Reportage / 28 July 2019

The Odyssey of a Lonely Woman 100 Years Later, Part 1

A Disorderly Ride Blessed by Our Lord Jesus

In November 2019, a century will pass since Alma M. Karlin took on her grand voyage around the world. Eight years of Colombian dreams, as she called her adventure herself, this petite Slovenian writer. A woman of enormous intellectual strength, but not much physical power, followed the traces of her illusions all over the globe until her very last myth about the nature of life was demolished. Her desire to explore the globe fully, with all five senses, led her to overcome difficulties not many women of that time could endure. But her need for creative expression was more prominent than fear, and a persisting feeling of loneliness liberated her from all the attachments that bind most people to the ordinary. Many great works were born out of these adventures Alma collected. The iconic Odyssey of a lonely woman, where the author not only shares impressions of the places she visits but her internal struggles, too. 

I can't get Alma's image out of my mind when, almost a hundred years later, I embark on my own version of the solitary journey. Fragments of similar feelings touch through the distance of time, the same expectations, and genuine excitement over the idea of venturing into the unknown. Alone, independent and self-reliant. The urgency to prove something to yourself as well as others, maybe to society, directly or discreetly subjugating its members. While a lot has changed in a century, some things remain unchanged – a woman alone still presents a certain kind of a threat. 

The wait for a ride to Milan and Trieste, where my journey to Guatemala really begins, caters to a cold January rain and a desperate need to stay in my comfort zone. Passing houses, I observe through a wet car window, look inviting, any idea of home sounds better than the expanding awareness of unfamiliarity that awaits. The memory of the desire to ‘just go’ that led to this point doesn't help ease the crushing anxiety. 

An old Asian couple, none of them speaking any of the common languages, sit beside me on an eleven-hour flight to Panama City. Their appearance of being entirely out of place, unsuccessfully trying to activate a video monitor and find their safety belt, corresponds well with the unsettling desolation of my own. The wife compares her miniature palm with my bigger one and giggles. It's obvious they are not used to being around different races. They insist on sharing their meal with me, not knowing my stomach is tied in nervous knots. Cheese and bread they give me to go. While one of them sleeps, one gently covers the other with blankets. Still not being able to sleep, I feel safe, too. 

Arriving at the new city in the middle of the night is the worst idea of them all, but a low fare traveller can not negotiate. Streets in Antigua, Guatemala are pitch dark and quiet, cobbled roads around low buildings do not resemble a portrait of the cosmopolitan mecca described in travel guides. Opening morning on the new continent reveals the town's distinctive personality. By far the most touristic city in Guatemala almost feels like a movie set, full of crumbling colonial churches, stone walls, blooming trees, and a perfectly square architecture plan. Patisseries, hip restaurants, and clothes shops fill most corners of the city, surrounding convenience taking the edge off the intimidating idea of an utterly foreign land. Only tiny human beings, dressed in characteristic colourful clothes, reveal the fact that this is not another neat European town. Women with black braids, wearing huge baskets on their heads and a child or two around their body, seem to live a parallel life. I try to follow their footsteps, soon leading me far out of public view. 

My first encounter with the tropics a few days later takes place in Monterrico, a small Guatemalan village on the Pacific coast. A feverish night justifies a tropical prenotion about the oppressive heat and dissolving boundaries. With my feet firmly buried in hot black sand I observe fellow travellers around me. Four female warriors, each with her own life story, comparing tattoos and voyages. We have come a long way, along the coast of our upbringing, with many promises set aside, only to realise that there is really no one to rely on but ourselves. So we go and inquire into the last detail of the cosmos, every inch and corner, previously – for many still – forbidden to us. At no point in history were there so many women travelling alone as there are today. The road which Alma and her predecessors paved embraces many females like us. Fortunate enough to have this chance, but adequately humble to know this time is a grant that shouldn't be taken lightly. 

The road to Quetzaltenango, a high altitude town up in the Guatemalan highlands, is bumpy, curvy and does not pass quickly. The temperature drops fast. Driving through thick clouds, I question my decision to explore the land entirely. Why not stay on the beach forever and decompose into a typical beach bum? The idea crossed my mind several times throughout my journey, I must admit, hiding in shame before Alma's ascetic ghost. 

Cold conditions up in the mountains do not affect tiny women in colorful clothes enough to abandon plastic sandals, bought at the local market. Here, in Xela, as the town is called by the residents, one can admire the real face of Guatemala, with all its indigenous features. Working with the women from the local weaving cooperative, the countenance of small braided females in woolen skirts becomes much clearer. Ugly recollections of the civil war, which led to genocide, are not the only thing that carved their appearances. Ongoing institutional racism is an everyday fact all over the country. 

Shades, varying from soft pastels to vibrant hues, transform the graveyards of Latin America into eerily appealing places. An endless array of plastic flowers, ribbons and notes convert death into a friend who keeps the loved ones until next time. There is no other choice in a place where the majority of the population lives far below the poverty line, wholly excluded by the government.  

The infamous chicken buses function as the perfect symbols of the economic climate in the area, vehicles too shabby for the modern world but good enough for Guatemalans. Well-worn but picturesque schoolbuses, imported from the USA, roam along cracked roads without any visible speed restrictions. Wooden benches give enough space for four people, if there is a need and, usually, there is one. But with the cheerful music playing on the radio, and street vendors selling salty fried plantains through the windows, nothing is to criticise. Firmly holding to indispensable Dramamine and anything attached within my range, I decide that I like the disorderly ride blessed by Our Lord Jesus – as written on the driver's window. 

The decision to hike a volcano came to fruition even before my departure, but hung above me for almost three months. The dread of walking uphill with a considerable backpack and sleeping out in the cold is not something I am used to, not to mention enjoy. First ascend to San Pedro, just a few days after an unfortunate encounter with stomach bacteria, encourages the impression that my body is not as feeble as I thought it was. A real challenge of hiking Acatenango, a sleeping beast right next to raging El Fuego, is another milestone I set for myself. A blend of physical exhaustion and fumes overwhelmed to the point of insomnia. Drained but stimulated, I lay by the fire, among a group of local indigenous guides, telling each other stories about the deadly fire giants that surround us. They leave me out of their conversation. A woman silently watching blazing eruptions is better left in peace. 

Beating drums of the marching band, playing funeral marches during the week of Semana Santa, combines seamlessly with trembles of the Earth, still echoing in me. Getting lost in religious processions, I try to find some solid ground to stand on, being far away from everything I know, but still not far enough to leave the mental shackles I built with my own hands. When a resurrection finally arrives on Easter Sunday, I have no choice but to believe in fresh beginnings. 

Before a journey deep into the Guatemalan jungle, in a little store in Flores, I notice a small jade statue of a jaguar. I know now what the figure represents in Mayan culture: A distinctive feminine energy, a creature of the night, which gives life but also ends it. Being born on the day of the jaguar, accordingly to the Mayan calendar, I find these characteristics strangely familiar. I buy the figurine to not forget who I am again. 

An unexpected encounter with one of the women I met on the shores of the Pacific proves how relative time is. While she traveled to Costa Rica and back in the time since our last meeting, I only explored Guatemala. But, nevertheless, I feel I missed out on so many facts and observations that would help me understand this country and its people more thoroughly. 

Together we head to the jungle. A few local guides, along with a gender-balanced group of six young people, all gathering with a mission to walk ninety kilometres through the heat, insects, snakes and weakness towards the lost Mayan city of El Mirador. In that very moment, when we reach the first Mayan tombs, I feel my period coming. Suddenly, I have no patience for the insects that crawl up my legs. 


Petra Godeša

is a Slovene journalist.