Guatemala City has a pretty scary reputation and my flight was due to get too late at night for me to feel wholly confident about getting to the next safe city that evening.
I’d posted my plans on couchsurfing – a website for travellers – and got a mail back from a young Guatemalan guy who offered to pick me up from the airport, put me up at his family house that night and then find a bus for the next city in the morning. I know that will sound a little odd and more than a little crazy but I’ve stayed with people I met through the site before and I’ve been consistently surprised by people’s kindness to me rather than by any attempts to rob me or leave me in a shallow grave.
The guy who got in touch also had enough references and connections that he seemed like a considerably better bet than a dark night worried-wander through city I only knew well enough to know it was kind of dangerous.
I got through to the arrivals lounge in minutes, wondering whether the airport could really be so small. The automatic doors slid back, disgorging me into another new country, another bite of unknown waiting to be swallowed.
After weeks of Cuba’s breathless warmth, the air felt cold to the touch and I shivered in my thin cotton clothes even under the weight of my pack.
He was there waiting outside the airport, blind-date awkward and bashful. I gave him a nervous smile, mistakenly slid into the drivers side of his car and laughed a little longer than was strictly necessary. I was imagining threats everywhere, bogey men in every dark corner, but it turned out to be one of those nights that makes me desperately deeply in love with travel, in love with the way that the world can still take me by surprise.
My new friend, Francisco, took me to an Irish bar where we giggled and hummed our way through the chorus of Sweet Home Alabama. He said he would take me to the best place for good food in the city – it turned out to be the local branch of Taco Bell.
Globalization is a funny thing and it is often just when I feel furthest away from home that I find we are all more criss-crossed, more connected than I could have ever imagined. Francisco loved everything Mexican – and went as far to suggest independence had been Guatemala’s first big mistake! He reeled off a list of the British bands he liked and blushed when I quizzed him on the crush he had on a German girl he’d met on one wild night out in Macclesfield – a city not exactly known as the typical tourist heartland of the UK….
We ended the evening in a bar he described as just dangerous enough to be fun. I was told not to move a muscle whilst he went to the the toilet. A man, cradling a guitar, sat up on a broad shelf behind the bar, unleashing darkly beautiful somethings with his wildly flying fingers. Clusters of people sat tightly clenched around flickering flames that guttered and glinted on the crowded tables.
The walls mouldered with posters from a decades back. Jim Morrisson jostled Deep Durple for space. A sign above the door said simply ‘hippies use the back’. One small corner of one peeling wall was reserved for a Calvin and Hobbs cartoon that read simply ‘life is short, play naked’.
It wasn’t Guatemalan, wasn’t latin, wasn’t even Spanish, but somehow it made perfect sense.