The guidebooks are fairly clear on this subject: in Guatemala, you should avoid going places at night. (In fact, there are those who think you would be wise to avoid the place in the daytime, too. The ever-cheerful US State Department has a page on Guatemala, which informs you that you may encounter incidents “including, but not limited to, assault, theft, armed robbery, carjacking, rape, kidnapping, and murder.” You just can’t beat a recommendation like that!) It’s apparently worse at night, as the bad people of Guatemala emerge, vampire-like, to prey on tourists foolish enough to venture forth without the protective power of the sun’s rays.
These dire warnings weighed heavy on our minds during our first day in Guatemala. We didn’t even make it to Flores until 7:30 or so, and the light was nearly gone by the time we found a guidebook-approved hotel. Thankfully, the quality time I had spent with “Speak Spanish with Michel Thomas!” over the past month paid off. My quick crash course in Spanish (a CD set from the library) hadn’t covered a great deal of vocabulary, but many of the examples had been about hotels and the procurement thereof, so we were able to fumble our way through.
(A quick sidebar: the CD set in question, “Speak Spanish with Michel Thomas!” is not only reasonably effective but vastly more entertaining than you’d expect. The 8-CD set set consists of Michel Thomas, an old French guy, and two youngish students: an American female and a British male. Over the course of the CDs, the idea goes, you learn along with the two students as Michel teaches them Spanish, and indeed the students seem to know almost nothing at the beginning of the course. The woman is fairly bright and learns quickly, but the real entertainment value comes from the British guy, who is none too bright. He gibbers and stutters his way through the course, and every so often he can be heard working his jaw ineffectively while searching for a phrase, bits of spittle popping between his lips. Michel Thomas, for his part, gives off a strong cranky old man vibe, and frequently gets frustrated with the poor Brit. You can almost hear the American woman lurking in the background, by turns sympathetic and gloating.)
Knowing a bit of Spanish in Guatemala – even the little I’d picked up from Michel and his hapless charges – made things easier, but only to a point. To get by, you have to be able to not just speak, but to understand, and here was my problem. Often I’d figure out how to ask a particular question, and would be delighted when I was understood. Then would come the response, a torrent of Spanish which would roll right over me and leave precious few traces of meaning behind. Sometimes a confused and pitiable look or a ”Lo siento, no comprendo!” would bring relief, but just as often it would result in a giggle and another flood of futile Spanish. Guatemalans, it seems, are greatly amused by the non-Spanish speaking gringos. I found this attitude somewhat unhelpful.
Back to Flores: as darkness fell on that first night, we found ourselves in a budget hotel room. In Guatemala, in 2008, this meant that we paid about $12, which is nothing if not reasonable. For that kind of money, you get:
- a private (but pretty run down) bathroom with a shower and hot water that comes in fits and starts
- a reasonable, if not amazing, level of cleanliness
- two beds, with thin sheets that appeared to have been recently laundered (but no guarantees!)
- in this hotel, an odd rectangular hole in the wall shared with a public sitting room, through which an ambitious person could get into our hotel room and rob us blind (see picture below)
- a non-functional ceiling fan, and a semi-functional oscillating floor fan – utterly indispensable in the humid thickness of the Petén region
- no toilet paper
This last was a condition we found in many places in Guatemala: it wasn’t hard to find places to relieve oneself, but they were not often stocked with TP. In many places, the presence of one’s own toilet paper made the difference between a nicely wiped rear, and a rear that would go entirely unwiped.
By the time we got ourselves unpacked, it was fully dark. We were ensconced in our hotel room, safe against all intruders (aside, that is, from the alarming hole in the wall). The US State Department would have undoubtedly advised us to lock the doors and stay there.
Except that we were hungry. Also, we’d been in Guatemala for seven hours but hadn’t really seen any of it yet. And so we threw caution to the winds and ventured out into the mean streets of Flores, Guatemala. As we closed the door behind us, I could practically see the authors of guidebook shaking their heads sadly.
Wandering around Flores that night, we were not assaulted, stolen from, carjacked, raped, kidnapped, murdered, or even much noticed. We had adventures with the local ATM machine, which appeared to be as flustered by us as we were by it. We dodged tuk-tuks and drank soda made with real sugar as we walked the cobbled streets. We ate at a small hole-in-the-wall restaurant where we didn’t understand a word the waiter said. We pointed randomly at the menu, and when he kept asking us questions about our order, we kept repeating bits of his Spanish back to him until he went away and finally came back with food, which was delicious. We washed it down with several bottles of sweating cold beer (Gallo – la mejor cerveza! – utterly ubiquitous in Guatemala). We sat there for a long time that night, toasting our vacation and ourselves and marveling at our audacity in coming here, as the heavy summer night settled onto the town.