When I was reading through the Lonely Planet guidebook for Guatemala or even talking to other foreigners, I was struck by all of the warnings of dangers and notes of caution. Robberies, gang violence and violence in general seemed to be on everyone’s lips from the infamous crime of Guatemala City, the robbers on the trails on Volcan San Pedro to the recent history of genocide and paramilitary death squads. Yes, bad things do happen and Guatemalan history is atrocious (read “I Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans”). The indigenous people in Guatemala have suffered oppression for over five continuous centuries and the constant fear lived by Guatemalan widows has been documented by medical anthropologist Linda Green as structural violence. As paramilitary death squads during the 36 year civil war that only ended in 1996, a war that resulted in an estimated 200,000 Guatemalans killed, millions left homeless and thousands upon thousands who “disappeared” have transitioned to gang violence, the underlying problems of inequality have remained and deepened. Nadine Gordimer, famous novelist from South Africa, wrote about how when inequality becomes so deeply entrenched, groups become so separated that their only interaction is violence. The dangers and violence we hear about Guatemala have deep roots in inequality and oppression.
…So what does this mean for travellers?
First of all, some bad things can happen and travellers do have to use their common sense. One thing I have learned is to trust in the feelings we have about places and people. If I get a bad vibe, I don’t stick around. For us, we got hotel rooms when a place felt a little sketchy though we have heard of other cyclists who camped the whole way and didn’t have any problems.
Secondly, get out of that tourism bubble and visit the places in-between. If the crimes of desperation mainly experienced by travellers largely are rooted in poverty and other social inequalities, spreading around those tourist dollars and increased interaction and hopefully subsequent increased understanding can only help. Also, there is the important role of international travellers as witnesses. As we travel, we bring a global gaze to places so we should get enraged at inequalities and talk about them to raise awareness. I wonder if the genocide of indigenous peoples in Guatemala could occur today with all of the travellers and NGOs in and around Lake Atitlan?
Thirdly, theft and other problems can happen all over the world and especially for cyclists, I think our main danger continues to be traffic more than anything else. Things are often not as bad as it is presented. Chimaltenango and Esquitla were both cautioned in the guidebook but we would have never thought it was bad there from our experience. They were just cities and we rode through them. I think in some ways, bad stories are like fears of plane crashes – they don’t happen as often as they are feared to happen but the vividness of the stories ensures that they kept being told.
It leads me to the converse question…
What are the dangers of not travelling?
If you only hear the scary stories, you never get to experience the warmth and friendliness of most Guatemalans. You never get to dance with locals on the streets of Mazate or get wet and wild as the Carnaval parade turns into a giant waterfight, eat random delicious ice cream at a countryside creamery or get cheered on by a little indigenous child sitting in the lap of his mother as they drive past us doing an especially steep climb up a mountainous slope.
If you don’t travel to Lake Atitlan and the little indigenous villages in the mountainous highlands of Guatemala, you don’t get to witness the living Mayan culture that is still surviving strong after five centuries of oppression. It is inspiring to see people still speaking Mayan dialects to each other and proudly wearing their traditional woven clothes. With their history, I would completely understand if they were more suspicious of outsiders but in our experience riding across the country, this was not the case. As we rode through the little indigenous villages, we were always greeted with gentle smiles.
Also, what are the dangers of not travelling and staying at home, working yourself to more and more stress? Travelling helps you free yourself from the little bubble of your life to see the bigger picture of the world – to see the light and well as the dark, to become inspired by places and people as well as enraged at witnessing inequalities that shouldn’t continue to happen today. In travelling, you learn more about the world around you and help understand that people on the other side of the world are still people just like you – with hopes, dreams, and desires for health and happiness. Moreover, you learn more about yourself and what you are capable of.
If you view the world fearfully, you never allow the opportunity to also see all the wonderful things and the innovative strengths and creativity of human beings.