Guatemala by Megan Youngblood

I forwarded my ticket information to my mom, a round trip flight on American Airlines from JFK to Guatemala with a lay-over in Miami. Her response contained a link to the CIA’s travel website, which read as follows:Guatemala has one of the highest violent crime rates in Latin America. In 2011, an average of 40 murders a week (51/100,000) were reported in Guatemala City alone and an average of 109 murders a week (41/100,000) were reported countrywide. The vast majority of murders do not involve foreigners; however, the sheer volume of activity means that local officials, who are often inexperienced and underpaid, are unable to cope with the problem…Criminals know there is little chance they will be caught or punished as the rate of convictions/resolution are very low. I closed the link. It didn’t matter. It was the night before my flight. I was going anyways. I drifted off to sleep. I dreamed of kidnappings and ransom. It didn’t matter. I was going anyways. Exactly one week later I sat quietly at a small table covered in white linen, scratching a starving dog behind his ears. He basked in the affection. The pots and pans clanked in the kitchen of this small house while the woman whose home I had just entered made me dinner. The sign out front looked like it belonged to a restaurant, similar to the chalk boards that line Manhattan’s sidewalk, but this was definitely a dining room. “Como te llamas?” asked Eileen, the seven-year-old daughter of the maitre d’, who seemed to work as the house waitress, as her mother did not speak Spanish or English. She was dressed in the traditional Mayan clothing most Guatemalan women wear: an embroidered top with a sash belt and floor-length skirt. Her black hair hung long, tied back into a pony tail. Her face was cherubic and her eyes curious. “Me llamo Megan,” I responded, knowing well that my Spanish couldn’t even compare to that of a seven-year-old, feeling slightly embarrassed by my thick accent and broken language. “De donde eres?” she continued. This was always the second question, and I always answered with hesitance. I hate the baggage my nationality carries. I hope to disprove the negative stereotype—at least a little. “Soy de los Estados Unidos,” I responded. I am American. Her eyes widened, “Mucha gente de tu pais no habla espanol,” she said with a youthfully wise look. Most people from your country don’t speak Spanish. She continued a long string of rhythmic words which I half-understood. When her Mother called her into the kitchen they spoke another language, more African in sound than Spanish, a native Mayan tongue. She returned to the small dining room table to tell me about her school, and enthusiastically pulled out her knock-off Barbie backpack, exploding with homework and assignments she wanted me to read. She removed a notebook for penmanship, one for arithmetic, and a book of vocabulary words, scrawled in Spanish and Quichean-Mamean with pictures to accompany them. I sipped my lemonade and tried to repeat the words in Quichean-Mamean. She giggled and mimicked me back, entertained by my funny pronunciation. There are 53 languages spoken in Guatemala, a country smaller in size than the state of Louisiana. The estimated literacy rate is a mere 48%–55%. Eileen at age 7 can read more than most of Guatemala’s population. I smelled the food in the kitchen, and my stomach gurgled. I haven’t eaten since before my $2 boat ride across the lake from Panajachel. There were no ATMs or banks in San Marcos, a village of less than 2000 people, and I would have to return to Pana to get money if necessary. The CIA website reverberated in my mind: Dozens of victims (mostly foreign tourists) have had their bank accounts emptied remotely from places such as Bogota, Lima, Caracas and the Dominican Republic shortly after using their ATM cards at a slew of banks in Antigua and other places. We strongly encourage persons not to use ATMs and if at all possible to withdraw money from a teller inside a bank with your credit card. I had 200 Quetzales for the next 3 days, roughly $25. In New York, that can barely get me through a day. In Guatemala, it would be plenty. One week ago I was home, on the island fondly self-regarded as the center of the universe: Manhattan. I was finishing finals at Hunter College, serving Mojito Cubanos for $10, taking the subway, checking in on Foursquare, Tweeting about how misspelled my name was at Starbucks. Now, I sat learning Quichean-Mamean from a seven-year-old in San Marcos on Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala. Guatemala is a country characterized by its beautiful green landscape, active volcanoes, vibrant colors, historic ruins and culture, and extreme poverty, violence and corruption.  When asked about economic disparities in Guatemala, Guatemaltecos often say that seven families own all of Guatemala. The dozens of shanty towns lining the sides of freeways do nothing to refute this. Estimates say 56.2% of Guatemalans live in poverty. My trip through Guatemala began in Antigua, a colonial town built in 1538 which has been preserved as a historical landmark. Antigua is swarmed with Americans and Europeans vacationing or learning Spanish in one of the dozens of Spanish schools. Because it was founded by Spanish conquistadors, the architecture is very European. The climate is milder, and the large number of tourists ensures proper regulations that reduce the amount of violence and crime visible in the city. Antigua is different, more westernized, and also known for its siren-like properties: many people come to visit, and never leave. Antigua was once the capital of Guatemala, however it is surrounded by three volcanoes and a center for seismic activity. It has been destroyed many times throughout history by disastrous earthquakes. The earthquake of 1776 caused so much damage that the capital was relocated to what is now Guatemala City, or Guate as it is called. Many of the churches throughout Antigua were destroyed in the earthquake of 1776, including La Iglesia de San Francisco. Despite the church being partially in ruins, people come to pray for cures to their ailments as many miracles have happened within this church. Paraphernalia of the healed hang from the walls: wheelchairs, letters of thanks, and crutches are displayed as a testament to the church’s powers. Two other ruined churches in the city are Saint Joseph’s Cathedral, and La Iglesia de la Merced. I went on a tour and learned a lot about the history of the town, however the tour was in Spanish, and so there were moments of complete confusion. Somewhere between this tour and miming my way through finding where the body wash and towels were located in a small convenience store, the phrase “Lost in Translation” took on a whole new meaning. Within the hostels however, most of the time no translations were needed, as most of the travelers spoke English. The hostels in Guatemala are full of a restless and eclectic group, who typically define themselves as “travelers” and despise the word “tourist”. Most lament Americans for their love of 5-star resorts in Cancun, their lack of curiosity about other cultures, their desire to create Disneyland-fantasy-worlds for their vacations: a pool, with a pina colada, and an air-conditioned suite. Most have been traveling for months through Central America. Many have stories about being robbed, stranded, penniless and sans passport in a foreign city. Everyone has a story about their bout of “Montezuma’s Revenge” or the adverse reaction that people from Canada, the US or Europe experience from the water in Latin America. Yet there they were, braving it all over again. Despite severe warnings against such behavior, most of these travelers will trek through the country by chicken bus, retired American school buses that probably wouldn’t have passed a smog test 45 years ago in America let alone now. The US sold these busses to Guatemala, where colorful paint coats the sides of the busses and they are often so full of people that the subways in New York City during rush hour seem like  luxury liners. I decided to invest in a slightly safer method of transportation when moving around the country: I paid for shuttles and Pullman busses (although by the end of my trip I realized I definitely could have gotten away with a chicken bus ride or two). On my overnight trip from Antigua to Tikal, about an 8-hour journey north, the police stopped our bus. At 4 in the morning, we were all required to file off the bus and wait for the police officers to give us the okay to continue to Flores, the nearest city to Tikal and the point of transfer for those trying to make their way up to the ancient Mayan city. After a brief and seemingly arbitrary inspection, we were allowed to reboard the bus, and continue on our way. This is apparently a common practice, and it is also common for bus drivers to carry cash in their back pocket to make sure they have their bribes ready for these sort of police stops. Emboldened armed robbers have attacked vehicles on main roads in broad daylight. Travel on rural roads increases the risk of being stopped by a criminal roadblock or ambush. Widespread narcotics and alien-smuggling activities make remote areas especially dangerous…Criminals look for every opportunity to strike, so all travelers should remain constantly vigilant. Tikal was once the largest city in the Mayan empire. The city is laid out in a precise and galactically-relevant manner. The various towers align with the sun on the summer and winter solstices. I climbed to the top of Temple IV, which overlooks the jungle canopy that now covers the former city. The toucans, howler monkeys, and mid-day tropical thunder storms clarified that I was in the jungle. Although Tikal is now preserved as a National Park, the grounds are still used for rituals and ceremonies in honor of the gods. While at Tikal, I saw a group of Mayans who burned incense, a variety of plants and oils while they prayed. This was not for show, we were warned, and we were not to photograph it. It is hard to imagine that these places can exist simultaneously--that there can be people praying to the Mayan gods, sitting among the howler monkeys in an ancient city that dates back to 400 BC at the same moment someone drops their latte on the subway platform, waiting for the 6 train. Despite the jarring differences, the similarities are just as striking. Family values, friendship, good will, as well as violence, crime, and corruption manage to exist in all parts of the world. The number of violent crimes reported by U.S. citizens and other foreigners has remained high and incidents have included, but are not limited to, assault, theft, armed robbery, carjacking, rape, kidnapping, and murder, even in areas once considered safe such as Zones 10, 14, and 15 in the capital. Since December 2008, 31 murders of U.S. citizens have been reported in Guatemala, including six in 2011 and three in 2012. Back at the hostel in Flores, a group of us slightly dirty, mosquito-bitten travelers sat and watched as England beat Sweden in ‘football’. “Where are you from?” a hostel-mate and fellow American asked me. “I am from California, but I live in Alphabet City,” I responded. He smirked. “You know, Alphabet City is the only place in the world I’ve ever been robbed at gunpoint,” he said, as we drank a couple Gallo beers in peacefully swaying hammocks.