Pangs of guilt or depression overwhelm me at times when we travel, seeing how others live while we are so fortunate.
The cheery young man, for instance, who guided tourists aboard the water taxi that ferried us from Mexico to
Belize customs, said he started each day at 6 a.m. and finished around 8 p.m., six days a week.
I tried not to look shocked when he confided his earnings barely covered his $45 a week rent and pondered what such a room might look like.
We saw him again when we left and he enthusiastically asked whether we’d enjoyed our visit and hoped we’d come back, offering to find us a place to stay for free with his “connections.”
I was struck by his generous offer, but it wasn’t the first time a person with so little offered to share food, invited us to an event or even to stay in his home.
There were others with far less though.
Both children and tiny Mayan women with babies strapped to their backs worked the crowds in touristy Playa del Carmen selling scarves, braided bracelets and other trinkets.
In a small Guatemalan town, a woman with a child on her hip and two runny-nosed toddlers at her feet begged, showing us a written prescription she was trying to fill for one of her sick children.
I gave her a couple bucks, later regretting not giving her the entire 200 quetzales ($25) she sought. While I have no idea if her pursuit was legit, in hindsight, I spend that much on a bottle of wine and it might have made a huge difference to her.
We were cautioned before entering Guatemala that people were so poor we should remove anything that might make us stand out as “rich” tourists, even my small gold earrings and $30 travel watch.
I’ve visited other poor countries — Laos, Honduras and Ecuador — and didn’t feel unsafe in Guatemala but the poverty was blatant.
Entire families lived in houses smaller than our bedroom, women hauled water that was delivered to barrels on the side of the road into their homes, horses tied to posts were so gaunt I felt sick.
A local newspaper story said GAM, a human rights group with ties to Oxfam, reported
550 murders in Guatemala in January, an 8.4 per cent increase over 507 homicides in January 2012.
While government authorities claimed there were only 287 homicides that month, even that’s an average of 15 people a day. Compare this to Canada, where 598 people were murdered over all of 2011.
While my guilt will no doubt continue as our travels highlight the have versus have-not gap, visiting other parts of the world does lend a perspective that the bubble of home and Internet news just can’t provide.
We can walk our streets knowing we won’t be murdered by government forces or gangs. Most of us don’t have to wonder if our home has running water or heat.
We have good health care, education for our children, jobs that enable us to buy healthy food for ourselves and our pets — all things not available to so many elsewhere.
Life has its downturns, but seeing how others live is always a valuable reminder of just how lucky we are.