September 26, 2009

Keeping Safe in Guatemala City without Letting the World Pass You By

People keep telling me how dangerous Guatemala City is. My friend who works for the United Nations told me when she got here, all she heard were warnings about street crime; she doesn’t walk on the streets. At all. Our landlady warned me about most places in the city except for the neighborhood we live in – zona 9 and zona 10. She was robbed in the city center, and doesn’t go there. My other friend has had her cell phone stolen at knifepoint on the bus three times in the past six months.

I am not going to avoid going outside. Venturing out of the house is a fundamental part of my job here. Plus, I’d go stir crazy. So, I do what I can, within reason, to be safe.

Today, I had to meet my research assistant downtown to catch a bus to our interview in zona 6. Unfortunately, I was twenty minutes early, and she was twenty minutes late. So, I had to stand outside at the corner of 9th avenue and 9th street in zona 1 for forty minutes. A gringa standing outside on a corner in zona 1 is something of a sitting duck. My strategy to avoid being robbed was first to try and stand near other people.

There was a bus stop on the corner, so I made my way over there, and stood between the other people. I was constantly aware of my surroundings, although I tried not to appear too paranoid. When three fairly unsavory-looking characters crossed the street towards me, I walked a few yards down, and went into a store. I pretended to browse until they got on a bus and were off.

Once they were gone, I realized I could stand in the very large storefront door and that I was fairly safe there. After about twenty minutes of waiting, I began to let my guard down. There were plenty of people milling around, and there were lots of interesting things going on.

For example, two gay men walked by. One playfully jabbed the other, and then put his arm around him. It was nice to see that they felt comfortable expressing their sexuality in public.

Across from me, there was a large metal door. Every so often, people would approach the door and knock. Someone would open up a small opening and let people through. I have no idea what was going on inside, but it was easy to imagine all kinds of things that might be going on behind that large, metal, unmarked door.

Couples, mothers, children, families strolled by. Others waited for their bus and then were off. I noticed that almost all Guatemalan men use hair gel. Funny how I never noticed that before. I focused my attention on trying to find a man who didn’t. Finally, a hippie couple walked by that was gel-less. They were both super skinny. The girl had her dark brown hair in two plaits, and the guy had big, curly hair that clearly didn’t have an ounce of gel in it.

After forty minutes on the corner, Nory showed up and we got on Bus #3 to go to Mega 6 to meet an interviewee. The interview was fascinating, but that’s another blog entry!

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