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Posts Tagged ‘tourism’

What’s Antigua all about? Well, it’s a little gem of a place, a beautiful colonial town surrounded by three volcanoes. There’s a lot of expats here, there aren’t as many tourists as you’d find in popular spots in Mexico but Antigua is still a popular place  offering all the amenities and creature comforts (hey, you can buy Nutella here) that many of us have come to appreciate. Because of this, a lot of expats have settled here and lot of tourists (including Guatemalan tourists) feel quite comfortable. I am told it used to be a really quite town. In the past week, it has actually been quite busy because of the Christmas holidays. Some people say traffic has increased and therefore pollution. Nevertheless, it is a place that one could picture staying for a few months. It is a welcome change from Vancouver, that’s for sure.

Horse carriage in front of wash baths where Maya women wash their laundry

Horse carriage in front of wash baths where Maya women wash their laundry

Antigua is visually striking partly thanks to being a colonial town where people must adhere to certain rules as far as façades go. For example, there’s a MacDonald’s and a Subway here, but you couldn’t easily spot them as their signage is very discreet — a smallish hand painted sign on the exterior. And just about all the streets are quite pleasant to walk along.

La Merced church, our shuttle bus driver crossed himself when driving past it

La Merced church, our shuttle bus driver crossed himself when driving past it

Well to do Guatemalans, tourists and expats intermingle with Mayans in Antigua. So you see both extremes of social class and anything in between. I am told that Maya people do not live in Antigua as it is too expensive for them. So they come from the surrounding pueblos (villages, towns) to make a living by selling crafts, cooked food, vegetables,  fruits, and shoe shining amongst other things.

A Muebleria, a little awesome furniture store (Lenny on the right)

A Muebleria, a little awesome furniture store (Lenny on the right)

But what I really wanted to get to in this post is the ideas that some people have about the presence of tourists amongst ‘poor’ Mayas. We have met a few people here that have worked for NGOs. Some have been involved in NGO work for 20 years or so and the others had just finished a six month stint. Over some drinks in a beautiful courtyard setting we (Lenny and I) suddenly felt that our presence in Antigua was being criticized. We were told that Antigua is not Guatemala. Panajachel is not Guatemala and so on. I know these places are partly meant to attract tourism but they are still Guatemalan towns with real people living in them. They say go 2km outside of Antigua and you’ll see the real Guatemala. But if Antigua is not the real Guatemala, than what is it to the people who live in the town? Fiction?!

The bus terminal, you should see the threads or lack of on some of these beauties

The bus terminal, you should see the threads or lack of on some of these beauties

Tourism is a major industry here that helps to maintain the lively hood of many people — Mayans and ladinos alike. Some tourists only stick to the tourist trail, which is a pretty good one as far that goes  and is still an eye opener from my point of view. Tourists never see a Mayan-only village, or as our company that night also said, they don’t see to what extent poverty effects poor people.  But anywhere you go, whether it’s on the tourist trail or not, you see the poverty. We saw it. You may not be actively involved in relieving that poverty, but should every tourist be judged and criticized for being here and not be doing NGO work?? Come on people get real!

A wall in Nim Pot, a huge store with all things Mayan handmade, overwhelming, requires more than one visit

A wall in Nim Pot, a huge store with all things Mayan handmade, overwhelming, requires more than one visit

There is poverty back home too in Vancouver (the downtown east side being a good example). And there we found our own way to help people in the street. NGOs aren’t for everyone, abroad or at home. You don’t need poverty to be rubbed in your face to know that it’s here. You may not know the details of what it’s like to be poor here, but the absence of that knowledge does not make you naive and should not give NGO people the right to judge. Because as soon as you start judging, you make assumptions and assumptions are always based on preconceived notions and stereotypes, and basically the lack of knowledge. Sometimes assumptions are made from a position of privilege.

Owls, owls, there's lots of them, I'm not sure why, must find out

Owls, owls, there's lots of them, I'm not sure why, must find out

How good is an NGO volunteer or worker if they operate on assumptions and stereotypes? Because after all a six month volunteer is another type of tourist who is here for selfish reasons. You want to enrich your life with meaning and under developped countries can offer that. Are poor people back home less important? We all have our reasons for volunteering here and not there.

So when do you stop judging? For whom is it good to be here? And doesn’t the act of judging stem from a negative attitude?

Anyways, just some thoughts that surely enter many people travelling to under-developped countries. And yes, we have met some NGOers that were quite positive!

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