Telling people I was traveling to Guatemala recently elicited a number of varied and colorful responses. “Oh!” “Why?” “Huh?” My favorite was the glazed look, a momentary lapse in consciousness as folks consulted their inner world map and realized they couldn’t find their way out of Pasadena.
It’s as if there existed some block to things unknown, a resistance to anything new, and that the only viable options for travel are pleasantly predictable locations such as Paris, Florence, or maybe Prague if you are pleasantly particularly “adventurous”.
But Guatemala? Heavens! “Isn’t it dangerous?!” Sounds like the response I get when I tell people I’m from Israel. It’s a tiresome one, and I shall skip the obligatory and much exhausted discussion of the disparity between media representation and reality.
The reality of my trip to Guatemala, however? Truly magnificent. Antigua, Tikal, Lake Petén Itzá, et al. All utterly phenomenal. And the true measure of its magnificence is in the people I encountered. Generous to a fault, kind and understanding, and possessing a quiet wisdom that suggests they know exactly what is important in life, and what isn’t. And who doesn’t want to learn that lesson?
One might expect these people to be suspicious by nature, wary of outsiders. After all, they are only recently emerged from a prolonged civil war (36 years in total), precipitated in no short terms by a meddling US government (I leave it to you to do your own Google search on the United Fruit Company, President Jacobo Arbenz, The Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unit, ie. GNRU etc.).
But suspicious? Far from it. Every Guatemalan person I encountered spoke with an openness and candor I rarely witness in the US. This despite my total lack of a command of the Spanish language (thank you Pimsleur for my 3 week crash course). But somehow the limitations in my ability to communicate, accompanied by many a flailing hand gesture, only accentuated the honesty of our conversation.
Strangely, I was reminded of the people I met when I visited Uganda many years ago. There too I found people with an inherent calm and generosity, a sweetness even, that seemed much at odds with the country’s tumultuous and bloody history (Long before Kony there was Idi).
But I am baffled. Why is it that in a place where people have every right to be cautious and full of distrust are they anything but? And if I dare compare them to the anxious denizens of this place I call home then I am left feeling ashamed and a little embarrassed. Mayhaps there is good reason for this disparity.
Suppose I posit you in front of a darkened cave. I tell you that inside there is either a pot of gold or a rabid bear. You stand a 50-50 chance of joining the Midas club for the criminally wealthy. However, you also stand a 50-50 chance of becoming a plate of sushi for a particularly angry eater.
Do you take the chance? My guess is not. Because the mere suggestion that there might be a bear is enough to trigger a self-defense mechanism that has served us well throughout evolution. It is fear of the unknown; the unknown being something that could potentially tear you limb from limb, and best avoided.
Fear of the unknown is innate, and essential, but can get a little twisted in overly protected, passive-aggressive Southern California. In a land where we really have nothing to fear (except that our internet connection might slow down) we can find cause for panic in almost anything: the Mexican gardener’s attempt to mollify, the Honduran nanny’s disdainful look, or the Guatemalan maid’s silent condemnation (Did you say Guatemala? “Oh!” “Why?” “Huh?”) Is it any wonder we cocoon ourselves in that which is familiar? The thought of confronting the unknown fills us with dread and suddenly Paris is indeed the perfect getaway, full of anticipated and known delights.
But what if the unknown becomes known? What if the prospect of a bear becomes an actual bear? And not only that, but you know for a fact where the bear is, how he’s feeling that day, and how to easily avoid him. That makes life a hell of a lot easier, doesn’t it? All that uncertainty and fear evaporates as quickly as the hype surrounding the latest M Night Shamalamadingdong film.
I think this is what happens in countries where the threat is a known commodity. Countries like Uganda, Guatemala, Israel too (and many others). For when there is an actual threat, and you know precisely where the threat lies, you don’t sweat the small stuff. And subsequently, life becomes manageable and your dealings with others more honest.
Are we who live in places removed from actual danger at a disadvantage, cheated of a richer perspective on life? I believe so. Because we are at the mercy of our imagination, desperate as it is to fill the void where known threats are supposed to reside. And we all know imagination is far more terrifying than reality. (Just watch the latest M Night Shamalamadingdong film for proof of that point.) Could it be that imagination limits our ability to learn what we don’t already know? Hmmm.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt said it best during his inaugural address. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. But perhaps he’s only right if you don’t have a rabid bear staring you down.