The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

My first flirtation with the lawlessness of global travel: 4 painful lessons

Today we welcome Lara Sterling to The Displaced Nation as a guest blogger. She wrote this post as part of our series on Gothic Tales, anchored by ML Awanohara’s “What did Agatha Christie know? Expats make great criminals.”  A native Californian, Sterling is an inveterate traveler. Her many adventures include a round-the-world trip and a stint as an expat in Spain (2001-2005).

Have you ever traveled to a foreign country, thinking you could get away with murder?

Maybe that’s what Amanda Knox was thinking…

Regardless of whether you believe Knox is guilty or not, I’m talking about getting away with murder on a trip I made to Guatemala.

Well, not actual murder — just a little bypassing of the laws.

War-torn tourism

This was Guatemala in 1993. The country was in the last days of a decades-long civil war. The nation’s social fabric had been torn apart. That meant there weren’t many laws anyhow. Or at least laws that anyone was abiding.
I remember one time drinking at a bar in Antigua, a city in the Guatemalan highlands. Plainclothes cops showed up to get bribes from the travelers who didn’t have passports.

I was twenty-three. I was a female traveling alone in a dangerous country. It was appealing to team up with the handsome German man I’d met in Antigua.

His name was Fritz. He wanted me to travel with him to the pyramids in Tikal, in the north.

I was nervous about travel to Tikal. I had heard many terrible stories about travel outside of the cities. Buses were high-jacked by bandits. Women were raped. But Fritz was gorgeous! I couldn’t resist.

Lesson #1: Don’t trust handsome Germans

Fritz and I traveled to Tikal without problems. I agreed to travel more, to Livingston, on the coast.

Livingston is an enclave in Guatemala. A slave ship wrecked there in a past century. The inhabitants speak a local patois, the Garifuna language.

Fritz and I disembarked the boat. There were men with machetes everywhere. They were returning home from work in the fields. My overactive tourist imagination went crazy. I thought we were going to be robbed at every corner.

Muggings and rapes were known to take place on the trails outside of town. Fritz wanted to hike, but I was nervous. We spent our afternoons at the beach and drinking coffees in the local cafes.

At some point, we were approached by one of the natives, a guy named Billy. He had a business proposition.

“Ya want to buy yaself some fun?” Billy asked.

“What’s that?” asked Fritz in English.

The man bent in close. “Crack.”

Crack cocaine? I asked myself. Surely, Fritz will say no.

He didn’t.

Lesson #2: Give a wide berth to a man with a machete

Before I knew it, Fritz and I were following Billy into a cluster of trees off of a back street. Billy’s eyes were bloodshot. He was armed with his machete. I was terrified.

Fritz handed over some quetzales. Billy handed over a small, plastic baggie.

Fritz and I retired to the room we were renting. I watched as Fritz got out some tin foil and a lighter. He began to smoke. The odor was metallic, and the smoke was blue. Fritz’s eyes glazed over.

I told him I was going for a walk.

I walked down to where the women washed their clothes in a community well. I can leave, I thought. I can get another room.

I couldn’t. I had a serious crush on Fritz.

Luckily, by the time I returned, the effects of the drugs had worn off of Fritz. He wanted to go out again.

It was still light. We walked to the edge of town. Fritz pointed to a small swathe of beige that looked like it was miles away.

“There’s a beach over there,” he said.

Between us and the beach was jungle.

Maybe in kilometers, it seemed shorter.

Lesson #3: Dogs are not the same the world over

Fritz and I began our hike. Because of the infamy of the trails, I was a nervous wreck. But I was also tired of buying into my fears. I had traveled all the way here. I might as well have some fun.

The sounds of birds chirping in the trees and of leaves rustling in the breeze calmed me.

Suddenly, two mutts appeared. They were small, and their coats were white and black. They were growling, barking.

I hoped they would go away, like the dogs I knew from home. They didn’t. The dogs moved closer, encroaching.

The mutts leapt at our bodies. One of the canines sank his incisors into my behind. I screamed.

Fritz was bitten too, in the leg.

A couple of Guatemalan children emerged from the jungle. They beat the dogs off with sticks. The dogs retreated behind the palms.

My bottom was bleeding. I needed stitches. Luckily, someone had called the local doctor. He was waiting for us on the street at the edge of the jungle.

The doctor led us to his office. I climbed onto his examining table. He numbed my butt, then sewed my loose flesh back up again.

“You must return to Guatemala City for rabies shots,” the doctor said.

I felt woozy, weak. “We’ll have to leave tonight,” I told Fritz.

“I can’t,” Fritz said. “I have to get to El Salvador.”

El Salvador?

“But what if you get rabies?” I asked.

“Then I will come and bite you,” Fritz responded.

He flashed me the same mischievous smile I had fallen for.

Lesson #4: Make sure you have a cubicle waiting for you back home

Fritz and I parted ways, never to meet again. Alone, I suffered through a week of visits to the Guatemalan hospital.

Each day, I took the bus to the hospital, then waited in the hours-long lines. Finally, I’d get my shot in the stomach.

The employees of the hospital were on strike. I was lucky I was treated at all.

It wasn’t until weeks afterward that I mustered up the gumption to leave the country.

Guatemala had changed me. I had learned a lot. A lot of lessons.

But I was also the same person: young, hungry, ambitious, confused.

I thanked my lucky stars there was a job waiting for me at home. In some cubicle!

I couldn’t wait.

Question: Have you ever encountered world travelers who think that the laws of the lands they visit don’t apply to them — and, time to ‘fess up, have you ever been in their ranks? We’d love to hear your stories.

Lara Sterling has contributed to many magazines, was a columnist for Spanish Playboy, and published one of Spain’s first non-fiction books on fetish sexuality. She currently teaches writing at www.yourplotthickens.com.

img: Lara Sterling on a lava bed in Iceland, on one of her many trips.

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4 responses to “My first flirtation with the lawlessness of global travel: 4 painful lessons

  1. Kate Allison May 16, 2011 at 7:08 pm

    Lara, I am in awe. I always admire people who do things I’m not brave enough to do – will never be brave enough to do, in fact.

    Something I would like to know – do you come from a family where adventuring is the norm and this episode became just another family ‘pub story’? Or were you the first to venture outside a cubicle, and maybe it took a while before you could tell everyone at home what really happened on your travels?

    • ML Awanohara May 16, 2011 at 9:46 pm

      Actually, that’s an interesting question. I’ve found with my own interviews with expats on my blog, Seen the Elephant, that the majority were the first in their families to spend significant time abroad. I wonder if the same is true of intrepid travelers? Lara, were there others in your family who had this kind of fearlessness and curiosity about the wider world, and if not, where did you get your inspiration for the nomadic life? Also, I understand you are now a mother yourself. Are you horrified by the thought — since horror is our theme — that your child might grow up to do some of the same things you did?!

      • larasterling May 17, 2011 at 12:23 am

        Are you kidding? My kids had better not grow up to be like me.🙂

        My husband comes from a very nomadic family. In fact, I received some comments on this particular entry on my FB page from my husband’s distant cousin (American), who is married to a Frenchman and they have Third Culture children, who live in France, Australia and Britain. But my family… My mom lived in Germany when she was in her 20s. But my dad is not a traveler. I think that I inspired my mother to get back into travel in her later years, and she was able to make it just about everywhere up until her death a few years ago. I don’t know… I definitely have ants in my pants in a way my other family members do not. I’ve always been looking for something that they haven’t needed to, or have already found here, if that makes sense. I am sure my sons will travel. But hopefully I teach them better judgment.

        –Lara
        http://www.yourplotthickens.com

    • larasterling May 17, 2011 at 12:32 am

      I don’t know…. Am I brave or just stupid?🙂 I mean, I’m not dumb, but I have done some questionable things in my life — albeit which sounded like the right thing to do at the time. I would say I do have cojones. My mother was pretty open-minded and adventurous. My sister is in her way. But I often wonder why my parents let me traipse off in my early 20s alone to foreign countries… I suppose I was stubborn enough that they knew better than to get in my way. Somehow I convinced them that it was safe. Often I was going with the intention of studying. But crazy things always happened. And a young female alone! Nuts.

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