This page contains impressions of my life in Antigua. The entries are blog posts, which means that they are in reverse chronological order.
September 15, 2016
My brother Bob just spent a week with me in Guatemala. We took sneaky pictures of Mayan artifacts in a museum where pictures weren’t allowed, said “No, gracias” to countless street vendors, accidentally ordered two pizzas and an entire bottle of wine for dinner and enjoyed every mouthful, heard a wonderful musician in the darkest tavern I’ve never seen (and I’ve been to Alaska), drank beer on the roof at night while watching lava flowing down the side of a volcano, and laughed at each other’s jokes, even the bad ones. It was great having him here.
I saw three people express confusion when they asked him whether he was having a good time in Guatemala and heard him answer, “Perfectomundo!” His Spanish teacher, Jenry, and Claudio, the jefe and mesero at a local Italian restaurant, attempted to correct him; Felipe, our tuk-tuk driver at Lago Atitlán, was simply baffled. Bob enthusiastically explained to these people that “perfectomundo” might not be textbook Spanish, might not be español qua español, but that it really should be. It is much more positive and globally inclusive than plain old “perfecto.” Everybody quickly understood what he was driving at, of course. He was making fun of his poor Spanish, he was showing them that he was happy, and he was making friends. My hopeless ambition is to speak Spanish like Borges, and I’m humiliated by the freak show of my attempts to use the language, so I never allow myself a freedom like “perfectomundo.” No es suficiamente dignificado para mi.
Last week I dropped by Dyslexia Books, a local gringo bookstore, where a young man was expertly but distractedly playing the guitar and dispensing advice about the foxed collection of discarded paperbacks. When I asked about upcoming music at the adjoining pub, Café No Sé, he told me that a woman named Mercedes was playing there on Sunday night and that she was not to be missed. “She’s the real deal,” he said. I thought this was likely to be a good recommendation, since it came from someone who knew how a guitar should be played; this might be a good outing for Bob and me when he arrived. On Sunday, Bob’s first full day in town, he and I had already been out to breakfast, visited a museum, toured the ruins of la Iglesia de San Francisco, and had lunch at Y Tu Piña También – a full day already, by most standards – when I took him back to Dyslexia to ask when Mercedes was going to start playing that evening. There was a pile of black tee-shirts on the bookstore’s counter, each of which was decorated like this:
According to their website (http://www.ilegalmezcal.com/home/), “Ilegal Mezcal” is “a handcrafted brand of Mexican artisanal liquor with a notorious history that includes smuggling and weeklong parties in a clandestine bar in Guatemala.” The “clandestine bar” referred to here is Café No Sé, of course. But this information about Ilegal Mezcal skirts the real question, which I’ll answer now.
The word “pendejo” means “asshole.”
Wearing the word “pendejo” on your chest in a Spanish-speaking country is exactly as offensive as wearing the word “asshole” on your chest in the United States. I would never consider it. Displaying “Donald eres un pendejo” in the U.S. is a different thing, though. The only people who might understand it in the U.S. are fluent Spanish speakers, virtually all of whom fervently agree with the sentiment. In the U.S., this tee-shirt expresses solidarity with an oppressed minority in their distaste for that pendejo gigantesco. It’s relevant, funny, and correct.
While Bob was handing the quetzales he owed for his new shirt to the deeply satisfied woman behind the counter, we asked about the evening’s concert. Another local chimed in to say how great Mercedes is. She didn’t start playing until 10:00 PM – incredibly late for geezers like Bob and me, especially on a Sunday night – but how often does Bob get to Guatemala? We were going to be there for Mercedes, however much caffeine it might require.
Bob’s attitude toward tee-shirts, adventures, people – everything – could hardly be better. While I equivocate, he acts. I wonder whether talking to someone might bother them, but Bob strikes up a conversation. I don’t want to risk offense with ‘pendejo,’ but Bob buys the tee-shirt. I struggle in silence while the seconds tick by to conjugate “to go” in, which is it, the preterite or the imperfect, but Bob just switches to English, assuming that he’ll make himself understood somehow.
Bob’s openness and evident kindness made him a target for Guatemalan street merchants in a way that I have never been. On his first morning here, I brought him to my favorite coffee shop, “El Sol,” whose enormous mugs, fuerte brews, and appealing funkiness have made me a regular. This place is built into an arcade next to el parque central; two big archways make one of the walls more or less theoretical and provide a fine view of the vendors, lovers, and layabouts under the trees, but they also provided people out there with an excellent view of us. It didn’t take long for a skinny street kid to come into the café. He had a row of scarves knotted over one of his arms.
“My sister make,” he said. “Real silk. One dollar. One American dollar.”
Bob smiled at him. “No, gracias,” he said, but this kid had already looked into his eyes.
“For your wife. Very beautiful.”
“No, no.” Bob reached out to touch one of the scarves. The kid leaned toward him.
“Cinco quetzales,” said the kid. “Muy bonito.”
“Maybe later,” said Bob. “Mañana.”
The air started to go out of the boy. It was hard to say how old he was. Ten or eleven, maybe. His pants and shirt had once been an olive color, but now they and his skin and hair were all the same shade of mottled soot. He leaned against Bob’s chair and looked back out through the archway.
“Cinco quetzales,” he said, with no hope at all.
“No, gracias,” Bob said. We watched sadly as he made his way back out to the sidewalk.
During this whole exchange, the boy had hardly glanced at me.
I read an article about the shoeshine boys here at the park, whose labors keep them from going to school, deprive them of the childhood that everyone deserves, and would be illegal in most first-world countries. But things are not so simple in a country where more than 60% of the population has a hard time finding enough to eat. The choice being made here is not between a child’s schooling and a few extra quetzales; it is a choice between privation and slightly less horrific privation.
It isn’t pity that the vendors see in Bob’s eyes, though. It’s immediate common humanity, comprehension, empathy, and affection.
Dogs understand Bob in something like the same way as the kid in the coffee shop. You could coat me with Gravy Train and stand me in the street next to Bob, and he would get more friendly attention from the local mutts. About a year ago he told me that one of the finalists during his last search for a pet was a chihuahua, an idea I had found bizarre until we met one at a B&B next to Lago Atitlán. This bug-eyed speck was so delighted to make Bob’s acquaintance that it made me admire them both: Bob, for seeing the value of this creature, despite its size and trembling earnestness, and the dog, for its good taste in people.
When Bob was a kid, I used to enjoy taking him to the store with me, because his friendliness made everybody we met seem a little happier, and made me look good for being in his company. A few months ago I attended one of his pickleball evenings and had a similar experience; being with Bob made me appear better adjusted than I actually am. And here, in Guatemala, he hit it off with Felipe, our tuk-tuk driver, and with Jenna, the owner of the B&B, and with Jenry, his Spanish teacher, and with the young woman at Dyslexia Books. And with everybody else. On the night of the concert, we had dinner at Toscana Italian restaurant, where Bob and the owner, Claudio, bonded over long-distance running. Claudio gave us a little time to ourselves after we ordered, but he checked back in with us after we got out food. “Do you like the lasagna?” he asked.
“Perfectomundo,” Bob replied.
We got to Café No Sé an hour before Mercedes was due to start her set and snagged a good table by the door. The only light was from a few scattered candles, some of which were balanced atop yard-high blobs of melted wax, the drippy work of years. Bob and I had a couple of beers and chatted as the place filled with attractive young people. Finally, shortly after 10:00, a youngish Guatemalan woman made herself comfortable on a stool in a corner of the room, introduced herself as Mercedes Escobar, and started to play.
Mercedes is the real deal. At the end of her first song, Bob and I congratulated each other for our good fortune in being there. After an hour, we were convinced we’d never heard better music in such an intimate setting. By midnight, as she was wrapping things up, we realized that we had just had a nearly perfect day of traveling.
Bob approached her during a break in the music and said something I couldn’t hear, since I was saving our places at the table. I saw her smile and nod. He may well have said something that I’d never had said in a million years, something that isn’t exactly Spanish, but that’s fine with me. It’s more than fine. Bob’s judgment in such matters is impeccable. I trust him more than I trust myself.