“Big, dirty and dangerous” are the only words that Lonely Planet can find to describe Guatemala City.
My friends and family had no trouble finding alternative adjectives when I told them I was moving here for 2 and a half months to write my dissertation: “one of the highest rates of violent death in Latin America”, “I’d feel better if you got a gun”, and “Have you died yet?” were personal highlights on my ‘How Not to Reassure Someone’ list.
The week before I left, The Guardian printed an article entitled “Murder in Guatemala: ‘I won’t allow my daughter to become another statistic’. It was clear that this was not going to be an 18-30s holiday to Zante. Briefly, I flirted with the idea that maybe everyone around me was right; that maybe this was one trip too far. Fortunately, though, I had already spent all my savings on the flight, so I had no choice but to dye my hair ‘Hispanic brown’ and hope for the best.
Divine intervention seemed to be on my side as I boarded the plane from Madrid to Guatemala City with two nuns and a priest. Perhaps if they’d prayed a bit harder we might have had a film or at least some decent food on the 11-hour flight.
As we came in to land, Guate (as it’s known to locals) sprawled as far as the eye could see, saturated by run-down barrios with the odd palm tree reminding you that you were in the tropics. Stepping out of the plane, the smell hit me like a tonne of bricks: humidity mixed with street food that tastes delicious but will probably give you The Shits for days, and an added dash of the unfamiliar. It gave me that ebb of contentment that you get when you’re travelling somewhere exciting; a contentment that continued when my luggage arrived in one piece.
No sooner had I arrived, I was whisked away for my first taste of Guatemalan cuisine and a thorough safety brief. Over enchiladas that weren’t really enchiladas (vegetables on a toasted tortilla?), I learned that I shouldn’t do any of the following: take taxis from the street, carry anything of value, look lost, look like I’m carrying anything of value even if I’m not, walk anywhere after 8pm, take public transport, panic when inevitably robbed at gun or machete-point, and definitely don’t trust the police with anything. N.W.A was right…
I had found my accommodation through Couchsurfing, so there was a niggling worry in the back of my head that I might have signed myself up for living in the Headquarters of a narco-trafficking exercise. I couldn’t have been further from the truth, unless you consider talking through the world’s injustices over copious joints to be a criminal activity (which some of my more cynical friends might). It was clear that my only concern in this flat would be pulling a muscle doing Downward-facing Dog (not a euphemism) or developing a taste for molasses as sugar was strictly banned on account of the unacceptable production practices in Central America.
Guate is a funny place. It contradicts and confuses itself constantly. No one seems to question the fact that staunch Catholicism is spliced with references to Indigenous witchcraft, or that sellers on the buses threaten to turn to delinquency if you don’t buy their sweets. The biggest contradiction of all comes in the form of the people: the majority of whom will bend over backwards to help you out and make you feel welcome, while a small undercurrent of the population would probably shoot you for 100 Quetzales. But it would serve you right for not buying their sweets.
On my first night in Guatemala City, I found myself in a bar-cum-art gallery for a Joy Division/New Order tribute night. Surrounded by Guatemalan hipsters, we drank bottles of Gallo in buckets and talked about bands that had transcended borders and made it onto our respective iPods. A projector screen showed footage of a New Order concert in Glasgow, the city that I had just left. As we watched footage of the Botanic Gardens and the river, all shot with a backdrop of grey clouds, a Guatemalan turned to me and asked: “is it dangerous there?”
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