TEXT BY DONNA FORD
PHOTOS BY SARAH CONNER
Donna Ford lets us come with her to revisit a poignant season in her life that continues to resound nearly two decades later. We’re happy that through the photography of Sarah Conner, who is currently in the Guatemalan community that was so formative for Donna, we’re given extra glimpses into the scenes of this place.
When I first met her, she rendered me breathless. But it wasn’t until we said our final farewell that I realized how intoxicating she had been. I’d been drunk with her warmth and elevated by her presence as she busied about her day with an ease and grace that made me feel at peace.
How I explored her dusty depths, feeling so weary in her presence yet marveling at her colorful new appearance every day. We ate and drank new delights together and conversed with new words. She was lofty and fun. But my overriding memory is of the deep connection and beauty that lived in the petty details of everyday life. The visceral memory of this remains deep in me, and I will never shake it.
Quetzaltenango (affectionately known as Xela) is a mountain town in Guatemala where I spent a month one summer, almost half my life ago. Despite the years that have passed since then, thinking of Xela still conjures up intense emotions in me.
I went there with a thirst to discover a new, vibrant culture and to visit a friend who was working as a dentist in rural villages. I’d just spent an unexpected year out of uni (which I am now grateful a period of depression allowed to happen). With the very basic Spanish I’d learned as a child from my dad, I muddled through living with a beautifully kind and generous native Guatemalan family, helped build houses with an NGO (non-governmental aid organization), and studied Spanish five hours a day. I’ve never known such physical and mental exhaustion (and I’ve since given birth twice!) thanks to the lack of oxygen at 2,400 meters (over 7,800 feet)!
It wasn’t the grandeur or epic adventures of this place and its people that touched me most but rather the utter beauty of the ordinary everyday-ness I experienced. The way my host Gladys would confidently and graciously move throughout her home while her young children tried to teach me salsa. The simple smiles and holas that greeted me everywhere. All so normal but also so beautiful and profound, without even trying to be.
When catapulted into a brand new culture, we think we are going to learn things we’ve never experienced before and adopt new attitudes toward life. But what actually happened in Xela is that this shared humanity of cultures existing in unison demanded that I reflect on who I really was. It was like a mirror that I couldn’t escape any longer.
At the fairly tender age of 21 I was naive. Even now I look back and berate my former self over taxi trips taken on my own with strangers to remote locations, streets wandered alone in the dark, and that time I lost my llave (“key”—a word that will never leave my vocabulary after that experience!) and gladly accepted an invitation into a stranger’s home to await my Guatemalan family’s return on a Friday evening. Thankfully those strangers were all kind, and I survived my Central American adventure to tell you the tale.
Probably the hardest thing about being in Xela was my gringa’s gut that just couldn’t handle the water composition. On more than one occasion I was confined to various bathrooms for long periods of time. Dysentery was a real possibility, and I remember fearing that even one drip of water would get past my lips in the shower.
I eventually left my base in Xela and went on to surf the Pacific, explore picturesque colonial Antigua, set eyes upon the majestic Mayan temples of Tikal, and journey on the infamous chicken-buses to Lago de Atitlán, an out-of-this-world lake hugged by volcanoes. It was all beautiful and enchanting.
However, the lasting legacy of the summer was the vibrancy of the Guatemalans I met. Their kindness, generosity, and colorful living was unforgettable, and I hold these values very dear to my heart still. Without their knowing it, these new friends and acquaintances really did help transform me, aiding me along on my personal healing journey with their holas. Unwittingly, they caused me to question and reimagine the values on which I would build my future life. They gave me courage to trust that I could create whatever I wanted with ease and grace.
Regardless of what has gone before, new starts and fresh perspectives are available if we are brave enough to take the first step towards them. I love that new experiences, whether they happen far from home or near it, can grant us this clarity.
I vividly remember taking off from the Guatemalan tarmac and wondering if I’d ever return. In one breath, I sincerely hoped so and still hope this. But in another, the fear of meeting her again and finding her changed or finding myself too changed for her, like old lovers, may prevent this from ever happening.
My time traveling on my own in Guatemala as a 21-year-old actually mirrors where I’m at right now in my life, on this exhilarating journey of enlightenment both spiritually and emotionally, though the location is completely different. Now I’m discovering life anew as a mum, wife, creative entrepreneur, blogger, photographer, writer. All of these roles play out in ordinary everyday moments, yet it’s in this everyday-ness that the vibrancy lives and leaves me feeling like I’m revisiting once again all that my Xela days embodied.
So when I recently ran across old photos from that trip I was instantly transported back to that summer, to the person I used to be, to the atmosphere of that place, to the smells that surrounded me there, and to the way it felt to live among little moments with dear people teaching me deeply profound and spiritual things. And maybe it’s the case that I can return to Guatemala whenever I want, just by living out of who she taught me to be.