Life in Antigua

This page contains impressions of my life in Antigua. The entries are blog posts, which means that they are in reverse chronological order.


Perfectomundo

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.

“One dollar.”

“No, gracias.”

“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.

Bob talks with a couple of trinket-selling girls.

Bob talks with a couple of trinket-selling girls.

La Gente Rumorea

August 28, 2016

Last week Irma and I had a typically baffling exchange of words. I asked whether the phrases “la gente” and “las personas” were different in any important way. She said they were igual (an impossibility, but good enough for now), and then her eyes took on a faraway look and she started to sing under her breath. “La gente rumorea, la gente rumorea,” she sang. “¿Cuál es ‘rumora’?” I asked, having only half-heard the word and immediately attaching myself to unlikely cognates, like one of those fish that suction-cups its head to the bellies of sharks.

She explained that “Rumores” is an old song by Joan Sebastian, and then insisted that I immediately find it on my phone and that we listen to it together. Pop songs have simple lyrics, she said, and you can find transcriptions online, so listening to them is an excellent way to learn the language. “Rumores” was incomprehensible to me, of course, as were the Spanish lyrics as I looked at them on another website. I have since found an English translation. Here’s a fragment:

People rumored an important issue
La rumored people … people rumored it …
People rumored that someone in town is premiering lover

For some time the date
I find you changed
That will have you ausencia
And your indifference
I had used

I could hear that the song was sentimental and in a style that you would have to call “country” in the United States, but almost none of its meaning penetrated my indomitable ignorance. “¿Tú comprendes?” Irma asked, finally, with shining eyes.

“Nada,” I replied.

I’ve been saying “nada” an awful lot during August, which means that Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” has often been appearing in my mind. This story made a big impression on me when I was 15 years old. I was sentimental and inclined to melancholic self-absorption, and Hemingway seemed to be articulating precisely my point of view. A few years later, when I saw a reproduction of Hopper’s The Nighthawks for the first time, I immediately thought that this was exactly the American version of the cantina that Hemingway’s story had described.

Edward_Hopper-Nighthawks-1942

Here’s the key paragraph from the story, the part that everybody knows:

Turning off the electric light he continued the conversation with himself, It was the light of course but it is necessary that the place be clean and pleasant. You do not want music. Certainly you do not want music. Nor can you stand before a bar with dignity although that is all that is provided for these hours. What did he fear? It was not a fear or dread, It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee. He smiled and stood before a bar with a shining steam pressure coffee machine.

 

This still seems brilliant to me, 45 years after my first exposure to it. The terrible, crushing, rhythmic percussion of nothing has stayed with me, as I think it has for practically everybody who has read it. One of the many things I admire about the passage is the imperfect quality of what appears to be a translation from the Spanish: “…although that is all that is provided for these hours.” Beautiful.

I don’t have anything like this appreciative reaction to the imperfect machine translation of “Rumores.” Seeing “someone in town is premiering lover” puts me in the Reuleaux triangle in the center of a Venn diagram whose three circles are labeled “Amusement,” “Confusion,” and “Exasperation.”

Hemingway’s sad protagonist may not be wholly correct, but it is impossible not to sympathize with him. Cleanliness and order are probably requisites for holding off the nothing, but bright lighting is only sometimes welcome: out of doors, and when you’re trying to read. Shaving. And you want music. Certainly you want music. It is important that the right objects be clean and orderly, and that the right things be lit, and that the right music be played. Otherwise, you’re likely to see and hear nothing, once again, just when you thought you might have been on the brink of seeing anything at all.

I went to a dirty, poorly-lit place for dinner last night. The sound system was playing a series of American songs from around 1980 – The Eagles, Steely Dan, Boston, that sort of thing. A group of four American expats was at the bar, laughing and encouraging one another as they drank. An enormous pit bull that belonged to one of them stared sorrowfully at me while I ate my dinner at a low, uneven table. The only woman in the group was dressed something like Lara Kroft, Tomb Raider, but this was a Lara Kroft who had stopped kicking ass more than a few years ago. She told me that she had been living in Antigua for almost a decade and then very kindly invited me to join the group at the bar next door. I considered it, for an moment, but no. She and her friends were drunks, and one of their favorite spots was this dismal hole. It all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. I said that the two beers I’d already had were my limit – ending any thought they might have had of my continuing the evening with them – and then returned through the dark streets to my guesthouse.

I had been at the house for only a few minutes when an unusual series of explosions lured me up to the roof. These weren’t the concussions I was used to hearing, and besides, it was the wrong time of day for them. Things were quiet when I got up there, except for a buzz of music in the background. Stars had come out, between tatters of clouds. I was trying to figure out whether the constellation directly above me might be Andromeda when a starburst firework exploded above the houses a block away. And then another. And then another. It was a real show, probably for some private party. It was brief, but close, and muy divertido. I waited in the aftermath, watching the smoke drifting south and hoping for more, when I realized that I could hear music welling up from the neighbor’s courtyard below me.

La gente rumorea un asunto importante
La gente rumorea, la gente rumorea

Jesus. I could hardly believe it.

La gente rumorea que alguien del pueblo
Está estrenando amante

I wasn’t quite able to sing along, but I wouldn’t have, anyway. I’m not a person to sing, alone, a half-learned song on a Guatemalan rooftop.

My Right Knee

I played tennis with Sam about a month ago and have been limping ever since. I didn’t know at the time that I’d done myself any lasting harm, and in fact I was able to play again a few days later, but my right knee is not what it used to be. I was just batting a tennis ball around, for God’s sake.

Although getting older “sure beats the alternative,” as my Dad always says his Dad always said, I think it would be nice if biological systems degraded more gracefully. What if being born were like lighting a fuse, and life were a fizzing spark, jittering excitedly along the sidewalk, with no diminution of brilliance or energy, until suddenly, with a bang and a fragrant burst of smoke, it was all over? That would be much better. But instead, it’s more like our bodies and minds are the work of a brilliant sculptor who arrives in the park every day for 20 years, painstakingly chiseling our magnificent selves. But then he starts skipping days, and soon he stops coming altogether. The rain and car exhaust leave pits in our skin, spray paint is sometimes removed with a sandblaster, and of course there are the pigeons. Sometime soon, pieces are going to start falling off.

Age-related insults are actually worse than they seem, because we get used to them as they accumulate. A shocking loss spread over 40 years becomes almost invisible. According to Visual Forensics of Older Drivers* (to use vision as an example of the trend), “at age 60, the amount of light reaching the photoreceptors is only 33% of the amount seen at age 20. By the late seventies, the amount falls to 12%.” I had a hard time typing that quotation, because I couldn’t see the percent sign on the keyboard. Here are the images the article uses to illustrate the point:

20_cable_car

Age 20

60_cable_car

Age 60

75_cable_car

Age 75

The author goes on to say that this horror actually understates the decline in the capabilities of aging eyes, but there’s only so much science I can stand. I assume most of my body’s other major systems are failing in a similar way, but I already know more than enough about the subject.

So my knee has been giving me a little trouble. I have run the stairs at the Cerro de la Cruz, at the north end of town, a few times, but the exercise was not doing my injury any favors. A few days ago, therefore, I set off to walk south of Antigua, along a road that someone had told me was often used by joggers. The exploration was itself some exercise, and I thought the trip might uncover a new running route.

I passed another ruined church, another dry and crumbling fountain, another group of young men loitering in the shade of another tree I couldn’t identify, and then, as I left town, car-repair places, panaderias, and the tiny homes of the very poor. After a few kilometers, I saw a sign saying that a spur road led three kilometers to San Cristobal el Alto, which I realized had to be the cluster of buildings on a hilltop that I’d seen from Antigua. The view from up there was sure to be excellent, and rain didn’t seem imminent. Up I went.

The road led past a school and then through a coffee farm. Soon it went through an unnamed hamlet, where a couple of dogs burst out to threaten me, and where an aged mother leaned through the door of her shack and kindly wished me a good afternoon. And then I left the houses behind and started to climb. An occasional car passed, and I strode past a few gangs of workmen, but for the most part I had the road to myself. The view from the top was splendid; the connection between Antigua and Jocotenango was suddenly obvious, and the relation of the villages to the surrounding farms and hills made perfect sense. I took a few pictures and headed back down. The whole trip took only two hours.

When I told Irma, my instructor, about the walk I had taken, she was surprised and dismayed, but then said that God must have been looking after me and made me promise not to do it again. “Did you have your camera with you?” she asked. I said that of course I had. She put her palms together and looked up toward heaven, shaking her head.

The State Department website says “The threat of violent crime in Guatemala is rated by the U.S. Department of State as ‘critical.’” This accords with the word on the street – a phrase I use here even though I have no real idea what either “the word” or “the street” might mean. Irma tells me that the lovely volcano rearing up out of the coffee farms south of town should never be visited, because the villages and roads there are full of gangs and bandidos. When a new student here at the guesthouse told me that she hoped to get up early to run the stairs at the Cerro de la Cruz, I had to tell her that this was a bad idea, because I have heard from several people, and read more than once, that it is unwise to go there except in the middle of the day, when there are plenty of other people on the stairs, and when three or four policemen with shotguns are assigned to patrol the area.

The young woman who I warned away from the stairs is a scuba diver. Next week she is leaving Antigua for Belize, where she plans to spend as much time underwater as she possibly can. Our conversation naturally led to danger and catastrophes, because those topics are an unfailing source of satisfaction when you’re leaning comfortably over a half-eaten dinner. I talked about grizzly bears and she talked about sharks. “You know,” she said, “It sounds stupid, but honestly, if I’m going to die in a shark attack, that’s okay. I mean, there are worse ways to go, and at least it would be interesting.”

“It does sound stupid,” I said. “And I agree 100%.”

I strongly prefer not being mugged. I’m sure being mugged is very bad. The only thing worse might be taking too many precautions to avoid it. Being robbed once in a while is terrible, but it sure beats the alternative.

I’ll be sensible about avoiding dangerous parts of town and I’ll try to avoid exacerbating any injuries, but danger and injury, decrepitude, failure, and defeat are certainties. I’m going out into the town, and I’m going to exercise, and I’m going to admire the cable cars in San Francisco, as best as I can. I’m going to stand naked in the park, enjoying the sun and the wind and the rain, watching the children play, and cursing the pigeons. When I feel something let go and hear it rattle onto the plinth at my feet, I’m not even going to look down. I don’t want to know.
antigua_panorama_900_wide

 

* For the complete article about vision in older drivers, see http://www.visualexpert.com/Resources/olderdrivers.html

Muchos Perros en la Calle

August 13, 2016

I’m writing from a table at Café Barista, an unmistakably first-world coffee shop across the street from el Parque Central. Almost everybody in here is a tourist. To my left, a young Korean woman who attends my school just sat down with two Asian men; one of them is typing in Spanish into his laptop while he runs Pokémon Go on his iPhone. The stream of people on the sidewalk, a few feet to my right, is an equal admixture of gringos and Antigüenos. I automatically divide the crowd into more categories than these two, however. We have the scruffy young travelers, who are passing through town and taking a few Spanish lessons before they leave, we have the older gringos and their families, who seem to spend most of their time standing in the sun, squinting their eyes and timorously adjusting the straps that keep their bags and clothing from falling to the ground, we have the colorfully dressed Guatemalans who occupy every day selling textiles, toys, and cheap jewelry to the tourists, and we have the Antigüeños who live here, forcing their baby carriages across the ruined pavement and sitting in the park, licking ice cream cones.

It’s a pity that I fall with such precision into the “older gringo” category. We are not a credit to the species. People who are flushed, flabby, and fearful are appropriate targets for scorn and thieves. I try to mitigate this in myself by being only marginally flabby, by wearing clothes reminiscent of what I see being worn by adult Guatemalan men (instead of costumes that appear to have been created for a Coen brothers film about a scabies outbreak in a Palm Beach retirement home), and by trying to make sure that I stay out of the way of people who know where they’re going. My efforts are futile, though. I’m an older gringo.

The young people with whom I share a guesthouse are exempt from most of this grousing, because they’re beautiful, energetic, and teeming with potential. Even the worst of these louts is redeemed by his youth. Patrick O’Brian made a similar observation, with his usual superb control of language and tone, in H.M.S. Surprise, when he had Stephen Maturin reflect on Diana Villiers with these words:

But moral considerations were irrelevant to Diana: in her, physical grace and dash took the place of virtue. The whole context was so different that an unchastity odious in another woman had what he could only call a purity in her: another purity: pagan, obviously – a purity from another code altogether.

 

It is of course the case that the young are capable of cruelty, selfishness, and, above all, stupidity, and that generalizations of the sort that this post has so far been indulging in have so many exceptions that they say less about the target groups than they do about the author’s mind, but still. Still.

Last night Erika, one of the young women here at the guesthouse, burst into the dining room to show off the wispy dress that she was wearing for the evening’s trip to a club. “¡Dios Mio!” gasped Millie, obligingly. As Erika stood at the door, stuffing a few final afterthoughts into her purse, Millie called after her, “¡Estan muchos perros en la calle!”, using the first Spanish idiom I’ve ever understood without having to puzzle it out. The warning did nothing to slow Erika’s progress, nor was it meant to. She bore her beauty off into the darkness not as a shield but as a renunciation of any impediment to her youth – a pagan purity from another code altogether.

Beauty is applied by the viewer to the object of admiration, of course. For a long time, many of the smartest people in the world thought that this was true of all visual perception. Extramission theory, promoted most famously by Galen in the 2nd century, held that sight is accomplished by light that radiates from the eyes, investigating the object that is beheld. Galen’s ideas, however peculiar they seem to us now, dominated Western medicine for more than 1,000 years. Since each individual is not just the center of his universe, but actually composes the universe, which begins at his birth and vanishes with the cataclysm of his death, it is only a short step to suppose that this fact extends from the subjective world into the objective world as well. This is also the origin of the religious impulse: the logical extension of one’s own godhead into the objective world.

Erika’s beauty may not have existed except in the rays beaming from my eyeballs, but it was real enough for me. Ugliness has the same incomplete but compelling claim on reality. When I was picked up at the airport in Guatemala City, a few weeks ago, I hadn’t slept for more than 24 hours, I was frightened by the unknowability of everything around me, and I was grieving for all of the people and routines I love and from which I had just walked away. As we drove off the airport grounds, we passed through a gate in a high wall made of cinder blocks; a coil of barbed wire on top of the wall had been collecting plastic bags for years, whose tatters shuddered in the breeze. It seemed to me one of the ugliest things I’d ever seen. I spent most of the trip from Guatemala City to Antigua staring out the window of the van and wiping tears from my eyes.

My family thinks that talking about my grief over what I have renounced is unseemly, and they are right. It’s as though I were an arsonist weeping in the smoking ruin of a home I had just burned to the ground. I will not belabor the point, therefore, and will try not to mention it again, but it seems dishonest not to acknowledge that the overwhelming fact of my life for the last few weeks has been this sadness. Self-induced, true, but no less real because of that.

I have faith in the future, though. I can still carry my capacity for appreciation up onto the roof, to admire a lightning storm behind the volcano, and into an almost wordless exchange with a tiny brown girl from whom I bought a meringue, and into the ruined courtyard of the old cathedral, and to the edge of a dance floor, where a Mayan grandmother put her arms up into the air and shook her hips to the music of a marimba band. And to the spill of light in a darkened street, into which a happy young woman plunged and disappeared.

I bought a package of dog biscuits a week ago and usually have one or two in my pocket as I walk around Antigua. I am not afraid of the dogs in the street.

Bombs in the Avocado Trees

July 28th through Saturday, August 6th

I changed the feed in Google News to show me any stories about Guatemala that might burst through the crust of their googly algorithms. One of the first stories that arrived on my phone was from Aljazeera:

Why is Guatemala one of the world’s happiest countries?
Despite high rates of violence and poverty, Guatemala is consistently in the top 10 of happiest countries globally.

 

The article goes on to say nothing at all. It doesn’t even explain who came up with this happiness index or what the criteria might be. Despite these shortcomings, the suggestion of data in the headline was enough to temper my assumptions about the people I’ve been meeting.

For instance, I am getting to know Millie and Norma, the two young women who take care of the guesthouse where I’m staying. They do all of the cleaning and they prepare three daily meals for their guests, every day but Sunday. Part of their job is to engage us gringos in Español; both of them usually sit with us at every meal, asking simple questions in Spanish and giggling at our mistakes. They appear to be in their early 20s and to have strong Mayan bloodlines; they and their ancestors may have been living in this area for 10,000 years. I hear them chattering and laughing while pots bang in the kitchen. After dinner, I often see them together at the table, hunched over their cell phones, passing them back and forth and whispering conspiratorially.

norma, millie, and me

(Norma, Millie, and me. I’m on my knees in this picture.)

I am told they are paid 100 Quetzales week, less than 14 dollars, which they split between them. Millie – the more outgoing and talkative of the two – told a story a few nights ago about her father’s coffee farm, which had already been doing poorly after years of either too much or too little rain (I was only catching an occasional word), and which was dealt an additional blow at the end of July, when one of the volcanoes just a few miles south of town (the aptly named Volcán de Fuego) erupted and covered his bushes with ash. Then Norma talked about herself for a few minutes. She said she was leaving us, because she’d gotten a job making tacos at a streetside stand in Guatemala City; despite the 45-minute commute, and the danger of being a young woman alone in famously crime-ridden Guatemala City, she couldn’t turn her back on the extra Quetzales this job would have earned. She left on Tuesday but was back in Antigua on Thursday. Her mother thought the enterprise was too dangerous and refused to countenance any further taco-making.

The lives of these young women are unimaginably pinched, by my standards, but have these constraints affected their happiness? I don’t know. I don’t see it. They aren’t lacking food, clothes, or family. Each of them owns a simple smartphone (which cost about 300 quetzales). They laugh and gossip while they work. A few days ago I found them napping together on the couch, curled up like kittens.

When I say “I don’t know” about the internal lives of Millie and Norma, I really mean it. I mean something profound. I mean to convey a level of slack-jawed, drooling ignorance that is difficult for an adult to imagine. Remember when you were one-and-a-half years old, and you didn’t know anything about anything, and you didn’t even know how to ask about anything, or what questions you might ask if you knew the words, but nice people were taking care of you and a good thing, too, because you were frantically busy every day trying to get your shit even slightly together? No, of course you don’t. No one does. But just the same, here I am again, a sixty-year-old toddler. A minute or two ago, over dinner, Norma kindly explained to me that no, a human ear is not similar to a banana leaf. I was tempted to overturn a bowl of pureed peas onto my head and scatter the Cheerios by slapping the table with my palms, but instead I meekly replied, “Ah. Yo veo.”

Here’s another example. When I first arrived in Antigua I was baffled by the explosions I kept hearing throughout the day. At first I thought they were trucks backfiring, but after a few hours I knew that it was nothing so innocuous as that. People were using explosives. Sometimes you could feel the concussions in your chest. When some of these explosions happened during my first Spanish lesson, last Monday, I asked something like, “¿Qué es el kaboom-o?” My teacher told me that the locals use explosives to blow the avocados out of the trees. “¿Verdad?” I asked. “Sí, sí,” she said. And then she told me that I should be careful about walking under the trees when the bombas were being set off, so that the avocados didn’t fall on my head.

But of course she told me nothing of the kind. She may have misunderstood my question and explained avocados instead of explosions to me, and I certainly misinterpreted what she was saying. When I asked her about this again, a few days later, she told me that the explosions are actually used to help celebrate birthday parties and are also used during Mass, to punctuate particularly important moments.

So for a while there I thought that dynamiting fish and harvesting avocados had a surprising amount in common. Then, after that confusion had been cleared up, I realized I was now looking at an even bigger mystery. The Catholics of Antigua are using explosives in their churches every Sunday to mark the moment of transubstantiation. The holiest of religious mysteries is being venerated with concussion grenades.

When I say “I don’t know,” I mean “no comprendo nada.”

“Poco á poco,” says my teacher. Bless her.

norma_millie_asleep

 

Here is the Aljazeera article I mentioned in the first paragraph: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/07/guatemala-world-happiest-countries-160730204910287.html
For a better look at the study and methodology, see http://www.livescience.com/50209-happiest-countries-latin-america.html. This article’s headline is “The 10 Happiest Countries are All in Latin America.”