Before I began long-term travel, I remember having conversations with fellow Americans whose consensus was generally that the world outside of the US was a very scary place. Some could not comprehend the desire to do such a thing, and many expressed fear that I, a 5’3” female, should want to travel alone.
Still, sometimes when I tell people this, I get a response that indicates I must have been dropped on my head as a baby. Incidentally, this is true. But it doesn’t change the fact that I’ve encountered, more than not, the kindest, most generous, giving people in my world travels, who would offer me tea and cookies rather than rob me of my valuables. Sometimes the generosity reaches a point that embarrasses me. As a US citizen, I am not conditioned to this kind of giving nature and unassuming kindness.
But the hype is strong, and fear is a powerful emotion. It’s an essential one, too, since it can sometimes be the difference between being robbed in an unsafe area, and arriving home unharmed. Even though 99.9% of my travel experiences have been wonderful ones, I’m still on guard and I sometimes still believe that the world is indeed a scary place – especially when I arrive in a new, unknown country.
I recently arrived in Guatemala – a country I’ve heard amazing things about, but also a country I’ve heard has a history of violence and has a track record of femicide – the killing of women because they are women. As you can imagine, this is an unsettling thought for a solo female traveler. But two recent incidents got me thinking about the veneer of fear that travel is often wrapped in, and the nature of goodness that is normally obscured behind it.
Namely, I was hit over the head in Guatemala twice in the span of three days (possibly giving more fuel to my naysayers?). Let me explain.
Head injury #1:
After a night of partying in the capital, Guatemala City, my friend and I board one of the infamous chicken buses to return to Chichicastenango, where I’m currently living with aforementioned friend. The chicken bus always makes my friend antsy when we’re still in the capital, because the city is well-known for robberies. Just as a reference point, we were told by a taxi driver in Guatemala City to keep the windows rolled up because of incidents of robbery-at-gunpoint through rolled down windows. Yeah, it’s like that.
Hungover, and dreading the three-hour journey through winding roads on a bus with very little suspension, I put on my head phones and prepare to nod off so that my breakfast will stay where I left it.
A while later, I’m hit over the head – hard enough to make my neck crunch. In the split second this happens, I think,
“Welp, that’s it. It’s finally happening. I’ve had a good run so far… a pretty good track record of safety and, well, not being knocked out and robbed, but this is clearly what’s happening right now.”
The next split second makes me realize that I’m actually still conscious, so I take the opportunity to turn around and see what has happened.
I see a kindly, elder indigenous women picking up a heavy bag that has fallen from the overhead compartment. She turns to me and apologizes profusely for the bag that has fallen on my head. I smile and tell her it’s okay while my hangover headache reaches a screaming pitch from the fresh abuse to my body.
Head injury #2:
A couple days later, my friend and I are walking through the famous Chichicastenango market, when something, yet again, hits me on the head. I stop, confused, and see the same confusion on my friend’s face. To make matters worse, locals selling wares in the market stalls have begun laughing, conspicuously looking in my direction.
I feel a hard ball of fear and indignation form in my stomach. Has someone targeted me because I’m not from here? Am I not welcome here?
Then my friend sees what hit me and starts laughing too. It’s a hollowed-out egg filled with confetti. Having lived here for a few months, she is somewhat familiar with the customs, and she explains that the locals throw these eggs at one another during times of celebration. Right now is the carnival season, so naturally, people are celebrating.
Although I’m still sure that the kid who threw it thought it would be funny to hit the gringa with a confetti egg, this new knowledge still shifts the scene for me. Suddenly the locals’ laughter seems playful rather than malicious, and I feel welcomed rather than shunned.
Twice I was hit over the head, and twice I reacted in fear – an understandable response I would say. But these knocks to my head also woke me up to the reality of fear that many of us live in, and the reality that many people refuse to travel because of the belief that the world is a menacing place, filled with dark alleys and shadowy corners where people wait to harm you. The reality is that the world is mostly a beautiful place, and the people who live there mostly just want to exist.