An American ex-pat recounts the stories and adventures his customers bring to his hotel on the shores of Lake Atitlan in the highlands of Guatemala.
I run a small hotel in Guatemala—five rooms, family style food, small courtyard with tropical birds and an on-your-honor bar tab. My place overlooks Lake Atitlan, if you ever heard of it. Beautiful. Blue. Deep volcanic lake. It’s huge and stretches below me for miles. Fell in love with it when I was just a kid backpacking through Central America. As soon as I could afford it, I moved down, bought some land and set up shop here in San Antonio. It’s a small town just a little off the beaten path for the tourists coming to Panajachel and Santiago and San Pedro. Which is okay by me. I prefer the adventurous, open minded kind of guests. There aren’t any mega-tour buses wending their way down here. They couldn’t if they wanted to. The road’s too steep and winding not to mention land slides and washouts.
Which all goes to say that I don’t have a ton of traffic knocking at my door. But that’s okay. It’s a quality vs. quantity issue with me. The ones who make it here are interested and interesting. And since I’m basically a shy guy, a people watcher rather than a people engager, I like to have people come to me rather than have to go out and find them. In fisherman terms, I still-fish rather than troll.
And once people get to my place, I observe. Most hoteliers set you up in a room and drop your food in front of you. I do it a little differently. I make a point of joining my guests at the oversized table—a kind of sit down waiter. Sometimes I invite a local friend or two. So, anyhow, all that adds up to an introvert getting a chance to look in on a lot of people’s lives without having to really get involved. It’s like I’m snorkeling over a colorful coral reef amazed by the colors and shapes and kinds of life cruising by.
Pretty cool, eh? I’ve always thought I could write a novel about all the people who’ve come through here in the past forty years. But a novel is kind of ambitious and beyond my ability to weave all the threads into a coherent plot. So, instead of making a chowder (which I must say is quite good when I get my hands on some fresh conch and lobster) I’ll lay out a buffet—individual stories and characters as I remember them, in no particular order.
Street Boy Vendors
One morning over breakfast, a mature couple were holding forth to two other guests. The woman, named Karen, I believe, looked like Mrs. Worth. Do you remember her from the Sunday comics in the newspaper? She’s the white haired lady that always looked so old till we caught up with her. Now she’s sprightly. Anyway Karen was describing her infatuation with three street vendors. I know those guys, Jesus, Tomas and Fernando. They sell geeting cards with hand woven insets. They all claim their mother makes them by hand and then sends them out to earn their lunch. And of course they chat up prospective women customers with an endearing mix of pidgin English and Spanish.
So anyhow, Karen was basically putting down her husband Jim’s attitude toward ‘those sweet little boys.’
Karen: I had bought some cards from Fernando the day before…
Jim: And of course they came right back the next day. This time it’s Jesus wanting his share.
Karen: Well, he did have some different ones. They were very nice.
Jim: They’re like stray cats—feed ‘em once and they’ll keep coming back.
Karen: But they were so sweet. And I could practice my Spanish.
Jim: You’re a mark.
Karen: You’re so cynical.
Jim: Think used car salesman. They want you to think they care about you but they really only want to sell cars. These kids are salesmen. Period.
Karen: Well, it’s so nice that they come right up to your table…
Jim: While you’re eating!
Karen: And show you what they have for sale.
Jim: The same stuff as the day before. And they plop it right next to your plate and make you have to shoo them away.
Karen: Well, dear, I guess they know better than to bother you.
Jim: Said another way, they know they’ve got a ‘live one’ when you smile and start talking to them.
The next morning over breakfast, Jim wore a self-congratulatory smile. Karen was a bit subdued. He addressed the guests at table.
Jim: Remember those kids we talked about yesterday? Well, they caught us at Ling’s during lunch. There must be some unwritten rules of the road they follow, because they always ask me first if I want to buy their headbands or purses or whatever.
Karen: So, of course, Jim said no.
Jim: Then they turn to Karen who’s all smiles like it’s our grandkids come for Christmas.
Karen: They’re cute.
Jim: But before they get started on her, I look at the one guy…who was it? Tomas?
Karen: Yes. Dear boy.
Jim: And I say, NO! Dijo, NO! Vaya! I even throw in the two words of Mayan that I know, Twat chik! Means adios. As they turn to leave, Tomas looks over his shoulder and hisses, ‘Fuck You!’
Karen: Well, I mean! I called after them, ‘Where’s your mother?’
Jim: (chuckling) I laughed. Hey, at least we understood each other and in our native languages to boot. Ha! Oh, and then last night, at the Llama Flores we were eating some sopa di pollo when here comes the rat pack again. They swarm around our table. I spot Tomas. He takes one look at me and turns tail. Seems like we cleared the air.
I didn’t want to say anything to Jim. I mean, I understand how those kids and the women too, hustling shawls and scarves, can really get in your face. But then, that’s how we do it down here. Third world advertising. We don’t have billboards. We don’t have commercials bombarding your subconscious every second. It’s a personal encounter. The only hitch is, the locals don’t bother each other, only the tourists. And the tourists operate on a different standard of politeness. If someone stands in front of us locals and engages us, good manners dictate that we respond. The only way to deal with it is to avoid eye contact and at most shake our head, no.
Like I said, I like to observe people. But there’s a clear line between people-watching and prying. I stay on this side of the line. But this one time it was different. A couple booked a week’s stay to take Spanish lessons in Pana. They were kind of youngish, maybe early thirties. I couldn’t help noticing something a little off. The guy, Peter—I think that was his name—seemed distracted. Like he was having trouble getting away from work or some kind of nagging issue. The wife was no better. She had a perpetual crease just above the bridge of her nose. I remember because I’m the kind of softy who feels compelled to offer help to a woman in distress. Anyhow, they would leave for class in the morning and come back for supper. One night I couldn’t help notice the change in Jason. All at once he seemed ‘there’ or ‘here in the moment’ if you prefer. Then he spent all evening at the computer, writing.
When the wife got home the next evening she seemed different too, her forehead relaxed. They talked over supper in a way they hadn’t before. They told me they had both had very interesting experiences while on field trips with their language instructors. I didn’t pry. Didn’t need to. I know Davide and Melecio. They take their students to a Mayan ritual site on Wednesdays and then to Chichicastenango on Thursdays.
That evening the wife spent a long time on the computer. They left at the end of the week. As I say, I’m not nosey. But when I turned on the customer computer both of their stories were on the desktop. Well, here’s what I found. The first would be Peter’s story; the second the wife’s.
The chicken bus rocks to the right as we swoop through a curve fighting the pull of Lake Atitlan. Below. Way below. My hip weighs against a Mayan woman. She looks up. Beautiful black eyes. Like Sandra’s asking approval for her web design. Back in Chicago. So far away. So close. All the time.
The bus, swinging through the bottom of the S curve, tilts me against my wife. She smiles, inviting me to enjoy the adventure, the trek to a cueva sagrada—a Mayan ritual site, a sacred cave. But Sandra keeps popping up, spamming a week of woven colors, insistent vendors and growling tuc-tucs. Sandra. Allessandra—my stowaway.
Our guide and Spanish teacher, Melecio, taps the driver on the shoulder and we lurch to a stop on the shoulder—a patch of gravel six feet from a sheer drop, like a Norwegian fjord, down to the lake. Since our outing is meant to be an extension of our morning classes, Melecio chatters in Spanish while our toes stub the insides of our hiking boots on the sharp descent into the hamlet of San Jorge.
Halfway down, an imp springs from behind a pile of rubble. The boy looks Indian, short, not much taller than an average three year old but to judge from his patter with Melecio must be at least six or seven. Our guide jokes that the boy, scurrying back, forth and around us, is his apprentice.
Jesus, that’s the scamp’s name, becomes a dangerous distraction, like a dog underfoot, as we inch down the rugged path across the face of the 45° slope. He scoots in front of my wife, jostling her, before turning to offer his tiny paw as if he could offer any support should she stumble. Ten minutes of hop, slide, grab and lunge along a trail littered with road signs of sacrificial chicken feathers brings us to a black gaping mouth of a cave. The ceiling, the walls, the floor are layered with the soot of generations of smoky sacrifices to the many gods, the dioses, of generation upon generation of highland Guatemalans. The floor of the cave has half a dozen randomly scattered concrete pads. On top of each a blanket of long green pine needles surrounds either a smoldering heap of a chicken carcass or a mound of grain or flower petals. Candles stand vigil next to carefully placed red apples—sacrifices, imprecations to the gods to ward off sickness and pain, to ensure good crops, healthy animals, many children.
I bump my head against the low slung ceiling. A touch to reset the hat turns my fingertips an oily black. As I try to decide if I want to ruin a fresh laundered handkerchief to clean them, I sense someone staring at me. I glance back to see Jesus at eye level, standing on a rock. Mocking my distress over soiled fingers, he jabs the ceiling, then draws a black stripe straight down his forehead, between his eyes, to the tip of his nose. He grins, then takes a bite from an apple he apparently liberated from a sacrificial altar.
For some reason I suddenly want to apologize to the gods for this blasphemy. He’s only a kid. Probably stunted from malnutrition. Hungry. He needs the food more than you do. And help me to be wholehearted. Help me forget Sandra. Focus on my wife alone.
Where did that come from? I wonder as I stagger away from the fetid smoke-filled air to the cave mouth and fresh breezes. I’m not religious, not even superstitious. No church. No religion. What was that all about?
I take my wife’s hand to help her scale a rocky patch. We breach a rise to find Jesus kicking a half inflated soccer ball with two other kids in a space the size of a bathroom that falls off hundreds of feet on both sides. As we near, he beckons, like a wood sprite, to follow him past a row of head-high boulders. When we catch up to him, he grins—strange contrast to his war-painted face—and points to a hollow below.
A man faces a small smoldering fire, chanting, sprinkling water around the ashes, the tarry smoke painting a fresh coat on the blackened boulder behind it. Another man stands with his palms touching in the universal gesture for prayer. This is a purchased supplication or oracion, our guide explains. The client talked to the shaman some time ago. He told him his troubles, problems, concerns and wishes. The shaman wrote them down on scraps of paper. They drove three hours to reach this sacred site where the priest places the bits of paper in a small clay pot in the middle of the smoking fire. After circling and chanting several more times, the shaman retrieves a red packet trailing a white string. Melecio makes eye contact with us and places his hands over his ears. The shaman lights the string. The pot explodes with a stunning BANG! A cloud of confetti flutters to the ground.
Something lets go inside me.
I take my wife’s hand and walk back up the path. At the clearing on the top of the outcrop, we see Jesus. He stands on a rock flying a handmade kite in the updraft from the lake so far below. We both pause to watch the kite dip and dance at the end of its invisible tether.
Babies. Babies. Babies. Everywhere I look, round black eyes peek out of shoulder shawls, like puppies in a backpack, staring at me. Going to the market at Chichicastenango was Peter’s idea. He wanted to photograph the varieties of local dress from around the Mayan highlands. Well, we’re seeing locals all right. They’re just a little too up-close and personal for my taste. I’m twisted like a pretzel what with hugging my purse to my ribcage with one arm, my money pouch under my blouse with the other and all the while elbowing my way through the crush. From up ahead, Peter turns, pointing to the white walled church visible above the tent city of vendor stalls. He mouths, meet there, and holds up one finger. I’ve an hour to swim in this river of dark skin, day-glo colors, splayed chicken parts, pineapple pyramids…and babies. Don’t they know when to stop? Or how? Or is this just some kind fertility chest thumping?
A woman hunches in a doorway. Her child, maybe two years old, is standing with his head under his mother’s huipil, nursing. He pokes his head out, taking in the passing scene for a moment, then dives back in for the rest of his lunch. I suppose that’s the best way to feed him. It’s sanitary, ever ready and undeniably better than the fried gobs of who-knows-what that older kids munch, suck and chew with filthy hands. It’s a wonder they survive to make yet more babies. My ladino teacher told me the Indians suffer from malnutrition and diabetes. It figures.
Inside the covered market, I inch past tables of onions, and oranges, eggplants and cilantro. Underneath a stand groaning with mounds of tomatoes and avocadoes, I spot two toddlers. The girl is playing with a piece of string. The brother watches. Where’s the developmental stimulation? Or maybe you don’t need much imagination or creativity to be a market vendor. Who would have thought that dullness could be a survival technique?
Ten minutes later I fight the current, angling toward the church. Perhaps I can find a little space, a chance to expand my personal bubble away from the constant touching, visual stimulation and pleas to buy souvenirs I don’t need or want. But that’s not to be. The front of the church, eighteen steps high, is crowded with buckets of callalilies, marigolds, daisies and roses. On a platform near the top, an open fire burps tarry smoke to the chants of a Mayan shaman. Two other men pacing along the perimeter swing smoke-pots adding to the autumn leaf-burning fug…except in this case the leaves are green. I edge around to a side entrance to avoid direct contact with the witch doctors.
Inside the church, I am confused. Far on one end, there is an altar in the middle of a sanctuary sealed off by a railing. There are statues of saints but no facing pews. Instead, five 4×4 stone pads form a line down what should be the center aisle. At one, a group of men and women kneel, light candles, sprinkle flowers and dribble water on the low altars while mumbling invocations or prayers. I’ve seen this before at Mayan ritual sites. How strange to find pagan rituals going on, not only in front of the church, but inside as well.
I drift to one corner where a line of perhaps forty people wait a turn at the baptismal font where a Catholic priest is baptizing babies. The babies dressed in brilliant white, flare in the murky interior like trillium in a spring forest.
Toward the front I hear a kind of chanting sound. Could this be a monastery? Or are some pilgrims saying a rosary? I follow the sound to a side chapel where a tabernacle on an altar and a votive candle signal the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The room is filled with native women in traditional garb sitting on their heels and, surprisingly, keening and moaning, individually. This is not a group prayer. But they seem to be together. I can feel…something they have in common. They are pleading. Asking for something or just…what? Venting? Because they were married, officially or unofficially, at sixteen and started making babies and have to work in the fields and cook for all their children and weave their beautiful skirts before going to bed to make more babies. Is this a kind of women’s support group? Each voicing her concerns so the others can hear. Getting it out. Outloud.
I watch at the doorway. Little by little I’m sucked into the whirlpool, the vortex of feelings. I kneel, sit back on my legs and raise my arms, palms up. “Why can’t I have babies? I want a child so bad. Please let it happen. Let me conceive,” I add to the prayerful torrent.
My cell phone trills. It takes me a moment to realize what it is. Peter. “Meet in the church courtyard.”
We sit on a bench facing the quadrants of lawn surrounding a dribbling fountain. It’s cool and tranquil. My heartbeat slows down. Peter pulls out his camera to show me the varieties of patterns and colors unique to each region that he has captured. Beneath his patter I can still hear the chanting women, feel the throb, the pulsing of their need, my oneness with them.
I sat at the computer for a long while. I knew something was happening—had happened. Writers. I guess there’s more than one way to clear the air in a relationship. So why did they leave their stories on the desktop? Maybe they just couldn’t let those flowers die on the vine. They had to give them a chance to live for a while longer. Maybe someone else would see them, appreciate them, learn from them. Someone like me. Or maybe they just left them behind like the T-shirts and paperbacks we find in the rooms all the time.
3rd World Healthcare
I had a young woman staying for a few days. Pretty. Tall. Light grey eyes. Makes an older man think sweet rather than otherwise. Anyway, one morning she toyed with her breakfast. It was my special crepes with fruit, granola, yogurt and molasses. Now, I’m not the kind of cook who takes offense if someone doesn’t like my fare. But in Corinna’s case, I could tell she looked more wan than her usual blond self. In fact she looked a little drawn as she pushed her food around the plate.
“Not feeling so good?” I asked
She glanced at guests at the far end of the table, who were busy tucking into their chow, to be sure they weren’t watching. She held her hand on her stomach—a familiar complaint due to strange flora in a new food chain.
“Have you been taking anything?” I asked.
I nodded. “How long?”
“Tell you what. Maybe you should see the pharmacist at the end of Calle Santander.”
“I think I need to see a doctor.”
“He is a doctor.”
I didn’t see Corinna at supper. But the next morning she dove into my special crushed macadamia nut pancakes. Obviously she was much improved.
When I brought over a fresh glass of mango nectar—I always pulp and freeze a huge supply at the height of the season—she gulped it down and asked for more.
“Thanks for the referral, yesterday.” Then she giggled and shook her head. “I still can’t believe he’s a doctor. I mean his farmacia is open to the street, two steps from the constant parade of tourists and vendors.”
“Tell me happened.”
“Well, a lady came to the counter…”
“That’s Juana, his wife.”
“She asked what I wanted. Well, I’m not used to describing my symptoms on a street corner and certainly not the state of my bowels. She just looked at me, like, ‘So out with it. What do you need a private room and a paper gown?’ So, in my best Spanish I said, ‘Could I speak to the doctor?’”
“She shrugged then yelled, ‘Hector!’”
“I looked to a corner of the shop where a short, heavy set man in nylon shorts and a team-type jersey sat with two adolescent boys watching what must have been a televised soccer match. He levered himself out of the chair and edged his way over to me all the while looking over his shoulder at the game. He glanced up and asked what the problem was.”
“I said what I think was the word for diarrhea.”
“He nodded once. ‘Vomiting?’”
“‘How many days?’”
“Four or five.”
“He reached into drawer and poured out ten tablets into an envelope. ‘Cipro,’ he said. Then held up two fingers. ‘Two each day.’ Then he held up five fingers, ‘Five days.’”
“From the corner of the room I heard a loud whoop and an announcer drawing out a long ‘G-O-O-A-L!’ The doctor raced back to the game. The wife rang up the sale.”
“Pretty efficient, huh?” I asked.
Corinna chuckled. “I couldn’t believe it…no appointment scheduled for three weeks from now, no insurance card, family history or co-pay. And best of all it worked like a charm.”
I sit on the 50 yard line when it comes to Guatemalan culture. I’m an expat American married to a ladina (mixed Maya and Spanish) woman for forty years. So, I’m not really Guatamalteco, but I can see both sides.
I can watch tour buses disgorge Europeans like a space ship on a distant planet. I watch backpacking treckers fumble with toddler level Spanish. But they are all at the picture taking stage. ‘Isn’t this curious? Look how quaint. Wait till I show folks back home how these simple peasants live.’ Imagine minding your own business mowing your lawn and a gaggle of tourists stop to snap photos of you—day after day after day.
I can also, through my wife and her family, know what it means to suffer through a monstrous civil war; through devastating earthquakes. I see how her Mayan relatives live in a world peopled with gods who are approached and appeased through ancient rituals. They wear traditional clothes while they work the near vertical hills for stingy crops of corn, cane, beans and onions. They’re not Disney characters in an Epcot center. This is their life, a hard life. And there are times that I resent the prying eyes, the voyeuristic cameras.
That said. I provide for my family by catering to those tourists and many of my adopted people subsist on the tourist trade flowing past their outdoor stalls.
Well…I just needed to get that off my chest.
Not all my guests are drive-by voyeurs. One thoughtful customer, ruminating with me over a mojito and a glowing sunset, offered his thoughts on the similarities between traveling and dying. Here’s what he said:
“I’ve just read some emails from home. Seems another friend has passed away. It was expected. I had been with him over the past few months, through his decline. You know what impressed me most was the way he gradually detached himself from everyday chores and duties and preoccupations. Little by little he no longer worried about water bills and upcoming elections and bank accounts and sport scores and gas prices and the muffler on his car. He was pulling away from all that, simplifying, stripping down for the last great journey which, is something like what I had to do before coming down here. You know—canceling the newspaper, lowering the heat, holding the mail, saying good bye to friends and grand kids. A dry run for the real, ultimate leave-taking.”
I had never thought of it quite like that. Then he added:
“And the other day, watching the locals celebrate dia de los muertos, I was fascinated with their fascination with the dead.The way I take it, these people have elaborate funerals and colorful cemeteries, not so much to remember their loved ones but to remind themselves that what they’re busy doing minute by minute isn’t all there is. They’re trying for a little perspective—the relativity of daily busyness to the endlessness of eternity. I sure hope they’re right about afterlife.
Wow. I needed a second mojito after that.
No Men Allowed
Have you ever noticed how women are drawn into labor and delivery stories? Not unlike guys reliving hunting exploits or game winning touchdowns. It’s about peak, defining moments of life. Well, one afternoon, I brought over some more iced tea for two women dawdling over their lunch. They were deeply engrossed in a prolonged replay of one of their own deliveries. Of course, I wouldn’t presume to intrude. But just as I was about to leave, one of them glanced my way and disparagingly remarked, “Of course, my husband was nowhere to be found. He field dresses 200 pound deer but couldn’t stand the sight of something as natural as his son being born.”
I don’t normally feel compelled to defend the honor of my gender. But this touched on a point of pride with me. You see, I helped my wife deliver three of our children at home—once all alone because the midwife was stuck on the wrong side of the lake in a storm. But, I had to control my one-up impulses. After all they were my customers. So, instead, I pulled up a chair, heard out the end of the woman’s story and asked if they were willing to listen to a man tell a birthing story.
They could hardly deny my challenge. “Once some years back, we heard pounding on our front gate late at night, maybe even early morning. It was a neighbor who was helping a midwife with a delivery. Seems the baby was born fine but the woman was having a problem expelling the placenta. They wanted my wife and I to drive for a doctor. Well, we shuffled over a couple of blocks to the house where the midwife was nervously pacing. She ran out to my wife and began making the case for us to get the doctor. I edged toward the front door. The father was hunched over shaking his head. Looking into the room, I could see the mother trying to get her newborn to suck at her breast. Wasn’t happening. Something flashed in the back of my mind about postnatal nursing triggering chemicals to make the placenta detach. In two quick strides I was kneeling next to the woman. I popped her nipple in my mouth and gave five or six strong sucks. The woman’s eyes widened in surprise then she groaned. I quickly stood in a dark corner. The midwife rushed back in, removed the placenta and began massaging the mother’s abdomen to stop bleeding. Problem solved. In middle of all of that, I caught the new mother’s eye, winked and held a finger across my lips. She nodded.
At that point my women customers quit the field, obviously unaccustomed to male one-upsmanship and playing king of the mountain with jokes and stories. As they stood to leave, I couldn’t resist one parting shot. “Eight year old Raul,” I said, “the busboy. He’s the baby I helped get started.”
It was so warm that afternoon that the frigid smiles I got, actually felt good.
These are only a few of the many stories I hear from my customers. I’ve got a very interesting job, don’t you agree?