Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Small escapist pleasures

As my time winds down, I am taking stock... realizing that there are projects that sounded promising but have not yet come to fruition, and perhaps never will. People with whom I wanted to spend more time and didn't. Opportunities that presented themselves and which I did not explore... one endless chorus, perhaps, of "The Road Not Taken." Sometimes these were conscious decisions, at other times the time just slipped by, I was focusing on other things, and then woke up one morning with a shock and realized that I had X number of weeks, and now days, left and I had never followed through on something.
One case in point is Father Ricardo Falla, for example, a very courageous Jesuit priest who worked in El Quiché starting in the 1960s, and went into exile with the communities that were attacked fled to the jungle and to Mexico. Also an anthropologist, he was the first to record testimonies of the atrocities, collected in his book Masacres en la Selva (Massacres in the Jungle).  More recently he has been writing about migration and return migration. A friend worked as his research assistant and people always asked me if I knew him, since I worked in Quiché and also worked on issues of migration.  In August I heard him speak at the Mayan Studies conference and waited until the end of the panel at which he spoke -- a panel on genocide -- and introduced myself. He was warm and cordial and gave me his email and perhaps his phone number (both of which I have lost) and invited me to come visit him sometime. At the time I didn't quite recognize the name of the place where he told me he was living, Santa Maria Chiquimula. This is one of the confusing things about place-names in Guatemala. A lot of times a town will have a name that ends in a word like Chiquimula that is also the name of a department. So one would hear "Santa Maria Chiquimula" and assume (or at least I would) that the town is named Santa Maria and it is in the department of Chiquimula, which is not especially near me. However, I much later discovered that there is a town called Santa Maria Chiquimula that is in the department of Totonicapán. which borders El Quiché -- when I go along the highway that connects Santa Cruz del Quiché with the city of Totonicapán, I pass the road that leads to Santa Maria Chiquimula.

In any case, I had not followed through on the invitation from Father Falla, and lost his information, although now I know how close his town is, maybe I can find out how to get in touch with him and stop for a visit before I leave the country.

There are other instances -- all of the excitement I felt about being invited to participate in the various projects that my friends in Xela had proposed has dissipated a bit as it seems that nothing is going to happen very quickly, and perhaps some or all of those projects about which I was so ecstatically excited a few months ago will be stillborn and never see the light of day.  I made a conscious decision in those cases to just let everything happen at its own pace. I am not the key actor in any of these. I made a few efforts to get folks to meet and talk and make some concrete plans, but I cannot do any more than that, nor should I. Stuff has to happen organically, and I hope my friends know that I am here for them when they are ready.
So, I am trying to take it a bit easy these last two weeks, and not try to crunch everything in that I wasn't able to accomplish in the preceding 50.  Which brings me to small pleasures.

Sunday, January 8, I drove to Guatemala City, which I rarely visit, to take a friend who had been visiting from the states to the airport. I wouldn't normally drive 3-1/2 hours to take someone (except someone very very close like my daughter or a lover) to the airport. But I needed to do some things in Guatemala City, which I could take care of on Monday. I need to get some information on radio frequencies, and I need to meet with people from the U.S. Embassy, as a "debriefing" at the end of my Fulbright (well, my Fulbright ended months ago, officially, but I am still here).

I had a wild thought to try and see a friend as long as I was in Guatemala City. I don't know a lot of people here, but only a few. A few weeks ago a friend of a friend had accompanied me to a punk concert in Zona 1, and we hadn't been able to meet up again (well, we'd made plans but they didn't come to fruition), so I thought I'd give a call, and we made plans to meet after I'd dropped my friend at the airport.  Repeated phone calls from the airport produced no answer, so I tried another friend, who was around but busy until 3. Since I only have a little time left, and the next time I plan to come to Guatemala City is the day of my departure, January 18, I was willing to stick around.  Which meant, however, finding something to do for 3-1/2 hours.

One thing I did was to stop along the road that leads from the airport back to Boulevard Liberación (which turns into Calzada Roosevelt). Every time I have left the airport, I have noticed crowds of people standing outside the fence, at a point where the road is wide enough to leave cars -- and one has a long enough view of the runway. Here, you can see the flights take off... and arrive. So, in a country where very few people have the means to travel legally outside of the country, and very few can afford airfares, and very few of those who have migrant relatives can expect to have regular visits from those same migrants, airplane departures and arrivals are big deals.

I pulled over as best I could and found a spot for my car... sort of. Then I walked over to where people were standing staring at the planes, some of them hanging onto the wire fence with anticipation,  resignation, hope, fear.. hard to read emotions from body language. Maybe some were just tired, as the sun was beating down.

Then I checked to see which museums were open. The best option seemed the Museo de Arte Moderno (Modern Art Museum) which is right by the airport.  I lost myself for about an hour in the museum (where you are not supposed to take pictures) before they closed for the lunch break. The permanent exhibit highlights Guatemalan artists of the late 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. The museum is not large and I had it largely to myself.  I did violate the no-photos rule for a very interesting piece about history and memory. There is a text laid out horizontally, on a series of panels, and then some flowers in one corner, and a sort of table on top. The text, which I could not copy or photograph entirely, is a reference to the war, and the recurrent refrain is "no pasa nada" (nothing happens, or nothing happened). I wandered outside and looked at the sculpture exhibit in the garden, and then took myself to Fontabella, an upscale shopping mall (guards and gate) where there are stores selling high-end kitchen ware and hand-made gelato. It also houses Sophos, one of the best book stores in Guatemala. It looks like an old-fashioned book store -- dark wood shelves, display tables where you can pore over open volumes. And in addition to having a good selection (for Guatemala) they will order just about anything for you. They also have places where you can sit, and they have a café, which has some wonderful licuados (smoothies), and good sandwiches (they have a full menu but I've only had latte, licuados and sandwiches).  I ordered myself two of my favorites: grilled vegetables and cheese on pan integral, and a licuado made of passionfruit with a touch of white wine (and some other fruit that I now can't remember).
So I savored my lunch, started this blog entry, and then met up with my friend for a drink. It turned out to be my friend's birthday, which I hadn't know until I raised my glass of wine for a toast.  So, serendipity wins once again. I am sure that if we had tried to make plans to meet up for a birthday celebration something would have interfered, but because we had not made advance plans and I just called when other plans fell through, it worked out perfectly.

The escapism worked to a degree (the degree being mitigated by car problems: as I wrote in another blog entry, the car started to get tetchy again and I had to get assistance and then take it to a shop on Monday morning).... I rarely spend time in Guatemala City, looking at art museums has not been high on my agenda (although I enjoy it), but I just decided to enjoy these moments as they presented themselves ... and as I will write in some subsequent blogs, there have been enough moments of this sort (times when plans change without your having any control) that I have had to exercise a lot of zen and improvisation, and just "cógelo suave" (take it easy -- the phrase really belongs to Cuban and not Guatemalan Spanish).


  1. Hi Lisa -- Yes, find Ricardo Falla if you can, and I bet you can. It will be worth it! Oh, one thing that many readers won't know is that most bookstores in Guatemala package their books in plastic, so one can only look at the dust cover unless one is willing to ask the staff to remove the plastic.
    Be well! See you soon!

  2. thanks, Eliza... I will try to see if anyone has Ricardo Falla's number... or I can just detour through Santa Maria when I go to Xela. Sophos and Artemis both have a lot of books that are out of plastic, which makes browsing easier. I haven't bought a lot there, but I have special ordered several things (like a copy of The Hobbit for the son of a friend, and some specialized books for the course that the UVG canceled on me).