All the trips I have had the chance to embark on changed me in some kind of way; this one did so like never beforeInès Magré

Guatemala - A country you might have never heard of or, conversely, images of corruption, mass exodus to the US and drug trafficking come to mind. After intense negotiations with my parents, the luck of open European borders and a slightly insane friend who agreed to come with me, I boarded a flight to Guatemala City in March, partly to go visit my brother in the country he now calls home, mainly to go on a backpacking adventure in a destination I was warned of in the weeks preceding takeoff.

“The most meaningful connections were undoubtedly with the locals”

After weeks of lockdown, depressive episodes and grief, I emerged on the other side of Lent term with extremely high hopes for this trip. They were all blown away. The natural beauty of Central America is unparalleled; natural pools through which flow turquoise cascades, volcanos stacked one after the other on lakes, Mayan ruins, and colourful houses all perfectly harmonised, the only positive remnants of the colonial era. But it wasn’t just the beauty of the country that took my breath away. I don’t doubt that any first backpacking trip is exciting, slightly terrifying and extraordinarily memorable, but as we were stranded in the jungle with no organised transport for two days, and decided to embark on a twelve-hour trip on the infamous chicken buses, I couldn’t help but feel this was an elevated experience. Granted, not the comfiest. Picture an old rehabilitated American school bus, filled with wide-eyed locals at backpackers who’d venture on their public transport, through the capital which sees an average of one hundred murders per week and, most importantly, half-broken speakers blasting reggaeton for the duration of the journey. And all that the day of a food poisoning - truly an experience like no other.

Some obvious benefits of choosing an off the beaten path destination are the lower costs involved, and even more incredibly, the range of people this attracts. From college dropouts who’d caught the travel bug and worked odd jobs to stay on the road, to burnout business owners who’d decided to take their lives down another path, to full-blown hippies living here for years, and everything in between, the stories we’d hear after a yoga session, on taxi boats, or exploring caves, were a fundamental part of the experience. The most meaningful connections were undoubtedly with the locals. An insight into the workings of a Guatemalan family, being adopted as their “hija gringa”, cooking, laughing, debating with them, was a privilege that no five-star hotel could rival. It’s one thing to study the politics, sociology and anthropology of different places, it’s another to hear about real families being torn apart by revenge murders, the witness of kidnappings or corruption. The shiny glimmer of the eternal spring sunshine on the Lake Atitlan sparkles differently when you get even the smallest of understandings into the workings of a country.

“Embracing adventure means embracing all the unexpected, beautiful and crazy things life throws at you”

To describe the last day of my trip is as difficult as it is insane. Standing on top of the tallest volcano in Latin America after an eight-hour hike, looking straight at a volcanic eruption a bird’s flight away and listening to our guide’s deportation story by a makeshift fire.

To hear a stranger open up so vulnerably about the injustice and lack of humanity they faced, yet remain grateful for the opportunities which allowed him to provide a roof for his family was like a needle piercing straight through my bubble of privilege. What for a US judge was an ‘illegal alien’ who’d entered the country with a runaway convict’s documents (without his knowledge), is to me now the father of a friend, the bravest man I have ever met, a victim of the US justice system who didn’t receive legal aid in a language he spoke or understood and who worked three jobs from four in the morning to midnight every day for years in order to give his family a glimmer of hope in a country recovering from Civil War. Of course, not everyone gets to meet the people behind the harrowing pictures covering our news stories, and there is still so much I am so ignorant about, but one thing this encounter taught me is that worldviews need to be built on compassion, empathy, and listening to one another.


Mountain View

On... Alignment

All the trips I have had the chance to embark on changed me in some kind of way; this one did so like never before. Embracing adventure means embracing all the unexpected, beautiful and crazy things life throws at you, listening instead of talking, making connections so much deeper than you thought yourself capable of. I love the idea of Berlin, Prague and Barcelona as much as the next person but, whether you are sitting on a refund from that cancelled interrailing trip, or daydreaming of a post-graduation gap year, why not try somewhere a little bit more rogue? The rewards in the shape of a thousand vibrant memories will be beyond your wildest dreams.