Michael Totten

In Guatemala City

Guatemala City is a rough place.
The air is choked with diesel fumes. Buildings downtown are smudged with streaks of black. Narrow sidewalks are made narrower by street vendors, and on Avenida 6 pedestrian traffic spills into the streets amid old cars, brightly painted school buses, motorcycles, and carts. Horns blare for no apparent reason other than that drivers seem to like the sound. There is no concept of lanes. Still, if you need to cross the street, someone will stop and wave you across — courtesy amid chaos.
Many of the buildings downtown ought to be charming. At least a fourth date back to the 19th Century. They’re adorned with intricate scollwork, dignified columns, tall vertical windows, solid wooden medieval-looking doors opening to tiled interior courtyards. Yet these would-be lovely gems are jammed up against cartoon eyesores from the 1960s, buildings beyond parody that seem purposely designed to offend every aesthetic sensibility ever cultivated. They are the worst I’ve seen anywhere, caricaturing themselves and insulting their neighbors.
The city isn’t crumbling. It isn’t a pretty sight, but it holds together fairly well. The buildings and infrastructure are more or less intact, but the city is tired and world-weary. It lays supine in the highlands valley, beaten down by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, civil war, revolution, economic devastation, and dictatorship. The city is hungover. Its eyes squint at the sun. It groans with depression and exhaustion.
There are no skyscrapers in the center of the city. The narrow streets are miniature canyons lined with three- and four-story buildings, just tall enough to keep the sunlight out and the pedestrians claustrophobic, but not tall enough to convey that I’m in the largest city in Central America, population 3 million, about the size of Seattle.
Even the Plaza Mayor is painful. It is fronted by the National Palace, which looks nice enough up close but from a distance looms oppressive and Satanic. I swear that building has horns on top and a tail somewhere in the back. It glowers menacingly at the city and seems the perfect command center for a diabolical dictatorship, which, until only a few years ago, is exactly what it was.
Humorless palace guards point machine guns at everyone walking past. Don’t even think about cracking a smile at these characters. I tried a couple of times and they stared holes right through me, stonefaced as the Mayan frescoes at Tikal.
The economy here isn’t remotely up to Western standards, but every shop is full of modest wares, and street vendors hawk everything from knockoff goods (“Hugo Boos” t-shirts), pirated gay pornography on DVD, and allegedly brand-name perfumes in tiny bottles with hand-made labels. There are almost no beggars at all, and even less garbage and graffitti. The city is poor but the center is nearly immaculate, much cleaner than New York or Paris. Nearly everyone, even the very poor, are sharply dressed and unfailingly polite. The people here have a sullen and heavy look about them, but they carry themselves with a quiet upright dignity. They are poor, but they do the very best they can with what little they do have. Everyone here is a survivor.
Guatemala suffered a 36-year horror show that only ended, nervously, in 1996. The military lorded it over the country with a brutal reign of terror. Communist guerillas, backed by the Soviet Union, waged revolution in the countryside. The armed forces hit back with a scorched earth campaign that made no distinction between combatants and civilians, between Communists and Maya Indians. In the 1980s, thousands of Maya were ethnically cleansed from their villages and relocated to concentration camps euphemistically dubbed “model communities.” Cities and villages were terrorized by gestapo-like death squads of La Mano Blanco (the White Hand). Mass graves and bone piles are strewn across the highlands.
Everyone in Guatemala over the age of ten remembers all this. The scars of psychological trauma are etched in their faces forever. But all that is over now, and the capital city has a bit of a blank slate feel to it. The future is open and more hopeful than anyone here can remember. Guatemala is slowly, in fits, becoming a normal country with problems instead of a tragic place that explodes.
The only people who have begged me for money are the war wounded. The city isn’t full of them, but they are around. Every ten blocks or so I’ll see one on the sidewalk. They are horribly disfigured people, always men, with missing or disfigured limbs. Just in case I wanted to pretend that Guatemala’s recent history was more like tranquil Costa Rica’s, they’re a semi-regular reminder that this is not so.
I have never been to Guatemala before, but it’s obvious the economy is better now than it was. Young people here are short by American standards (I swear I’m the tallest person in Guatemala right now), but they tower over their elders. I’ve never seen such tiny people as the oldest of this country, especially the Maya. Most of the men look me in the chest, but some of the elderly Maya are only as tall as my stomach. Malnutrition was obviously widespread and severe. But teenagers today are much taller, and look as healthy and hale as those in Europe.
“The inhabitants of Guatemala appear to have little desire for public amusements seen in most cities.” So said Robert Dunlop in 1847. He could have said so last week. There are few restaurants, fewer bars and cafes. Movie theaters have been converted into clothing stores. Strolling the markets and praying in church are the high points of public entertainment, at least to my casual wandering eyes. This is not Spain, where even grandparents are out at two in the morning in the restaurants and bars. Guatemala retires at seven. I haven’t seen a single club in the capital.
Almost no one in Guatemala City speaks English, not even at the elegant colonial hotel where we are staying. The exception is our doorman.
“¿Habla Usted ingles?” he asked me.
“Yes, I speak English” I said, surprised to hear a local ask me this question.
“Where are you from?” he said.
“Oregon. United States.”
He beamed with delight. “I love United States,” he said. “I lived six years in Chicago. I worked at Ritz Carlton Hotel by the lake. Chicago, it is the most beautiful place I have ever seen.” He put his hand on his heart. “I miss it so much.”
I didn’t want to ask him why he came back to Guatemala. I didn’t want to hear a tragic story, that he was illegal and was deported. It would have broken my heart. I wanted to give him Chicago back, but I couldn’t.
“Yes,” I said. “Chicago is beautiful. I used to live nearby and I visited on weekends. I miss it, too.” And it’s true. I do.
I met Joey in the hotel bar. He looks like the perfect California beach dude. Turns out he’s a ballet dancer from Toronto.
“I’ve been to a lot of cities in my life,” he said heavily. “A lot of cities. And this is by far the worst one. I walked down the street a couple of blocks and came straight back to the hotel. I’m done now. Not going out again until we get to Antigua.”
I chuckled.
“I hear you,” I said. “It’s not a pretty sight. But I like it because it’s real. Besides, this place is nowhere near the bottom. Tijuana, Mexico. That’s the worst place I’ve seen. Next to that, Guatemala City is Prague.
It takes a half-hour to get downtown from the airport in a taxi. And I didn’t see a single slum along the way. At least, not the kind I’ve seen in Mexico. There are shantytowns around, I know, but I’ve yet to run into one. Run-down neighborhoods, yes. Dickensian squalor, no. I didn’t think it possible to drive clear across this city and miss all that, but apparently you can. The outlying areas remind me more than anywhere of Los Angeles; shiny glass towers, nail salons in strip malls, palm trees in the meridians, and bougainvillea atop the garden walls.
Despite the poverty, despite its traumatic past, the city somehow manages to hold its head up. It has little to recommend it for tourists looking for entertainment and luxury, but it’s interesting (for a short while) if you can appreciate a bit of realism. It is like a resiliant survivor of a terrible accident who gets back on his feet and stares down death in the face. History weighs so much here. But if this city could speak it would say — firmly — I want to live, and godammit I will.
(We have had enough of realism and have moved on to the lovely colonial city of Antigua. It is ancient, bright, colorful, and soul-soothing. Primordial green volcanoes tower over its streets. It is, I think, the perfect Latin American city.)