My favourite part about travelling alone is the stomach-curdling sense of the here and now. No matter the circumstance and far from the clutches of cellphone data, I am my own best friend, my own shoulder to cry on, my own navigator and translator. This trip was no different.
When I booked a surprisingly cheap last-minute flight on a stir-crazy whim, I didn’t know much about Guatemala besides its reputation for a great cup of coffee. Just a few weeks later I was embroiled in a crash course on the country as I tried not to crack my head against the window of a rumbling shuttle bus, tourist-filled transportation from Guatemala City to Antigua. Looking out the window at the crushing traffic on the outskirts of Guatemala City, for a moment I wished that I was a local incognito on one of the cherry-red “chicken buses” — school buses that, once they reach ten years of age and are deemed past their prime in the United States, are sold for cheap across the border. Locals paint them, deck them out in personalized designs and memorabilia (massive metal bull’s horns sprouted out of the front of one, glittery streamers dangled out the windows of another) and drive them as quick and semi-reliable transport back home.
But I got my taste of the local experience (and of tangy Gallo beer) soon enough, as just a few hours later I was watching a watercolour sun droop behind Volcán de Fuego from a rooftop terrace draped with both expats and Guatemalans.
Antigua was all colour. One-level buildings in brights and pastels were broken up only by cobblestone streets and Spanish colonial constructions, like the photo-happy Santa Catalina Arch. It was unnervingly charming — so much so that I extended my stay there by a couple days on a whim. Good instincts, apparently, because the next day happened to be the first Sunday of lent, and a parade swept through the town like a BC wildfire. I encountered the procession several times throughout the day, last but not least as they were on a twilight singalong, holding a statue of the Virgin Mary high above them.
What I’ll remember most is that the country was gently warm in its heat and in its people. On my first night, a beautiful dancer named Ricardo, who couldn’t have been younger than 80 or taller than five feet, swept me around the salsa bar in an attempt to teach me the three-step cumbia salsa. That adventure only resulted in laughter and crushed toes (his toes, not mine). Out of the dozens of nuns that passed me in one huge line, decked out in pale blue and white, each and every one said “buenos días.” A bakery owner soundlessly brought me a free dessert when he saw that I was travelling alone.
Moments like these are why I cherish travelling so much, and why I force myself to recognize my immense privilege in being able to go and meet these people at all. Halfway through my trip, I was sitting in the famed El Refugo coffee shop, holding a fresh cup of acatenango roast mined from the base of a volcano with the same name (I had a chance to tour the plantation for just a few dollars the day before).
I was half-listening to the conversation between a former musician and an artist slash coffee shop owner going on behind me.
“Are you going to choose to be unyielding?” one asked the other. Lessons in tourism and travel from snippets overheard.
I took a slow sip of my drink. It was the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had.
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Samantha McCabe is a university student based in Vancouver, Canada, and a journalist passionate about reporting on issues of equity and sexual misconduct. She became obsessed with exploring from a young age, and aims to travel with purposefulness, mindfulness, and learning in mind. She has a notebook and a film camera glued to her whenever she’s in a new place. Follow her both homebound and far away on Instagram @samanthamccabe_.