If you want to escape the modern day affliction of selfies, cellphones, and social media, don’t come to Guatemala. Social media in Guatemala is just prevalent as anywhere else. And you know what? That’s not an entirely bad thing.
Over and over, the omnipresent social media promotes the “Experience Economy”.
It’s not enough now to accumulate possessions to impress your neighbors. No, nowadays it’s unique experiences that count.
A new car? That’s great.
A fancy lawn mower or new snow blower? Fantastic, happy for you, those will be useful in your daily life.
But what about your online life?
Did you see my recent Instagram pic of my donut?
Or the ones of me zip-lining over a waterfall in Zambia whilst lions leaped below trying to unseat me and devour my flesh?
What about the omelet prepared for me on a small island in Washington State by the Season Nine winner of Top Chef, using only the finest free-range quail eggs and truffles sourced from the quaint village of Saint Alvêre, France by a one-legged truffle hunter who’s created his own signature breed of truffle searching dogs?
What were you talking about again? Your snow blower?
Some, overwhelmed by their online lives, may fantasize about moving to a remote location.
Somewhere in Central America like Guatemala for example.
A kind of time machine if you will, to a place where “selfie” is not an actual word. A place where you’ll still hear an actual typewriter.
On that last point, it’s certain a foreign resident in Guatemala will not only hear a typewriter in action but also see one. Government bureaucrats still fill out forms with a typewriter, and they’re still an essential tool in legal offices.
But think again.
Typewriters aside, a potential expat should know social media has as great a presence in Central America as anywhere else.
In 2003 I rented a room in a house in Antigua Guatemala.
My landlords, a Guatemalan couple, told me how they’d gone to the phone company office to schedule a new phone line installation. The phone company told them the average wait for a new line was two years.
Before arriving in Antigua, I’d bought a cell phone for $60 which, in 2003, was a week’s salary for a semi-skilled worker in Guatemala.
The entire shopping process for the cell phone was five minutes in the US.
Back then, few people had cell phones in Guatemala, and like my landlords, they were waiting years for a landline.
Fourteen years later a basic cell phone in Guatemala is about $12 and a basic smartphone around $50. Things have changed.
Vendors prowl the Parque Central in Antigua hawking palos de selfie (selfie sticks) and smartphone cases.
Teens and adults alike sit on benches glued to their phone screens. They’re updating Instagram with pics of them beaming in front of Antigua’s Central Park fountain or the iconic Santa Catalina Arch.
Chicken bus drivers pull out their phones and text their hearts – and potentially their passengers’ lives – away while chugging up and down highland mountainsides. Either that or they’re on Tinder.
Mayan women in traditional clothing will stop and remove large baskets of fruit from their heads to answer a phone braying out a Norteño musical ringtone.
A family of four on a motorcycle with the driver chatting away on his phone while driving is a common sight.
The informal economy has now adopted Facebook as a medium to reach out to customers.
Market stalls advertise their latest pirated DVD selections and offer impossible-to-follow directions:
“Enter past Ferreteria La Buena Esperanza, go seven meters and turn left at the blouse stall. Walk straight thirty meters and turn left, then right, then another left. Then turn right at the Brothers Godoy shoe stall. We are the third DVD stall on your right before you get to the belt shops. We are awaiting your arrival between the hours of seven AM and four PM.”
There are dozens of secondhand sales pages on Facebook advertising everything from real estate to cars to used can openers and furniture.
Not to mention the Facebook groups. There are groups for gringos, groups for foodies, groups for pet adoption, groups for Venezuelans, groups for, well, you name it. There’s a group for you in Guatemala no matter who you are or what you’re into.
And then there are the hashtags. Guatemalans #hashtag like champions, just as much as everyone else.
Just like with the Facebook groups, there’s a Guatemala hashtag for you out there. #guatemalaskateboarding anyone?
The truth is the “Global Village” so often discussed has arrived in Guatemala. You won’t escape the clutches of social media and the online age here.
Even the most remote and humble hamlets have cell phone service and most likely high-speed cellular data too.
Not that this is a bad thing.
Field workers no longer need to take a bus to a regional center to deposit money into their bank accounts. Or, more likely, to make payments on the extortionate loans taken out in lean years to buy seed for the following year’s harvest.
It’s now quicker, safer, and cheaper to do this with their cell phones.
Likewise, a relative in the US can now send money and bypass the middlemen like Western Union. This saves hundreds of dollars each year in transfer fees in a country where remittance from abroad is a big deal.
Gone are the days of being out of touch with the rest of the world while in Guatemala.
Apps like WhatsApp allow for free phone calls to other users worldwide and wi-fi is standard in most cafes and bars.
Jake Stamp is a native of Carmel Valley, California with a tendency to wax rhapsodic about his many years of living in Guatemala and extensive travels throughout the rest of Central America. He currently divides his time between Santa Cruz, California, and Antigua, Guatemala.