Saturday, January 14, 2012

Be scared, be very scared? Reflections on safety and loneliness

A friend recently asked me if I had concerns about my personal safety. This was after some revelation or whining about my recent string of highway and automotive misadventures (but before the bus driver pushed my vehicle into a ditch). I replied no, I really didn't have concerns.  And then I started  to reflect more seriously about security and safety, and why I am not more fearful.

Many people I know here, both Guatemalans and foreigners, express concern about my constant movements about the country in a car by myself. This is, in part, the nature of fieldwork -- ideally, at least in the classic model, one is on one's own. Malinowski writes about the mythic fieldworker (white, male, privileged), arguing that it is important for him to be on his own, with the "natives" and to have as little contact as possible with other white people. His point, as I recall it, is that if you are surrounded by your own kind you slip into a comfort zone and won't push out into another culture.

My solo travels are also due to the fact that I came here on my own, without a partner or child to accompany me.  This has given me a great deal of flexibility and freedom. I can eat yogurt and Grape-Nuts for dinner if I want to (a freedom I have exercised precisely one time; I actually cook real food for myself all the time, but that is because I like to cook and I like to eat real home-cooked food -- no cans and very few convenience foods for this girl). I can eat dinner whenever it pleases me. At a moment's notice, I can decide I want to attend a conference or talk in Guatemala City, or go to a movie in Xela.

The downside of all this freedom is that I am alone a lot. Like nearly all the time. So traveling alone is part of the regime.  Although I sometimes, in the U.S., get very tired and even drowsy at the wheel, I do enjoy the feeling of liberty when I drive alone. When I got my license at 16, I was unhappily living in suburbia and not having the ability to drive meant I was either stuck or bound by the whims and schedules of others, so being able to drive gave me a degree of independence.  I hitch-hiked a bit around Europe on visits in the 1970s, and while I had one mildly unpleasant experience, I mostly had very good luck. Although I enjoy having traveling companions, especially ones who are adaptable and easy-going, I've gotten used to traveling alone.

Guatemala, to be sure, is a country where most people do not enjoy security and safety. The wealthy have bodyguards and gated community; the poor have their wits and their immediate circle of family and friends. But even that is not a failsafe buffer. One result of the armed conflict has been the deterioration of trust and mutuality. During the war, people were forced to (or chose to) inform on their friends and relatives. No one knew who could be trusted. One brother might have joined, or been forcibly recruited into, the military or the civilian patrols, while another was in the guerrilla. The after-effects can still be seen. A few weeks ago we were talking about the kinds of productive projects that Ixmukané could start and someone suggested community gardens. No, someone else said. Community gardens don't work. Family plots do, but community gardens don't. I asked a friend about this and she said, "No one trusts anyone any more. The social fabric has been ripped and I don't think it is going to be fully repaired ever."

So, back to what might seem to some as my somewhat reckless attitude. I do not think I am immune, that I walk around with an invisible shield, that my whiteness or my gringa-ness or middle-class-ness some how protects me.  I know this is one of the characteristics of the "ugly American" syndrome -- that we think that certain things just don't touch us.  I don't subscribe to that. On the other hand, I won't be paralyzed by fear. I am not quite sure why I have only very infrequently felt something approaching actual fear. The two times I drove on the very lonely highway between Santa Cruz and Totonicapán at night I experienced about 10 minutes of anxiety. But even when sitting (lying?) sideways in my car in a ditch, I mostly felt annoyance, not fear or panic. I think Guatemala has refined my ability to go with the flow and to not waste energy fretting or getting upset about things over which I have no control.

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