Mike On Purpose

Finding purpose in the twenty-first century

Finding charm in the country you visit

Posted by mikeonpurpose on August 3, 2010


I ran across a blog posting by a woman who said she preferred the city of Xela in Guatemala to Antigua, which she compared to Diseneyland.   I have not been to Guatemala yet (I will be traveling there in a few months for the first time, and I will be passing through Antigua), but I think I understand where she is coming from, based on what I have read and heard about Antigua.  Antigua is often presented in guidebooks, and by people who have traveled there, as the antithesis of Guatemala City–a clean, beautiful, architectural wonder in comparison to the capital, which is presented as immense, ugly, sprawling, and extremely dangerous.  Antigua, a small city, also happens to be the home of many language schools; and, or at least so I hear, it is teeming with foreigners as a result.   Xela has many language schools as well, but is not so much overrun by foreigners and is offered as a hipper, more authentic place to take language classes than Antigua.

The comparison of Antigua with Disneyland reminds me a bit of my experience with the city of Bruges in Belgium (a city celebrated a few years ago by the film In Bruges).   Although obviously Belgium as a developed country is quite different from Guatemala, the idea of a country having a Disneyland city in contrast to one with more authentic charm does seem to be analogous in this case.  Bruges is highly a touristy city with at least some of its “ancient” charm largely a matter of artifice, since the city has been rebuilt several times over the years.     From my own experience, Ghent offered a more more authentic European charm than the Disneyland version that was Bruges.  But so far, no one that I know of has made a feature movie with the title In Ghent.

I think it is sometimes worth thinking about what one looks for when one wants to experience the “real” Guatemala (or Belgium, or Mexico, or France.)  Guatemala City, with all its danger, its slums, and its crime, is of course just as must “real” to the people who live there as Xela is.  I certainly think there is nothing wrong with being charmed by a particular part of the country, but it is useful to recognize that a nation can be comprised of many diverse elements, and there are many ways to be charmed.  One can be charmed not just by colonial architecture, but also by the customs, the culture, the music, the clothing, and the warmth of a nation’s people.   Those elements transcend the touristy elements and have less to do with sightseeing than with making a connection with the community one is visiting.  And I think that the value that is to be gained by that can be more lasting as a result.

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