It’s six in the evening and the sun is setting over Xela, Guatemala (formally known as Quetzaltenango). The rainy season here in Guatemala is the Central American equivalent of winter, with the shorter days and undesirable weather. Today it’s only drizzling and I walk the four blocks from my apartment to the Parque Centrale. It’s formally called the Parque a Centro America, but only a tourist reading a map would call it that.
In the southeast corner of the park I find my dinner options. The street food here is the best way to eat, both for quality and price. I choose the first stand I approach, where tostadas are sizzling on a pan of oil. Maybe I’m too hungry to venture further but these are truly delicious. I don’t have any regrets about my impulsive dinner choice, I cannot choose poorly here.
The sizzling of oil mixed with the casual Spanish small talk fill my ears while my nose is tantalized by the aroma of tortillas baking, meats and cheeses cooking together. “Picante?” the woman asks. “No gracias” I reply, because spicy here means something beyond which I’m yet able to handle. The flavorful tostadas alone will suffice, I don’t need my tongue to burn from the spicy sauce. At least not tonight, I’m not testing my limits this time.
Before leaving the safety of the umbrella over the tostada stand, I bite into one and the flavors hit all the taste buds on my tongue, causing my to whisper “yum” subconsciously. I walk to the entryway of the municipal building to eat away from the rain. As I enjoy my dinner, I watch a brother and sister around the age of 6 playing nearby. Their mother looks out at the street, anticipating their ride home I presume. The children have no mind for this, or no patience at least. They are running around in circles, giggling. They are fully engaged in their made-up game, in a way that only children can be. No adult could understand, we’ve grown past those playful years when any suggestion for games or play are embraced wholeheartedly.
Now we focus on goals, on our careers, on supporting family, making an impact with our lives, or maybe just getting by. I, along with the other expats in Xela, Guatemala, have goals and purpose here. It’s unlike the goals of my friends and family living in America, who could not fathom living in a developing (3rd world) country. But this place and this time serves a purpose.
The expat community in Xela, Guatemala is strong. In my group of friends here, there are people visiting for a couple months, people who came and then never left, and local Guatemalans who are well educated and traveled. We meet for drinks at a bar near the Parque Centrale tonight. The drinks are cheap, the company is good, and there are exceptional salsa dancers on the dance floor showing off to the Latin music that the dj plays.
After a late night out on the town, I awake in the morning to a suggestion that I join a couple friends to hike the nearby mountain. The city is surrounded by mountains, all begging to be explored, climbed, conquered. We hike for a couple of hours, up and back. Sweating, I decide this is my workout for the day.
And at the top, at the mirador, we are rewarded for our efforts with a panoramic view over the city. From up here you can’t see the struggles that pervade the streets of this impoverished city. You can’t see the stray dogs picking through trash, the people begging for money, or the chronically malnourished children. You can’t see from here the illiteracy, the dependence on international assistance, the lack of public works to maintain cleanliness or the low standards for hygiene. You also can’t see the abundance of charities, and nonprofits, and goodhearted volunteers who want to make life here better. Up here, you can step away from the problems and see just a colorful collection of buildings that make up this city in the mountains. It’s at once peaceful and disillusioned, but it’s part of what makes Xela, Guatemala what it is.
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