I’m back on the blog grind! I just took an amazing trip to Central America for my winter break, and I really want to share my travel experience. This will be a short series of posts, probably five posts max. I hope you enjoy my stories and the insight I’ve gathered over the past couple of weeks. It’s been a while!
*Photo was taken by me at sunset on a small propeller plane, flying from Belize City to Guatemala City.
In October, I, impulsively, booked a flight to Belize when I found a random flight deal to the small, English-speaking Central American country. I knew nothing about Belize except that I had once seen pictures of the beach and that it was a culturally diverse place. When I last lived in Taiwan, I met a Taiwanese-Belizean guy who not only gave me my first introduction to the country’s diversity, but also told me about the South Asian sport of Kabaddi—for which he played on the Taiwanese national team. Kabbadi is definitely worth the casual YouTube search if you have the time.
Anyway, the decision to book the trip to Belize was pure impulse and motivated by a deep desire to swimming somewhere other than the Georgetown University McCarthy Pool. Once the flight was booked, it didn’t take me long to find out that not only was Belize a central part of the Mayan Empire, but it bordered Guatemala. Guatemala was the heart of the Mayan empire and is home to the archaeological site of Tikal. Today, Tikal is the most popular tourist destination in Guatemala and the Mayan pyramids that have been unearthed and restored over the last century-and-a-half were dubbed a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979.
Overall, the trip was amazing, transformative and super quick. Alexa, my travel partner, and I were on a marathon sprint through four days in Guatemala and five days in Belize. We were always on the move, but somehow managed to get a ton of rest and really enjoy the two countries. Before I go into more detail about the day-to-day (next blog), there are some general takeaways about traveling to Guatemala that are worth going over.
Travelling is as Safe as You Want It to Be
Before going on the trip, I had a few hesitations. First among them was safety. I do not speak Spanish and have never traveled to Central or South America (except for a visit to Brazil where I traveled with my Portuguese-speaking sister). If you find yourself in a similar situation, but are super interested in visiting Central America anyway, I say go for it. Before I went to Guatemala everyone tried to scare the crap out of me about how dangerous it was. Drug trafficking, cartels, city gangs, theft, car crashes, chicken buses, scams, murder, rape, harassment…These were all things well meaning family members and friends warned me about before I went. Their fear-mongering got to me so much, that up to a week before the trip I began having doubts as to the sanity of my decision to visit.
Talk about being blown WAY out of proportion. Americans need to calm. the. shit. down. Yes, Guatemala comes with its elements of risk. If you can’t speak Spanish, you need to find a well-reviewed tour guide or agency to book reliable transport for you, otherwise take the risk of “figuring it out.” If you’re on your phone constantly and walking in the wrong neighborhood, you’re likely not to keep it for much longer. If you attempt to cross the Mexican border on foot, you’re likely not going to have a nice time. If you do not heed the warnings of locals to avoid hiking Vulcan de Agua, then you’re going to get jumped and robbed. These are practical and common-sense concepts any traveler should understand before going to any country. Moreover, the idea that Guatemala is Third World and low-income also fueled the myths and legends about safety and danger. However, what you need to understand is that every day 16.58 million Guatemalans and several thousand expats call the country their home and they somehow manage to get along without a knife to the face. YOU CAN TOO.
By the end of my three-and-a-half days of travel in the country, I had met loads of English-speaking backpackers without Spanish language skills, but only one of them was American. ONE! She wasn’t even a pure tourist because she actually lived and worked in Guatemala and was traveling on her time off. Her, a senior citizen from South Carolina, and the Brooklyn-born couple that owned the hotel we stayed in the first couple of nights were the only Americans we encountered during our guided tours, bus trips, and casual walks through town, but they all called Guatemala home. Most of the actual Anglophone tourists and backpackers we met were Australian, British, New Zealanders, and Canadian. I’m not exactly sure what keeps U.S. citizens from traveling to Central America, but I definitely think the overblown fear of violence is part of it. Maybe it’s too many Netflix specials about drug-trafficking, or too many pieces about poverty and immigrants. Whatever it is, it’s super weird that more people don’t visit.
Disease and Diarrhea
Whenever you travel somewhere totally new, there is a risk that you will need to adjust to the local microbial flora and fauna. When it comes to leaving Central America healthy, especially if you’re planning to leave healthy, make sure your vaccines are up to date. If you’ve traveled to the Global South more than once, chances are all your vaccines are up to date: Hep A, yellow fever, Typhoid. Make sure you’ve gotten an MMR booster and a Tetanus booster. These are just precautions, but none of these vaccines are necessary for entry to Guatemala, especially if you’re mostly focused on city travel. Guatemala has not had a malaria case in 20 years.
As for making sure you have healthy and happy bowel movements, this is easy.
- DO drink bottled water
- DO check the expiration date on dairy products you buy
- DO pack hand sanitizer
- DO ask locals for recommendations on where to eat. It is unlikely they regularly eat at a place that makes them sick
- DON’T take ice cubes in your drinks if they’re not made with filtered water
- DON’T binge eat. Everything in moderation, since you don’t know if it’s about to make you sick. ha.
- DON’T be a cheapskate and eat at the taco cart every day. You’re asking for it if this is your go-to travel meal plan
- DON’T stress out too much when you encounter setbacks. Travelling already causes stress on your body that can affect your immune and digestive systems. There is no reason to add to that stress when you encounter a setback.
Be Present When You Travel
This is a harder concept to articulate, but let me try by recounting a story about the most annoying bus ride I have ever taken. Let me set the scene. Alexa and I have just spent a full 82F degree day exploring the Mayan towns around Lake Atitlan. We took the 5:15 a.m. bus to the lake (Guatemala has notoriously bad traffic, so the earlier the better), and were scheduled to take the 4:00 p.m. bus back to Antigua. Without traffic, the trip is about three hours long. With traffic it can take up to five hours. Needless to say we were sleepy, hungry, and a sun-fatigued, but knew we had to be patient and considerate to others in order to survive the trip back. We were crammed into a minibus that was totally full, about a dozen passengers sitting side-by-side in a bumper to bumper traffic jam.
Behind our row, sat a Canadian girl (let’s call her Debbie) and an Australian boy (let’s call him Steve) that were maybe 22 years-old and had been traveling together or had in the past and met up recently. I know this and many more intimate details about their lives and travels in Central America precisely because the two of them conversed at louder-than-normal speaking level for FOUR HOURS STRAIGHT. God bless the people on the bus who didn’t understand English. For the rest of us, it was pure torture to hear Debbie rambling on and on with her “oh my gods” and “totallys” and “honestly, dramas” about the inane romantic triangles at their hostel (Walter and Erica have serious sexual tension, by the way, but Walter is definitely a playa), and Steve just encouraging the conversation to never end with his droning “oh yeahs” and “definitelys.” Steve, you could’ve spared us all and just not responded.
But this purgatory/hell was a learning moment for me. As Steve turned the conversation to the Mexico part of their trip, Debbie started to recall the excitement of drug use and beach parties in ever-increasing volume. “Like, I mean, it’s definitely illegal, but everyone is doing it so, but, yeah, we did, too. I mean it’s not big deal.”
Avoiding the obvious point of how stupid it is to go to a country you don’t know or speak the language of and taking drugs from people you don’t know among people you don’t know…., it dawned on me that while Debbie and Steve might have been traveling abroad on the physical plane, they were mentally still at home on their college campuses. Essentially, Mexico, Guatemala, and whatever other country unfortunate enough to host Debbie and Steve was just “campus” to them–a place where they could be young and immature without consequence. Their trip was “a place” built for their entertainment and anyone they didn’t know was just a two-dimensional background character cast in the movie of their lives. That’s why it was so easy to be so rude and inconsiderate on the bus even though they knew there were at least four other English speakers present who could understand every word they said. That’s why they felt that their topic of conversation was the most interesting and amazing thing to talk about for four hours on end. They were the stars of their own show, and Guatemala was just the site of the film shoot.
It is often too easy for us to imagine travel as a pure form of self-serving entertainment, but no matter how much money you spend on your vacation, that’s not necessarily so. When you travel, the world doesn’t stop to serve your needs or your Instagram story. When you travel, you’re likely to encounter real people going about their regular daily lives, and if you choose to, you have the opportunity to experience a new world with different customs, languages, and perspectives. Travel fosters growth, but only when we find ourselves in new and sometimes uncomfortable situations ready to welcome that growth. If you find that you’re doing the exact same things in one place that you would at home, then, well, what’s the point of leaving home at all? Save your money and just Google photos of the place.
From my perspective, I prefer an immersive travel experience. Talking to people, asking them about their lives and perspectives, discussing local history, attempting to speak the local language, looking out the window of the bus and trying to find similarities and differences to home and questioning why certain things are the way they are, taking recommendations to try new foods, etc. When you ask these questions, you begin to use all your senses to experience your trip, rather than just moving your physical body to a new location.
Be Aware of Your Presence
Continuing the idea of “Being Present When You Travel,” you should always be aware of your presence in a new place. I had a heightened awareness of this in Guatemala precisely because my unfamiliarity with language and culture, which made me hyperaware of my presence. The presence of a tall, female, light-skinned Anglophone foreigner in everyday spaces of Guatemala is unusual. My presence in a space is enough to change the normal dynamics of space should only locals be around, and draw either positive or negative attention. Positive being that maybe someone is willing to offer some help to a tourist who can’t find a decent place to eat for lunch. Negative being that maybe someone will follow you down the street offering “help” but only in exchange for an overpriced tip. Overall, when your presence is an anomaly for locals, you default carry the responsibility of representing all the people you look similar to—whether its your race or your nationality or your gender. Sorry, it’s just the way it goes. If I act standoffish or aloof or rude or naïve, my presence tells that person “where I’m from, the behavior is normal.”
Beyond that, being aware of your presence also means not expecting routines and customs from your home country to transfer over in the host country. What time do people wake up for breakfast? Is it reasonable to stay out late, or are bars only built for foreign tourists? Are the locals wearing shorts and tank tops or are they wearing jeans despite the heat? Even noting how locals walk along streets or sidewalks helps you understand how your body could transform a space. Do they expect cars to stop for them? Why do they walk only in the shade? Paying attention to local customs not only keeps you safe, but shows that you’re respectful.
After a particularly beautiful and delightful day in northern Ambergris Caye in Belize, Alexa and I sat with the snorkel and dive instructor of the resort, Max, and talked about the marine life and tourism industry. Alexa and I were chasing down a fruitless rumor that manatees sometimes visit the north part of the caye, and I mentioned that Alexa really wanted to hug a manatee. Max immediately corrected us, “You can’t touch them. The oils from the sunscreen damage their skin. Sharks, too. They break out into spots.” This started Max on a long lecture about the impact tourists have on Belizean marine life and the barrier reef. “You know, we’re learning from Australia. They used to have the largest Barrier Reef in the world, but they didn’t protect it. Now we’ve got the largest and it’s a fight with the government and tourists to protect it.” As grateful as Max was to have the tourism industry, you could tell he had a lot of qualms with tourists and the effort it took to make the business work. Everything from oily, damaging sunscreen (looking at you Banana Boat) to $6/gallon gasoline (necessary for the speedboats that are the primary transportation within and between different cayes) to tourist fishing in protected reefs. His bread and butter (tourists) were also the biggest source of stress and the main threat to the environment. When someone speaks to you so frankly about what your presence means, it is hard not to walk away wondering what you could do to make sure your presence brings more positivity than negativity. FYI, one place you could start to be more aware is with your sunscreen. Badger products are among the few brands I found that sell environmentally safe sunscreen.
Being aware of your presence helps you stay safe and also helps you understand what your host country considers normal and why some ideas or habits you might have are considered abnormal or isolating. Ultimately, it helps you build confidence in your travel decisions and makes it easier to get to know your host country.