On my first few days in a new place, everything strikes me as fresh and fascinating, then becomes more familiar and taken for granted. So when I travel, I try to venture out early in my visit to immerse myself in the sights and sounds. There is something invigorating about strolling through streets and scenes I have never seen before, knowing I will not meet anyone I know there.
In fall of 2003, I moved to Guatemala City to teach at an American International school. Rising with the sun my first morning, bursting with anticipation, the bright light of my new country pouring in, spotlighting the flowers on my hotel room table, I rushed out for a walk. Mindful of my poor sense of direction, I rounded blocks, trying not to get lost, while taking in the vividly painted buildings and hand lettered signs, gracefully arching trees, and flowering vines and bushes.
Zone 10, also known as Zona Viva, the lively section of Guatemala City where nightclubs, hotels, and restaurants abounded, was abuzz with people going to work and starting their day—not at all like the seedy neighborhoods depicted in tour books and travel advisories, which cautioned spending as little time as possible in the capital. In this urban landscape, high-rise apartments, office buildings, and hotels towered above little shops. Bunched and tangled communication lines crisscrossed like spider webs. Traffic blared from compact cars and dented old pickups, horns honking, mufflers not required. The volcanoes ringed by clouds that surround the city—Agua, Fuego, and Pacaya—were seldom visible, obscured by haze, cloud, and pollution, but on that day an occasional glimpse appeared like a blue mirage floating over the city streets, an elusive promise of new places to explore—a good omen.
Lurid magenta and violet bougainvillea tumbled over walls, white lilies sprang from the ground, and orange birds of paradise pointed like fingers in every direction from their protective sheaths of green. Walls were painted in riotous colors: warm terra cottas, mustard yellows, intense blues, variegated as if sponged onto surfaces. Signs in bold letters, some painted directly across outer walls of buildings, screamed about their services. Shoeshine boys, their stools set up in the dirt between sidewalk and curb, offered to shine my sandals. Vendors selling food and other goods were perched in little makeshift stands on the surprisingly litter-free streets, or just sitting on the ground with their baskets. Fragrant scents of flora and greenery in the humid air alternated with choking odors of car exhaust, the stench from occasional sewer openings, and streams of urine on the sidewalk.
Locked gates and uniformed guards fronted most of the buildings. Security guards hefting enormous automatic weapons, alarming and intimidating, greeted me politely. It was difficult to get a feel for the places where people lived in this city, since most of the residences were hidden from sight behind high walls, topped with spiraled circular razor wire, points of sharp rock, or embedded pieces of colored glass. At first, they appeared intentionally decorative, but then their forbidding message was revealed.
Retired school buses from the United States sported bright colors, as did everything in Guatemala. They were color-coded according to their destination, probably in consideration of the high illiteracy rate. Each was uniquely decorated with names painted across the side in wild fonts, with a woman’s name typically written over the front window—the bus driver’s wife, girlfriend, or mother—along with religious or comical drawings or phrases along the side. Along more rural routes, it was not unusual for people to bring small livestock on the local buses; hence their “chicken bus” nickname. Chicken buses, for all their color, trailed clouds of black smoke spewing from the exhaust. I had read that breathing in the pollution of Guatemala City was akin to smoking two and a half packs of cigarettes a day, and buses were a major contributor.
A well-tended profusion of flowers and plants, including a few huge-leafed banana trees, surrounded four white rectangular buildings, each housing four units, each with its own entrance to the shared garden. This is where I found a place to live, at the Santa Clara Apartamentos in Zone 10. I chose an upstairs two-bedroom apartment, unfurnished except for a bed supplied by the school. I was charmed by the balcony spilling over with orange trumpet flowers. I bought some used furniture from teachers that had moved on, along with some hand-carved wooden pieces and wicker chairs from sidewalk and roadside vendors. With the occasional mild earthquake, the flimsy wooden computer desk I bought from the outgoing technology teacher would vibrate from side to side. I purchased a few kitchen luxuries: a coffeemaker to brew rich, flavorful Guatemalan coffee, and a blender to make the freshest fruit smoothies I’ve ever had.
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