Guatemala City: only the strongest motherf***ers survive
The following article is an excerpt taken from my 2013-14 travel diary ‘Travel Journal Of A Lost Soul’
December 13th 2013
I woke up feeling heavy, hot and nervous. As I was surfing the internet on my iPad in my small guesthouse room in the pretty Guatemalan tourist town of Antigua, I had a change of heart. It was almost 10am and I had an hour before check out. On a whim I decided to go to Guatemala City. I wanted to check out a few of the contemporary art galleries and spaces dotted around the city. The most important ones are Proyectos Ultravioletas (which is supposed to be the hub of the Guatemalan contemporary art scene) and NuMu (which currently has a retrospective of the work of the celebrated and fearless Guatemalan performance artist Regina José Galindo).
So this afternoon I dragged myself and my things to the ramshackle chicken bus terminal behind the mercado principal. Oh yes, I was all for the hard life again. For nine Guatemalan Quetzales a green and orange psychedelic chicken bus would whisk me all the way to the Zona 3 district of the city. The bus journey was quite an eventful 90 minutes. I held onto the iron bars tightly for every abrupt swerve on the mountain highway. At one interval, we were all serenaded by a flamboyant and lively duo in face paint. They were a stellar act and I gave them a few of my Quetzales.
Arriving in the Zona 3 district of the city was like landing in some out of bounds skid row district of Los Angeles. If a shifty hoody type approached me now he’d most likely square me up and say, ‘Come here again and I’ll kill you’. There was not a chance in hell I was going to consider walking even half a block in this part of town on my own. Fortunately I was accosted by a taxista as soon as I disembarked from the bus. He wanted 50 Quetzales which I thought was a tad on the steep side considering that the central Zona 1 district I wanted to go to bordered this district. We agreed on 40. I told him I wanted to go to the Hotel Fénix. He knew where it was. As I looked out of the window for the duration of the ride, I realised how grateful I was to be inside. I felt happy to shortly be arriving at my destination. Only there was one problem. It appeared that the Hotel Fénix did not exist any more. This is now Murphy’s Law tripping me down a long flight of stairs. Ok, think man. I have a glut of other contacts from the Kindle version of my Lonely Planet Guide to Central America on my iPad, but I’d rather not brandish it in front of the taxista. Yet I remember reading something on the internet recently about another hotel close by called Hotel Spring. The taxista was adamant to take me to some place I’d never heard of many blocks away from the centre. I held very firm with him and told him I wanted to go to the Hotel Spring. I even offered to pay him the original price of 50 Quetzales just to not argue with him and get this all done and dusted.
I arrive at the Hotel Spring, located in a an old decrepit colonial building with quite a spectacular internal courtyard. The rooms however are basic and more costly than anywhere else in the country. Guate (as many refer to this city) is probably the second most unsafe city I’ve ever visited after Caracas in Venezuela. The former central business district of Johannesburg comes a firm third place. I am a total dipstick for shunning beautiful and serene Antigua for this. Yet on the other hand, sometimes I need a drop of danger and tension in my life.
After checking into my room, I go for a mid afternoon stroll on Sexta Avenida, which is the main pedestrian drag in the centre of the city. Leave that drag and you are back in Mogadishu. A Guatemalan lady approaches me speaking fluent American English. Yet what she tells me isn’t pretty. She relays many a horror story involving deportation from the USA, rape, and being physically abused by her violent partner. She lost her papers and can’t return to California. Now she has no money and sleeps on the streets. She even points to the place where she sleeps behind an old building. Whether her stories were true or not, I give her all the coins I have in my right pocket.
Many of the restaurants on Sexta Avenida are a little pricy. The global fast food joints are always a last resort. After a while I find a nondescript hole in the wall place where I ate the worst and blandest meal on my trip so far of burnt chicken and macaroni cheese. I was a fool to eat it. Afterwards, I visited a large shopping centre called Centro Capital. Once inside, beauty parlours and arcades dominate. Yet my main reason for coming was to visit the Proyectos Ultravioletas art space. Unfortunately it was closed when I arrived. I later got chatting with a friendly security guard who told me he lived in the city of Washington for eight years. Judging by the ability of his English, I imagined he always stayed in one familiar community. His English was so substandard (not that my Spanish is faultless) I lost patience and spoke with him in his language. Observing him more, he looks like a member of a Calabrian mafia family.
Just as darkness was about to fall, I duly returned to my hotel room. At night I feel trapped and now I have a great urge to leave this city. Visiting this city just to see a few esoteric contemporary art spaces, regardless of how interesting they may be is simply not worth the heartache, back and brain damage. Wherever I go I will always be a Gringo. No matter how fluent my Spanish is or how much I assimilate myself into the culture and make friends, I will always be a Gringo. Later in the evening I chat with my sister Caroline via Skype and we speak for almost an hour. I subsequently felt glad and happy since for most of the day I was heading south with the realisation of the colossal error I made in coming here coupled with the even greater realisation of just how much of a grade A shithole this city really is. A mug is me.
14th December 2013
Last night I stayed all night in my hotel since as soon as I go outside I feel like an endangered species. The morning when I woke up and took a look in the mirror (the narcissistic fool that I am) I felt like I’d added 40 years to my age since yesterday. I got hardly any sleep last night. Some of the people in this hotel are rich in stupidity and insensitivity. There was constant noise. Loud talking and drunken laughter all night. A veritable frathouse. This unpleasant experience has scrapped all my plans to explore the galleries and visit the lovely couple I met in San Pedro Laguna. I now will pay whatever it costs to get out of this stew and move to my next destination. I feel like a sleep starved sack of shit. I have no energy and I am furious about last night. Yet I have to say that these last 18 hours since I touched down in Guate have given me a magnificent glimpse of Hell.
I took a walk through the streets of central Guate to find a bus company with transport to the Guatemala/Honduras border. As I walked I bumped into a middle aged Guatemalan man named Héctor. He spoke to me in very good and clean American English telling me that he lived in California until 1985. He knew of a couple of bus companies with transport to the border. We walked many blocks through the city. The city is a shambles and completely off limits and impossible to navigate if you are and look like a Gringo; depressing, dilapidated and out of date homogenous grey concrete blocks, lethal potholes, and second to none air pollution (most of which appears in generous portions of big black smoke from the many clapped out overworked chicken buses ploughing the busy city streets). Even during the day I can’t relax and I am on my guard to the maximum degree. It is not just the very real possibility of someone jumping on me without warning. Crossing the streets here is an art which requires some serious and seasoned skill and concentration.
During most of our walk through the city I let Héctor do most of the talking. He told me he was a teacher and earned 1600 Quetzales per month paid fortnightly. Today he was going to go to the rural village of Quiche to visit his parents and sisters. We visited two bus companies many blocks apart. Both had transport in some shape or form to the Honduran border but to get the bus I had to take a taxi to the North Terminal wherever the hell it was. On our walk back towards my hotel we both agreed to have a drink at a cafeteria close to the hotel. Once inside I ordered an orange juice. Héctor told me he didn’t have much money. I offered to buy him a drink. Instead he asked me whether I would give him some money? He asked for 100 Quetzales. I asked him what he needed the money for? He told me to buy meat to take with him to his parents village. I suggested we go to a meat vendor together and I would purchase what I thought was a reasonable amount at the local rates. He refused and demanded that I give him the money. I was a little disappointed by his behaviour. Immediately his tone changed and I didn’t feel comfortable around him. Then apropos of nothing, he got up, shouted something in rapid Spanish about the Guatemalan civil war and stormed out of the cafeteria. For about five minutes I felt very shaken. Moreover, I was tired and depressed. The site of Guate, even under a pristine brilliant blue sky, further exacerbated my depression. On a whim I returned to my hotel, grabbed all my things and got a taxi to Zona 3 to catch a chicken bus back to Antigua.
There was heavy traffic on the road back to Antigua. Some time later during the bus journey, a Christian Gringo missionary got on the bus at some random location. In haste, he began approaching random locals on the bus in fluent Spanish to get them to come along to his meetings and church services. He later approached me. I was in a foul mood yet I allowed him to ask me the following…
Was I going to spend a long time in Antigua?
Where are you going to after Antigua?
Have you heard of Lao Tzu pal?
He was a very wise Chinese sage. He once said that if you want to make God laugh, you tell him your plans and that includes where I am going to next.
Oh. But how long are you travelling for?
Don’t make God laugh
Where do you live?
Could we come to England to visit you in your home?
You gotta be fucking joking mate
I immediately retracted what I said. This is what Guate living does to gentle sensitive souls. I apologised profusely for my obnoxious behaviour. I kindly declined and told him I needed to rest. He was surprisingly good natured and moved on to the next random person on the bus.
When we finally arrived in Antigua, I returned to my old guesthouse like I’d just returned from an epic expedition through the DRC. The dueña told me that my old room was still available. I rejoice to the heavens. I spent most of the afternoon at the Toko Bar run by a wonderful Dutch/Indonesian guy called Eduardo. This place makes Antigua for me. It has been one of the highlights of my trip. Not just the delicious and generous portions of tasty Indonesian and global dishes, but the vibes, Eduardo’s stories and all the different and random people I keep meeting. Antigua is quite seductive in this respect even if it is very far from a slice of the ‘real’ Guatemala (whatever that means). These last two days have been a rough and gruelling fill of the real Guatemala so I am more than happy to recover in Antigua. In the evening I had plans to go to the Rainbow Café but after all I’d been through I had to pass.
By Nicholas Peart
(All rights reserved)
image source: https://www.porternovelli.com