Family for a Night

By Nicola Pilkington


At a bus station in a small town on the Caribbean coast of Guatemala, I met Mika. I greeted her with a smile before I bought a bus ticket to the next small town, Antigua. Mika was a Lebanese Bulgarian, living in France, who had been travelling around South America for nine months. Her chameleonic charisma was garnished with a single lengthy dreadlock that was decorated with beads, precious stones and multicoloured string- a badge that other backpackers sported, perhaps as a kind of light house for the like-minded. With a serendipitous chuckle, the cosmos seated us next to each other on the bus to Antigua.

“Tell me what it’s like to grow up in South Africa”, Mika asks- a question I assumed I would be flooded with from Guatemalans and fellow travelers. It turns out that South African status is not as interesting as I had thought. We spoke about language, citizenship and some philosophies of travel. At one point she hesitates, and answers my next question slowly and precisely (a memory now vividly concretized amongst the blur that was to follow): “The dilemma of the traveler is that they have to keep on moving. Even if their current location is the best, has the best experiences, the best people; the traveler has to move on. Because what if. What if the next place is the best? They will never know if they do not carry on moving”. Her initial question seeded a 7-hour conversation that kept us company until the arrival at our destination.

Antigua is a cobbled-stoned, colourful macaroon of a town, nestled in a valley that is surrounded by rich farmlands and volcanos. And a one-night stopover before a long bus ride to the next country on my agenda: Honduras. Upon arrival, Mika decided to join me at an affordable hostel toward the periphery of the town; and in exchange, she invited me to a Birthday party of an acquaintance she had made along her travels. The hostel was adequate for one-night’s stay. But it’s charm took the form of a rooftop terrace that had handwoven hammocks and a private bar for the handful of other travelers staying at the hostel. From the terrace, I could see the tainted heads of the Spanish churches poking out over the tiled rooves of the town. And seated at the fairy-lit bar, I could see three figures.

Before venturing to an acquaintance’s Birthday party, Mika and I joined the three figures at the fairy-lit bar. Juan was behind the bar. A high-pitched middle-aged Guatemalan who was a tour-bus driver by day. Daniel and Ange were a couple from Germany who met whilst backpacking in Europe eleven years before. They had been doing so, together, ever since. Daniel and Ange both wore hand-knitted beanies and well-worn purple sneakers. Naturally, Mika and I amalgamated into this miscellaneous trio, and very soon tequila and more was ingested and inhaled. It was agreed that they would join us at the acquaintance’s Birthday party, and in return we would join them at, what Juan kept on referring to as “The After Party”. It was then not long – or did not feel like very long – before the five of us raised our tequilas to the air and announced: “family”.

The acquaintance’s Birthday party was in full-swing by the time our eclectic gang arrived. It turns out that it was an intimate affair with close friends and family. But we had arrived at that time in the night when the whole gathering was belting out Spanish ballads, and thus were invited in with open arms and offered beer or wine. Mika was swept up by her acquaintance and introduced to the family while Juan, Daniel, Ange and I sat in the corner of the veranda watching the scene unfold. The tequila and more had kicked-in at this point as I only remember the unfocused interior of the veranda, and feeling in awe at how much sweat could be caused just from singing.

We left when the lyrics started slurring beyond clarity and an uncle began to nap at our table. We made one more stop before “The After Party”. Daniel and Ange had heard about a club that had many rooms with multiple dance floors- “über cool”. The club only had two rooms. But each room was large: one with chalkboard for walls, and the other had big projections on all surfaces of baby blue mountains and pink clouds. In the whirlwind of people we managed to keep track of all of the family members: Jaun became the head-count master. More tequila and more. I conversed with a short afro with a beard and bowtie, who months later shared a Wes Anderson-esque short film he had made about living in Antigua. It was about dreams and writer’s block. Our conversation was cut short by the closing of the club. And finally, our procession to “The After Party”.

Juan told us that bars and clubs usually close at around 1 or 2am due to alcohol regulations, and thus “After Parties” in abandoned warehouses or large rooftops were usually organized to fully satisfy party-going pallets. We drive about twenty minutes into the next settlement and arrive at an open field. As we enter The Afterparty, we are directed to an empty, Olympic-sized swimming pool: the dance floor. Laser lights and psychedelic projections filled the walls and young assortments of Guatemalans filled the floor. Tequila and more.

Our family giggled at a guy who came up to us several times and garbled: “This is the best night of my life!” Soon after this I remembered that I had initially planned to stop over at Antigua to go to a film screening that was taking place at a quaint cinema I had heard about from fellow travelers. That evening they had screened the film, Into the Wild. It was months later that I learned that the short afro with a beard and bowtie who had made a Wes Anderson-esque short film about dreams and writer’s block, worked at this cinema and had screened the film before meeting me at the club with chalkboard walls. I smiled as I looked at Mika, who I had only met some hours before. A beautiful detour. And as I turned to look at Juan, Daniel and Ange, the light was caught in my eyes. The sun had begun to rise. My miscellaneous family-for-a-night, standing inside an empty swimming pool, all turn to see the arrival of dawn from behind the volcanoes.

While I do not have the contact details of my fortuitous family, I have a vivid memory of the words Mika had said to me in the bus earlier that day: “The dilemma of the traveler is that they have to keep on moving. Even if their current location is the best, has the best experiences, the best people; the traveler has to move on. Because what if. What if the next place is the best? They will never know if they do not carry on moving”.

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