MY LASTING MEMORY of Guatemala? The sun rising over the temples at Tikal? Dramatic, but no. A lazy afternoon in the Parque Central, Antigua? Very pleasant...but no, not that, either. It would be too much to ask for one of those to be the most vivid image I can recall. Instead, the sight of a homeless man at the side of the road to the border, coat over his face, trousers open and furiously masturbating, was the horrific snapshot burned into my retinas. I'd actually thought him a corpse as we rounded the bend, him lying half out of a bush on a patch of wasteland near a cement factory. I quickly realised that his circulation was fine, thanks very much. Now we've all been there, haven't we, boys? It's early in the morning, and cracking one off sometime eases the pain of getting up for work. In fact, my mate Ferg once told me that the best thing about working from home was that he could have a cheeky wank in the afternoon before the wife came home. And getting paid for it? But out in the open at the side of a dusty road? It's not even like he was an exhibitionist, having covered his face with said coat. Bizarre. So thanks for the memory, chico. I wouldn't say you despoiled your country in my eyes, but you've certainly given me a few nightmares.
Guatemala, like most Latin American countries, is a country of contrasts: shiny SUVs cruise by desperate families in the gutter; ready smiles hide the harsh realities of living in this beautiful, violent country; it's difficult to marry the surroundings in a tranquil town like Antigua with the horrific images in the newspaper from Guatemala City, less than an hour away. Daily murders, beheadings, the ever-present drug war. Femicide is also a major issue here, and the statistics are staggering: 97 women have been murdered in the first two months of 2011. In one newspaper I read, there were graphic images of a fruit-seller shot dead for refusing to pay a $20 protection fee to a gang; a young girl found butchered in an industrial area of the city; a woman with her head crushed by a paving stone in Chichicastenango, apparently murdered in broad daylight. Is there something in the latino psyche which deems brutality like this acceptable? It seems a part of daily life here, and nothing shocks the locals.
When in Caye Caulker, Belize, an English diver Kneehead got chatting to had summed up Guatemala: "In a word, mate...fackin' dirty..." While the country is certainly poor, and rough round the edges, I find his summary a little harsh. It's a beautiful place with many natural wonders, stunning vistas and a warm welcome from the majority of the population. I've been told there are more glares than smiles in some places off the beaten track, but we can't bemoan a little hostility from people living for a year on the same money we earn in a week. And we're obviously not welcome everywhere. But I really enjoyed this country, and know that I'll be back.