Fear And Loathing In Guatemala City


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

Travelling From San Cristóbal De Las Casas To Panajachel The Hard Way


You know you are in Guatemala when you stumble upon one of these badboys 


The following article is an excerpt taken from my 2013-14 travel diary ‘Travel Journal Of A Lost Soul’


29th November 2013

I am now in the Guatemalan lakeside tourist town of Panajachel. The word “epic” would be an understatement to describe today. Hindsight is indeed a wonderful thing and I would have made my day a lot less painful if I’d just swallowed my intrepid pride and taken the tourist shuttle bus. Instead I decided to inflict fifty shades of mayhem onto myself and opt for the hard, irrational and masochistic way. Either way I had to wake up super early this morning; 5.15am.

The first leg of the journey from San Cristóbal de Las Casas in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas was perfectly fine on a comfortable and modern Marcopolo bus. Three hours after departing San Cristóbal, we arrive at the Mexico-Guatemala border. I exit the bus, cross the road and receive my Mexican exit stamp from the small immigration office. There is a line of taxis outside all waiting to take me to the Guatemalan side; 10 Mexican pesos shared or 40 solo. Since I quickly figure out that nobody is going to be joining me anytime soon, I fork out the full 40 pesos just so I can press on and leave this godforsaken place. Once on the Guatemalan side, I promptly receive my Guatemalan entry stamp and change whatever remaining Mexican pesos I have into Guatemalan quetzals without paying too much attention to maths and exchange rates. Then I hop on a rickshaw-like vehicle to take me to the bus station (if you can call it that!). And here I am having traded swanky modern Marcopolo buses for the ubiquitous, dilapidated and hair raising chicken buses which plough the roads of the most down at heel parts of Central America. When their first life as perfectly innocent USA school buses expires, their next life is less gentle on the thug life streets of Tegucigalpa. I am bundled onto a brightly coloured and ornate chicken bus heading to the city of Huehuetenango. I feel blessed to have reasonable space for my legs. Two is comfortable where I am sitting. But after only a few stops, that number doubles to four. Yet I look on the bright side; one of the advantages of being squashed like a dead skunk on the side of the bus is that whenever the bus is turning on the narrow, long and winding highland roads, I am not forever sliding form one side of the bus to the other.

We arrive at the Huehuetenango bus terminal a few hours later. This terminal has all the classic trimmings of a crazy, dishelved and chaotic bus terminal in any third world city. This is raw. I am not in Mexico anymore. Mexico may be poor but I never once in all my time in Mexico witnessed a bus terminal as dirty and rundown as this one. I have some spare time to eat a very basic lunch of well done beef strips, rice and beans. Gourmet food this most certainly ain’t, but I hadn’t eaten all day until now. I have been to Huehue before on my last trip through Latin America a few years back, but I have no reason to stop there this time. An old dilapidated Mercedes “Pullman” bus (this one is two steps up from a chicken bus) with tyres so illegally smooth will take me to Panajachel – apparently. Even though I have my own seat, the upholstery is all crumpled up, loose and looks like it hasn’t been cleaned since I was five.

The bus journey goes well, until I ask the cobredor (bus conductor) what time we will be arriving at Panajachel? He replies that we went past it 40 minutes ago. This is not a directly Panajachel bound bus and will be going Guatemala City (the last place on Earth I would want to arrive at night). It’s already dark and I am so pissed off at this revelation. The cobredor then tells me that in five minutes he’ll drop me off at a stop from where I’ll be able to catch a bus to Panajachel. I think it myself thank god I have at least a foothold on the Spanish language otherwise I’d really be in a veritable no-mans land. When I get dropped off, I am literally dropped off on the side of a very busy highway. It’s dark, it’s cold, the highway lacks illumination and the night sky is downing in fog. There are enormous trucks going at impossible speeds. And I have to cross this death trap to get onto the other side. My heart is beating so fast I feel like it is going to explode from my body like a high pressure jet of water from a burst pipe. I honestly haven’t a clue where the fuck I am and I begin to feel a tremendous longing to be back home with my family. By some grace of god I manage to cross the road with all my things unscathed. Once on my side there is little tienda (convenience shop) and a small bay for on-coming buses to stop. I get chatting with some three toothed viejo (old dude) on the side of the road. He re-assures me that a bus will be coming soon. Seguro? (Are you sure man?). I give him a moneda (coin). His mood duly lifts and this time he is super seguro that every little thing is gonna be alright.

And soon a bus doth come along and I am bundled in with all my crap. Alas I don’t think this one will be going directly to Panajachel. I am so depressed I think I need a shot of mezcal and a band of impeccably dressed Mariachi musicians to console me. The driver drops me off at a busy crossroad from where I am briskly transfered onto another chicken bus. Maybe this one will be the last one? I am sitting on the floor at the back of the bus swerving like a lunatic as the bus driver takes to the narrow winding descending country roads Formula One style with Spanish language power ballads turned up full blast. He seems to be in a race with another chicken bus in a never ending game of ¿quien es más macho? I am not religious but I make the sign of the cross. Thirty minutes later I am bundled off this bus at a stop where there are about six other chicken buses. I am told that the one at the end of the line is going to Panajachel and, seguro, this will be the last one. I make a dash with my things towards it like it’s some holy chariot of good fortune. Once inside the bus, I look out the window and, through the bus lights, notice a sign which says, ‘Panajachal 8kms’. I will be so low if this bus doesn’t go the full eight kilometres. No matter how reckless the bus driver may be, I rejoice when this bus finally stops right at the side of the beginning of the tourist drag of Calle Santander in Panajachal town. Even though it is a little chilly, it is nowhere near the Lapland temperatures of San Cristóbal. I find a hotel and go to sleep.


By Nicholas Peart

(All rights reserved)

image source:  www.amusingplanet.com