Friday, February 21, 2014

Roman Summer (3)

Because everything was new to me I walked almost everywhere.  I dawdled, reading the signs in shop windows.  I smelled the air coming out of open doors and even up from the sewer.  (Having gone to all the trouble to come there, I was not going to miss anything.  If I had had a list of things not to miss, the Great Sewer of Tarquinius Priscus would have been on it.)  By midday it was hot, but I had learned in Rio that heat is a matter of attitude, of how I held my body: no striding about with Teutonic purposefulness, but a languid stroll and in a day or so I would be completely comfortable in a white linen suit and Borsolino Panama, a bella figura.  I considered draping my coat across my shoulders, cape-like, but felt that would be too much and might even be illegal for non-Italians.
As I walked around the City I picked up scraps of printed ephemera to get a feel for the culture and to paste in my journal.  I stopped frequently to sit on park benches or at outdoor tables and write about what I had just seen, even if I knew as I was doing it that it was completely unimportant.  I drew in my sketchbook and skimmed discarded newspapers.  Looking at a map of the City, I am amazed how much I walked.  My trail across Rome looks like one of those plots you get when you put a GPS on a wandering moggy.  But everything was new and interesting to me and I was  --  and still am  --  very easy to amuse.

I settled into simple routine.  I would leave my apartment fairly early and dawdle over a caffè americano and pastry at the restaurant  downstairs and form some idea of what I wanted to do that day, then take a bus to Piazza del Populi and from there begin my wanderings around the old part of the City.  Bus service around the city was cheap and clean and efficient and, save when I was moving in or moving out with luggage, I never used a taxi.  The busses were sometimes crowded and there were pickpockets, but that was just part of the Roman experience.
When I am out on foot during the day I eat little.  Perhaps a small toasted sandwich or only nibble on a Maria.  I ate as much to balance the coffee or whatever I had drunk as from any hunger, and may not eat again until I was back home in the evening.  Eventually I fell into the habit of going to the evening service at St. Peter’s, which was usually being said by a visiting foreign priest basking in his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to say Mass at St. Peter’s, and then walk back though the darkening streets of the old City to have supper in an island of light at some outdoor cafe before I took a bus back to my apartment where I went to bed tired and contented.  It was a very good life. 

Before I left home I had told friends that mail could be sent to me in Rome in care of American Express, which even then was an old-fashioned arrangement, but then I was usually trying to time travel.  The American Express office was on the Piazza d’Espagna at the foot of the Spanish Steps, which was a fine place to lounge over coffee while writing in my journal or ostentatiously reading my mail.  Composing letters is part of my writing process: I first write in my journal, then extract from the journal to put together my letters and, eventually, draw on both of these for whatever I will eventually do with what I have written, as I am doing now.  Nowadays I realize that sending letters by post may seem as affected and archaic as sealing my envelopes with wax and dispatching them by runner with a cleft stick.  Nonetheless, the very obsoleteness of the process gave me pleasure. 
As for actually sending mail, I had been warned off the Italian Post Office and early on had crossed the river to Vatican City to use their post office for my out-going letters.  As an independent state the Vatican maintains its own Post, whose mail took about half the time to reach California as did that of the Italian Post, which was widely said to be the second worst in Europe.  Knowledgable travelers assure me that a letter mailed from a rural post office in Bhutan will reach home before a letter entrusted to the Italian mails.  The worst postal service in Europe was in Albania where, until recently, letter-writers were shot.  One still remembers those grainy, black-and-white newsreels of Albanians crossing the Adriatic in their pathetic little boats to mail their letters from Italy.

Some years back, when I first thought about going to Italy, I read a book by Luigi Barzini called The Italians, which supplied me with a satisfying set of potted opinions about Italy and the Italians without the bother of ever actually going there or meeting any of them.  At the time I knew nothing about Barzini and never saw anything else by him, but a few months ago I remembered the book and googled Barzini and found the story.

The 1907 Peking-to-Paris auto race was won by the Italian car driven by Prince Scipioni Borghesi  --  How is that for a way to begin a story?   Have I not said that the world was more interesting in those days?  --  and the Prince was accompanied by the journalist Luigi Barzini.
Barzini, 1874-1947, had been sent as a foreign correspondent to Qing Dynasty China where he covered the Boxer Rebellion (1900) and was embedded with the Japanese Army during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05).  After accompanying Prince Borghesi on the Peking-to-Paris auto race, he was in WWI a correspondent with the Italian Army.  After the War he became an active supporter of Mussolini. He covered the Spanish Civil War and the invasion of Russia and served in the Fascist government during WWII; when Italy went over to the Allies, Barzini remained with Mussolini in the Italian Social Republic.  He died destitute in Rome in 1947.  But if one has lived richly, what does it matter if one dies poor?  What need have the deceased for money?
It sounded like an interesting life though it did not actually sound like the fellow who wrote my book, who turned out to be his son, Luigi Barzini, Jr.

Barzini, Jr., 1908-84, was also a journalist, though he had a less colorful career.  No doubt through his father’s Fascist contacts he ghostwrote Mussolini’s Autobiography, though he personally favored the flashier circle around Count Ciano, Mussolini's playboy son-in-law.  He attended Columbia University and worked in New York City, eventually returning to Italy in 1930.  As Asian correspondent for Corriere della Sera he went to China and was on board the Yangtze Patrol gunboat USS Panay on Dec., 11, 1937, when it was shelled and sunk by the Japanese; he was wounded and witnessed the Rape of Nanking.
Back in Italy, he was arrested by the Fascists on charges that he had given information to the enemy and made disparaging remarks about Mussolini and was under forced-residence in a small village until the liberation of Rome.  A strong anti-Communist, he was active in center-right politics after the War.  He lived on a small farm near Rome and died of cancer in 1984.
Were I of a novelistic bent I would explore the relationship betwixt father and son.  Senior seems a man of action  --  to whom an attraction to Mussolini seems utterly appropriate  --  while Junior is less so.  Senior would have had the Panay Incident for breakfast, while being blown out of the water by the Japanese might well have been traumatic for Junior.  Senior was attracted to the dynamic  Il Duce and Junior to the unserious Count Ciano.  Senior remained loyal to Mussolini until the end while one suspects Junior might have been saying "the Fascists? who were they?" One imagines some degree of estrangement during the war, but the father nonetheless using his influence to protect his son.
I am sure there are yet people around who know the particulars, at least those of a certain age.

When I was in the airport in New York on my way to Rome I got into a conversation with a well-educated young Italian lady.  I mentioned Barzini's book and asked if what he had said about the Italians were still accurate.  She said that she was unfamiliar with the book, but if it were true when he wrote it then it would still be true, as nothing had changed in Italy.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Roman Summer (2)

My hotel was on a short, narrow street on the Esquiline Hill, perhaps a hundred yards from the grand old church of Santa Maria Maggiore.  On the walls around the hotel I saw some Arabic graffiti, though I saw no Arabs about.  And while I  could not read the Arabic, I could read the Italian graffiti and there seemed to be quite a bit of hard-line communist sentiment:  “Death to the Property Holders,”  and so forth.  Here, at the end of the 20th Century, such blood-thirsty leftism seemed as quaint as a “Viva il Duce.”  There was also a movie theatre, though it was oddly vague about what films it was showing, so I supposed it to be a porno house.  Later in the evening, I met some friendly young women and some fellows who most likely dealt in recreational pharmaceuticals.  There were quite a number of young people about who appeared in need of adult supervision.

   I know that in a hot climate I should get up early, but morning sleep is so sweet.  Which meant I didn’t get downstairs until the dining room was closed, so I wandered out to a sidewalk table for coffee and a roll, watched over by the enniched saints across the street on the outer wall of the venerable Santa Maria Maggiore, where pigeons feed on crumbs and tourists feed on culture. 

Sitting there in the shade I fell into a conversation with an Aussie couple.  They were of the opinion that in Italy the hot drinks weren’t hot enough and the cold drinks weren’t cold enough, and no one has any change, which I was to learn to be pretty much the case.  They also assured me that Roman traffic, though bad, was not the threat to pedestrians we might have been led to believe: that drivers will make a reasonable effort not to hit you, but you must do your part.

 I knew from my reading of the 19th-Century travelers that the only proper way to take up residence in Rome was to rent a moldering palazzo, so I scooped up an armload of newspapers and began checking the moldering palazzo section of the classifieds.  But alas, no one answers their phone and when I search out their office no one is there, but then I am in Italy and realize that they may do business differently here, so I wander off to a sidewalk cafe for a coffee, if it is early in the day, or an aperitif, if it is later.  The world works and it is merely a matter of my figuring how to adapt to it.

Since I was staying practically next door to Santa Maria Maggiore, whose name was familiar though I knew nothing else about it, I thought I ought go inside and take a look around.  This being Rome, I should probably get used to looking at churches, so I sat for a while in the grand old basilica gleaming with beautiful images from ages past, and a great round window above the entrance to the nave done in a distressingly 1950’s idiom, the sort of obnoxious modern art that protestant churches are usually cursed with, though the art in Catholic churches today can be as bad as that of the protestants.  Even the Orthodox seem confused when they depart from their traditional iconography.  This is not a good time for religious art.  Even bad Victorian art looks better than what I have seen of the new stuff.  Modern saints all look like well-meaning liberals.  They have no fire in them.  The blood of the martyrs runs thin in their veins.  I am looking forward to see what the Vatican Museum has; there must be good religious art out there somewhere.

The nice people at the hotel told me that they had booked my room for a group that would be arriving in a few days, which was fine with me, as I wanted to move on and find the moldering palazzo of my imagination and, despite a suit of armor in the TV room, the hotel was not as romantic as I would have liked it.

In the course of wandering about in search of an estate agent, I found, not far from Piazza d’Spagna, the via Margutta, which had once been popular with artists and craftspeople and, though since gentrified, it still looked colorful enough, though I got the impression that it would not be cheap to live there.  Today’s aspiring artists (I don’t think the modern welfare state suffers them to starve anymore) can be found selling their work along the balustrade of the Spanish Steps.   Despite that fact that their work looked quite competent, the artists I saw there appeared not only unprosperous, but  --  worse yet  --  bored.

At length, by answering adds and asking people I found a furnished apartment in a quiet neighborhood off the Corso di Francia just north of the Tiber.  Not the moldering palazzo I might have wanted, but the furnishings could be imagined to have an old-fashioned elegance and, while my balcony had only a view of my neighbors’s balconies, they would prove quiet neighbors and the rental, while sounding life-threatening when expressed in Lire, was reasonable enough when converted to Dollars.

I had found my pied-à-terre for my Roman Summer.

One of the many virtues of the way I travel is that I am not really going anywhere. What can people be thinking about who come to Rome for six days, during which time they feel obligated to see a required selection of churches, tombs and monuments, send postcards to various people and get something blessed by the Pope for an elderly aunt, all the while avoiding pickpockets and intestinal problems?
I have my guide books and know in general what would be interesting to see, and if I wander past one of these places I drop in to look, but I do not feel as if I have an appointment that I will be charged for if I don’t show up.  This means that most of my time out of doors is spent wandering about the city, usually on some minor and ill-defined investigation  --  do the Knights of Malta really maintain their own post office?  --  and so I can be pleasantly amazed at what I actually do find, which needn’t be anyone’s tomb, but can be as interesting as the facade of an old house, with its worn masonry and dark windows set behind antique grillwork.  The streets and houses of the old section have character, more so it would appear than many of the people.  The old houses have dignity, and even on the hottest days present themselves elegantly.  Monuments often have an artificiality about them,  but houses were built for use, while at the same time built to project an image of their proprietors, an image of confidence, hauteur, pride, substance, taste...  Sitting in the shade on a park bench I sketched one of the houses that fronted on the intersection of two narrow streets and discovered that it was a crouching lion.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Roman Summer (1)

In a bleak midwinter almost twenty years ago I decided that I should spend the coming summer in Rome.  I had an illusion of familiarity with the City based on films and books  --  the betoga-ed ancients, the Borgias with their daggers and their poison cups, the Popes riding herd on their unruly artists and scientists, Mussolini on his balcony, the earthy, impoverished denizens of post-war Italian Realism and the beautiful, distracted creatures in Fellini’s films, all swarming together in the picture I carried in my mind of the Eternal City  --  though I had never actually been there.

So I went to the books.  In 1520, Martin Luther wrote, “The state of affairs in Rome beggars description.  You can find there a buying and selling, a bartering and bargaining, a lying and trickery, robbery and stealing, pomp, procuration, knavery and all sorts of stratagems to bring God into contempt, until it would be impossible for the Antichrist to govern more wickedly”.  Closer to our own time and sensibilities, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that he remembered Rome “chiefly as the place where Zelda and I had an appalling squabble.”  Whichever Rome I found would be just fine with me.

I probably ought say at this point that  --  as with other of my posts  --  I am extracting material from the journal I kept during my trip.  But unlike my earlier trips, this one had no well-considered purpose.  I was not going to attend a revolution or see a rain forest or look for a tomb or to visit numinous places or search out universal idioms in pre-contact art.  I was not even going consciously to self-romanticize, though of course I would find that quite impossible to avoid.

When I had been in Oaxaca earlier that year and mentioned to the Condessa that I might go to Rome she said that she would arrange for me to meet a famous film director whose movies I had admired, but as I was anything but a film buff I could not imagine what I would say to him, other than perhaps reveal that I had confused some of his work with that of one of his famous competitors and that it would be a waste of both our times for me to bother him, so I didn’t follow up on her kind offer.  (And I had by this time come to realize that the Condessa, a strong-willed woman, also had a tendency to leave a trail of burning bridges behind her, so I could not be completely confident in what sort of reception her introduction might bring me.)

And so I arrived in the Eternal City without a traveling companion to talk sense to me, with no Roman interlocutor or cicerone to explain what I was seeing, and what I would likely find there would be no more than might be expected of a middle aged lawyer who had read spottily, if enthusiastically, in classics and history and religion, adrift and on his own in what he believes to be the most interesting city in the world, even if he sometimes doesn’t like what he finds there.  The result is not unlike that of a medieval pilgrim visiting a distant holy place, who is both inspired and sometimes appalled by what he encounters in the holy city that he has heard of all his life.

My overnight flight from New York brought me bright, fresh and slightly disoriented into Rome’s Fiumicino airport, but I followed the guidebook directions and took a train to Ostiense, then the underground to Cavour and walked two blocks to my hotel, where I went to sleep for a day and a half.  My room at the hotel was cell-like, and the bathroom so narrow that I had to enter sideways, but it had a pleasant generic view of  Rome and a breeze through an open window.  At one point I heard through the haze of sleep a crowd cheering, and imagined that it was the North Italy Fresco Championship, with two muralisti pittore faced off over a vast expanse of wet plaster, crowds cheering as the Sienese favorite lays out great swaths of color, with muscular gods and lusty goddesses, rugged shepherds and compliant shepherdesses.  Of course, it was probably only a soccer game.
    Eventually I wandered out into the hot Italian afternoon.  A sign across the street from the hotel informed me that this was a zone of armed vigilance.  I had no idea what that meant, but I chose to find it reassuring.

On my walk I saw my first Roman cat, large and orange, asleep on a ledge.  The Roman cats are an ancient race, having come from Egypt, probably following the mice in the earliest grain shipments.  They have had in the City a history parallel to the caesars and popes which I am confident is just as interesting, though perhaps without the art and literature and wars.  They are all, I am sure, Borgias at heart, with a stiletto concealed beneath their fur doublet.  I have read that there are perhaps 300,000 free-range cats at large in the city, living in the ruins and fed by doting “cat ladies”.  It has been argued that the medieval practice of burning cats as familiars of witches may have allowed vermin to multiply and increased the severity of the plague.  If this is true, there would seem a certain justice to it.

    While Rome, like most cities, has a modern urban sprawl, the old city is small and compact, a jumble of buildings close together on short streets going in all directions, warrens of little lanes nested between thoroughfares.  There is no point in describing the city, as people have been doing so for twenty seven hundred years and it would probably be impossible for me to say anything new about it.    Another reason is that it turned out to be surprising easy to be negative, for what has been touted as the glory of Rome can equally be criticized as vulgarity, as the Dallas of Italy.  In other parts of the country they claim that the Roman insignia SPQR stands for Sono Porci Questio Romani --  “what pigs those Romans are”.

Another reason for not writing about the modern city  --  and I might as well introduce the idea now as it will make more sense of what follows  --  is that I really didn’t come here to see Rome as it was today.  I was time-traveling again, looking for the place that I had read about in old books.  The modern Italians with their Vespas and cell phones were just so much overburden, to be ignored as I went looking the fabulous city of my imagination.

(to be continued . . .)

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Something bad in the north of Quiché

It was late afternoon when I got back to the Capital, to my room at the guest house with the large tortoises roaming the hall.  I noticed that the evening air was filled with the pleasant smell of wood smoke.  In a country where the major energy source was firewood, I might expect this in rural areas, but in the Capital as well, just a few blocks from the National Palace?

There were some other Americans at the guesthouse, but I had not much to do with them, as it had always seemed to me that I had come all this distance to see foreigners, not my fellow countrymen whom I could see any time I wanted back home.  I am sure this was not a nuanced attitude, but it was what I did in those days.  I had picked up, though, from casual remarks that many of them were Peace Corps and that the guesthouse was a common stopping place for them, so I wasn’t surprised one afternoon when I got into a conversation with a fellow on his way back to another posting.
          One thing I remember from our conversation is that I asked him if, when he was out in the bush for some long time, he looked forward to getting back home.  He said that of course he did, but it was troublesome for Peace Corps people because after two years of huts and jungles they would return to the world of lawns and station wagons and see the people that they knew, who would be very nice about asking where they had been and what they had been doing, and then move on to other matters, as though he had just been on an interesting vacation and not gone almost two years on what was very close to a life-changing adventure, so that even when they were back home they sought out other Peace Corps people who would understand what the experience had meant to them. As with all my stories, this may reflect a particular point in time and I have since met others back from the field and it is my impression that things may be different today.

When I first thought to tell about this trip I assumed it would be a period piece, a bit of time travel back to the bye-gone days of jack-booted juntas and guerrillas in the forest and all that sort of thing that is now behind us.  And it should  be remembered that this trip took place in the fall of 1986, and the conditions I encountered then may bear little resemblance to whatever a current visitor might find.  The long communist insurrection was winding down  --  though it was far from over  --  and while it was claimed that the death squads had stood down, violence was still common even around the Capital, with lurid details in the morning papers of the bodies discovered overnight.  This was not drug gang violence as we might have today, but political, at least in the beginning, though by that time it was suspected that the robberies and ransoms were as much for the money as for the cause.

In my baggage at the guesthouse I found a Dollar bill stuck in the pages of one of the books I had brought with me and I realized that now it looked odd to me.  At the beginning of the trip, whenever I heard English being spoken I would move on because I wanted to be where English was not spoken, but now it seemed more pleasant to hear the short, familiar cadences of Anglo-Saxon  --  the little words of house and home  --  and I realized that my trip was winding down and I had had enough of being away from my own little world of house and home.

In the last few days before I returned home I wrote notes and made phone calls to thank some of the people who had been helpful to me and in general did end-of-trip sort of things.  I heard a rumor that something bad had happened in the north of Quiché, where I had been told a group called the Guerrilla Army of the Poor was operating, and when I stopped by the Colonel’s office to thank him for his assistance he handed me an envelope of photographs and said, “Here are your heroic guerrillas”.  (I fear I may have played the devil’s advocate with him in an earlier meeting.)
He said the photographs had been taken three days earlier.  They showed young soldiers  --  they looked to be teenage boys, Indians  --  who had been captured by the guerrillas.  They had been tortured by burning over large areas of their body before being shot in the head. On the back of one boy had been carved with a knife in large letters, “EGP”  --  the Guerrilla Army of the Poor.


I was going through an old file of clippings and correspondence and notes that I had accumulated in preparation for my trip and I found an item from a news magazine with a black and white photograph of bloated bodies along a jungle path, some murder of nameless innocents in a hot country, some effort to teach someone a lesson who would doubtless prove a slow learner, some bloody instruction which when taught would likely return to plague the teacher.  I once worried a great deal about justice, but I do less so now, as it seems that anyone who is ever punished for such things will seldom have been the person who actually did it and the murderers themselves, if they survive, will likely retire on a pension and the dead themselves become sock puppets in some later political drama staged for the purposes of others.  I have the impression that is what has happened in Guatemala since my visit.

The Cold War is over and when it ended it took the air out of these revolutionary struggles and, urgent as their injustices may yet cry out, the attention of the world has moved on, which has had the effect of bringing a sort of peace.

Monday, April 22, 2013


North from Chichicastenango is a pleasant green, park-like valley with pine trees and grass and along a winding road I meet my first Civil Patrol, five young men with old Mauser rifles and wearing what I took to be their uniform of green-painted straw hats.  They found me more amusing than suspicious.
     The road went through Santa Cruz and Sacapulas and at both I stopped at an Army base to ask about conditions farther up the road and in both cases I was told that all was muy tranquilo.  In the Capital I had been told by the Government spokesman that in the north of Quiché province the EGP, the Guerrilla Army of the Poor, was active and had fifteen hundred fighters, but the soldiers I met were relaxed and there was not a bit of tension in the air.  At Sacapulas a soldier helpfully pointed out that I was on the wrong road.

The road climbed into the dry country of the Altiplano and the twisting mountain road past Santa Cruz was dusty and bone-jarringly slow, but aside from the rough road it was a pleasant drive, though the only liquid I could obtain in the heat of the long afternoon were warm Pepsi-Colas I bought from little Indian girls who tended roadside stands.

It was evening when I arrived at the square in Nebaj.  I had scarcely turned off the motor when I was set upon by a flock of children wanting to know  if I needed a place to stay, someplace to eat, my shoes shined, or if perhaps I were merely looking for someone to give money to.  I was tired and in no mood for aggressive children, however charming I might have found them under other conditions.

One of them was particularly insistent, a small, round-faced Indian boy with a shoeshine box.  I guessed him to be about thirteen years old.  I tried to ignore him but he tagged along, keeping up a steady stream of questions in Spanish. 
     Then he asked if I spoke English.  Suspecting that no good would come from an honest answer, I replied, quite untruthfully, that I spoke only German.
     The youngster then reached into his coat and drew out a piece of paper and handed it to me. It was written in German, a letter from a journalist recommending the bearer as ein ehrlich Führer, an honest guide.
     This was how I met Gaspár, who would become my friend and honest guide.
Gaspár quickly found a room for me.  It was really more of a cell, a windowless, bare-walled chamber with loose planking on the floor in a fortress-like colonial building, lit by a single small, naked bulb suspended from the ceiling.  There were two cots with straw mattresses.  I spread my sleeping bag on one of the cots in an attempt to prevent whatever might be living in the mattress from getting on me.  This was to prove unsuccessful.  The room cost sixty-five cents a night.
     After arranging for my lodging, I asked Gaspár if he might recommend a good place for supper.  He led me to a low, dark, windowless establishment consisting of a single room lit only by a cooking fire.  It was crowded with people, mostly Indians, orange-lit by the flames, eating and talking in the smoky darkness.  It looked like Hell, but in a homey sort of way.  It is the best food in town, Gaspár assured me.  And it may well have been so, but, alas, I did not find out, for the dense wood smoke of the cooking fire, unrelieved by either window or chimney, stung my eyes and set me coughing.
     Seeing my problem, Gaspár led me to another smoky and ill-lit establishment, though one with a table outside where we ate a fine meal of chicken and rice and were by this time joined by Carlos, a smaller boy whom Gaspár introduced as his cousin.
     Tired from my drive, I retired to my cell, noticing that Gaspár and Carlos were joining me on the other cot.  I suppose being an ehrlich Führer is a full-time job.  I expected to get to sleep quickly.  I did not.  I was sick.  Very sick.  It would seem that the food in the second best restaurant in Nebaj did not agree with me.  I spent most of the night outside, on the cool ground under a magnolia bush.  It was actually quite comfortable and possibly safer than the straw bedding in my room.

Garpár and Carlos were up bright and early.  At least I think so.  I’m a little vague on the details of the next morning.  I think it was sometime during the morning that Carlos was replaced by Philipe, a boy of about Gaspár’s age, whom he introduced as another of his cousins.  The boys ate a hearty breakfast of mush and eggs and black beans and tortillas and coffee and I nursed a bottle of soda water.  Someone tried to sell me some ancient Mayan jade, but my mind wasn’t clear enough to contemplate violating the Antiquities Law so early in the morning.

Nebaj is in the north of Quiché province, and had long been a center of Indian participation in the now communist-led insurrection, and had suffered greatly when the guerrillas proved unable to protect their Indian allies from the Army.  I explained to Gaspár that I wanted to find out about two of the government’s key strategies in its apparently successful fight against the insurrection: the model villages and  civil patrols, the so-called frijoles y fusiles, the “beans and rifles” campaign.

The Indian cultures of Guatemala were never buried under imported European ways.  One reason is that the Spaniards never defeated the Indians of the Altiplano.  Three Spanish expeditions against them failed, but the Indians may have suspected that they were pushing their luck and a settlement was at length negotiated by the Dominicans, one that resulted in substantial Indian autonomy in local matters.  Among other things, this has meant that in remoter areas the principal language is 
not Spanish (or “Castillian” as it is locally called), but one of the twenty-two Indian languages.  In the case of Nebaj this was Ixil, and Gaspár was my interpreter.  I would talk to him in Spanish and he would do whatever had to be done in Ixil.  As I quickly realized that Gaspár was vastly better at driving a bargain than I could ever be, I knew that this was going to be a good arrangement.
     Gaspár took me to model villages and to meet with the civil patrols, and helped me do interviews and get photographs, and in general kept me out of trouble.  One day when I wanted to go farther north, close to an area where the guerrillas were said to be active, I asked Gaspár if it would be safe.  No problem, he said, just don’t wear your “military clothes,” indicating my stylish Banana Republic khaki bush jacket.  Knowing good advice when I heard it, I dressed as civilian as I could and no harm came to me.  Another time he hustled me out of a village market because, he said, bad people were watching me and it wasn’t safe for me to stay there anymore.

It soon became clear to me that Gaspár was much more interesting than model villages or civil patrols.  His parents, he told me, had died in the fighting, and now he and an indeterminate number of cousins lived with an uncle in Nebaj.

Garpár grew on me.  One morning, in Huehuetenango, we had corn flakes for breakfast.  Gaspár put hot milk on them.  I remarked that in el Norte we put cold milk on our corn flakes.  He thought it an odd thing to do and I suppose an Indian from the cool Altiplano would think it odd that anyone would eat a cold breakfast, if given the choice.  Another time, at a street fair, I gave him some money to play table soccer.  He played all evening on one coin, winning every game against the other kids by sheer energy and aggression.

Gaspár’s parents had been killed in the troubles, whether by guerrillas or the Army I didn’t ask.  A proper journalist would have asked, but I was coming to realize that I was not a proper journalist and it didn’t feel right to reduce a friend’s tragedy to a fact.  The worst times had been about five years before, when Gaspár would have been about eight or nine.  There were thousands of orphans in the Altiplano, children like Gaspár and Carlos and Philipe.  They were not cared for by the state or left to wander the street, but were taken in by uncles like Gaspár’s, to live in his house in the town.  Indian families are normally nuclear  --  a mother and father, the younger children and perhaps an elderly parent  --  living on their private plot of land and raising their own food.  But when the troubles came the vast extended network of uncles and cousins became a safety net to love and shelter the Gaspárs and Carloses and Philipes.
     Gaspár would be cared for, but his childhood had not much longer to run.  By his late teens an Indian boy is considered grown up, and expected to marry and become a farmer.  Gaspár would soon become a man, but for him the ties with his family’s life and land had been broken.  He did not live in his father’s house and on his  father’s land.  He did not work in their field or carry with a headstrap the heavy load of firewood for the cooking fire, as do the smallest children in an Indian family, nor carry his share of a great load of produce and walk the many miles with his family to the weekly market, nor could he look forward to they day when his father would divide his land to give him his share to grow his corn and beans, and raise his turkeys, to feed his own wife and children in a world that he would be as much a part of as the mountains or the corn plant.
     Gaspár’s world was now the town, where he shined shoes and acted as an honest guide for visiting foreigners.  He went to school and wanted to travel, which are un-Indianlike activities.  He wanted to come to el Norte with me, and I wished it could be so.
     The Indian world that Gaspár had been born into was comfortable and familiar, and it was sad to think that he had been shut out of it.  But then so have so many other Indians who have lost their home or family in the violence, or simply lost their land because there were too many children to divide it among, and they have to go down to the hot lands around Escuintla to try to find work on the great estates, or go to the city to work among the ladinos, who speak Castillian and have untrustworthy ways.
     But I thought Gaspár would do well in this new world.  He had become a town boy, accustomed to dealing with strangers.  He had learned how to win their confidence and he was scrupulously honest.  His mind was sharp and he was vastly optimistic.  The old ways that he has lost, for all their comfort and certainty, were confining and parochial and, I believe, not long sustainable in our modern world.  Both Indian life and village life were changing into something new and different, and not at all comforting and certain.  This was going to be a great problem for the Indians, into which they would be thrown much against their will.  But I thought Gaspár, torn from his own familiar world, would do well in this new one.  I dearly hoped so.

In the end, I sent the boys home because I wanted to be alone again.  I explained to Gaspár that since they had been with me I had written nothing and all these things that were happening were slipping by me and I wanted to write and writing was a solitary business.  And once the boys were gone my notebook started filling up again with things going on around me that if I didn’t write down would be forgotten.  I travel by myself and, while I can enjoy having a companion for a while, I notice that nothing gets written and I miss all the intense interior mental activity that goes in to writing and comes from being a stranger alone in a strange place.

Several days later, back in Antigua, I ran into the Swiss couple I had met there a week or so earlier.  They had also since been to Nebaj and stayed at the same wretched pension that I had.  Had they met a little round-faced shoeshine boy?  Gaspár?  Oh, yes, they had met him.  Nice young fellow.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Antigua, Atitlán & Chichicastenango

One morning in Antigua, while waiting for the bank to open, I wandered into a shop selling Indian fabrics.  I had no intention of buying anything, but Indian weavings are beautiful and I wanted to learn more about them.  The young clerk, who had been sleeping on a pallet in the back, gave me, his first customer of the day, his undivided attention.  I made the mistake of admiring something.

A beautiful piece, Señor, woven by an Indian woman of his personal acquaintance.  She is famous for her work.  What would I offer for it?

I told him I had no interest in buying.  He persisted.

Twenty Quetzales, I said, picking what I thought to be a ridiculously low price.

He was appalled.  This woman had spent two months on this one piece.  No, no; he could take no less that eighty.

Really, I said, it's worth no more than twenty to me.  I know it's a fine piece, worth much more, but I'm just not interested.  He should save it for a customer who appreciated such fine work.

Oh, no. Since I wanted it so much, he would make me a good price.  I could have it for no more than 75 Quetzales.

I tried to move on, but he persisted.  The materials alone were worth sixty.

No, no.  I'm really not interested.  Thirty, I said, hoping the low offer would show that I was not a serious prospect.

The poor fellow was almost in pain.  The lady, he explained, was a widow, the sole support of three infants.

By this time I really had completely lost interest in the piece, but kept going out of fascination with his sales pitch.

If she receives a centavo less than forty Quetzales her children will go hungry and she will undoubtedly go over to the rebels.

By this time the bank was open and I was getting tired of the game.  I wished him a prosperous day and walked out of his shop.

He followed me down the street and I finally bought it for 32 Quetzales. It's a nice piece. I'm glad he sold it to me.

Later, I was berated by an Indian lady for buying something from one of her competitors.  The matter was not resolved to her satisfaction and she stamped off, wishing me a “mal viaje”.

From Antigua, I drove toward Lake Atitlán, through small towns and beautiful countryside and cornfields.  Everyone seemed industrious, if not excessively prosperous in material things, and there were women in beautiful Indian dress and men with a machete in their belt.  A green and pleasant land.  

On my way to Lake Atitlán, I turned off the Pan American Highway to take what appeared might be a shorter and more interesting road that led through Patzicía and Patzún where I saw young people flying kites.  All Saints, a week past, is a special day for flying kites and a lady at the guest house had told me that Guatemala has a world-famous kite culture.  I knew of Patzicía because I had read in Carmen Pettersen’s Maya of Guatemala that on October 21st, 1944, “when there was some political disturbance in Guatemala City, news mistakenly reached the Indian town of Patzicía that the Indians throughout the country had risen against the ladino.  They immediately attacked and killed all the peaceful ladinos in the town, mostly government officials and store-keepers.  A similar action at Patzún was averted by the timely arrival of troops.”  All the ladinos were hacked to pieces, men, women and children, an indication of the latent hatred of the ladino.  The Indians hereabouts are Cakchiquel and Pettersen wrote that “the Cakchiquel believe that one day the ladinos will leave and Guatemala will belong to the Indians again.”  The Indianist dream: the white man will go away and the old ways will return.  The Army of course responded crushingly to the uprising. Then in 1976, the area was flattened by a huge earthquake, collapsing the heavy brick and adobe walls and the death toll was massive.

But if the Indians have had bad luck thrust upon them, just a few miles down the road at Panajachel I found people who seemed to have gone out of their way to find it, an infestation of blank-eyed Europeans in cheap, loose clothes and scraggly hair, hanging out in a country where you can live on twenty cents a day by panhandling or doing casual labor or who knows what.  A sorry contrast to the Indians who have endured serial misfortunes and still work hard and attend church and send their children to school and struggle to keep home and family intact and on beautiful fall days go out in the fields and fly kites.

On a narrow mountain road I was caught behind a line of trucks.  I was at first irritated, but then when an elephant stuck his head out of the back of the last truck and looked at me and I realized that I was behind a little circus on its way to a small town fiesta, I decided this was a perfectly delightful to be.

By the mile-high lake of Atitlán I had a late lunch at a nice, new restaurant where I was the only customer and the owner complained about how the trouble with the guerrillas had scared all her customers away.  Except the French, she added: “The French, they are afraid of nothing.”  There was, in  fact, an active guerrilla force still in control of the forested slopes of the volcano on the far side of the lake.  Afterward, I walked along the shore and found a tumbled-down structure of carved, black stone, apparently from Indian times, another of those ruins that had probably never been excavated, that you hear about in the jungle and sometimes stumble across yourself when you are out walking.

From Lake Atitlán I drove north toward Chichicastenango.  Once across the Pan American Highway the road became rough and narrow, in a number of places only marginally paved, and it was growing dark and the road began to fill with people walking home and animals which I had been warned would later be sleeping on the road.  The way began to climb with sharp cut-backs and then there were no more people along the road, only jungle and darkness.  I had been warned that I ought not be on the road at night because there were bandits, but then I also knew I was in the area of civil patrols which, to judge by what photographs I had seen of them, appeared to me indistinguishable from bandits.  It was quite dark when I arrived in Chichicastenango.
      It should probably be no surprise, but the locals quite sensibly call Chichicastenango "Chichi" and Huehuetenango is called, of course, "Huehue".
     I found a nice room for $6/night and opened my guidebook to see what the evening might hold and read: “Here, there is absolutely nothing to do at night.”  In confirmation of this, I learned that the hotel was locked and the doors barred at 10 p.m., and after eleven I heard only total silence in the town.  It was good that I had not arrived any later.

The next morning I was out early, before the hotel had set up breakfast  --  in fact, I had to remove the beam that was barring the front door  --  and went to the square and bought some bread to nibble on from the Heart of Jesus bakery.  In Chichicastenango there is a Big Church and a Little Church facing each other across the square and on the porch of each of them, across the entrance to the church, there was a line of burning candles tended by an Indian family and on the porch of the Little Church they had also a largish fire of pine boughs and pine sap smoking in a tin can censer, as it would have been done in the old days when they prayed to Chac and, as when I had seen certain other expressions of Indian piety I wondered who they were really praying to, or if even by asking the question I was demonstrating that I didn’t understand what was going on. 

While the name itself would have been sufficient reason to go to Chichicastenango, when I was in Guatemala City I had been given a reference to a person there who I was told would be alerted that I was coming, so late morning I phoned him and we walked around the town and talked.

I had been introduced to people through the Episcopal Church and later that day I attended Evening Prayer with the small Indian congregation in the town.  There were eighteen people, most of them from three extended families, who met in the front room of a small home.  The service was from the Book of Common Prayer, in Spanish, with the homily and intercessions in Quiché; a moving service as we sang and knelt together on the cement floor and said the familiar words, albeit for me in an unfamiliar form and place.  Afterward, I stopped at the home of my contact for a cold drink.  I tried to sound him out on how things had been three years earlier when the Army had been fighting the guerrillas in the area and he was diffident in his response, though as we were sitting in his parlor he did point to the corner of the room where the previous owner had been killed during la violéncia.

I felt I was getting along well enough in the language until, later that afternoon in the square, the prettiest lady I had seen in all Central America passed by and said something to me in Spanish and smiled and I realized that I had absolutely no idea what she had said. 

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Guatemala City

The next morning after breakfast I fed a leaf to one of the inelegant  --  and for all I know, ancient  --  tortoises plodding about the house, then out for more wandering around the old part of the city.  I went into the Cathedral.  Despite all the bleeding saints, it was an oddly bloodless place.  There were candles lit only before the BVM and Guadalupe, and the wall beside them thick with handwritten prayers and petitions and requests for aid, mostly of a non-specific nature, undoubtedly trusting the Virgin to use her best judgment.  

The park in front of the National Palace was full of people selling things and  shining shoes and fixing food, many of them family groups and many of them Indian.  A little girl, obviously belonging to someone nearby, though I could not tell who, climbed into my lap as I sat on a bench and examined my camera, as she might someone she found in her family’s living room.

There was industriousness everywhere.  A fellow had taken charge of some parking spaces along the street and guided cars in to park, then dusted and washed the car while the owner was gone and, I suppose, kept watch on it during the owner’s absence, all of which were undoubtedly worthwhile services for which I assumed he would receive an appropriate tip.  It was a business that required no investment and, one supposes, paid no taxes and can easily relocate should any problem develop.

That evening, the power went off in the old part of the city, as it often did, though this time it had the happy consequence of silencing three dueling loudspeakers that were playing music near the threshold of pain.  I sat under a restaurant awning enjoying the silence and watched candles appear on the tables of a restaurant across the street and, after a while, patrons wandered out of a darkened cinema, apparently used to this sort of thing.  A little boy came past and asked if I had any extra coins.  He wasn’t begging, just offering to help me with my spare change, so I rewarded him for his nuance.
It was raining by now and the rain was running off the awning, which turned out to have a leak immediately above my table.  My host brought out candles set in beer bottles.  It was all quite romantic, but it was getting late and I thought a walk back home in the rain would also be romantic, so I made my way along dark streets lit by the headlights of cars and arrived back at the guest house just as the power came back on.  It had been out for maybe  two hours.  I asked what caused the power to go out and no one seemed to think it an interesting question.  The rain continued that night, with thunder rolling around the city.  There were some explosions nearby, but they sounded innocent enough and I assumed they were probably for a barrio’s saint’s day, so I ignored them and slept well.  

Walking around the old part of town the next morning I noticed men sleeping in the doorway of cantinas and a mother and daughter stepping over a poor fellow twitching as he lay in the doorway of a nice shop and thought about photographing these things and then realized that they would have to be explained, that pictures don’t speak for themselves, or if they do they only tell half-truths.  The poor man in the doorway was not helped, but neither was he chased away.  In el Norte we would have done one or the other, but down here they do things differently.  And in a photograph we see only one two-hundredth of a second of reality and when offered as witness of a fact, they lack a basic forensic safeguard of truth: a photograph cannot be cross-examined, and those who write the captions do so with anonymous impunity.

In a small park off one of the narrow streets of the old section of the city I found an herbalist putting on an authentic medicine show.
     He had appropriated a dusty patch of ground and laid out several bundles of herbs, bottles, jugs and glasses, together with two large books opened to photographs of Greek ruins.  His presentation consisted of much moving about and mixing of liquids from his various bottles and jugs, and a constant patter.  The high point came when when a foul-looking brown liquid in a glass he was holding turned crystal clear, a demonstration, no doubt, of what his concoction would do in the gullet of a customer.  His audience, apparently aficionados of such stuff, displayed respectful amazement, but no inclination to purchase.   If he explained the significance of the pictures of the Greek ruins, I did not catch it.
     As I walked away from this spectacle I was set upon by a strange little man who told me that he knew all about insanity and had learned his English,   --  which was quite good  --  in the San Diego County Jail.  I had no reason to doubt him on either count.

For a country with a reputation for political oppression I had so far been disappointed in seeing any, so I was encouraged when I saw a large crowd near the Post Office.  Hoping at last to witness a demonstration against jackbooted oppression, I asked a passer-by what was happening.  He said it was a traffic accident.

The streets around the main Post Office in every direction are thick with people offering to buy Dollars.  Family members in the States send Dollars home.  For many years the Guatemalan Quetzal was on par with the Dollar, but there had been some problems and by that time it had slipped to two-and-a-half Quetzales to the Dollar.  But what impressed me wasn’t a weakened currency, but that there was a free market, because two years earlier in Nicaragua, where the Marxist government was enforcing a totally imaginary official rate, a fellow who had known me for several weeks took me into a back room and locked the door to exchange my Dollars, explaining in a low voice that it was six years in prison for private currency trading.  And if he was charging me extra for the drama, I thought it worth it.  I eventually discovered that the fellows soliciting in the street were just runners for someone around the corner with a fat wallet and pocket calculator who is the actual banker.

The Main Post Office was a nice-looking old building with stucco molding around the windows in the shape of perforations on a stamp.  I found the philatelic window and bought one of everything they had in stock and, while I had no actual need for any of them, I was certainly never going to have a better chance to buy old Guatemalan stamps at face value and the whole thing cost less than six Dollars and for that amount I could surely figure out some use for them.
     After I had paid the lady at the window I asked if she would put a postmark in my journal.  I was expecting a simple circular handstamp with the city and date, but instead she applied a fancy special cancel and when I expressed appreciation for that she started going through drawers to find others and by the time she was finished I had twenty-five different fancy cancels on my journal pages.  I was delighted and she had obviously had fun, too. 

In late afternoon I walked into the National Palace.  The place was open and accessible.  There were a few soldier standing guard with what I at first thought were Kalashnikovs, but then realized they were Galils, the Israeli version of the rifle.  While America had been unreliable about selling arms to the Guatemalans to fight the Marxist guerrillas, Guatemala was an early supporter of Israel and the Israelis remember their friends.  There was a photo display explaining recent history: “The National Army took power . . .,” “The Army replaced General A with General B . . .”.  This was the official version of how things worked: no democratic window dressing here.

Later that day, I decided I had absorbed enough atmosphere and ought be doing something constructive, so I started making phone calls to people I had been referred to, but got nothing but busy signals.  Deciding that I had done due diligence for the day, I wandered back out to see what is going on in the city.

I was shaken down by a shoeshine boy.  They can spot me blocks away.  He insisted on shining my shoes and when I finally relented he told me that his father was dead and he had a mother and two infant brothers and needed money to buy school books and tomorrow was his birthday and would I give him $5.  I gave him a Dollar, but he pointed out its inadequacy  I tried to escape to a nearby restaurant, but he followed, petitioningly.  He said he was hungry.  I gave him a Quetzal note.  He grinned and hurried off.

I used restaurants for lounging out of the weather and writing, but ate most of my midday meals on the street, where food was pleasantly cheap, if basic.  Twenty cents for a large slab of cornbread and an adequate meal for not much more and I noticed quite a bit of discarded fruit in the market, so a competent beggar probably need not go hungry in the capital, unsatisfactory as his living conditions might otherwise be.

There were tiny Indian children in the street.  A little girl, hardly three feet tall, carrying a baby in a sling and leading another child, with a third following along behind, fascinated with a strip of curly paper.

Eventually, I began to get through on the telephone and arranged to meet some Church and academic people I had been referred to and a nice lady at the USIA press office said she would also arrange some appointments.  In Nicaragua I had needed to get press credentials, but here everyone seemed to take me at my word.  So I settled down for a few days of doing interviews and impersonating a Foreign Correspondent.  At one point a fellow who was arranging for me to meet a colonel mentioned that I should dress presentably, adding pointedly “not as you are dressed now,” and when I protested that I was wearing the best clothes I had with me he referred me to a haberdasher in the shopping district where I bought a white linen coat and a tasteful necktie, that I might make a good impression on the junta.

But such earnest effort can be kept up only so long and after a few days of filling my notebook with interesting interviews I was ready to get out of town, so I rented a Jeep and headed north on the Pan American Highway, a smooth, four-lane blacktop with volcanoes in the distance and thick forest coming down on steep slopes under a bright blue sky and gates leading back to great estates and campesinos walking along the road and almost no traffic, to the beautiful old colonial town of Antigua with its square-grid streets and colonnaded arcades and bright-painted plaster walls and iron-grilled windows.  It looked so perfect a colonial town it could have been a stage set and I found a very nice place to stay, in an old building that opened around a garden courtyard where parrots squawked about.