The Guatemalan cop standing in the road up ahead motioned for me to pull over to the right-hand shoulder.
“Damn, just what I DON’T need!” I muttered under my breath as my head throbbed from a serious caffeine-withdrawal headache.
I quickly chewed the remains of my granola bar, the only nourishment I’d had since the previous afternoon, and swallowed hard. The young Guatemalan cop approached my vehicle, an older model Toyota SUV, and seemed a little surprised at the blonde, non-Spanish-speaking driver behind the wheel.
I quickly handed over my Minnesota driver’s license, International Driver’s license, and the vehicle registration. He wandered away while images of a dark, nasty Guatemalan prison flashed through my mind…
Six months prior to this unexpected Guatemalan police incident, I spent the winter house sitting in England. I had arranged my house sit gigs through Trusted Housesitters and that’s where I stumbled upon an interesting house sit in Antigua, Guatemala. Since I was considering moving there, it seemed serendipitous.
I contacted the homeowner and, a few months later, we had a Skype chat. He described the somewhat remote location of his house, built on a mountain overlooking Antigua. I asked the most obvious question first:
“What about safety? Is it safe for a single white female to be alone in a remote mountainous area of Guatemala?“
He described the thick walls that surrounded the compound, the high-tech home security system, and the vicious guard dogs protecting the property.
“No problem!” he assured me. “You’ll be fine!“
We continued to communicate over the following months, through email and a few more Skype sessions, and then signed a contract confirming the dates and a few of the minor details.
Afraid of the dark?
Since I fly standby on Delta, my travel schedule is fairly flexible. With the official contract start date of June 7th, I sent the homeowner an email the week prior and proposed an arrival on the evening of June 5th.
His brief reply: “We don’t go out after dark. You’ll need to arrive during the day or take a taxi to our house.”
“Hmmmm.” I thought. “Very interesting. They don’t leave the house after dark?“
So, I adjusted my arrival time accordingly which required me to get up at 2:30 am to make a 6:25 am departure out of Minneapolis, arriving within his window of “before dark.”
Suddenly, fears and uncertainty began to creep in.
“Watch the route”
I arrived at Guatemala City Airport on a Sunday afternoon and was warmly greeted by the homeowner after I exited customs. As we walked to the car he warned: “Pay careful attention to the route from here to Antigua, since you’ll be dropping us off for our flight on Wednesday.” (That was phrased as a statement, not a question.)
“Huh? Seriously?” I thought. “I have trouble finding my way around Minnesota without GPS!”
The traffic leaving the airport was bumper-to-bumper as we inched our way through Guatemala City. My head was spinning as my sleep-deprived brain absorbed the sights and sounds of this strange new land. I struggled to make the required small-talk while focusing on memorizing the route I’d be driving alone in just a few days.
“We always keep our doors locked and windows rolled up when driving through this area.” he casually mentioned.
“WTF? And YOU want ME, a non-Spanish-speaking single white female to drive through here ALONE?” my inner voice silently screamed, freaking out a little at the thought. Not too much scares me. My Mom’s friend Bev always asks me “Aren’t you ever scared?” and my answer usually is “no”. This time, however, my answer would NOT be “no”.
(When I mentioned this to Kinzie, an American expat living in Antigua, she had the same reaction. “You’ve GOT to be KIDDING me!”)
Lingering safety questions…
Despite the homeowner’s reassurance of a top-notch security system in place at the mountaintop compound, I continued to have a few lingering questions regarding safety. Why? One morning he jumped out of the car to run a quick errand and accidentally left his pistol lying on the car seat.
“I have a permit to carry.” he explained.
“Why do you feel a need to carry a pistol?” I wondered.
Another red flag?
Driving through Guatemala City en route to the airport for their departure:
“I think that road also leads to the airport, but I try not to venture off the main roads because you can get into some pretty dangerous areas,” he mentioned. “And we always keep the doors locked driving through this area,” he repeated once again.
Facing my fears…
So finally, on the morning of my fourth day in the country, we arrived at the Guatemala City Airport for the homeowner’s departure. Mr. Homeowner, his wife, and their 12-year-old son grabbed their bags from the back while I jumped into the driver’s seat, muttering a little prayer. I prayed that my pounding caffeine headache would go away (they’re possibly the only non-coffee-drinking people in Guatemala!), and prayed I’d find my way back to Antigua without accidentally venturing into any of the “danger zones” without my loaded pistol by my side.
As I exited the airport road, I fought my way through bumper-to-bumper traffic into the correct lane (second from left) and managed to make the vital U-turn. Confident I was heading in the general direction of Antigua, I finally exhaled and began to relax just a bit. My head still pounded as I crawled slowly through Guatemala City traffic, dodging the chicken buses darting from the right lane and narrowly missing the insane motorcycles riding the line.
Finally, I stumbled upon the grocery store located very near the casa and pulled in. I munched on green grapes while cruising through the surprisingly modern grocery store and loaded up my cart with anything that looked even vaguely familiar: roasted chicken, bananas, yogurt, coffee and granola bars!
Exiting the grocery store parking lot, I grabbed a granola bar and ripped it open, savoring the crunchy goodness of real FOOD! I was feeling so relieved that this drive-from-hell was almost over…and then I noticed the damn cop motioning for me to pull over.
The young cop examined my documents, verified the registration, and let me go with a “Gracias” and a smile … and no prison time. I made my way back to the beautiful fortress on the hill that would be my home for the next five weeks.
Stepping out slowly…
But those feelings of uncertainty continued. Normally I would explore my neighborhood, venture out on the walking trails and get to know the local people. This time, however, my fears (and common sense) held me back. I locked myself behind the walls of the mansion for the first few days, reading, writing, and admiring the incredible volcano view.
But what about connecting with the culture and the people?
How can I safely explore without crossing into the invisible “danger zone”?
How can I let down my walls and relax into this Guatemalan experience without fear?
That’s the funny thing about house sitting: you get the chance to experience the country as a local, not as a tourist.
Tourists are safe in numbers, staying together in the tourist areas patrolled by the mostly ineffective police force. The locals living in the hills (like me and my American neighbor Kari) don’t have the protection that group travel affords and are forced to live cautiously. She owns a gun. Her Guatemalan husband fears for her safety when he’s gone overnight.
So, here I sit in my beautiful mansion on the hill, marveling at the distant volcanoes and looking down into the valley where Antigua lies. Slowly, cautiously, I venture out for walks in my neighborhood being careful to stay on the main road. One day soon I’ll make it all the way to El Hato, the small local village down the hill, and will smile at the women dressed in their traditional textiles with bambinos strapped to their backs while they carry a load of wood on their heads. I’ll break the ice cautiously, but I’ll always be looking over my shoulder for that invisible danger.
A friend of the homeowner’s 12-year-old son was asked what he wants to be when he grows up. “Extortionist” was his reply. That says a lot about a country when a 12-year-old has dark dreams like that.
So I bolt my doors, set the security alarm, and venture out only in daylight. I’ll continue to be cautious and pray that I can avoid stumbling into the dark side while discovering the magic of this beautiful country.