Rachel Plassmeyer Bené | February 12, 2017
“Freddy! FREDDY!” Antonio’s voice jolts me from an accidental nap. Loud at first, it fades at the end as if he were falling over a cliff. Freddy picks up the walkie-talkie and says, “Antonio!” three, four, five times. No answer.
I am really awake now, sitting upright with my heart pounding in my ears. Oh God, I think, it’s happened.
For the past month I’d been holding my breath on our long drives across the Guatemalan countryside. In two white vans chauffeuring U.S. students, we wound around dark green mountains, dipped into chilly valleys, crossed bridges over roaring waterfalls. All without speed limits or guard rails.
Nine thousand feet above sea level, we’d race the chicken buses painted in crimson and orange and blue, packed full of tired locals looking through us. Our Guatemalan drivers would smirk as our eyes widened, playfully toying with us as we zipped through pedestrian towns, used to the speed and the shape of the streets. Pickup trucks teetered around, full of day fieldworkers standing in the bed holding onto the metal bar frame tenuously boxing them in. More than once a bus had pushed us to the edge of a shoulderless road, all passengers looking out the window down the cliff face while instinctively leaning the other way. Too much weight on one side would send us over.
Freddy turns our cargo van around, everyone silent. Antonio is his best friend. He’s leaning forward, hunched over the wheel and squinting. I look over my left shoulder at the teenagers in our back seat. I can feel their questions rushing toward me through their eyes, pressing the air against the windshield. We pass through a thick fog. We are in a cloud forest — close sister of the rain forest. We are in the highlands, west of Lago de Atitlan.
Nestled between volcanoes, the giant black lake was to be a weekend excursion for the high school students in the vans, part of their two-week service trip through an American adventure company. I was a mentor, a guide as they sorted through their feelings on abject poverty, what it looked like against their own comfortable, wasteful consumption, and what efforts their idealism would lead to back home. It was rewarding work. The group before this one had shown up, iPhones and Coach luggage in hand, demanding to know why their beds were so hard and where all the hot water was. By the end of their trip, these attitudes had been erased, if only in the moment: Many left a majority of their belongings behind with notes scrawled in Spanish and clearly defined instructions for me to give it all to a certain child at the orphanage.