“Her palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy
There’s vomit on her sweater already, hotel spaghetti
She’s nervous, but on the surface she looks calm and ready to drop bombs”
You know you’re in trouble when Eminem lyrics start sounding a little too close to home. That’s right: I’m a big bag of anxious. I’ve seen 4 kids through 38 (count ’em) airport check-ins/delays/flights/passport controls (‘Ma’am: please hold up the little one that looks like a frog’), force-fed them 390 foreign meals in 9 countries, tried 150 different unsuccessful approaches to home-schooling, all while navigating disease, slips, falls, bites, sunburn, loss, fights, assorted low-level whingeing. Anxiety is coming at me from Twitter, Facebook, email, handy printouts of the New York Times that hotels leave at breakfast: School Kids Already Grieving Friends Forced to Prove They’re Not Being Paid! Ice in Bering Sea Halves in Two Weeks! SYRIA. SYRIA. SYRIA. And then there’s the usual background hum of Plastic Pollution, Air Pollution, Russian Facebook Pollution, Ageing, Microscopic-Yet-Monumental Home Renovation Decisions, Home-Being-Not-The-Country-It-Once-Was-Because-BrexitShambles. All in all, I’ve got to be honest with you, I’ve relaxed more during root canal than this trip. Yes, I know. Are your big fingers struggling with the clasp on that atomically small violin?
Partly it’s an age thing. The early 40s are the ‘B’ of LBGTQ: you most definitely have a foot in two camps. You’re bi-aged; bi-annual; binary; Buy One Get One Free. My friend Fae described it beautifully, thus: ‘I can still see my youthfulness and it’s almost within reach’. Well my youthfulness and I got on different planes somewhere around Osaka and I haven’t seen the minx since. And so it was we rocked up at a school in a little village called Jocotenango, Guatemala, so frazzled and frayed from a 3am till 11pm journey from Buenos Aires the previous day that I could barely walk. I was sick as a dog, flu-y, achey, shaky, breaky: all the self-pity. I had to come though. We sponsor 21 students through their schooling at Education for the Children and even though they all write a beautiful letter each year, we’ve never visited. It’s a private charity school that takes only the very poorest kids from the surrounding area and this was a normal busy day.
Most of the children live in a favela on the hill overlooking the school, where families of 6, 7, 8 and more live in a single room, coathanger-wired to the mains, water a trudge away. Guatemala’s done much to bridge the gap between rich and dirt-poor since Adam and I last visited 16 years ago but there are still many kids who can’t afford even the state-funded schools here, where parents are frequently hit up to pay for supplies, food and transportation. EFTC covers everything and throws in pastoral care and counselling on top: sadly, domestic violence is almost the norm in these families.
It’s amazing how quickly your rich white girl flu evaporates when a group of children hold up a sign thanking you for slipping them enough cash to go to school. A few were still studying there but most of our kids had taken the morning off from university or training to welcome us, including Mariela here, studying for a degree in Psychology.
We stayed in a house in Antigua, a few miles from Jocotenango, a bustling and lively Unesco World Heritage site packed with historical treasures and blessed with a full complement of American fast-food outlets, all tastefully hidden behind plain walls. It would be the perfect gap year town to come and learn Spanish. If you’re in the market for such a jaunt, I couldn’t recommend volunteering at EFTC highly enough.
And learning Spanish would certainly have been smart in advance of our stay. Instead, my 6 words of the language were pressed into service the next morning as we hiked up Pacaya volcano, which last erupted in 2014 and frequently lets out rumbles and puffs of steam (know the feeling) as you climb it. The kids lucked out and got horses but I’d learned my lesson from the previous day’s rigorous humbling and didn’t moan or whinge as I hauled my ageing ass up the lava field, despite the fact I REALLY wanted to. Roasting marshmallows in the lava at the top was a nice touch: the odd massive sugar injection never hurt anyone. Except diabetics.
Guatemala was a flying visit with a mission and a mission was accomplished. But hot on the heels of Mission HeadOutOfAss arrives the self-destructing tape recording that offers up a new one: Mission ChillTheFuckOut. Adam thinks I should put down my phone and stop reading the news but that’s a bit like asking a dog to stop licking it’s balls. It shan’t be happening any time soon. No, I’ve just got to take it all a bit more strategically and learn that if you want to stand the heat, you gotta get a big rotating fan to put in the corner of the kitchen. If you want to lose yourself in the moment, you gotta get over the feeling you’re losing more than you can spare already.
“The soul’s escaping, through this hole that is gaping
This world is mine for the taking
Make me king, as we move toward a new world order”