Picture The Scene

Week Five was an incredibly long and dispiriting week, in which I hung around, failed to do interviews, and was generally hard on myself. I started to write a blog post about my largest bugbear, which was my continuing difficulty in communicating in Spanish to the level I’d like, and then – the post felt bitter, and mean, although mostly true. I decided to take a day away and cool off. I’ve shelved that post for now and decided that instead I would share the five strangest anecdotes of my trip here so far.

  1. Observatory Dance Party

We trundle into our truck into the village at 7 o’clock from a long day of interviews. I cannot wait for the observatory’s home comforts, meagre though they are: dribble shower, bowl of pasta, bed. Turning in to the usually dark observatory and – what do we see? – the lights are on and everybody’s home. A quick headcount gives me approximately 40 Guatemalan women, plus an average of two kids in tow. Oh, man, I just want to lie down … I don’t think it’s going to happen. Passing through the observatory door, there’s about the same number of people inside (a building the size of a double garage). Through stealth detective work (i.e. asking directly), I learn that everyone is here to deliver personal documents to claim a portion of seed for harvesting corn. The system is perfectly designed for maximum inefficiency – some people got here at 4! The kids invade my bag and work out that I have juggling balls, and a ukulele, and watercolours, and decide that since this is, after all, a party, we should have fun – will I give them up, can I show them how, look at me juggling this ball, let me paint you a watercolour, please. Well, when in Guatemala, right? Things escalate and we end up in the kitchen playing a game where I strum drastically at the ukulele while they pass around a ball, and when I stop I get to teach the ball-holder a silly dance. The ever-popular mum dances of scissor-fingers and Silly Scuba are favourites. After they leave (10 o’clock, ridiculous) I lie on a chair like a deflated balloon.

2. The old man and the palate

I’m leaving the observatory for a day at the beach. From the town below, Fuego looms ominously, so I drop out the car to snap a photo. A man stumbles over from the cantina on the corner. It’s 9 a.m. on Sunday, a pretty respectable time to be drunk. He introduces himself as Katerino, and then:

“Why have you forgotten about us in Morelia? Can you give us some money?”

I explain, very firmly, that I can’t help in this way. He pauses, his eyes loll in his sockets, and then he removes his whole upper jaw. It’s done in half a second, a simple lick of the tongue and an unnerving click, and then his front teeth pop out. He pops them back in after a second, but I’m still completely bamboozled. Maybe he has worked out that this is an effective persuasive tactic? He’s correct, because I’m too disconcerted to respond. So he presses on: 

“No, you misunderstand me. I’m not asking for money. But how about some financial aid?”

3. How effective are chocobananos as an interview aide?

Answer: any number above one is unhelpful. I am talking with a local schoolteacher about my project and about arranging a possible school visit. He asks me how I like Guatemala and we make small talk. I mention that I like a local treat, chocobananos (frozen bananas dipped in chocolate sauce). Half an hour later, he abruptly stands and disappears outside. I follow him to find a young boy on a bike, summoned like magic, proffering a plastic bag with 3 chocobananos inside. I should mention that at no point had the teacher previously left the classroom – where did the boy come from???. We grab them and return to the classroom we’ve been talking in, and he says he’s interested in participating in my project. And then looks angry –

“Are you not going to have your chocobananos? I got them for you!”

And that is how I conducted an interview while eating a series of massive chocolate-covered frozen banana, squeezed into a child’s desk in a classroom with chicken wire on the windows and a pig in the yard.

4. To Los Yucales, and back again

My most faithful companion on this trip has been El Corazón, my rollicking red pick-up truck (hopefully coming soon to a comic strip near you). I & he usually give people lifts in the truck bed because otherwise the journey from the observatory (and neighbouring villages) to the main road is 2.5 hours’ walk. On this day we have a talk scheduled at 6 o’clock in the neighbouring village of Los Yucales. 5 o’clock we turn off the main road and encounter a group of dust-clad sugar-cane workers. All good, we let the grateful lot load themselves in the back: we’re going to two different towns, but they’ll get dropped off after we pick up a projector. Except … it gets dark very quickly and we have somehow forgotten we have extra cargo until we stop in Los Yucales and encounter six quiet, very confused Guatemalans in the back. What do we do? There’s no time to drive them home, so they are treated to a surprise volcano film education night that itself is a little shambolic – the grand cinema screen is a white sheet draped over a bamboo football goal, and the dogs won’t stop tugging at the corner of the screen; the microphone won’t work, so I end up narrating the videos over the loudspeaker they use for announcing evacuations. This isn’t even the most bizarre film night I’ve done …

5. Consider Yourself Affiliated

Me and El Corazón are on the road again, this time on the east side of the volcano. We’re driving up to a community, Ceilan, where I have to meet some contacts for interviews. I have just stopped the truck to snap a photo when trouble appears (starting to sense a theme here). In the village below I passed a large convoy of trucks, sporting jaunty megaphone headdresses and crammed full of sleepy people in white t-shirts with full-on resting bitch face. It appears to be a rousing political rally, which follows a simple process: drive into town, take up both sides of the road, descend en masse and paper the streets and lampposts with posters (“¡Afiliate!”, or “Join!”), return to trucks and crouch inside while the megaphones blare the political jingle, drive to next town, repeat. All in good taste and very effective, although why the jingle is set to a reggaetón tune and blasting at 168 dB I don’t know.

Anyway, as I’ve insinuated, something to happily avoid – except that, as I pause to take a photo, the lead convoy rounds the bend below and overtakes me. Realizing that I am risking running late for my interview date, I fire up El Corazon, but it’s a mistake: I find myself sandwiched between the convoy trucks, gently bouncing and rolling up the single-lane track, as the loudspeaker extolls over and over again:

“Tiene que poder y lo van a perder, Tiene Que Poder Y Lo Van A Perder, ¡¡¡TIENE QUE PODER Y LO VAN A PERDER!!!”

(“It has to be possible, and you’re going to lose it” x3)

My first question is, why? My second question is, to whom? We are driving through the forest right now – there is literally no human around to convert, and the birds aren’t known for making astute political choices. I would like to overtake but Head Convoy Truck is having none of it. In the end, I admit defeat and pull over. The Guatemalans in the trucks are no longer grumpy: they wave and smile at me gaily as the trucks pass me by, one by one. I wave back and make a mental note to enthuse about another party to my interviewees.

2 thoughts on “Picture The Scene

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