A tragedy occurred during the evening of our third day. A U.S. woman in her mid-20's, who was staying near us with her boyfriend from New Zealand, suffered a fatal asthma attack. Susan had been out drinking and apparently died before anyone could get her to a hospital. Her boyfriend, Colin, was not with her, and didn't find out until several hours later. We had only just met and talked with her briefly the day before.
The next morning, the "duena" of our house spoke to Nanette(whose Spanish was better than mine), to ask if she could talk to Colin, and do some translating, as decisions would have to be made about the body almost immediately. Colin was distraught and completely shocked, as his friend's asthma had never been particularly severe. He too, had only gotten the story second hand, and so the details were vague. We both talked to him at some length, and then Nanette spent time on the phone with the Guatemalan authorities. Eventually, the American embassy got involved, but the whole situation was complicated by the fact that it was difficult to find Susan's parents or anyone else from her family. Eventually, her body was shipped back to the states and Colin followed shortly thereafter so that he could attend the funeral. The experience was, needless to say, deeply distressing, and almost surreal. We never imagined we would use our therapy/ crisis management skills as soon as we left home.
Another unfortunate event, though of a very different magnitude and not at all tragic, occurred a few days later.
We went on a short excursion with a our school to a park, about 20 minutes outside of town. To get there, we had to take the chicken bus going to Guatemala City, and as is often the case, the bus was packed with people standing in the aisles and often pushing three or four into a seat meant for two. On the way back, when it was less crowded, there was a somewhat elderly( late 60's), Indian woman, who was sitting next to me. The strange thing was she kept bumping into me, even though there wasn't anyone else in the seat. She was a bit fat and smiled as she said a few things in Spanish, so I didn't really think anything of it. Two hours later, while working out at the gym we had joined for the month, I noticed that my pants had a tear on the outside pocket. I soon discovered that my debit card was missing, and it was only then that I realized it must have been her. She had actually sliced my pants with a razor blade or small knife, while bumping up against me to feel for the card and make the cuts. As unlikely as this seemed at first, I had gone straight to the gym after the park, and there really hadn't been anywhere else where it could have happened. I wasn't that alarmed, because I figured that without the password the card would be of no use. Wrong. By the time I got back to the house to call my bank, $700 had already been charged. Eventually, the credit card company made good on the money, and other than the hassle of spending several hours on the phone trying to straighten things out, no real harm was done. On one hand, this was clearly a professional job, and in a way, I had to respect her skill at slicing my pants without cutting my leg, all in a bouncing bus. At the same time, it alerted us as to how easy it was to be ripped off, and put us on guard for the future.
Safety is an issue in Guatemala, as it is in many Central and South American countries. In parts of Antigua, there were men with machine guns guarding bodegas and hotels. Usually the issue is money, however caution is needed, especially in the larger cities. Stories abound about people being held up at gunpoint and even raped or killed, though pickpocketing and simple thievery are more common. We were of course, instantly identifiable as gringos, and as such, obvious targets for "banditos and ladrones." This is somewhat understandable when you consider that maybe 20 families control 95% of the wealth of the country. However even our teachers were fearful of taking the bus to Guatemala City. One of them had been given a scholarship to go to the university in "Guate,"
but after being threatened at gunpoint on a city bus, she stopped going to school. This should not be a reason to avoid going, but certain places are probably best avoided, and any kind of wealth should not be displayed in an obvious fashion, ie, jewelry.