So many times I’d invited Martín to meet me somewhere and he’d never bitten the bullet, always preferring to spend time with his women friends, and showing some resentment for the very fact that I had married and sometimes had research grants to places he might like to go but wouldn’t go to just out of spite. But this time, when I let on that Amelia would be leaving some days after his arrival, he lit up and assured me he was coming after all, supposedly with my wife’s brother, and then we’d go off to explore the world we were just getting to know with them making it the greatest of times.
Sure enough, the day came and we went out to the airport, only to find that Martín had arrived alone and that as always my brother-in-law had frustrated our plans. But there was Martín, smiling and ready to take on what for him was a new land. The only problem was that by this time I had begun to make contacts in Guatemala City and was now participating in a conference which brought several of the country’s most important writers and critics under one roof, where I could observe them, ponder what they had to offer, and even meet and hob-nob with at least some of them. So I wasn’t as free to spend much time with him in the first days of his stay without sacrificing my effort to make friends and contacts that would be crucial to my research work. I explained the situation to him as best I could. And by way of compensation, I bought him a kind of literary and historical guidebook to the city which pin-pointed key locales depicted in Miguel Angel Asturias’ El señor presidente and other Guatemalan texts—even indicating places where dissident students, workers or Indigenous leaders were killed in one run-in or another with the police or military under Cabrera Estrada, or any of the subsequent strongmen who haunted the history of the country.
Of course, Amelia offered herself as Martín’s host and guide until my networking work was done. And of course I invited both of them to particular conference sessions, cultural events or cocktail parties I thought they might enjoy. But soon he indicated that was not really his cup of tea. And you could tell right away that he was more than a bit miffed by an arrangement which left him without any male fellow-traveller and guide, and without any simple pretext or means for exploring the more seedy and depressing aspects of the city’s life that I knew my friend, like most males, would most likely want to include in his touring itinerary. Making the best of it, he let Amelia show him around the city: the cathedral and governmental buildings where he bought a few postcards, the central market where he bought a Mayan tote-bag, and a few special restaurants, where Amelia followed his lead in savoring one rare plate after another. Then she took him to the key art and historical museums, introduced him to some the finest art and handicraft shops, as well as the new shopping malls, and other aspects of Guatemala’s emerging narco-capitalism. By the third day, he’d boned up on the guidebook I’d given him and virtually directed Amelia in a tour to some of the key landmarks—the fine houses, the prisons, bars, bordellos and murder sites—mapped out in the text. At a certain point, thoroughly exhausted, she complained that he was much like one or another of the dictators whose stomping grounds they were exploring, and insisted they return to our apartment. He apparently balked at first and then gave in against his will—though when they got back, it was he not she who fell asleep almost on the spot.
That evening he complained about how Amelia had steered him away from the rougher parts of the city and had raced past the very places he’d hoped to explore most fully. I understood that this was his way of shaming me into cutting short my research networking efforts. And it worked, and it was right. Because why had I invited him if I wasn’t going to dedicate myself virtually fulltime to his amusement and adventures? So that, the next morning, I found myself reluctantly saying goodbye to my new acquaintances and leaving the conference just as the formal sessions ended and the interpersonal interactions were reaching their greatest intensity.
I guess I couldn’t help but feel some resentment toward my friend even as I realized most fully that my invitation had meant responsibilities. So by noon I was back at our place, and by one p.m., we were packed and ready for our trip toward the wonderful town of Antigua and beyond.
“The whole problem with Guatemala City,” I lectured Martín, “is that it became the capital after the colonial period, when an earthquake destroyed Antigua, so it’s kind of a classic 19th Century city with a series of twentieth century overlays, but with few pre-colonial or colonial structures visible to the eye, and what would normally have been the colonial center of the city is the museum of ruins we’re off to see today several miles from here.”
The drive was short enough, and we soon found ourselves walking around street after street even after the sun went down, enjoying every colonial earthquake ruin, every shop or church we could visit. That night, we attended a rock concert which made an amazing colonial structure start to tremble; and the very next day we made our way to Chichicastenango, a center of Mayan crafts, where Martín tried on mask after mask as Amelia took his picture as bear, as deer or whatever over and over again. He bartered for a wolf mask, and then it was on to Solalá and the towns around Lake Atitlán.
Everywhere we went on our route, Martín made a point of taking photos of the indigenous people, paying them for their posing. “Don’t you think this is all too quaint?” I asked him. “Wouldn’t it be better to be a more critical tourist?” “Ay,” Martín answered, “On a trip you have to enjoy life as it is, no matter how critical part of your head tells you to be. I understand that we are euro-colonialists screwing up a world, but what should one do—mope and groan? Isn’t better to savor what life brings us?” So he enjoyed shopping for masks and textiles in Chichi, where the Mayans were so happy that he was buying; so he enjoyed the Bonifacio Hotel in Quetzaltenango or Xela, where the waitresses made their living by serving supposedly authentic food in their native costumes. He loved the aging hippies in Atitlán and seemed to have no problem with the poverty and inequality he saw all around him, to say nothing of the military garrisons at the entrance and exit, as well as the center of every town. “In other countries, towns have fast-food joints at their crossroads, but here it’s direct military menace. Do you know how many poor indigenous people were massacred in this area just a few years ago?” I asked him, knowing all the while that he more or less knew. “I’ve been studying all that’s happened, and every place we go brings back one horror story or another.” “Yes,” Martín said grimly, “but let’s not dwell on awful things—let’s get something to drink.”
I guess the real crisis with Amelia came when he went up to a couple of soldiers and got ever so chummy with them, even asking them to pose for a picture with him, and even getting her to take the shot. That was just about it for her. “I think I should move up my departure date,” she told me when Martín was in the bathroom, “and let you and Martín enjoy a second trip on your own.” And sure enough, without seeing all we should see, we found ourselves cutting things short and driving back to the city to renegotiate her plane ticket and then take her to the airport the very next day, so she could make her way back to Chicago and we could begin our own male-bonding journey from the airport to the surrounding countryside.
First we went south down to Lake Amatitlán, where we hired a boat and went out to other extreme of the lake enjoying our ride, though wondering what we were doing or why. Soon Martín was engaged in a conversation with the boatman, who had introduced himself to us as Luis, but who Martín insisted on calling joven, or young man, even though he was older than either of us. “Why do you keep calling him joven?” I asked. “It’s like calling a Black person boy in Chicago.” “No, no,” Martín insisted, “it’s common usage, it’s the way we say things in Mexico.” “It’s a bunch of colonial racist crap,” I told him. But he brushed my statement aside. “Well, I’m the most anti-colonialist person you’ll ever meet,” he told me. “Then stop calling him joven,” I snapped at him. But he couldn’t desist. And it’s true he had read more Chomsky and Galeano than any one, but that didn’t seem to count when he talked to some poor soul. As Jewish as he might be on the one hand, he was quite Mexican on the other; and I guess to him all Guatemalans were maybe more indigenous than the urban Mexicans who made up the world of his Mexico City youth; and he’d be damned if a gringo, no matter how much of a friend or how supposedly knowledgeable about Latin America he might be, would tell him how to speak to a Guatemalan.
Gratefully, we finished our otherwise eventless boat ride and then rode further on toward Esquintla, where we stopped for a light lunch; and then, passing the highway exit east toward the highlands, we decided to proceed up north toward the coastal port town of San José where we could enjoy a tropical night. On the way into town, we both commented on the excessive heat in this part of the country; and, perhaps because we were thirsty, Martín insisted we stop and buy one of the beautiful papayas an old man was selling along the side of the road. I questioned the purchase because I always found Guatemalan papayas too dry and lacking in flavor. But Martín said disagreed. “You’re used to highland papaya, but this will be different—you’ll soon see how good this papaya is in this climate.”
It was certainly hot and humid that day. Driving into town, we went directly toward the coast where we had our first glimpse of San José’s infamous black sand beach and the correspondingly black water that looked all too uninviting. Still we circled back toward the shabby, shanty-filled town and found a decent enough motel with a very large swimming pool. Leaving our things, we went back to the beach and tried the water in the heat of the day. It was pleasant enough, even though the water was almost as warm as the air, and the black murk restrained our fuller pleasure. Sitting at a beachside bar, we drank one beer after another in the steamy heat as we argued about caste and race. “This country’s a caricature of Mexico,” he said, “and Mexico is just an up-scale and whiter version of Guatemala, but with gringos close by.” Finally, we tired of the ugly sea and our constant differences with regard to our constant themes, so we drove back to the motel, changing for dinner and going to a seafood dinner at a restaurant down the street. Still I had trouble enjoying the fish because I imagined it coming from the brackish beach water. Getting back to our motel, we realized there was little to do in the heated heavy humid air but make a swimming night of it in the hotel pool. Indeed we stayed for hours drinking beer, swimming, and flirting with some women who were staying at the motel until we realized we were getting nowhere, and finally went off to bed.
The next morning, we went down to the breakfast room, Martín with papaya in hand. And there, after ordering our breakfasts, he requested a knife so he could start his morning with the papaya. The waiter offered to cut it for him, and he sliced it with great skill and delicacy. “Add a banana,” Martín urged, and the waiter complied. “See?” Martín said. “This is what we’ve been missing on this trip.” “I guess I get what you mean,” I said.
Sure enough, I had never tasted a papaya like it, and I owned up to Martín that he was right, that it was delicious and even one who does not usually enjoy papaya could see this particular example to be a marvel. “Ha,” he said, “And you think I know nothing of Latin America, when I was born and raised in Mexico City. And I know my people and what to call them just as I know my papayas and bananas to boot.”
Off we went, having had enough of the fetid coast and heading back toward the Esquintla turnoff toward Retalhuleu and then toward the highlands and Xela once again. This time we stayed at a tiny hotel and tried to pick up on some local cultural happenings. But all doors seemed closed to us, and we were soon bored by a city we couldn’t seem to penetrate. That was when decided to head off to Totonicapán on our way to Huehuetenango. In the first town, we stopped to watch a soccer game that brought a big crowd to the central plaza. “Soccer’s the way Indian kids loose their roots and become ladinized,” I commented. “They play pretty well,” said Martín, who had little or no interest in sports but even less in my constant anthropological discourse. “That’s not the point,” I said.
They then took the long drive up to Huehue, finding a hotel and going to bed early, waking up the next morning ready to take the short ride out to the ruins of Zaculeu, the capital of the Postclassic Mam kingdom conquered by the Quiches and then attacked and conquered again by the Spanish during a siege that lasted several months.
For almost two hours, we wandered among the various pyramids high and low, without a guidebook or without understanding much of what we were seeing, but enjoying the architecture, the morning air, the aura and the fact that we were doing something tourists should do. After awhile, just as our walking around was beginning to drag, we noticed two indigenous women sitting on one of the staircases leading up the side of one of the larger ruins. Martín immediately reached for his camera, and made ready to shoot. But I purposely cut in front of him and walked toward the women. “Buenos días,” I said, and they both returned my greeting in their high-pitched, Mam-inflected Spanish. I noticed that they each had a few huipiles which they kept in hemp bags, somehow tied to the huipiles they were wearing. “Are you here to sell your huipiles?” Martín asked. “No, we sold many to the market people this morning, so we had some free time and came out here on the bus to visit…” “To see the ruins,” I suggested. “To visit our ancestors,” said the younger woman. “It is beautiful here,” Martín said. “Yes, but so many died here long ago,” said the older woman. “And also not so long ago,” her companion added. “It’s a good, deep place to visit and think about,” I offered.
Martín asked if he could look at the huipiles. They obliged him and he started examining one after the other. “They are very beautiful,” I said. “Yes, but we asked too much for them, and we wouldn’t give them up for the price they offered.” “What would be your best price?” Martín asked. “We can’t sell them here,” said the older woman. “Well what if we gave you a ride back to town?” The women looked from one to the other and agreed. “That would be good,” they said. Soon we were all in the car making our way from the ruins back down to Huehue. “Are you ladies married?” Martín asked. “I am,” said the younger one, “but my sister is free.” Both women started laughing, and the laughs soon turned to giggles. “Well, don’t get your hopes up,” Martín said, maybe uncomfortable that he’d taken them down the wrong road. “I’m very married myself,” he lied. I just kept driving, wondering what they might have thought of a concept like “very married.” And sure enough, the older one laughed again and then made a suggestion. “Maybe you can have two wives!” she offered. “My god!” Martín roared. “One wife is trouble enough!”
Once we were in town, the women directed me to the Central Market; and once there, we got out of the car, and Martín began bargaining for a huipil, buying one from his new bride to be. At this point, I felt I had to buy one from the other woman. But then Martín argued that we should get a reduced rate for buying two. I began to scold Martín about this cheapo move, as the women watched and listened, but they couldn’t seem to grasp our increasingly fast and loud patter. “They’re used to this,” Martín said, “it’s an insult to them not to barter.” I wasn’t so sure, but saw that the women seemed satisfied to settle for a lower price. “And what if I wanted to buy a few more, after I return home?” Martín asked. “Oh, you can FAX us,” said the older woman eagerly, as she handed Martín a card with her name and FAX number. We were both taken aback, but the younger woman couldn’t resist a further joke. “See, now you can FAX her una carta de amor!” she said. “Yes,” Martín said, “But I see she drives a hard bargain, and my wife will get very angry.” “Oh yes,” said the older woman. “Because you are ‘very married’!” We thanked them and said goodbye, as a bus came to take them back to their village. “A great morning,” Martín said, pleased with the conversation. “You see,” he boasted. “I know how to bargain, and now I can maybe get some low-price huipiles in the future.”
I said nothing wondering what he’d do with a pile of huipiles, but I was more than happy to leave Huehuetenango and head back to Atitlán, where we spent the night, went out on the lake, and, in the evening, attended a Protestant service where Martín took more pictures and paid some additional village folks to pose. “And I thought they were into Mayan deities and Catholic overlays,” he commented. “Not any more,” I answered. “Now every right wing evangelical group is converting Mayans in every area where the death toll was high.” Martín said nothing further but focused on finding us a place Fodor’s might recommend us to eat.
The next day it was back to Antigua, some more shopping, some more photo ops; and before you knew it, we drove back to Guatemala City, where he wanted to do at least some of the things he couldn’t do with Amelia. He was leaving the next morning, and I figured I owed him at least one steamier evening to make up for the time he’d lost with my conference. “So Martín, it’s Boys’ Night out,” I said, describing some of the areas we could cruise around. “Let’s do them all!” he said with a big laugh. So we drove past the raunchiest bar areas, the girly clubs and whorehouses, every seedy hetero-, homo, trans- and multi-sexual pickup area the depressing city had to offer, with him snapping all the pictures his heart desired, pointing out one sexy or bizarre place, face or bod after another, and finally urging me to take him to one of the most neon-signed bars in the seediest part of Zona uno, the city center, with me choosing a fairly modern-looking joint in the hopes of avoiding some of the more terrible things that could happen in the more lurid and notoriously dangerous dives we could find in the same neighborhood. There we asked our hosting waiter to seat us in the far corner away from the more raucous action of the bar. For quite a while we sat there pretty much in the dark, drinking one Guatemalan beer after another, getting a feel for the place, listening to música ranchera, checking out the strippers and hookers who mainly congregated up front, but gradually also getting a bit high on the beer, to the point that Martín, his face all ruddy and his speech starting to slur, asked the waiter to bring us a bottle of Mexican tequila.
As could be expected, that simple request became a blaring alarm; and soon after the waiter served us, as we downed our first few shots, we became the prime targets for different bargirls who came by trying to strike up a conversation with one or both of us, and at least get us to buy a drink or two. At first we succeeded in keeping them at bay. But then, one of the girls became very aggressive with Martín, putting her face up to his and her hand high on his thigh and, then cooing and oohing, jumping onto his lap and finally popping one of her breasts out of her dress and into his mouth as she tried to urge him to sit with her in one of the semi-private little perches they had off to the side of the dance floor.
Martín smiled with embarrassment, turned much redder than his reddest red and shrugged as if to indicate he didn’t know what to do in this situation. I urged him not to feel ashamed, letting him know if he wanted to be with the girl I’d not judge him but would gladly wait for him to get back. But it was obvious he wasn’t going for it. He was there to tease and not please in any way; and the girl, who undoubtedly expected to pick up some sorely needed quetzals for her efforts and pains, gradually sensed she was being played and turned from sweet to nasty, telling my friend that he was a cheap bastard who built up her expectations only to disappoint and frustrate her, that she had never been so insulted in her life and that he must be a maricón or a judío de mierda—or maybe a combination of the two.
Martín tried to calm her down by talking to her and suggesting that he was there as a friend from Mexico. At which point, she threw her drink in his face, and cursed him out, until the bartender came over to prevent any further noise or violence. The girl claimed Martín had wanted all the feels and tastes he could squeeze out of her, but was unwilling to pay for the favors thrown his way. Now the bartender got rather feisty and told us to leave or face repercussions. Leave we did, but not before I threw a not too tiny bunch of quetzals on the table, to calm things down enough for us to get out the door without any further problems.
The next morning, I woke up to find Martín snoring away; so I went down to the lobby and was drinking a lousy cup of Guatemalan coffee (they apparently saved their best for export), when who should show up at the reception desk but the same unhappy girl, now somehow demure, even as she ever so eagerly asked to see the very man she’d cursed out the night before. She spotted me and came over. “I want to see Señor Martín,” she said right off. How she’d gotten his name and address I could only surmise (“when in hell’s name did he get a chance to give her the info?” I asked myself). But I simply asked her to wait while I went to fetch my friend.
There he was up and about, packing his things for his return trip, but now suddenly all too nervous with my news about who was there to see him. “Send her away,” he said with some urgency. “Come on Martín, she wouldn’t have taken all the trouble to come over here after God knows how many hours and kinds of work if you hadn’t somehow led her to believe you’d be eager to see her.” “Yes, but that was last night when I was drunk.” “Well now you have to pay your dues.” “I’ve never paid for a woman in my life,” he claimed. “If you just think about it a little, you’ll realize that that’s not even possible,” I told him. “Let’s just say you’ll be helping out a poor woman for all the time and work she’s put in just to give you a moment of happiness—and you might be helping to feed a kid or two as well.” “You think she’s clean?” he asked. “As clean as you or me, Doctor,” I replied. “She’s really a very nice girl,” I added. “You think so?” “Martín,” I joked, “Do your duty.”
To this day, it still haunts me that I helped him to play out a script that was five hundred years old or more—that I was complicit in convincing him that he had to see the girl, that he was really obligated to do so. I know he’d really planned it all in a way; and I ‘m sure he didn’t mind doing what he did as much as he tried to make out. And the proof for me was, that some time later (really much later, now that I think of it) on that same day, he insisted I take their picture before getting her a cab. I remember him giving her a sweet little kiss and slipping something into her hand as she reluctantly said goodbye and left.
Just a while after that, all too wonderfully, I found myself driving him to the airport. “Well,” I said, as we approached the terminal, “you certainly go after what you want, no matter what.” “Yes, it’s true,” he admitted. “I believe in a better world, but I guess I live as best I can in this one. Life’s short,” he added, as I pulled up to the curb and we got out of the car. “A fine trip,” he said, as he gathered up his things. “And a very nice young girl,” he mused. “Una jovencita,” I could not resist adding. All at once he opened his Mayan tote bag and pulled out his camera and the huipil. “Take my picture,” he urged, and I obliged, using the Guatemala airport sign and doors to frame my doctor friend, and then taking his picture with huipil in one hand and tote bag in the other. Then he pulled out the wolf mask he’d bought and posed for still another shot. “You can see I know how to get around, right?” he insisted. “Sure,” I said, “you’ve made your point.” “Wish we had a shot of the papaya,” he said joking. “Yes and the banana,” I teased. “See you in Chicago,” he said, putting his props back in the bag. “Sure,” I said, “I’ll fax you when I get back.” He laughed, and I gave him a stiff hug, no kiss included. And then off he went, leaving me happy and relieved, eager to take up my research about a place I understood probably much less well than did Martín but with the absurd and yet persistent hope that what I learned might somehow help “to make it better.”
Marc Zimmerman. Emeritus, Latino and Latin American Studies, University of Illinois at Chicago, director Global CASA/LACASA Chicago Books. Commentator and contributor to El BeiSMan.