Monday, April 13, 2009

Shamelessly Stereotypical in Guatemala

It's the stuff stereotypes, the subplot of every bad Hollywood film ever made about life South of the Border: The sombrero-clad, big-moustached, gold-teeth-sporting Mexican taxi driver/police officer/souvenir vendor are supposed to trick the silly, fanny-pack-wearing, camera-laden, map-consulting gringo tourist out of his every last peso. The Mexicans are the rip-offers and the gringos are the rip-offees. And that's the way it is.

Now, I don’t usually subscribe to such stereotypes. I don’t consider myself a fiscally clueless gringa, nor have I ever had a problem with getting ripped off in Mexico. Nonetheless, when traveling with three street-savvy Mexican guys through Guatemala last week, the last thing I expected to be was ripped off. After all, with the Mexicans, there'd be no language barrier to overcome, no tourist traps to avoid, and, of course, the green-eyed, blonde-haired, freckle-faced factor wouldn't apply in their case.

But, at the end of the day, despite our attempt to avoid the touristy, we were all -- three Mexicans and an American -- foreign tourists in Guatemala. And, at the end of the day, we got ripped off. Really ripped off. Milked for our every last quetzal. (FYI, the Quetzal is a very colorful bird, and is also the name of the currency in Guatemala, which I will denote with a “Q” moving forward.)

There were the usual tourist snares: The shop owner in Flores who charged us Q10 for postcard stamps whose actual price was Q4. The restaurant in El Relleno that delivered a bill for Q80 (that’s $10 USD, folks!) for a few stale tortilla chips served with lukewarm beans. The tour boat operator in Livingston who stalked us mercilessly on his scooter, finally convinced us to take his boat, and then left us sitting on the dock for 40 minutes.

But the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back was Hotel Suli, a complete dive of an accommodation located along a hot, smelly, traffic-ridden street in Rio Dulce, a coastal city we found ourselves in at about 1 am on Friday morning. Foolishly, we’d rolled into Rio Dulce without a hotel reservation on one of the busiest travel weekends of the year. Homeless and sleepy, we crowded around a dingy map posted on the side of the road, thumbing through our guidebooks and calling hotels, increasingly disheartened to find that everything was full.

We met a cab driver (who, for the record, was a saint of a man, a refreshing change from other Guatemalan cab drivers we’d met in our journey who’d overcharged us mercilessly). The taxista drove us around the town, stopped to help us inquire at hotels, lent us his cell phone, and then, when all options seemed to be exhausted, offered us a place to stay in his home.

We should have taken the cab driver up on his offer to sleep on his floor.

Shoulda coulda woulda.

But, as (bad) luck would have it, we pulled into Hotel Suli at about 2:30 am, shortly after four guests had apparently left the hotel without paying. This left their room free and the hotel clerk anxious to fill it to recover his losses -- and unfortunately, with no housekeeping staff available to clean the room, this also left us with dirty sheets and a soggy bathroom floor. But, at the time, it seemed better than sleeping on the street -- or inconveniencing the poor cab driver. The hotel clerk cut what seemed like a deal --charging us a three-person rate for four people -- and we sprawled out in the room, sleeping like babies.

That is, sleeping like babies until we were woken by banging on the door at 7am.

It was the same clerk, sent by the hotel owner to inform us that the price of this particular room had increased by Q100, and that, if we’d like to stay another night, we needed to pay him them and now.

Looking back on the scenario, the situation was laughable. But in the moment, sleep-deprived and fed up -- the memories of overpriced stamps and nachos and taxi rides still fresh in our minds -- we let him have it. What, exactly, kind of hotel was this? What kind of hotel tells its customers one price, and then, not five hours later, shamelessly raises that price? And what kind of hotel wakes its guests at 7am to demand payment for the next day?!?

We threatened to leave, and the clerk backed down. In the end, we were able to negotiate a fair price on two smaller rooms -- complete with clean sheets and towels. But just as the stereotype of Mexicans as the proverbial rip-offers didn’t hold true, the stereotype of Guatemala being a dirt-cheap country didn’t pan out either. Don’t believe the hype. You’ll spend quetzales like you'll drink (bottled) water.

There is one stereotype that I did find to be true: Despite the glitzy tourist brochures and bloated prices and throngs of travelers, there is, sadly, still heartbreaking poverty in Guatemala. Most of the positive things I experienced in Guatemala -- the charm of the cobblestone streets of colonial Antigua; the breathtaking views of the volcano-ringed Lake Atitlán; the magic and mystery of the Mayan ruins of Tikal; the thrill of riding a zip line over the jungle; the things I've included in happy snapshots here -- will never be experienced by many Guatemalans in their own country because they can't afford the obscenely high prices.

I think this is why I was so upset about getting ripped off. I didn't feel angry. I felt guilty. A nagging feeling of shame clouded my every financial transaction. It wasn't an issue of an extra Q100 here and there. It was an issue of lining the pockets of the already-well off (much of the tourism industry in Guatemala is foreign-owned) when their neighbors (native Guatemalans) had nothing. (Note: I did find it refreshing that the Guatemalan government offers a radically reduced "national" fee of Q25 for nationals to visit Tikal. The price for foreigners is Q150, or about $30 USD. But, despite the discount at Tikal, you'd still have to pay the bloated bus prices or be wealthy enough to have a car to get you there.)

Damn you, stereotypes! At the end of the day, despite the best-laid plans, I was the stereotypical gringa tourist getting ripped off in Guatemala. Riding the stereotyptical tourist bus and snapping the stereotypical snapshots of the stereotypical poverty-stricken countryside. The situation would have been kind of a buzzkill, had my cynical side not gotten a kick out of seeing my Mexican travel companions getting un-stereotypically ripped off, too. At least we were in it together.

Shoulda, coulda, woulda. Next time, we're staying with the taxi driver.

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