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

 

Forcing myself to unplug in Yosemite

Despite magnificent weather, gorgeous scenery and the company of three of my four favorite people (our daughter wasn’t there), I still struggled over “unplugging” from the Internet in order to enjoy our family’s trip to Yosemite last weekend.

I knew from past trips that cellular coverage was spotty at best, and wifi would likely be available only in our motel’s common areas.  No problem – I had worked furiously on Internet-related projects before leaving town, so I figured things would be fine.

But I didn’t consider how pulling out my iPhone to check messages, get a weather report, or do a quick Google search has become a habit – something I do to fill a spare moment without even realizing it.  I knew from observing the 2011 National Day of Unplugging that I might have some “issues” – but this weekend brought me face to face with them, again.

When the front desk receptionist informed me that Yosemite Lodge now provides free wifi in the rooms, I thought, “How great — our national parks are joining the digital age.”  Then she added, “It’s been kind of touch and go lately.  What can I say?  I.T. is working on it.”

Sure enough, we got to our rooms and found that, while our sons were able to get random, weak wifi, my husband and I found ourselves sitting side by side, staring at blank browser screens and watching our “loading” wheels spin.  Also, our TV was tiny — you needed birding binoculars to check the Giants’ score unless you sat right next to it.  Which was kind of a problem, since there was only one chair in the room, and it was more of a desk chair, not a TV chair.  But what was I expecting, the Four Seasons?  That wasn’t the point, I reminded myself — we were here to enjoy Yosemite’s grandeur.

 

Mirror Lake 2012, by Micah Rosales

 

The next day was sunny and warm, not too hot.  Blue cloudless sky.  In other words, perfect.  We chose to hike up past Mirror Lake, a ideal route because, since a rock slide had closed off the trail higher up, few people bothered to go past the Mirror Lake destination. But at the same time as I was enjoying our journey, I knew the Prince of Smooth was playing Lord Valdemort in the French Open semi’s, and my iPhone wouldn’t even give me a score update, due to the lack of cellular data coverage.

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Tennis in the tropics

As much as I love being at the beach in Mexico, spending time with my older kids, I miss my husband and high school son, who had to stay behind for work and exams. Also, truth be told, I miss my DIRECTV French Open Mix Channel, where they give me six HD different channels to choose from during the first week of the tournament — sometimes they even show doubles matches, which ESPN almost never airs.  The Tennis Channel doesn’t even show doubles very often.

I’m having to make do with re-runs on ESPN-México in poor quality telecast. But it helps me work on my Spanish, and at least we’re at the tournament’s beginning. Yes I know, no one’s feeling sorry for me: my balcony looks out on the sea. There’s a lovely breeze blowing, and it’s air-conditioned inside if I prefer that. Who needs tennis right now?

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I did want to check out the courts here, though. Because rain was forecast for every day of our trip at the time I packed, I didn’t bother to bring my tennis gear. And in fact I had to wade through a flooded passageway to reach the rain-soaked courts our first day. They call the court surface “grass,” but it’s not exactly Wimbledon. It’s the same grass-carpet material my mother-in-law and countless other owners of Southern California ranch homes used to put down in their enclosed patios. However, the resort stretches the grass fabric and glues it down tight, so it works well.

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My husband and I played here years ago, and we enjoyed the so-called grass courts. We had to make sure to play before the sun rose too high, as the tropical heat makes it tough to run around in the afternoon. Maybe I’ll save the tennis for a different location — here, it’s time for a margarita.

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All-inclusive resorts: the good, the bad and the ugly

Greetings from Puerto Vallarta! I came here for the long weekend with my college kids and my son’s girlfriend. We’re staying at a property we used to enjoy when it was operated by Hoteles Camino Real, a high-end Mexican chain similar to Westin. But several years back the property changed hands and now is owned by AMResort’s Dreams. We have resisted returning to this location because Dreams resorts are all-inclusive properties — but since this was a short vacation, it seemed like a good chance to check things out.

Anne’s verdict: the location is as fabulous as ever, but the all-inclusive vacation model does not work for me.

The beauty of this location is that it lies about fifteen minutes south of the town of Puerto Vallarta on its own beach. Although Mexican beaches are public property, this one is inaccessible to outsiders to due to rocks on either side, and the road into the hotel is gated, so only hotel guests are allowed to enter. Thus the beach is clean, not crowded, and souvenir vendors are kept to a minimum. The surf is gentle enough to swim in. And yet, the shops and restaurants of PV are only a five-dollar cab ride away.

 

Saturday 26 May 2012

 

We were fortunate that Hurricane Bud brushed by us during the night and brought only heavy rain our first day and a half here. Today was partly cloudy, but much better than I had expected when checking the forecast before departing the Bay Area last week.

 

 

Sunday 27 May 2012

 

 

At the same time, this is my first experience with any type of all-inclusive vacation, where my room rate includes breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus all the drinks and snacks I want. The facilities are lovely, and in general the service is excellent. But they maximize profit margins by offering limited dining options, over-pricing pedestrian wines, and charging for “extra” services such as more than one wifi connection per room. (Sorry, when you’re from Silicon Valley, one Internet connection per room, even when on vacation, is not going to cut it.)

I would imagine the all-inclusive arrangement works well for larger groups, or for people who want to lock in their vacation expenses before leaving home. Also for folks who prefer to spend their vacations consuming alcohol throughout the day, and/or for those who prefer quantity over quality of food. We have witnessed both types of guests here.

Never mind: the breakfast buffet is perfect, we’ve  identified the best restaurant on property for lunch, and after one mediocre dinner on a rainy night when we couldn’t face going out, we committed to sampling the best of what Puerto Vallarta has to offer. Last night we went to an old favorite, the classic Daiquiri Dick’s, owned by a chef who moved down from Los Angeles years ago, and a sumptuous meal (with daiquiris and flaming coffee) cost only fifty dollars each.  Tonight we had what my son the foodie proclaimed our best meal yet at a place favored by locals, La Langosta Feliz, the Happy Lobster.

Here’s to living large — Salud!