I walk down the dim hallway dragging my luggage behind me. The instructions from the man downstairs are fresh in my head.
“Go up the stairs, through the living room, into the hallway. It’s the last door on your right. The door should be open.”
With a single, smudgy window at the end of the hall to light my path, I slow down my pace as I near the only open door. The smell of smoke and mildew hang in the air waiting for a new space to fill. My nostrils are that new space. I peak my head into the room. My eyes haven’t adjusted fully yet, but I see movement. A silhouette bent over what appears to be a pile of bags rises up.
“Hola!” the individual says, stepping closer, hand held out in a greeting gesture.
“Hola”, I reply. “I’m Josh”.
“No English” he says. He smiles and shakes my hand. “From Brazil”.
He is tall with brown, shoulder-length hair. His black flip flops, bare legs, and short, white skirt, contradict his red fleece, which, despite its bulkiness does not hide his bra. I can see him better now. Small lines and creases extend from the corners of his eyes and his gold-rimmed glasses. The stubble on his chin show signs of grey.
He points to himself. “Alex”. You?
“Josh”, I say again, but with more confidence and ease.
It’s good to actually connect with someone even though I’ve only been in Guatemala City for a few hours. I don’t know anything about this country, or this city for that matter. I hardly know the language and with the exception of making contact with my couch surfing host, Elena, I don’t personally know anyone in GuatemaIa. I look around. Where is Elena anyways?
My attention is drawn back to my new friend. Alex has a strong, calming presence. As my feelings of ease continue to rise, I feel an urge to tell him my story: that I blindly bought a one-way ticket to Guatemala after my teaching position in The Republic of Georgia was put on hold until January, and that I chose to travel to Central America for a few months instead of staying at home.
But the language barrier is wide, and I don’t have the energy to explain my story in faux sign language and strange gestures. I stay silent. I smile.
I follow him back to the living room. A tv, an old couch. and a small table moonlighting as Alex’s desk are the only furnishings that accompany the off-white, picture-less walls.
“De donde eres?”he asks.
I shake my head. “No hablas Espaniol”.
Alex points to his computer and walks over to it. He motions for me to come next to him. Like two campers around a wildfire on a cold night, we huddle, shoulder to shoulder around his computer using Google Translate to convey and exchange information from English into Portugese and vice versa. I laugh to myself as we type to one another. This is absurd, but it works. He chuckles as well. Maybe he feels the same? As we type, I come to find out that he is a fellow couch surfer in this house. I also find out he is a retired journalist who spent time in Florida and New Mexico. And interestingly, he is planning a motorcycle trip from New Mexico to Brazil.
“You’re crazy!” I proclaim out loud, instead of typing.
“No, not crazy” he replies, understanding my English.
I catch myself. “Sorry, not crazy… Just, just interesting. When will you do this trip?”
His blank stare in my direction reminds me to use the Google translation website. But I don’t bother to type that. I hold back a yawn. I didn’t go bed the night before.
He grabs a pack of cigarettes sitting next to his laptop on the table across from the couch.
“No, I’m fine. No gracias”.
I feel silly speaking in Spanish.
With every step more graceful than the last, Alex walks to the red, gate-style balcony door. I take a seat on the only couch in the room and open my laptop. He opens the door and faces outside. I search for the Wi-Fi. He opens the pack and removes a cigarette. His arms are crossed with his legs shoulder-width apart, putting most of the weight on his right side. With his back to the living room, he turns his head to the left, chin slightly raised, and eyes barley closed. He takes a long, deep drag. He turns his head back to the balcony blowing the smoke out into the Guatemalan air and away from the room. It’s as if each step in this process is a ritual; a ritual he’s done a thousand times to make sure every move is executed perfectly. With the door now open I can hear music, talking and laughter from the neighbors as cars race by. A chilly stream of air blows in through the door, blowing the smoke back into the house. The temperature outside has dropped.
“He has to be cold in that skirt”, I tell myself as I rub my hands and button my blazer.