Saturday, November 20, 2010

A day as a Guatemalan tourist

Since I'm on a roll with blog posts, I thought I'd roll out one I wrote almost a month ago, about the October 20th holiday, and never got around to posting, about a trip to Champerico with my fellow muni employees.

I sometimes feel as though I am genuinely living in an episode of The Office, if The Office were filmed in Guatemala, in a Maya-Mam town, and followed the activities of the municipalidad (the local town hall). The show would be titled "Ja te' ko'wb'il", which to someone from my town means "La municipalidad." Literally it means something like, "house of power," but it's about as close to "The Office" as we're going to get in the Mam dialect of my town.

No more is the sense of being present on some strange comedy show emphasized for me than when the muni employees are gathered collectively, as in the time the head of the office of municipal planning invited us all to his one-year-old daughter's birthday lunch, or when we gather to eat paches (hopefully potato paches) and celebrate's someone's leaving or coming or to plan the important work of stringing up 10 balloons for some crucially important event.

For the moment you will need to take my word that the variety of personalities and their interactions is amusing, to say the least. This hit home for me again on Wednesday, with my first experience as a Guatemalan tourist. Every year the muni gives its employees a free outing, and Wednesday was a holiday to celebrate the overthrow of Dictator Jorge Ubico in 1944. The muni employees decided to take advantage of the holiday to ask for an outing to beach at Champerico. (The original choice was Panajachel, but the men revolted and insisted on Champerico, for reasons that later became evident.)

The morning started out bright and early (in the dark) at 5:30 am. The rented camioneta (old school bus) was "leaving" at 5 am, which everyone knew meant 6 am (optimistically); but the most eager folks weren't for anything going to miss a free ride to the beach nor free breakfast and lunch at the beach, so they showed up at 5:30. My officemate was one of the eager beavers - she even had what I am pretty sure was strep throat and preferred to go to the beach over the doctor - so at 5:20 am I was dragging myself away from my kitten and a warm bed.

Around 6:15 we were making the calls to Persons X, Y, and Z, whom Person Q and Person T knew were coming but still had not made an appearance. At 6:30 Person Z clambered on board without the slightest hint of shame, and off we chugged to pick up two people in an aldea of my town. It also came out that there were people waiting for us down in the nearest big city, but we were going another route and someone made the executive decision to leave them behind. As far as I know, they are probably still waiting for us to pick them up. By 7 we were burning down the highway toward the beach.

It was a long ride through some beautiful country. When we actually reached the coastal plain I was struck by how similar it felt to rural New York in summer. Many times in my life I've looked over flat, rolling agricultural plains, humid, hot air bellowing in from open windows. But maybe I'm just a little homesick.

We arrived at the beachfront in Champerico and all 33 of us piled into an open-air restaurant for a late breakfast of eggs, refried beans, tortillas, queso fresco, fried plantains, and soft drinks. Then an agricultural volunteer from another foreign organization pulled out an almost-full bottle of rum, which was my first sense of where the day was heading.

From that point onward we separated into three groups: the drinking men, the women and abstaining men, and one family (a secretary, her husband who didn't give her permission to go on her own, and her young son). I didn't mind this arrangement, especially because the two guys who hung out with us all day are really good guys and it was fun to have a mixed-gender group. You generally don't hang out with people of the opposite sex in my town unless you're family, work colleagues, or dating, so it was nice to have some of the "hanging out" I was used to in the US.

We spent a little time on the beach, but the sun was sweltering hot - it felt like you could burn in just a second. Like a true gringa tourist I was prepared with sunscreen, a sun hat, a light long-sleeved shirt, and an umbrella. I gave my officemates a good laugh with all this ceremony, but they wore awesome huge-brimmed hats with their traje, too. Mom would have been proud.

Anyway, after a quick dip in the ocean the consensus was to head to a pool; so we hopped on a bicycle rickshaw and off we went, hearing rumors that there was a good spot a long ways out of town. The driver charged us less than $2 to carry three of us more than a mile in the sweltering heat; it was amazing. I think the bicycle rickshaws were a highlight of the day. It was definitely a relaxing way to travel. That type of technology makes a lot of sense for a flat tourist town without cobbled streets; I'm glad they haven't caught the tuk-tuk plague yet. It was also the first time I had ever received an advertising flyer while on a moving bicycle, from someone else on a moving bicycle. I love bikes.

I don't think I had seen a pool in more than nine months, and it was great. This was a real pool (admission $1.25) which had clean-ish showers, changing rooms, and indications of being chlorinated. After an elaborate sunscreen re-application process it was into the water. We took turns diving for a coin and did some laps. Everyone in the group happens to be really friendly and it was fun to feel really part of a group if only for a few hours.

Champerico is an interesting place. It's definitely a tourist town, but decidedly geared to national tourists. The beach is covered in trash; the bungalows are run down; there are desperate-seeming people walking around all over selling cheap shell jewelry, shaved ice cones of questionable origin, and coconuts, ready to be cut open and given a straw. Horses run up and down the beach, mostly carrying a the few foreign tourists around, and for a buck you can get your picture taken with a plastic inflatable shark. And the bike rickshaws. I liked it. It had character.

After the pool it was off to meet up with the big group for a late lunch, which reminded me that I definitely am not a seafood fan. Being vegetarian (or, here in Guatemala, "vegetarian"), this is always theoretically true, but in practice, different types of meat definitely evoke different physical reactions from me, generally in accordance with my exposure to them as a child. Most precisely I'm not a fan of seafood since it often requires bodily dismembering every last thing on the plate and in the bowl. (My parents can attest to that one in base of the famous lobster incident on Cape Cod as a kid, which was a precursory warning to my imminent vegetarianism). Perhaps the fact that the crab looks ready to crawl out of the bowl and off the plate makes it more delicious to some people.

After lunch the men scrambled to get a few last beers in for the bus ride home, and given a lack of fixed leadership - it was more like leadership by druken male consensus - we rolled out of town about an hour after schedule, which meant we were going to get home well after dark. These few hours of excitement harkened back to the days of the "drunk bus" in college; the highlights including general, mind-numbing racket; the head of police threateningly propositioning my officemate who was sitting next to me, before a municipal plumber who I think is an absolute dreamboat stepped in to tell him to buzz off; several passionate conversations between men in Mam that sounded a lot like "hey, I love you man." "Naww, I love YOU man. You're the best." "Nawwww, YOU'RE the best."; and at least two men openly bawling their eyes out on the shoulder of the guy next to them. It wasn't pretty. This has given me some whole new theories about emotional repression.

Meanwhile the women sat there ignoring it, tolerating it silently. But nevertheless, it was a memorable day, and a worthwhile day of cultural reflection, to say the least. I was exhausted and part of me would have loved to have slept in, caught up on work, and Google-chatted with my boyfriend all day. But in the end I wouldn't have remembered such a day at all, and this one I definitely will.

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