Live Inspired: 4 days in charming, complicated Guatemala City

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If the universe had done its work properly, I would have been utterly terrified by the time I stepped foot in Guatemala City.

Long before I arrived a week ago, I had gotten snippets of what to expect. The highlights were these:

Danger. Robberies. Crime. Stabbings. Death.

Don’t walk anywhere, I was repeatedly told, by Guatemalans and other travelers — even during the day. And then when I entered my intended address into the U.S. State Department’s citizen travel database, the information the government sent me reinforced those warnings.

“Violent crime, such as armed robbery and murder, is common,” part of the State Department’s dispatch read. “Do not use public ATMs. Request security escorts. Do not display signs of wealth. Do not hail taxis.  Avoid walking at night. Avoid driving at night.”

OK, try not to be alive at night, got it. If you’re alive you’re already dead.

What should I really expect? I wasn’t totally sure. I’d never been in a city where I was told not to walk anywhere during the day. Could it really be that bad?

I started breaking the rules before I even left the airport and the taxi solicitors swarmed me.

“No UBER at the airport!” they informed me. Succumbing to the pressure, I consented to one, Ronaldo, and we got into a clunker of a car with the locks sawed off and set out, past McDonalds’ and gas stations, past Plaza España with its lush grounds and stone monument surrounded by blue hyacinths, past fences crowned with spiraling barbed wire and patchwork sidewalks, their crevices filling with rain.

Ronaldo and I chatted, mostly about the rain — how long it had been raining, how many people were getting rained on at the bus stop, how bad the traffic was in the rain and was there rain like this in my country? — as he mopped the windshield with a rag.

All around us, motorcycles zipped by. The State department’s email bomb had warned me that a common technique for hijacking cars and robbing pedestrians was to approach two to a bike — one to drive, one to tote the guns. So I was hyper alert.

I felt like Roberto wouldn’t let me get mugged.

But  then he insisted on dropping me off five blocks away from the room in the casa that I had booked, because “the streets were confusing.”

I made it alive, and when I did, my host Majorie — who ran the Airbnb as well as the restaurant it sat on top of — was horrified that I had taken a cab (yes there are Ubers at the airport), that I had walked and what’s more that I had overpaid (Q. 70 vs. the Q. 50 it is apparently supposed to be).

“Never do that again,” she said, before outlining the three square neighborhood blocks I was allowed to explore on foot.

So I scuttled half a block away for a dumpling soup and then scuttled back to my quarters, a room tucked inside a labyrinth of a building with a concrete floor, boxsprings showing through the mattress and no window to the outside world. 

The next day, I ventured out to find coffee. At 8 a.m., armed officers toting machine guns stood on nearly every corner. It was jarring, but made me feel a hair safer, too.

As for the coffee, in a cafe adorned by succulents and string lights, it was stellar. After working for a bit, I walked around the neighborhood, called Cuatro Grados Norte (or Four Degrees North) in Zona 4.

It was beautiful. And around 3 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, it was vibrant. Bustling tap rooms and helado (ice cream) shops and restaurants were carved into tree-lined, cobblestone streets.

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It was hard to match up the urgent warnings I’d received with this lush, charming neighborhood I found myself in.

But the city’s other complicated reality became obvious, too, when I went out that evening.

Q. 69 (about $9 USD) for a cocktail??? Wow, that’s steep. Across the street at L’Apero, a packed pizzeria, the prices were similarly jacked — about twice as much as what I was used to in Guatemala.

And that wasn’t the only weird thing: the salads coming out of the kitchen looked fantastic. The avocado flesh coming past me was practically beaming. The arugula on my prosciutto pizza (which was legitimately great) was perky and fresh, not the wilting, rotting greens I had grown accustomed to seeing everywhere.

I looked across the room and began processing all the signals of wealth around me: tailored coats, designer eyeglasses, manicures. I’ve become accustomed to feeling “wealthy” while traveling, but here, now, without any other white faces in the room, I was the poorest schmuck by a long shot.

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I knew this because when a young girl selling a basket of candies walked in the restaurant, she made the rounds to every other person in the room but skipped me. A boy, no more than ten, came in with his shoe shining kit and did the same.

Traveling all over Guatemala, I was accustomed to seeing kids working everywhere. But here, there was a distinct difference. The little boy — a tiny Barcelona backpack on his back, a mini Coke stuffed in his pocket, his fingers covered in black polish — was of a completely different class than the countrymen he was serving.

I recalled then, the conversations I’d had about the extreme wealth in the city, about all the good produce being shipped elsewhere, the articles I’d read about Guatemala’s egregious distribution of wealth as the country with the highest GDP in Central America. And here it was, demonstrated in a restaurant — a young boy squatting under a table, shining the shoes of a man slugging expensive wine.

Guatemala City is where the 1 percent thrive and the 99 percent make coins shining their shoes.

Suddenly, I understood why the city might have such a high rate of crime. I also understood why in this neighborhood, officers stood on every corner with machine guns. They were protecting what mattered most.

The next day, I went to Zona 1.

My driver made a show of reaching back and locking my doors when I opened the window a crack — my white forehead visible. Later, a kind man walked up to me and reminded me to keep my belongings in front of me, never on my back, never in my back pocket.

But within the weekend community, I felt at ease.

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Women grilled tamales and fresh corn in the park. Every inch of the stone fountain in its center occupied by people laughing, chatting on the phone and feeding their children. Everyone had something to sell, whether it was refurbished cellphones or fresh braids (I relented and spent the rest of the day trying to get wax out of my hair).

As I walked through the plaza toward La Sexta, a street lined by shops and restaurants, a motorbike bearing two cops — one to drive, and one behind him cocking two machine guns into the air — whizzed by.

The reminders of the city’s danger and the city’s wealth were the same.

The next evening, I met two new friends. Ricardo and Raul were wealthy Guatemalans; entrepreneurs working in impressive careers. Raul, at age 30, was contemplating retiring at age 35.

“Don’t walk anywhere,” they repeated to me. “We don’t.”

As for me, I was starting to feel more comfortable, albeit sad.

I was where the one percent were. I would be fine.

2 thoughts on “Live Inspired: 4 days in charming, complicated Guatemala City

  1. I’m so glad you stayed safe, but it seems like the risks you took were well worth taking, partly because you came out of it with some really interesting observations that made for great reading.

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