Are you a fan of HBO’s Game of Thrones? If so, I have a stellar reccomendation for you. Be warned, it comes in the form of a book.
I know what you’re thinking. Reading is super lame. I couldn’t agree more. Why subject yourself to the written word when there are a multitude of Harambe and Pepe and Pawn Stars memes to scour on the interwebs? I get it, just hear me out.
The Name of the Wind is a fantasy novel by Patrick Rothfuss, the first in a trilogy, The Kingkiller Chronicle. It takes place in a land called Temerant and follows the story of a young, fiery, talented yet troubled, up-and-coming wizard named Kvothe. His journey takes him to a great many places. He encounters people, brutes, and beasts of all shapes and sizes. He is seldom in one place, often beset by challenges, tempted by his vices, trying to grow as person while grappling with his own questionable moral underpinning.
Rothfuss’s worldbuilding is in league with George R. R. Martin’s, as is his storytelling. I couldn’t put Name of the Wind down while traveling through Europe. Upon completion I immediately bought the second book, The Wise Man’s Fear, and tore through that as well.
I await Rothfuss’s third installment, having already endured waiting for Martin’s next book for years. Now my watch begins (insert pensive Jon Snow face).
A central theme in The Kingkiller Chronicle is the concept of fate. Often, Kvothe takes a risk and finds that fate leads him to certain people and places that add great value to his life. I’ve been trying to practice this in my journey, in attempt to be like Kvothe as much as possible. Confident. Daring. Adventurous. Proficient in arcane magic. (Haven’t had any success with that last one yet. Will update here accordingly).
Last week, fate brought me to Xela, or Quetzaltenango. I had made plans to hike the Acatenango Volcano outside Antigua and camp for a couple days but, as fate would have it, torrential rain forced me to change my plans. I exchanged my ticket for a shuttle to Xela, having heard it was the place to be for the Independence Day celebrations.
All the hostels in Xela were booked due to the influx of people for the festivities, so at the last minute I opted for Airbnb. I had used the service before in places like Puerto Rico, Oslo, and Rome, all pleasent experiences. But my time in Xela was far and away better than any accomodation I’ve ever had, beyond just with Airbnb.
That first evening after some confused walking through the city I arrive, exhausted, to Sergio’s house. I am greeted warmly by my host. He is all smiles; I immediately take a liking to him. He flicks on the Redskins game per my mention and we begin to get to know each other.
A former finance professional of 20 years, Sergio has been hosting students from Guatemala and other parts of the world for several years. His place is one of learning and cultural exchange. He speaks patiently with me and we are able to communicate comfortably in Spanish. I thank him in advance for practicing with me while I stay.
Minutes later, he serves up some hot dinner at his kitchen table. The delicious combination of eggs, beans, tortillas, fruits, and bread makes up for the embarrassing Redskins loss minutes before.
I am joined by Sergio and some of the young Guatemalans staying with him. I try to keep up with the tableside banter but sometimes the conversation gets away from me. Sergio is conscious of this and graciously ropes me back in with slower talk, sans slang.
I meet Irene, or “Irene del Aire”, as Sergio calls her. (“Irene of the air”, not sure what this is in reference too, but it ties in nicely with the themes of air and fate and shit).
A Spaniard, Irene has been living in Xela for two months, working for an NGO. Her and I bond over lovely Salamanca, Spain. She attended university in the city for four years and I studied abroad there in the summer of 2010. We exchange fond memories of the campus, clubs, and the world cup. We never met despite being at the university at the same time. Fate did the job on the other side of the world. Her and I practice English and Spanish throughout my time in Xela.
My days are filled with such interactions, both in and outside of Sergio’s house. Sergio is more than happy to help me with sightseeing and navigating the city. Aside from the landmarks in my last post, Sergio also suggested I travel to Zunil and spend an afternoon at the Fuentes Georginas (Georgina Fountains).
After walking around Zunil, a bumpy 8km uphill tuk-tuk ride, and a brief trek through the misty mountain air, I arrive at the fountains. They are a series of natural pools, each with varying temperatures, fueled by hot sulfer springs. The destination is made more ethereal by the cascading vines, ferns and flowers adorning the mountainside, plus a thick, mysterious fog that envelops the pools and walking trails.
I have Sergio to thank for a pleasent, relaxing afternoon at the fountains. A much needed reprieve from the constant movement necessary for solo travel.
This is what Irene calls me after we’ve gotten to know each other well enough to throw insults, which happens rather quickly.
“Pinche” is Mexican slang meaning “useless” or “trash”, and “Gringo”, much used around Central America, refers to the white man. She calls me this, endearingly I suppose, when I mess up in Spanish. And she introduces me this way to some Guatemalans that we meet at a concert outside Xela, the night before Independence Day.
I return the insult regularly.
The concert proves to be a marvelous spectacle. No one has work or classes the next day, so the crowd is rowdy and full of energy all night. Irene and I are joined by her two friends, Glendy and Benjamin, and we make plenty of other friends. We drink, dance, and at midnight the craziness escalates as Independence Day has officially arrived.
This is Irene’s first time outside of Spain, on the other side of the world as it were. I admire the risk taking; she is clearly making the most of her first experience abroad. I’m glad fate introduced me to her.
Over my days in Xela, meals at Sergio’s place continue to be places of awesome cultural diffusion. Sergio also is the proud owner of an energetic little dog, Whiskey, who I featured on my instagram. Adorable dog and free meals and conversation in Spanish…did I mention how much I love Airbnb?
I talk with his son Javier here and there, he mostly is out with his friends due to the festivities. He is pictured on the far left at the top of this post, with Sergio sitting to the right of me. The morning after the concert, the actual independence day, both Javier and I are nursing hangovers while wolfing down breakfast. He suggests I check out the “Feria” (fair).
Fate would smile on me again as I grab a shuttle several blocks from Sergio’s house and am joined by a group of gregarious Americans.
Packed to the brim, we are all stuffed inside the tiny shuttle. We are forced to sit on the floor or hang out the open door for the bumpy 15 minute ride. Having spoken almost entirely in Spanish for the past four days, hearing English again is a breath of fresh air. The group is from all over the country, Michigan, Florida, Illinois, South Carolina. They are all here to study Spanish, but tonight the plan is to have a fun evening at the fair.
They invite me to join them and, much like Kvothe would, I happily integrate into their traveling troupe for the night. One of the girls adds that it’s “better to have another guy around” referring to the dangers of public areas.
The fair is teeming with people. Several dozen carnival games and rides are erected in a large field outside of Xela. Shrieks of joy and terror fill the air. A thousand smokey and savory smells waft from the many vendors selling everything from tacos to pancakes and ice cream.
Endless laughter. Flashing lights. Dizzying rides. Tequila shots. The whole thing is a sensory overload. And a most excellent night.
Of course, we attract our fair share of attention. Locals just come up and talk to us, asking where we are from, what we’ve been doing in Guatemala.
I love seeing other Americans traveling the world. Too many back home don’t have the urgency to get out and see the rest of planet earth. Talking with these folks it seems like they have gotten much out of their experience in Guatemala. I get some great tips from some of the guys, Nick and Page, who have been elsewhere in Central America and even some places in Southeast Asia.
As fate dictated, a wonderful experience in Xela began in the home of a stranger. I left having lived in a local residence, broken bread with some amazing people, attended fantastic festivities, met fellow traveling countrymen, and enjoyed many intensive Spanish sessions.
Fate is not always a kind thing, to me or to Kvothe. But in the end it always seems to work out.
For your next trip, consider Airbnb. And consider picking up Name of the Wind, if you’re a fantasy fanatic like me. (If you truly can’t bear to read, Lionsgate has a TV show, movie, and video game in the works!)