The engines’ steady drone shifts, and the plane begins its descent.
This is it, she thinks. I’m really doing this.
But nerves and self-doubt challenge excitement for her attention. Nerves win out as she notices the hands on either side of her, clenched on the armrests. The fathers of her roommate seated by the window and the just-graduated college student on the aisle are both pilots.
A turbulent dip flips her stomach.
“Oh, my God,” the roommate says.
“What the hell is he doing?” the new graduate mutters.
Her pulse quickens. You mean this isn’t normal?
At twenty-two, this is only her third flight, her second out of the US. God and the Fates willing, she and her companions are about to land in Honduras, where they’ll spend part of the summer working with their graduate advisor on a Maya archaeological site.
Over the next few minutes, she focuses on the rapidly approaching mountains and her destination—the narrow valley between them. But she can’t block out the white knuckles and faces of the young woman and man with her. At least she can pretend her quick, dry swallows are for the changing pressure in her ears. An image forces its way into her mind’s eye—her advisor giving the archaeologist’s translation of SAHSA airline’s acronym, Stay At Home, Stay Alive.
After a few bounces on the tarmac, the wheels find traction. Honduran passengers, some with rosaries in hand, make the sign of the cross and whisper, “Gracias, Madre de Dios.” Contrary to her friends’ expectations, this landing apparently is normal.
Excitement reclaims control as they make their way through customs. Her gaze flits about the airport and its occupants, wanting to see everything at once, while her brain struggles to translate the unfamiliar background of Spanish, both spoken and written.
This Midwestern girl from a mid-sized town has no experience to draw from. From her studies, she knows Honduras is a poor country. It’s an island of relative political stability in an era of brutal Central American civil conflicts, proxy wars for the US and USSR in their battle for world dominance. Still, her brain continues its quest for context. Who are the Honduran travelers around her? Normal citizens? Or the ruling elite? Do soldiers armed with M16s always patrol the airport?
Alone with the customs agent, she stands exposed. Tall, with auburn hair and fair skin, no one will mistake her for a native. At least the blonde, blue-eyed girls will draw more of the attention this summer. But for now, she’s center stage. She shares the first name of a sultry American actress, and the Honduran official calls her by the other woman’s name while checking her papers.
When finished, she hurries to rejoin her friends. Excited chatter from the group surrounds her as they wait for the others to clear customs. Many on the crew are from different universities. Introductions are made, and their shared language and middle class American upbringing are comforting in this foreign land.
Finally, everyone is present, and they climb into the rented van that will take them to another mountain valley near the Guatemalan border. She eagerly take in the sights—Spanish-style churches, colorful stucco homes and businesses. But there’s also an unmistakable aura of urban decay and poverty. Corrugated metal shacks also line the streets of San Pedro Sula. Graffiti covers many cinder-block walls. She’s rarely seen such street art back home and doesn’t understand it even there. What should she make of these strange symbols and words?
One artist, though, understands how language-challenged many Americans are. He sends his message in English:
Yanqui Go Home
Why this particular day? Because it was the first day I truly thought I was on my way to my future career. If you had asked me at the airport what I would be today, I would have said, “A tenured professor of Anthropology specializing in Mesoamerican archaeology.” But life has a way of shifting the path under our feet, doesn’t it?
How about you? Was there an “I’m really doing this” moment in your life?