Thursday, December 8, 2011

Man facing Southeast, and adventures in driving out in the boonies

Although I have never actually seen the film of that title, I can clearly recall the image of the advertisement, which featured a man standing in what looks to be an open area, his face calmly looking out into.. who knows what. That film and that image have come to mind in my nearly daily travels between Chinique and Santa Cruz. A few weeks ago I noticed a man standing on a clump of brush at a certain curve along the highway, somewhere between Chiché and Santa Cruz. He was standing, calmly, wearing a brimmed straw hat and a jacket (called a chumpa in chapin slang), and just looking out at the road. I thought that he was probably waiting for the bus, although he was standing a bit far back from the road, but I have seen other people similarly situated in relationship to the highway. Perhaps he didn't want to get hit. Perhaps he didn't want to breathe in lungful after lungful of heavy, choking diesel fumes. I could have invented several reasons for why he was standing there. I remember that the sun shone on his face and illuminated it, and that he seemed quite happy, in fact. More so than most of the people whom I see sitting or standing by the roadside waiting for a bus or truck or something.  Very calm, as though he had all the time in the world. And again, that calm demeanor is not very strange or unusual around here. People in poor, rural areas get accustomed to doing a lot of waiting. Buses might be irregular or might not come at all. You know, if you live out in an aldea in the altiplano, that you cannot be in a hurry. Or rather, that being in a hurry or being impatient will just lead to frustration and anger. The bus is going to come when it comes, if it comes at all.

As I pass along this stretch of highway several times a week, I saw him several times. And I noticed that he always seemed to be standing in the same place, and always had the same expression on his face, and always dressed more or less the same (even though we are at the back end of nowhere here in Quiché, what little traffic there is along this stretch of highway moves at a pretty rapid clip, and there is nearly always some overly testosteroned bus driver trying to make time, or just trying to show off, or just trying to annoy the hell out of, or terrorize, the other drivers, so it is hard to stop, or even look very closely, unless one places very little value on one's life and well-being).

I live in a rural area, and I drive through other rural areas, where there is not a lot of mobility, so one becomes accustomed to being recognized, and recognizing others, whom one does not know well. For example, one day a few weeks back, the brakes on my car just 'went'. I was on the highway between Santa Cruz and Totonicapán, and on the first really serious downhill curve, about 6 or 8 kilometers outside of Santa Cruz, I put my foot down and..... nothing happened. Here we need a comic book or graphic novel illustration to accompany the "Aaargh!" that passed through my mind if not through my lips (if you make a sound in the middle of the highway with no one around, it surely won't be heard, so why bother?). I managed to slow down by down shifting (and there was teeny bit of cushion on the brakes, but not much), and did not crash my car into a dtch or plunge into the cornfields or houses along the road.

What to do? I had to find a repair shop, and that meant turning back to Santa Cruz, or heading on to Totonicapán. There is really nothing much along that stretch of the highway... there are a few settlements between Santa Cruz and Totonicapán, but I could not remember seeing an auto repair shop. There were pinchazos (where you can get a flat tire fixed and sometimes even purchase a replacement) and aceiteras (a place that will change or replenish your motor oil) but no full-service auto repair places. Although at the time I had this problem I had maybe traveled that highway 6 or 7 times, there is so little to distract one's attention along the road that I had a pretty good mental scan of what was and what was not along the highway. No repair shops until Totonicapán.

There was one, I recalled, right at the entrance to Toto, along the left  hand side of the highway. I remembered it because one day, maybe the first or second time I had driven that way, the car was kinda shaky and I thought maybe I had a flat, so I stopped at the repair shop and took a look at my tires, and the guy from the repair shop came over and took a look, and a couple of other guys who were hanging out at the repair shop or the gas station next door came over and took a look (hey, there's not a lot of entertainment in the altiplano, and especially when it concerns cars, and even more so when there is a woman driver, everyone within 100 yards gets into the act).  Once all of the men present had agreed that there was no flat (thanks, guys, I obviously could not have figured that out on my own!!! but I still love you!!), two of them asked if they could get a lift a bit farther on, and I said yes, and so they climbed in.

So, I had the auto repair place pretty firmly secured in mind, and I drove very cautiously (well, very cautiously by Guatemalan standards) and managed to arrive in Totonicapán without incident (no small feat, given the number of curves and slopes and landslides and collapsed portions of the highway) and found the auto repair shop. The reason I have made this long excursion from my original theme -- the man standing smiling along a stretch of road between Chiché and Santa Cruz, in case you thought I had forgotten him; I haven't; this apparent detour is being made to illustrate a point -- is that when I arrived at the auto repair shop, they remembered me. I had to pull over and get out to find the owner and explain the problem. This being Guatemala, and the altiplano, of course three or four men (the other people whose cars were being repaired, and the security guard from the gas station) came over to hear what my problem was. Very little personal privacy around these parts. Anything happens to your car, and a hundred people know about it within 5 minutes. Or so it seems.

We were standing around and the men were all opining about my car and what to do about it (since my car is a Mazda, replacement parts are a bit harder to find, and repair shops do not always stock them). There were a few women, passengers in one of the cars, but because of gender roles, expectations and customs, they did not enter into the conversation. Women have less experience driving and with cars in general, and there is not the expectation that women will know much about cars (I am a bit of a rarity in that I am a woman who not only drives, but also knows how to do some very routine maintenance). So, we discussed where to get the right sized brake pads for my car and the owner of the shop set off on his motorcycle to pick them up, and then I stood around and waited for him, with the security guard from the gas station keeping me company. One also gets used to being around men bearing arms -- many small businesses, including ones as mundane as gas stations and auto repair shops, hire armed security guards. As we waited for the owner to return, and discussed the merits and drawbacks of a Mazda, he surprised me by asking if I were going to Xela "again". "Yes, that's where I am going," I answered. "Ah, I wish I could go with you," he said. "Don't you remember the time that you gave me a ride?"  "Ah, yes, of course." And as he mentioned it, I did remember -- he just looked a little different with a uniform and carrying a firearm, and at night.

All as a way of illustrating my point that Guatemalans, especially rural Guatemalans, tend to remember one, especially if one is an outsider, a foreigner and a woman who drives alone at night on sketchy highways. And one --even if one is an outsider, a foreigner, and a woman -- starts to develop some of those same observational powers. So, back to my man facing southeast, whom we have left standing on a little grassy knoll alongside the highway.  Yesterday (that would be December 7, although by the time you read this blog,  "yesterday" might be something else entirely), I actually learned something about this man, and why he stands there, day after day.

The Asociación Ixmukané was holding one of its few-times-a-year assemblies on Wednesday, December 7. I was trying to get there early since there was to be a ceremony in the morning before the meeting started. I was trying to get out of Chinique quickly as I had slept later than I had intended.  As I was making a turn to get out of town, I saw a couple walking a bit farther along on the street from which I was making the turn, and they both turned around to look at my car.  About two minutes later, the phone rang and it was my friend Reyna, who is a member of Ixmukané and was thus going to the meeting.  "We just saw your car," she said. "Can you wait and give me a ride?" No use arguing that I was in a hurry. It would have been rude, I thought, to say that I could not wait for her, so I did. Then we saw her daughter waiting for a microbus alongside the highway, and also picked her up. I would get there when I got there, apparently.

As we drove along, I again saw the somewhat beatific looking man standing serenly alongside the highway, and commented to Reyna that I saw that same man in the same place nearly every day.  "Ah, he was not always like that," she told me. And immediately I realized, before she had said anything more, that there was something a wee bit odd or "off" in his presence and demeanor.  "Ah, no?" I asked. "What happened to him?" So, she told me what she knew. "They say that  he had been in love with a woman, and the relationship had ended, and that she did something to him, and after that he had gone crazy, and now all he does is stand by road." I asked what it was that she had done. Reyna said she didn't know (my suspicion is that she was hinting at some kind of witchcraft), but that that was what people said.

1 comment:

  1. A friend offers the following contextualization: Interesting story. I have known of several rural cases of schizophrenia and other mental illnesses which appear after adulthood. Because the person used to be "normal" and now isn't, people always blame it on a love gone bad and the other person giving them "leche de cocha" (sow's milk) thus causing them to go crazy. There isn't a lot of access to mental health information and treatment in Guatemala in general, much less in rural areas, so people make stories that explains the situation to them. I guess?