Saturday, December 25, 2010
Thursday, December 23, 2010
When you’re looking for the memories, they’ll turn up everywhere. They’re little reminders of your other life: your family, your home, the good times you had, and the bad ones. Familiar faces, familiar mountains, familiar voices, familiar songs. They come when you least expect them; you’re walking down the street on the side with the most sun, taking care not to stumble off the disappearing sidewalk, when all of a sudden you hear bells, bells, just like the ones you heard all your life, growing up. But these aren’t bells from the stone church across from the post office; these bells come from an unknown place, and so although you want to stop and strain to listen, you must tell yourself to keep going, those aren’t the bells you wish they were, they’re just an echo.
And even if you aren’t looking for the memories, they’ll find you. They always do. The radios play Christmas songs here, sometimes the same exact versions you learned growing up, but you cannot let yourself daydream about that upcoming holiday, and who you’ll eat with and what you’ll wear and which gifts you’ve bought, because those things don’t really matter for you now. You can’t stop and let yourself remember Christmases in the Albany house, when everyone came to be under the same roof, and your grandmother put you in your father’s childhood bed. On those nights no one got any sleep, really, and when you went downstairs in the morning a sheet would be pinned over the doorway, and your brother would peep beneath it to get the first glimpse of the Christmas tree. No, you can’t indulge in memories like that, memories triggered by some carol playing on the kitchen radio, because without anyone to share them with, those memories will suck you dry. They’ll leave you feeling empty even when you know you should feel full, heavy with exhilaration, breathless for what Christmas in this country might hold. And so you’ve got to shake the memories off and walk away.
But, try as you might, the memories will always be everywhere, even if you forget for a while to look. I promise you this will be true. Like I said, they seek you out. Look at that man’s hands as he counts your change at the grocery store. Those are your brother’s hands. And when, in the middle of the night, you wake and step outside and see that the full moon is pouring its light over everything, blotting out the stars, you will wish your father could see how bright it gets here, because he was the one who always made you come look at the beautiful things in the sky when you were just a little girl. And while you’re walking back from the market, you will notice a man, that one, there, who is leaning against the wall looking in at the Sunday wedding on Avenida 13. Do you see his eyes? He has your grandfather’s eyes. And do you smell that, as we walk past the bread-shop? That’s the smell of your grandmother’s kitchen in winter. You see faces you think you know, but they are really the faces of strangers. You taste food that you’re certain your friend has prepared, except she is thousands of miles away. And there’s your mother’s voice, which you hear everywhere.
The memories will come to you most often when you are asleep. During the day, walking around, eating lunch or sitting with your teacher, you might forget that the memories live everywhere: in the little nooks in the walls, in the spaces between buildings, in the trees and in the stained glass windows you pass each day. But at night you must surrender, or you’ll never get any sleep. You’ll dream of being home, because that is impossible. You’ll dream of cups of coffee at your mother’s table, snow in the woods behind your home, the curve of your lover’s back. You’ll wake to the sound of the neighbor’s cat—gato feo, everyone calls her—and you will think, from the sound of her yeowling, that she is your own, and that this is your apartment, and that in a few minutes you will open your eyes and have the soft weight of her on your bed with you. But, soon enough, you will realize where you actually are, and you will find that for several long and lonely moments you just can't push down that ache that has formed in your heart. It comes from a sadness, a distance that’s measured in more than just miles, because all you’ve got are these walls of memories, everywhere.
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
Sunday, December 19, 2010
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
Yesterday Henry did it, and today it was the guy we met at the gringo party last week. With Henry, it happened as Kendra and I were walking home after class, after dark. The streets get quieter then, and the stars provide the only light. We walk fast, partly because it is cold, but mostly because we know it isn’t safe to wander around after dark. You should definitely never seem lost, or drunk, or wealthy. So we keep our heads down, walk fast up the hill and around the bend to Avenida 18, where we rush to the house, unlock the door and then pull it shut fast behind us.
But Henry snuck up on us last night. He must have seen us turn the bend, past the stone bridge and up the hill, and he recognized us and ran over and pounced on us, his hands on our shoulders. Before I could process who it was, I felt the hand on me, the unknown man behind me, and I screamed, because I was terrified. Right away I knew that it was Henry, but it was too late. My heart was already pounding after having briefly stopped. I couldn’t speak for a second. Moments like that one, the second before you know you are safe, are the ones that penetrate my dreams and make me wake up sweating. They are the instants I imagine in the darkest hours of the night, the moments I’m most afraid of, the ones that haunt my nightmares, drain my body of adrenaline and keep me up until the sky grows light again. They are the times that must mean less to a man. They must not know how it feels for us, when we’re walking alone, aware of what might be out there, aware of what could happen and the silence that would follow.
The guy from the party last week did it to me today. Under the noon sun, he came up behind me and shook my pack, a joke, but even though we were surrounded by people and there were the police, right there, my heart stopped for a second. I felt that same brief paralysis, that urge to scream, to self-defend. I turned and it was that guy's familiar face, just grinning at me, and I guess he didn’t see the flash of fear in my eyes because he just punched my shoulder, lightly, and kept walking. I had to bite back tears after that. Why do men do that to women? They shouldn’t do it anywhere, but they shouldn’t do it here, here in Guatemala where every day someone tells me what is dangerous—shopping for clothes in the market, carrying credit cards in my wallet, crossing the street, buying vegetables. Would a woman ever sneak up behind another woman? Is scaring someone really worth the laugh? That kind of a joke means terror for us. Don’t do it to me again.
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Next, we find books in Spanish, dusty, moth-eaten books published in the 60’s, among the books left behind by foreigners - English-Spanish dictionaries, novels in German, old Guatemalan guidebooks. We examine the curling pictures pasted to the walls, the old calendars, the dusty vases of artificial flowers. Then, two nights ago, Kendra discovered the record collection.
The collection comes with a record player, which you’d think was a boom-box from the ‘80s, except it opens up and then there’s the needle. Kendra dragged the player off the shelf, dusted it off, plugged it into the wall, and drew one of the records from the shelves. For some reason we hadn’t noticed these records before, but there are dozens of them, stacked together and pushed back on the shelf, half-concealed behind a curtain.
The records sound great on the machine. On the first night, we laughed at the covers, giggled at the lyrics, which consist of lots of te quiero’s and some Spanglish. But the records have grown on us. We like the India Maya, a band from the 70’s who have produced a number of records—Norma has them all. Many of the record covers have the band’s phone number, so you can call them if you want them to play at your party. Now, in the evenings, I fall asleep to the sound of those records, whose melodies jolted me at first but have now become familiar. I hum along with the songs and fall asleep to the music, the funny, jerky songs that have become part of the fabric of this trip.
Monday, December 13, 2010
Fireworks have been popping all day, starting, as usual, at 4 AM. I have stopped wondering why little children are allowed to play with fireworks, and in fact I hardly hear them at night now; I wake up to the booms and then fall asleep again without waiting for the crackling to stop. But today is a special day, an auspicious day, and so the fireworks are out in full force. Everywhere you walk, you hear them crack around the corner. Kids run past clutching the bright sticks in their hands. Everyone is decked out in their best clothing, their traditional clothing, their clothing tipica, and they eye Kendra and Henry and Sergio and I as we slouch past in our jeans and denim shirts and faded backpacks. Men clutch their girlfriends’ waists; parents clutch their childrens’ hands; their children clutch fireworks and ice-cream cones and pink cotton candies. Yes, the parque central is pulsing today.
We leave the town and hike up the hill towards where the countryside begins. The buildings dwindle and diminish, but we pass a large, crowded church where, outside, women are serving food on styrafoam plates to their men and children and elderly. At this church everyone wears their finery; the women have woven ribbons and flowers into their glossy braids, and the men wear dark suits and ties and cowboy hats and polished black shoes. The children are in tipica clothing, brilliant Mayan skirts and peasant blouses, with shiny gold earrings dangling from their ears. Huge letters mounted on the roof of the church read, Christo Viene. Christ is coming. Kendra describes the way the sign reminds her of roadside billboards in Alabama which threaten their residents with Christ’s impending visit. Christ is coming soon—behave! Christ is coming to get you. Inwardly I doubt that this is what those signs read, verbatim, but I don’t question the way the words on the roof remind Kendra of the definitive messages she saw in the South.
We walk up and up, away from the bustling church at lunchtime and into the hills. The bumpy rock road becomes a trail, which cuts alongside a crumbling stone wall. Sergio tells us that a rich Spanish man owns the land beyond the wall, and he works somewhere in Xela now. We take turns hoisting our bodies up to peer over the wall at the long meadows and stands of piñón that break up the rich man’s property, and then we keep walking, past little fields of dry corn, past a stand of grain, wheat maybe, that waves in the hot wind, past little flower gardens. Past wild bougainvillea, past farmers walking with machetes. The sight of those long, curved knives has become, like the fireworks, a familiar thing that no longer startles me.
We walk past an old, crumbling colonial house that, in it’s heydey, must have had a glistening fountain of cool water, extensive gardens, a view of a land that once was wilder. Now, decrepit, the fountain stands dry, the gardens dry too, the view also dry and hot and jammed with the buildings that make up Xela and the towns surrounding it. Old corn cobs are drying in piles out front, and we peer through the locked black gates at the whole lot. Behind us are a few huts with tin roofs. A boy in a blue tie watches us from where he is perched on his bike, and beyond him two dozen boys play soccer on a dusty, uneven field. Una escuela? I ask Sergio. No, una familla? he guesses. A huge family, I think to myself, as we keep walking back down the hill, past the eroded colonial house and the vibrant, shouting game of soccer.
And then we come to a little unassuming building painted green, with a few wide beams that create open-air walls. Come here, Sergio tells us, and we follow him towards the church and down a little incline. The air grows suddenly quiet, the shouting from the match obliterated, the wind temporarily ceased. The heat swells and I am suddenly sweating a little, but somehow also cold. We pass between shade and sunlight. We follow Sergio down.
We reach another little open-air hut, but this one is different than the empty green building we just passed, because this hut is lined all around with little statues, reminiscient of those Easter Island sculptures but of course much smaller. These statues are two feet tall and have round little heads and long bodies and drip with candles that have melted on them. Inside, white flowers litter the ground, their petals scattered, Two candles burn in a little altar carved into the front wall of the room. Sergio explains that this is a Mayan ceremonial site. He points to the firepits surrounding the building, and then up into the hills. They live there, he tells us. The Maya live there.
There is no one around, but I can feel a presence. Maybe it’s the candles that have recently been lit, or the fresh flowers, or the burnt-out fire pits. Someone came here this morning, and maybe last night, to honor these idols, these decidedly non-Christian statues. Just a mile below, the Catholics are celebrating, eating, praying for Christ to hurry up and come, but here, where the only sound is the filter of wind, something else has happened. It’s something secret, something sacred, something few have witnessed, something more ancient than even Christ’s first arrival. We leave the flower petals to swirl in the wind and fly from the idols they were brought here to decorate, to honor, to enable a different kind of worship.
Sunday, December 12, 2010
The sun just keeps getting hotter; I’ve never seen a place with such a range of temperatures in a 24-hour span. The nights are nearly freezing; we put on all the layers we have. Yet we’re peeling off clothes now; Kendra’s down to her t-shirt and skirt and sandals, and I’ve rolled up the sleeves of my thermal. We both wear sunglasses; I wish I brought sunblock. I can see that my hands and forearms are growing pink. I try not to think about that. Instead, I make an executive decision; if that is the mountain, and this road leads towards it, then let’s take this road. And I start walking. Kendra’s not going to stand at this corner alone, so after a moment, she follows. The road turns from pavement to sand.
We remember that the map described a steep hill we should walk up, to get to the trailhead. We pass a woman with a huge basket of flowers on her head; a man and woman walking with their young son between them; a mangy dog. The road grows quieter and quieter and then suddenly we’re out of the city, surrounded by fields, ascending a hill dotted with houses and crowing with roosters, lowing with cows. The road gets more and more narrow; the sun gets hotter and hotter. Neither of us feel that this is the correct way, and neither of us says it out loud. In any case, I think to myself, we’re climbing some mountain, maybe not the right one, but something, because we’re definitely going up, and there, now I can see the summit, up there in the distance. The road is getting steeper just like the map said, so maybe there is hope, and at least we’re out of Xela, which on warm afternoons like these grows stuffy, sticky, and grime coats our bodies. Here, at least, the air is clean, the breeze cool.
Now the road thins into a trail, a herd-path, and I do not say to Kendra that this just can’t be the main path up el baúl. The site is too popular for such a narrow path. But we just keep walking, because even though we have our doubts, we like this silence, a silence interrupted only by the meow of that gray cat perched on a rock, watching us and looking a little like a ghost-cat, because it’s so thin and gray and has such big, pale eyes. There’s the sound of grass crackling in the distance where someone is walking with their cow, and sometimes when we pass houses, we set dogs barking. There is the splash of water behind someone’s sheet-metal gate. An older woman peeks over it to watch us pass; I raise my arm to her. Buenos tardes, I say to her, and she grins wide, showing off her one gold tooth. Buenos tardes, she calls out, and sets the dogs barking all over again.
Now we come to a fork in the trail. We have two options. I hesitate, then lead Kendra to the left, up the path that looks slightly more trodden. She doesn’t go first because the barking dogs in the house next to the trail scare her a little, but they don’t scare me, because there, look now, they scoot under the metal gate to bark and bark, but when we get close they just scoot right back in. They’re more afraid of us than we are of them, I tell myself. We walk past the house, the last house on the hill it looks like, past the metal gate and then the porch, which is littered with old chairs and an old, dusty car and some old plywood boards. An old hammock. Everything is the same color, because of the fine layer of dust sifted over it.
But as we pass the porch and start up the narrow trail, which grows even steeper and disappears into berry bushes, we hear the voice of a woman behind us. We turn. She’s standing at the gate with her hands on her hips and her gray-streaked hair pulled back behind her head in a knot. No camino, she repeats a little louder. We turn around and walk back down to her, and she gestures towards the other path, curving her hand to show us that we must walk around the house and upwards. We thank her, keep walking, and when I turn to see whether she’s still watching, I hear the metal gate bang and she is gone.
The trail just gets steeper and steeper, and I can feel sweat bead at my temples. I try not to worry that we’re running out of water. We walk past cornfields that have been planted in small flat places between valleys. We walk under stands of tall piñón trees, which cool the air and so for which we are grateful. We don’t know where we are, but that woman back there did say this was the path, the path to somewhere, and so I allow myself to be reassured, by what that woman said and also by the nice smell of piñón in the air, and the way the sun falls in patches on the ground, and the way that man in the distance raises his arm to wave at us as we walk past where he is herding his animals.
And then, all of a sudden, there is trash on the ground, styrafoam platters wrapped around the thick bushes, and that reassures me too, because it must mean that we are near the toll road, the toll road the map described, the one that, clearly, we weren’t able to find. And sure enough, we climb up a little more and all of a sudden we’re on the road, a paved road that, sure enough, is going up, curving at a slow incline but ascending nevertheless. Kendra and I grin at each other. The pavement feels so easy to walk on, after that thick brushy trail. Looking down into the valley, we can see dirt roads, more patches of cornfield, and in the distance there is fog between the mountains. Farther off there is a city, a dry city built on a floodplain, the land all around it arid and yellow, so different than the lush green of the trees in the hills, the moist white fog.
Eventually we hear the sound of sticks breaking above us. Maybe it’s a squirrel, we guess. Maybe it’s a monkey. But as we get closer we see that it’s a man, a man who has managed to climb thirty feet up and is breaking the branches off an old piñón and tossing them to the ground. Buenos tardes, we call up. Buenos tardes, he says, looking down. The branches land with a dry clatter on the pavement. We walk a little more, through a gate where an official-looking man with a big gun waves us past, and then we break out onto the summit, where most people have driven up in carloads and are gathered at picnic tables, or around the metal slides that people ride down on sheets of cardboard. We walk past the big monument with the Mayan script, past the grills and the baños until we reach the big yellow gazebo that overlooks the big cross and, beyond that, the three cities, Xela and the towns that border it. Houses sprawl below us, and then the mountains rise up, suddenly, like a wall that divides one plain from another. We can see everything from here, we think to ourselves, and we forget the sweaty walk, the group of Guatemalan boys beside us that are eating meat from styrafoam containers and watching us. We see only the view, the magic fog in the distant hills, and we can feel the reward of this wind, which cools the hot air and slows our hearts.