Lightning was still arcing in the sky when our plane traveled through the heavy turbulence into a landing so hard that my father, who was sleeping in the seat next to me, let out a yelp and clenched the seat in front of him.
In Oklahoma, it was just after midnight on Sunday when we landed after long delays in Houston. I stepped off the plane, taking my first steps into Guatemala City.
My first sight was a Playstation 3 set up in the terminal a few steps away from a Pizza Hut.
In many ways, Guatemala City is a lot like any other major city. In the rainy Guatemalan night, or rather really early morning, familiarity was not hard to find. Whether it was the logo of the Volkswagen dealership or the Sherman Williams paint store near the airport or the Burger King that are identical to the stores at home, one could be forgiven for believing they were in the United States. Despite the suitcases of pills and syringes and various other medical implements, the customs agency didn’t examine the suitcases. That was a far cry from what Bill Brewer remembered about the first time he came to Guatemala in 1991. Then, customs wouldn’t let one suitcase of medicine through without searching it, much less 20. Now our customs forms were given a quick glance and we didn’t lose a step as we wheeled them out onto a waiting bus where we met one of our interpreter’s for the trip, Raul.
It’d be easy to look at the flashing fast food signs and find such familiarity, but even in one night the differences started to creep through. I could smell the water even through the persistent rain. I couldn’t tell whether it was sulphur or something else, but it reminded me immediately of the first thing I was told about my trip to Central America. Never drink the water. Even after midnight we could hear the blaring horns of a taco truck as it drove past, its driver unhappy with the speed of the buses’ progress on the street. Dance clubs darted the street view and we had to take a detour to the hotel when we ran into a police blockade. Shortly before we got to the hotel, a man was walking through the street in plain view, his eyes darting around as he held a loaded shotgun in his hands.
Raul told us that such a sight was common, not only in the relative metropolis of Guatemala City, but throughout the country.
“It’s everywhere,” Raul said.
It was well after 1 a.m. when a doorman at the hotel locked the door behind us when a drunk man knocked on the glass and tried to get in. We’re exhausted, but in a few hours we’ll leave, traveling to southwest Guatemala to the city of Chichicastenango where we’ll set up our base for the bulk of the trip.