The lady exchanging currency in the early hours in Atlanta is originally from Trinidad and tells me "The Beaches in Tobago are the best." She has been in the States for years leaving an abusive husband in her native country. She came here with her sister and now is happily remarried with a family. "Good luck on your trip" she waves as I walk away.
After an uneventful flight I arrive at the Guate Airport and exit outside into stifling heat and smog. We are penned in looking for our rides. The guards try to be helpful, but there is a hunger about them that is slightly off-putting to me. Isabella is holding up a sign that I I finally spot with my name on it. I notice I have been holding my breath and breathe a sigh of relief when I go to her. The driver needed to go to the bathroom so she has taken over.
I am relieved to have found the beginnings of my group and we walk to the van suitcases in tow. Isabella has just arrived and is serious at first but then relaxes as we drive away and she starts to chat and tell me it's her birthday. Her friend wanted to do Paris but she picked Guatemala (by herself) instead. I look at her, 20 years my junior and see a brave girl venturing out alone. To tell her story and start to reclaim it, maybe even rewrite it before it has fully begun.
We drive to Antigua and pick the others up as we all position ourselves in the van. One of us is ill but very stoic. She is sitting in the back and says she will be ok as long as she looks straight ahead. She ate something the night before that has upset her stomach. We drive for hours through poverty, through the hustle and bustle of a big city. We pass many of the chicken buses that I have read about. Old American school buses that have been fashioned to look flashy and new but are in disrepair with clothing and equipment teetering on the top. We pass dead dogs on the side of the road and alive ones that are precariously running about. Some of the woman are upset by the dead dogs. "The pigs are on leashes but the dogs aren't." One of the eldest of us says wisely that the pig have value but the dogs don't. I am less bothered by the dogs. This is a third world country. The priority is of feeding people for survival. They don't have our luxuries. I am worried though that the driver might accidentally hit one of the dogs. Most of the dogs are serious and intent and seem to know what they are doing as they hustle forward.
The people in the smaller towns as we approach the lake are socializing, working and carrying things on their head. Many are dressed in traditional garb. There are many churches and quaint huts and buildings. The roads are in such poor shape that we have to almost hug the side of the cliff to go around them. The bus shifts this way and that as we ascend up. We finally get to town and exit the van. There are young boys that greet us. They want to help us and carry our things. What is our names? They ask us. Many of the women ignore them but another lady and I give them attention. She speaks Spanish to them and I give them a little money and this spurs them on to continue to follow us up the mountain. I finally tell them in my broken Spanish that they can continue to follow us but no more dineros. The lead boy understands and they say goodbye. (I see them in town later in the week and we make small talk once again in our broken attempt to connect to each others languages.)
The climb up is expected but arduous and a few of the woman are tired from the trip and daunted by it. They haven't made arrangement for a guide to help them. We are all relieve to be at the top of the Forest and Aimee greets us. She looks worried and tired. I like her immediately. She cares and takes this work to heart. It is obvious. Friendly to our guide and respectful. I like this too about her.
We open our circle in the Native American tradition of the four directions as she smudges us before we enter the temple for the first time. We gather in our first circle and get acquainted even more. Aimee tells us a story of how she came to do this. How she is from a small town in the midwest but she worked in London before starting this. How she was in advertising but being a storyteller is what she is meant to do. Her words silently remind us that we are here in part to find meaning, to find purpose to our lives. To define our path and start to etch it in the dirt. She tells us that she used to walk softly but now walks like she means it. How she was on an excursion climbing up an icy mountain with shoes and equipment with a group. How one man fell and was injured and then the guide said as he pointed to her, 'You come here or you will be next.' "Walk like you mean it." From that day on she has been more conscious of her footsteps..