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.

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