“So this is Guatemala,” I said out loud to myself once the airplane stopped on the tarmac. “It’s beautiful.”
Even though it was January and cold in the Mountain West region of the United States where I had just vacated, it was sunny and warm here in Central America. Out the window of the airplane I could see palm trees and green grass across the landscape. I could see Hispanics walking around on the concrete with their ear protection and luggage carts. I could see that our plane wasn’t going anywhere.
“Sorry for the delay, folks,” the pilot’s voice came over the intercom, “but there is a severe weather warning in Guatemala City and we will need to spend some time here in El Salvador until the skies clear up.”
“So this is not Guatemala,” I said out loud to myself.
I took some Spanish in High School and spent a few months inundating myself with the language before leaving my American home. I thought I was at least ready to get by, but learning Spanish by talking to other Americans is not the same as trying to talk to native speakers, a truth that I discovered all too well once our plane eventually arrived at the Guatemala airport.
For some reason I was last in line out the half dozen other missionaries I had been traveling with. And for some reason I was the only one that the customs officials were trying to have a conversation with. I watched the other missionaries grow smaller and smaller as they walked away and I continued to try to communicate with customs.
“Blah blah blah blah blah,” is what they kept saying to me, and that’s a direct quote. That’s the only think I could hear them saying. “Blah blah blah blah blah.”
All I could do was to hold up my passport and say, “No entiendo,” which, of course, was my way of saying, “I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re trying to ask me.”
I’m not sure who was more frustrated, me or the customs people, but after five minutes that felt like five days his rubber stamp hit my passport and he sent me on my way to search for my traveling companions.
As I scurried around the busy airport, I finally spotted my crew, but before I could reach them, a short Guatemalan lady grabbed the handle of one of my bags and wheeled it the rest of the way to where the other missionaries were. At first I wondered if I should be worried that she was trying to steal my suitcase, but it became quickly apparent that she was just trying to help me out. Her intentions weren’t as altruistic as I hoped, though, because as soon as she dropped my bag near the feet of one of my friends, she turned back to me and held her hand out.
“No tengo dinero,” at least I knew how to tell her I didn’t have any money.
“Si,” she said, which of course meant that she didn’t believe me and that she wasn’t going to go away until I gave her something.
I really didn’t have any, though, and I had a really hard time turning someone away who was so persistent. Eventually, she gave up on trying to get currency and turned her attention to the things she knew I did have on me.
“Damelo,” she said, pointing to the little plastic turtle I had on a keychain ring attached to my backpack.
“You can’t have that,” I said in a pleading tone of voice, as if to beg her not to ask for anything more.
She turned her attention from one thing to another demanding that I give it to her until she was finally fed up with my selfish ways and she left. If I had any money on me, I might have given it to her. If I had anything on me that I was willing to part with, I might have given that to her. But missionaries don’t have many personal items and the little turtle on my backpack was a gag gift from my girlfriend, which was about the only thing that still existed from our relationship, and there was no way I was going to say adios to it.