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Don’t Tell Me How to Travel: Disaster in Guatemala


Reusing some old material here, but it’s all a hell of a story if I do say so myself! And it’s new to this blog…

Enjoy!

Don’t Tell Me How to Travel

I was sick of warnings. I’d dealt with warnings since way back in Northern Mexico, since the first days of my year-long trip through Latin America. It always sounded like paranoia, coming from people that didn’t understand this place. The phrase, “It’s dangerous, you can’t do it alone” was red-flagged in my eardrums.

And man was I ever having a good time. I was seeing great places and meeting great people, exploring further and deeper than all those timid tourists, those who were afraid of what they didn’t know. I felt like an accomplished traveller.

After months of traipsing and scouring, I arrived in Antigua, Guatemala. Relatively rich, secure and familiar, Antigua is a city where tourism reigns. The only place in the country where you’re more likely to see a blond head than a stray dog, where you can sip cappuccinos in funky coffee houses while you watch police patrolling the streets like the Pentagon. This place is secure.

Secure, not adventurous. Tourists stroll the flowered lanes, snapping pictures of colonial doorways and balconies before beetling back to their deluxe coach buses. I couldn’t stand it – I needed to escape. So I did – on a mountain bike headed towards Volcan Agua, the imposing volcano that looms over the city. And of course, I ignored the warnings.

A long, weakening climb under the scorching midday sun left me exhausted, my lungs parched from the swirling dirt of the path beneath. I got the feeling I was off-course when the path narrowed suddenly, but I pushed on. Adventure, I thought. When the trail all but ended, high up the volcano, surrounded by coarse shrubs and modest farms, I turned and pointed the bike down.

The descent instantly transformed me – my energy was soaring. I was absorbed by the speed and fixed on the erratic trail ahead. I was so engrossed in the thrill of it all that I never saw him coming.

A blue bandana. That’s all I remember of his features, that fucking blue bandana wrapped around his nose and mouth like a bandit from a Wild West movie. He caught my periphery as he jumped from the thicket on the left. My eyes darted in his direction. But the stick in his hand had already jammed my spokes.

The bike stopped dead, sending me flying to the hard, dry ground. I scrambled halfway up, to my knees, and was greeted by the tip of a two-foot blade at my neck. A rusty machete. I reacted with a moment of motionless curiosity, total blissful ignorance to what was happening.  There must be a happy explanation for all this…

But foreign screams quickly cleared my confusion. He started to swing the machete, beating me on the arms and legs with the broad side of the knife, attempting to coax me into handing over the bag on my back. It worked. The screaming, the weapon, and the surprise attack had left me stunned. In my trance I silently handed over the coveted prize. He snatched it from me and scurried into the bushes, clutching my bag to his chest.

I stood, attempting to grasp what had just happened, as the sun’s rays pelted my dirty face. Sudden awareness; I’ve just been mugged. I’ve lost my money, my camera, my passport, everything. I’m screwed. I stood alone on the dusty trail and screamed myself hoarse.

Despite my initial panic, my material loss didn’t weigh on me for long, but the memory was much heavier. I played the mugging over in my head a thousand times, and my dazed reaction started to chew away at me. I’m 6’5”. I’m sure I had almost a foot on this guy. Guatemalans would laugh at me, asking why I didn’t just take the knife from him, why I didn’t just hit him, or run, or refuse.  I never had a good answer for them.

I have come to accept that my reaction, if not the demonstration of bravery I might have preferred, was at least the safest option. Fellow travellers were thankfully quick to agree. But the unfortunate residue is the pre-emptive suspicion that I now travel with at all times. I still consider Latin America one of the most magical places I’ve ever seen, with people as warm as the climate, but I am now sharply aware of the harsh desperation that plagues so many people there. As adventurous as I may think I am, in their eyes, I will always be a tourist.

Some time after, in Bogota, Colombia, I was asked about a hike. Before I realized what I was saying the words were out of my mouth: “It´s dangerous, you can’t do it alone.”

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