The Road to Guatemala—and to Home | GeoEx
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The Road to Guatemala—and to Home

By Alex Yalch | June 16, 2022

GeoEx's Alex Yalch sitting on a deck at Lake Atitlan with his son

My son often asks if an animal is friendly or scary. If I tell him it’s scary, his first follow-up question is what will it do if he touches it? I could insert a flowchart to help illustrate the many paths these conversations can take, but the last question is usually how much it will hurt if it pinches, bites, stings, or hits him. It’s almost as if his three-year-old mind is making a calculation if the risk is worth the reward. I’m simultaneously in awe of his endless curiosity and fearful of how many future hospital visits we’ll make.

Prior to his first international trip, we read children’s books about our destination, Guatemala, where we would be spending three nights in Antigua and four at Lake Atitlan. We wanted to take Owen somewhere easily accessible to Americans, with no visas required, no malaria, and delicious chocolate, coffee, and rum. It also helped that Guatemala was more affordable than other Central America destinations. My wife, Teale, and I have traveled extensively together, but mostly with backpacks slung over our shoulders instead of a toddler, so this trip needed to be planned a bit differently.

One of the books included pictures of scorpions, and as much as Teale and I reassured him we wouldn’t see any, Owen was convinced otherwise. The books showed highlights of Guatemala, from the Santa Catalina Arch in Antigua to the Mayan ruins of Tikal, and its fauna, including leaf cutter ants, May beetles, jaguars, and of course, scorpions. We tried explaining to Owen that we wouldn’t have time to see everything, but every page inspired “oohs” and “aahs” and “We’re definitely going to see that!” We repeatedly attempted to manage his expectations without diminishing his excitement. Still, this cycle persisted for weeks leading up to the trip.

On the day of our departure, when Teale woke Owen up at 4:00 a.m. to head to the airport, he greeted her wide awake. “Is it time to go to Guatemala?” he asked excitedly. He got dressed and with his backpack secured and face mask donned, we began our journey south.

Alex's son holding his passport and boarding pass en route to Guatemala

Our connecting flight took us through Houston, where we ate blueberry muffins and drank orange juice while watching a wall of maneki-neko. Owen sat pointing to a different cat each time it waved, and at first his amusement was my amusement, but I found I was enjoying watching the waving cats just as much as he was–something I probably would have ignored without him.

Owen giggled at the turbulence as we descended into Guatemala, while murmuring “This is amazing,” in awe of the mountains and volcanoes he had seen only in his books. We landed in Guatemala City and slowly made our way to Customs and Immigration. With sleep and sugar levels dangerously low and Owen tired of waiting, he bolted for freedom. Teale followed in hot pursuit as Owen manically laughed into the unknown beyond. About five minutes later she returned with him in her arms. At no point during this chase had they been stopped, and they had made it all the way to the baggage claim area before Owen was corralled. We jokingly said that I should have just come along too and skipped all the formalities.

Being a father has given me a new perspective on and appreciation for my relationship with my dad. When I was about four years old, I decided I was going to run away from home, probably because my parents told me I wasn’t allowed to eat any more sugar for the day. I remember putting some clothes into a backpack and running out the door. Less than a block from our house, my dad ran up behind me, grabbing and slinging me over his shoulder, tickling my stomach. He didn’t yell or even address my attempt at freedom. He just took me home and we played together in our living room. I try to remember that now with Owen, that not every transgression needs to be dissected or discussed. Sometimes it’s better to simply show warmth, love, and kindness.

On our first full day in Antigua, we set out for a city tour with our guide, navigating the ancient cobblestone streets. Antigua is a beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Site, surrounded by mountains and several active volcanoes. We visited the Iglesia de San Francisco el Grande, Santa Catalina Arch, and Parque Central. Owen especially enjoyed chasing pigeons in the park. At first, I was hesitant about allowing him to send the grimy street birds soaring into the air, disturbing the peace and quiet of the morning, until I saw local children doing the same.

As Owen played, a man selling candy offered him some sugar-coated nuts. I insistently and fervently refused, believing this to be a ruse in which I’d be fleeced into overpaying for a sugary treat. As time passed and the man continued selling these bags, it became apparent that he was a visitor, like us, and that one of the other little hellions running around was his offspring–and that his offering had been genuine. I felt a little embarrassed, and appreciated his generosity (or perhaps pity).

As we made our way back to our hotel, we came across a sawdust carpet. These elaborate works are created by artists who dye sawdust different colors and then, using wooden stencils, bring them to life on the city streets. As the man worked diligently and meticulously, we asked him how long this piece had taken and how long it would be there. It had already been several hours, he answered, and it would be a few more until he was finished. He then laughed and said it would be gone shortly after that. It was Sunday, and Guatemala is a devotedly Christian country. As such, a parade would be coming through the streets after the service and within seconds, the carpet would be gone.

Cobblestone streets and sawdust carpet in Antigua, Guatemala

By this point Owen had moved several feet away from Teale and me, and we were concerned he might get to the carpet before the parade. We asked him to come closer, to which he defiantly said, “No.” Teale and I exchanged a somewhat panicked look and when I asked Owen again, he said, in a matter-of-fact way and with less attitude than normal, “I’m just looking at it.” We decided to trust him, and I’m glad we did. He was just curious, impressed by the carpet in his own way, wanting to look at it on his own. We walked back to the hotel for everyone to take a rest, and Owen seemed to have a little bit of a strut on the way back.

Around a decade and a half ago, when I was finishing my bachelor’s degree, I decided I was going to apply to the Peace Corps. My dad wasn’t shocked at this decision, but he was a little surprised. I had never been out of the country, and the farthest I’d ever lived from home was about two hours away. We were driving back from the mountains in Pennsylvania after a weekend trip when he finally brought up the subject, because I had recently been accepted. He expressed his concerns without being discouraging. I explained my own reasons for wanting to go, and afterward he sat silently behind the wheel for a few minutes. Then he said, “Ok, I trust you.”

That trust had begun a long time before that moment and had been built over decades, perhaps beginning with me as a four-year-old wanting independence, and him reluctantly allowing me to test the boundaries of his patience.

After a short rest in our Antigua hotel, we returned to Parque Central, to briefly launch more street birds into the air before enjoying a chocolate making class. The Mayans revered cacao, and the chocolate produced in Guatemala today is some of the best in the world. Owen didn’t care about either of those things, but he knew this activity promised sugar in his favorite form. We began by making our own milk chocolate bars, Owen and I filling ours with peanuts and topping them off with sprinkles. While those hardened in the refrigerator, we learned how ancient Mayans preferred to drink cacao, enjoying the bitterness and even adding chiles to it. Owen did not enjoy tasting this version, but he did like the other samples of milk and dark chocolate, made from different varieties and qualities of cacao.

Chocolate making class in Antigua, Guatemala

The next day we headed west towards Lake Atitlan, a massive volcanic crater surrounded by more volcanoes, rolling hills, and gorgeous flora and fauna. On the way we stopped at a textile shop where we learned about traditional weaving in Guatemala. The huipiles were bright and vibrant in color, expertly crafted with time and pride. Teale tried some on and graced us with a fashion show, while the elderly matriarch weaver glowed as each new piece was brought back to life upon hitting Teale’s shoulder.

Spinning yarn with a weaver in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

We also tried spinning the raw cotton into more usable thread, a task that seems to take generations to perfect but that Owen enjoyed, nonetheless. As we were leaving, we asked our guide if we could stop somewhere close for some food for Owen. The drive was about 3 hours, and a full belly might mean a nap in the van. As we discussed options, the matriarch returned and offered some homemade black beans and corn tortillas. They were simple and delicious, and once again I was enamored with the generosity and hospitality of the people here.

I was reminded of my own father and how generous he was with food, whether he knew you or not. Whenever we had a family gathering or even just one additional guest at our dinner table, the quantity available seemed to double. In summertime his garden produced more than our family could possibly consume, and he would visit neighbors with tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, peppers, and beets, asking if they’d like some. We lovingly teased him sometimes because he was the type of person who would talk to anyone, even if they weren’t interested–and as the years went on, he started doing this with his garden vegetables.

Once on vacation at the beach, he walked up and down the block offering vegetables to anyone who’d stop and entertain him. I imagine people must have thought he was crazy and were suspicious of his intentions.

We spent our mornings on Lake Atitlan kayaking on the calm waters, or visiting neighboring villages to see artists’ galleries, textile shops, and local restaurants. In the afternoons we lounged by the pool or in the lush gardens, filled with as many vibrant colors as the huipiles, which made the perfect backdrop for sipping mojitos with fresh mint–or in Owen’s case, juice made from local fruits. At no point did we see any dangerous scorpions, yet Owen was undeterred, looking under rocks and garden beds, hoping to get a glimpse of this alluring danger.

When we arrived back in Antigua, it was clear that Owen was over Guatemala. At one point a volcano erupted nearby, puffing plumes of smoke and ash into the air. When this was pointed out to Owen, he simply looked up and asked if he could watch a Fireman Sam episode. And to be honest, I was over Guatemala as well.

Two days before we’d left home, I’d found out my dad had cancer. I wasn’t sure if I should go on the trip or back to Pennsylvania to be with him and my mom. This situation wasn’t entirely unprecedented; when I was in Guinea via the Peace Corps 14 years ago, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. When I’d called and asked him what he wanted me to do, he told me to stay. We had always been close, and more importantly, honest with each other. We both cried and said I love you, and he told me if I came home now that would be worse than staying in West Africa. His diagnosis was serious, but not terminal, and we would have plenty of time later. He was right and I stayed.

This time, he again told me to go, even though we weren’t sure how much time there was left. He wanted his grandson to explore the world and didn’t want any of us to change our plans.

I read a book recently that asked the question, what do I want for my own son. This made me think about what my dad might have thought if he had asked himself that same question 35 years ago. I don’t know the answer, but I know the result. He gave me the confidence to run out into the world and explore and to not be afraid, because I always had somewhere safe to run back to. He gave me room to grow, to succeed, to make mistakes, and to learn from them. He taught me how to be generous and open to people and possibilities, and cautious when necessary. He instilled a resiliency to be OK even when he wasn’t there to protect me. I have confidence that I can give Owen these things because I was lucky enough to have someone show me how.

I wasn’t prepared to lose my father three weeks later, watching him pass away in a hospice bed after suffering incalculable pain from cancer that started in his lungs and spread throughout his bones. But he filled me with the best parts of himself, and prepared me to exist without him physically with me. It doesn’t eliminate the pain, but it does alleviate it, ever so slightly. That’s what I want for Owen–to know that he’ll be OK even when I’m not around, no matter how much it hurts.

While my dad and I didn’t travel the world together, he taught me how to explore, mostly within the Great Appalachian Valley. He gave me the opportunity to have a life privileged enough to fearlessly wander into unknown countries and cultures. With him I found the joy in exploring different paths, leading to new adventures, whether on the Appalachian trail, the cobblestoned streets of Antigua, or the shores of Lake Atitlan. I’m tremendously grateful to have shared those wonders with my dad, and to be continuing that journey now with his grandson.

GeoEx's Alex Yalch with his family in Lake Atitlan

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Do you have special memories of a trip with your dad? Or if you’re a dad, do you have special memories of a trip with your children? We’d love to hear your tale! Please share your Father’s Day memories in the Comments section below. Thank you!

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2 years ago

Thank you, Don, for the perfect timing of sharing this story which made me realize more aspects of my relationship with my own father just in time for Father’s Day.

2 years ago

A lovely travel log from a good father. Owen is a lucky kid! A nice tribute to Alex’s dad as we approach Father’s Day. Guatemala happens to be one of my favorite destinations, especially Antigua and Lake Atitlan. I yearn to return to that beautiful country.

As a sideline, Alex’s father and my father had something in common. They each told their kids that we are related to Pocahontas. That makes us cousins! Happy Father’s Day Alex and Don! I’ll be thinking of my wonderful dad that day.

Mr. Crow
Mr. Crow
2 years ago

Alex, when’s the book based on this blog post coming out? What a great read! It makes me want to visit Guatemala!

GeoEx eBook:
The Best of Wanderlust

An Anthology of Travel Stories
Edited by Don George