Greetings from my first week back in Guatemala! This is my fifth visit to the country within the past four years and every time I come back, I am always surprised by the same things upon my arrival. Soon, I will get used to this way of living again, but first I wanted to articulate these cultural differences now that they are fresh in my field of experience. Obviously, how cultural differences are felt depends a lot on each person’s own cultural background. Mine would briefly be something like this: I’m a 36 year old well-travelled white female artist from the North of Europe.
In case you have been to Guatemala before, or if you possibly live here, this might be an amusing list for you to read. In case you consider traveling to Guatemala for the first time, and want to experience all the richness of the culture, this might be a spoiler warning, so you better stop reading here. Or – maybe it will be a fun checklist for you, so you can see which ones you will experience once you come!
So – for those of you who are interested – here’s my little sum-up:
THINGS I AM SURPRISED BY IN GUATEMALA OVER AND OVER AGAIN
- It’s considered strange (or impolite or funny) to yawn having your mouth wide open and not hiding it with a hand for example. My first encounter with this happened just after boarding the airplane in Mexico City, taking off to Guatemala City. I had barely found my seat (and indeed was tired after 20 hours of traveling already) when an old man walks past me and teasingly puts his finger into my yawning mouth (yes, literally).
- How funny and humorous people are! Talking to others passing by and making contact with strangers is normal. I love it! (Yes, even if it means having a stranger’s finger in my mouth once in a while.) In my culture everyone minds one’s own business.
- “Buen provecho” which translates as “enjoy your meal” or “bon apetit” is said after (or while passing other people) eating, not before. Apparently it’s actually considered rude not to wish this to other people when they are eating and you pass them by.
- Toilet paper cannot be washed down the toilet but needs to be put in a trash can. Otherwise it will block the pipe system.
- The way people are direct. I met someone new this week, and within the first two minutes they would have asked me a) how old I was b) if I had a boyfriend.
- The way people are indirect! Apparently it’s impolite to say “no”, “I don’t know” nor to express direct wishes. So, for me it’s been challenging and sometimes even frustrating to know what a Guatemalan person really thinks or means. For example: A person asks me what time would I like to eat lunch. I answer: Anytime that suits you is fine. A person: It depends what time is good for you. Me: Ok, how about… 2 pm, could that work? A person: Yes that’s fine, 11 or 11:30 works.
- That particular sound of clapping is the sound of (hand)making tortillas. Three times a day.
- How amazingly delicious pineapples are here. Omg.
- And mangos. …
- What the mannequins look like. You will notice a difference.
- It takes approximately three phone calls to arrange a meeting. As an example, let’s say that the context is that two friends have agreed to meet at a certain place and at a certain time. Typically it goes something like this: First call – hey how are you, how about meeting in an hour. Second call (after an hour): hey how is it going? yes I’m ready, cool, yes see you soon. Third call (after half an hour): hey how are you, nice, yes I’m here now, ok see you soon bye.
- When it comes to taking a taxi, each part of the country, city and village has a different recommendation whether it’s safe or not. Negotiate with your local.
- Street-smartness is necessary at all times. It is possible to get robbed anywhere.
- The way people show hospitality. Like there is no limit to it!
- The length of each trip/journey depends hugely on the traffic – depende el trafíco – as they say. First I thought this was an arrogant joke, but now I’ve realized how true this is. Any route can easily take double or triple the time with traffic than without traffic.
- The roads are bumpy and curvy and I always get motion sickness here! I keep forgetting this each year and never prepare well for the following trip. However due to these experiences I’m happy to tell you that they always have plastic bags in the busses and some wonderful magic pills (it’s called “noseal”) can be found at any kiosk (those are called “tiendas”). They also sell all other kinds of medicine there, very effective and cheap, so you should be fine to leave your own drugstore at home.
- This last one is rather personal and slightly uncomfortable to share: I tend to have curiosity towards the cultural differences that are mainly connected to poverty. For example: Yesterday as I was visiting the sea I wanted to capture a photo of those cute old rotten fishing boats there. I was ready with my camera as we were sailing through the channel where I had seen them. But this time only a fancy sailing boat was passing by and I caught myself feeling disappointed and not wanting to take a picture of that. Isn’t that interesting? Yes, and dangerous. Even if I’m obviously wanting to be making a difference for progress and equality here, not for maintaining the existing images of people trapped in poverty, with the history of exploitation towards this nation, I need to stay alert. By choosing what I document, I choose a reflection of how I want to remember things being here. But also – for me the remaining key question is why would I want to remember things here being a certain way – and not the other. My prayer is that becoming more aware of these tendencies is becoming more conscious and respectful on these matters.
Ps. In that split of a second I fought my tendencies and actually did take a picture of that sailing boat passing by! This incident became such an eye opener for me so I know I will remember those cute old rotten fishing boats forever.