Risky behaviour and leaps of faith- written by E

Published: June 23rd 2015
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View of Guatemala CityView of Guatemala CityView of Guatemala City

View from Gerona Hotel.
We hitchhiked part way to the border of Mexico-Guatemala. I have a current bout of stomach upset (the polite way to put it) and was low on energy as we mounted our bags onto our backs for the first time in over 4 weeks. Bouts of sickness come and go for us, they've rarely been a problem in Mexico, more an irritation. We have the Nepali experience as a benchmark, so anything else is child's play. Lots of people stopped to offer rides; trucks and families alike, and we went with a family going to more or less our destination. 20 minutes later, we were back on the side of the road. Either they didn't like the slight sweatiness we bought to their car, or there'd been miscommunication of their route. I like to think the latter. So on the side of the road in a small town with bus and car mechanics and not much else, I called it and opted for a combi/collective the rest of the way to the border.

At the border, the Mexican officers were their usual friendly self; the kind of men who look like they've seen it all but maintain a
La frutaLa frutaLa fruta

This beauty was edible! Didn't taste as good as it looked.
friendliness in their eyes. I'd lost an essential piece of paperwork we'd been given at the Tecate border crossing. I was aware of this beforehand, but didn't take it too seriously. It seems I don't take too much too seriously these days- what's the worst that can happen? It turned out the worst that could happen was I wouldn't be stamped out of Mexico, so while I could cross the border,I would technically still being Mexico on their system and therefore an illegal immigrant. Therefore unable to ever return to the great country. There was umm-ing and ahh-ing, my Spanish deserted me and I waited. The man who looked something like I'd like my imaginary Mexican dad to look like, decided to hell with it, he was in charge,he wanted to see me back in his country one day, so 'thump thump' went the all-important exit stamp. I felt some relief but really I was more impressed and congratulated myself that i'd gone over 6 months before losing any important documents. For anyone that knows me, this is remarkable.

Walking across into Guatemala was uneventful; these officers were fully engaged in watching the Copa de Americas football

Some of the most creative signs though there were many.
tournament on a small grainy television screen. They 'thump thump'ed us in $40MXN later (we were yet to get Guatemalan Quatzels). Another unremarkable border town, but unbelievably sweaty after the mild days in San Cristobal, I opted for a tuk-tuk to take us to the bus station for the onward journey to Huehuetanango. As is sometimes the case, the ride took 3 minutes- if only I could have sweated a further 3 minutes walking up hill! But hey ho, he was a nice lad and charged us little.

Into Huehuetanango was one of my favourite rides so far. On the collectivo to the border I was nodding off all over people's shoulders due to low energy, but the 4ish hours to Huehuetanango, I was riveted. First off, the local buses are affectionately termed 'chicken buses' because that's what they used to transport much of, along with people. Now it's mainly just packed with people- the beautiful colours of indigenous clothes of both men and women, children suckling their mother's breasts absentmindedly, sellers mounting the bus to do the sweaty walk up and down the aisle, offering watches, fruit, sandwiches, health pills, soap, drinks. The journey begins with
General CemetaryGeneral CemetaryGeneral Cemetary

Area where the poorer people are buried. Scavenging birds circle, the city's rubbish dump is close by. The number of child graves felt shocking and stumbling on a child's funeral - very moving.
disco-style lights being turned on up the front, with stickers informing us 'my god is on my bus' and similar faith. Old US school buses, these are barely recognisable aside from the cumbersome shape: painted rainbow colours, stickers of all messages adorning the interior and exterior. I feel confident the driver valued his bus so much, he had no intention to put it at risk. The ride itself was an adventure- hair raising speeds around blind corners, an array of Guatemalan music. Going at a guess of 75mph around corners, a boy climbs out of the back door to the roof to rearrange baggage. He looks like he knows he's dicing with death and he loves it. The rains begin. So far, the heaviest I've experienced. Experiencing them round now even-blinder corners, the driver stops playing with his phone and gets serious. Noone's alarmed, this is a daily school bus journey for many- girls in football kits, boys styling their hair in the self-obsessed way that's seemingly universal across all cultures, all demographics, the world.

Huehuetanango was a fleeting stop. We stayed with a CS for one night who was very understanding that I felt sick and
View from the cemetaryView from the cemetaryView from the cemetary

A natural crater utilised as the city's rubbish dump. From this viewpoint, the mountain looked like it was moving. This was children and adults sorting through rubbish to use and sell. There is no recycling in Guatemala City.
went straight to bed. The next day- on to Lago de Atitlan on chicken bus again. This wasn't quite such an engaging journey, so I nodded in and out until we started nearing the lake. Aldous Huxley (so the wonderful Wikipedia source informs me), named this Lake the most beautiful in the world. Surrounded by mountains that enter the huge, blue lake, from the beautiful ones I've been grateful to see so far, I would agree. Always determined to get into any open body of water I see, I looked forward to the following day, when I would launch in there. There are many places to stay surrounding the lake, with hindsight (read as 'with later information from locals') we stayed in the most touristy area- Panajachel. Two days was enjoyable but enough of this town. The lake was the absolute making of it; not cold, full of locals and just as beautiful from up close. The town had a vegan cafe/restaurant; the ultimate sign of tourism, we are learning. It also had what was for me an unbelievable and disconcerting amount of US missionaries aged anything between 10-60 years old. Apparently between 25-40% of Guatemalans have converted/been converted from indigenous beliefs/Catholicism brought by the Spanish to US protestantism (according to good ol' Wikipedia again!). The groups fly across/parachute in/trail blaze through the Americas. We first saw the missionary groups in southern Mexico, their message appears to be stronger as we travel further. I don't know nearly enough about the methods so can't really say anymore. In my experience from meeting a good group's worth at the Spanish school, as with all groups of people, the missionaries have varying interest in Spanish, respect for ways of life and motives. I would happily have talked more to a couple we met to understand those of whom seemed engaged and warm-hearted people.

Glen and I decided to have a few days in different places; unbelievably our first time apart in over 6 months since we'd been apart, which is unheard of for us when back at home. I decided to head to Guatemala City, he to Antigua. Back in the day when I was working for Social Services in the UK, I performed risk assessments multiple times throughout my day. We all know we make constant choices every moment, often involving calculation of risk to ourselves/others. Part of going
El Centro MercadoEl Centro MercadoEl Centro Mercado

Three floors of delight.
to Guatemala City on my own was to do some map reading myself and generally do it alone. I'm decided to do a bit more preparation than usual. The internet is a funny place; unbelievably helpful but also quite the opposite and advice given depends where you go looking. Many people fly over Guatemala full stop, feeling it's too dangerous. Guatemala city has the title of 3rd highest murder capital in the world from the UN statistics in 2014. Many travellers post personal stories of muggings in the city. Certain zones on the Wikitravel page are recommended as no-go; Zona 1 is advised as dangerous particularly after dark (this was where my hostel was booked for my first night) and Zona 3 a no-go (this is where my CS host lives). I felt nervous. However, for every bad experience there was a positive and the good nature of general Guatemalans and their country featured highly. I decided to take a couple of precautions. I paid the extra to get a bus straight to the hostel on my first day, as much to do with my sense of direction as anything else, I didn't want to look obviously lost with all my stuff possibly after dark. We got a tourist bus to get the 'door to door' service (a mistake in hindsight, a chicken bus would've been cheaper, more enjoyable and the same service). Glen got off in Antigua which looked like a pretty colonial town. The driver asked where the remaining people needed to be dropped. I told him Zona 1, he advised he doesn't go to Zona 1. End of conversation. He was going to the airport so would drop me there (no where near Zona 1). I weighed up my options, some more attractive than others. I considered that for decades pre-internet, people just turned up in a city with next to no prior knowledge, and worked it out. I decided in the end to get a taxi from the airport. There are apparently 800 illegal/stolen taxis operating in Guatemala city and some descriptions of how to identify these were given. I avoided tinted windows (many cars- family and company have tinted windows in the city) and did a sweep of the inside of the car, keeping my bag with me, not in the boot. The driver was fine, knew exactly the hostel and I arrived at dusk. The man on reception was the friendly and warm 70-something Ambrosio. Genuine warmth and kindness always makes me melt and well-up when I've been on high-alert. Toilet paper and towel given, free drinking water and a clean bed and I was done for the day. I decided to get some basics from the nearby shop and call it a day. The following day I walked through Zona 1 as it's the historic area. Residentially it is rundown and poor. I saw 5 policemen (after nearly 7 months i still haven't got used to police being armed) in half an hour and as I entered the centre, saw the armed security guards at the doors of most cafes and restaurants. A man with a gun on guard outside a smoothie bar was a new sight to me.

Guatemala city so far has been pretty ugly aesthetically; it's flat, there is little green spaces and pollution is heavy; I feel the grit in my eyes that I last felt in Kathmandhu. As fun as the chicken buses are, the thick black smoke that plumes from them at head height is concerning to say the least. My Couchsurfing host is great. Like many of our hosts, he can't afford to travel so doesn't surf but loves to host. We went to a protest outside the Presidential building. It has been a weekly protest for many months demanding the resignation of the President who it's said has spent millions of Quatzels intended for environmental improvement, such as water and lake cleaning, instead on buying himself houses, cars and helicopters. Interestingly for me, there were no police at the protest. Alejandro said it was because it was non-violent. I explained the policing methods of protest in the UK; the monitoring, kettling, permission needed. Freedom and lack of comes in different guises in different places.

So now I am staying in Zona 3. Alejandro felt I'd be fine walking the area; contrary to internet information that people in Guatemala don't walk, this has not been the case from what I've seen. There are brothels here (US 80s rock music is always the sign of the establishment apparently) and I don't intend to meander as I would for example on an afternoon in central Berlin. But so far I'm pleased to have weighed it up and come alone. To meet another person keen to share the joys of his city (protests, bars where Che Guevara drank, food, street performers) and to learn more about the UK (a massive fan of The Beatles, like nearly every person I've met so far across the world!). It hasn't got the aesthetic beauty that other parts of Guatemala have shown but it's got the people, the passion and the aspiration for living freer and with dignity, which is a joy to see anywhere.


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