November 20, 2008

Around Guatemala City

Press HERE to view a slide show of
Our Stay in Guatemala City

Bill on Pacaya
 Bill on Pacaya
Magma Glow and Steam
 Pacaya Magma Glow and Steam
Avenida de Las Americas
 Avenida de Las Americas
Walking on the Avenida
 Walking on the Avenida
Central Cathedral
 Guatemala City Central Cathedral
Morales Family with Bill and Betty
 Morales Family with Bill and Betty
Harold with Students
 Loida, Harold and Jovita
Sweet Hearts in Antigua
 Steph, Harold, Bill and Betty
The Flower of the Elephant’s Ear
 Flower of the Elephant’s Ear

After Rio Dulce we drove to Guatemala City to look up Harold, our couchsurfing host. He had to put up with us for ten days. Harold was an absolutely great host. His small business is an English academy. Harold is uniquely qualified to teach. While born in Guatemala some 31 years ago, he moved to New Jersey at the age of six and spent the next twenty years there. He moved back to Guatemala six years ago.

Off the Charts

Having traveled extensively in the Americas, I had found the stories of robberies and attacks on tourist fanciful at first. Then a family that was robbed and was on the bus where an Israeli tourist was raped passed us by at our place in Antigua. Suddenly, the stories seemed more real. Our drive to the north was uneventful, so the threats of danger abated in my mind. Then, the week-end before we left, two newspaper stories set the problem squarely before me.

An article in Nuestro Diario spilled the beans and Guatemala will never be the same to me again. Let me start by saying that Guatemala has roughly the same size and population as Illinois. In Illinois, there were 750 murders in 2007, which is down from the rates of the early 1990s when it was about 1300 per year. Compare that to the current rate of 290 per month, or more than 3500 people per year, who are murdered in Guatemala every year. What spurred the article in the newspaper was the 342 murders in October. Crazy! Outrageous! Unbelievable! The most common victims are bus drivers, taxi drivers and women. In an article the next day in Prensa Libre the message was reinforced. This article focused on bus robberies and murders, which are also spiraling upward. Large numbers armed robberies take place everyday. It seems that the root of the problem is the love of money and the willingness of a significant portion of the population to injure and kill to get it.

After questioning Harold, his students, Steph, Suli and others, I found that there is only one problem greater than the violence. That problem is indifference to the problem. This level of violence is so commonplace that folks cannot see the problem. They cannot imagine a solution. There is a small new political party that has identified the problem. Every political party has lied again and again to the people. People who can see the problem cannot trust that any politician will do anything about the problem.

I love the people and the mountains of Guatemala. I report this fact with great sadness: sadness for the people of Guatemala. I hope the information does not stop my readers from visiting this beautiful land. With caution and common sense travelers can safely pass from the Mayan ruins to beautiful Lake Atitlan to the town of Antigua and the city of Quetzaltenango.

Ten days is far too long to stay in Guatemala City, a city whose main sites can be seen in a few days. There are a few good museums, churches and public buildings. It has all the problems of a large capital city in an underdeveloped country: bad streets, heavy air pollution – mainly from very old buses – and nonpotable water. Another major problem in the city and as well as in the whole country is violent crime, especially murder and armed robberies. There will be more on this problem later on.

We arrived on a Friday. Harold does teach on the weekends, so he suggested that we and his girlfriend, Stephanie, and anther surfer, English Jack, climb the volcano Pacaya. Midday on Saturday, we drove up the mountain. Even driving most of the way up, it was a two-plus hour climb for us to the final stage of the climb where the earthen trail ends in a large pasture and the old lava bed winds its way to the crater. This is where we stopped. Betty’s shoes were too thin to cross a lava field, where the rocks are so sharp and rough that they shred ordinary shoes. The lava did not stop Harold, Steph and Jack – all made it to the crater to see the red glow of the magma. It was just after sundown when Betty and I got down to the village where we started. It was pitch black by the time Jack, Harold and Steph got down. We drove back into the city totally exhausted. But the severe soreness did not come until the next day and we could feel it until mid week.

The next day was Sunday. They close a major thoroughfare, Avenida de Las Americas, on Sundays. Hundreds come to walk and bicycle. There are fun things for kids to do, like ride ponies or goat carts, or like jumping on trampolines. Most families bring their dogs, what a collection! Others bring dogs to sell. It has a fair-like atmosphere. We walked on both our Sundays in the city.

During the week we did a number of things. First, we visited the downtown area. Unfortunately, we did not book enough time to visit its museums and public large public buildings. But we saw enough to satisfy our curiosities. We stuck our head in the beautiful police station where they tortured natives in the not so distant past. We visited the post office, which now doubles as a cultural center. There are two wonderful old churches. The cathedral has a fence around its plaza entrance. The fence posts stand some nine feet tall and are about a foot square. On all four sides of the posts are marble tiles, engraved with the names of tens of thousands of the disappeared (read murdered, no, read slaughtered) people, mostly indigenous, in the 1970s and 1980s. Another day we visited two great museums a short distance from Harold’s home. One was a textile museum; the other was an archeological museum. Both were great.

We also helped Harold with his classes. We had some great conversations with his students, all in the name of learning English. With so little to do in Guatemala City, we ended up teaching in many of his classes.

I have a distant cousin, Daniel Susott, who reads my BLOG. He wrote to us and suggested that we meet his friends, the Morales family. They live in the suburb of Mixco. We called them and were invited to dinner. It was a wonderful evening with wonderful people. We only wish that we could have spent more time with them.

On Saturday the 15th Harold, Steph, Betty and I drove to Antigua to spend the day shopping and enjoying the town. We went to the artisan markets, we drank beer in Riley’s Irish Pub, we sat in the main plaza, we saw a strange Mayan-Christian shrine, we dined at the best McDonalds in North America. What was that last thing? McDonalds has a huge courtyard with a fountain – really unbelievable! We headed back to the city after dark. As we entered the city, we found traffic backed up for miles – as the cars were head for a square with the 50-foot artificial Christmas tree. This is the largest of the trees erected throughout the country by the Guatemalan beer company, Gallo. As we sat in the traffic we could see the massive fireworks display exploding high in the night sky.

As out time wound down, the gigantic elephant ear plant in Harold’s yard began to bloom. You may ask what I mean by gigantic. The plant is not a tree or a bush, yet it stands more than 15 feet tall. Its leaves are three to four feet wide. The flower is a long thin shaft that is more than two feet tall. Just an amazing plant!

On our last day, one of Harold friends, Suli, from the states came to visit. We found her fun and witty. She runs a business that services the needs of Guatemalan immigrants in New Jersey. Betty and I had taught Harold and Seph to do a bit of cooking earlier in the week. Today we bought tenderloin and potatoes and made the best steak dinner I have had in ages. It sounds crazy but we showed them how to prepare and sauté the onions and mushrooms. They pan fried the meat and it was fantastic. We drank two great bottles of Chilean red wine.

Thus ends our trip to Guatemala. After the holidays with our family and the birth of Birgitta and Seth’s second child, we hope to head south again.

Posted by bill at November 20, 2008 06:25 PM