We recently had a guest who was very antsy, because he arrived with wads of cash and was nervous about where to safeguard it. When we asked him why he didn't just bring a debit card and credit cards, his reply was that he wasn't aware that he could be using his USA debit cards here! Carrying all this cash on you when you travel isn't really safe. He is not the first to arrive with this belief. Many carry around a lot of cash because they believed debit cards or credit cards would not be viable in Central America.
Thing is, YES, YOU CAN use your USA debit cards here. I use my Bank of America at almost all ATMS with no problem (not that I have much in there, but still).
On the other hand, if you plan to stay for a while, just open a bank account at any local bank here and get a local debit card. It is good to know, though, that Guatemalan banks are not insured against bankruptcy, so if a bank just decides to close doors, up and leave, you basically lose your money. Thus, don't put all your eggs in that one nest.
One common-sense behavior is never to get a lot out of an ATM nor to use the same ATM machine all the time. It is also smart to check your monthly balances to ensure that there were no snafus. Sometimes the ATM will state that your transaction cannot process, for whatever reason ... but your bank in the USA did process it!
As for credit cards, always call your credit card company before leaving the USA and let them know you will be using them in Latin America and for how long, or they will probably block it as soon as your credit card charges start coming in from countries south of the border. That has happened to me.
These have been busy days. I am going to a wedding and getting ready to go spend Thanksgiving back home in the USA, so rushing to get all my work done and leave everything taken care of, so that I can enjoy peace of mind. These include having my thesis advisee turn in her latest chapter today---as with grad students everywhere else, she needs to be prodded and pressured--and finding a new apartment to move into before I leave.
Not that I will move into it before leaving, I just want to secure it and know it is there. And I found it just today! It's spacey and full of light, right on a beautiful 19th Century tree-lined boulevard a couple blocks off the Historic Center which ends in a huge park. It is very secure, with electric garage doors, and we can still walk to art school. I couldn't be happier. At US$500 a month this very same space, exactly, would cost almost double in zona 10 or 14, the wealthier areas! And in the US, a 4-bedroom 2-bathroom like this would be so expensive!
These days there is also my work at the Historic Police Archives, which is absolutely enthralling, and the cultural community-building project I have been working with for the City government and the government of Spain. Both have been fascinating experiences. But more on that another day.
Last weekend had breakfast with two young friends. One is a Guatemalan friend, who happens to be a very talented photographer, Eny, and a friend from Israel who is a physicist recently graduated from a Netherlands' university teaching grad school at a university here for one year, Ori. Yeah, I know, Eny and Ori. Sounds a children's book. But they are real. No imaginary friends for me ... yet.
Eny went crazy taking photos. Climbing like a spider everywhere to get a shot. Ori loved the cemetery--it IS impressive--and claims it has nothing to lose compared with Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Not having been to Paris I can't tell, but I trust his judgment.
We spent close to 3 hours there and couldn't finish it all, as there is so much to see and explore, but we had a great time! We hiked the hills, we climbed atop mausoleums, we found some human bones strewn about (that's a common occurrence), we opened and went inside some crumbling crypts. Our faces ended up sunburned.
The history of this cemetery, begun in the 19th Century, is really interesting. It marked the (at the time, unwelcome) transition from being buried in Church catacombs, to being buried outside the city. Moreover, one can see almost all of the architectural styles which made their imprimatur on the City, replicated there, as the rich people would build very fancy mausoleums in the current styles, importing statues all the way from Paris and Italy.
These also span several trends, and I love all. My favorite are the modernist ones (see picture below). Also extremely colorful are the nichos, like high-rise hives of sorts, where the poor bury their dead.
That same weekend went to Arrin Cuan, an award-winning Guatemalan cuisine restaurant, with Lorne, a foreign correspondent visiting Guatemala to run some investigations, among them an in-depth reportage on that despicable case in which the USA was using Guatemalans as guinea pigs in the 1940s, purposefully infecting them with syphilis. I said it before, that is just the tip of the iceberg! The stuff this man is digging up is amazing.
Anyhow. The colorful restaurant we went to was full of happy people, with loud marimba music. Lorne kept exclaiming "This couldn't be more perfect!" A large Mayan family was on the table besides us celebrating their grandmother's birthday, clapping and singing songs to her. Beautiful, moving scene. Lorne said "You never--never!--get to see stuff like this in the US!"
Also stuff you cannot get in the USA, as far as I know, is a half-pound of sizzling, charcoal-grilled, thick prime steak, perfectly seasoned, for less than US$12. Black beans, rice and guacamole on the side, and all the chili sauce you want. Or you can have the baked potato as a side, of course.
At first Lorne was nervous because on his way to downtown the driver kept warning him against staying downtown--many taxi drivers get tips from specific hotels, often from the ones in the more upscale area, so they tend to frighten tourists from coming here--but after the first day, the man was traipsing up and down the historic center's streets on his own, interviewing people, going to appointments, looking for places to eat and hanging at the cafe's, etc.
He came here on a recommendation and we are glad he did. It has been fun to watch him have such a good time and listening to his stories.
Thing is, nobody is really safe anywhere in Guatemala. If you are looking for gated-community safety, you'll find gated communities all right, but you have to get out of them sometimes and the idea of safety here is, overall, a fantasy. Yet with prudence and common sense, one can be relatively safe. As for me, I have lived in gated communities before. And no thanks! I don't like the bubble-feel.
So back to our guest, Lorne said the streets here make him feel invigorated! I know the feeling. That is exactly how my husband and I feel too. I wish I could describe the feeling, but I am not a creative writer, so words fail me. It's just so entertaining, so vivid. It is a warm ambiance, even in the chilly weather. And once you live here for a while, it is actually homey. You get to know the vendors, bump into the same people every day, from Congressmen to artists, beggars to vendors, government employees to students. Lots of Guatemalan artists downtown. LOTS!
The whole environment is artsy. Besides being the habitat of a great many intellectual and artist personalities, there are several art school in the area, artists' and graphic designers' studios, theaters (and a vigorously emergent theater scene), hundreds of pubs, cafes and colonial churches, and constant street and pub concerts everywhere. From classical music at the Conservatory, for example, to original rock or blues at any pub. The whole are is an ongoing experiment in urban improvement, within the traditional/historic framework.
Just tomorrow I am going to the launching party of Alejandro Arriaza's new CD. Alejandro is a local, well-known singer-songwriter who rather than be all earnests and soulful, is more, like, wistful and humorous in his stuff. He has become a friend and we bump into each other almost every week. Generally, we are city rats. We don't have small kids, we don't have to worry about babysitters and such. We go out almost every night. Always something happening.
There are so many protests downtown though, that all of us who live here no longer notice. I was in art class today and a couple students rushed in all excited saying that there was a protest in the streets, and did anyone know what it was all about? Turns out a bunch of us drove/walked through the protest and barely noticed it was actually a protest! I do recall wondering "Why is traffic so extraordinarily bad today?" as I was driving through one. And then vaguely realizing "Oh, must be a a protest."
In fact, there were TWO protests going on today! A friend from Italy just smirked and said, "Just like in Italy!" Eh, what can you do! The wages of democracy, I guess. Better this than brutal oppression. We just learn to navigate around them.
One thing in Guate, though, is that one cannot find decent hummus or sushi. Forget it! And Thai and Indian food? Not happening. I make my own hummus with tahina at home because it is easy, but hell will freeze over before I slave in the kitchen making sushi or Thai.
These, however, are things I can learn to live without, especially if I can keep going back home several times a year. The delicious fresh produce and all the other staples of cuisine one can find here, such as ceviche and churrasco, and fabulous exotic fruits and drinks, more than make up for it.