From Guatemala to Boston: The Risks and Rewards of Seeing the World

About a year ago, I got it in my head that our family had to go to Guatemala during Easter break. I wanted to experience the week-long Semana Santa celebration in Antigua, a UNESCO World Heritage site with lovely colonial charm. I wanted to feel the heat at the top of Antigua’s nearby Pacaya Volcano and touch the clouds from one of the ancient Mayan temples at Tikal.

Antigua is known for its Spanish colonial architecture.

Antigua is known for its Spanish colonial architecture.

I spent months researching and planning a trip packed with culture and adventure, and convinced my husband that it would be safe for our family to visit this stunningly beautiful, but somewhat dangerous, Central American nation. In the course of my research I was overwhelmed by the kindness of the Guatemalan people with whom I had exchanged countless emails. I’ve never used an online dating service (I think I was married before they even existed!), but here I was, falling in love with Guatemala over the Internet.

Three months before spring break, our plans were in place. The flights and hotels were booked, and I’d selected a van service to safely transport us from location to location. Mixed into all that giddy enthusiasm, however, was a nagging anxiety. Despite all the wonderful things people had to say about Guatemala, I had read too many travel forum postings and blogs about the inherent dangers, mainly as a result of the drug trade – tourist vans being held up by men with machetes, people being mugged along popular hiking routes, and incidences of theft and assault. Of course, these are all things that can happen anywhere you go (well, maybe not the machetes!), especially in any big city, but in Guatemala the risk is probably higher and you have to be more on guard.

Mayan temple at Tikal

Mayan temple at Tikal

I started waffling about the trip and my opinion vacillated between “go” and “don’t go” on a daily basis depending on the last piece of information I had read. One segment of the trip that made me particularly nervous was the road between Tikal and Flores, the town we’d be flying into to visit the Mayan ruins. Apparently, there were reports of armed bandits pulling over tourist vans – not a frequent occurrence, but unsettling nonetheless.

When I asked one of the van companies about this they admitted there had been problems, but assured me that local police were now escorting tourist vehicles along the route. Instead of easing my fears, this piece of news alarmed me. How could I bring my children to a place with dangers real enough to require the presence of armed guards? If something happened, God forbid, what would my kids think, knowing their mother had willfully brought them to a place she knew was not entirely safe?

But is anyplace entirely safe?

In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, I find myself contemplating this question often. As a native Bostonian with friends and family still living in the area, we sometimes go back there for vacation. A trip to Boston does not require research because I consider it my second home, and I certainly never, ever worry about my family’s safety while we’re there.

Boston skyline

Skyline of my hometown

I didn’t know anyone running In the Boston Marathon this year, but what if I had, or what if our family had just decided to take a spring trip to Boston and check out the Marathon’s finish? It’s not beyond the realm of possibility. Would we have given that plan a second thought? Would even a sliver of fear have crossed our minds in the way that it did countless times during my preparations for Guatemala? No way.

The reality is we never know when and where danger is lurking. Just as bad things happen to good people, misfortune can happen in places we think of as being entirely safe. I should know this well. My own father drowned 25 years ago while we were visiting my grandparents in Nova Scotia. Who would have thought something so catastrophically life altering could happen in a place we enjoyed summer after summer – a place that in my childhood mind was the cradle of safety and innocence.

More recently, when our family was on the Hawaiian island of Kauai (another “safe harbor” like Nova Scotia), we read about a vacationing family just like us – mom, dad, and two young kids from California – who had been killed a couple of days before in a car accident while visiting the island’s Waimea Canyon. They had missed the right turn to the entrance and did a U-turn on the main road to work their way back. But the driver didn’t maneuver fast enough to avoid the oncoming truck, and this young family never had the chance to experience the magnificence of the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.”

My Waimea

A rare glimpse of Waimea Canyon as the clouds lift.

This story hit me not only because they seemed so much like us, but also because we had followed their same plan just the day before their accident. We even missed the same turn off, but instead of doing a U-turn, my husband waited to turn into a side road with a traffic light. Two families, one place, two very different outcomes. I’ve never been able to forget this family or shake the image of the empty home to which they never returned.

Bad things – whether random or the result of malicious intent – have no boundaries. We can try to minimize the risk of running into misfortune all we want. We can measure the risk we know against the reward we expect, but we cannot escape it altogether.

I still wonder what would have happened had we made that trip to Guatemala. I also wonder if an April visit to Boston might have placed us in the “wrong place at the wrong time” like the Martin family, who lost their little boy and whose lives have been shattered. In both cases, the odds were probably stacked in our favor, and I’d still be here writing these words.

But who knows? No one ever knows.

We just move forward in life, ducking the threats we see, pushing our fears to the side, and making the most of the time we have. Luckily, I saved all those emails from Guatemala — I’m sure I’ll need them someday soon.


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