Friday, September 28, 2007

Te Ves Más Gorda…

While leaving my house yesterday, I ran into Ana, my neighbor. We exchanged the typical pleasantries, a kiss on the cheek, how are you, nice to see you, yadda yadda. As we parted, Ana said to me, “Nancy, te ves más gorda! You look fatter!” I looked at her aghast. I had just come back from Peten, where it’s so hot it saps my hunger away, and I had just worked out. Man! What the heck! Unsure of what to say I remarked that I hoped I hadn’t gained weight. She replied saying, “No, te ves más contenta. You look happier.” I thanked her and walked away.

Later, at school I told this story to Beberly, who said that looking fatter is a compliment in Guatemala. It means, “you looking good, girlfriend!” I just looked at Beberly and started to laugh. I explained that in the USA saying you’re looking fat is quite an insult, a kick in the bootie. Ouch! There, we say, wow, have you lost weight?, oh you look slim and healthy. None of this looking fat nonsense!

That comment, paired with my 15 evangelical taxi ride where I was preached to the entire ride, made my day. There’s nothing like being told your fat and then getting lectured that doing good deeds is not what God intends because all that does is boosts one’s ego. I wonder what Jesus would say about that….

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Three Months

It has been three months since the eve of my journey to Guatemala. I remember vividly sitting with my father in my parent’s bedroom talking about this adventure. It had been such a long time in coming – two and a half years since I received the Rotary Scholarship. Yet at the same time, it was such a short time to transition from my home in Idaho, Brian’s graduation, graduate school, and all of a sudden moving to a foreign country. Concerns of being ill-prepared, hardly excited about the journey, and feeling uprooted overwhelmed me. What was I doing? Why was I leaving my home?

I knew from before I left that I was being untrue to myself. By going to this foreign country, I was upholding other people’s beliefs of who I am and denying my own desires, goals, and character. It is true, in the past I had been Nancy-the-would-be-ex-patriot. But, that Nancy no longer exists. I am still very excited to learn about the world and connect myself to it. Yet, I have grown to realize how very important my own culture, country, and character are to being true to myself.

When I look at who I am today, three months into this Guatemalan Adventure, I’m not sure I recognize myself. Who is this person wandering around Guatemala City and feeling constantly unbalanced? Who is this person that feels such acute homesickness, something that before has come and gone but never remained or overwhelmed me? Who is this person who realized what she wants after the commitment had been made? Who is this person biding her time in a foreign country?

Guatemala has profoundly helped me to reassess my goals in life. It has made me braver to act upon what I have always desired but hid from what others always thought I should do. It has strengthened me to knowing that, while incredibly difficult, my months in solitude are building me into an analytical, thoughtful, creative person. Without this loneliness, without these trials, I doubt my writing would emerge as it has. Without the constant strain of learning to live in another world, I doubt I would have woken to my soul’s needs.

Who is Nancy? I feel for many of my colleagues who have seen me over the past 9 years, I am a person motivated to bridge the gaps between developing and developed countries. I am a potential United Nations employee who will advance development and conservation. Justice, rights, and equity for all was my unspoken motto. When I returned from Ecuador, I was determined to work in cooperative communities to bring about social equity and economic equality to poor, high land communities of the Andes. According to some of these colleagues, I am bound to succeed in the international arena.

But I don’t feel like that is really me any more. After so many years invested in this persona, it has come slowly and achingly as a shock to realize how different I am from the young, idealistic woman returning from an amazing year abroad. It has been three years since I returned from Ecuador. In that time, my connection, my soul, and my being have found their home in the rugged purple mountains of Montana, the rolling wheat fields of the Palouse, the pungent mixture of sagebrush and sulfur of Yellowstone, and in the inexplicable beauty of the meandering mountain rivers of Idaho. I feel more like Lewis and Clark than Simon Bolivar, out for discovery and not for liberty.

As I sit in Guatemala City pondering my sense of home, I remember I have always had one image in my mind for the questions “if you could go to any time period, what would it be? If you could meet any hero, who would it be?” I recall my answer, perhaps unspoken, has always been to see the west before “civilization.” Oh, to see the sweeping fields of long grass prairie alight in summer blooms and witness thousands upon thousands of bison roaming the plains. To experience the Black Hills, the Rocky Mountains, and the Missouri River in pristine states before dams, exploitation, and development. I would go back to the 1800’s when Lewis and Clark made their great journey across our country – the Corps of Discovery. If I could meet any heroes, it would, without a doubt, be Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery.

Every journey I take across the great state of Montana wakens this desire for discovery. My excitement at witnessing Lolo and Hoodoo Pass, at seeing the three forks of the Missouri, at imagining the typical Lewis and Clark pose stir in me the desire to discover, protect, and cherish the west. Our country is so vast, amazing, and rich with natural and cultural resources that I wish to be there to rediscover my roots.

When I was younger, I imagined the great wonders of the world. Mayan and Egyptian pyramids, Incan Cities, and Greek and Roman temples all played with my imagination. I wanted to leave the United States and experience life in other countries. I befriended international students and dreamed about traveling to Bavaria, Norway, and Peru to visit them. I couldn’t wait to leave, leave, leave! And now I find I can’t wait to go back.

I remember sitting with Bill Smith, my international studies undergraduate advisor, this spring and talking about adventuring. He looked at me and said, “Nancy, it’s funny. You spent your growing up wanting to go abroad and see the world’s wonders. I spent it wanting to explore our parks and natural resources. The United States is so large and diverse I just wanted to be here.”

I understand now what he meant. While I will still want to travel the world, to see the ancient wonders and cultural creations, I now feel an overwhelming need to reconnect to my country. I want to travel the United States, learn about its power and magic. I want to experience the mesas, the mountains, the plains and deserts. I want to connect to the land that has gifted our country with so much. I’m ready to end this international isolation and return home.

In the last three years, I fell in love with Moscow, with the west, and with Yellowstone. I strengthened values revolving around conservation, waste reduction, recycling, and identity. Sense of place immerged for me as a very real buzz word, one that describes the inexplicable connection, meaning, and identity I create in places. It explains the connection or disconnection I feel in locations. It may even explain why Guatemala and Nancy just don’t fit. There’s a great disconnect of soul, spirit, and me. I have hardly felt a calling, a draw, a joining with this place.

Never before do I remember feeling such homesickness, loneliness, and withdraw from a place. Even when I first returned from Ecuador, missing it dreadfully, I let Moscow and Iowa fill those holes in my heart. Last year in Yellowstone, I remember feeling anxious to be with Brian, to leave my housing situation, to go back to Moscow. But never was I as lonely or homesick as now. I embraced the time in Yellowstone as time to connect to its wildness and to learn to live with the land.

In Yellowstone, in that wild, beautiful, and sacred land, all my talks focused on adventure and sense of place. I asked every visitor to explore that land and find something that calls them home. My message told them to look, to discover, and find home in the call of a wolf on a cold, clear night, connect to the winding river in Lamar Valley, be awed by the explosive power of Old Faithful, and witness their souls being summoned to Yellowstone. That land has had a profound impact on my being. I forever wait to return to Yellowstone.

When I go to bed at night, it is not the noisy car alarms and construction trucks I hear, but the wind in the oak trees of the east, the honking of the geese in the fall, and the gushing of a geyser erupting. The smells that enter my nose are not those of low-grade diesel, but that sweet smell of sagebrush in the rain, freshly harvested apples, and earthy decomposing leaves. When I wake in the morning I imagine the warm sunshine on Joffee Lake in Yellowstone, the cool mountain air in the Selway-Bitterroot, and the comforting sense of identity I associate with the west.

Tim Sommer, my dear surrogate father in Idaho reminded me, "memories do indeed become sweet with the perspective of discovering that they were more significant to your prior experiences than you imagined at the time they passed before your eyes."

I will cherish this time in Guatemala as one of isolation, of learning, of development, and of definition. I value the lessons it has taught me of place, acceptance, and community. I will leave it a stronger person who will strive to improve life in the places I love. Yet, I will leave Guatemala knowing that for me, environment, community, home, family, and friends remain the deepest callings for my sense of place.

It is the west that calls me home. It is the west whose gifts I wish to receive and to nourish. It is the west I wish to protect. It is the deep sense of place each person feels in a certain location that I want to understand, nurture, and accept.

I ask you all to challenge yourselves to think of where you feel most whole, connected, and safe. Protect that place, worship it, and nourish your home with all your being. Find that sense of discovery in the ordinary, the home in the land, the love in your community. Find the place that makes you truly you.

Sunday, September 23, 2007


I sat curled in an armchair in Café Barista, when the rains began to fall. Heavy grey drops of water bounced off the cement and formed puddles in the parking lot. The smell of wet, earthy rain wafted in from the open door. I let my book close on my lap and sat staring out at the rain shower. The loneliness birds, as described by Bryce Courtenay, sat uncomfortably by me, squawking hungrily for my memories of rainy days. This late September shower sent me instantly back to a quiet evening at the end of October two years before….

In Moscow, Idaho, I sat reading at a wooden table in One World Café. Soft, warm light lit the coffee shop and the permeating smell of freshly ground coffee filled my nose. I lifted my cup of steaming hot cider to my lips, inhaling the autumn smells of apples and cinnamon before I took a sip of the amber liquid.

At 5:00, the fall light had faded, leaving Main Street dark. The store and street lights illuminated pools of the dark, autumn street. Little children, dressed as ghosts, Spiderman, and princesses, marched along the streets. Their parents led them into the brightly colored shops to collect Halloween candies. At the counter, Deanna greeted the children gleefully and handed them a brightly colored sucker, while Gaby, in a witch hat, cackled at them. The parents and children smiled, said their thanks, and walked back out the door into the cold night.

I watched the parades of children walk by and remembered the fateful Halloween at the age of 8 in Cedar Rapids. Halloween in Iowa was always cold and rainy. That year, my cousin Emily visited from Minneapolis. For Halloween, she dressed as Snow White while I sported a white sheet fashioned as a ghost. Predictably it was pouring. Even the cheerful carved pumpkins we had on the porch glistened with the fat, wet drops from the storm. I remember poor Emily got soaked in her Snow White costume, while I, under my ghost sheet, stayed dry in my raincoat.

The sound of the espresso grinder pulled me back to Moscow 14 years later. I heard the raspy sound of dry maple leaves skittering across the ground as a light breeze picked up. The sidewalk was littered with yellow, red, orange, and brown maple leaves. Slowly, plop by plop and drop by drop, the rain began. It was always raining at the end of October in Moscow. As if the weather gods knew it was nearly Halloween, they summoned the rains. Cold and wet, the rain that soaks into your bones and into your very being began to fall melancholically from the sky.

Gavin, sitting at the next table, looked up at me and we both sighed inwardly, knowing the rains had come again to Moscow. The next day at the Farmer’s Market was bound to be a cold one. We watched the heavy drops fall determinately past the window. The leaves, now shining from the rain, began to smell of that organic earth, the magic smell of rain-mixed leaves. It was the smell that always reminded me of autumn. I breathed in the earthy smell, glad to be safely inside the coffee shop, but knowing I could avoid the inevitable only a little longer. The rains in Moscow never end. They continue on and on, breaking briefly before persisting to fall until an occasional snowfall or summer comes again.

I slowly drank the final remains of my now cold cider, feeling the thick, powerful taste of wet cinnamon fill my mouth. It was time to brave the rain. Shrugging on my raincoat and stepping out in the rain, I unlocked my soaking bicycle and turned on its headlight. Swiftly I mounted the blue Bianchi and began peddling the rain soaked streets towards home on Lily Street. That bone-chilling night finished with a hot shower, a movie, and more warm cider from our recent trip to the apple orchard. I felt safe and warm. I remember a broad smile crossing my face as I excitedly anticipated the prospect of pasties, pumpkin carving, and Halloween extravaganzas that Moscow’s rains brought with it.

Now, two years later, sitting in the quiet coffee shop on Vista Hermosa, I can feel the slow, sad smile that characterizes my loneliness cross my pale face. As I sat watching, the rain continued to fall on this September day, just as it did in my Moscow memory of two years prior. Would the rain bring the same treats as in Moscow? Would there be pumpkins to carve for Halloween? Cider to sip? Apple pie to eat?

I could feel the loneliness birds hopping around me, feeding off my memory of beloved fall in Moscow. Is it foolish of me to have such profound thoughts and feelings about this other place thousands of miles away? The grass is greener on the other side of the fence, they say. I’m sure nostalgia will overcome me when I leave Guatemala. Yet I can’t shake the feeling that my soul has grown older, wiser perhaps, since my last international hiatus. The feeling of home, of sense of place, of community is deeply bound in me. It is conceptualized in the golden wheat fields and distant forest-green mountains surrounding Moscow, Idaho.

Home. Home found in the brilliant fall colors and eternal rains of Moscow. Home realized in the cool nights and warm days of early autumn. Home felt in the first bite of pumpkin pie, the first sip of dark 1554, the first sight of the leaves true colors. Home discovered in the taste of freshly harvested honeycomb from Iowa. Home experienced by watching Dracula, Wallace and Gromit, and Frankenstein on Halloween night. Home witnessed with the powerful golden light of the sun slipping sleepily below the autumn horizon. Home so powerfully located with people, places, and the beautiful rituals we create to show the passing of seasons. For me, this deep, profound feeling is that of being and feeling and experiencing my favorite time of year. It is of knowing there are apples to pick, cider to press, pumpkins to cook down, pie to bake, and leaves to throw joyously in the air. My autumn, my Moscow, my home.

Happy autumn.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Palacio de las Ventanas

From behind, the Palacio de las Ventanas, or Window Palace, reminded me of a large military building. I always stop and wonder at the white, moss-covered building, but never have approached it. Today, walking past it, I decided it was time to visit. The little used path led to the front of the palace, where perched on its large foundation, sat the impressive, multi-windowed building. I could tell it was a palace, not a military structure as soon as I approached its form. I dropped my backpack at the base and scrambled up the ancient stairs to the building.

A dark entrance summoned me as my eyes leveled with the floor of the building. I walked under the rotting lintel into a room illuminated by a rectangular window. The light shown green from the moss and mold growing on the cool limestone walls. I walked quietly through the room and crossed into an increasingly dark, eerie space. The cave-like walls closed in around me as, like a moth, I sought the light. The corridor bent and sent me out into a shining, wall-less space overlooking the jungle.

Slowly, I walked from room to room, entering the shadows, emerging into the light, as I explored the Mayan palace. Again and again I crossed the antiquated doorways to see where the passages led me. Bats swooped and fluttered out of the building as I disturbed their daily rest. One flew directly over me, its wings breaking the solemn silence. I shrieked, further shocking the bats from their slumber. They flitted around my head in a frenzy to escape the light and noise.

It was enough for me, I quick footed it out of the dark interior and back into the light. Slipping over the slimy limestone covering the palace's floors, I hurried towards the stairs to leave the palace behind. It stood, ever oppressive, ever silent, ever eerily still behind me. I pulled on my backpack and moved back into the cool jungle, leaving the Palacio, its cave-like presence, and its powerful form behind me.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Earthly Spirits

Lura came to me as if she were a guardian angel emerging out of the very stones of Tikal. Her small, hobbitish frame moved her barefooted to the bench where I was sitting. We both sat, eating our breakfasts under the cool shade near Temple II and began to talk. She came to Tikal to live it, not to see it. For her, her ancient being thrives in these limestone and jungle shrouded temples. She has returned home to the ancient spirits and voices of Tikal. "They've only gone to another dimension," she stated sagely as her deep brown eyes peacefully examined the Gran Plaza.

Her presence filled me with peace, tranquility, and joy in a day full of mixed emotions, where thoughts were weighing heavily in my mind. She reminds me that being alone is really just time to find the inner Nancy, my soul, which is always with me. Before she left, she stood her tiny four foot frame up and gave me a heart to heart hug to connect our spirits and allow them to call each other home. It was the most filling, solid, connecting hug I have felt in my life.

"You are young, Nancy," Luna exclaimed, "You have time yet to see life's wonders. You are free to explore." She left me with the remnants of the soul-filling embrace and asked for me to find my Nancy soul.

I bit into one of the sweet, deeply purple grapes she gave me and felt the warm juice burst over my tongue. This half our encounter with Lura was one of the most profound of my life. She reminded me of other sacred souls connected powerfully with the earth. Of Fasoon and Susan and their easy connections to auras. Of my grandmother's union with the planet.

Watching Lura walk towards Temple IV, I hear all these women's messages echoed in her footsteps. The messages are all so familiar as they sing out to me, "You are strong. You are brave. You are beautiful. You are you." I hear them calling me to allow my inner self to shine. Tears pricked my eyes as the messaged repeated itself in my ears, "You are strong. You are brave. You are beautiful. You are you." I watched Lura go until she disappeared from view, into another dimension. And I prayed for our inner selves, for my grandmother, for our world. I gave thanks for the gentle reminders of peace, the hidden surprises of joy, that are found in an embrace, a darkly sweet grape, and a half hour interaction with a kindred soul.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Rock Climbing

Three months into my Guatemalan Adventure and I can tell the absence of rock is testing me. My hard earned pull-up ability has diminished, along with my mantling and other such strength. Out of habit, I run my fingers along the pads on my hands and feel where the hard callouses are disappearing. My mind no longer has the difficult mental and physical challenge that climbing perpetually gives me.

In Guatemala City, I longingly finger the stone walls, searching out crimpers, but it is Tikal where this craving to climb reveals itself most strongly. The rich limestone walls of the towering buildings attract my eyes. I glimpse at the tiny pockets etched in the rock, not where the weathering makes perfect holds for nimble feet. I long to feel the gritty stone under my fingers, powder my hands with chalk, and jump on some rock. Never in my whole life would I have imagined such a craving, such a need to challenge my body, mind and soul. I need to climb.

While in Tikal performing interviews on Friday I noticed one tourist's Black Diamond bag and struck up a casual conversation about climbing. We re-met in Los Amigos Hostel in Flores, where he, his girlfriend, and I talked rock. We feel the same inherent desire to climb. For me, it's almost as if after two years of consistent climbing that the physical strength and mental challenge it gave me is necessary to keep me sane, functioning, and healthy. When will I hop back on the rock again?

Patience, Nancy, soon enough I'll remember the heart throbbing anxiety of climbing rock. I'll remember how much I have to force myself through the mental fear to move my way up the wall. Right now, all I can think of is the joy of the challenge, the thrill of the accomplishment, and the excitement of being with friends who love the vertical feel of rock walls.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Temple V

Looking out from Temple V, I felt a sense of peace and tranquility overwhelm my being. I, along with a group of Spaniards, Freddy, and an English woman sat in silent awe at the sight that filled our eyes.

Miles of green forest stretched before us, broken only by the tops of Tikal’s Temples I and II. I imagined the jungle extending far into Chiapas, Mexico, over to Belize, and down into Guatemala. Underneath layers of debris and hidden beneath the trees’ canopies lay countless ruins of the Mayan civilization. I pictured each bump and irregularity in the otherwise flat landscape as a disguised Mayan pyramid.

The others’ hushed voices echoed the amazement I felt, as they looked out over the countryside. They had begun discussing how to get back down the pyramid. I remembered my own journey up the practically vertical steps to see the splendid view from the pyramid. Gratefully, I thanked the two years of rock climbing experience that helped me focus on the stairs and the gritty limestone face of the pyramid, which helped me ignore the height and precarious position I was in. But all the same, going down would be a trip.

One by one, they began the arduous journey back down the pyramid to the forest floor. I glanced over to watch the last person begin the steep 58 meter climb down the precarious wooden steps. Finally, only Freddy and I remained on the pyramid. We sat in silence, admiring the incredible view of Temples I and II. The temples peaked resolutely from the green canopy, breaking the monotony of the forest. As the sun’s rays hit the exposed limestone, the pyramids began to glow with a mysterious force. They seemed to emanate the peace I could feel sitting on Temple V.

Wind breezed by us as we sat on the temple. My hot face soon began to cool, as my body recognized the refreshing break from the humid jungle. Minutes ticked by; late afternoon was coming. Suddenly, the silence of the forest was broken as a sound like a car engine revving reverberated out of the trees. Loud, grinding whoops and hollers came from the canopy. The howler monkeys had woken from their afternoon nap. A wide grin spread across my face as I listened to their unusual, soul-shattering sound. My eyes scanned the temples and forest. Would I catch a glimpse of this illusive animal? Again and again their motor-like sound penetrated Tikal’s silence. The sound seemed to come from an enormous animal, though I knew the howler monkey is small, but with an incredible voice box. I closed my eyes, imagining that this is how a sasquatch, the mysterious North American ape, must sound.

Eventually their noises faded into the distance and again only the wind spoke in the trees. Freddy and I sat in silence for several more minutes before standing and making our way towards the wooden stairs. I wondered at how priests managed to climb the limestone steps up the pyramid before realizing that they, at least, had 12 inches of stone to put their feet on. “It’s similar to rock climbing,” I reminded myself, as I backed onto the 4 inch wide boards that would carry me 58 meters down to the forest floor. I glanced at the spectacular view one last time, and slowly, step by step, began the process down the stairs. “If only I could repel,” I thought, shocking even myself, “I would be down in no time.” Hundreds of near-vertical wooden steps later, I reached the bottom, and stood, gazing up at the powerful grace of the pyramid, realizing it had blessed me with its presence, view, and might during those 20 minutes on its top. “Thanks,” I murmured as, with a backward glance, I disappeared with Freddy into the dark jungle paths that would lead us away from Temple V.

Monday, September 3, 2007

This is Tikal

The steady drip, drip, drip, of water droplets off large tropical leaves reminded me that today was a cloudy day in Tikal. I examined the delicate leaves, noting the slight tip at the end to slough water off them. I had hardly noticed the rain under the heavy canopy until a break in the foliage allowed the rain to penetrate and fall onto these leaves. The rain reminded me of what Freddy had told me about the leaf cutter ants. When they begin to move in earnest, all carrying their precious cut-leaf cargo, it is sure to rain in the coming days. Those ants are good meteorologists.

Apart from the steady dripping rain, virtually no sounds penetrated the thick jungle. The usual mysterious hoots of the oropéndula birds, cackle of the toucans, and car-grinding whoops of the howler monkeys were absent that day. Only the sounds of the trees moving gracefully with the wind broke the otherwise monotonous silence of rainy-day Tikal.

For me, the grey, uniform sky with its occasional release of raindrops made Tikal all the more beautiful, mysterious, and intriguing. The profound green of the forest was projected more powerfully than on sunny days. All surfaces, from the jungle to the temples, glistened from slick water droplets that fell from the sky. The moldering, blackened limestone walls of the buildings seemed illuminated in the refreshing air.

As I approached Grupo G, I could feel the air whisper in the trees, echoing the voices of the spirits of ancient Mayan kings, queens, priests, and peasants. Freddy and I entered the Mayan arch, which marked a narrow, serpentine passage that led seemingly into the bowels of this ancient monastery. We had been swallowed by the Mayan snake only to be spat out in the verdant patio at the center of the complex. Ancient limestone walls loomed over us; the shining white of their former splendor covered now by layers of dirt, mold, and moss. The presence of the past inhabitants filled the monastery buildings. We ventured into the rooms, and I wondered at their antiquated triangular archways. Bats and swallows swooped in the dark shadows, as if to demonstrate that life still thrives in these ruins.

As though commanded by the spirits, Don Salamon, a foreman on the maintenance crew and Mayan spiritual leader, immerged from behind the building. His quiet, throaty Spanish mirrored the magic in the monastery. He shared with us the spirituality he finds in Grupo G and smiled when I revealed that for me, this place had a meaning and soul as well. Don Salamon led us to the far back of the complex, where the white limestone still shown, to point out two meditation rooms. Here, he explained, a person could sit, meditate and feel the soul of Tikal fill their own spirits. This was where the serpent spirit of the buildings could attach itself to you and move you to its rhythm.

I felt heavy, wet raindrops fall on my face, streaking down my pale face. Again, the wind whispered the conversations of ancient inhabitants in this sacred place. More than any place in Tikal, Grupo G beckoned me, calmed me, and united me with its powerful, ancient presence. So this is Tikal, I realized. This is why people perpetually talk about its mystique, mystery, and mysticism. “Yes,” answered the trees. “Yes,” ached the walls. “Yes,” called the spirits, “this is Tikal.”

Sunday, September 2, 2007

If You Drink the Water….

They say in Petén that if you drink the water from Lake Petén Itza, you will never leave. The turquoise green water of the immense lake beckoned me as the little airplane dropped towards the Santa Elena landing strip. An oasis in a sea of green tropical plants, the complexity and immensity of the lake called my attention. I immediately felt at home.

Stepping out onto the hot tarmac, I felt I had returned to summer in Iowa. In the humid, tropical air, my red hair began to curl, and I felt sweat start to drip down my back. I looked at the vast flat land covered in Ceiba trees and hundreds of other plant species, and relief filled my soul as I realized I had left Guatemala City hundreds of miles away. How could it be that I felt at home immediately? A sense of place in a location I had only read about? Petén Itza had called me home.

Erick, smiling widely as he saw me trundle out of the airport gave me a warm hug and said, “Nancy, bienvenida a Petén!” I had told him and Carlos, my other Tikal connection, that since I was 12 years old and in sixth grade I had wanted to come to Tikal. I remembered learning to count using the strange Mayan glyphs. Vividly I recalled videos about the tropical forest, where Mayan ruins and temples lay buried under layers of soil and plant debris. Finally, I would know Tikal. At 24, twelve years after I had vowed to come, I would realize one of the largest, most important dreams of my life.

The relaxed, almost Caribbean environment filled the small communities of Santa Elena and Flores. Everyone walked around in flip flops, shorts, and t-shirts. Sweat glistened on everyone’s foreheads. Tut tuts, or taxi-motorcycles, zoomed down the street, announcing their presence with their “tut-tut” sounding horns. Erick and I stopped to purchase ceviche from a small ceviche cart. The men frantically squeezed lime juice onto containers of shrimp, tomatoes, and onions, as they prepared the exotic treat. Containers of ceviche in our hands, we hopped back into the car and cruised across the causeway to the island community, Flores.

Flores, with its tin-roofed houses, was a quaint, tranquil community. Everyone sat in the shade, waiting for the midday heat to diminish with the night air. They greeted Erick as we pulled up to his home, a little brightly colored house. Inside, each wall was painted a cheery teal, orange, green, or bright blue. Estelita, Erick’s wife, immediately made me feel welcome into their home. Their casual, friendly joking helped me recognize that for the first time in Guatemala, I had a community and a home I could go to. Eagerly, we ate the cool ceviche before venturing out to the surrounding communities.

Marimba music pulsed through the air in San Jose, a quiet, sleepy community on the other side of the inlet from Flores. We wandered up to meet Doña Nelly, one of Estelita’s friends. She handed us refreshing glasses of soda, ice clinking against the edges of the cups. As we sat, enjoying her company, they began to joke that the ice in the cup was actually made from water from the lake. They explained, “You see, Nancy, once you drink the water from the lake, you’ll stay in Petén. You won’t want to leave. Look at us! We’re from Guatemala City. We drank the water and we will always stay in Petén. You’ve drunk the water now, too.” As I looked out at the lake, felt the heat in the air, and realized a sense of community stronger than I had experienced in two months of life in Guatemala, I immediately understand what they meant. Petén Itza had called my name and I would forever count the days until I returned to Petén.