Posted from Quetzaltenango, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.
Three months in Guatemala hardly makes us experts on this amazing, beautiful, and interesting country. But one thing is for sure: we fell for it and we fell hard. Throughout our three months there, in several different locations, a few things have caught our attention and left impressions. And so, in the effort of orderliness and suspense, we have enumerated two Top 10 lists: one for our favorite things and one for our least favorite things about Guatemala based on our three short months here. These are mainly general observations – not specific occurrences (or else our initial border crossing would have blown away the competition in the Least Favorite column) but these observations are absolutely intended without judgment. Guatemala is its own country, has one national culture different from those of other countries, but also contains many smaller disparate cultures, not unlike any other country. But, when all is said and done, we were enchanted by Guatemala, we cannot wait to return in July, and we definitely hope it works out for us to visit yet again after this journey is concluded.
Top 10 Least Favorite Things
10. Frequent less-than-courteous use of cellphones. However, it’s no worse (nor any better) than in the States. People will usually interrupt what they are doing to answer their phone. It was surprising to see how many people, even the poor and the elderly, have cellphones. And they use them.
9. Having to throw used toilet paper in the garbage. But most of Central and South America has the same system so we’d better get used to it.
8. The roads. If they are not brand new, they are bumpy, rocky, pot-holed, broken, tortuously curvy, incomplete, or – as charming as it may sound but it’s a pain when you are trying to navigate them – cobblestone. Village and city roads are narrow, usually one-way, and populated with pedestrians not trying all that hard to stay out of the way. Getting motion sick while still in a city was a new experience.
7. The free-for-all driving habits of anyone behind a wheel. If there is room anywhere on the road, they will attempt to put their car there. And they LOVE to pass – including on city streets. Even a one-way sign carries little weight in this country. If you are a pedestrian, you’re on your own. No one will stop for you if you are waiting on the side of the road, and they will almost never slow down if you happen to be in middle of the road. Drunken driving and texting while driving are also not as rare of occurrences as they should be.
6. The frequency of public drunkenness. It is always the men, but it can happen any day of the week, any time of day (yes, mornings as well). And we’re talking staggering-down-the-middle-of-the-road drunk. It is a part of the culture, but even most Guatemalans will admit it to being an unsavory part. The good thing, at least, is that the drunks (borrachos) are always very happy and friendly. No sad or mean drunks here. And there is always a friend nearby to assist their getting home.
5. The opaque clouds of sooty, black smoke that pour from the tailpipes of buses, trucks, tuk-tuks, cars, and just about every other vehicle. It stinks, it lingers, and it forces you to hold your breath longer than you are comfortable doing so.
4. Getting “bumped” aside or butted in front of just because there happens to be space for another person to squeeze into. It happens at the markets especially, but also in stores and while watching performances. Once in San Pedro while watching a band perform, and a man with a little girl on his shoulders literally made his way directly in front of Pepe and just stopped there to enjoy the show. At first we thought it was purely cultural – after all, no one genuinely seems like they are intending to be rude. And there doesn’t ever seem to be any ill will demonstrated by anyone to anyone else in this country. But our teacher in San Pedro stated her firm belief that regardless of how common an occurrence this is, it shows a lack of respect for others and people should learn that this behavior isn’t appropriate (her words, not ours).
3. Upset tummies. When this happens it could be from street food, inadvertent exposure to unfiltered water, or sometimes sketchy or less-than-completely-sanitary food preparations. In Guatemala, we each suffered four to five intestinal issues in the eleven weeks we were here. Erik even missed a class in San Pedro and one in Xela, staying in bed those days. But instances such as these were not unexpected when we set off on this trip and we’re still hanging on. (And we’re still going to eat street food.)
2. Flagrant peeing in the streets. Granted, this action is only perpetrated by the men (once again), but it happens in small towns, big cities, daytime, nighttime, whether drunk or not. Sure, they usually try to find a wall or a bush, but they don’t go so far as to hide behind a corner. In the middle of the park during the day? Yep. Against a lamp post on the side of the street? Yep. And then there’s the residual odor…
1. The out-of-control situation with… the garbage. There is garbage in the streets, garbage in the parks, garbage in yards, garbage on nature trails. Like Mexico, there are spontaneously created “garbage dumps” lining the sides of many roads. Garbage is frequently burned in small piles anywhere it is accumulated, and these piles always include the brightly colored plastic bags that can be found everywhere. We have seen little kids throw trash onto the street, adults dump candy wrappers in the park, elderly people nonchalantly discard their ice cream cups onto the sidewalk, and – no lie – we even saw one teenage girl carelessly use the ground at the top of San Pedro Volcano to dispose of a plastic bag when there were literally three garbage cans 15 feet from her. There are too many factors at play here to point the finger at any one reason: ignorance is of course a huge part of the problem, but the lack of a government infrastructure or solution to this epidemic hurts just as badly. No contest: this is Public Eyesore Número Uno.
And now for the good news….
Top 10 Favorite Things About Guatemala
10. Being, on average, 4-6 inches taller than most Guatemalan men (and more than that for the woman). Neither one of us was ever considered tall back home, so this was an interesting experience and definitely had moments where it came in handy. Unless, of course, someone is standing in front of you with a child on his shoulders…
9. The marimba music. The marimba is the national instrument of Guatemala having been invented here (although there is a little controversy, with some evidence suggesting that it may have African roots). The “marimba pura” music is always happy and bouncy – no drippy, sad, or sugary ballads here. Whether it be based on actual native Guatemalan music or arrangements of “The Blue Danube” and the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (you need to hear it to believe it), it can be pretty addictive. Some may derogatorily call it manic, but we don’t care. We love it.
8. Rio Dulce. Translated as “Sweet River,” this beautiful waterway has wonderful scenery. On its sides are high canyon walls, covered in jungle greenery. Dotting the river here and there are small villages, many of which are inaccessible except by boat. It’s fascinating to observe this very different way of life, seeing boys and girls trying to master maneuvering a rowboat while fishing and catching starfish. Then, before you know it, you reach Livingston and the river disappears into the epic, solemn grandeur of the Atlantic Ocean.
7. Volcanoes. We don’t have volcanoes where we come from, so it’s pretty cool to be able to just look around you and see a couple in the distance at any time. We had the great experience of hiking up one in San Pedro; and we happened to look up at just the right time in Antigua to see a distant volcano cough up a breath of smoke. Mountains are great but they don’t do anything. Volcanoes have a mystique and aura about them, even when they’re dormant or extinct because you know that at one time they were busily changing the landscape of the earth – and no one wins a battle against a volcano.
6. The climate. It’s hot, it’s cool, it’s dry, it’s humid. It’s hard to complain when just a few hours’ drive away is another option. Although navigating the roads can be tricky, Guatemala has a world of options in altitude, temperature, and humidity levels. But it never has snow; that’s probably what we are liking best.
5. The giant outdoor markets with their stalls upon stalls of foodstuffs and housewares. It’s the perfect place to buy what is fresh and in-season. Or a pair of underwear if you are in that sort of mood. Sure, we’ve come across a few venders selling apples from Washington state (apples aren’t grown in Guatemala), but for the most part, the produce is local. The same can be said for the venders selling freshly prepared foods like tostadas, tamales, cakes, etc. It sure beats the processed foods lining supermarket shelves in the U.S.
4. Those who take seriously saving the native culture, dress, languages, and food throughout the country. Progress, for those who want it, can be a great thing. And the peaceful coming together of disparate cultures is also a wonderful thing. But it is unfortunate when, in the process of homogenization – or even just integration – the uniqueness of tribal cultures, hundreds of years old, gets lost – or worse, Westernized. Even in the larger Guatemalan cities, you don’t have to look hard to find women continuing to wear and make native dress (in the case of the men, it can be difficult outside of small villages); the native dialects are again being taught is some of the schools; Mayan ceremonies are still occurring throughout the country; and the typical food is alive and well in homes and in restaurants. Let’s hope this preservation of cultures continues for centuries to come.
3. The prices. Breakfast for two for a total of US$1? Check. Lunch for two for US$2.50? Check. Ice cream or a piece of cake always less than US$1? Check. Two loaves of fresh wheat bread, four breakfast rolls, and 3 breakfast pastries all from a local bakery for about US$3? Check. A one-liter bottle of Quetzalteca for US$5? Check.
2. The food. Guatemalan food isn’t known for being exciting, adventurous, or even all that varied. Some people love it and some people don’t. We did. It’s hard to complain about homemade tortillas with every meal, frequent appearances by refried beans, eggs, fresh cheese, and fresh fruit-based beverages. And we probably had guacamole (or just avocados) several times a week and are definitely not complaining. From chicken soup to tamales, the Guatemalan women make their food the way they make their food, and that’s that. But they make it with an extraordinary amount of care, tradition, generosity, and love. Even when we dine at the smallest, most unfancy, little comedor that offers only one option – the “meal of the day” (like it or leave it) – there is such pride in what they do mixed with a tangible desire to quietly please you. Sigh.
1. The people. Ta-da! We can’t really recall ever seeing a Guatemalan truly angry. They really don’t even get cross. In our three months here, we could probably count on one hand the number of times we’ve heard a toddler pitch a fit. Frankly, the sound of a baby crying is unusual. If you engage with them – even a “Buenas tardes” on the street – they will always smile as they respond. We love watching the sweet young girls and teenagers in their ropa tipica, playing and giggling like any other girl in the world. We love being entertained by the boys with their A&F/Hollister imprinted clothing and their hair doused in hair product (to the point of being breakable) in the national obsession with the faux-hawk, goofing around and causing harmless mischief like boys do. We love being impressed by the unbelievably industrious women, carrying large baskets on their heads, unfailingly hawking the same products every single day at the markets, and somehow surviving the sun and heat in their hand-made, beautifully woven clothes. And we take quiet satisfaction when a Guatemalan señor crosses our path, donned in the native embroidered white pants, a blazer, and a sombrero, often doubled over while carrying an unconscionably heavy load on his back, such as a 100-lb. sack of freshly picked coffee. Yes, there is modernization and it’s great as well. Guatemala is such a special place, and it’s because of its people – a large portion of whom endured the very ugly and inconceivably recent 35-year civil war (1960-1996), and yet they are still going strong.
Honorable mention: the many artists, the interesting architecture, the ruins, the history, the dogs – see how many great things there are in Guatemala? If you want to hire a couple of guides for your visit, let us know!