Denise decided to take a long holiday after working in management consulting for about a year and a half. She wanted to do away with the corporate life for a while and seek wanderlust. As she had been planning to visit South America for a while, that was where she went in her quest to find an alternative lifestyle. This is the second and final part to Denise's story in Guatemala. If you missed the first part of her story, it's right here!
This is a typical ‘chicken bus’ in Guatemala, the standard local transport. It gets you places faster than a tourist shuttle, but be prepared to squeeze with a few feathery friends and leave the fate of your life in the hands of the friendly but reckless driver!
Written By Amanda Kwek
Describe a typical day’s events in Quetzaltenango.
I would usually wake up at 6.30am, go for a run, lay in the sun for a bit, have breakfast. Then I do yoga and have lunch before going down to my restaurant for a few hours. After that, I head home, do more yoga, and have dinner with my friends. I live in a community house with about 12 others, mostly Americans. They are all living in Quetzaltenango too, either working or volunteering here. We have an in house yoga studio, which is partly why I’m doing so much yoga all the time! Those staying at the community house learn for free. I’m currently training to be a yoga instructor too, which takes up more time these days, but I’m enjoying it!* That’s a typical day for me, of course with some variations. Sometimes I’ll head down to the lake, Lago Atitlan, and spend the day there. It’s about a couple of hours from Quetzaltenango, and is the perfect place to relax and enjoy the amazing view. Basically, I’m living a new life here, doing whatever I want.
*note: Denise has since gotten her certification as a yoga teacher! Pictorial proof below:
Tell us more about your work in Quetzaltenango!
I started a restaurant here about a year ago. I’ve always wanted to start my own business, and since it costs way less to start a business here, I decided to plunge into it! The restaurant serves up Southeast Asian food, because I miss food in Singapore so much! Frankly speaking, I had zero cooking experience before coming to Guatemala. But in the first year I was here, I learnt to cook quite a bit, and experimented in different things, so here I am today, with my own restaurant.
Was it difficult starting up?
Surprisingly, not so much. From the day I decided to start my own restaurant, it took just two months to get it up and running! I guess it’s a whole lot easier than in Singapore. The initial capital to start up really isn’t much, as rental and cost of labor is far cheaper than Singapore. It’s a great place to get business experience due to the relatively lower costs!
Some things people need to know before doing business here is…
- That you have to come to terms with the fact that people here are less efficient than the typical energiser bunnies in Singapore. You have to be really patient and expect delays, especially in the case of food delivery for me. I always have chicken problems! Most of the meat served on my menu is chicken, and unfortunately the chicken deliveries have been very erratic. But I’ve gotten used to the fact that there will be such problems.
- Know the people you do business with. Take the time to build relationships with them, get to know their family, their friends, etc. This will help reduce the likelihood of getting taken advantage of, especially because you are a foreigner. However, people are not as bad as you think, as long as you take the normal precautions when doing business and negotiations, you’ll be fine.
- Know the language. It makes your life a lot easier. It’s cheap to learn Spanish here too! It costs about SGD3 per hour for one-to-one private tutoring in Guatemala.
What are some other work opportunities available in Guatemala?
Guatemala is a great place to do volunteer work. There are tons of NGOs; HIV clinics, fair trade organizations, orphanages, English teaching programs. Some of the people I live with are involved in these NGOs. Most people are volunteers, there are also some instances where there volunteers get offered jobs at the organizations after volunteering awhile. A good NGO job pays about USD500-800 a month, which is pretty substantial relative to the cost of living in Guatemala. There are also great opportunities for social entrepreneurship too, where many areas of need can be filled.
note: If you too are interested in volunteering or working for NGOs in Guatemala or the region, do firstname.lastname@example.org and we will share some opportunities with you!
What’s the cost of living like in your city?
Very low. To live comfortably, SGD250-300 a month is enough! And that includes accommodation, food and transport. Of the 3, food is the most expensive. A standard meal in town would cost about SGD5-8.
Are people nice? How are they like?
Yes! They are friendly, always smiling and greet each other all the time. They are polite as well, saying ‘good health to you’ even though you are a stranger. Singaporeans are much less friendlier. For example, when I go for a run in the morning, I greet people randomly, and they will return that greeting with a smile. Most Singaporeans just stare back at me. I suppose we Asians are seen as ‘exotic’ here as there are very few in this town, so that could be why the people are friendlier to me!
Majority of the population here are traditional Mayans, and wearing traditional costumes is a daily affair for them. People carry their babies on their backs, groceries on their heads, that sort of thing. Religion and culture seem very important to them. Volcanoes are sacred sites for the Mayans, so they often hike up to pray. Once, when I was rock climbing, I slipped and cursed out loud, only to see a group of Mayans praying quietly in front of me!
Is it safe there?
Guatemala City can be pretty dangerous as compared to Singapore. Guns are allowed here, and robberies are common. As long as you remain alert and careful, it’s safe. Don’t go out too late at night, don’t walk along empty streets alone, the usual precautions.
Then again, Quetzaltenango, where I am living, is a much safer place than Guatemala City! So it really depends on which parts of Guatemala or Central America you go to.
What are your plans for the future? Will you come back to Singapore anytime soon?
I don’t have any long-term plans. I know, this way of thinking is very different from the time I was in Singapore. We tend to make a lot of plans for the future, but my mindset has changed since coming to Guatemala. I’m just living in the moment, living the life I want, which is to be happy and content. Currently, I’m looking at more possible business opportunities here with some friends. I have no plans to go back to Singapore permanently for now, I feel like I have something here I can call home. I do miss my family back home of course! I try to visit them once in awhile!
Looking back, was there anything that you would have done differently? Why or why not?
I would not have done anything differently. Every step has taught me numerous lessons and that made me who I am today. Looking back, I realized that my life could have taken so many different paths, depending on choices I have made. I could be in Argentina right now, or in East Timor volunteering, or god knows where. I am happy where I am, and with the choices I have made so far. It is important for me to live in the present, rather than think about what could have been, or what will be =)
General advice/Last words
If you want to travel, just get out there and do it. Save just enough money to get you to the place you want, plus a little more to get you started, then work your way through from there. Don’t let money be the crippling factor to your travel plans. For South America, the best advice would probably to learn Spanish! It will completely change your experience here as you get to speak with the locals and hear about their lives. You’ll also be less likely to get ripped off in touristy areas too!