baseball. He beats his hand into his glove, with fierce determination in his eyes. His eyes tell us that the future of America, and her favourite pass time, are in good hands.
Largest of all, directly above the customs agents we are line to see, stands a freshly paved road. Dark as the night’s sky, it cuts across the flat, rugged desert, with the horizon as the frontier.
On the plane ride down from Houston, to Guatemala City, I sit next to a cute, dark haired girl. She’s one of about twenty people on the flight wearing blue Habitat for Humanity shirts. She’s nineteen and she’s from Kansas. Or maybe Iowa. One of those states that’s too far from the coast or the border to be remembered by a Canadian.
The cute girl tells me that it’s her first time out of the country. Tells me she’s only left her state once before, only ever left old Kansowa for a track and field trip with her high school.
She’s heading down to Guatemala City for four days, and then flying right back. She saved all year for this, she tells me. It’s not a humble brag, it’s just a statement of fact.
Her poise surprises me. She’s got the air of a more experienced traveller. She rests an arm casually on her armrest, a braided yellow bracelet dangling on her slender wrist. She barely ever looks out the window. I don’t understand it, ‘cause I’m always looking out the window. That is when I’m not glancing at her slender wrist.
I get it in my head that she must be religious. You’ve got to be religious, to spend your first trip abroad building homes in Guatemala. You’ve got to believe in something, to be so comfortable your first time on an airplane.
At 36,000 feet, she asks about my own travels. I tell her about the school program that has me studying in Guatemala. I tell her that we’ll be doing volunteer work, too. Though I leave out certain details. Truth is, volunteer work is very small part of our trip.
We both grow quiet as the plane descends through the pitch black of the evening sky, toward the pale yellow and green lights of Guatemala City. In the darkness, flying into this sprawling metropolis doesn’t look so different from approaching Ottawa or Toronto. But the knowledge that we will soon touch down on Guatemalan soil makes me stomach leap.
My mind, meanwhile, remains stuck on the conversation with the girl. I think back to the various trips I have taken, with family or with friends. Trips to museums and monuments, trips to bars and clubs.
What was it all for? It all felt so devoid of meaning.
Would this trip be any different?
I certainly hadn’t been thinking of the welfare of the Guatemalans when I signed up. I knew I was going to a very impoverished country. We would be doing volunteer work, yes, it’s true. But was it for the sake of the locals, or just to justify flying ourselves all the way down to Guatemala? Was “Volunteer Work” just destined to be another photo album added to a Facebook page, right between “Drunken Adventures” and “Summer Road Trip”?
These were questions I had never asked myself before. And they were the questions circling around my head, as our plane landed with a bump in Guatemala.
The bump was so big that even the girl with the slender wrists jumped a bit. She grabbed the seat in front of her with both hands, closed her eyes, and hummed a little tune. I suppose we all have moments that test our faith. All I know for certain is that as she gripped the seat, for an instant, her yellow bracelet looked like the lights of Guatemala City in the evening sky.
A short story by Dan Vineberg. Written in 2011, shared in 2016.
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