Sunday, May 10, 2009

Why Guatemala?

This is a question I am frequently asked and I always find it difficult to give the right answer in thirty words or less. Could be the perfect weather, could be the scenery, the restaurants, the $30 massages or the fun of running into people you know all over town, all involved in some sort of development project. But maybe it is the piles of fresh fruit and vegetables everywhere, mangos for a dime that you can scarcely lift, avocados by the dozen for a pittance. Or perhaps it is nothing more than the fact that the tension of living in the San Francisco Bay area just seems to melt away. It could be the friendly face waiting outside the customs hall. It could be waking up to a virtual symphony of birds just after dawn every morning or the friendly, smiling people with little more than the clothes on their back. As I write I am watching Fuego, the active volcano which is close but not too close, erupt. Fuego has been unusually busy today. One can only wonder why.

Today is Mothers' Day, here and there. It is always on May 10th in Central America and was actually started as a tribute to someone's mother rather than by a greeting card company. My friendly face spent this afternoon's earnings on flowers for his "Tia" (aunt) and the grave of his mother, who wasn't much of one. I hope that wherever she is, she appreciates the fact that he spent his last Qs on flowers for her grave rather than on food for his kids or gasoline for his taxi. Perhaps those of us have enough for both shouldn't judge or deny them a little frivolity now and then.

Speaking of frivolity the celebratory fireworks (another good way to use up what little money you have) are still ongoing for this three day weekend dedicated to the mothers of this country who get very little respect the other 362 days. Friday was a school holiday in anticipation of Mothers' Day (and what better excuse not to teach?). Astrid (9) told her teacher for the second year in a row that she had two mothers and, therefore, needed two invitations for the school festivities. Estela and I went together and sat in the front row to see Astrid and her cousin, Brenda, in a dance routine. The older boys in suits played the (of course) drums and marimbas. Interesting to see that among them was a severely disabled lad who was wheeled in by his classmates and a set of small drums was propped in his useless left arm. He joined in vigorously with his one good limb, his right arm. There was a lottery for "canastas" (baskets) put together by each grade filled with nutritious items like liters of Coca Cola, chips and marshmallows. Thankfully I did not win one. Estela got chosen by one of the older boys to go out on the dance floor and looked pretty good despite admitting to being mortified.

With the exception of Astrid who remains determined to be a doctor the other children including Charlie are still being challenged by school. They are good kids who are up to the challenge who do their homework but having parents with only a 6th grade education leaves them lacking guidance though they seem intrigued by the idea that with education they will have choices. Denis's current choice is computer technician. Astrid recently lectured Charlie about his reluctance to do his homework telling him that if he didn't do it I would not be paying for another year of school for him. Actually my Rotary Club paid his fees this year but he got right down to work.

The global recession has taken its toll in Guatemala. The Spanish schools are fairly empty as are the hotel and restaurants. The local newspapers tell us that remittances from families working outside the country are down significantly. Tourism and remittances are the two most important components of GDP here. As a result for the first time ever my beat up old, burlap coffee bag purse was slashed in the mercado. Surprisingly to me the perpetrators were all women. Several blocked my way and therefore succeeded in distracting me. Ha ha, they got nada as I had nada in my bag. Yesterday when purchasing a very fresh cauliflower and a bunch of giant carrots for Q4 (52 cents) in the same market I told the seller to keep the extra Q1 and to make sure that people in the market knew that if the slashing didn't stop (I showed her my bag which had been "repaired" with duct tape and was now serving as a badge of courage) that the gringos might stop shopping there. I have been told that the vendors understand this and don't like the thieves ever better than the rest of us.

On my way to the market yesterday a police car went screeching by me with its sirens blaring. It turned the corner that I was about to turn. I saw a number of people staring wide-eyed in the direction where I needed to go. I wondered what horrible scene I was going to encounter. I turned the corner and saw the remains of a motorcycle mostly under the front end of a mini-van. Both vehicles were on the wrong side of the street. I looked around not once but twice and there was neither a victim nor a driver of the mini-van. Clearly, this accident happened all by itself. No doubt the motorcycle driver had stolen the motorcycle and the driver of the mini van did not have a license. We pay dearly for insurance. They take off on foot. When I returned from the market a tow truck was preparing to tow away the undamaged but uninhabited mini van waiting for its owner to call and say, no doubt, that it had been stolen just that morning.

Estela and my neighbor's maid, Gloria, started taking computer classes on Saturday mornings. Last Saturday they did the unthinkable after their two hour class, abandoning their children and endless labor by taking the bus to Chimaltenango. This is sort of akin to taking a junket to Detroit in February. Such chatter. The men were furious, the children intrigued yet supportive. I encouraged them to make it a regular thing but suggested they stay in Antigua which is a lot safer than "Chimalt."

A couple of days ago Alexander came upstairs to where I was working. He was carrying my duffle bag from the garage and asked, with a silly grin on his face, if he could borrow it for an hour. When I questioned why, he reminded me of his friend who had found his wife a couple of days earlier in a compromising situation. As the couple and their three children lived with her parents this fellow had quite literally found himself on the street with his worldly possessions (mostly clothes) all of which fit into my duffel bag. The wronged taxista has moved into Casa Broccoli for the time being and Estela is happy to have a paying tenant. I tried to point out the irony of the Hispanic double standard to Alexander but I am pretty sure he didn't get it. Or chose not to.

So, why Guatemala? It is rarely dull, often frustrating. There is always something to do, something to be done. The Guatemalans are incredibly hard workers. They think nothing of working 12-hour days, six days a week for very little money. They often laugh when they have virtually no money. They eat when food turns up or they find an avocado tree. They talk about going to the United States but I suspect they are not sure why. They don't want to go but they want a better life for their kids. The old women reduced to begging on the street after a life of hard labor and childbearing bless you when you give them a few coins. Such is a day in Guatemala.