Guatemala City, Part 1

I’m in Guatemala City this week as an observer of the genocide trial of former Guatemalan president General Rios Montt. I won’t be writing much about that experience here, but as always I want to provide a narrative about the people I meet, the places I see, and the food I eat.

I flew here on Sunday with another law student from my school (Mariah). We had a very stress-free trip, flying from Dulles to San Salvador (in El Salvador), where we had a layover of about an hour during which we got some coffee (complete with little red hearts made of sugar to put in it) and wandered around the small airport which had a duty-free shop for just about every gate. From there, the flight to Guatemala City only took about 20 minutes. We shared our flight with a group of young people (high school age?) from Colombia who were coming here to compete in some kind of inter-American sports competition. I had a nice conversation with the girl sitting next to me, who was from Medellin.

Mariah and I changed some dollars into Quetzales and then breezed through customs. A very nice taxi driver was waiting outside to pick us up, which made things so much easier. On the way to our hotel, I asked him about soccer teams in Guatemala and learned that there are two rival teams (as there always are), the Rojos and the Cremas. We drove past the U.S. Embassy (only the second time I’ve ever seen one abroad) and passed some smaller parks where kids were playing and adults were cuddling.

My immediate impression (and so far this hasn’t changed) is that this is the most run-down city I’ve ever visited. I haven’t seen more than a two mile stretch of it yet, but the part I’ve seen is frankly depressing to drive through. Occasionally there are some beautiful buildings thrown in among the dilapidated ones, but for the most part the city looks as poor as the people who live there. This raises a more general observation about the reactions of Americans when we travel abroad, particularly to developing countries: in the US, we have the luxury of choosing to frequent businesses based largely on how they look on the outside. We avoid restaurants that look “sketchy”, often based on judgments about the neighborhood and actual appearance of the building. (Does it look clean? well maintained? generally nice?) The same goes for any other kind of business. And that’s fine when we’re at home. It’s hard for us to adjust when we come to developing countries where, to our eyes, pretty much everything looks “sketchy” – so then we have to depend on other instincts, like going to restaurants where the locals go. I think I can sum up Guatemala City, at least on a very visual basis, as being a city where most of us would be hard pressed to find a restaurant, store, or hotel where we’d feel 100% comfortable eating, shopping, or sleeping. The buildings look old on the outside; there’s lots of graffiti; barbed wire rims a lot of rooftops or even windows. It’s just not a place with a happy vibe.

Of course, as is always the case in places where the circumstances would justify otherwise, the people are lovely. I find the Guatemalans very easy to understand (they speak more slowly), and the taxi drivers and the men who work in our hotel are incredibly nice. (As long-time readers will know, I like to talk to taxi drivers when I travel – I find them to be great windows into the politics and culture of a place. I am not asking our taxi drivers about the trial, but I have talked to them about soccer, the best kind of beer, their families, etc.)

We’re staying in an absolutely lovely little hotel with two little courtyards filled with plants and fountains in the typical Spanish style that I love so much. Two of the men who work here (Juan and Francisco) are really friendly; I had a nice chat with them yesterday afternoon, and now they greet me by name. (Sidenote: Guatemala is the only Spanish-speaking country I’ve visited where my first name doesn’t throw people off. I say it, pronouncing it according to Spanish vowel sounds, and they’re fine.)

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Juan was kind enough to accompany me out of the hotel this morning to buy newspapers for the group. This is not a city for wandering around – between the high rate of crime and the game of chicken that is crossing the street, it’s just better to stay inside. Yesterday during our lunch break we only ventured as far as across the street from the courthouse to get food.

About the food: Guatemalan cuisine is pretty typical of the region – simple. The lunches I’ve eaten the past two days in cafeterias (little restaurants around the court) included soup, a cut of meat, and an array of vegetables (including some really tasty squash). Here’s an example:

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We’ve so far had two different breakfasts: one “typical” (I’ll put up a picture when we have it again and I remember to have my phone), and then this morning we had pancakes and papaya:

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More to come later this week!

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