Before I moved to Indonesia with the Peace Corps, the place that drew me to the country and wanted to visit most was the island of Flores. The colored lakes and komodo dragons sang to me from the pages of a guidebook and the first Christmas I was in Indonesia, I backpacked through it. Too many words are needed to describe the beauty and mystique of that island, which is still one of my favorite places. (Also, I have already written about it extensively here.)
It is now nearly 4 years later and I find myself in a new island named Flores. I’m hardly surprised of this, aware of the sweet synchronicity of my life and the patterns it follows. Though this Flores is different—enclosed by a lake instead of the sea—it is no less magical.
Flores, Guatemala is a 2 km2 island in the center of the Lago Petén Itzá. It is tiny and holds all of the charm of an island town, dotted with restaurants and bars, and brightly painted houses. Red tuk-tuks wheeze by carrying tourists and local passengers from Flores to the nearby municipalities of Santa Elena and San Benito, which are also grouped under the name of the small island. Though I technically live in a different town, Flores is less than one kilometer away, and the perfect getaway—a reprieve from the heat and the day-to-day mundanity of our daily schedules and work days in dusty Santa Elena.
Living in Guatemala is—in many ways—an encore of the Peace Corps experience, although this time, there’s more balance. I am not isolated. I am not as foreign. Being Latin and speaking Spanish has paved the way for a quick immersion that does not require months of training or years of adjustment. In most ways, life in a small-town of rural Guatemala feels so similar to life in a small-town of rural Indonesia. It’s a parallel universe.
In Indonesia, every day, many times a day, I would hear the adzan, calling the people to prayer. In Guatemala, I live next to an Evangelical Christian church that sings loud praises every Saturday, but also sporadically throughout the week. Instead of dangdut blasting at odd times of the day—and with no apparent reason—bachata will be heard. English pop music is everywhere. I love how you can travel to a whole new place and still hear the same tunes. Music: the great global bond we share.
In Indonesia, I could ride becaks. In Guatemala, there are tuk-tuks—an invasive species of another region of the world. In both countries, public buses take on the challenge of surpassing their maximum capacity. It is a foreign concept that a bus could be full, or on time, or able to depart a station without waiting for a small eternity just in case more passengers show up. Both countries, have the friendliest, warmest people ready to make us feel comfortable and at home here. And of course, the jerk guys that scream “te amo” or “I love you” in rough English and cannot hold back the whistles and cat calls. A parallel universe of cold showers, hot sticky days, walking barefoot on cool tile, geckos on walls eating mosquitos, awful fluorescent lighting, torrential rain—and unreal sunsets.
It seems that every island called Flores is enchanted. Guatemala’s Flores has the extraordinary quality of being utterly unpredictable. Every single time I set foot there, I have a plan, but the island’s incantation will draw out new and unexpected paths. Like reading tea leaves in the bottom of a cup, the day’s transition will slowly come together, revealing itself, trailing some unseen destiny.
Whatever ‘it’ is, it always manifests itself in the same manner. Before I had friends here, I would wander around and encounter serendipity. Now, friends will call or text proposing ideas for activities that inevitably change into something quite different (and much later!) from what we had intended, making it even more memorable and fantastic. The magic of Flores has led me to dreamlike lake houses in forests appropriated by howler monkeys. It has taken me on sunset boat tours with one of Guatemala’s most famous musicians. It has made me dance until the whole party gets shut down by the police, and my legs burn for days. It has led me to swim in a part of the lake pebbled with vestiges of ancient Mayan pottery. I’ve heard and played so much music in various piers near the lake’s jade-colored water.
At nearly 29, Flores has led me to relive feelings and behaviors from another age. The other day I walked to a friend’s house and asked: can you come out to play? And when my friend’s mother was unhappy with his late nights, I felt the childlike fear that he actually wouldn’t be allowed to come out. It was such a cute and funny feeling! (We convinced Andre’s mom to let him come in the end, by the way.)
Needless to say, I am in love with Flores. Will I ever get enough of this magic?