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San Marcos

San Marcos
Shores of Atitlan

Upside down – Gas Stations with guns – Power Vacuum – Stochastic processes

Just as the book is always better than the movie, pictures can’t do justice to a place. But sometimes the commonly expressed sentiment in the first sentence is turned upside down. In this upside down world the movie is better than the book, and the pictures not only do justice to the place but actually improve it.

Guatemala is a difficult place to be, and the beautiful pictures belie the stress and tension we feel here on a daily basis. Many travelers say that this place is no more dangerous than the other countries in Latin America but the impression here is rather different. Armed guards are everywhere, not just at banks and jewelry stores, but at fast food restaurants and gas stations. Hotels have multiple barriers between the entrance and the areas where the guests live. Armed robbery is commonplace as are carjackings and kidnappings.

Lake Atitlan is not this beautiful!
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The rule of law here is weak and stepping into the power vacuum are narcotrafficantes and organized crime gangs. Judges can be intimidated, police can be bribed, and criminals can negotiate for their freedom. The main roads are dangerous but the smaller roads are also dangerous – it is very difficult to determine what the best security measures are!

Reading the local newspaper one is treated to gory tabloid spreadouts of the latest carnage. A multiple homicide here, a kidnapping there, violent demonstrations, the list goes on… The locals here jokingly refer to the periodical Nuestro Diario as the Muerto Diario. After a while it just wears you down!

So what is it that makes Guatemala so violent and other places not so? There is much more poverty in India, parts of Mexico are impoverished and it is a Latin country, but neither make the traveler feel so unsafe. Is it the big difference between rich and poor? Unknown, I guess there have to be some places in the world that are required to be unsafe, a probabilistic distribution that is natural and normal.

25 Responses to “When Pictures are Better than Reality”

  1. Neena says:

    The perceived danger in Guatemala has made us take a lot of precautions; we travel in the middle of the day, do not keep our cameras handy, do not use our laptop for navigation. This has affected our enjoyment of this beautiful country. People say that it is no more dangerous than other Latin American countries, but anyone who has been here for any length of time has either been robbed or knows someone who has, often under the threat of violence. We are taking no chances.

  2. Ram dada says:

    Nos preocupamos para oír hablar sus dificultades en Guatemala.
    Le deseamos un viaje seguro.

  3. Ada says:

    No matter how beautiful a place is I am absolutely certain I would NOT want to visit Guatemala. I want to hear all about the places you have visited and see all the pictures so please keep yourselves safe.

  4. abeline says:

    Dear both – the beautiful and peaceful pictures of Lake Atitlan apparently belie the dangerous reality of life in Guatamala. Glad to hear you are taking precautions. Mind you, in Argentina robberies are commonplace as well, only last week our Spanish school here in Bs As was robbed by an elderly lady and a boy of about 13. The next day somebody managed to grab the handbag of a Dutch student on her way to school – but she ran after the culprit, slapped her in the face and grabbed the bag back. Good girl.
    I am returning to Mexico on the 15th of May. To the Riviera Maya first, and I´ll take it from there. Will keep you posted.
    Lots of love. Abeline

  5. Fred says:

    When you write “When Pictures are better than Reality” – which philosophical conception of reality are you positing? Are you a Cartesian? In other words; what IS reality?

  6. Vinay says:

    I don’t understand this part:
    “Unknown, I guess there have to be some places in the world that unsafe, a probabilistic distribution that is natural and normal.”

    Yeah, I have noticed that generally pictures look much cooler than the real thing..

  7. Shreesh says:


    Oops, proofreading error. What I meant to say if you take a normal bell curve of crime statistics some areas will necessarily be at the edges of that curve. I’m sure that even if you take a “safe” country like Norway one will find a lumpy diffusion of crime within it. The base line crime may not be very high but the neighborhoods several sigmas away will be deemed “dangerous”.

    Of course, I don’t have any data to backup my conjecture, just pure speculation for the sake of entertainment :)

  8. Shreesh says:


    As we know from The Matrix that reality is just some electrical activity within your brain. How do we know that Chicken tastes like Chicken, and not “Shredded Wheat”?

    Working forward from the most likely flawed assumption that I/we is not a Boltzmann Brain I describe reality with my painfully sober but ultimately flawed apparatus at my disposal.

  9. Vinay says:

    The Matrix theory requires a designer, and that makes the probability of that low. Also, what does it mean to say “Chicken tastes like chicken?” What is the taste of chicken without any reference to what is outside the matrix? What is the taste of shredded wheat even, to say that chicken tastes like shredded wheat?
    Boltzmann brains on the other hand must be more likely. However there is still the problem that for a boltzmann brain to function with consistent histories and orderliness of its representations of the universe (such as human history and orderliness of the universe humans believe to exist in), the probability is again tiny (However, again infinity is a beast!).
    But then again, the probability of low entropy orderliness leading to complex macro-systems of our lives is low. A pretty damning paradox.

  10. Matt Herndon says:

    Hi Shreesh / Neena…Hopefully it wasn’t your hotel compadres that made you feel so stressed and nervous! -Matt & Michele, your hotel compadres P.S. Thanks for the hat. It’s great.

  11. Fred says:

    Ah ha! You ARE a Cartesian dualist. Maybe thats why so many things taste like chicken. Are you a Manichean dualist as well?

  12. Shreesh says:


    I am not so sure that I am a Cartesian dualist, although there are several beliefs I have that may lead someone to that conclusion:

    1. Reality is sufficiently complex that it is impossible for a human to articulate what it is exactly. Each of us only has a ‘shapshot’ of what reality is – this is why I consider Rashomon to be one of the greatest movies of all time.

    2. The human mind is sufficiently changeable and kaliedoscopic that it is difficult to pin down what exactly it is. This is further complicated by the fact that this is accomplished by a mind!

    3. Neither 1 or 2 above require an extra, super-reality component. i.e. a God or such thing…

  13. Shreesh says:


    The Matrix universe does not require a DESIGNER, simply someone with enough computing power at his disposal to provide appropriate stimulus to a human brain.

    I agree with you that the probability of a DESIGNER is a vanishingly small non-zero quantity – mainly because of the “who designed the designer problem”

    Boltzmann brains, on the other hand, are an interesting mathematical curiosity but I still have trouble believing that we is a Boltzmann brain. I suggested to Pastor Matt Herndon that it would be a good way to explain the Trinity – his explanation was less wordy but ultimately more complicated than the Boltzmann Brain.

  14. Vinay says:


    “simply someone with enough computing power at his disposal to provide appropriate stimulus to a human brain.”

    Exactly, but this introduces the following requirements (complexities). One, that there be an additional (to the brain) someone with enough computing power. So this raises the questions how did this additional someone come about, and how did the computing power come about?
    Next, it requires a human brain – so in addition to not addressing how the human brain came about, it even supposes additional requirements to this already existing complexity. Finally, “appropriate stimulus” – it is not enough to just place the brain in a vat. This ‘madscientist’ has to stimulate the brain in such a way that it has orderly and consistent hallucinations. This requires the madscientist to completely understand how the brain works _and_ to design a stimulation of it in the precise way. I think this only adds complexity to the original question.
    (Btw, did you read the article I posted on your earlier post on “The simulation argument”? That theory makes the likelihood of this simulation stronger because of the abundance of simulated worlds compared to real world(s)).
    The Boltzmann brain is indeed a much simpler answer (subject to the orderliness objection above). However, ironically, it’s simplicity is exactly what makes it hard to believe for presupposers of additional complex requirements.

    “- his explanation was less wordy but ultimately more complicated than the Boltzmann Brain.”

    *chuckle*. I think we have similar sense of humour :)

  15. Fred says:

    If one posits that;
    1. Either the Universe is infinite in space OR infinite in time
    2. The second law of thermodynamics is correct
    3. random fluctuations in the universal state of chaos occur, appearing to counteract the second law of thermodynamics
    One must conclude that A Boltzmann brain is a certainty.
    Unfortunately there are two other conclusions one must draw as well;
    1. Everything that can happen will happen!
    2. Although true, this does in no way prove that WE are a Boltzmann brain.
    I refer you to THE PHYSICS OF IMMORTALITY by Frank J. Tipler – who “proves” mathematically that all humans are immortal!

  16. Vinay says:

    Agree to the points in your post. Also, thanks for the book reco – I haven’t read it, will do. Also should watch Roshomon now.
    Between the meaning of infinity, the idea of probability, and the anthropic principle, we can never be “certainly” sure of our origin. It comes down to wagers, – somewhat like Pascal’s wager. (i.e. Perhaps we should believe in that theory that has the highest penalty for disbelief.) However, from a non-pain-minimising, expected-value perspective, we should wager on the high probability theories. Hopefully the estimates of probability for these theories keeps getting more precise, and we could start making sense out of them.

  17. Neena says:

    We felt that Guatemala was a bit like Rashomon. Some people told us, “Its just like any other country”. Well, other than Nairobi, I haven’t seen cashiers at grocery stores behind barred windows and hotels with not one but two barred gates. Some others said, “Well Guatemala is dangerous but you have to visit.” I beg to differ. I think there are a lot of safe places in the world that you can visit that can match everything we saw in Guatemala.
    But that’s just my reality.

  18. Shreesh says:


    Heh, heh. I spent many hours following your links and then their links! :)

    I had run across Nick Bostrom’s arguments before – maybe during my “Matrix” phase? Interestingly he has a section on his website just for Matrix fans!

  19. Fred says:

    I for one feel much better that we have “reality” defined!

  20. David Miller says:

    I have lived in Guatemala for going on 10 years and your assessment is full of shit. You visited this country as a tourist and only saw what tourist see. I live in the highlands and run a small coffee coop. The Guatemalan people are some of the nicest, most honest and respectful people I have ever met. Your depiction of the country as crime ridden is often true if you live in the cities and never get out. But the vast majority of Guatemalans live in the country and are poor dirt farmers who make about $1 a day. They are not criminals as you portray them to be. Maybe if you took your head out of your ass and left the tourist track you might have a better opinion of Guatemala. Unfortunately people like you continue to spread the lies of Guatemala being a dangerous place to visit. In 10 years of living here I have never been robbed, carjacked, kidnapped or murdered. I guess I am lucky or maybe you are an idiot who should stay home and hide under your bed.

  21. Shreesh says:

    Dave Miller,

    I guess you suppose yourself as someone of authority since you claim to live there for 10 years. You must be one of those expats who never leave their safe compounds.

    Actually we traveled through the more remote regions, quite off the tourist track. We spoke to many people who lived in Guatemala for a period of time. All had been robbed, assaulted, or kidnapped at some time. I present:

    1) Owner of Midas Resort – father-in-law kidnapped
    2) Guide O.X. expeditions – laptop robbed
    3) Cafe Owner – Assaulted, laptop taken

    I could go on, and on with these stories, I guess you never ran into such people? Or maybe you choose to remain ignorant?

    I suppose you don’t read the local papers either. Every day the stories unfold with new violence. Open your eyes, man!

    If you choose to respond, please keep the language and debate civil. My parents read this site!

  22. Goyo says:

    Having traveled in Guatemala extensively over 10 years in large cities and small towns and having the benefit of family in country I feel I can have a faily unbiased view. Are their armed robberies? yes car jackings? yes. But do tourists and the general population get attacked on a regular basis? Not so much. Newspapers want to sell newspapers so they dramatize incidents that are in many cases drug related. We have numerous family members that live in very different parts of Guatemala from Guatemala City to the small towns. They go about their daily lives with little worry and concern. Are their places it is not safe to be in or go to? Yes. Are there those same types of places in any major US city? Of course. It is all about common sense. Remember several years ago in the US tourists were being robbed in FL and were targeted based on the fact their were driving rental cars? Crime will always exist no matter where you are in the world. But to single out Guatemala as a crime ridden place that you cannot even walk down the street without fear of being assaulted or robbed is an unfair and incorrect picture of this country. In the 10 years I have been travelling throughout Guatemala, I have never felt unsafe at any time. Sorry you have such a jaded view.

  23. Shreesh says:

    Hi Goyo,

    I present that Guatemala is quite different than dangerous places in the US and Europe in the sense that the danger is isolated to a certain pocket or area. This was not my sense in Guatemala – the danger was pervasive. Even in Antigua, a place that would not qualify as a large city by any means, rolled up its sidewalks after dark.

    Of course, statistically, something bad happening to you is quite small. Even on 9/11, your chances of being in a hijacked plane were quite low – about 1/1000. But when you expose yourself to small amounts of danger over a long period of time you significantly increase the chance that something bad will happen. Cigarette smoking is an example of this type of risk – very small in an instance but large over time.

    Your criticism that we are jaded has merit. We have seen so many interesting and fabulous things on this trip that Guatemala does not have attractions of sufficient quality to merit the concerns of security. I suspect we just disagree on this latter point since you have spent ten years traveling to that country.

    Take care and stay safe.

  24. Don A. says:

    I spent 3 months in Guatemala, driving around from Huehue to Antigua, Rio Dulce, Todos Santos, Tikal, Xela, Pana, Chichi, Copan, etc. Never made Guat city. No one bothered me or broke into my car. Nervous from what I had heard of Guatemala and confused at entering, I accidentally left windows down with a camera lying on the seat inside Guatemala at a border entry point when I was unexpectedly called into a security building. Realizing my mistake I returned to find 5 people looking into my open window but no one had taken the camera. Strange.

  25. Shreesh says:

    Hi Don,

    The people of Guatemala are very kind and nice. It just seems that a small percentage of tough guys are running amok and causing all kinds of problems. That being said, the chances of something bad happening are probably pretty low.

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