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  • Writer's picturePura Vida Connections

My Tico Heart: Katya De Luisa, Guatemala

Stranded in the middle of nowhere at one am with two flat tires was like a scene from a slasher film; I was scared and I don’t scare easily. Instinctually I knew I had to get off the road so I parked between some trees hoping to become invisible. I’d figure out what to do in the morning; that is if I was still alive.

I awoke at sunrise to the aroma of fresh coffee brewing; turns out I’d parked in front of a small restaurant. Relieved to be alive, I decided to solicit some help and have breakfast. After hearing my plight, the restaurant owner offered to take my tires to a shop. Before finishing breakfast, he was back, mounted the tire, and placed the repaired spare in the back. He refused any money saying he was happy to help. His generosity reminded me of why I loved Costa Rica and for a moment I had second thoughts about leaving.

However, I’d come too far to turn back and the border was still a four-hour drive dodging traffic police so they wouldn’t impound my van. At one inspection they waved at me to stop and I pretended to be a tourist who thought they were friendly and waved back while I kept going. Mostly I stayed behind trucks and buses, which got me past them.

At the Nicaraguan border, in spite of the van’s legal irregularities I talked my way through, and three days later and two more border crossings, I arrived in Guatemala.

Unfortunately, no amount of cajoling would sway their border guard who insisted I needed a metal plate on my van to enter. I threw my hands in the air and said in Spanish, “Well, I guess I’ll just have to live here at the border. This is a mobile art school for street kids and it looks like you have a lot of them hanging around here.” To his dismay, I pulled under a tree and started to set up camp.

A boy came over and asked in broken English, “Senora, you need plate? I get one…$10.” I returned to the guard asking, “If I get a metal plate would you allow me in?” For another $10 he agreed. The “Crearte” van crossed the border with a metal Texas license plate, a Panamanian bill of sale, a title from New York City, and a six-month Guatemalan permit to circulate.

However, the challenges I faced at that border paled in comparison to those I would encounter later.

The colonial town of Antiqua had cobblestone streets and ornate towering churches on almost every corner. Indigenous people in a variety of multicolored traditional dress traveled from the rural villages to sell their handcrafts and beautiful weavings in the parks. I moved in with the Quaker woman who had invited me to work with their Indigenous children project but it was a volunteer position a couple of days a week and I still had to generate an income.

Again, I returned to creating art, this time with Guatemalan themes on handmade paper. I also hand-assembled notecards with photographs of the children’s art selling them in shops and galleries.

Combined with workshops and occasional art commissions my income although minimal supported my children’s projects. These included sidewalk art classes with Indigenous children selling in parks, working with several street kid organizations around town, and an art class in San Pedro Hospital’s residential ward for severely handicapped youth.

Frank, was a 60’s hippie before moving to Antigua in the 1970s and remained so even after converting a warehouse in the center of town into an Indigenous textile museum and sales outlet for their handcrafts. He lived in a small studio at the back and his business was the most successful in Antiqua.

In the middle of the museum section was a large shrine of Maximón, the Guatemalan rum drinking, cigar-smoking saint believed to have reincarnated into a wooden puppet and the copious haze of incense burning around the shrine, masked the odor of Frank’s frequent pot smoking. Frank became a good friend and greatest supporter of my children’s projects.

The kids at the hospital had produced some impressive artworks and Frank offered to host an exhibition. Traffic stopped as our procession of wheelchairs carrying 25 young excited artists joggled along bumpy cobblestone streets to their first art exhibit inauguration. The exhibit was filled with people and incredibly every kid sold several of their paintings.

Eventually, I traveled to Lake Atitlan and In Panahachel, the most tourist popular town, I met Sarah, who like Frank had arrived in the ’70s. She had adopted several Indigenous orphans and ran a project where Indigenous women learned to create beautiful artwork quilts from their used trajes. Trajes are the hand-woven, intricately embroidered traditional dresses of Mayan women; styles and designs varied according to their region.

Sarah and I became instant friends and she offered me her vacant house in Santa Catarina Polopo, a neighboring Indigenous village on the lake. The town’s white adobe houses doted its mountainsides and every house instead of a shower had a temascal, a primitive sauna where once a week the whole family would sweat together. Everyday women would wash their clothes in the lake at the place a stream of volcanic hot water flowed. It was an ideal place and I was fascinated with the culture until I came down with a chronic case of Montezuma’s revenge.

After a couple of weeks, I was pretty depleted and returned to Antiqua to get medical help. I was staying alone in the empty office of what used to be a friend’s dog rescue; she had relocated to a bigger place. Life wasn’t going well; I was broke, my van’s circulation permit had expired months before, and the dysentery wasn’t responding to medications. Just when everything couldn’t get worse, I got vertigo and the room would spin rapidly every time I tried to stand; I had to crawl to the bathroom.

After laying in a hammock for two days, dehydrated, unable to hold food down, and having no phone to call for help, I was sure I was going to die. So, I surrendered to a higher power asking, If I am meant to survive, please send me a sign!” and then passed out. After regaining consciousness, I remembered something that felt so real I wondered if I had astral traveled.

I was standing in front of an old Victorian house belonging to a couple I knew in Sarasota Florida. That was it.

I had not lived in the US for 20 years and didn’t want to go back. But the sign was clear and a higher power was not to be argued with. If help arrived, I would go to Florida.

Miraculously an hour later my friend showed up concerned she hadn’t seen me for days. Seeing how sick I was she took me to her house and nursed me back to health.

Meantime, I telephoned my friends in Sarasota and described my vision and how I was planning to return to Florida. They were overjoyed and explained they were planning a vacation and if I could back in three weeks I could housesit.

Next, I reserved a flight which in those days you could pay within 10 days. Three days later a gallery sold two of my paintings and the buyer commissioned two more which I completed in a week.

The only thing left was to sell my van which wasn’t legal. To my surprise a Guatemalan man offered to buy it for $1,000; he had papers for a previous van wrecked in a crash and it was the same model, year, and color. Go figure!

I paid for the plane ticket and left Guatemala with $3,000 in my pocket

As I look over the chapters of my life I see a pattern of total immersion, and then as the story comes to an end, trusting that some divine power or force would guide me to write the next script. My life is really just a movie and I am the principal actor. I write each script, set the stage, and screen the supporting actors. There's always a beginning and an end and then a new beginning in a completely different role.

The return to Sarasota Florida was about to completely change my life; more than usual. I’d experienced some miraculous events and looking out the window at the cloud cover with the volcanoes sticking up through it I said goodbye to Guatemala.

In Florida, more miracles were yet to come.


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