Christian, Xelajú, and a Whole Family of Complainers—My First International Adventure
There’s just something about certain travel memories that make them stick in your head.
If you’ve been lucky enough to travel a bit throughout the wider world, you probably know what I’m talking about—even after visiting the most famous landmarks of any given city, the memory that sticks with you the most is something that seemed minor at the time, like a pleasant conversation with a stranger or an unexpected discovery down some side street. Sometimes, you might be lucky enough to have an entire day full of moments like these. This is the story of one of those days for me.
But first, a bit of background. When I was 19 years old, towards the end of my freshman year of university, I applied for a grant being offered by my department for an independent study abroad experience during the upcoming summer. I proposed, with the help of an academic advisor, a four-week trip to Guatemala—and to my surprise, I won the grant! I was to spend three weeks taking intensive one-on-one Spanish classes and living with a local family in the city of Quetzaltenango, and later to spend the final week exploring other parts of the country at my leisure.
I don’t think I’d ever been so excited for a trip. Looking back, I’m baffled by the fact that I wasn’t the least bit nervous—frankly, I should have been. I remember arriving in Guatemala City around eleven o’clock at night, and when I finally met the driver that the school had sent for me she had me lie down in the backseat while we drove through the city’s more dangerous neighborhoods. Meanwhile, lying there with my head on the cloth seat, I floundered through a superficial conversation, realizing in real time that my Spanish was nowhere near the level I had tricked myself into thinking it was. If this happened to me today, at the ripe old age of 24, I think my stomach would drop through the floor of the car—but this was my first great adventure, and some mixture of naivety and pure adrenaline kept any degree of fear from creeping into my mind.
The next morning, I got dropped at a bus station and a few hours later arrived in Quetzaltenango without a hitch. When I arrived, I wandered the bus depot for a few minutes unsure of what exactly I was supposed to do next. About ten minutes had passed and I had just begun plotting emergency scenarios in my head when a car skidded to a stop not far from me; a stout, dark-skinned 20-something hopped out and approached me with a simple, “Jim?”
What a relief.
As I later found out, this was Christian—he worked for the small Spanish school I would be attending as… well… I never was entirely sure. He wasn’t a teacher nor did he work in administration, but he did accompany us students on all sorts of oddball excursions like the one that I still find my memory conjuring up even today.
At this point I’d been in Quetzaltenango for about a week, long enough to stop using the cumbersome Spanish name and start referring to my temporary home as Xelajú as it’s known in the local Maya language. On a Friday as class ended, Christian swung by the tiny room on the third floor where I spent some five hours a day conversing with my teacher Zuly. He said he’d be taking any interested students on a walk to explore the municipal cemetery that afternoon and I, without many other options on my plate, decided to join him.
Now at this point, some of you might be thinking, “what?” And this of course makes total sense, unless you’ve found yourself in any big, old cemetery in Latin America. I initially had the same reaction, but Christian and Zuly both assured me that the trip would be worthwhile. And so, at around 3 o’clock that Friday afternoon, I joined the group in our school’s tiny lobby comprised of Christian and perhaps ten other students.
As we exited the building we took a left, immediately heading down the street in a direction I’d never been before. This part of the city was quiet, the narrow colonial design preventing both two-way streets and most reckless driving. As Christian, decked out in a flamboyant green scarf and chain-smoking cigarettes as always, led the group, I struck up a conversation with another student on the excursion. She was a few years older than me, and it turned out that we were from the same city back in the States. We hit it off pretty quickly; she would soon become my closest companion during my time in Guatemala.
We walked further on and the cityscape began changing. As we emerged onto a wider avenue, the cars speeding by with increasing velocity, dust and exhaust began swirling around us. A few of the other participants on our excursion, an older couple and their about-my-age daughter, began complaining to Christian—this was both dangerous and unhealthy, according to them. Christian, ever the cool guy, gave them the smoothest non-apology that I could have imagined and we continued on our way. I was impressed.
When we finally got to the cemetery, I realized that the walk really had been worth it. Outside of the gates, vendors sat in the shade of trees and umbrellas selling flowers and wreaths but also balloons, ice cream, snacks, and the list went on. Entering, we passed first through a sort of outdoor mausoleum, the spaces for bodies stacked about eight high, most of them painted gaily in bright colors. We continued along towards the center of the grounds and emerged into a section of the cemetery the likes of which I’d never before seen in the United States. These were the family vaults of some of the city’s most elite lineages from the past three centuries. Marble pyramids, Moorish minarets, and imported Italian sculptures were just the beginning.
It didn’t take long, though, for our family of complainers to get back to what they did best. First it was too hot, and then, as the rainy season afternoon drizzle began, they became frustrated that Christian didn’t have some kind of contingency plan for every last one of nature’s whims. He apologized to them, rolled his eyes at us, and then excused himself to put them on the right bus back to their homestay. The rest of us stayed behind and continued exploring the cemetery until he returned.
When he got back, most of the rest of our group decided to leave as well. This left just Christian, my friend Meghan and I in the cemetery, and Christian felt comfortable enough with us to vent about the complainers in our group. He lit up another cigarette, and in his charming, accented English said, “They should go to Spain next time, not Guatemala.” We all laughed.
From that day on, Meghan and I had a special bond with Christian. He took us—just the two of us—on a couple of trips that I was never really sure were school-sanctioned or not. One involved a two-hour chicken bus ride and a full night of drinking with a sincerely crazy American expat who had absolutely no idea how long he’d been in Guatemala for. If it was a school trip, I don’t think that was part of the programming.
Though that first trip to the Xela cemetery rings the clearest in my mind, the many other afternoons on which Christian graciously took me around still form some of the strongest memories of my Guatemala trip—an immensely positive experience that began my journey towards Spanish fluency and instilled a love of travel in my heart that lives on to this day. If it hadn’t been for him, his warm nature, and his intimate knowledge of his home, I know I wouldn’t have had nearly as good of a time.
So what’s the moral of this story?
And does there have to be one?
I guess, at the end of the day, that my trip to Guatemala, in a happy accident, introduced me to many of the things that I love about traveling still today—the adventure, the mystery, and to some extent, even the danger. On a more practical level, it taught me how important it is to have a local guide with you when you travel—someone who truly knows the city you’re visiting and is willing to share this relationship with you.
So, the next time you travel, try to find your own local guide—your own Christian. His or her knowledge will enrich your journey, while his or her character and idiosyncrasies will be imprinted in your memory for years to come.
By Jim Dobrowolski
Jim Dobrowolski is an American freelance writer and translator currently based out of Aguascalientes, Mexico. In his free time he enjoys hiking, playing basketball, and sampling the many beers this world has to offer. He is the founder of the travel site crosscontinentcruising.com and his personal website can be found at jimdobrowolski.com.