Once upon a time when I was one year out of college I decided to go to Guatemala.
There wasn’t a real reason why I went except that I had saved up enough money to afford the five-dollar a night beach bungalow on the black sand beach that supposedly housed good surf. I told my boss at my unpaid internship that I was going, and he told the client who didn’t know I was an intern that I had earned a well-deserved vacation. Then I left.
I booked a cheap flight that included a 24-hour layover in Atlanta and went by myself. To get to the beach, I reserved a shuttle, which turned out to be someone’s brother in law’s cousin who had a van with garbage bags on the windows. He was looking for extra cash for Easter weekend.
He drove me four hours then dropped me off at a small river and said, Adios.
I said, Isn’t there supposed to be a beach?
He said, A boat will come.
I looked over at the small dock. There was an ancient woman holding a pineapple, sleeping. No boat in sight.
I turned back.
Then he left.
Fifteen minutes later the guys with machine guns came paddling up the river and I just about screamed.
But nothing happened. They looked at me funny and said something in Spanish to each other and then kept on paddling. The woman with the pineapple still slept. I sat awkwardly on a bench with my backpack, still waiting for the boat.
And fifteen minutes after that a boat did come. People suddenly streamed out of huts with bags of ice and fish and mangos. I paid the man at the helm a dollar. A young Guatemalan teenager smiled at me and said, Britney Spears.
Then they dropped me off at a dock on the river and said, Adios.
I said again, Isn’t there supposed to be a beach? Except I said that in broken Spanish. No one spoke English.
The whole boat erupted in chatter about this beach that supposedly held good surf.
Finally a boy said, Follow.
He walked me through the winding paths of a sandy village until there it was. The coast. Black sand beaches that shimmered with volcanic glitter, long lines of waves, a bare bones thatched bungalow.
Olivia greeted me, a woman who lived in the village and was responsible for cooking all of my meals since there was no restaurant in the village. There were two other guests at the bungalow, some guys from Norway who were tall and handsome and spoke gravely about everything. The next morning they left, and I was there by myself for five days until two women from Colorado appeared. They were blonde, tall, professionals that had somehow meandered to this small village on the pacific coast for a week of vacation.
They were beside themselves that such a place existed where there were no roads, just sand pathways, no restaurants, just Guatemalan families that cooked for you if you asked kindly, no electricity past 9 pm, just the light of the moon reflecting off the water.
Brightly colored hammocks swayed in the ocean breeze as Olivia showed them the accommodations, a bunk bed for $5 a night or a hammock for $1 a night. That people sleep in hammocks all night long! One woman exclaimed.
Over lunch we talked about what brought us here. They asked me what I did, and I told them about growing bored in my unpaid internship, the desire to find uncrowded surf, and the tienda in my Brooklyn neighborhood where you could call any country for 15 cents a minute, so I called this place and booked a bunk bed.
One of the women told me about her first job after college in advertising where she rapidly climbed the ladder until the day her boss pointed to a VP and said, That will be you in ten years.
She watched the VP storm through the building with high heels and a hard face and thought, Is THAT what I want?
She went home and asked herself that question over and over again and after a restless night, she realized that she had no clue what she wanted, but this wasn’t it.
She quit her job, packed her things in storage, biked across the country and then discovered Durango, a snowy town nestled in the Colorado mountains. When she dismounted from her bike and beheld the frosty pines, she thought, This is it.
Now she worked for a small start-up there, making a fraction of the salary she once did, but she didn’t care.
That’s why we’re here and not in some fancy resort, she said.
For the rest of day she gazed in awe at this small beach town, the hand-made flour tortillas cooked in the village each morning, the scorching sand that sparkled.
From her astonished eyes, I knew that whatever life she had envisioned for herself hadn’t included a beach made from eons of volcanic rock grinding together and a village with sand sidewalks. This was something that she had been incapable of dreaming about ten years ago when she quit her job to giver herself to the unknown.
Here, now, seven years after that chance encounter in Guatemala, I am thinking about that question, Where do I want to be in ten years? Just like that Colorado woman, I woke up one morning, went to my advertising job, gazed at the successful people around me and thought, This isn’t it. I left.
What remains is a blank space, a vortex of time and energy and imagination that has just begun to roil. I can’t even fathom where I will be ten years from now, but I’m hoping that it will be something equally unimaginable because that’s what I want: a future that doesn’t exist now, but will on that day when I sit down, spread my hands wide and create.