Thanks for the ‘heads up’ from Dan Campbell (El Salvador 1974-77)
Nathaniel Smith (Guatemala 2019-2020)
The Times-Independent Utah, June 18, 2020
A group of Peace Corps Volunteers watch the sunrise from the summit
of the volcano Acatenango. Photos courtesy of Nathaniel Smith
The van carried me away on the first leg of what would be a multi-stage journey from rural Guatemala to southern Utah. I gazed forlornly out the window as we wove through pine forest and out of the valley.
My mind cycled through the list of things I had hoped to do in Guatemala over the next year. Though I planned to return someday, whether as a Peace Corps volunteer or not, this experience proved that even the best-laid plans go awry.
That morning, when I still believed I would have the entire day, I made what I thought would be my final trip to the town’s thermal baths. While most Peace Corps volunteers claim they were assigned the best site in the country, my site mates and I felt we had more evidence for our case. The thermal baths were always the centerpiece of that argument. Steaming hot water from a spring originating high in a lush, narrow gulch was piped down and mixed with cool river water to fill an array of concrete tubs for public bathing, two swimming pools, and rows of private baths.
For most rural Guatemalans, running water is inconsistent, at best. Thus, the thermal baths, locally called baños, are where many people from the town and surrounding villages go to bathe. I was fortunate to live with a wealthier family that had a well to provide running water around the clock, along with a comically undersized shower. Despite that convenience at my disposal, I still frequently made the 20-minute trip between forest and terraced fields above the burbling river. After a day of working in the field, nothing was better than a relaxing evening soak.
Not only are the baños the town’s primary tourist attractions, they also are the community hub. My conversations there almost always began with a comment about the water temperature. The mix is a delicate balance — too much water from the spring results in the sensation of being boiled, while overdrawing the river creates chilly pools. When it rains, the river fills with silt and the pools become brown and turbid. The topic made for the ideal icebreaker. I came to enjoy meeting people while I bathed — at least once I grew accustomed to nonchalantly continuing a conversation while each person shoved their hands down their bathing shorts and vigorously scrubbed.
I had hoped to soak in the baños one last time and calm my nerves for the coming evacuation. However, when I arrived, I was told the mayor had just announced the closure of the baños in response to COVID-19.
Thoughts of missed opportunities occupied me during the drive. At the consolidation point, we waited for another fleet of vans to take us to a different hotel closer to the airport. Volunteers anxiously milled about: exchanging solemn greetings, making phone calls, fidgeting, smoking cigarettes. Habitually, people asked one another how they felt, though no one could really answer.
Even though I left many plans unfulfilled, I realized I should appreciate the things I did have time for during my year in the land of eternal spring. Just a week earlier, I had traveled to the volcano Acatenango with a few other volunteers. We ascended through fog to a blustery base camp at 12,500 feet. As ferocious gusts bit through my layers, I felt truly cold for the first time in country. When we shambled into camp, cloud cover completely obscured the view.
Acatenango is not an active volcano, but its neighbor, Fuego, very much is. As evening fell, we huddled around a fire and watched the wind blow clouds over the horizon. In gaps of crepuscular sky, we watched plumes of ash and the brilliant orange glow of lava spurting up from Fuego. Awaking before dawn, we climbed the final thousand feet to the summit. We watched the sunrise from atop the volcano and took celebratory swigs of cheap liquor. I marveled at the expansive landscape, blissfully unaware of what was to come.
Sitting in the hotel and playing cards, I remarked how the Acatenango trip turned out to be the climax of our time in Guatemala. A fellow volcano trekker added how lucky it was that we didn’t schedule the trip a week later. We could’ve been camping on a volcano when the evacuation message came had things broken a little differently.
We were bored at the hotel, but constantly on edge. Ready to leave at a moment’s notice. Tuesday drug by in suspense. The plan was yet to come together. Guatemala wasn’t letting anyone leave, the U.S. was making it difficult to get in, and we still had to charter a plane. So, we kept playing cards, binge drinking, reminiscing, comparing lack of sleep, speculating about the future.
The waiting continued until Wednesday afternoon. We finally had a plane; we were headed to the airport. The Guatemalan government had recently banned traveling in groups of more than 10 people, so a police escort led us through the desolate streets of the capital. The normally congested roadways were dominated by our caravan of cop cars and buses. Though there were few other vehicles, we saw some crowds of pedestrians in masks. Many filmed the procession, others shouted “Coronavirus!”
Our only stop was the U.S. embassy. State department employees with children or high-risk family members joined our cavalcade. Their presence meant it would be a diplomatic flight, which eased the difficulty of leaving the country.
The airport brought more tense waiting. A collective sigh of relief echoed through the cabin when the plane took to the air. It was bittersweet — clearing our major obstacle, but leaving Guatemala behind.
Passengers broke out in applause when we landed in Miami around midnight. Shuffling through the empty airport, reading signs in English, knowing I was back on U.S. soil — it was utterly surreal. Disinterested TSA agents rapidly checked our passports. There was no security, no screening for the virus. We grabbed our bags and headed for the hotel. We expected to be on lockdown the second we got to our rooms. That was not the case. We ordered food, talked late into the night, and savored the end of our time together despite the circumstances. I was exhausted but too wired to sleep.
Thursday morning, we returned to the airport and headed our separate ways. For the last portion of the journey, I would be alone. After a series of flights, delays from a snowstorm in Denver, and more waiting, I arrived in Moab during Friday’s wee hours. The evacuation had lasted less than a week, but it elongated in my mind, placing a yawning gulf between me and my time in Guatemala. It signaled an end to a distinct phase of my life, my year in the heart of the Mayan world. I was left to readjust to a country going through its own unprecedented adjustments during a global pandemic. Though if I learned anything in Guatemala, it was how to adapt.
This is the final installment of former Times-Independent Reporter Nathaniel Smith’s series on his experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer during the year prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.