In the summer of 2014, I started feeling antsy in my job, like I needed a change. I had been working as the Director of Tech coast Angels for over 6 years and I had learned so much, and accepted so much responsibility. I knew it was time to find a new challenge within my career path, but I didn't know where or what. A few months later, I bought a one way ticket to Guatemala in hopes to discover my next life/career move during a Central American adventure. I had always wanted to be fluent in Spanish, but it just never really stuck because I was never fully immersed in it and I never really had a good reason for learning it.
So I told my intern Shaun, secretly, about my plan to resign and travel, and about my one way ticket to Guatemala. I took him to happy hour and told him "I'm moving to Antigua, you're taking over, the training begins now. Go team." Once he got past the initial shock, he told me that, ironically, his Aunt Lisa helped start an orphanage near Antigua and had adopted twin girls from Guatemala.
Her friend and partner, Lilly, lived in Guatemala and managed the orphanage. I was intrigued, as I had been praying and searching for a volunteer opportunity during my trip. Shaun introduced me to Lisa, and we hit it off immediately. She was kind and bright and caring and grateful, and when we chatted over Skype I knew it was meant to be.
Per Lisa's suggestion, I came up with a plan to volunteer at Esperanza y Futuro by sharing some of my passions with the kids - art & music. I named the program Hope for Hearts, and raised a small amount of funds to buy arts & crafts supplies for the kids. Shaun perfected my Hope for Hearts logo in digital form, and gave me a guitar with it on the front to take on my trip. He even designed a special graphic of my dog Layla's face for the back of the guitar.
On January 12, 2015, I packed my backpack, my new guitar, and an 80 lb suitcase full of art supplies for the kids at the orphanage. I was ready with essentials for several months, assuming I would be gone at least 3 months, but without really knowing where I would end up or how long I would be traveling after my one way ticket took me to Guatemala City.
When I arrived, Lilly's driver picked me up promptly from the airport, and drove me to my Spanish school in Antigua, where my host family was waiting to pick me up.
A few days after setting in, I was scheduled to go to the orphanage for the first time. I coordinated with Ana, a bilingual volunteer who was living at Esperanza y Futuro, and she arranged to pick me up in front of my host home after Spanish school that day. Lilly asked her son, Javier, to drive us.
I didn't really speak to Javier much the first day, because he didn't speak English and I didn't speak Spanish, and Ana was busy filling me in on the details of the orphanage - the "hogar", or the "home". The next day Ana arranged for Javier to pick me up - this time just the two of us - in front of the church at Parque Central. He finally showed up, about a half hour late. I hopped in the front seat...
And so our story began.
Javier went mostly by Tío Javi or Javi, and our friendship began with 20 to 60 minute drives (depending on the traffic) back and forth from Antigua to Santo Thomas, in the hills where the hogar was located. He was kind and patient and funny and thoughtful, and I enjoyed our drives together. I would practice my Spanish with him, and he would listen intently and nod as if he understood every word. We would tell each other stories in Spanish, and I began to feel confident and fluent, although I was far from it.
Our communication was 50 percent Spanish, 20 percent English, and 30 percent charades, which made our conversations nothing less than entertaining...sometimes even hilarious.
And so our friendship began.
I would tell Javi stories in present tense, because I hadn't learned verbs in past tense yet, and he would laugh when I would preface the story with "this happened last weekend, but I'm going to tell you as if it's happening now, because I don't know any past tense verbs..." The day I learned past tense was an exciting day, and I couldn't wait to see Javi. I jumped into the van beaming with confidence in my new skill and started with my first grammatically correct story. It took much longer that I anticipated to finish the story, and my translation was slow and unrefined. But he loved my story and was just as excited to hear it as I was to tell it.
When we arrived at the hogar each day, the kids were always ecstatic to see Tio Javi, and soon they were equally as excited to see Tia Shakira. Their love for Tio Javi was strong and pure, and his love for them was even greater than they knew.
February 13th was Javi's birthday, and I had planned to bake a surprise cake with the teenage girls at the hogar. Lilly, Javi's mom, picked me up from school and took me to the grocery store to pick up cake supplies. Javi didn't know I was coming, so when we arrived at the hogar Javi was surprised and excited to see me. I baked the cake with the help of the girls, and we celebrated Javi's 28th birthday.
That night, when Javi drove me home to Antigua, he asked if I was hungry. I was hungry, but thought surely he had other plans that night, since it was his birthday. I told him I was thinking about getting pizza for dinner, but that he didn't have to come with me, since he probably had plans with his girlfriend or friends to celebrate his birthday. Little did I know, he had broken off his previous relationship shortly after I arrived in Guatemala. He agreed that pizza sounded good for dinner, and said he knew the perfect place. When we arrived, it was a lovely Italian restaurant, and the waiter seated us on the romantic terrace, with bistro lights strung throughout the trees. We shared two thin crust specialty pizzas, and it felt like we were on a date. But we weren't, as far as I was concerned. After he paid for dinner and opened my car door, I thought, maybe it was a date?
The next day was Valentine's Day, and I had plans to make homemade French toast with the girls at the hogar, with bread from the local bakery in Antigua. Javi picked me up, as usual, and we made a few stops to pick up supplies for the special breakfast. When we got back in the car, Javi handed me a little gift. It was a cute tin box with a ribbon, full of heart shaped, pink frosted sugar cookies, with a note that read "Happy Valentine's Day" and a tag that said "To: Shakira, Love, Javi". I was surprised, and he was clearly nervous.
The next day, February 15, 2015, was a Sunday and Javi came to my apartment to walk to to the big market in town, down the street from my apartment. I had been warned by my Spanish teacher, Angela, that it wasn't super safe to go to the big market alone, especially as a foreign girl, because it was enclosed and easy to get lost or robbed. So Javi offered to come with me. We spent the day exploring the big market and several other outdoor artisan markets with jewelry and souvenirs, and halfway through the day Javi took my hand and held it while we wandered the streets of Antigua. We ended the day with dinner at my apartment; I cooked a chicken and veggie stir fry with rice. After dinner, I walked Javi to my door and he stood there for a moment talking and thanking me for such a fun day. Then he kissed me goodnight.
We spent the next few weeks in our regular routine, adding in occasional dinners and spending extra time together whenever we could. My semi-scheduled two months in Antigua were coming to an end, and I was planning on heading to Tikal before making my way to Belize via bus. I joked with Javi and asked him if he wanted to go to Tikal...and he said yes! I laughed and he said he was serious, and that he would drive us. He hadn't been to the ruins in years and thought it would be fun to join me in the northern Guatemala sightseeing.
And so our travels began.
We drove over 10 hours to get to Northern Guatemala - we went to Semuc Champey, Tikal and Flores. Then Javi drove back home, alone, and I got on a bus to Belize, alone. After over 3 weeks in Belize, Javi decided to join me for some snorkeling and boating. He arrived via bus while my friends Andrea and Jamie were visiting me in Ambergris Caye.
About a week later, Javi and I took a bus back to Guatemala. We stayed for a week, visiting with the hogar kids and his family. I told Javi about my plans to travel South, and he decided to come with me on my journey through Central America.
And so our journey began.
We traveled through all of Central America for the next 2 months - we started in El Salvador, then made our way to Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and finally Panamá. In Costa Rica "Te quiero" became "Te amo" and I experienced the difference between friendship and love.
And so our love began.
We shared laughs, dreams, adventures, inside jokes, meals, drinks, bus rides, taxis, boat rides, kayaks, pictures, childhood stories, business ideas, memories, friendship and love. And then we shared tears when the adventure ended in Panama City, and we both had to go home to our own realities. On June 10th, Javi drove away in the rain in a taxi to the airport to return to Guatemala.
A few days later I returned to California. We spent the next few months talking frequently, then only occasionally, with doubts that we could ever realistically be together. In October, after agreeing that we needed to see each other again to decide once and for all if we should cut ties or continue communicating, Javi booked a flight to see me for my birthday in November.
Javi spent 2 weeks with me in California, celebrating thanksgiving and my birthday and meeting my unsuspecting family. These two weeks were as incredible as our two months traveling through Central America. We kept the potential relationship pretty quiet as we worked through the distance between us and discussed our ideas of how to close the gap between our worlds. We decided to be together, despite the geographic inconvenience, and I promised to visit him in Guatemala in February for his birthday. Again, tears were shed at the airport, but this time there was a silver lining that I would see him again in just 3 months.
As promised, I arrived in February, but this time the feeling was different. It felt like home - at the Hogar with the kids, at Javi's parents' home, and in Antigua. We celebrated Javi's birthday with his family and friends, I celebrated Valentine's Day with the kids again and the 2nd annual French toast brunch, and we wandered the streets of Antigua again, like one year before.
On February 15th, 2016, Javi took me to a "Valentine's Day dinner" (or so he said), at Meson Panza Verde in Antigua. He was wearing a suit when we left for dinner, and had to run back inside the house after he "forgot something". On the way to the restaurant, Javi drove in several circles and I asked him if we were lost and if he knew where he was going. He checked his phone anxiously and then strangely somehow remembered the way to the restaurant. We arrived at the restaurant - it was beautiful and elegant. The waiter showed us up the stairs to a romantic private room with dozens of roses, candles, and rose petals on the floor. It was magical. We ordered wine and appetizers and reminisced. Then Javi mentioned his neck was really hurting and it would feel better if we switched sides. So we switched seats, and he claimed to feel much better. During dinner, a waiter tripped on his way up to the upper terrace and I wondered why the lights weren't on upstairs. I told Javi they should really light the path better for the waiters and guests going to the third floor. He agreed, nervously, and was sweating so much that he has to wipe his face with his dinner napkin. I suggested he take off his jacket, but he insisted he was fine. We enjoyed our dinner, even though Javi was acting a little strange, and then it was time for dessert. I agreed on the tiramisu per Javi's suggestions, and it felt like the waiter arrived with the dessert in seconds. By the time the waiter reached our table, Javi was already on my side of the table on one knee. I was confused at first as everything happened so quickly, but when I saw the plate with chocolate hearts and a gorgeous sparkling diamond inside of a red rose on the plate, I knew what was happening.
He told me he loved me and wanted to be together forever, then asked me to marry him, in Spanish. Gerardo, the photographer that Javi had hired to document the proposal, finally showed his face and admitted the secret details of the night.
As it turned out, Javi had gone back in the house for the ring! And he "got lost" on the way to the restaurant because the photographer texted him and said they needed more time to set up. Javi's "neck hurt" because the secret photographer didn't have a good angle for pictures of me, so he texted Javi to switch chairs with me. He couldn't take his jacket off, even though he was sweating, because the ring was in his pocket and he had to make the transfer to the concierge. The "waiter" who tripped on his way up to the terrace was actually the deaf photographer that Javi hired to take pictures of the proposal. And Javi's "restroom" trip was actually a trip to the concierge to give them the ring to give to he chef to put in the rose on my dessert plate.
Javi had texted my friend Jamie on Instagram to get my ring size, and Jamie had prepped me for the trip with a manicure and a new black dress for the "nice dinner" that Javi had planned. Originally I thought that our dinner was a family outing, but it turned out to be a proposal.
Javi booked a one way ticket back to California with me on February 25th, and without a plan, we both returned to my home with a new hope for the future in our hearts, love in our eyes, and a ring on my finger.
And so our lifetime together began.