Travel to developing countries?

My last post explored impressions from a recent family trip to Guatemala. I talked about confronting my experience of travel at midlife, as well as external factors that contributed to a sense I probably won’t return to this beautiful country. Although I loved traveling there with my younger son and husband, I nevertheless felt discouraged about the enormity of the issues that Guatemala and Central America overall are facing. In general, I wonder how much more travel to developing countries I will do.

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Busy marketplace in Chichicastenango, Guatemala

My reaction to Guatemala’s economic problem

My most troubling issue with travel to places like Guatemala lies within myself. I find it tiring to be always saying “No, gracias” to the scores of people who approach tourists, trying to sell them something. These entrepreneurs are just doing what they can to try and feed their families, but their sheer number at times can overwhelm.  My heart went out to a woman who hadn’t made many, maybe not any, sales one day — sometimes I would buy, or simply give a vendor money. And yet there were too many salespeople for a single tourist to make much of an impact. As a result, I felt discouraged. Admittedly, mine was a “first world” reaction, but I didn’t like feeling depressed while on vacation.

Furthermore, conversations with locals about Guatemalan industries like rose-growing and candle-making, where once-thriving businesses had been shuttered due to competition from lower-wage countries, gave me little cause to hope for future growth in their economy. Guatemala has more than 15 million people, but most of them lack the technical skills needed to thrive in the modern economy. Like similar countries, corruption is pervasive, but infrastructure and investment are lacking. Micro-enterprise loans and grants can address poverty on an individual level, but system-wide, the standard of living remains low.

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Mayan woman selling flowers outside church in Chichicastenango, Guatemala

My travel time is finite

It is a strange feeling to be in a place, feel grateful and happy to be there, but also to recognize you probably won’t be back. I felt this way a few years ago when our family went to Machu Picchu. I didn’t have this perspective when I was younger, when I ventured alone to Michoacán, Mexico, or took a midnight ferry across the Adriatic to then-Yugoslavia. It didn’t cross my mind as a twenty-something to wonder whether I would go back to these places, or what they might be like in the future. But from where I stand now, time for traveling seems finite, and some places are lost to me forever.

But maybe I shouldn’t give up yet

There are still some developing regions of the world I’d love to visit. However, I’ll need to reconcile my desire to change people’s living standards with appreciation for life “in the here and now.” Just because my personal impact might be limited to people whom I encounter, just because I feel frustrated or despondent that their lives seem so “uncomfortable” compared to mine — this is not a reason to give up my appreciation for the beauty of life as it is right now.

This insight, in fact, might be what I’ve been lacking all along. Moreover, it’s a significant element in why it remains worthwhile to travel to places that aren’t so comfortable. Whether we are at home or abroad, ultimately all we have is the present. Maybe this is what I was supposed to see, and why I need to continue traveling to places like Guatemala.

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The sun rises over the jungle of Tikal, Guatemala

 

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Iconic Mayan temple in Tikal, Guatemala

Last vacation in Guatemala

We vacationed in Guatemala this year. It was my second trip to the country — our entire family had visited in 2005. While I enjoyed both trips a great deal, this time was likely my last visit to Guatemala. At least it was my last visit for the purpose of vacation — perhaps I’ll have an opportunity to do community service there, but I’ve realized I’m nearing an end to my long-held interest in travel to developing countries where they speak Spanish.

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With my husband at Lago de Atitlán, a volcano-rimmed lake

Why? In large part, my tastes have changed as I’ve grown older. It isn’t a question of safety: at no time did I feel unsafe in Guatemala. We took the usual precautions one would take anywhere in the world. But as much as I hate to admit it, I like being comfortable when I’m on vacation. While it’s perfectly possible to find nice hotels and restaurants in a developing country, the “comfortable tourist” cannot help but come face to face with the uncomfortable reality of life for that country’s people. I know it’s good to have a broader world view and not to remain ensconced in my cozy suburban life. At the same time, I’m not sure this type of experience, for me, makes for a “vacation” in the usual sense.

In this and the next post, I’ll explore my thoughts on our recent trip.

Developing country travel is harder at midlife

Traveling to Guatemala made me admit I’d grown older. Partly this acknowledgment had to do with expectations based on the easy life I have at home, and partly my body just doesn’t work as well as it used to. But I appreciate a firm bed, a nice shower, a good cup of coffee and clean bathrooms. I found most of these things during my trip, even the good cup of coffee — thanks to following the advice of my older son to take along an Aeropress and hand coffee grinder. Still, by most measures, it was far from luxury travel.

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With my CSA teacher in 2005 and then again in 2014

My younger son and I spent a wonderful week studying Spanish — each with our personal tutor at the Christian Spanish Academy in Antigua Guatemala. We loved Antigua. It’s an excellent tourist destination with numerous hotels and restaurants, and it’s small enough to negotiate on foot. However, I found wandering around there more difficult this time than nine years ago. Antigua is an old colonial town where all the streets are cobblestone, and the curbs are uneven. Cars might slow down as they approach an intersection, but no one has bothered to install stop signs — presumably because they would go unheeded. I turned my ankle and fell at a street corner when I wasn’t paying attention. Furthermore, many streets weren’t marked, so it was easy to become confused about where we were going.

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Antigua’s cobblestone streets

Don’t they want to attract well-off tourists?

Second, for a country such as Guatemala where tourism is one of its principal industries, it seems odd that they aren’t trying to encourage affluent travelers to visit by making sure they provide world-class accommodations and food.

The hotels where we stayed in Antigua and Guatemala City seemed more run-down than they had in 2005, and it struck me that management efforts to cut operations costs may have detracted from guests’ experience while not actually saving much money. For example, our room on the lower level of the Antigua hotel smelled dank, and they had fewer tropical flower arrangements and candles in the hallways this time around than had impressed me nine years ago. In Guatemala City, our business-class hotel still had not replaced a burnt-out light bulb two days after we requested it. Likewise, shops and market stalls seemed stuck in the previous century, with little evidence of innovation in their product offerings. And don’t even get me started on the restaurants! If you want more of my opinions, check out my Trip Advisor reviews.

Most travelers to Guatemala today are students studying Spanish, or they’re budget-conscious couples (and occasionally families) who aren’t staying in the nicer (meaning “more expensive”) hotels, or eating in fine restaurants. They also aren’t buying many souvenirs. I’m glad they’re there. But attracting more affluent travelers also would help Guatemala’s tourism industry overall. It’s an excellent destination with natural beauty, culture and friendly people. Yet broadening their base of travelers involves improving all aspects of the hospitality industry — not just upgrading an occasional hotel or restaurant. Given the country’s economic and political woes, it’s not an easy thing to accomplish.

The next post will continue my thoughts on this specific trip and vacationing in developing countries generally. In the meantime, enjoy some travel photos!

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Lunch with a view at Café Sky in Antigua

 

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Mayan men in the church courtyard, Santiago de Atitlán

 

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Girls in traditional Mayan attire

 

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Women preparing a float for church festival

 

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Mayan woman fastens blooms to festival float