19 October 2009

Guatemala - Final Thoughts

Guatemala was the first country visited during our long journey and will naturally burn a unique imprint in our mind. After spending a full month here, I feel like we got a pretty good sense of this country. We lived with a gringo family in a normal Guatemalan town, traveled to many of the usual tourist hotspots, hiked deep into the northern jungle, and visited very poor, rural villages and schools.

A few things in Guatemala work really well. My hospital stay was the best medical experience I've ever had. The hospital was clean, had modern equipment, and prompt efficient service. Fresh fruits and veggies are local, cheap and universally available. It seems like everybody has a piece of land and can eek by, somehow. Alcoholism is not a problem. Communities are strong, usually centered around the local Catholic Church.

Two items that particularly stick out at the top of that list are cell phones and mass transportation. Guatemala never had much of a telephone land line infrastructure. By the time cell phone technology became reliable, modern cell towers were installed throughout the country, thereby leapfrogging the antiquated system in which the US is heavily vested. Cell phones are reasonably priced, minutes are super cheap, you pay as you need (no two-year contracts!), and coverage is fantastic.

The other thing that works really well is mass transportation, the bulk of which is handled by "chicken buses." These are pimped out school buses from the US: painted, stickered, chromed-out rigs with thumping sound systems. However, these buses are cheap, fast, and can take you everywhere, easily. It costs about a dollar an hour to ride these buses. Our commute to Antigua was only $0.25 for the two of us. We've never had to wait more than five minutes for a bus. Supplementing these ghetto-rigged recycled contraptions were shuttle vans, occasional taxis, and the ubiquitous three-wheeled tuk-tuks (which are everywhere in Asia). Most people don't need to own cars.

There are other things, though, that make life in Guatemala more difficult. Laws are created without much forethought and are inconsistently enforced. An example is that a law was passed requiring all motorcycle riders to have a black vest and helmet imprinted with their license number. This was created to stop the number of motorcycle drive-by robberies and shootings. However, a few weeks after the law went into effect, after everybody has spent all the money on new gear, the police realized that it was actually a lot harder to distinguish people when they all wore the same vest and helmet. They stopped enforcing the law soon thereafter.

The government is still corrupt, but at least it's stable now. Guatemala's past (and present) is deeply intertwined with that of the US. In 1954, Guatemala seized land from the United Fruit Company, a US corporation, and redistributed it to the people.. The gov't. paid UFC the amount that the UFC claimed the land was worth, as stated in tax statements. However, UFC deeply undervalued it's land so that it would have to pay less taxes. The UFC had close allies in the US government, which itself was scared of this "communist" initiative. The US subverted the elected Guatemalan leaders, installed our own right-wing puppets, and thereby instigated a civil war that last for 45 years. And really, the battle is still not over today. Most of the soldiers, from both sides of the fight, have either gone into security or crime (it's hard to tell them apart!). Today, 70% of the land is held by the top 1% income earners.

Crime is rampant and criminals often target tourists.  There's not much protection for the natural land and parks.  It's not safe to venture into the mountains without armed guards. This was incredibly difficult for me and Kristin, as we go to the mountains to find freedom. Yet here we were surrounded by forests, jungles, mountains and volcanoes, yet it was off limits to us. We felt trapped and imprisoned. There are more private security personnel then there are police officers.  Guatemala is the most heavily armed country in Central America. There are guards with shotguns and M-16s everywhere - banks, ATMs, park entrances, and so on. Heck, even the coca-cola trucks have 2 armed guards. High birthrates, low levels of education, lack of good healthcare - the list goes on. I don't think I saw one Guatemalan reading in the entire month.

Overall, it was a great experience. We saw the highs and the lows of the country. When we were able to explore the wilderness, we thoroughly enjoyed it. There are a lot of amazing things to see here, but it's not a place for every traveler.

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