The Learning Curve: Guate and Antigua

It only took five days to have my Ryan Lochte moment. Unlike our formerly beloved, now fallen-from-grace, shameful national icon, I will not mince words or embellish what happened. Nor will I attempt to degrade this beautiful place or the wonderful people whom I’ve met thus far. Quite the opposite – I mostly blame the incident on my carelessness. To paint the people of Guatemala with a broad brush based on what happened yesterday would be wrong and a disservice. I ask that you, the reader, keep this in mind as I recount what occurred.

Moreover, I hope this does not dissuade  any ambitions you might have to travel to Central America. I hope only that you take my experience with a grain of salt and ensure proper precautions to avoid a fate worse than mine.


 

I’ll start with last weekend in Guatemala City, or Guate. Marred by torrential rainfall, most of my time in the city was spent hunkered down in my hotel, watching football in Spanish (something I will never grow tired of). When the rain would let up and allow for some exploration, I found the streets to be unusually stinky throughout. A quick google search told me about a landfill in the middle of Guate that, when mixed with rain, sends a plume of nasty odor wafting throughout the streets. Despite having lived with dudes who take pride in their stinky farts for many years, I found the constant stench to be uncomfortable.

The landfill is located in Zone 5, one of many zones in Guate, though no one is quite sure exactly how many there are. The Municipality divided up the sprawling city into zones to, among other reasons, identify the safe and less-safe areas. I am told to avoid the “red zones”, those that tend to be the most violent (it should be noted that, while Guate is the 25th most murderous city in the world, it is ranked lower than such cities as St. Louis and Baltimore).

I took to Zone 1, the historic district, on Saturday when the on-and-off rainfall finally let up. This part of the city proved to be less odorous, and much more charming.

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Palacio Verde overlooking the main plaza
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Catedral Primada Metropolitana de Santiago

In the main plaza, hundreds are gathered in a small theater while an ensemble played lively music. Dozens of couples are dancing while others opt to enjoy the music while sitting. I stayed for about half an hour and enjoyed the beautiful scene.

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Just meters away, a government protest is taking place outside the National Palace, or Palacio Verde. As seen at the top of this post, about a dozen or so were gathered armed with loudspeaker microphones and signage singing the condemnation of their elected officials.

Guatemala has struggled to recover from a 30 year civil war which ended in 1996. The democratic republic that was instituted has been, at best, dysfunctional. Last year systematic corruption was revealed in the form of more than 100 government officials and business people who embezzled over US$120 million. The following overhaul and upheaval led to the election of populist favorite and former comedian Jimmy Morales, often called the “Donald Trump of Guatemala”, who ran under the slogan “Neither corrupt, nor a thief”.

The folks outside Palacio Verde are convinced that the corruption has endured, as evidenced by their signs and chants.

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“El sistema del gobierno está peor que el penitenciario ¡Cárcel para los ladrones!”

(“The system of government is worse than prison. Jail for the robbers!”)

I’m not sure if this reflects the views of most Guatemalans, or just this select group. I hope to have discussions with other Guatemalans around government perception in the coming days.

antigua

 

On Sunday I moved on to Antigua from Guate, which was about an hour by bus. Upon arriving I immediately fell in love with the city. Lovely cobblestone streets, colorful buildings, quiet plazas, and old world architecture. The people are friendly and welcoming and the food has been exquisite.

I suppose I’ll save the rest my ravings of this amazing city for my next post, which will be nothing but positive. For now, I’ll revisit what happened yesterday and get that out of the way.

For my first full day exploring I decided to check out the open air markets in the center of the city. They are widely acclaimed for being bustling cultural boutiques, with much to see and peruse. I was thoroughly enjoying the labyrinth of stalls, the colors, sounds and smells. The curiosity must’ve been written on my face.

As I turned a corner into a narrow section off the main stretch of vendors, two young girls jumped out and latched themselves onto each of my legs. They made playful laughter as their tiny arms and legs wrapped around me in a vice grip. I couldn’t move. Mind racing, I thought of all the horror stories of theft I had read about leading up to this trip. This was no child’s play. It was too concerted, and the way they were squeezing my calves, rendering me immobile, suggested something more sinister was at work.

I imagine other tourists might be charmed by these little girls and played along with them. Of course, these little ones are simply a distraction for for what happens next. Moments later someone bigger would be slipping their hands into the unknowing tourist’s pocket or bag while they’re distracted, grabbing whatever they could, and disappearing into the maze of the markets. It would all happen in a matter of seconds.

As such I knew had to act quickly. Hearing footsteps behind me, uncertain whether it was a random passerby or my would-be aggressor, I peeled the young girls off me, no easy task, and took off running. I haven’t run that hard in a long time. When I was clear of the markets I finally looked back and, confident I wasn’t followed, took my leave at a hurried pace.

That’s it. No gun pointed at my head. No extortion. Nothing valuable lost. In retrospect, the only thing I did lose was some of my dignity.

I was careless. I had been taking pictures with my nice camera. Not a good idea around so many people. I was surely being watched. I even snapped a photo of a sign warning of theft moments before the incident.

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Can’t you just taste the irony?

Indeed, I don’t blame the would-be perpetrators, and I especially don’t blame those poor little girls. I blame the whole thing on my stupidity. I need to be more aware, more vigilant. This isn’t Europe. I can’t be flaunting possessions like my expensive camera in densely packed areas, if at all. It only puts more of a target on my back. As someone traveling alone, drawing unwanted attention is something I can ill-afford.

Am I going to stop taking pictures from now on? No. Am I going to leave Antigua because of what happened? Definitely not. It was a dodgy situation, but could have been so much worse, and does not change my drive to continue to explore and embrace this beautiful place. The only thing I need to change is the way I carry myself.

Lessons learned. Onward.

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