Photo: Lucy.Brown/Shutterstock

An Expat Rite of Passage in Guatemala

Guatemala Travel Safety
by Jonathon Engels Feb 20, 2013

“Man, I got broken into again.”

About a week prior, Eric — a new expat, part-time musician, and mescal distributor — was robbed: guitar, laptop, drum kit, and so on. The landlord had tightened security around the place, but Eric was moving anyway. He’d just done it a little too slowly.

He usually zooms by on his tiny motorcycle.

“Did they get your bike?”

“No, but they found my spare keys.”

Antigua, a city of about six square blocks, is as safe as it comes in Guatemala, so it’s a bit of a shock to learn your car or bike has been stolen. Eric is an offensive lineman of a guy but genuinely friendly from behind the sunglasses he perpetually wears, lifting them to his forehead when speaking to you

“I like it here,” he tells me. “But, Guatemala…and even my Guatemalan friends…it’s like they hate me.”

I have said such things about Koreans for cutting in line, Turks for bumping me on crowded sidewalks, Palestinians for being overbearingly friendly and not letting me leave, Russians for periodically evicting me, Louisianans and Texans for being so conservative and gun-laden. At some point, I’ve said something similar about Guatemalans, too.

“It’s just stuff,” I remind him and add a story about getting robbed when I first moved to Memphis. “It happens everywhere.”

* * *
I first moved to Guatemala at the onset of rainy season (May) in 2008. Having accepted a job with little research done beyond “Guatemala sounds unusual,” I ended up living in Guatemala City for eight months. I didn’t know until busing my way down from Mexico that “Guate” is an annual inclusion in the world’s top ten most dangerous cities. According to the most recent posts of the US Embassy about the country as a whole, “between January and September 2012, an average of 95 murders per week were reported countrywide in Guatemala,” and “a number of travelers have experienced carjackings and armed robberies after just having arrived on international flights.”

Had I done my research, I may have never accepted that job. I’m now living in Guatemala for the third time.

We were lying face down in the dirt. One robber held his gun over us as the other emptied our pockets.

More or less, for those of us who lived in Guate, it wasn’t a matter of if but when. No one managed to avoid the inevitable stickup. Lawrence had a car pull beside him with an armed passenger who wanted the cell phone he was talking on. Bryant and Hergil were eating takeout in a truck parked outside a restaurant when a gun came through the window. Joe’s Guatemalan girlfriend was robbed so often on her chicken bus commute that he finally bought her a car.

I lasted eight months in the big bad city. Actually, I’d become a little smug about it. I felt as if I’d been an expat city-dweller without paying my dues. I even regularly used chicken buses (the 101 which ran from my house to the city’s main square — never after dark), which are routinely stopped by gangs demanding taxes for crossing their turf; occasionally the bus driver gets killed. Still, I’d made it out unscathed.

When I came back to Guatemala, I did so as an NGO volunteer, working in a tiny village with virtually no crime. I was a teacher at the local school, and my walk to work was always speckled with a healthy mix of “Buenos dias,” waves, and children calling “Hola, Jonathon” from trees when they should’ve been in school. It was as safe as any small town I’d ever been in.

I doubled as a receptionist at a local hotel — Earth Lodge — and had just begun guiding guests around the trails local farmers used to tend their flower (the main industry) and vegetable fields. The family I was guiding at the time of the incident consisted of a mom and dad and their four-year-old son. There was also another guest — a woman in her 30s — and my wife, Emma.

Our hike had been excruciatingly long because the little boy wasn’t up for it, and it had given the banditos time to circle around in front of us. Emma and the woman were leading the way back when a shaky call — simply “Jonathon” — came from around the corner. They both had their hands up. There were two men following them, both with dark bandanas covering the bottom half of their faces, and two ragged rifles pointing at us.

We were lying face down in the dirt. One robber held his gun over us as the other emptied our pockets. We were all (the robbers included) terribly rattled by the reaction of the little boy, who after a couple of minutes deciphered what was happening. He erupted into an endless spew of tearful wails, which had all of us wanting this thing to end as quickly as possible. And, it did.

Less than ten minutes from start to finish, the men disappeared uphill into the trees. We brushed ourselves off, a dazed look passing between everyone. “Why did they do that?” the little boy was yelling on repeat, and we moved in line with a new, hurried pace until we reached the hotel.

My charges were just another group of tourists with an unfortunate story, but Emma and I, in some sense, had been awaiting our turn for years by then.

* * *
There are the obvious questions: Why do I do this? Why return to a country that can, at times, be absolutely terrifying? Why shouldn’t we all — the expats of the world — pack up our things and move on, lick those scattered wounds in places with less probable risk of getting robbed again? What’s the point?
For months after my stick-up, I avoided those trails but eventually went back.

I first came here for a new experience. I returned because of friends I’d made and, like many others, I was volunteering, helping those without guns, who weren’t murdering or robbing, who wanted the types of lives I’d perhaps left behind in the developed world. Then, I came back a third time because it felt like home, and I missed it.

We can’t choose the places that speak to us, the lifestyles that will slide on comfortably, even if they are wrought with some kind of peril. And, if we really listen to our inner voices, we can’t choose the ones that don’t — a mortgage and a picket fence in a safe, little community around the corner from my childhood home has never appealed to me.

It doesn’t to Eric, either, who just a week prior had told me he was a “long-termer.” I certainly don’t want to be held up at gunpoint, but I won’t be deterred by it either. For months after my stickup I avoided those trails but eventually went back. I struggled, as Eric does now, with the inclination to blame the country, the culture, the people around me for what had happened.

For just about every expat, at some point, there is a moment in which it seems all has gone wrong, when once amusingly disgusting things — spitting on sidewalks, public burping, an over-abundance of stickups — drive you mad. But you persist where you are. That is the rite of passage for a life less ordinary. Not dissimilar to folks back home, tied to mortgages and career-track jobs, we must accept life as it comes and get on with it.

Sometimes we need a little help remembering that. The next time I saw Eric he was doing just fine, those signature sunglasses perched atop his head, a smile as he gave me the typical Guatemalan hombres greeting: a side five and a knuckle bump.

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