Before departing for Guatemala back in May, I had never travelled outside of the United States except for a few brief visits to nearby Canadian provinces. I have always felt a deep desire to travel abroad, particularly to faraway and exotic locations. Accordingly, I’ve long held onto the notion that I’d someday fulfill the dream of taking a transoceanic journey to some remote, extremely foreign environment for some kind of as-yet-unrealized adventure, but it always felt like a pipe dream or some kind of bucket list item.
That being the case, it was a surreal and exciting moment when I emerged from the plane in Guatemala City’s international airport. I realized that this was the first time that I’d set foot on soil outside of North America; that I was somewhere novel, and different; that this was the first place I’d been where my language wasn’t primary. I was relieved to be finished with the monotony of the airports and excited to get to Antigua, the city where I’d be studying Spanish for the next two weeks.
In the weeks leading up to the trip, I fielded countless questions from friends and family, but by far the most common was, “Are you nervous?” They would ask about the food, my safety, poverty, and staying with a host family. I answered honestly: I really wasn’t apprehensive about anything. I am not the least bit xenophobic or jingoistic, and as an Anthropology student I have a higher than average degree of cultural relativism.
Although I didn’t know exactly what to expect from the trip, I felt that I had been well prepared and oriented for what was to come. Nevertheless, anyone inexperienced with traveling outside of their natal country will go through a period of transition. One is forced to acclimate to range of novel stimulus modalities, necessitating a period of adjustment that can be pleasant, unsettling, or both.
The symptoms that accompany this are part of a condition that psychologists have termed “transition shock,” colloquially known as culture shock in the specific case of adjusting to the unfamiliar landscapes, traditions, and social norms of foreign countries. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t experience this to some degree.
Although it wasn’t severe by any means, I did find myself going through a few of the typical stages of transition shock. It started with the excitement that accompanies an arrival in a new and foreign place, but quickly deteriorated into a set of both psychological and physiological symptoms.
I can’t define any specific catalysts for this. There was nothing overly traumatic or difficult to adjust to; I believe it was simply the unfamiliar environment and the overwhelming level of sensory input that accompanied my arrival. This, along with the stress that I felt in regard to the classes, busy schedule, and unfamiliar social norms, produced symptoms that included nausea, anxiety, mild depression, regrets about my decision to study abroad, and mild homesickness. It didn’t help that I was coming down with some kind of upper respiratory infection that I’d picked up before I left the United States.
Arriving in Antigua, I was overwhelmed by the beauty and uniqueness of the city. Due in part to its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, its architecture is composed entirely of the Spanish colonial style. The UNESCO regulations put in place to preserve its historical presentation and cultural importance impose strict guidelines on any new construction.
All of the city’s edifices, except for a few governmental buildings, churches, historical structures, and the central cathedral, are less than two stories in height. Most of the houses and other buildings replicate the overall colonial city structure on a smaller scale by incorporating a square open garden in their centers. These tropical gardens are often stunningly beautiful, exquisite masterpieces of urban horticulture. Bordering the city and dominating its horizon are the monumental eminences of volcanoes enveloped by a sheath of verdant greenery and ringed by clouds and mist.
Anywhere one goes in Antigua, whether along its cobblestone streets or in its plazas, parks, houses, or gardens, one is treated to a polychromatic spectacle. It is a vibrantly colorful place. One of my first and most indelible impressions of Guatemala was just how colorful it was, both literally and figuratively. The flora and fauna, houses, cars, intricately painted “Chicken buses,” and the technicolor embroidered outfits of traditional indigenous women all add brightness and color to the dazzling landscape.
Furthermore, the country’s long, turbulent history and cultural richness add another layer to the experience of Guatemala. Having endured multiple socioeconomic upheavals and cultural shifts, including the collapse of the Classical Mayan Empire, the invasion, annexation, and subsequent exploitation by colonial European powers, several dictatorships, a protracted civil war which included periods of military-imposed genocide, and modern globalization, Guatemala is a deeply textured nation, with numerous ethnological and religious influences melding into a unique cultural manifestation.
Guatemala has always been, and continues to be, a country in flux. This, along with the echoing reverberations of past societal convulsions and cultural interchanges, is evident throughout Guatemala in all aspects both physical and intangible.
When I arrived in Antigua, for instance, I immediately recognized a palpable sense of fusion and contradiction: Mayan and Spanish, ancient and novel, opulence and poverty, traditional and modern, indigenous and European, globalized and local. It is expressed by the food, architecture, traditions, religion, dress, and social norms. I had never experienced anything quite like it. Although the United States is considered to be a melting pot of ethnic diversity, a variety of factors, including capitalism and especially materialism, have produced a homogenized cultural lacking in the tradition and richness that make places like Guatemala so colorful and unique.
Adding substantially to the color and vitality of Guatemala’s culture are its diverse and welcoming people. When I finally made it to my residence in the late afternoon on my first day, I was greeted by a warm and accommodating host family. The eight-member extended family was comprised of an aging but lovely matriarch named Consuelo, her daughter, her two sons along with their spouses, and her two adorable grandchildren.
By the time I was settled into my room on that first night, I was beginning to suffer the full effects of my progressing illness that I’d imported from Western New York, and although I hadn’t yet realized it, the symptoms of transition shock were beginning to set in. Nevertheless, Consuelo’s nurturing kindness played a large role in the speed with which I overcame the transition shock and my overall enjoyment of the trip, which would end up being one of the greatest and most personally valuable experiences of my life.