Sunday, December 25, 2011

The politics of the gift

During my time in Guatemala, I have been the beneficiary of the generosity of so many people, who have shared their time, invited me into their homes, fed me (sometimes apologizing for the meal being only beans and tortillas). I have also, in my small way, done favors. Many times when Ixmukané has activities at their center in Quiché, I give people rides back into town, or take the folks who live in Chinique back. Whenever I am at the office in Chichicastenango, I ask if anyone needs a lift back along my route and sometimes wait 5-15 minutes for someone to finish up so I can give her a ride. And if I am going to Chichicastenango, I will often call people who live along the way to see if anyone needs a lift (not everyone goes into the office all the time).

However, I give rides so often and to so many people, that I do accept contributions for gas. When I have given a lift to a group of women who are not close friends, one or more will ask what they owe me for the ride, and I will usually say that if they can give me 1 or 2 quetzales that will be fine, and if not, that's fine too (this is about 1/3-1/4 of what the standard fare is). If someone calls me and asks me if I can take him or her somewhere (this has happened a few times), I try to come up with a fair price (it costs me more in gas than what they would pay for a bus ride).

I frequently give rides to complete strangers, especially on lightly-traveled stretches of highway. People stand on the side of the road and flag down (or attempt to flag down) passing vehicles. In those cases, if it's a short distance, and especially if it's a woman with children or an elderly person, I tell them they don't owe me anything (if the person insists, I will take a quetzal or two; gas is expensive). For longer distances, I will ask the person what the normal rate is, and then quote them something much lower than that.  The other day, as I was leaving Todos Santos, about 8 people were standing on the main street of town looking for a ride and I took all of them. Two of them who were obviously (to me) returned migrants (as they spoke English) insisted on giving me more money than I asked for (probably to demonstrate their relative wealth to both me and the other passengers); I tried to give them some change but they waved me off  and walked away; I didn't think getting out of the car and running after them was a good idea (it might have been viewed as humiliating).

With my friends here in town, a few times people have given me home-grown produce, and twice I have been given some home-made cheese. If I am giving a friend (as opposed to someone I pick up on the highway) a ride and I stop to get myself a latte, I will buy one for my friend (which means that I don't stop for a latte if I am giving rides to more people than I can afford to treat). My co-workers at the radio station (there have been a few since we started back in April) and I lend each other lunch money frequently since the cafeteria where we eat does not always have change for large bills (lunch is 10 quetzales, and sometimes we only have 50 or 100 quetzal notes), and I have made some small (for me) loans to friends (100 to 200 Q) which they have paid back fairly promptly (and one more substantial loan).

It was a bit of a surprise when I had a small birthday gathering for friends in Chinique (it was one of three birthday celebrations I had) and they nearly all brought gifts for me. I certainly hadn't expected that, and I was both very touched and a little uncomfortable that they had spent money on me (perhaps I could have specified "no gifts" but I still am not clear about all the social codes here, and I'm not sure how a statement to that effect would be received).

Since I don't live with a family here, I do not know what the codes of gift-giving are. When we were in Chichicastenango earlier this week for the fair, I spent an hour or so with Jeanet and her family (we met up in the mid-afternoon) helping her mother in law buy shoes and a sweater that would be her Christmas presents -- these were hardly surprise gifts. This was a pretty laborious process as there were dozens of stalls set up along the streets and the mother-in-law wanted to try on at least a dozen sweaters and a couple of dozen pairs of shoes at a variety of stalls.

I decided to purchase some small gifts (well, small in monetary value from my perspective) for Jeanet and her family and Caterino and his family - the two families that had invited me to spend time with them over the Christmas holiday.  . I didn't want to make anyone uncomfortable with the gifts (as I knew that most people couldn't afford to give me anything and I neither expected nor wanted anything) so nothing too expensive (my sense is that people would have felt bad if they knew I had spent a lot of money since they couldn't reciprocate and I hoped that if the gifts were nice but not very costly people would feel okay accepting them).  So I shopped while I was in Todos Santos -- there is a shop that works with local artisans and collectives, and also sells locally produced coffee. I bought some hand-woven belts (fajas) that women use to tie their cortes for Jeanet, her mother, Caterino's wife Sandra, Jeanet's oldest daughter and Caterino's daughter-- the traditional ones in Todos Santos (and even some of the more "modern" ones) are fairly distinctive looking. I found small water-bottle holders made of hand woven cloth for Nazario and Caterino, and little crocheted balls for the two youngest children. The coffee was only available in 1-pound bags so I bought 2 and divided the coffee up into some small bags as I realized that I wanted to visit a few other friends; buying more than 2 bags seemed like overkill.

Since among the families I know there doesn't seem to be the same Christmas Day gift exchange as in most US families that celebrate Christmas, I gave Jeanet's family presents on Noche Buena (and once I realized we were spending the day at her mother in law's, I got another gift for her, as I hadn't included her in my original round of gift-buying); there wasn't much ceremony, and I hadn't wrapped them.

Christmas Day I went up to Tapesquillo, an aldea outside of Chinique, to visit some people whom I haven't seen for a long time. Caterino had wanted me to visit with his family, and his in-laws live in Tapesquillo so he, Sandra and the kids were there, and then there are a few other families (interrelated) who are relatives of my friend Adrian, my closest Maya friend in the U.S.  I visited the home of Don G. and Doña A., and also Doña T. (who is Don G's mother).  I gave them both some of the coffee. Doña T. sounded upset that she didn't have anything to give me but I picked some turnip greens and lemons from her garden.

And really, that was as good a gift as I could have wanted -- fresh produce (especially after having eaten a couple of lard-laden tamales).

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