I Walk To School: Observations from the streets of Guatemala City

by Michael Peters

One foot in front of another, the throbbing of techno bass drives me forward at 129 beats per minute. The early morning sunshine is beginning to crest over the distant volcanoes.  The streets are still slightly damp from an overnight shower.  Noisy birds flit through the palms, and the air is thick with the fragrance of tropical blooms. Another day in Guatemala. Another day in paradise.

Walking the streets of Guatemala City has become almost an obsession for me. Daytime. Nighttime.  Pushing the limits of my personal comfort and good sense.  One of the most dirty, violent and dangerous cities in the world is a particular setting for a walk. In the last few years, more civilians have been killed here than in such Club Med locations as Bagdad or Kabul. Almost no one walks here, at least no one with any choice in the matter.  Guatemala City is home to the most dangerous city bus system in the world and taxicabs that leave trails of victims like smoke-belching serial killers.

Virtually every day I face the incredulous, “You walk to school? Really?”

Really.

This daily ritual has become my most important political statement. I refuse to give into fear, no matter how well-founded that fear may be.  I won’t let the criminals and thugs steal that most basic freedom: the ability to move from one place to another on my own two feet.

To hell with freedom of speech, I’ll settle for simple locomotion.

In the United States and Canada, it has become popular in dangerous city environments to “take back the streets.” Citizens walk together after dark, candles lit, arms linked, through the darkest corners of the urban jungle, declaring ownership of their neighborhoods, daring the criminal element to face their collective strength. I am not aware of any such movement in Guatemala. The streets will never be safe, I try to explain, as long as only the criminals walk there.

Initially, my morning route takes me twisting and turning through my relatively affluent neighborhood. Patrolled by a crew of paid motorcycle vigilantes, it seems on the surface to be fairly safe.  And yet, within these three blocks I have cringed at the sound of not-so-distant gunshots, I have seen blood and bodies, and I know more than a handful of people who have personally looked down a barrel.

I lived for 34 years in Canada, most of my adult life in a city of comparable size and density to the Guatemalan capital. I never, not even once, saw a lifeless body in the street.  I’ve been here for 18 months and I am already numb to the violence. And yet I continue to walk to school, really?

Really.

Emerging from my neighborhood, I am faced with the somewhat ironically named Vista Hermosa Boulevard, a busy urban commuter street, perpetually shrouded in diesel fumes and lined with fast food outlets and strip malls pedaling surplus from local sweat shops.

Crossing directly across the surface of the road involves a Frogger-esque feat of agility, so every so often the powers-that-be have installed pasarelas – elevated staircases allowing pedestrians to climb up and over the flow of traffic.

This is the point of my morning journey where I feel the most exposed.  One staircase up. One staircase down. In between, the only escape route involves a long drop to the busy traffic below.  Puffing slightly as I reach the top, I usually pause for a moment in the middle of the bridge, gazing down at the chaotic Central American traffic. Pickup trucks loaded with gravity-defying pyramids of pineapples dance with motorcycles carrying families of four, sharing a single helmet. Old school buses, painted red, the anchors of the public transit system, crawl by with riders hanging out of the doors and windows. “Dios es mi salvador,” their decals declare.  Honking. Squealing. Swerving. Stinking. Watching from above it all, traveling by foot doesn’t seem as irrational.

Until a shadowy figure appears at the top of the opposite staircase.

Let’s be honest; to a gringo walking alone, the definition of “shadowy” expands somewhat. A heavy, paint-stained hoodie is worn despite the heat.  Frayed jeans. Black baseball cap pulled low, obscuring his face. Not unlike dozens of other unfortunate souls I pass by every day.

Surely my alarm is merely an artifact of my hypersensitive state of awareness.

In this way, a walk in the city takes on a meditative quality: every detail focused. High definition. Head on a swivel.

Glancing in the other direction I notice with some alarm that my heightened senses have failed me. My shadowy figure has an identical twin, approaching me from behind.  Another black ball cap. Temperature-defying hoodie.  The same torn jeans.  Their matching uniforms confirm my worst suspicions.

At this point, it is important to note that I try to recognize my own prejudices. After all, in part, it is my fundamental sense of equality that drives me to walk every day. Why shouldn’t I walk the same route as a “poor Guatemalan”?  My paycheck may be cashed in American dollars but that is little more than a happy accident.

I’m not a better person: no more deserving of safety and security than any other human being.  We are the same.

And yet, as they draw closer, all I can feel is suspicion. Does this make me a bad person? Does it render my political statement shallow and hollow?

That is the cruelest part of living in a city like this: the way you find yourself suspecting everyone, your allies, other victims.  People just like you.

As they draw closer, hands concealed in the kangaroo pockets of their sweatshirts, politics fade away and basic survival is thrust to the forefront. All that high-minded bullshit dissolves and I’m forced to question my own motivations.  Am I just another crackhead, purposefully engaging in risk-taking behavior? Do I really place such a low value on my own life? What drives a person to put themselves in this kind of situation?  If I die this morning on this bridge, will there even be a slight ripple in the force? Will I be missed? Will it matter?

Deep breath. A quick glance behind me checks the position of Thing #2.  Chin up, eyes forward, I meet the stare of Thing #1. Onward.

One foot in front on another. Proximity dissolves away. Closer. Closer. Our eyes lock.

“Buenos dias,” he says, flashing me a cockeyed grin as he steps aside to let me pass.

“Buenos dias,” I reply, nodding slightly.

Yes, I walk to school.  For one more day, at least.

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