Let’s face it, an element of danger can make the concept of travel that much more exciting. There’s a whole category of people who engage in extreme traveling. They take exceptional risks for the thrill and bragging rights of it. Maybe it helps them find meaning in life – maybe it just helps them get laid. The type of travel that Jen and I did, on the other hand, I would recommend to anybody – even my parents or grandparents (who, for God’s sake, don’t need to impress anyone to get laid). Sure, we were around people with guns, crossed a riot, and avoided a bombing by a week or so but this was by coincidence and not because of our planning. I often get asked if I was ever scared on the trip. To be honest, I was often nervous - but scared? Well, not really.
There is, though, a story that I heard second hand that I repeat to make it sound like I was involved in that extreme stuff:
In Northern Guatemala around the Lake Atitlan region there are a number of volcanoes and it is a popular tourist activity to climb them. However, due to the large economic disparity between the tourists and locals, guidebooks and Guatemalan officials recommend that tourists hire “guides” when they go hiking. These guides carry not only carry maps to make sure the tourists don’t get lost, but they also carry shotguns to make sure that they don’t get robbed.
Well, a few days before we arrived in the area, a French couple was climbing one of the volcanoes. They were sensible folks so they had hired a guide. About half way to the summit the guide stopped to tie his shoe but told the couple to continue climbing – he would catch up with them. The couple continued up the steep and rocky path. Around the next corner, sure enough, a man with a large machete jumped out from behind a tree. He, using broken English and hand gestures, demanded that they hand over their bag. The couple were fuming and, sure that they had been set up, were about to hand over their stuff. Just then, their guide sprang out from behind another tree and blasted the bandit with his shotgun killing him, I hope, instantly. The guide then indicated to the French couple that they should continue their hike as if nothing important had happened. They, standing above a fresh corpse, were overwhelmed. A man had died over their bag which contained only a water bottle and a digital camera – maybe worth $200. Instead of continuing their hike, they retuned to their hotel and flew home shortly. The guide, I was told, collected a bounty for killing the bandit.
Is this a true story? I don’t know. It was told to Jen and I on the lower patio at the Casa del Mundo by a group of Brits who were nice enough to share a portion of their bottle of rum and a piece of their mind about the U.S. Government. It was the type of story, along with those about chicken bus robberies and clever pick pocketing, that we heard in hostels and cheap hotels all over both Mexico and Guatemala. People told these stories as a way to capture an essence of danger in their own travels.
We did see and hear a fair number of warnings about bandits in Guatemala. While we tried to use common sense, we also tried to not let these stories or warnings actually frighten us. One day, we were hiking along the trail that runs between the small villages around Lake Atitlan. The trail came to a fork and there was a man sitting next to the path. A steel machete rested in his lap.
“Hola,” I said, nervously.
The man picked up his machete and smiled at Jen and me. He slowly stood and laughed and then directed Jen and me onto the proper path with warmth and friendliness. He, like all local people we met in Guatemala, went out of his way to make a couple of foreigners feel very welcome. And that, I like to think, is extreme in its own way.