It’s been a long time coming, this family trip to Guatemala. 19 years, minus four months, for Magdalena, 15 years, minus six months, for Teo—my two children, who were born here, and whose birth families most likely have lived here for generations, and most likely live here in some configuration still.
Over the course of our adoption process, my husband Greg and I visited Guatemala four times between 1998 and 2001. Each time carried a slightly different tone and tenor, color and energy, at least for me. But there was an essential unity underlying the trips. We entered this country in order to build our family. If we travelled, and we did, it was in order to understand something of the culture, traditions, history, and geography that composed our children’s first home.
This time is different. This time I often find myself standing back, absorbing my children as they absorb this place in all its variety. This is not to say that my experience is a passive one. Not in the least.
The initial impact of this trip on me is so evident as to be laughable. “The art of losing is not hard to master.” Indeed, Ms. Bishop. You got that, and so many other things, right. We’ve only been here five nights, but so far I have lost or left behind a credit card (for good), a bag containing recently purchased contact lens solution and decongestants (temporarily, thanks to a shopkeeper), a bag containing a recently purchased souvenir (temporarily, thanks to a shopkeeper), my phone charger (for good), keys (repeatedly), my razor (for good), my way (repeatedly), my appetite (more often than not). I may be standing back, observing, but that’s not to say I’m immune to events and their related emotions.
The first night we returned to the Casa Grande, the hotel in Guatemala City where we first met and held our children as babies. We stayed in the same room where for the first time in my life I wept for joy, cradling Magdalena. We stood outside the room on the same little terrace where I first rocked Teo to sleep. We ate in the same dining room, tipped the same impassive waiter, talked with Gloria, the same gracious concierge.
Nothing and everything had changed. The place, down to the very last chair, the very last lush trailing vine, looked exactly the same, except for the fact that during our past visits, the tables and rooms and hallways were filled with tourists, business people, and new parents and their children experiencing various and ever-changing degrees of elation and distress.
Now we found the hotel empty but for its few employees and the ghosts of all the people we encountered there before. Adoption, never a word indigenous to the languages found in this country, has ceased—for good reason in some cases, and, some would say, to ill effect. (If you haven’t seen the movie Ixcanul, which explores the rampant corruption and violations that occurred during many so-called relinquishments, I encourage you to do so.) Violence, most particularly in Guatemala City and on the country’s borders, has increased, and that’s saying a lot for a country that has suffered horrific violence over the course of its history. The upshot: tourism is floundering, and heightened governmental corruption, again, in a country where corruption has been mostly the norm, has dampened international business opportunities. Even beautiful Antigua, where we spent our first two and a half days, post-Casa Grande, seemed a little the worse for wear. I can’t stop thinking about the complicity and culpability of the United States in all this.
Now we are in Xela, where, after Magdalena and I return to the States at the end of August, Greg (who has already been here for 3 weeks) and Teo will remain until the third week of October, working on a photography project, helping as they can, learning what they can, experiencing life here. Like the rest of my family, I’m attending a language school in Xela, studying Spanish one on one with the same teacher for five hours a day. Right now, in fact, I’m sitting at a table in a café writing this while Teo works on his Spanish homework across from me. He looks up, laughing, and announces that he has written a sentence about his friend, who is short. The operative word is “bajo.” He seems delighted with his sentence. In fact, except for feeling “salty” about having to spend more intense time in school after having just completed an entire year of high school physics in six weeks, he seems pretty much delighted, or at the very least chill, about everything. Magdalena, so far, has been pretty much the same. Their resilience astonishes me. But then, it always has.
In the two weeks we will leave this city, a crossroads for diverse Mayan communities, a bustling, charged place, second only in size to the capital, and travel to Lake Atitlan and Tikal, and then on to Belize. I will try to write again here, if I can find the words.