As I glanced up from my task of delicately descending the roughly cobbled steps I noticed a group of six Guatemalan teenagers below thrusting small cameras and cell phones in my direction. Giggles and huge smiles on their faces, this group was clearly excited over something far bigger than just the presence of this sweaty gringa navigating down the steps of an old church in Antigua’s bustling Parque Central.
I darted a quick look around me and my gaze landed on something, quite literally, far bigger than me…about a full foot bigger to be exact.
The pale Westerner ascending the steps was, without a doubt, around seven feet tall – tall enough that he even would cause a stir on the streets of the US, but here it’s particularly noticeable. The Guatemalans aren’t a tall lot on the whole, in fact, I’m just going to say it, they’re short. Yes there are exceptions, but when you factor in the particularly short stature of the indigenous Mayans a vast majority of the women here barely come up to my chest level.
So this man stuck out. And he created quite a bit of a spectacle as he strolled through the Parque Central; it was fascinating to watch the expressions of awe and excitement wash across the faces of the Guatemalans. Even the child vendors paused their persistent hawking of goods to turn and drop a jaw at the sight of such a tall human being. It was fully clear that many had never seen a seven foot tall person in their lives.
This incident made it really crystal clear that there is a cross-sharing of cultures and information when I travel abroad. I’ve already fully recognized that I am an ambassador for the US, and that other travelers and even the locals are quite willing to make sweeping judgments about an entire country just based on a single encounter.
Funny though, us Westerners so often do the same. It’s so easy to slip into the observation mode – see it all, photograph it, soak it in, process, more photos, think, chew on it, ponder, and then come out with an opinion. But where is the the interaction in this? It’s this very behavior that I think can really cause that cultural spectacle that is hotly debated in travel circles.
Instead, I wonder does this incredibly tall man go on tour buses and snap away photos of local “indeginous communities at work” or has he, more so than most other people, really understood the spectacle aspect that it can take on? Traveling through India I got a dose of the invasive nature of photography – locals literally doggedly followed me around Gandhi’s ashram silently snapping photos of me – and it bothered me. So why do we do it to other people?
I don’t know. A quandary of travel perhaps. I do know though that the world is a smaller place because of travelers. Westerners travel to developing countries to learn about those things so foreign and distance from our own lives, but we bring our lives with us and share it right back.
I look at the faces of these Guatemalans around me and I realize that they can get just as big a kick out of having us in their country. All of the weighty travel debates aside, it’s just fun to share that “Yes,” as I passingly commented to the gawking and giggling Guatemalans, “gringos can grow that tall.”