NY Times article, Trekking in Guatemala

No sooner did I post The Economist article about Guatemala’s hope to promote “rural tourism” than another, related article appeared in the Sunday, March 27 edition of  The New York Times. Guatemala By Hiking Boots, Not Tour Bus, written by Mark Sundeen, is a feel-good, glowing account of a three-day hike from Quetzaltenango to Lake Atitlan.

My reaction to the article surprised me. I’m a little offended by it.

For example, this paragraph:

Our accommodations were a municipal building, a cinder block structure around a courtyard with a fountain that didn’t work and an ash heap where skinny mutts gnawed leftovers. We were to sleep on the tile floor of a room with no furniture and a nonfunctioning light bulb hanging from a wire. I recognized the place from Hollywood thrillers: this was where the narco-cartel tortured its enemies.

I’m often accused of being overly-sensitive, but I don’t find jokes about narco-cartels funny. Especially narco-cartels in Guatemala.  This paragraph also offended me:

Remember when Guatemala was the world’s coolest destination, when your dorm-mates returned from winter break bedecked in purple ponchos for which they’d bargained— in Spanish! — from some actual Maya on market day in Chichicastenango? As decades of civil war calmed enough to allow tourism, your friends reported hair-raising rides aboard rickety chicken buses, those Blue Birds pimped like low-riders with flashing lights, naked-lady mud flaps, and Jesus and the Virgin airbrushed on the hood.

I object to the phase “some actual Maya,” because it treats a group of human beings as though they are specimens or a sideshow.  I also don’t agree with the writer’s description of  chicken buses as “Blue Birds pimped like low-riders… with…Jesus and the Virgin airbrushed on the hood,” (although I understand his intention). The Guatemalans I know are respectful people, very sincere in their religious beliefs. So while a bus may be painted with the word “Jesus,”  feature an outline of Guadalupe, and even be festooned with balloons, that’s a far cry from anything close to ”pimp my ride.” And after “decades of civil war,” the country has “calmed” down, really?

Maybe I’m just jealous because Mark Sundeen got to hike across Guatemala, and I didn’t.

In any case, it’s always a good day when the esteemed New York Times runs a positive article about Guatemala. As Mr. Sundeen writes, “Remember when Guatemala was the world’s coolest destination?” No argument there. Still is.

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6 Responses to “NY Times article, Trekking in Guatemala”

  1. Sveta says:

    I think I know what you mean, to the extent that I can. You like it because it is not a “negative” story, and it does bring some supposedly positive exposure. But blase, tongue-in-cheek comments about serious issues, and almost always leave a bad taste in my mouth. It views and presents life in a third-world country as an entertainment source to people in the first world. Even his descriptions of the surroundings have western entertainment references. Basically, he is inviting us to have fun and be entertained in this caricature, one-dimentional fun place he sees, but in the reality it is a beautiful country, with complex and tragic history, that is dear to your heart…Kind of distasteful, although the author strikes me as blissfully ignorant of deep issues, rather than malicious in his intent. So yeah, I kind of hate the article a little bit.

  2. Tia Cookie says:

    Write a letter to the editor.

  3. Jessica says:

    Sveta: Exactly. You hit the nail on the head. I agree with your “blissfully ignorant” observation; he doesn’t seem at all malicious; in fact, loves Guatemala, probably as much as anyone, for different reasons, in his own way. I always appreciate your perspective.

    TC: Yes. I should. Thank you for the nudge.

  4. Deborah says:

    I think you should send your blog response to the editor as a letter as Tia
    Cookie suggests. I felt the same way as you describe after reading
    the sarcasm and “hip” prose of the New York Times article’s author.
    Love your reference to “pimp my ride”. You go Jessica!

  5. Doris says:

    Jessica – While some of the comments in the article are in bad taste, the travel section is not editorial comment and the writing is often rather cheeky. And while I have not been to Guatemala, I have been to Mexico, Belize, and Honduras. My experience is that the tourist industry itself promotes the caricature, and for economic reasons, indigenous people go along with the program. In the paragraph you found offensive for the “some actual Mayan” quip – I thought he was being sarcastic about American tourists and their views and expectations of other cultures rather than being condescending towards Guatemalans. Just another perspective.

  6. Jessica says:

    Deborah, good idea. A condensed version. Thanks for appreciating the reference (!!).
    Doris, you’re right. Cheeky is good, which is why we love the NYT. Interestingly, Guatemala seems really different from Mexico, Belize, and Honduras, esp. as it approaches tourism. Although I’m thinking it may be impossible for me to see the country clearly–my point of view will always be colored by my experiences there, and how I feel as an outsider, yet with a profound connection, when I return. Your read of the “some actual Maya” is probably more valid. As I said, it’s hard for me to remain neutral, and of course I was thinking of our own extended family there and how they may feel. In the writer’s defense, he was mostly poking North Americans and their perspectives–himself excluded.
    Good writing often elicits strong response, and once again, the NYTimes delivers. I’ll still stand by my offense at the narco-cartel comment, however. Spend only five minutes in Guatemala and you’ll see how drug trafficking is destroying the country. There is nothing funny about it.

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