Saturday, April 14, 2012

10 Things I Learned in Guatemala — Final

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(NOTE: On the eve of a trip to Louisiana to attend a friend’s wedding, I thought I should finish up the 10 Things I Learned in Guatemala. As I explained in Parts 1 and 2, I knew I had learned a lot of things during my three months in Guatemala, but I didn’t realize just how much until I started to write and the story began to flow and grow exponentially. Rather than risk losing my readers’ interest because of the length, I decided instead to divide 10 Things into several different postings. That way I hoped that readers will come back for more. Please enjoy this final installment, and please feel free to comment.)

3. Adult Beverages Aren’t Always What They Seem To Be

Writing in the New York Times last summer, wine critic Eric Asimov stated that it’s taken a long time, but discerning American wine drinkers are slowly getting used to the idea of drinking wine from a box. He attributes this in part to the fact that the quality of boxed wines is improving.

Drinking wine out of a box is de rigueur in most other parts of the world. I suspect, though, in Guatemala that it has little to do with the quality of the wine and everything to do with the price. For about $3.00 ( and sometimes even less) you can purchase a liter box of “California” wine. At least it says California on the box in big letters. But before you start thinking of Napa, a closer examination shows that the wine is actually from Mexico and should be more accurately labeled “Headache in a Box” because that’s what a couple of glasses will do. Technically, I suppose, it is from California — Baja California.

Until I went to Guatemala, I was unaware that molasses could be used to produce vodka. Grain. Yes. Potatoes. Yes. But molasses? Apparently it’s used for inexpensive, mass produced brands, which would help explain one brand’s popularity as “bar liquor” in Guatemala. But somehow I just couldn’t bring myself to drink it. And, interestingly, it was one of the few vodkas that was 80 proof, or 40 percent alcohol.

I was more than willing to spend a few extra quetzales for a more upscale brand, and both many of the foreign and domestic brands with which we are familiar in the U.S. are available in Guatemala. However, I noticed that the majority of them weighed in at only 32 percent alcohol. It seemed that no one but myself noticed the disparity, nor could any one explain the reason for the difference. My personal view is that if I’m going to drink spirits, I want the full 80 proof experience. I was finally able to find it in a bottle of Stolichnaya at a store in Panajachel. Of course, I paid a premium price for it — by Guatemalan standards — but it did save me from drinking the molasses stuff, which I still think is unnatural.

2. Criminal Occurrences Are Frequent

Like putting the paper in the basket and not the bowl (see Part 1), the perception of public safety and crime in Guatemala is another issue that separates the men from the boys in traveling there. Let me finish the above statement: “Criminal occurrences are frequent … in many U.S. cities and tourists may be targeted.” This is what the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office says on its website about travel to the U.S. They continue that violent crime, including gun crime, is not limited to border areas.

Even more specific is Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, which states: “Violent crime remains a serious concern in Florida. Criminals have demonstrated that they will use violence with little or no provocation. Many attacks have occurred in the Miami area, and others have taken place on rural roads and at interstate highway rest areas. Some rest areas have dusk-to-dawn security on site (which is indicated on the highway sign). Proceed cautiously when exiting a freeway (including Interstate 95) into large urban centres (sic), especially after dusk. Theft has increased, particularly from trunks of parked cars in the North Miami Beach area, South Beach and at airports. Be alert, as criminals use a variety of techniques to steal personal belongings.” Sure makes me want to go to Miami.

This is not to minimize crime in Guatemala but to point out that, unfortunately, crime is everywhere. Should I never go anywhere again? I think the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office offers perhaps the best and most sane advice: “… visitors should exercise caution when travelling in unfamiliar areas. Research your destination before travelling and seek local advice about areas with high levels of criminal activity.”

I only felt unsafe on those occasions and in those places that the guidebook told me I should, which did me a huge disservice. Just like there are places in your own hometown that you wouldn’t go to, there are places in Guatemala that you wouldn’t go to either. But you have to ask because you’re not familiar with them. And even then, you have to take it with a grain of salt. I’m sorry that I let myself be dissuaded from visiting the historic district in Guatemala City on a Sunday morning by an overzealous hotel desk clerk who was sure I would be killed.

1. You Gotta Have Friends

Perhaps the greatest lesson I learned is the value of friends. They make you feel like a part of the community, which is especially important in a foreign land, and are often more caring than your own family. When I first got sick, Solina had Ventura, the guardian, go with me to the public health clinic in San Pedro. That didn’t work out because of the extraordinary long line that day at the clinic, and following Ventura’s lead, I put myself in the hands of the local pharmacist, which is very common in Guatemala. While the pharmacist actually had the right diagnosis, she had the wrong medication. When I didn’t get better, in consultation with one another, Solina and Joe decided that he would take me to the public health clinic in San Juan, which is far less crowded. There were several days when I just couldn’t move and Solina checked up on me to make sure I was alright.

Marianne invited me to a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, or as traditional as she could make it in Guatemala. Canadian Bob and I struggled up, and then down, the San Pedro volcano. There were also Bob and Margie; Judy; Esther and Oone;  and many more. I’m sorry I don’t have pictures of everyone.

Guatemala Friends

(l. to r. starting at top left: Solina; Wayne and Canadian Bob; Marianne; Wayne and Joe; Margie and Bob; Clara and Raquel)

In the current issue of AARP magazine, actress Diane Keaton reveals her secret for staying forever young — “Take risks – do things you can’t imagine!” I couldn’t agree more. Traveling to Guatemala for three months was certainly a risk, and I did some things I couldn’t have imagined. May be her advice was summed up best by a twenty-something year old that I met at the top of the San Pedro volcano. He was very respectful when he asked me my age and when I told him, he said he hoped he would be able to do this – climb the volcano – when he’s my age. I have to say that at that moment his comment made me feel both old and “forever young.”

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