The Long Way Home
The Long Way Home
By Nicole Hennessy
A story of travel, good in the world and a fearless WMN's transition out of the baby phase.
Some say the streets of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala are cobbled together with volcanic rock from an eruption of the Santa Maria volcano. The Santa Maria was known as Gagxanul in the Mayan K’iche’ language – before the 16th-century Spanish conquest of the region. Quetzaltenango itself is a Spanish renaming of the city’s ancient roots as Xelaju or Xela.
I’d come to Xela – the second largest city in Guatemala – on an outreach trip with my cousin, Suzzanne Ponomarenko, and her dance company, SPDance, leaving behind my 2-year-old son for the first time and my anxious husband just days after signing papers to buy our first home.
For a week, we’d be volunteering for three projects: Hogar Temporal, a government-run shelter for girls and young women who had experienced sexual abuse or domestic violence; Caras Alegres, a free after-school program in Xela’s impoverished Canton Xeul neighborhood; and Guarderia Altrusa, a low-income day care.
At the shelter, about 40 girls ages 10 to 18 are separated into two groups. There are the younger girls: the princesas, who bunk together in a dormitory-style room with neat, Disney princess bedspreads topped with stuffed animals here and there; and the madres, who are either pregnant or have babies bundled up in rows of cribs placed next to their beds.
None of the pregnant girls could participate in dance exercises. They couldn’t even do yoga. Or move, basically. This is apparently both a shelter policy and a cultural custom.
While the dancers taught simple choreography, many of the madres sat on the couch, looking depressed and defeated, or trying to seem indifferent. Some of the younger girls took the opportunity to make one of the few choices they have and didn’t participate. Until Suzzanne, who couldn’t dance either because of recent knee surgery, began teaching them English on a whiteboard. She continued for days with the girls, who were eager to learn English phrases or just how to write.
A fire at a similar facility in Guatemala City claimed 40 young lives just months before our trip. After a failed escape the previous day, the girls there set a mattress on fire in response to poor living conditions that included rumors of abuse, overcrowding, gangs and rape. Horrified, thousands of Guatemalans poured into the streets to protest the government. They marched, reading the names of the dead while carrying white coffins into a colorful cemetery nearby.
We’re told Hogar Temporal is a nicer place. Every now and then I’d see girls excitedly hug staff members when they walked by. And women are always busy cooking fresh food in the large kitchen.
At first, I felt awkward and out of place. At the end of the week, I'd find myself sitting on the ground with a young a girl who sat silently, right beside me, almost every time I saw her.
She fiddled with my tiny diamond wedding band, barely sparkling in light peeking through the edges of the plastic ceiling overhead. Slowly spinning the ring on my finger, she seemed lost in thought for a while before she looked up at me. Our eyes met, she buried her head in my chest and curled up in my lap. We were both crying a little.
After some of the girls performed songs and dances for us, SPD dancers performed the original pieces Suzzanne wrote for the company. A few of the dancers also performed solos. The slow erupting of the earthy and expressive pieces – especially one titled “Machi” – drew us all in. Almost everyone in the room wiped away tears, the girls’ eyes reflecting heavy hearts. They watched in silence.
Scanning the room, I saw one of the dancers, Rebecca Greenbaum, also cradling a girl and crying. The girl in my lap suddenly reached for my hand again, bringing me back to the moment, and looked at me, focused. I realized she wasn’t looking at my ring anymore; she was examining my hands, memorizing every crack and wrinkle. I watched her, so moved. Then I figured out how to tell her how strong she is. And beautiful.
But I didn’t know any of this yet.
I hadn’t yet witnessed the dancers transform an untamable mob of kids at Caras Alegres into happy, excited little dancers proudly performing outside for their parents. Hadn’t yet
stood on the slope of a dirt road in Canton Xeul as the kids we just worked with walked back to their small, simple homes.
Scattered throughout the neighborhood, which smelled heavily of wood-burning stoves, were chickens, roosters, goats, corn from nearby fields and kids’ jeans drying on roofs – or laminas – held in place with boulders and patched with garbage bags. Mist rolled along the mountains higher up, where many in this neighborhood drag their tools each day to farm patches of land that resemble a quilt from a distance.
A little girl named Noemi, dressed in traditional garments and hugging a worn stuffed dog, peeked at us, smiling, until we said “Hola!”
Another one of our students and his mom, wearing typical office clothes and high heels, passed by, heading even farther up the road to their home.
Irma Oomen, who at the time, ran the after-school program with just one other colleague and the backing of a board in Holland – where she’s since relocated – pointed out a small family compound where she said about 15 people live.
Here, rent is typically 500 quetzales, which often leaves just 100 – or $13 – to provide for a whole family for the month. Many people lack an education and many kids won’t stay in school due to family pressures or money issues. Also, a nearby prison cycles dads in and out, often away from families plagued with alcoholism.
It took me 30 hours to travel to Xela. My stomach was a knotted, uncertain mess for most of my journey from Cleveland, Ohio — where I kissed my baby goodbye – to New York City. I had never been so scared, but somehow I knew this trip was an open door I needed walk through.
In a cab from LaGuardia Airport to Jackson Heights – where I relaxed for a few hours at SPD dancer Danielle Tamburro’s apartment – I passed homes tucked by the side of the road, a series of intersections and then unbroken rows of cheap shops and bodegas, unaware of where I was going.
All of a sudden I could hear Spanish music so loud I wondered if a band was performing on the street. It was coming from a van parked beside my stopped cab. I looked over and, as if choreographed, a young girl sprung forward, doing front flips all the way down the sidewalk, past the van, with the music still blaring. I watched her, savoring the moment that felt like it was just for me, until the light changed.
Soon, Danielle and I headed to JFK airport to catch an overnight flight to Mexico City, where we’d find strong coffee and spicy avocado omelets, then finally to Guatemala City. Excited families crowded outside the airport, holding airplane-shaped balloons and signs, welcoming loved ones dragging luggage through narrow paths through the crowd.
Just three months before, I had gotten a message from Suzzanne, asking me to come on this trip. I saw the text as I stored my purse in the car before a 9-mile kayaking trip in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where my husband and I spent our third anniversary. The idea was exciting, but the trip didn’t feel like it fit into my married mom life.
As I tucked my phone away, somehow I knew I’d go.
Suz and I were best friends growing up. We’d dance all the time – with her sister Daniella, too – twirling and making up our own moves. Leaping into walls. Furniture. Singing obnoxiously and laughing: “The piano has been drinking. My necktie is asleep.”
“The combo went back to New York. The jukebox has to take a leak.”
We’d leeched onto their dad’s Tom Waits obsession. We even had our own copy of “Small Change.”
Exhausted but happy to have finally arrived in Guatemala City, our group of eight assembled: six dancers, one of their moms and me. Rebecca would arrive days later after a brave journey to Xela on a bus by herself. She’d taken a later flight from New York.
We waited for the van that the nonprofit volunteer agency A Broader View, arranged. Then we headed out of the city, past slithering walls covered in graffiti, giving way to tiny overflowing shops, tortillerias and then a blurred landscape.
For three hours that began to feel like years once the sun set, we drove – jolted by potholes and gears shifting – up winding mountain roads punctuated by fast, flat highways.
Once I accepted we would never stop driving. Ever. I glanced over at Suzzy, laughing, and asked, “Where are we, dude?”
By the time Xela came into view, the air had thinned. Lit up, the city sprawled across the mountainous valley it’s nestled in, 8,000 feet above sea level.
As we stood with our luggage in the narrow street outside our temporary home, the door opened to a blur of Spanish, hugs, patterned linoleum floors and huge potted plants in an outdoor courtyard off the eat-in kitchen.
After a lively dinner during which I felt like I might collapse, I took a hot shower. The steaming water dribbled on my head faintly. Then I climbed under a stack of wool blankets so thick they felt like a weight on top of me and went to sleep beneath glowing plastic stars stuck to the ceiling.
A few weeks before we arrived in Guatemala, there was a massive national strike in which 150,000 workers and students flooded the streets to protest government corruption. They blocked every road. Many say government corruption has gotten worse recently. “Crooks” and “thieves” are words I’d hear during our trip. None of the money comes back to the people. There is no mail service in the entire country, and infrastructure is suffering.
On walls throughout Xela and Guatemala City, there are stenciled fists reminding people to fight.
A message scrawled in a restaurant bathroom read: “education = revolution.”
Guatemalans are warm, endlessly kind people. At least, I met nobody who was even slightly rude. I felt so comfortable; I almost forgot how worried I’d been.
Our hosts, the Guiterrez family, were especially lovable. Smiles always formed at the corners of their lips when they spoke. Noemi, our host mom, kept telling us we were changing the world. At first, I thought it just sounded nice. But then I wondered if she was right.
The first day at our volunteer sites, my group for the day got assigned to Caras Alegres, which was not within walking distance from home. So we visited each project, dropping everyone else off before meeting Irma to drive there.
As soon as the door opened at Altrussa day care, toddlers screamed with joy and dragged the dancers inside their one-room space, jumping up and down and asking for hugs.
Next, we walked to the shelter just a few blocks away. We went through the huge locked gates at the street entrance and signed in – standing in an outdoor courtyard with a primary-colored plastic jungle gym and picnic tables – then went through another locked door that shut loudly behind us.
Hundreds of colorful hand prints filled a purple strip at the bottom of otherwise lime green walls. On a bulletin board near the entrance were more hand prints. Drawn on paper, they included the girls’ names. Some added hearts and other doodles.
One said, “Te amo familia.”
A teenage girl I’d later learn has a 1-year-old daughter sat alone, slumped against a wall, crying, while the other girls sang Christian songs together. She’d been at the shelter for only a few days. Immediately, Rita Robles – dancer Heather Robles’ mom – sat beside her and began comforting her.
The dancers had everyone who was going to participate up and moving in no time.
Danielle, Rita and I tore ourselves away, through the locked door that shut loudly behind us and then the locked gate.
We walked down a usually busy road that thumped with loud music out of place. An unexpected international bike race was about to start.
It was so warm out, and I had all my rain gear, heavy in my bag, as well as the lunch Noemi packed in a yellow and white polka dot lunch box. My shoulders hurt so badly from traveling and carrying all of these extra clothes, but I could see the fog on the distant mountains, which I knew could bring rain at any time.
As we got closer to the crowd, I noticed a clown with a rubber nose, derby hat and huge shoes laughing with friends, as well as spectators waving small flags. The race had taken over the road, so we couldn’t get to Caras Alegres. Nobody, not even the police, knew when the street would clear.
With no other choice, we headed back to the shelter, navigating Xela’s narrow elevated sidewalks, which you have to step on and off of, around telephone poles, electrical wires and people passing.
Through the locked gate again, we signed in beneath the sky in the courtyard and then entered through the door that shut loudly behind us.
Chantelle Herrera, the most fluent Spanish speaker in our group, was leading upbeat group exercises.
The whole room exploded, repeating each phrase she chanted as loudly as possible: “Somos Fuertes!”
Again in English: “We are strong!” Everyone flexed their muscles.
“Yes we can!” Fists in the air.
“We are one!” All hands in the center of the circle, and then everyone cheered, doing cartwheels and practicing their new moves until it was time for us to go.
Xela’s streets may actually be just stone.
But maybe they are paved with magic volcanic rock, hauled down from the sky.
I’d hear many legends during the trip.
Hersson, our host dad, told us there’s a weeping woman named La Llorona who roams the city: a common tale in many countries. She mourns her children she murdered.
“If she sounds nearby that means she’s far,” said Hersson.
“But if she sounds far away, that means she’s near!”
And you better run!” he said with a laugh, seated among another beautiful meal of fresh corn tortillas, eggs, beans and salad with lemon.
It was Todos los Santos – All Saints' Day.
White pillar candles in plastic cups and on plates lined the dinner table. The electricity had gone out, something that happens often, since the municipality owes the electric company millions of quetzales, we learned.
In the flickering candlelight, we told ghost stories, of course.
Earlier, we roamed the local cemetery, where families gathered to paint and maintain their relatives' tombs, leaving flowers and candles to memorialize children, siblings, parents and other ancestors.
An earthy scent hung heavy in the air, unearthed soil discarded on vacant plots. Garbage was scattered. A man slept on the ground as the festivities just outside the cemetery roared on.
Pulling myself up on a stone wall, beyond which sits the 17th-century Iglesia El Calvario church, I could see the bustling market and some kids’ rides and games. Drums made of coffee cans and tiny guitars for sale hung from booths overflowing with baked treats and candles for one quetzal apiece.
Away from the crowds, in the back of the cemetery – under the watch of Gagxanul faintly hovering in the sky – are mounds of dirt adorned with handmade crosses, marking Mayan graves so far away from the nearby colorful stacked tombs: mansions for whole families of rotting corpses; and famous residents, like Vanushka – a gypsy who’d tragically lost a forbidden love, her tomb now an altar for the hopeful and lonely, who offer her gifts so they may find love.
Hersson told us his recently departed uncle visited his family earlier in the day, blasting music on a stereo system that was playing when they returned from the cemetery. His aunt had asked her husband for a sign he was watching over them, shocked to find the music on when returning home.
The lights still out, Hersson also told us about a haunted hot chocolate café – Choco Café La Estacion del Sabor – tucked inside a 200-year-old house across the street from the cemetery.
Jose – the ghost trapped there – fell in love with a woman he’d watch from the upstairs window. Only he soon learned she was a ghost, so he hanged himself.
We agreed to go to the café to investigate just as the lights came back on.
After dinner the next night – our last night in Xela – we walked to the café: our host family; Suzzanne; her boyfriend, Jon, who’d tagged along for the end of the trip; Heather; Rebecca and I.
Dark clouds raced across a bright moon, illuminating each imperfect stone forming the road we walked along, headed toward the darkened cemetery. Gates locked. Vanushka just beyond them, resting beneath a mound of CDs, baby shoes, flowers, love letters and one nickel I’d slipped into a crack beneath her stone form sculpted atop her tomb.
We were seated outside and served the best chocolate caliente with amaretto I could imagine. Through the open doors, I could hear a musician playing guitar inside the café. He sang rock songs by American artists including the White Stripes as well as some Spanish tunes.
After about 20 minutes, our waiter motioned for us to take our turn touring the house.
For one quetzal coin plunked into a metal bowl in exchange for a thin, blue candle, we each climbed the back stairs into the haunted attic.
As the restaurant owner told the house’s story in Spanish – Hersson translating a bit – I started feeling sick.
“You might feel nauseous and uneasy,” Hersson repeated, just as I began to feel exactly those things. We were told to knock three times and go into Jose’s little crawlspace of a bedroom, a few at a time. Light from the moon shone in the window where Jose originally saw his love roaming the perimeter of the cemetery.
Everyone else said they felt fine. Heather’s candle blew out. I didn’t let on how shaky I felt.
Back down the stairs, past where Jose hanged himself, I tossed my candle into a pile of melted stumps. Then I walked back into the restaurant, and my heart skipped a beat.
Just as I opened the door, the musician inside started playing “Wish You Were Here”– the song we played at my uncle Pete’s funeral. His favorite song.
“What song is this?” I said to nobody, in a daze, pushing my way to the front of the room, where I stood, scared and so in love with Xela and this whole experience.
“It’s not weird; you’re just listening,” Suzzy told me after I explained what happened. Hersson and Noemi looked at me like they’d seen a ghost, and we headed home.
I walked quietly. The moon was still bright and the clouds hadn’t slowed.
“Have you ever played Ding Dong Ditch?” Luci and Vivi, our host sisters, asked, creeping up behind me.
Before I could respond, they rang a doorbell and ran, cracking up. Hersson laughed hysterically, too, running while taunting Noemi and the rest of the group, who were farther behind. He rang more doorbells, egging on his daughters, as we all ran, laughing and free, through the streets.
Just after sunrise the next morning, we packed our luggage to drive back through twisting mountain roads and along highways for three hours, from Xela to the Guatemala City airport. We stopped in Mexico City again before flying to New York City, where I’d wait overnight to switch planes in Boston, before finally arriving in Cleveland 30 hours later.
At Cleveland’s airport, I ran over to where my husband was parked, opened the door and kissed my baby, in his car seat, hello. We drove to our apartment, where I unpacked my suitcase. Then, after not enough sleep, I repacked my suitcase, as well as everything we own into boxes, to move into our new home.
I thought about the kids and the girls at the shelter, missing them, and about my nickel that I hope is still hidden on Vanushka’s tomb – a little extra luck to help my heart always stay this full.
Nicole Hennessy is a mastermind always scheming big ideas. She is currently working to launch Universal Eccentrics, a creativity and positivity incubator for artists and communities. She previously cofounded a free art and literary publication, Miser Magazine. Nicole is also a writer for Brooklyn-based SPDance’s A Chance to Dance team, which works internationally to empower vulnerable girls, women and kids through dance. In addition, she is a board member for the Winter Warmth Mission, which works to get warming items and shelter to individuals sleeping on the streets. At the root of the chaos, Nicole is a wife, mother, freelance journalist, poet and dreamer.