• Log in
random image random image random image random image

The Third World

January 25th, 2010


Patchwork farmland west of Antigua.

Everybody should visit a third world country at least once, if only so they can come to a more round understanding of that term. I don’t know how I ever got on without having been to one.

Prior to visiting Guatemala, I had operated under the not-entirely-inaccurate assumption that “third world” referred to a region of the planet whose human inhabitants suffered, in varying degrees of severity, reduced access to economic infrastructure including but not limited to sewer systems, utilities, clean water, health care, education, technology, and/or rule of law. As compared to the status of said amenities here in the “first world”. I understood, if only on an abstract, liberal-educated, political-correctness level, that the term “third world” was to be considered flawed in its one-sidedness, its inherent superiority, and its general lack of empathy.

What I didn’t understand until I went there was that none of the above in any way impedes the daily functioning of a society.

I didn’t encounter a single traffic light anywhere in Guatemala outside the capital city, and I traveled a lot. Shockingly, traffic doesn’t screech to a halt at every intersection for lack of a traffic light. Drivers tap their horns three or four times in quick succession, as a warning or a greeting, rather than leaning on them uselessly for minutes at a time like we do here. Then they go with the flow.

Wrecked cars and buses are a common occurrence on the sides of highways; trash is more common–heaps of it, collecting in corners shielded from the wind. Most people’s houses are of flaking stucco: a few low rooms, inadequately windowed, with a sheet of corrugated tin for a roof and rainwater running freely over the floor. Nobody has a lawn. Even the locals can’t drink the water from the taps without boiling or filtering it first, because it contains e. coli bacteria, the result of poor waste management and inadequate sewage systems.

Nobody seems fazed by any of this.

And–after a day or two–I’m not fazed by it either. Clean water running from the tap isn’t such a hard thing to live without. Lots of people have rainwater collectors on their roofs. Lots more have big, terracotta water filters in their kitchens, like Brita filters, only you don’t have to keep buying more of them, and they serve an actual health purpose. Seatbelts–can’t say I really miss those. Have you ever noticed how people, not just in this country, but in Canada, Britain, Europe–pretty much everywhere I’ve been in the “first” world–are afraid to touch each other? On subways, the Tube, public buses, passing in the street, waiting in line. God forbid you give me your cooties. That taboo doesn’t seem exist in Guatemala. One time I spent an hour on a really ridiculously packed chicken bus between Dos Encuentros and Chimaltenango, standing just behind the driver, hanging onto the luggage rack for dear life as we careened around mountain turns, my huge backpack pressed against the shoulders of a dude sitting on a bucket in the aisle, my legs completely enclosed to the point of immobility by the knees and calves and hips and packages of six mayan ladies on their way home from market all crammed into the first row. A little baby napping in her abuela’s lap kept kicking me adorably in the shins. I kept glancing back over the sea of faces in the rows behind me, and every time I did, I found a different kid staring at me with big, brown, liquid eyes, breaking into a huge, shy smile when I caught her gaze. And when it was over, when the dude on the bucket got off and I got to sit down for a minute before we finally made it to my stop, the mayan ladies all started chattering about what a good sport this big galumphing gringo boy had been, standing up all that time on those sharp mountain turns, and how sorry they were they couldn’t have made more room. When I got off, I was pretty much in love with those ladies.


A chicken bus outside Ciudad Vieja, with volcanoes.

There are stray dogs everywhere in Guatemala–not in any sort of evil, ravening pack mentality kind of way–they’re dirty and fleabitten and bone-skinny, and nobody tells them what to do or where to go, but they don’t beg constantly, and they only bark and howl and run around like hooting hordes of ancestor ghosts in the dark of night, in the distance. They’re much more patient, more respectful, than you’d expect any horde of stray dogs to be. Mostly, they just seem tired. For me, it was somehow uncanny to see a long-faced brown mongrel with eight full dugs swinging and ribs standing out against her sides ambling past me down a dusty cobbled street, like the she-wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus. And after the fact, I’m actually more unsettled that I could have become sufficiently detached from reality that the sight of a pregnant dog could come across as something so alien.

The cheap beer, in this third world country? It’s not cheap beer at all–it’s good beer, cheap! The national brew, Gallo, is a thirst-quenching, medium-bodied amber lager with a fine refreshing fruitiness. Gallo makes Corona cry. And I can’t even begin to articulate how badly it beats the tar out of ye great American workingman’s brew. And you know what really blows me about it? They reuse every single bottle they ship out. They don’t throw away their glass. They don’t recycle it. They don’t have to. Every morning, the Gallo truck shows up outside the cantina, drops off full bottles, picks up empties, and takes them back to the plant to be cleaned and refilled. Where the $*%& are we on that, first world?

Also, as far as I experienced it, the entire nation of Guatemala has already switched over from incandescent to CFL bulbs. I didn’t see an incandescent bulb while I was there. And they did it without needing a massive PR campaign or even a giant self-stroking internet site where people can congratulate themselves for accomplishing some kind of change.

All in all, it’s kind of refreshing to see that, yes, life actually can and does go on in the absence of antibacterial cream, small claims courts, individually-wrapped sanitary towelettes, subsidized insurance coverage for antidepressants, styrofoam coffee cups, laws regulating windshield cracks, twenty-four hour news networks, the grocery store, or even a ratio of at least two branded napkins to each food or beverage item purchased. You don’t need any of that stuff to live, or even to be happy. You don’t need phones or the internet or TV either.

All that being said, having been back safe and coddled in the states for a week, with the Haiti earthquake heavily in the news, I am painfully aware that my envy for the lifestyle of the average Guatemalan is at best problematic, and seriously flawed. I went down there with money. They hadn’t just suffered an earthquake, nor were they engaged in civil war. If they had been, I’d have been much more aware of the absence of hospitals and clean water, and the danger of those mountain roads. And I’d have been a hell of a lot more scared of all those dudes with guns.

But the main point, I think, still holds: there’s no third world and no first world. There’s the world. What we do affects them, what they do affects us. More importantly, there, but for the grace of a giant, complicated mess of circumstance and stuff, go we. And vice versa.

I don’t know that it’s a sentiment I can fully convey, without just telling you to go there and see. But okay, how about this? Have you ever had one of those conversations with a dedicated doer of recreational drugs, ecstasy or lsd or mushrooms or even weed, wherein said day tripper gushes about how all the world’s problems would be solved if only the leaders of the world could be introduced to the recreational drug in question?

That’s how I feel about going to Guatemala.

Trouble is, all those world leaders I want to teach a little empathy (or a lot) have probably already been there.

   Beer, Environmentalism, Guatemala, HM, Writings | 5 Comments »



« Previous Post: | Next Post: »

5 Comments »

  • MaggieDR says:

    This is a beautifully articulated piece, Mike. My only pretense to seeing a third world country would be a day trip to Tijuana when I was twelve. Seeing this country through your eyes gives me a keener perspective of Guatemala.Of course, nothing is the same as actually having that experience for myself.

    As you say, issues of American life-style/culture are complicated, but I wish more of us comprehended how detrimental our (Americans)privileges are to ourselves. Generally, we see images like the disaster in Haiti or starving babies in ghastly conditions that cause guilt, and then we turn away. We need to read/see more experiences like yours, where we see the beauty of these countries instead.

  • mjd says:

    I totally agree–the only time we ever hear about what life is like in a place like Haiti is when the horribleness has already gone down and the 24-hour news folks are down there blubbering into their microphones–which makes it really hard not to just turn away. And then, later on, mail them a little money. But that kind of attention doesn’t give us the slightest idea what it’s really like to be those people.

    One time I crossed the Mexican border from Texas for like 3 hours with my parents. We drove around in some border town freaking out about how there weren’t any sidewalks, and then we went to a grocery store and I practiced my high school Spanish buying yogurt. That was an interesting time, for sure, but it wasn’t nearly enough to have the effect I’m talking about here.

    I wish I’d stayed longer.

  • Liz Smith says:

    My friend Julie, who is an artist who lives here in Heath, lived in Guatemala for, I think, fifteen years in the 60s and 70s. She just came back from a trip there, and she told me some stories about changes that have happened in Guatemala since those days. They were incredible and somewhat difficult to hear, particularly about the gangs that have moved in more recently, boys who are attracted to selling drugs and some of the desperation of the poor–and how the quality of life has gone down in that particular city in the last 15 years or so. Much of it has to do with the way first-world culture has influenced people all over the world, in ways we’ve seen before. Anyway, it was all fascinating and a bit heart-wrenching, I wish you could hear those stories. She said that in the years she lived there, it was close to paradise…all the things you say here, and more.

    • mjd says:

      The city was by far my least favorite part–it was where the divide between rich and poor was most obvious, and likewise the negative influence of the first world. McDonalds–not that I went into one, but apparently a McDonald’s hamburger in Guate costs three times as much as it does here, despite the fact that everything else in Guate costs half as much. A fast food hamburger from an American chain is somehow a luxury item. Gah.

      But yeah–everywhere else I went in the country was completely different, and wonderful.

      • Liz Smith says:

        It does sound wonderful. I haven’t traveled in so long–have missed it so much. And Julie’s description of things back when she lived there sounded exactly like the kind of place I’d have loved to be. Ah well.

Leave a Reply



Allowed HTML tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL