Featured photo for The Many Ways to Die in Guatemala

The Many Ways to Die in Guatemala

If it wasn’t already apparent from my previous posts, I had reservations about safety before (and during) my trip to Guatemala. That common and uncommon criminals seem to be able to misbehave with impunity here, committing 30 murders a week in the capital city alone, I was well aware that this wasn’t the most secure place in the world–enough that I even hastily revised my will just days before I departed to this Central American country.

But I probably had overweighted this threat in my mind among the possible ways to die or get hurt while volunteering in this country. By “possible,” I mean “much less far-fetched than jumping onto a curb and breaking your ankle” (which actually happened to a friend in the States). Below is a list of risky scenarios I managed to avoid or mitigate during my time in Guatemala or at Maya Pedal:

  • Getting into a head-on collision while the driver of a rusted out 1980s Japanese compact car with three dozen dents on its outer body darted in and out of traffic while driving from the airport to Antigua on X-mas day.
  • Getting hit by a runaway bus that lost its brakes on a hill, such as the one that did outside of Maya Pedal one day at 9:00 a.m. Fortunately it regained its brakes on a flat section or else it would have plowed into a market with a lot of people getting hurt. (Photo above.)
  • Getting robbed while wandering around and looking for food in Antigua in the dark. (I mostly stayed inside during nighttime.)
  • Getting robbed while withdrawing quetzales at an ATM in Antigua. (I mitigated this risk by asking my hotel patroness where was a safe ATM to go to nearby and she told me of one that was inside, had an armed security guard, and required swiping your ATM card instead of inserting as some ATM machines had a habit of swallowing cards.)
  • Traveling from Antigua to San Andrés Itzapa and having all my personal possessions stolen. (I tried to avoid this by keeping critical items like my passport and credit cards in various hidden pockets on my body, like in my socks, and holding my backpack on my lap with two arms crossed over it instead of stashing it on the overhead racks where tourists have been known to get things stolen.)
  • Having the chicken bus get stopped, robbed, hijacked, or involved in a drug-related extortion attempt. This is not unheard of in this country, where something like 300 chicken bus drivers and passengers were murdered in 2010.
  • Getting into an accident on the chicken bus. This was not hard to imagine when chicken bus drivers were doing things like crossing double lines to pass other vehicles, then driving on the shoulder on the other side of the road to avoid oncoming traffic, and then swerving back into its correct lane.
  • Careening off the road in a tour bus while on a windy, narrow, mountain road—one which the bus has to back up several times just to go around some corners.
  • Getting burned by flying sparks inside the shop at Maya Pedal while someone was grinding or welding. Usually this was easily preventable by someone yelling “oidos” (ears) or “oyos” (eyes) when the grinder or arc welder was turned on, but with limited space and sometimes several people in the shop. I still got a few tell-tale burn marks on my wrists, which were one of the few places on my body where skin was exposed.
  • Getting hit or brushed by a chicken bus while biking on the roads–all of which have no shoulder.
  • Being pinned under a motorbike that hit some loose dirt and toppled over while riding off-road to the countryside to visit the site of a bicimáquina in action.
  • Getting lynched by a mob due to being seen with a little eight-year-old girl who is being way too affectionate (e.g., hugs and kisses)–which was cute except there is a real problem with kidnappings (and subsequent suspicion about foreigners with local children) here.

But enough of being morbid. I am happy and grateful to have come back from Guatemala alive and unharmed. And I suppose most of these things could feasibly occur anywhere in the world.

Well, except for the incidences with the chicken buses.

The chicken bus in this photo lost its brakes coming down the hill in front of Maya Pedal.  After hopping the two speedbumps shown, it came to a stop on the level section.  No one was hurt.
The chicken bus in this photo lost its brakes coming down the hill in front of Maya Pedal. After hopping the two speedbumps shown, it came to a stop on the level section. No one was hurt.