The Third World


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.

Expatriates and Homebodies


A coati in the gardens outside Tikal.
Nasua narica

So I went to Guatemala the other week.

I don’t get to travel that often. Travel costs a lot, and my life strategy has been to spend just barely enough of my time working to keep myself alive, so as to have as much free time for writing as possible and not much else. I have heard this strategy questioned more than once exactly on the basis that it doesn’t permit me to travel. “How can you have anything to write about,” goes the conventional wisdom, “when you haven’t done anything?” My college advisor asked me that, among others. It sort of pissed me off. I’d like to give more credit than that to the imagination: sure, you can’t write compelling fiction in a vacuum, and yes, uncountable great writers spent their lives wandering the earth. But it’s a matter of how you look at the world, not what you’re looking at. Thoreau never left New England. Emily Dickinson barely left her house. There are new and unique things to see, even in things you’ve looked at a hundred thousand times.

That said, every time I do manage to abroad, I come back with ideas spilling out my ears–like what happened when I went to Yucatan. The conventional wisdom isn’t wrong, it’s just narrow. And it presupposes a certain level of financial independence, doesn’t it? Travel is hard–not just emotionally and physically (as I have well learned), but financially. So is writing. Just ask Nabokov, Lord Dunsany, or Anthony Bourdain: it’s a lot easier to bum around the world telling awesome stories when you don’t have to worry where your next meal is coming from. But nothing beats experience.

Upon returning from Guatemala, I have gained the following:

  • Exactly 25 angry red mosquito bites, mostly on my ankles, hips, and the backs of my knees, that will not f’ing go away.
  • Stomach parasites.
  • A persistent, atmospheric lightheadedness that, for a few moments before waking, makes me believe I never left. Or else that I’m entering the preliminary stages of a mushroom trip. Whether this has something to do with the aforementioned parasites, maybe in the style of those freaky bugs that alter the personality of rodents to make them more inclined to commit suicide by cat, I know not.
  • Enlightenment.

Was all of the former worth the latter? Yes.

So for a little while, this blog is going to turn into a travelogue.


A colossal ceiba tree that grows at the gate to Tikal.
Ceiba pentandra

More next week.