When you exit the volunteer house, you must use a key to lock your room. You must use a key to unlock the front door, you must slam it closed behind you, or else it won't shut. They say these streets aren't safe at night, and so you must keep your key close to you. You must not carry your camera, your laptop, your fancy backpack, your fancy handbag. You must leave your room with the canvas bag you found in Guatemala, the one with the lettering long faded, the straps worn and thin. You must carry your umbrella all the time, the umbrella you found at the drugstore on the corner, because this place will always be on the brink of rain, or else drizzling, or else, like it now, pouring.
If you take a left out of the volunteer house, you'll come to a street with tiendas and bars and restaurants advertising pictures of grilled beef and tall glasses of beer. Gnarled trees grow out of the pavement, people shuffle past without looking at you, homes with bars across the doors will glare at you. These buildings are pink, they are red, they are orange, they are green; it's like this street is trying to preserve the little sunshine it receives in the colors of its walls. This street is narrow, busy, dirty. This street is beautiful.
If you walk and walk, you'll pass sprawling restaurants with tables set up outside, and everywhere the streetlamps will reflect the puddles of rain on the pavement. You'll pass whitewashed buildings, gated with gardens inside. You'll pass boutique hotels, you'll pass buses, you'll pass the post office. There's a dancing school with its door open; you can see that the girl closest to you is a few steps behind everyone else. You walk past, but the music follows you.
You will come to the bus stop at the corner. If you take the bus through the Tunnels, as the man at your school instructed you to do, you'll get to San Roque, that poor neighborhood in the old part of town. You'll see the market that stretches up the hill, the market that reminds you of every market you've seen since you've been in Latin America: plantains in rows, baskets of gum and cigarettes, hawkers with plastic sacks of thin, fried potatoes. Poles lined with canvas bags for sale, just like the one you bought in Guatemala. You will come to the gates of the school you are to work at; an old man with a cooler of ice-cream pops will stand just outside, his clothes faded and dirty, his back hunched over. He will pass the pops through the bars to the schoolchildren, who hand him coins in return.
And if you get inside the schoolyard, you will see the piles of trash pressed up against the walls. You will enter the tall brick building and see the broken glass on the floor, the dirty walls, the broken lightbulbs. You will see the children, children who touch your hair, children who hold each other's hands and smile at you and tell you hello, ask if you are the English teacher. You will go into the room with the littlest ones, who sit at long, low tables waiting for their breakfast. God, they are adorable, and you will remember why you have come. You will forget to feel scared, surrounded by all this strangeness and broken glass. They will hold their hands out to touch you, they will stare up at you with open faces, they will wave at you when you go. You will talk with the suited superintendent, who speaks too fast and tells you to come back tomorrow to set up a schedule.
And so you will ride the bus home, staring out the window as you pass the long stretch of public gardens, the universities, the grocery stores, the other buses, the tourists. You will wonder why they carry their cameras like that, looped around their necks like some kind of prize.