We boarded the plane from Miami to Guatemala City, excited yet a little nervous (truth be told). While I felt a peace about taking the trip, I'd be lying if I said I felt zero anxiety about leaving American soil.
The headlines scrolling across U.S. news with reports from Guatemala didn't exactly tell a flattering story.
Yet here I was, buckled up on a jet plane with my 16-year-old mentee Ashlyn, crossing not one but two borders.
"We're going to be fine, we're going to be fine, God's with us," I told myself as I nestled into the middle seat and felt the wheels of the plane come as our plane soared into the air.
Not long after the flight into Guatemala got underway, I began making small talk with the woman sitting to my right.
When I'd squeezed past her to get into my seat, I hadn't noticed she carried years of wisdom on her face, nor did I anticipate the stories that would soon flow. Noticing my book about Corrie ten Boom who helped hide Jews during Nazi Germany, she began sharing personal accounts of living through the war as a little girl.
But then, her stories continued.
"I met my husband, who was Guatemalan, at Iowa State and then we moved to Guatemala so he could work on his family's coffee plantation." My eyes perked up at such an interesting, unique tale. I asked for more details.
As we sat and talked, I learned about the Banditos robbing the nearby fields putting their lives in danger, the ultimate reason they left the coffee fields and headed for the city. I learned of her experience with learning Spanish and the kindness of her in-laws.
I discovered she now has children and grandchildren living all over Central America, with very few of them in the States. I heard her passion for Guatemala, a place she now called "home."
"If you go to Antigua, you should come to my house!"
I could tell by the drop in pressure we were getting close to our destination. She could too, and that's why she made sure to spell out her name, address and phone number on a paper for me before we parted ways.
"Did I really just meet a stranger on the plane who invited me to her house in Antigua - and I really want to go?" I asked myself once we made it into Guatemala, through customs and onto the bus taking us to the orphanage at Casa Bernabe.
A few days later on a different bus headed for Antigua, it was confirmed.
Yes - that happened.
Yes - we were totally going to connect with her.
"Hi Doris, It's Danielle... from the airplane... do you remember me?"
It took her a second to remember me, it had been four days since we'd last spoken and I'd not given her any indication that I would call. But, plans to travel two hours south to Antigua had indeed made their way into our itinerary.
I was thrilled to visit one of Guatemala's most beautiful cities and touch base with our stranger-turned-friend.
"Ahhh, oh yes. Hi! Give me 15 minutes, I'll meet you on the steps of the Cathedral."
She hung up and I shook my head at Ashlyn... this was really happening.
We walked toward an old, tall Cathedral not far from what they called the "lactating" fountain in a busy city park. Men and women selling everything from colorful scarves to homemade flutes in the same way vendors sell cotton candy at the ballpark targeted us.
"We take dollars!" they insisted as I waved my head no.
Thankfully, a few minutes later, Doris pulled up in a red, Kia SUV.
"Get in, get in!"
With doors closed and seat belts clicked, we began our tour of the city. As we drove down bumpy, stone roads original to the Spanish settlers in the 1500s, she pointed out special landmarks. We went to the market where she navigated us through a complex maze.
"These peppers have a sweet flavor. These floral leaves are crushed and make a delicious, pink drink. These spices make a delicious stew. These black beans are so good, I love them."
I began to understand why she'd fallen in love with Guatemala and never returned home. For one reason, the food.
After taking us by more shops and her bank to exchange money, she invited us to her house.
"How about you come over and let's have a refreshing drink."
In the back of my mind, I did pause to consider if it was a good idea. We'd just met this woman and nobody knew where we were going.
But I felt a peace about it, and the adventure had already been so fun. We nodded our heads and soon were on our way to Doris's house.
The city of Antigua is very small, so her house was literally down the street from her bank. She pushed a button and a big, wooden door automatically slid open. It was sandwiched by colorful walls that I'd assumed were businesses when we drove into the city.
She turned off her car and we stepped out into a grassy courtyard that sat between two houses - one was her home and the other her daughter's.
My jaw dropped.
It was like a movie scene. There were flowers, trees and a lush garden serving as a backdrop to a beautiful villa with open windows letting in a cool breeze. A view of the mountain was framed just above the rooftops.
I couldn't believe it.
For the next hour, Doris invited us to sit around her table. We enjoyed sipping on the pink juice made of flowers - the kind she'd mentioned at the market.
Before leaving, she gave us a tour of her home. Her husband loved antiques and collected original, Spanish colonial furniture.
The house was absolutely stunning. Nooks with books and grand siting areas. Large tables for hosting guests and family.
We clearly weren't the only ones to experience her gift of hospitality.
"If you come back to Antigua, call me and you can stay here with me!" she insisted before we parted ways.
Once again, I couldn't believe what was happening.
We reunited with our group from Casa Bernabe later that afternoon. But for the rest of the day, and the remainder of the trip, I kept thinking about Doris.
Never before had I experienced such an adventure - and radical hospitality.
It was a travel blogger's dream.
"Doris, you just gave us one of those epic airplane stories - we met a stranger on a plane and it turned into this!" I told her as we hugged her goodbye in Antigua, not knowing if or when we'd see her again.
I couldn't help but feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude.
She'd helped us experience the intangible connection that can form when people bond over something similar - an interest in food, a desire for adventure, a belief system or simply shared roots and a country of origin.
I assumed she'd welcomed us into her home so graciously because we were two Midwestern, American girls who reminded her a lot of herself back in the day. As a fellow American, she wanted to showcase the beauty of Guatemala.
It proved to be powerful.
I felt more appreciation for the culture and I saw more good verses bad after walking the streets beside her and experiencing it through her eyes.
She introduced me to reasons to love a country I don't call my own - a country that doesn't get enough good press for what it's doing in the U.S.
Crazy adventure story? Yes. Radical hospitality? For sure.
But even more than that - Doris taught me a powerful lesson about belonging.
She showed me to belong doesn't necessarily mean we're in the same place and at the same post. To belong means there's always an invitation to a table simply because we come from the same place.