Saturday, September 01, 2007
Hija - a homecoming, Pt. 1
On our initial descent into the Guatemala City airport, the pilot had pulled up from his first approach, citing a warning light on one of the flaps. After a long ten minutes, he announced it was only a glitch and we'd be landing "normally" in a few minutes. I didn't breath easy until the wheels touched asphalt.
This was my fourth trip to Guatemala in eight months and my first trip there alone. I stepped off the airplane noting that the airport was never the same in Guatemala. As with most of Latin America, it was constantly under construction at a Third World pace that defied logic.
It is the rainy season in Guatemala. The airport was hot and humid. The customs agent barely looked up after stamping my passport and retrieving my immigration form. I walked into luggage claim and waved off the baggage handlers eager to help. I was only waiting for one bag. Fortunately it arrived quickly and I prepared myself for walking the gauntlet outside Guatemala City's airport.
I passed throngs of people waiting for loved ones. I scanned the several signs held up by drivers waiting for clients. I ignored the inquiries from cab drivers and tour operators. I had just reached the end of the lines of people when a young man of about 28 approached me and asked, "Are you Tim?" I nodded, shook his hand and let him take my bag.
He led me over uneven concrete and gravel walks towards a parking lot. He pointed to a van. I smiled when I saw my wife waving at me. In her arms was the reason for our many trips to Guatemala.
"Say 'hi daddy, EM," my wife said, waving my daughters tiny hand. She shyly burrowed into Tess. They'd been together for six weeks in an apartment in Antigua, a small colonial town about 45 minutes from Guatemala City. I hugged them both and leaned to kiss EM's head. She burrowed further into Tess.
We piled into the van. I sat next to EM's car seat where she cast shy glances at me and smiled slightly with a heart melting toothless grin. We pulled into traffic and began the winding journey to Antigua. The van dueled with Chicken Buses, the colorful ancient form of public transportation most people in Guatemala commute on. I was reminded briefly of a scene from Ben Hur as our van's tires came precariously close to the hubs of one of the buses trying to cut us off. Driving in Guatemala is 90 percent horn and 10 percent steering. Somehow we avoided a collision.
I looked back at my daughter who began talking to me in a language that was neither Spanish or English. She looked back at my wife and then at me. The last time I saw my daughter was in April. It was torture not seeing her for four months. But that is one of the downsides of International adoption.
We arrived in Antigua, a centuries old Spanish town ripe with character and history. Two volcanoes rise above the town. One had erupted while Tess was there, lighting up the night sky like Roman Candles. When I arrived they were both shrouded in clouds.
Our van squeezed down a narrow cobblestone street lined with nondescript but colorful doors. It was hard to imagine, but the doors masked elaborate houses and courtyards with numerous apartments and businesses hidden from the street. One of doors, a red one, opened to the group of apartments where Tess had been living with EM since mid-July.
I marveled at the contrast of Antigua with Guatemala City, the only part of Guatemala I'd seen up until now. All of our trips beginning in December of last year had consisted of shuttle rides to the Westin Camino Real, six nights in the hotel, and shuttle rides back to the airport. Another downside of adoptions in Guatemala is that when you visit, it is not really safe to take your baby out of the hotels. The adoption community is rife with stories of Guatemala City police stopping foreigners with Guatemalan babies or the foster mothers delivering them to hotels and threatening to take them away unless a financial resolution can be agreed upon.
Antigua is just the opposite. It flows in a slow fashion almost untouched by the modern world. That is why when our adoption was final in the Guatemalan government's eyes, Tess chose to go to Antigua to begin the bonding process. There are probably at least a hundred other American mother's fostering their Guatemalan children while the glacier speed adoption process moves forward (and sometimes backwards). They moved about freely in this city that caters to tourists and Spanish students.
Tess' apartment is smaller than I had judged from the almost daily photos she sent me. But it was comfortable and safe. EM had overcome her shyness and was tugging at my pant leg while she played with Grover and other comforting toys. Tess turned on a small television and EM laughed in delight as her favorite programs on the Discovery Kids Channel flashed by, albeit in Spanish. I would soon become very familiar with High Five, Lazy Town, Backyardagains and of course Barney.
Tess was anxious to show me the town she had grown to know so well in six weeks of exploring while getting to know our daughter's personality quirks. I pulled out the Ergo Baby sling I'd ordered per Tess' instructions and we quickly strapped it on me. EM slid in and hugged my chest as if we'd been doing this every day. My heart warmed as I felt her tiny arms clutch me and her head nestled against my chest.
A gentle rain began falling as we stepped into the street. Tess handed me an umbrella. It was the rainy season and if you waited for the rain to stop before you ventured out, you'd never venture out.
Sunday's are very busy in Antigua. For some reasons marching bands were performing around the town square. We weaved in and out of Guatemalan families out for a stroll, teenagers in band uniforms, soldiers with ominous looking automatic rifles and American tourists. I was hypersensitive to the cobblestone streets and the delicate cargo I had in my daddy pouch clutching to me.
Antigua could be a scene from a Hollywood movie. Horse drawn carriages rolled by pulled by ponies that you could easily count the number of ribs on. Mayan women in traditional garb walked with unidentifiable loads on their heads. On a more sobering side, beggars with various deformities sat in doorways with begging bowls waiting for a few Quetzales to help them stave off hunger.
We passed shops, and ruins of churches toppled by ancient earthquakes. Squeezed in between were Internet cafes and finally a McDonalds that made the plastic molded versions back home pale in comparison. In addition to Happy Meals and Egg McMuffins, you could buy Guatemalan traditional breakfasts of black beans, plantains and eggs. American McDonalds have a lot to learn from that McDonalds.
Tess pointed out old churches and charming hotels where she'd paid to use the pool to entertain our new daughter. She took me into shops lined with masks, fabrics, and other crafts. I was relieved that Guatemala hasn't succumbed to the malady of tourist towns in Mexico. There were very few tacky t-shirts and shot glasses to be seen.
We stopped at a small cafe Tess had discovered and settled in for lunch. Tess extracted EM from my pouch and a waitress brought a high chair. I scanned the menu. It was in English and Spanish. This was fortunate because neither Tess nor I are fluent in Spanish. And the waitress wasn't fluent in English. I ordered a Coke light and I thought I noticed a slight frown on her face. We also ordered a couple of bottles of water and some sandwiches and she hurried away, pausing a moment to pat EM on the head and coo, "Bonita nina."
Tess began popping Cheerios into EM's mouth as she worked the crowd in the room, waving and flashing her gummy bear grin. Few could resist smiling in return. "That's my girl," I thought.
A Guatemalan couple with their baby were seated in the table behind me. EM began a conversation with the baby and they giggled back and forth. The sandwiches arrived with fresh fruit. Tess taught me to squeeze small bits of the fruit and pop them into EM's mouth. She accepted them readily like a baby bird being fed bits of worms or grubs. I became fascinated with the process of foraging in my salad for things she could eat. Fatherhood does strange things to you.
We finished up, paid in Quetzales and returned EM to her daddy pouch. As we past the Guatemalan couple and their baby, I smiled. The mother shot me a stony glare. I felt a twinge of embarrassment. Maybe it was my imagination. But I couldn't help but be sensitive to the fact that not all Guatemalan people are happy that more than 4000 babies a year are adopted by American couples and taken out of the country.
We wove our way home and I experienced the evening rituals that Tess had established for EM. We played. Then I helped shovel unappetizing looking goo and applesauce into her mouth (well mostly into her mouth). That was followed by a bubble bath in the kitchen sink, changing into pajamas, a bottle and reading of Buenas Noches Bebe before bed. As our daughter slept Tess and I held each other and talked of the long time apart. Neither of us could believe that we were finally going to be able to bring our baby home.
We went to bed after checking to make sure EM was breathing. I quickly crashed as the red eye flight caught up with me.
Around 6 a.m. I was aware of rustling from the Pack and Play where EM slept. Out of the corner of my eye I saw her pull herself up to standing and then I heard a small voice say, "Daddy!"
I fought back the tears and rose to pick up my daughter.
Author's Note: Call me superstitious, but I didn't want to write about our adoption until our daughter was safely home with us. It has been an emotional roller coaster that has finally wound down. EM was born in October 2006. We received a photo of her a week later and immediately fell in love. Our first visit was in December so we could spend her first Christmas together. That was followed by a trip in February and again in April. Tess went for another visit in June and finally went to foster her in mid-July. We brought her home on Thursday, August 30.
I plan to finish writing about our last days in Guatemala in future posts. I will be taking a couple days a week family leave through next June. I may start another blog to write about that experience. Somehow Dizgraceland doesn't seem to be the best venue for writing about how much I love my daughter.
Posted by Time at 12:11 PM