Dispatch From Guatemala

The two boys, ages 10 and 8, peppered me and my wife with questions. Were we married? For how long? How old were we? Did we have any children? Where were we from? But inevitably, the inquiries kept circling back to money and valuables. How much was our camera worth? What about our watches? Did we have any U.S. dollars on us?

We were at a remote pit stop on the 4-hour bus ride from Guatemala City to Lake Atitlan. It was a little cafe where our driver had stopped for lunch, and we had used the restroom — whereupon these young brothers had demanded that we pay a total of 10 quetzales ($1.30) for the privilege.

As we did our best to have a chat with them in Spanish — they spoke no English — the older finally played his ace by declaring “No tengo que comer.” I pretended not to understand, but he was clearly claiming that he was starving (although his family owned a diner), and thus strongly suggesting that we should make a donation to his worthy cause.

My first reaction was to wonder if the kid’s parents knew about his hustling; but I soon realized that not only were they aware, but they probably egged him on. Youngsters seem to be groomed for it from an early age.

Everywhere you turn, there is someone eager to offer you something for money. They want to sell you something. They want to show you around. Or they just want to give you directions or recommendations — and expect cash in return. (Outright panhandlers also exist, though they are not nearly as common as in the U.S.) It’s enough to make you suspicious of everyone — which is a shame, because Guatemalans are genuinely very friendly, and many of them are happy to be of help when you need it, with no expectation of being paid for their services. But there are plenty of others who see you as a walking cash cow.

This, of course, is typical of tourist spots all over the world. But around here, it happens everywhere, even in places that are not such tourist spots. And if you are an American, you might as well have a huge red dollar sign painted on your back. They can smell you coming a mile away, and they seem to operate under the assumption that you are loaded. The water taxis that ferry passengers between villages on Lake Atitlan (home to many ex-pats from the U.S. and elsewhere) charge what has become colloquially known as a “gringo tax”. If you are an obvious foreigner, you can expect to pay 20 to 40 percent more than the fare for locals.

Certainly, most tourists are well enough off; in our case, however, we’re operating on a decidedly thin budget. Even so, we no doubt are fantastically rich by the standards of most people around here. So even though it gets annoying to be constantly targeted as a purse carrier, it’s understandable.

Part of the explanation is that the United States has a longstanding reputation as a beacon of opportunity and prosperity. This is an image that, to some extent, has been duly earned (though it isn’t nearly as broadly applicable as many people, including many Americans, believe). But it has another image as well — one that builds on, exploits and distorts the Horatio Alger myth.

That’s the image of cowboy swagger, an image that all too frequently has been adopted and loudly projected by American leaders and other representatives in the global community. It’s an image that has fostered a certain amount of resentment, distrust and even downright hate toward the United States — and perhaps even has fueled terrorist animosity toward Americans. (Did you really believe that they simply “hate us because of our freedom”?)

Many of the Americans I’ve encountered here have been evangelical anti-vaxxers and believers in chemtrails. In the village where I’ve been staying, I overheard an obviously American voice one night yelling “Let’s Go, Brandon!”. Not just once but twice. A few miles away, another dude living in a little shack displays a huge red banner proclaiming that “T—p Won”. Unsurprisingly, his yard was littered with beer cans. These people aren’t just happy to live their lives in ignorance and delusion; they have to spread it like a virus (which they’re also quite willing to spread). Not only at home but abroad. And it shouldn’t surprise anyone if some of the natives don’t exactly cotton to such behavior.

It isn’t hard to draw the conclusion that this nationalist arrogance, this presumption of “American exceptionalism” is a factor, at least implicitly, in the way residents of other nations perceive American visitors as fair game for financial exploitation. Foreign hucksters and hustlers are not only trying to claim their share of the pie, but perhaps in the process are also trying to bring the loudmouthed jerks down a notch or two. And unfortunately, they’re no doubt just as prone to generalization as anyone else about who the loudmouthed jerks are.

Not all Americans, of course, are as reprehensible as those who command the most attention. But we all have to live with the consequences of their behavior — financial and otherwise.

2 comments

  1. I once received a request from a charity that helped house and feed homeless children, and I felt guilty for not being able to donate since I have, (and always have had) a very modest income. I explained to the person making the request, that even though my apartment and my possessions might be way more comfortable than those of people living in the country where this charity is located, I was still at the poverty level by American standards, and that I just could not afford to donate. Yet those who ran this charity, asked me why I could not share some of my “riches,” to help their dedicated cause? I declined but felt embarrassed knowing that many lower class people in my country often live much better lives than perhaps 70% of all humanity.

    It’s funny that so many of us beef about being robbed by the government or about being taken advantage of by lazy people and beggars. The truth is, that none of us requested to be born where we are, and the old saying, “There but for the grace of God go I,” really is relevant and should compel us to help those who are worse off than ourselves. Yet, I have cable TV and a smart TV, because at one point the cost of electronics was reduced significantly during the pandemic, and since I get help from the housing authority I am able to live quit well ln local senior housing that keeps me safe and warm, and where I am able to pay all of my bills each month.

    I am not one who likes beating myself up for having luck that I did not earn, but I often remind myself of how lucky I am to live in America. Of course, if we become ruled by a king or an autocrat many people like me will l undoubtedly be far less comfortable than we are now. Yet we might still live like kings in comparison to the teaming mases of the world who don’t even know where their next meal will come from, and where most of us can sleep safely at night. This does not mean that in many ways The Trump administration has made many of us poorer in the long run–both spiritually, and in ways that hurt our abilities to put food on our tables–yet how well off we really are!!

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