I am sitting in the airport in Guatemala City. It’s 3:30 in the morning and the McDonald’s in the food court is beginning to show signs of life, though it may be hours before the & Café opens (“bring home the sabor de Guatemala!”)and I can get a cup of locally-grown coffee. I have never been so early for a flight, but in order to get an extra day with friends in Rio Dulce and avoid the bus-hotel-taxi hassle in the city, I opted to hire a bus privado for a middle-of-the-night ride to the airport. During the day, with traffic or construction delays added in, it can take anywhere from 6 to 10 hours. Tonight, it took less than 5, though I don’t remember any of it, since I was asleep, sprawled out across a row of seats in the back. My flight doesn’t depart for another 8 hours but waiting to drive a few hours later would have meant a risk of missing the plane.
I just opened my friend Hagit’s kind parting gift, which made me cry, of course. It was a beautiful purse made from typical Guatemalan fabric, and inside, a folio of photographs—memories to take with me back to Florida.
Over the course of the last two weeks, she has folded me into her family, and I have become something more than the friend I was when I arrived. I came to help her with the birth of her fourth child, her first son, to stand in the place of her mother and sister who could not come from Israel. My last evening was spent celebrating Rosh Hoshana over apple crisp with the family and cruising friends while I held a sleeping newborn. It was a wonderful way to end the visit.
Planning a trip around the arrival of a baby, leaving my family for two weeks, and traveling from the Florida Keys to Rio Dulce, Guatemala: all these things are difficult. Without Jay’s willingness to take over school schedules and meal prep and drive me to and from Ft. Lauderdale, it would have been impossible. I arrived on the due date and then waited a week until little Cayo decided to join us. In between helping cook and clean, going to the doctor’s, and taking care of my sisterly duties (including being there for the birth), I was able to catch up with Wendel (and his sister Vivian), from my English class…
Go to Anna’s ukulele class—she is a Brazilian sailor who used to be in my ukulele class…
Shop in town and play dominoes with Darelle, my South African friend…
Go visit Jerry and Griselda and the 10 kids at Casa Agua Azul…
And hang out with Rudolph and Elisa of S/V Tulum III, cruising friends we met in Colombia a couple years ago. We also celebrated the 16th birthday of Hagit’s oldest daughter, Naomi, two days before her baby brother was born.
We went to the clinic in Morales a week after the due date. We took a colectivo, an inexpensive 45-minute ride on a mini-bus crammed full of people and air-conditioned by the wind. On the way, we noticed a slow-down as we passed through a village. Bystanders crowded both sides of the road, police were directing traffic, and there was a body lying on the sidewalk, half-covered by a sheet. We thought maybe there had been an accident. We proceeded to the clinic, where Doctora Ana Ruth checked the baby’s heartbeat, used the ultrasound to check amniotic fluid levels, and talked to Hagit about things she could do to speed the process along. I was there, in part, to translate. Dra. Ruth had good news: Hagit was dilated 5cm already, and the baby could arrive at any moment. She said she expected to see us again very soon, and we left. After lunch and cool drinks, we hopped back on a colectivo headed toward Rio Dulce.
Immediately, I knew this was going to be an adventure. Hagit and I squished into the front seat, where there was room for her belly, but the passenger door wouldn’t stay closed. Actually, I don’t think any door on that ancient Toyota van closed properly. Hagit took one look at the driver and whispered that she thought he had a crazy look in his eyes. And then I overheard the chatter between driver and money-collector. The road was closed because of a shooting (remember the dead guy?) and the bus was running off-schedule because they had to take the long-way-round. He began to make a series of rapid, jerky turns around sharp corners, bouncing over tumulos (speed bumps), and passing cars in narrow lanes. We implored him in Spanish to slow down—unless he wanted a baby born on his bus! When that didn’t help, we asked to be let off at the next esquina. Not wanting to lose the fare, he promised that we were almost out of the city and the ride would be smoother. Against our better judgment, we stayed on.
I have been on a lot of beat-up buses in the Caribbean with a lot of crazy drivers, but until that day, I had never really thought I might die on one. I was praying like crazy, trying to do yoga breathing to stay calm, and holding onto Hagit, who had a death-grip on the bar above the passenger seat. I suddenly found the situation comical and started to laugh hysterically—how did we get here, an American woman and her pregnant Israeli friend, hurtling down a pot-holed road past cattle trucks in Guatemala? Hagit joined me in my hysteria. And then something went clunk and fell onto the road behind us. The driver was forced to slow down. The chatter changed from how late they would be to la cruce (the turn to Rio) to how they were going to get the passengers onto other buses, and where they should stop. I breathed a prayer of thanks as the bus slowed dramatically. Thankfully, the driver chose a place to stop where we could sit in the shade. We clambered out of the front seat and waited for Peter to get out of the back. He had to climb out over a guy who had slept through the whole thing.
And, in the end, we did not die in a mini-bus on the road to Rio Dulce, and I did not have to help deliver a baby on said bus, or on the side of the road either (with nothing but hand sanitizer, a bottle of water, a clean shirt, and a pocket knife). We had time to make it home on another passing colectivo, take a shower, have something to eat, and pack a bag before heading back to the clinic that night. Perhaps that nerve-wracking ride was the straw that broke the camel’s back— a healthy 8-lb boy named Cayo was born at 2:30 in the morning after a 3-hour natural labor.
Having done it myself a few times, I can say with authority that Hagit is a childbirth champion. I accompanied the nurse when the tiny new human got his first bath and had the privilege of handing him to his happy mama. It was all well worth the wait.
The sky is beginning to pale behind the volcano, the coffee shop is opening, and in a few hours I will be returning to my home and family, heartful and happy.