(A cautionary tale of house sitting in Guatemala…)
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. It was the only nourishment I’d had since the previous afternoon. I swallowed hard as the young Guatemalan cop approached my vehicle. He seemed a little surprised at the older model blonde driver behind the wheel of an older model Toyota SUV.
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 …
I spent the winter house sitting in England. My house sit gigs were arranged through Trusted Housesitters and that’s where I stumbled upon an interesting option for house sitting in 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 house sitting in Guatemala, alone in a remote mountainous area?“
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 adjust my arrival time accordingly. The new flight 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 begin to creep in.
“Watch the route”
I arrive at Guatemala City Airport on a Sunday afternoon and am warmly greeted by the homeowner after I exited customs. As we walk to the car he warns: “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 think. “I have trouble finding my way around Minnesota without GPS!”
The traffic leaving the airport is bumper-to-bumper as we inch our way through Guatemala City. My head spins as my sleep-deprived brain absorbs the sights and sounds of this strange new land. I struggle to make the required small-talk while focusing on memorizing the route I’ll 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 mentions.
“WTF? And YOU want ME, a non-Spanish-speaking single white female to drive through here ALONE?” my inner voice silently screams, 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 mention this to Kinzie, an American expat living in Antigua, she has 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 continue to have a few lingering questions regarding safety. Why? One morning he jumps out of the car to run a quick errand and accidentally leaves his pistol lying on the car seat.
“I have a permit to carry.” he explains.
“Why do you feel a need to carry a pistol?” I silently wonder.
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 mentions. “And we always keep the doors locked driving through this area,” he repeats again for emphasis.
House sitting in Guatemala – Facing my fears…
So finally, on the morning of my fourth day in the country, we arrive at the Guatemala City Airport for the homeowner’s departure. Mr. Homeowner, his wife, and their 12-year-old son grab their bags from the back while I jump into the driver’s seat, muttering a little prayer. I pray that my pounding caffeine headache will go away (they’re the only non-coffee-drinking people in Guatemala…and we KNOW how important coffee is!) I also pray I’ll find my way back to Antigua without accidentally venturing into any of the “danger zones” without my loaded pistol by my side or a can of mace, which may have been helpful in this situation.
As I exit the airport road, I fight my way through bumper-to-bumper traffic into the correct lane (second from left) and manage to make the vital U-turn. Confident I’m heading in the general direction of Antigua, I finally exhale and begin to relax just a bit. My head still pounds as I crawl 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 stumble upon the grocery store located very near the casa and pull in. I munch on green grapes while cruising through the surprisingly modern grocery store and load up my cart with anything that looks even vaguely familiar: roasted chicken, bananas, yogurt, coffee and granola bars!
Exiting the grocery store parking lot, I grab a granola bar and rip it open, savoring the crunchy goodness of real FOOD! Feeling so relieved that this drive-from-hell is almost over…and then I notice the damn cop motioning for me to pull over.
The young cop examines my documents, verifies the registration, and lets me go with a “Gracias” and a smile … and, thankfully, no prison time. I make 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 continue. 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) hold me back. I lock 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?
Living like a local…
That’s the funny thing about house sitting – you get the chance to experience the country as a local.
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. We are forced to live cautiously. She owns a gun. Her Guatemalan husband fears for her safety when he’s gone overnight. I maybe should have packed some mace.
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.