The first question you are asked when you meet another traveler here is ‘How long have you been in Xela?’. It is a subtle difference from other common traveler’s get-to-know-you questions like ‘Where are you from?’, ‘Where else have you been?’ or ‘Where are you going next?’ because it inherently assumes that Xela is a place where people stick around for a while. This is absolutely true- we have already been here for about 3 weeks and have settled in alarmingly well. We’ve got a ridiculously cheap room with kitchen access right in the heart of the centro, we’ve got ridiculously cheap private Spanish lessons, and we’ve met a whole network of gringos and locals who are here for the long haul.
That said, we’re planning our escape. As nice as it would be to play house here in La-La Land, we are, afterall, on a bike tour- although you’d never know it by the rusty, neglected state of our rides after a few weeks of hanging out in Xela. 3 weeks have gone by like in a time warp and all of a sudden I understand how so many of our new acquaintances, who planned on comprehensive tours of Central America, are now leaving town only to go on visa runs to the nearest border every 3 months.
It’s not that Xela is the most beautiful town, although it does boast a pretty stunning location, ringed by cartoonishly perfect volcanoes. Although it is the second largest city in the most densely populated country in Central America, it still has a kind of small town feel where you bump into your neighbors at the market and know that you can find your friends at that one particular bar. Lonely Planet, the penultimate traveler’s guidebook, says that Xela ‘may well be the perfect Guatemalan town- not too big, not too small, enough foreigners to support a good range of hotels and restaurants, but not so many that it loses its national flavor.’ Which kind of makes me wonder how ‘real’ it actually is. The local nickname for the place is ‘Gringotenango’ and, while it is not the glossy, sanitized city that Antigua is purported to be, I kind of wonder if it is a true indication of the rest of the country. What I mean to say is that I wonder if the rest of Guatemala is as pleasant as Xela.
Ramon and Lizandro, our Spanish teachers, on our balcony
Cathedral view from our balcony
Bright lights, medium-sized city. View of Parque Central from our window.
30+ years of civil war (boosted by the US government) and a racially-based social stratification left over from the colonial era have steeled many of the Mayan communities against outsiders- foreigners and Guatemalan citizens alike. Warnings to stay out of their villages, stay away from their children, and never take their pictures are buttressed with stories of foreigners being forcibly barred from villages, attacked, and even killed. In our own experience, we’ve noticed a general coolness from people in indigenous communities, but have had really positive interactions with them on individual levels. The idea of leaving cozy, cuddly, welcoming Xela to ride out into the tourist-free towns north of here is a bit daunting. I worry that we won’t be welcomed in other towns, that we’ll spend the next few weeks trying not to offend rather than enjoying the country. I guess it’s a pointless thing to worry about, as we’ve already signed up for it and I don’t fear for our safety as much as I do for our comfort. But nobody wants to go where they are not welcome, especially if there is no good reason for us to be there.
Ramon and Lizandro demonstrating the ‘keystone’ seat on a chicken bus. This is the third person seated on a given seat built for two children. The person at the end of each seat forms a keystone for the whole row, with one cheek on the seat and the other held up by friction and the refusal to acknowledge that school buses weren’t intended to carry 120 adults and their livestock.
We’ve finally decided on our next move- still two weeks away and still on the gringo trail. We’ll take buses to the next few tourist hotspots in the mountains, then head north to less mountainous, less touristy environs and finally get back on the bikes. We’ll have a whole different set of issues in northern Guatemala- this is where the legendary Tikal ruins are and also the location of a recent rash of armed robberies and assaults on tourists. There are safe ways to approach these situations and there is always the option to turn back or skirt past particularly unsafe sites, but again it comes back to the feeling of being unwelcome in a place. We’re getting ready for our exit from the country and want to make sure that we don’t deprive ourselves of the opportunity to see world-class sights and have amazing experiences, but we want to be safe and not contribute to a hostile situation. The secret so far seems to be seeking out locals and other tourists who have been there for the most accurate information, so we’ll press on little by little and make the effort to stay well informed and safe, and, hopefully, welcome.
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