People of Peru

Good people I have met in Peru

My last days in Peru, sitting on a beach in the small town of Pacasmayo thinking of the people I have met in the last three months and getting distracted by the people, mostly families, around me. I love the way they play. There is a young father next to me helping his young children (maybe 2 and 4) dig the proverbial hole in the sand. He is having as much fun as they are, digging and fetching water from the sea. No pressure, just being together. Now Mom and Grandma have arrived with food.

The water is cold, but some venture out past the waves where the water is still shallow. This is surfing country.

During the first month while travelling with Eduardo, we had some good guides of all ages: from early 20’s to an erudite man in his 60’s. If I were to judge Peruvians by their guides I’d say they are polite, reserved, and proud. When required, they can be authoritative. I didn’t hear much humour from any of them.

For the most part, our Airbnb hosts have been welcoming, rather quiet, helpful, but not imposing.

Sometimes, Peruvians can be quite loud, but I have never found it overwhelming, except for their continuous honking of car horns. Reminds me of Cairo.

I have been lucky to know some Peruvians more personally. In the café where I was volunteering, there were two charming young people helping out.

The young man, I will call Daniel, usually works on cruise ships six or seven months at a time. As a bar waiter, he makes very good money. He is helping his family and has bought a modest home for them; he has sent his three siblings to post-secondary studies, and helps with his niece’s education.

It was his mother who invited me to spend the weekend at their farm. It was a pleasure to see her in the country with her family and animals. They live in a large three bedroom adobe house with a dirt floor. Their humble generosity impressed me. I wonder how many Canadians invite foreign visitors into their homes. This is a picture of her granddaughter.

The young lady at the café was very attentive towards me. Almost every day, she would bring me a fruit or some little gift. She was a good worker, in fact she had two jobs to help finance her university education. Here she is visiting her Grandmother.

At the school where I have been teaching English this past month, the teacher are an interesting mix of people. There is the coquette who tells everyone all her problems, the handsome gentleman who practises his English with me, the loving grade six teacher, the exhausted grade one teacher. We meet every day in a lean-to beside the food kiosk and sit on tiny, old chairs during the break. Teachers in Peru are generally underpaid for the work they do. They earn around $400 a month. A primary school teacher usually stays with the same class from grades 1 to 6. She/he will teach all the subjects. They have great influence, therefore, over their charges. The principal at this school drives a small motorcycle. He works both shifts: primary classes from 7:30 to 12:30, and secondary students (in the same classes on the same little chairs)from 12:30 to 6:30pm. He also takes courses on the weekend. When I asked him if they paid him double, he just laughed.

The one thing that is remarkably different from Canada is the number of children you see everywhere. Peruvians are very family oriented. We regularly see children and teenagers walking with a grandparent. Families often consist of three generations. And like everywhere poor people usually have more children than their wealthier neighbours.

At the school assembly this past Wednesday before the Easter weekend, many mothers of our students came to the celebrations. Most brought preschoolers with them. Babies are carried in a cloth on the mother’s back.

The children at this primary school are fairly lively (undisciplined, in plain English). It is often challenging to teach them, especially as classes are large, usually around thirty students, and for some unexplainable reason, each class gets English, all three 45 minute periods, once a week. That adds up to 2hours and 15 minutes. I challenge anyone to devise meaningful, fun classes in a foreign language for this amount of time. Pedagogically it would make more sense to see them three times a week for 45 minutes, but I can’t convince anyone of this.

The only other volunteer at the moment, is Micha (Profesor Mica). He is a loving, cheerful person. The children adore him. Everyday they run to meet him and shower him with hugs. He is also a good flat-mate. I was lucky to find him and his organization, LCQC (

My Spanish teacher, Rita, is a wonderful person. Her paternal grandfather was Japanese. Her mother, now in her 80’s was a teacher. All their children are professionals. Rita is a very strong woman and a great language teacher. She has a 16 year old daughter who is the centre of her life. They have a loving, cheerful relationship. I will miss them.

This is my last week at the school, then a few days in Lima before heading home. Back to my comfy home, family and friends!


Cusco and Machu Pichu

Machu Picchu is the most visited archaeological site in South America, and the gateway is the beautiful city of Cusco. Please forgive me if I don’t know where to start…

First, I must say that the Incas and the peoples who preceded them left awe-inspiring constructions all over Peru. The Incas conquered and administered a large region from Quito Ecuador to Santiago, Chile for a relatively short period of time. Their rule was brutally overturned by the Spanish conquistadors.

Eduardo and I had been visiting Southern Peru and La Paz, Bolivia for almost three weeks before we arrived in Cusco. We were amazed by the agricultural terraces that are still used today to facilitate the growing of crops at higher altitudes and lower temperatures than would otherwise be possible.

Our knowledgeable Airbnb hostess in Cusco suggested we visit some of the surrounding sites and museums before we go to Machu Picchu. Each one was like a delicious appetizer with exotic names:

Sasaywaman just outside Cusco and the site of a terrible massacre.

Q’enqo where mummies were kept, displayed and revered.

Pukapukar, the Red Fort, an outlook point along the Inca road.

Tambomachay where pure water still runs through stone Inca baths.

Salinas is a series of more than 1,000 salt pans on a terraced mountainside that has been productive since Inca times.

Chincero a pretty little town high up in the Andes (3762 metres) where one can check out the market, the colonial church built on Inca ruina, and great mountain views.

Moray where the Inca built experimental terraces in huge deep circles in order to discover and develop crops that could be grown at different temperatures as the lower levels would be hotter than the upper levels.

It was these incredible structures that have withstood centuries of earthquakes, and demonstrate highly scientific thinking and skilled workmanship that impressed us throughout Peru and more specifically in and around Cusco.

At the same time, it was sad to think how the Spanish invaded, destroyed, and looted these lands and the people. Today we see a beautiful country that has poor infrastructure and is polluted beyond belief. Nevertheless, the people endure. Around Cusco, traditional cultures seem to be thriving although poverty is overwhelmong.

Our trip to to Machu Picchu was organized by a tour agency with a private guide. We were driven to Ollantaytambo where we hiked up to some ancient ruins called Pumamarka. These structures predated the Incas, we were told. It was a short hike up, a good thing for me as I quickly get out of breath at these altitudes. The purpose of the ruins is unknown; our guide suggested it might have been a kind of retirement home! They must have had better lungs than me! Then a nice walk down into Ollantaytambo where there are magnificient ruins on the side of the mountain. I kept wondering how Machu Picchu was going to impress me more than this site.

We ate lunch in a restaurant founded by a German woman who uses the profits to fund a pre-school for poor rural children. There they are fed and taught basic Spanish (Their mother tongue is Quechua.) so they don’t fall behind once they start school.

Then we took the fabled (and expensive) train to Aguas Calientes for a good night’s sleep in a rather ritzy hotel. A good massage got rid of the day’s aches, for tommorow we must be ready for the great Mach Picchu!

Next day, up at 4:30, breakfast, bus to Machu Picchu in order to be there for dawn.

I wasn’t hopeful as it was cloudy, but our guide promised us that foggy mornings were the best. He was right! Machu Picchu revealed itself to us gradually as the mists rose. The sun came out, and we enjoyed all the nooks and crannies without too many tourists. February is low-season for tourists precisely because it is the rainy season.

At 10 am we dashed over to the base of Huayna Picchu, the huge 300 metre high monticule that dominates one end of Machu Picchu. Fortunately, the irregular steps up to the top were mainly in the shade. It took us two hours to ascend. We stopped often to catch our breath and enjoy the view. We took a few pictures at the top to celebrate our victory and view Machu Picchu below us. Then a careful one hour descent. I was glad to have a walking pole as my old knees were complaining.

By 2pm we were back in Aguas Calientes having lunch overlooking the rushing waters of the Urubamba River before taking the train back to Urubamba and a car on to Cusco.

This is a trip we will not forget.

La Paz, Bolivia

During our last week of January, Eduardo and I spent five days in La Paz, Bolivia. The highest capital in the world at 3,640 metres above sea level. That must be the average as much of the city is precariously built on the surrounding mountains

Its tumultuous, confusing streets take your breath away, literally and figuratively. Traffic and people mingle in often chaotic ways. We used taxis as buses were just too confusing. We walked a lot too, frequently going around in circles. Especially one evening. We had tickets for a traditional music concert by three of Bolivia’s most well-known artists, and we were looking for a relatively clean place to eat.

Trip Advisor sent us on a wild goose chase. We finally found “the place”, but it had closed down. No wonder! We lost about one hour just trying to locate it. People on the street sent us to a “safe” place although the man said he preferred the food in the market.

Let me assure you: clean is a relative term. Luckily, Eduardo and I have fairly tough digestive systems!

Food-wise we never did eat anything really good. Although I heard later that we should have gone into the richer section of the city for some better fare.

Our Airbnb was located fairly centrally, and the family was very nice. They lived in a modern 10th floor three bedroom apartment.

The father is an architect, and still works on contracts part-time. His wife (both around 60) keeps this room rented plus an apartment on another floor that her son (who lives in the US) owns. Another son who is doing a Masters degree stays with them one week a month, along with his wife who works nearby, and their two year old son. Grandparents take him to and from daycare. They seem to be a very close family who help each other in many different ways.

That’s what I like about Airbnb. You often get to meet and interact with a local family.

During our stay, there was a festival going on called Alasitas. It honours the Aymara god, of abundance, Ekeku. Merchants sell all kinds of miniature objects and money. People buy what they would like to have in the coming year. Or what they want to give to friends and family: cars, houses, money, gold, or other more mundane articles such as cell phones or even university diplomas!

It reminded me of the Chinese custom of buying miniatures for the dead. Things one would need in the next world.

At the concert, the musician even gave out wads of miniature money to the audience. He gave me so much I had lots to share with everyone around me.

Oh, yes, we took a ride up a mountainside on their new “Mi Teleferico”. There are four different lines of cable cars. What would take one hour in a noisy, crowded, dusty, smoky bus takes only ten minutes. But locals told me it costs twice as much as the bus.

So don’t go to La Paz to relax or enjoy fine cuisine. Go for the experience! People watch! Breathe deeply; drinks lots of water; and chew coca leaves.

La Paz is interesting, but it would not be my favourite place to live…

Cusco, on the other hand… but that is for my next blog.

Peru/ Bolivia

Week two in Peru and into Bolivia

Arequipa is a big city, about one million people. The historical centre is nice, but the rest is blah. We did a four hour city tour… boring… but we did find out why they have so many ceramic bulls. They have a bull fighting tradition: bull against bull. “So we don’t kill the bulls like the Spanish,” the guide explained. But when questioned about the losing bull, as the winner is the one which wears the other out by sticking his horn into the poor loser, the guide admitted that he was taken to the slaughter house!

Another interesting but (for me) rather horrifying place was the Monastery of Santa Catalina. A rich widow founded the huge convent and then charged exorbitant fees for families to send a chosen daughter to become a nun. The poor chosen, twelve year old had to keep silence and couldn’t see her family during her four year noviciate. When she she became a full-fledged nun she would live in a house on the property sometimes with another nun or a boarder and would have three or four servants ( local indigenous women) to do the work while she prayed seven hours a day! Some lived well into their hundreds, while one self-flagellating saint died at the age of 33. The idea crossed my irreverent mind that she might have been trying to commit suicide. As for the boarders, they would be admitted at the age of three and would study the womanly arts of singing and embroidery until she was ready to be married at the age of twelve.


Our day trip to the Kolka Canyon and Valley was amazing. Early in the day there was snow on the mountains. We saw vicuñas, the wild ancestor of the llama, condors twice; once very close over our heads. Incredible ancient terraces that produce food at over 5000 metres. The people built the walls of the highest terraces with black stones to hold the heat, and when possible, in the shape of a huge amphi-theatre which also protected the plants.

Our Airbnb was a great apartment with a roof-top patio and a great host. His favourite restaurant, ZigZag is pricey and just down the street from us, so we treated ourselves to a wonderful dinner. Although Peru is known for its fine cuisine, it is not commonly served. Most places fry a perfectly good piece of fish or meat and plop it on a huge pile of white rice and french fries!


We got the impression from Lonely Planet that Puno was a small, ramshackle town. Small, it is not, with a population of over 200,000. We had a very interesting day visiting the floating islands of Uros on Lake Titikaka, and the real island of Taquile. On the floating islands, we saw how people live, how the island is built and maintained. Quite amazing! On beautiful Taquile Island, we walked UP to the town centre and visited their textile store. they are well known for the hats the men knit. So, we crossed the boarder and went to Copacabana, Bolivia which is a tiny, picturesque town on the south end of Lake Titikaka. We wandered around during the afternoon overlay and checked out our hotel where we will stay on the way back. Very cute, good view of the lake, and serves good food!

Then on, mostly in the dark to La Paz which, I think deserves its own blog!

See you soon, Val

Peru: Week One


Peru, Week one, January 18, 2018, Thursday, 7:30 AM, Arequipa

Our first week in Peru has been busy: Lima 3 days, Paracas 1, Huacachina/Ica 1, Nazca 1, and now we have landed in Arequipa early in the morning after an all-night bus trip. We were lucky to have a rather luxurious bus with big comfy reclining seats and even a duvet to keep warm.

My first impressions are that Peruvians are polite, friendly people, a little on the quiet side. The countryside has been coastal so far. It is a narrow stretch of desert between the Pacific and the mountains. The towns are small, dusty, rather poor, but each centre has something of interest.

Obviously tourism plays a large part in the economy, but there is a thriving farming area around Ica because of ancient aqueduct systems built by the Nazca people. Today there are vineyards, fruits, and vegetables using the same ancient aquaducts.

Peruvian cuisine is very tasty with many spicy dishes. We have enjoyed the ceviche that they serve with different kinds of corn kernels and slices of sweet potato. It sounds weird but it quickly becomes addictive! We also enjoy the wonderful fruit juices: orange, mango, lulo, pineapple, passionfruit, (our favourite) watermelon, and more. We are starting to explore the chicha which is an ancient, slightly fermented drink made of almost anything that ferments!

What surprised us most is the size of the servings. They are huge! So we usually share an appetizer and one main dish with a little dessert. There is also a plethora of sweets often with chocolate and/or manjar blanco, which we call the cajeta in Mexico and dulce de leche in most other countries. I’ve noticed it’s becoming more popular in Canada lately.

Highlights in Lima: the Puk Llama ( a huge archeological site) Where I got off to a great introductory sunburn ( no hat, no sunscreen). DUH!


The wonderful murals in Barranco. The National Museum of Archeology and the Larco Museum. On our final day we just enjoyed visiting a market and then taking a very crowded mini train into the historic center. After three days of walking we a good massage helped loosen our sore muscles.( 40 soles for 1hour, about $15)


In Paracas, six hours south of Lima by bus, we went out in a small speedboat to see the animal life on the Ballestas Islands (really just big rocks). They look white from a distance as they are covered by thousands of birds which produce large quantities of guano. But a few penguins and see lions don’t seem to mind the mess or the smell!


Moving on the next day to Huacachina: Lots of towns here in Peru have the word Hua in them. It means place, and it makes things rather confusing as there are so many Huas. Here all the young’uns went sand-boarding on the huge dunes. They put arborite on the bottom and then wax it. If you have money a dune buggy will take you for a speedy ride up, but many people just climb up in their big boots and their board on their back. I can only imagine how difficult it must be as we trudged up this soft, fine sand in bare feet, and it was exhausting and hot too. On the ridge we watched the boarders and waited for the sunset as the wind came up and sand insinuated itself everywhere: eyes, hair, ears, clothes. I worried most about my camera.

Huacachina is really a little suburb for tourists surrounding a tiny natural lake outside of the rather prosperous town of Ica, the home of the famous Tejas candy. Tejas are mainly manjar blanco with nuts or dried fruit and covered with a plain sugar coating or chocolate for a fancier version. Very rich but no gluten!


They make Pisco and a rather sweet wine in this area. Also, there is a busy mining industry I am told.

Continuing south along the coast is Nazca named after the Nazca people who lived here from about 200 BC to 700 A.D. Over this 1000 year period, they created the Nasca lines which are considered one of the world’s marvels. Straight lines and figures go for kilometres on the flat, rocky desert. They had to have great mathematical knowledge to make them as you can’t really see the full figure from the ground. We did a 30 minute flight in a small Cesna over the lines which are truly amazing. There are many theories how and why they were made which include conjunctures of extra-terrestrials.

Today we are in Arequipa, perhaps Peru’s prettiest city which is inland at an altitude of 2300 meters. It is warm and sunny this morning. I had my breakfast on a second floor veranda overlooking the Plaza Major.

I think I will go and wake up Eduardo; he was grumpy this morning as he didn’t sleep well on the bus, and he forgot his phone plugged into the wall of our last hotel, nine hours back. I left my sunglasses on the table in a restaurant yesterday. Fortunately I got them back! (So I am keeping my mouth shut!)

Hasta la próxima.

Time Travel: A War Bride: 1919

A war bride: 1919

My name is Elizabeth. Family call me Lizzie. We are actually British Presbyterians living in North Ireland. My father owned a big bakery that employed around twenty workers. We had a nice home with all the amenities of the time. I was a working girl: a book-keeper at the Belfast Co-op. During the first years of the war, I kept busy, working and waiting for my beau who was off fighting for the British. Evenings were spent at home, sewing my trousseau and writing letters to him.

One Sunday, at church, the minister read the list of the recently killed men. When I heard his name, it was like a bomb had hit me; I gasped and slumped over in a faint. Smelling salts and a smart slap brought me back to my senses. Everyone was staring. My father and brother held me up as we left the church.

I was almost thirty; my chances were growing slimmer by the day when I met David. He was tall, slim, very handsome, a little darker than our boys from home, and a lot more self-assured. He was also of British descent, although sometimes he joked that he had Indian blood in him. His family was from the States and had come to Canada because they were British Empire Loyalists. He talked a lot about Canada, about the future, about his land. Shortly, he asked my father for my hand.

I felt rather excited really, it would be such an adventure to travel across the Atlantic by ship and then half way across America to Manitoba by train. David had a house waiting for us. I had a trunk full of linens. I was ready.

What a ninny I was. What did I know about a man? What did I know about farming? What did I know about winter on the prairies?

That house was less than a cottage, a bit better than a hut; there were two rooms: kitchen and living room. No running water, no electricity. David kept his promise and bought me a second hand piano, and a mission-style pull-out sofa. That is where we slept. Soon I was the chickens, raise a pig, and grow a garden if we were to survive. In the house, I learned to bake bread pregnant. David was pleased with himself. I didn’t have time to feel pity for myself as he expected three meals a day, and often there would be hired men to feed. I had to learn to milk the cow, feed, lay up preserves, make butter, cook the chicken I had killed, plucked, and eviscerated. I washed clothes by hand in a tub. David hauled the water in to heat it on the stove, but I had to wash, boil, rinse and wring it out before hanging it up on the line to dry. It was heavy work.

David worked hard on the land, but all the money he earned went back into the farm. He expected me to be responsible for home expenses, so I started giving a few children piano lessons. Their mothers would bring them over in a horse-drawn cart or cutter in the winter, and sit by the wood stove in the kitchen and drink tea while her darling plunked away at the piano.  Sometimes, the three of us would have a little sing-song before they went home. On Sundays, David and I would go to the church in town where I would play the piano and lead the congregation in song. That was usually our only outing except when we needed supplies.

David was nervous since it was my first child. He took me to town early to stay with his mother. I had a week’s rest before, finally, I gave birth. Really, that is such a misnomer. That child did not want to come out, I did not “give” birth; she was literally torn out of me. I was in bed for a month afterwards; David could not hide his disappointment. He had wanted a son, and a wife back in the kitchen. I felt like such a failure. I directed from the sofa, but the hired-girl burnt all the food, and my daughter didn’t stop crying until I finally got back on my feet and tied her, peasant style, to my hip while I worked.

I often wondered if the life of spinster would have been so bad after all.

Literary Nonfiction

I am taking a creative writing course through the University of Iowa called Writing Identities and Social Issues in Fiction and Nonfiction. This is my second submission; a piece I wrote (All names have been altered and some characters are credited with words/actions they did not say.) I am not particularly satisfied with it as it is more didactic that I wanted. Any comments or suggestions you might have will be received gratefully.


“A Traveller’s Insights”

After visiting Guatemala for two weeks in January with my husband, I found the perfect place to spend the rest of the winter: Antigua. Eduardo headed home, and I settled in with a “home stay” taking Spanish classes in the morning and doing volunteer work in the afternoon. This is the way I like to travel, nice and slow.

Antiqua is a lovely colonial city about an hour outside of Guatemala City. It is known for its spring-like weather, Spanish schools, and spectacular Easter celebrations. There are many tourists just passing through and many students who take classes. Most are housed in private homes advertised to give one a true experience of living with a family. This is what I wanted, imagining myself making tasty local dishes with the lady of the house. In fact, most homes are extremely basic; food is simple and sparse. Meals are served to the guests who are all foreign students from various parts of the world. It became depressing very quickly. When the “mother” refused to allow me to boil water for tea on Sunday when she did not cook for us, I decided to look for another place.

After visiting some other homes the school recommended, I chose to spend more money and rent a lovely room in a gracious home, through Airbnb. The hostess was a university prof who turned out to be good company when she wasn’t working one of her three jobs.

The school was close by. I would walk briskly in the cool morning through the cobbled streets greeting passers-by with a friendly, “Buenos días.” It is considered impolite not to speak to people you meet in the streets. The instructors were mostly women. We often chatted around the coffee pot before classes started. One day, I overheard them discussing an upcoming meeting with the administration.  “It is not what they promised.” “I have to supply all my own materials.” “Let’s keep the discussion to the most important issue: money.” And their voices grew softer, as more students entered the room.

My instructor, Maia, came to my table later than usual, after getting herself a cup of coffee. She looked angry. I had been sitting there waiting; I smiled and said, “Hacen huelga?” Going on strike? She smirked and said, “Tal vez, we just might.” Then upon further discussion, I discovered they only earned Q400 quetzales a week. That is just a bit over $50 US dollars or $70 Canadian, far less than I was paying the school. And for 20 hours a week! These instructors could make more cleaning houses. The young woman who cleaned our house earned Q500 for the same number of hours.

“I bet those foreigners working in the office earn more than that,” I mused. “And this school is supposed to be a charitable organization. That is why I chose to study here over a privately owned school. I should complain to the head office in Europe.”

“Por favor, no,” Maia whispered, “you will get me into trouble.”

I quit the next week, and found a tutor, a university prof who taught Guatemalan history at university at night and Social Studies at a private high school by day. Q65 ($9 US/$12 CND) an hour sounded steep at first, but I was only going to take 3 to 5 hours a week.

Marisol was great. She pushed me to read texts that dissected the recent civil war, or the workings of the corrupt government officials, or current events. She got me writing in Spanish, something I find difficult and rather embarrassing as my level of writing does not reflect my thoughts very well, but this is what I wanted: a challenge, insight into the country, and discussion.

In the next few weeks, I met many other women who lived in Guatemala, most of them American or Canadian. Some spent the winters in Antigua; others worked, or stayed home while their husbands worked for foreign companies; others lived here permanently, going home just for special occasions.

One younger German woman was married to a Guatemalan. He was an architect. They had a nice condo, and a young baby. Although they had been together for many years, the baby seemed to driving them apart. Paula no longer had an income and missed her freedom; her daughter took up all of her time.  Francisco loved his daughter but found his wife distant, moody, and aggressive. I could understand having been married to a Mexican for the last thirty years. Intercultural marriages are difficult, especially when you are far from family.

Most women I met were older, retired like myself. They enjoyed each other’s company, and the good life in this country where foreign money goes much further than at home.

Dale, a single woman, shared a house with another woman in a chic district on the outskirts of Antigua. She organized money raising activities for a small charitable organization she had started ten years ago. She also enjoyed a varied and busy social life with many male companions both Guatemalan and foreign. At home it had never been so easy.

Susan was also having a second chance at love. She had met a fellow American, Sid, who was enjoying being a musician in his retirement. They both might have attended Woodstock judging by the way they dressed.

Andrea was more my type. She enjoyed hiking and bird watching; she spoke decent Spanish and was involved in the local drama group doing mostly ‘behind the scenes’ work, but with Guatemalans. She had even met some of the more famous movie actors.

All of these people lived in beautiful houses; all had domestic help; everyone could afford trips home. They were all involved to some degree in the local life.

Looking at life for Guatemalans, life is not so rosy even in Antigua, a relatively wealthy city. Many mothers spent their days on the streets selling baubles to the tourists, local and foreign. Most had a baby tied onto their back or on their hip. Others had one or more toddlers playing along beside them. Many small school-age children would help them hawk their wares, or look after their younger siblings. Older girls, around ten to fifteen could often been seen carrying a baby. I found out that Guatemala has a very high rate of young girls getting pregnant, as early as ten, so one never knew if the baby was a sibling or one of their own children. Boys might shine shoes, or sell wheelbarrows of peanuts. There weren’t so many boys; maybe they stayed at home and worked on the land.

Gladys, one woman I met, had befriended many of these boys. “Too often,” she told me, “they end up dead.” Elaborating she explained, “They are recruited into gangs and are either killed while committing a crime or by a rival gang.”

The level of violence in the country leads many youth to flee into Mexico on their way to the United States. Only a few are successful and even fewer avoid severe violence during their voyage.

Most local workers live in villages surrounding Antigua where housing is exorbitantly expensive by Guatemalan standards. “In these towns,” Maia explained, “gangs rule everyone’s life.” I was robbed at gunpoint just a year ago, on the street in broad daylight. It is not just tourists who have to be careful.”

Very few criminals are caught and charged. Those who are face worse violence in prison. While I was getting my nails done one afternoon, the esthetician’s boyfriend asked me, “Did you see that short video of a young woman being beaten and robbed by two guys on a motorcycle?”

“Yes,” I said, “everybody was sharing it at school. It went viral in Antigua. It was right in this neighbourhood.”

“Well,” he added, “the guy was arrested and sent to prison. Yesterday someone slit his throat.”

Slowly, I was understanding why Guatemalans took so many precautions: guards and cameras controlling the entrance to people’s houses, or stores, warnings not to use the local buses, tuk-tuks, or even taxis, women not going out after dark, people looking the other way when someone is being beaten or robbed, and probably other reflexes I wasn’t even aware of.

I asked my tutor, Marisol, “What is the cause of all this violence? Poverty, the civil war that lasted thirty-six years, drugs? What do you think?”

“Todo eso,” all of those, she answered. “People are so poor, they see wealthy Guatemalans or rich tourists as fair game. We all look rich to them. There is no help for them from the government; many cannot even send their kids to school because they can’t afford the uniform, books, lunches and transportation. ”

“Do you think tourism helps or causes more problems here in Guatemala?” I asked.

“What do you think?” she replied.

“Both, probably. We create expectations in people. Street vendors expect us to buy something from them. Young people see how we dress, how we eat in restaurants, carry cameras and other gear around with us, travel in first-class buses or taxis. And how many tourists are cheap with the locals, bargaining over a trifle, or rarely tipping. Some young tourists even hitchhike. In a tourist town like Antigua, locals cannot afford to live here. My room costs the same per day as a language teacher earns in a week. But we also give work to the people. Many rich locals are worse than foreigners. Tourists can’t be the only problem,” I trailed off.

“And what about volunteers? Are we seen in the same way?”

She looks at me, shrugs her shoulders, “Not everyone thinks in the same way,” she says.