“You’re going to Guatemala?! You need to be careful. Don’t show anybody your iPhone. Don’t carry much money. It’s dangerous there, they will kill you for your shoes!”
My friend Jake was en route to Guatemala to visit us last weekend, and this bit of sensationalist drama was courtesy of the United Airlines employee that he was sitting next to on the first leg of his trip. It is always nice when you can sit next to a knowledgeable person on your travels. Clearly he wasn’t in the sales department.
During his layover, Jake texted me to get my view of things. “Is it dangerous? How has your trip been so far? Should I still come?”
My reply? “You’re damn right it’s dangerous! Dangerously awesome! See you in a few hours”
Let’s be serious for a moment. Jake has nice shoes. But would anybody really kill him for them? Why does this well-intentioned person feel so strongly about the people of Guatemala that the topics of murder and footwear end up in the same sentence?
The United employee isn’t a member of the police or even the fire department, but the word of a man in uniform isn’t to be taken lightly. We were also cautioned by several people in Mexico about how dangerous Guatemala is. It made me really start to question my view of the world. Could the people of Guatemala really be dangerous? Were my wife in I in constant danger, and we had just been lucky so far?
Perhaps this United Airlines representative had an abundance of first person experience that I didn’t. Maybe he has seen the dark underbelly of this beautiful country, while we had only seen the thin surface that the marketing department of the Board of Tourism had wanted us to see. I began to keep a watchful eye on the people that we came in contact with
For example, Maria. Maria is an entrepreneur and runs a successful family business. Her four daughters and many of her grandchildren also take part. When we went to visit her, I tied my shoes extra tight so they wouldn’t come off without serious effort. She seemed warm and friendly, but I made sure I always had a clear path to the door.
In Panajachel, this guy was helping coordinate rides with tuk tuk drivers. He almost insisted we take his photo, probably to distract us while his friends jumped us. He even tried to make small talk. Seriously, how dumb does he think I am? When I told him we lived in the US, his face turned grave and he asked, “Is it true that people would kill me there for the gold in my teeth?”
“Maybe. If not for your teeth, then for your name brand polo shirt.” I had to let him know that we weren’t easy targets, and that comment must have caught him off guard because we were able to get in a tuk tuk without incident.
Boarding a boat to another town on Lake Atitlan, we met Sansa. She was traveling to neighboring towns to sell her home baked goods and some cheap plastic earrings. I lent her my arm as she was boarding the boat, because at her age she doesn’t move with ease. I was careful though, better that I let her fall than have her take my kindness as a sign of weakness.
Winnie spoke a little of the local Tz’utujil language to her. “Utz aawach?” she said. “Como estas?” “How are you?”
Sansa insisted that Winnie sit next to her. “We will practice together”, she said, and proceeded to teach Winnie some other common Tz’utujil phrases. I kept my eye on her the whole time.
These people were all quick to share a smile and a kind word, and offered us assistance in getting where we were going. I think this may have been part of their plan to find out where we would be later, so they could catch us unaware.
We have also encountered a few of the more seedy types. For example, the fruit lady. She walks about the town carrying a giant basket on her head, full of fruit for sale. She could easily hide a weapon and ill-gotten shoes underneath a few bananas.
Or these unsavory types. They even have their own get away vehicles
And most dangerous of all, the children. Nobody would ever suspect a roaming gang of little people, but we know the truth that is masked by their seemingly innocent faces.
With the gods smiling upon us, and my constant diligence, we somehow made it through the weekend of Jake’s visit without incident. We visited numerous bars and restaurants, walked the streets and back alleys of San Pedro and Panajachel, toured the local market, and rode an epic 1 km long zipline through the jungle. Since we didn’t go anywhere that a shoe bandit might think to find a tourist, we were able to escape the worst.
Jake is now back in LA, shoes safely on his feet, but we are still at risk. They kill people for their shoes, and we could be next…