Guatemala, situated in Central America between the Carribean sea and the Pacific Ocean, is considered one of the most dangerous Western countries. The delinquency here is one of the highest in America (34 homicides per 100 000 inhabitants a day). Drug trafficking, gangs, raping and killing are more or less the only things we hear from this country in Europe.
In Villa Nueva (right next to the capital), where I work, poverty, crime and corruption dominate. In different communities, the houses are full of graffities that say either 13 or 18, which means the dominating gang in the community. The authorities took away a football field from the people and right now are building a jail on the grounds. And that they are doing illegally.
When I told people in Estonia that I will be going to Guatemala for a year, all I heard was „are you crazy?“, „you’re going to get killed“, „they are rapists“ and so on and so on.
An Estonian woman who lived here for two years wrote a book called „My Guatemala“. Reading the book all I could think was that this can’t be true. She came here to be a housewife accompaning her husband who worked here. They lived in the capital that is mostly considered one of the most dangerous parts of the country. I remember reading that a white blonde person can’t walk around the city or go anywhere without a bodyguard. If they do, they will certainly get killed. All I could think was how my receiving organization, Jóvenes por la Vida, can afford a bodyguard for two foreign girls.
After living in the heart of Guatemala City for five months I can say that this isn’t my reality. Nor the reality of most of the people who live here. She lived another life. The capital isn’t that extreme. Of course, there are security tips that everybody (not only foreigners) have to follow. For example, not walk alone after dark in lonely streets. Not pass the Central Park after a certain hour. Be alert while walking alone in the dark. Not to take a random taxi on the street.
But a foreigner won’t get killed just by walking around the city alone. Villa Nueva is actually the most dangerous part of the country. And I am alive and well. Nothing has ever happened to me here.
Honestly speaking, life here isn’t all butterflies and rainbows. Yes, I got assaulted once. It happened five blocks from where I live, on a street that I walk every day. I wasn’t alone. It wasn’t late. On a good note, probably thanks to my father who was police officer for 15 years, nothing happened to me. Nothing got stolen and they boy (yes, it was a young boy who was smaller than me) ran away.
Aside from that, and all the catcalling I get here (sometimes I lose count how many times during one hour I show the middle finger to someone), Guatemala isn’t horrible.
The nature, the jungles, the volcanoes, the mountains, the beaches, the cities here are precious. Walking around in Tikal National Park and hear a jaguar roar and monkeys scream; spending a day in Monterrico where the sand is black and burns your feet and where you can liberate baby turtles; walk around the markets full of colourful veggies and fruits that you can’t even name; spend a Sunday afternoon in the Central Park of the capital, drink a granizada and check out the tradicional clothes that are on sale; going for a boat ride and visiting the villages of Lake Atitlan; or just having a beer on a rooftop with friends… These are only some of the unforgettable moments you can experience in Guatemala.
Guatemalans are friendly and very hard-working people. You will find friends for life here. The key frase for a guatemalan is „sharing is caring“. They will share everything with you, even if they get left with nothing. They will worry about you and want you to be happy in their country. They want to make this country your country.
In spite of all the violence, guatemalans are always looking for ways to make their lives more colourful, happier and to forget the bad. That is what I do here aswell. Part of my work here is to change the mentality of people, step by step, towards a cleaner, happier thinking. That means workshops for all ages of people in our Cultural Centre, monthly events and occasional little parades in the communities of Mezquital, where the participants go out on stilts, play drums, trumpets and trombones, using colourful costumes. Art, music, dance and other artistic expressions are our way to promote a culture of peace.
So, to all the people who asked me if I was crazy, it might be true. But here, in Jóvenes por la Vida, we’re all crazy. Crazy enough to think that in this country we can change something. But I say, we say: yes, we can. You have to be crazy for that. Without a little crazy you can’t do anything.
Grete Maria Neppo, Guatemala 2017