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Guatemala Is Not Mexico   1 | 2 | 3 

14 Nov 2001

GUATEMALA CITY, GUATEMALA — I must plead guilty to having had preconceptions about Latin America. I suspect most Americans that have never travelled any further south than Mexico share these feelings, but that's no excuse. I am happy to say, however, that Guatemala has done me a great service by dispelling these images. And as a bonus, I've been introduced to a beautiful and fascinating country.

If you were like me a few weeks ago, you probably knew Guatemala as nothing more than a source for coffee and cheap, hand-woven knick-knacks. And you probably imagined poor living conditions, dirty streets, and water you couldn't drink. Good, cheap coffee: yes. Thousands of women selling wallets, bracelets, necklaces, sweaters, and five thousand other things: yes. Everything else: no way.

My experiences in Mexico had tainted me for the worse. Ever since I was a child growing up in New York, I associated Spanish with poor neighborhoods, and thus subconsciously transferred that image to Spanish-speaking cultures. My few visits to Mexico in the past did little to discourage the idea that it was often poor and unsanitary. But the worst part of all is that these conceptions spread to all of Latin America, not just the tiny fraction to which I'd been exposed.

Well, the most important thing I learned about Guatemala is that it is not Mexico. (In fact, most of the rest of Central America is not Mexico, but let's concentrate on Guatemala for the moment.) The first observation I made about Guatemala was how clean it was. Every public restroom I went into was clean, well-lit, had toilet paper, and didn't smell at all. I can't even say that about the United States. Restaurants always showed great hygiene, and almost all had a clearly labelled non-smoking section that wasn't right on top of the smokers. Even around town, trash receptacles could be found on every other street corner. With the exception of the big market at Chichicastenango, which is understandable, garbage was almost never found in the gutter. These kinds of things are easy to take for granted in the US, but as soon as you head to somewhere like Mexico or Belize City, cleanliness takes a back-seat to basic survival. But not here.

The second thing I noticed after a few days was the music. The music was so contemporary by American standards that it took me a few days to fully realize that I wasn't listening to American radio stations. The songs could just as easily been by groups like Fastball, Foo Fighters, or Fiona Apple, except they were in Spanish. I'm probably giving Guatemala undue credit here, as the groups could very likely be from anywhere in Latin America, but they were the ones playing it, while the other countries played that same oom-pah mariachi stuff I can't stand anymore.

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Last updated: 08 Jan 2002 06:45:45