Zanny Merullo Steffgen
Thoughts From Guatemala
I’m writing this by candlelight from my desk at my open-air casita on Lake Atitlan. On the lake, the few private boats that run at night are bringing people from town to town, or at least that’s what I think I see in the faint light from San Pedro and San Juan across the way. I hear only the occasional bird song and the sound of the lake lapping at the rocky shoreline. The purpose of this blog post is for me to work through the ideas sweeping through my mind–ideas about travel, writing, and phases of life. The purpose of this blog post is also to procrastinate working on my book. So please don’t feel obligated to keep reading unless you’re interested in my musings or interested in enabling this form of distraction.
Travel has shaped my life because I’ve never known a life without travel. And, as privileged as I am to say that (and, trust me, that’s something I dwell on a lot), I also know that my life might have looked very different had I not prioritized travel even when it seemed inconvenient or financially stressful. There’s a certain amount of trust needed for the kind of traveling I do–trust that I’ll have the money I need along the way, trust that I’ll make back the money I spend along the way, and trust that I’ll end up exactly where I need to be exactly when I need to learn a particular lesson. I’ve always counted on travel to transform me, and booked a trip knowing somehow that I would come back a little different than I left. Part of that involves trust in the person I am when traveling, which is really just the person I always am except maybe a little happier. Those of you who know me probably would agree that my main personality trait is being adaptable. I can blend into all sorts of realities while simultaneously finding the greatest comfort not in any one place, but within myself.
Sometimes I wonder, when I’m in social situations in the US, why I have such an aversion to slang. Or why I don’t seem to have very many strong opinions I like to talk about except the fact that life in the US isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Or why I never seem to know what’s going on in popular culture, or use the apps my friends use, or care about things like the latest great rap album or a particular brand of sneakers. This lack of attachment to what makes up daily life for so many of the people I interact with often causes me to sit in silence while others talk, letting my mind wander away from the conversation and into my own thoughts and questions. But what I’m realizing on my latest travels is that my way of being is actually what sets me up to blend into new worlds so easily. I am free from attachments to American life, and thus I am free to attach to whatever my reality is in the present moment. I look to those around me for cues because I know what it means to enter a new culture and be a respectful participant in it. I don’t follow trends because I know how flimsy and fleeting they are, and that there are different ones around the world and I can’t just subscribe to one. I don’t have strong opinions and I don’t like to contradict people because I want to be able to sit down with just about anyone from just about anywhere and carry on like friends. I don’t get angry with people because I see them as a product of their culture, whether that culture is one that’s familiar to me or not.
This theory of mine is forming as I pay attention to my new surroundings in Guatemala and the way I react to them. As usual, I have made a home here in just a few days. I already have my go-to tortilla spot, where I pay next to nothing for a paper bag of hot corn tortillas fresh off the griddle from some local girls who stand in their shop all day, forming the tortillas with practiced hands and tossing them quickly onto the griddle. To them, this process that’s done in rapid succession is nothing but a day’s work, but to me it’s absolutely mesmerizing. I already have my routine down (breakfast, coffee in the sun, swim, writing, lunch, yoga, meditation, writing, gym, exploration), I’ve mastered the few phrases I need to get by here, I’ve adapted to the Guatemalan way of greeting absolutely everyone, whether I pass them on the road, enter their shop, or simply make eye contact. I attempt to blend into the culture as I have everywhere else I’ve traveled. This doesn’t mean becoming a local or forgetting what makes me stand out, but rather adapting to the culture in such a way that nothing I do is offensive or marks me immediately as an outsider.
The other thing I’ve noticed thanks to the week I’ve spent in a new country, is that I’ve entered a different phase of life. When I was 19 and traveling solo through Europe, I made friends immediately as I sat down with travelers from all over the world in hostel common rooms and spent my nights with them in pubs, bars, and clubs. There we would drink to youth and dance to live music or sing karaoke, and suddenly the world felt much smaller. Maybe it’s because five years have passed, or maybe it’s because I’m married now, but I feel I’m in a much quieter phase of life. It’s been tough adjusting to that, knowing that, unlike most people my age, I no longer have any interest in drinking until the early hours of the morning with strangers in the way that used to bring me so much joy. I’m happy to greet my fellow travelers now, but I don’t feel the need to press on and hear their life stories anymore. I realized this when I went out for dinner with a group of people my age who had accompanied a high school friend of mine to this little town on the lake for the weekend. The goal of their evening was to get smashed, which they completed in an impressively short time, and I felt out of place. Out of place yet really comfortable with the place I’m in. Maybe it’s because I’ve found a deep connection with someone that I get to experience every day, and that’s why I don’t feel the need to force more connection. Or maybe I’m just burned out from years of meeting people I thought of as soulmates around the world and then releasing them back to the road and hardly ever seeing them again. Either way, I feel that I’ve changed, and there is both pain and relief in that.
I’m consciously taking a break from working on my book to write this blog post, because I simply need time away from it. Writing a book may sound like a romantic venture, but it’s really a roller coaster of emotions and rarely ever goes smoothly. This is especially true because I’m writing a memoir, which means revisiting moments from my past and trying to squeeze every detail out of them that I can. Some of those moments are tough and remain tough, some of them I have revisited too often already, and some of them are faint and faded now. Sometimes I sit down to write and the words just kind of come, I don’t know where from, and sometimes I sit down and I couldn’t even describe the scene in front of me. During those moments I go through words I’ve already written, and think about sentences, fix words here and there, and wonder if any of this will ever be seen by anyone else’s eyes, or if it even should be. Sometimes I literally stop writing in the middle of a sentence, either because I have no idea how it’s going to end or because I know exactly how it’s going to end and I want to leave that as a future starting place so I can get my momentum going the next time I sit down to write. Sometimes I take a break to read someone else’s book and I wonder: were they struggling like me? How long did it take them to get this phrase right? Did they question every single word in this chapter?
It’s helpful to me that, when I get up from my desk and head out into the world, that world is still unfamiliar. When I get up and go for a walk in Telluride, each route I could possibly take is so damn familiar that sometimes I think I’ve memorized the patterns of the leaves on the trees, or the cracks in the sidewalk, or each and every slat on each and every house on each and every street. Here, I can take a right instead of a left and see a road that I’ve never seen in my life. I can hop on a boat and visit a traditional Guatemalan town, where all the women wear those long, embroidered skirts I think are so beautiful and all the tuk-tuks are covered in stickers. I can sit in a café and eat something I’ve never tasted before and overhear snippets of conversation among expats or travelers. Or I can simply run down to the dock and slip into the cool water and float high above my worries and mixed up sentences and knots that have formed in my mind when it comes to what I want to say in my book. But, is that what I really mean? Will anyone understand this feeling? Is this thought that feels like a revelation to me actually obvious to everyone else?
For now, I’ll just keep writing by candlelight until it grows too cold to sit at my desk and I have to sneak my computer under the covers. And I’ll continue with my daily routine because it’s beautiful and makes me happy, and I’ll continue to observe what this new phase of life looks like and not force myself to be an earlier version of myself, and I’ll continue to be grateful I’m the kind of person who takes a deep breath and then books a plane flight even when it might not make sense. Because I’m already a little bit different than when I left, and I can’t wait for the thoughts that will cross my mind and the words that I’ll know and the habits I’ll have picked up by the time my travels take me back to Colorado, where I’ll adapt to the world there again just as I would do anywhere else.