In Defense of Going Back

Why it can be good to revisit old memories

The first time I left the United States, I was 3 years old. My mother brought me and my brother to Guatemala. It could have been anywhere, but she chose that country.

My memory of that time doesn’t include complete scenes, only splashes of color, sound and smell. The brilliant reds and indigo blues of women’s dresses in the market. Squawking parrots perched in the rafters of hotel verandas. Old churches wafting warm and mysterious smells through cracks in heavy wooden doors. Softly textured, taupe-colored barf (mine) on the boat floor as we rocked our way across Lake Atitlan.

Many people choose to chase new adventures. There’s a fear that the first experience will never be replicated — that those brilliant colors have dulled with time and your memories will be tarnished by reality.

When I thought about returning to Guatemala, I realized that many of these “memories” weren’t actually mine — they were intermingled with stories my mom would tell, and photos she carefully collected in albums. I was holding on to these “sacred memories” as a formative part of my youth, and that’s when I knew I had to go back.

This past May, almost exactly 30 years later, I returned to Guatemala. Over 6 days, my wife and I raced through all of the towns I could remember by name. Antigua, Panajachel, Chichicastenango, Tikal.

Truth be told, I didn’t know what to expect.

Part of me expected Guatemala to be exactly as I’d left it — frozen in time. I would make my way through the byzantine corridors of the marketplaces like a homing pigeon carrying wartime messages, and I’d be instantly recognized by the hotel staff who had kindly suffered through my brother’s and my acclimatization issues — see “barf” — 3 decades earlier.

The rest of me knew (and knows) that the only constant in life is change. While Guatemalan youth still gather in town squares at dusk, they now play with selfie sticks instead of wooden spinning tops. This is, of course, the scene all over the world. Thanks to cheap airfare and internet access in our pockets, distant cultures have never looked more alike.

Walking around downtown Antigua felt like exploring an old reoccurring dream. The kind where you know how it will end, but you lean in anyway, savoring each moment.

I continued daydreaming, half present, until I connected headfirst with the solid and unforgiving reality of a stone windowsill. And that’s when it happened. That skull throbbing, blood boiling pain instantly bridged past with present. New memories, meet old. Why you ask? Because I had spent the entire first trip hitting my head on the exact. same. stone window boxes.

Some family friends told me a story about traveling with young children. They moved their entire family to Mexico for a year with the goal of having bilingual children. Their son, who was 3 at time, picked up Spanish easily, and so they moved on to new adventures. A couple years later they returned, and for fun, walked by the house they had rented. Their son, despite recognizing the house, insisted that this was somehow “a different Mexico,” separated by both time and space.

All of this is to say, I do believe there is value in going back. Don’t be scared to stand next to the trees that used to seem so tall. Your life is not a linear sequence of memories preserved in amber, but a soft and pliable world of feelings and understanding, built on top of what you’ve seen and everything you’ve yet to experience.

Sometimes realizations require getting hit in the head.

Oh yeah, I brought a drone this time.