How I got here

12 Jun

Flashback to my arrival at Guatemala City a week ago. Annie and Daniel had made their own three hour trip the day before. “Being Guatemala”, daughter had reasoned, “there´ll just be a sliver of ticker tape three inches from the edge of that sink-hole, giving a once in a life time viewing op”. In the event she was thwarted by an uncharacteristic display of health-and-safety-ism. All streets leading to the neat round hole, thirty metres across and sixty deep, that had given the nation its fifteen minutes of fame were blocked off. Meeting yours truly at GC airport – bug eyed and unshaven after thirty hours in transit that included five hour crash on neatly arranged stools (thanks Costa: your coffee´s second rate but you do a nice line in free beds) at Heath­row´s delightful Terminal 3 – was her consolation.

Unlike the canine paradise I´m staying in, the Guatemala City authorities round up and shoot stray dogs. Alas, the violence doesn´t stop there. With ten murders a day it´s no place to find yourself after dark so, Daniel having borrowed an in-law´s posh car, we drove for an hour to the old colonial capital of Antigua, where Annie had sorted us a nice hotel. I liked Antigua´s architecture but thought the place a tad insipid – a bit like finding yourself in York when you wanted a real Northern English city. Not scruffy enough, and too full of fellow gringa.

So we headed by chicken bus to Quetzeltenango, more commonly known by its Maya name of Xela (“Shayla”). Capital of the Western Highlands, and Guatemala´s second city[1], this is where AIDG are based and therefore Annie´s place of abode. Chicken buses warrant an email of their own for the way these former ferries of US schoolchildren pack in everyone and their livestock, belch black smoke, blare out marimba[2] pop and specialise in blind overtaking as they race each other to scoop up the eldorado of passengers they know is waiting on the far side of the next hairpin bend. (Nor have they stopped this last out of respect for Agatha´s debris, which has in many places reduced two and even three lane highways to one.) Some retain the original amber livery – the other day I read “Pines­dale District Schools” on one – but most are decked to the nines with colours and religious artefacts that could give India´s garish long distance trucks a run for their money.

Xela is more to my tastes. Rebuilt after a devastating earthquake in 1902, there´s nothing architect­ur­ally remarkable here unless you count the numerous Parthenon lookalikes built on the orders of a long dead president who’d intended for them to herald an education programme to propel Guatemala into worldbeating status. [3] After the buildings went up things kind of ran out of steam. The Rough Guide says Xela´s residents pride them­selves on ruggedness and restraint, and my exper­iences bear this out. There isn´t the at times in your face welcoming of India or even Thailand, but a genuine courtesy is there when you need it, and people can surprise you. Today I was on a dusty track leading out of town to the hills. As houses got fewer, then gave way to hovels, my presence set off a round of dogs barking at this odd smelling gringo. There´s rabies here and I felt a twinge of fear but they soon quietened down. Then a shrivelled old lady-face popped above a sheet of rusty corregated to deliver, with broad and near toothless grin, an astonishingly robust ola, to which she added a beunos tardes before disappearing from sight. It made my day.

The generalised restraint of its people is the more surprising for Xela seeing relatively few gringa. For a country the size of Wales, Guatemala embraces a huge range of climate and topography. That and its third world status make communications poor. In the main, Annie tells me, only those travelling for months make the trip out here unless they’ve come to learn Spanish. Xela is said to be the best place in the world for that. Its many schools, reputedly excellent, charge $100 a week for 5 hours per day of tuition, the price including full board placement in a local family home. I´m tempted for next time. It´s harder here than in Asia to engage locals when English is your only language. In Asia, English serves as lingua franca but here that job is done by Spanish, mastery of which unlocks one and a half contin­ents; from southern parts of North America (not just Mexico; in Miami I heard it spoken fluently) to the near Antarctic tip of South America, with the admittedly big except­ion of Brazil. I do my best – and it´s surprising what the courtesies, smiles and a shared sense of irony can do – but if I´m to return I need Spanish. I notice that Annie, who says she needs another year to be truly fluent, engages in long and involved conversations with locals who clearly adore her. When she started at Edinburgh university she took GCSE Spanish alongside her first year degree studies. Since then she´s made several trips to Central and South America, plus this last year. I´ll never catch up with her but I´d like to go beyond the courtesies.[4]

[1]    A long way second. Guatemala City’s population is two million to Xela’s 140,000. Such unevenness typifies the third world. In the Afghanistan I visited in the seventies, Kabul had seven million while the next tier – Herat, Kandahar and Jalalabad – were the size of  Dover or Perpignan. India is the one exception I can think of to this rule.
[2]    The marimba is a wooden xylophone. Often enormous, I saw it played by two, three and even four musicians. It reminded me of the Hammond organ; not because it sounds like one but because both can be played with subtlety and power, but more often deliver wearisome banality. Other than on the Caribbean – whose black descendants of slaves, having fared no better at Hispanic hands than the Maya, turned from ladino culture to reggae and hip-hop – I cannot describe Guatemala as musically rich.
[3]    That president being Estrada Cabrera, a liberal (pro capitalist) whose predecessor was assassinated by the avenging employee of a landowner (pro feudal) hanged for his part in a revolt against modernising reforms. The epitome of the exotic Latin American dictator, Cabrera was a key figure in the country’s development as a coffee producer. He brought in European capital on the back of land concessions, cheap labour and zero taxation. How he did these things is briefly outlined in a later email.
[4]    That email was already lengthy by this point else I’d have added another Xela snippet. Every night on a street corner a stone’s throw from the central plaza, at a place where stray dogs gather in force to shred garbage bags in search of food, prostitutes also gather in tight skirts and heavy make-up. A common enough city sight, true, but these are men. Their customers, say Annie and Daniel, include some of the most macho guys in town, who make no effort to conceal their tastes. Homosexuality is legal and Guatemalan men are said to be less overtly macho than in South America, but this is still Latin America and attitudes are unpredictable. Daniel has seen overtly gay behaviour on the streets of one-horse towns in the sticks, while bigger places may be lethally homophobic.  One night in Xela I saw both sides. A gang of young men, having taken up position across the street, invited me as I passed to join them in laughter at the spectacle. It was a moment strangely hard to define: yes, they were bolstering their own heterosexual identity but seemed to be looking not for my disgust (as I’d expect in a comparable scenario on a British street) but my appreciation of the ladyboys’ theatrical absurdity. Did you ever see the like? they seemed to be saying, their expressions amused rather than vicious.

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