‘Nunca encontrará una colmena más desgraciada de la espuma y de la villanía. Vamos con cuidado.’
‘You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious.’
I listened to my taxi driver’s dire warnings as we drove off the Inter American highway and into the dark side streets of Guatemala City, the imaginatively named capital of…Guatemala.
No I’m kidding. That’s actually what Obi Wan Kenobi said to Luke Skywalker as they flew/hovered/did some Jedi shit going into the city of Mos Eisley, Tatooine (Star Wars Episode IV).
But en serio, Guatemala City is sketchy as fuck. You do, however, get the seedy bars with good live music similar to the cantina in Mos Eisley. Just marimba and cumbia music, instead of the prawn band.
And instead of Han Solo blasting Greedo, you have narcos running the show, with an unknown number of patrons pointing guns at each other under the tables of the city’s bars.
You can even do Jedi mind tricks in Guatemala City. Sort of. Instead of corrupting stormtroopers using the force, you can win over la policia with some dollars.
But where to start? As I take my buses mostly either from the city or to the city, I feel like I should give a vague-ish description of my surroundings.
It’s an odd mix of American-influenced globalization with huge shopping malls next to shanty towns. Taco Bells next to stolen-car dealerships, with huge Golden Arches peppered along the main roads. In their shadows you have endless variations of fried chicken restaurants and corrugated iron shuttered shop fronts.
Zone 1, the historic downtown area and the centre of the city, is an odd mix of dilapidated colonial buildings covered in anti-government graffiti and centers of political administration surrounded by police and military personnel.
The empty lifeless streets at night, the graffiti and the walls full of posters of ‘the disappeared’ make for quite an oppresive atmosphere at times.
Through the heart of zone 1 runs 6th avenue, a pedestrianized street full of street performers and crowds on the weekends, but pretty much empty by eight at night. At one end is 18th street (dieciocho calle), a ramshackle assortment of market stalls peddling street food and fake DVDs.
It’s a dangerous place. The other day I was in a taxi driving off 18 calle onto 7 avenida. As we waited at a set of lights, my taxi driver sat up in his seat, his head snapping to the left and right.
¡Hay un asalto! ¡Hay un asalto!
There’s an assault! There’s an assault!
I heard a loud ‘TAK TAK TAK’ a few cars behind us. We sped off down the street. I looked back and saw a group of people running off the road and into the shadows.
Much to my relief, nobody was getting gunned down by hit men (sicarios), but instead a group of robbers had been banging their pistol butts into the windows of the car behind us – GTA, Guatemala Theft Auto.
At the other end of 6th avenue is the central square of the city. Built in the traditional style of Colonial America, it has the main administrative building one side with the City Cathedral adjacent to it. A load of other ex-administrative buildings line the other sides.
On the weekends the place is full of families and street vendors. Like many things in this city however, it empties to nothing at night.
Much of the city is a one way system, so along 6th avenue you have red inner city buses rumbling up or down the intersections coughing out pollution as soon as you walk past their exhaust.
Then you have the red zones (zonas rojas) the zones of high danger; zones 1, 6, 7, 12 and 18 (zona dieciocho, the psychotic ultra-violent zone). I’m also personally scared of zone 3. I got lost there once after missing my bus stop. Everyone I have spoken to will invariably mention zona dieciocho at some point in the conversation though.
Zones 9 and 10 are the polar opposite of much of the rest of the city. They are wealthy and safer.
Zone 12 in the south of the city is the site of the public university, San Carlos, the main university of Guatemala.
I think if I were to settle for one word to describe the city, I would go for interesting. I know that’s not very interesting but the place is so full of contradictions that it the best description I can go for.
Although I suppose I could have just gone for ‘contradictory.’