Friday, January 28, 2011

Living and traveling in Guatemala: Jeep or truck?

The nature of my work in Guatemala means that I have to have a vehicle. I teach once a week at a university in the capital, the Universidad del Valle, and my field work is in the southern part of the department of Quiché. It takes about 4 hours to get from Chinique to Guatemala City (I know that the bus drivers supposedly make it in three hours, but I try to exercise a modicum of caution when driving).  The buses wouldn't take me very close tot the university, which is Zona 15, so even if I wanted to chance life and limb and all my electronic equipment on a crowded, rickety bus, I'd have to get a cab from there to the university, and repeat the whole thing again. It's also not really feasible to do the round trip in one day -- well, it's feasible; Guatemalans I know travel to the capital for appointments of one sort or another, taking an early morning bus and returning late at night. To which I say, thanks but no thanks.

So, this has led to two important choices: having 2 residences, and having my own vehicle. Since I choose not to make the round trip from El Quiché in a single day (and a good thing, too, since my class is at 10:15 a.m., as it turns out, not in the afternoon),  I needed to find a place that was close enough to the university where I could stay the night before and the night after my class.  I originally considered Guatemala City, although someone (I do not now remember whom, but maltyox to whomever you are) suggested staying in Antigua. When I visited Guatemala last summer, together with my fellow Fulbrighter Roselyn Costantino (there are other Fulbright folks in Guatemala, but Roselyn and I are both teaching  at the UVG, and we both do work on gender, so I consider her to be my partner-in-crime in many of my undertakings here), we spent about one hour looking at apartments in Guatemala City and decided that we would follow the anonymous (only because I can't remember who this is) advice and stay in Antigua. 

Guatemala City is one of the most unpleasant and also violent and crime ridden places in the country. The city is large and sprawling, and there are at least two cities: the GC of the haves (gated communities, private armed security guards) and the GC of the have nots (from whence it will take you three hours by public transportation to reach the oases of the haves).  I didn't want to live in a gated community, and I also didn't want to have to be on guard every time I ventured a short distance from my door, so I decided upon Antigua. 

So that's the two-residence part of my experience here. I spend a relatively large sum of money (considering what I get in return) for a modest loft studio on the northern end of the historic center of Antigua, with little direct sunlight and not much of a view. Antigua itself is surrounded by spectacularly beautiful hills and a volcano, so I do not have to go very far to enjoy lovely vistas, but I cannot sit in the privacy of my little living room and look out on the hills.  My other residence is a modest (but much larger) house in Chinique, more or less in the center of town, about two blocks from the Catholic church and the Banrural branch. Don't worry about finding it; if you come to visit I will probably come pick you up.

Now, about the car. In addition to traversing the distance between Chinique and Antigua, Antigua and GC, and then all that in reverse, my work in Quiché takes me to a couple of different towns and rural villages -- and I am accustomed to having some independence and mobility. So I've always planned to have my own vehicle.  I know other people who come to Guate for periods of time and get around on public transportation. And a few people suggested a motorcycle. But that wouldn't be especially practical (I have to travel back to the U.S. for some meetings and conferences, and can't quite see balancing suitcases and digital cameras on a moto) and then there's the safety issue: I like to have a few layers of metal between me and those hypercharged bus drivers when I encounter them on the open road.

Which is why I am still trying to purchase a vehicle. Among the many things that I thought I had sorted out and taken care of before coming was a car -- a friend was going to sell me a Toyota Tercel 4X4 but ended up not doing no. I'm not entirely sure why, but that was that. So, looking for a car in a small town is not easy, especially as I was looking for an apartment at the same time. I decided to prioritize the apartment (I had and still have a rental car), and then once that was settled, concentrate on the car. Concentrate might be an overstatement: there were so many things up in the air. 

We started to ask around, and I asked everyone I knew to ask everyone they knew if anyone knew of a vehicle for sale. My options are basically a pick-up or a jeep -- something that will make it up rutted dirt roads, and preferably also in the rainy season.  

I thought I would do better if I had someone accompanying me -- preferably a male, and preferably someone who knew a little about cars. tThe former is because, well, there's a lot of machismo out there in the big bad world, especially in the world of cars. In my one previous car-purchasing experience in the U.S., I got treated differently -- i.e. better -- when I was accompanied by a man. Guatemala is probably a more macho and patriarchal society, in many ways, than the U.S.  But the only men I know up here who know about cars were all busy, and so I settled for a man who doesn't know a lot about cars, but who was up for the adventure (and who had some ideas about where we could find cars for sale).

So far I've seen a couple of Toyota pick-ups that seem like they might work, and one jeep that I'm not sure about. It's a Kia Sportage, automatic, although the owner says that he drove all over the Petén and on a lot of very sketchy -- that's not the word he used -- roads. I suppose I could go completely crazy -- drive over to Xela or down to Chimaltenango where there are literally dozens of vehicles parked along the highway with the letters S/V ("se vende" - for sale) painted on the glass -- but will probably settle for something a bit closer at hand. I'll keep you all posted. 

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