Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Mental health break (sort of): Escape from Chinique

It's not just that life in a very small town gets kind of boring. Especially if one is accustomed to the manifold diversions of New York. And I live a pretty modest life in New York -- I'm not out gallivanting around to A-list restaurants and nightclubs serving $15 watermelon martinis (or whatever is in vogue this week). But I like to go to the movies -- I prefer to see films on a big screen and in the company of other people, rather than just watch them on DVDs at home. I try to support independent cinemas like the Film Forum, IFC, and Anthology Film Archives. Here, the diversions are very limited. My town has nothing. Evangelical churches, a few very modest restaurants, and a few weeks ago the father of my landlord opened a small cantina a few doors down the street from the corner store the family runs.

I don't have a television. However, through the generosity of some friends I've acquired media files of some films and two seasons of Treme, so I have judiciously doled out the limited entertainment.  I also have a number of 19th and early 20th century novels I acquired for my e-book reader -- these are all public domain works since they are over 75 years old and the copyrights have expired. Luckily I like a lot of the fiction of this period (the longer the novel, the more complex the plot line, the more detailed the descriptions, the happier I get.. sometimes) so I have been happily catching up on my Trollope and Thackeray and George Eliot.

However, even Victorian fiction has its limitations. So, I decided that I needed to go to a movie. I made this decision back in August when the Harry Potter film came out here. However, not only is there nothing much to do in my town, there is not a single movie theater in the entire department of El Quiché. There apparently was one in Santa Cruz some years back but it was closed because, as I was told, guerrilla sympathizers used to meet there. There are movie theaters (chain multiplexes) in Guatemala City (I pass one along the highway), Chimaltenango (one of my least favorite places, although I have to say I am only judging by the part you can see from the highway) and a few other places.  I hadn't realized there was a movie theater in Xela until my friend P.M., who lives in San Marcos, told me that he had gone to see Harry Potter in Xela.  So I thought, why not go to a movie in Xela some weekend? Folks seemed interested in Harry Potter, and I figured if we went early on a Saturday we could go to an early movie and then return to Quiché (I knew i would be able to find a friend to put me up, but I worried abut my friends since they would have had to pay for lodgings).

Then the elections hit and I was tied up and couldn't see my clear to finding a Sunday where we could do this (several of my friends are completing their college education by taking classes on Saturdays, which means they are tied up all day every Saturday) until after the elections. By which time Harry Potter was long gone from local theaters. Damn!

So finally I decided that I was just going to go myself and try to meet up with P.M. (San Marcos, where he lives, is a 40-minute bus ride from Xela, so he goes to Xela pretty regularly). Another friend, S.J., who works with Cultural Survival, was spending a few weeks in Xela, so I contacted him as well, and then my friend H.R., who lives in Xela, and said I'd like to invite him and his wife (whom I had yet to meet). H.R. told me that he hadn't been to the movies in 30 years and had actually never gone to the movies with his wife (they do watch films at home but have never gone to a movie theater together). So then we had to pick a film. The pickings were pretty slim: Noche de los Demonios and Planeta de los Simios Revolución (the English title is Rise of the Planet of the Apes but I prefer the Spanish title) seemed to be the top picks. I did what we do nowadays: posted on Facebook and asked for opinions. The masses (my friends on FB, or at least those who bothered to chime in) decided that we should see Planet of the Apes and so that was our choice (luckily the people who were actually going to attend the film were in agreement).

Of course, I always try to squeeze in some work, so I contacted one of the leaders in the community radio movement, Tino, with whom I have been trying to have an interview/conversation for a while, but we never seem to manage our schedules. He lives in San Mateo, a small town about 5 km. outside of Xela, and we had planned to meet at 4, so that I could make it to a 7:50 movie. Tino lives right by the community radio station there, Doble Via, which he helped found, and I figured I could also stop in at the station and say hello to friends there. San Mateo is along the highway to San Marcos, so I figured that PM would be coming that way on the bus and if we could time it right he could get off the bus at San Mateo, I could pick him up and he could come to the radio station with me. And Sanjay was going to be at the radio station anyhow, so I told Tino to tell SJ to just wait for me and I'd give him a ride into Xela.

With rapid-fire cell phone calls back and forth PM and I managed to meet up even though he got off at the wrong overpass (there are two pasarelas in San Mateo and the bus driver hadn't understood which one PM needed to get off at), and then headed to Doble Via. Tino didn't respond to my phone calls (he had said he was going to be at a meeting earlier in the day but would be back before 4) and didn't appear to be around. PM and I were sitting in my pick up parked in front of the radio and I was just dialing SJ's number when he appeared up the road, walking in our direction. Tino had not given him the message and he was about to head into Xela but decided to hang with us and catch a ride. Tino eventually showed up but for a host of reasons was not able to do the interview, so we just went up to the radio station and talked with some of the volunteers there. It is a radio station run by young people from the area, ranging in age from 10 to early 20s. Some are students at local universities, but all are from the immediate area. I'd met several of the members of the station when we were at the Encuentro in Guatemala City, and when Jeanet and I briefly came to Xela several weeks ago to pick up some supplies for our radio station, so it was good to reconnect.  SJ showed us what  he was working on. Tino was involved in one of the clandestine radio stations run by the guerrilla movement during the armed struggle. The radio station had recorded programs on cassette which were then broadcast, and he had kept all the cassettes, which SJ was now digitizing, and he was also trying to arrange for some universities in the states to purchase the archives, which would also provide some much-needed funds.

We chatted for a while with the folks working at the station, and watched with interest as a new volunteer was being trained, and then took off to meet Humberto. Humberto had to pick up his wife and so there wasn't going to be time to eat before the movie. I've known Humberto or several months and had met one of his sons, but had never met his wife Ana before. She is a calm, easy-going, and very pleasant woman who is a professor nursing. I got out of the front seat thinking she would want to sit next to her husband, but she happily got in the back with the two young men, laughing "Maybe something will happen." We got to the theater with time to spare -- located inside one of the large centros comerciales (shopping malls). We worked our way past clothing and jewelry stores and found the theater and got our tickets, and I took some photos of Humberto and Ana in front of the box office (since the theater is inside a mall and it was raining heavily, no way to take a photo outside of the marquee; the marquee is somewhere on one of the streets that go past the mall.  We then loaded up on popcorn and snacks and went inside to discover we were the only patrons in the theater. We were, however, later joined by about 5-8 other people (they came in when the previews had already started so I couldn't really see how many there were).

The movie was not bad for Hollywood fare. Maybe you've seen it: the basic message is that zoos and animal testing are bad and that creatures will not stand for being endlessly repressed and mistreated. I don't think that's a spoiler. The one disturbing note was that the head of the big pharma company, who is one (but not the only one) of the film's villains, is black. But otherwise, an agreeable change of pace from my little house in the boondocks.  We went back to Humberto's home and Ana heated up some tamales made of potatoes and others made of rice -- specialties of Quetzaltenango and quite yummy.

I had brought a bottle of kuxa (pronounced "koosha"), a local moonshine that is widely consumed in the highlands. It turns out that my little town is renowned for its kuxa -- had I known this? No, I did not ... until two day before the election when I was out driving around with Doña Mati and Doña Fermi and talking about the need to celebrate whether or not Mati was elected. Somehow we got on the subject of kuxa, which people had always talked about. I told them that I had been hearing about kuxa for months but had never tasted any, as far as I had known, and didn't know where to get it. "Oh, Chinique is where to get kuxa," they told me. Mati told me that her parents, who live in one of the sixty-three communities that comprise the municipality of Santa Cruz del Quiché, made the trip to Chinique when they needed kuxa. So as our route took us through Chinique, we decided to get some. First we stopped at my house and got some empty bottles (I had several 600 ml bottles from bottled water, and one empty wine bottle with a cork), as this is strictly BYOB. I drove slowly as they tried to remember where they had gotten it before. It turned out the vendor is a block and a half from my house. I stopped and we got out; Fermi knocked on the metal door of the house and a young boy answered. He told us to enter through the garage and so we did.  We stood in the kitchen of a large house and a middle aged Ladina woman attended us. We asked for a gallon, hoping that the bottles we had were enough. She found a gallon container and filled it with kuxa, and then found a funnel and filled up our bottles and we set off. I decided to bring a bottle to Humberto since he had always been talking about drinking kuxa, and so while we were waiting for the tamales to heat up, we tried it.

It was strong tasting, very much like aguardiente, not unpleasant at all.  But very strong -- not only in taste but in alcohol content. None of us drank more than a small nip, and I am not sure PM and SJ finished theirs.  However, when I returned to Xela a week later to celebrate Rosh Hashonah, I didn't see any evidence of the bottle, so I guess it got finished.

Actually, the best part of the trip was what you can see in the picture. During the last weeks of the campaign, my buddies in the movement were all sporting their very cool Winaq jackets. I asked one of them if it would be possible to get one, and he said, "Of course, we'll get you one," and then that was the last I heard about it from him. I would, of course, have offered to buy one but I knew that they were not for sale; they were given to people who were cadre, candidates, key supporters. I had made a joke of it in my conversations with Doña Mati and Doña Fermi; Mati said Otilia Lux (pronounced Loosh), a member of the national executive committee and a candidate for the Central American Parliament, had given her a vest but she didn't know where she had it. So I dropped a hint or two with other friends, and then also mentioned this to Rigoberta Menchú's brother-in-law, whom I met around election day. I mean, I would have survived the disappointment if I hadn't gotten one, but I really wanted to have one. So when I walked into Humberto's house, he said, "We have your jacket" and brought out one that had to be XXXL.  He told me it was the only one that was available, but it's fine. I think I can fit three people into it, but I can probably figure out a way to make it look gangsta cool.

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