Observational Humor

San Pedro La Laguna Travel Blog

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The first time I saw Nico he was working the sideline near one of the benches during an official San Pedro La Laguna basketball game. Because he was gesticulating wildly and regularly facing the seated players -- presumably imparting the illogical tactics that circus-ize Guatemalan men's basketball, maybe assuring his center that, if he started his sprint from the other baseline, a layup launched from behind the three point line was entirely possible -- I assumed the goofy middleaged man wearing the "Senioritis: Not just a phase, it's a lifestyle" shirt was a coach. As it turns out he was probably just stupid drunk, politely tolerated by everyone in his vicinity. Every subsequent encounter with Nico has elicited a chuckle, his neverwashed Senioritis shirt greeting me moments before his harsh liquor cologne and slurred inquiries for a Quetzal.

A few days ago I spotted a family on motorcycle, the usual three, four, or five helmetless passengers jammed onto a two-seater, people sitting sideways, on laps, clutched to chests. The surprise being dad, the driver, was wearing a Glassjaw shirt, the unmistakeable print, a solitary, lowercased "g" dominating the front. Still, nothing beats the crude apparel spotted by my friend Adam, donned by a homeward-trudging Chapìn after a day's work in the field: "I'm here about the blowjob." Because the wearer was Guatemalan, there's a staggering probability that shirt has attended church service. Which is amusing like the symmetrically-placed Playboy Bunny stickers I encountered adorning glass-doored cabinetry in the house of a Christ-crazed, porn-denouncing grandmother.
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In the midst of a coconut cake drought, galletas have reasserted themselves in my post-dinner dessert marches. Emperador® cream sandwiches -- vanilla cookies and filling; chocolate cookies and filling; and a corporate ode to diversity, combination flavor -- are nearly irresistable. But I've been hooked by Panaderia Peter Pan's footlong surfboard sugar cookies, a steal at Q$1 each.

I do feel something of a traitor, however, even tempting taste-buds at any Panaderia not named Panificadora Mana, home (literally) to my friend and dedicated purveyor of pan and pastel, Olga. Olga, who gifted me free pastel frio on my birthday. Who was slightly offended when I didn't appear to compart and feast with her family on Noche Buena. And who Friday night set a stool in front of her counter -- amidst metal prong-bearing breadshoppers plucking and placing pan from the glass display cases into their plastic baskets -- brewed me coffee, handed me the cellphone when her illegal daughter called from ATL, and fed me pastel and galleta while we chatted away an hour, eventually declining any sort of payment when I stood to exit.

I woke up early Saturday for a microbus-shuttled daytrip to Guate's zoo, chaperoning with Corazòn Maya's maestras a group of precious niñas involved in the school's outreach project. The project, spearheaded by schoolhead Marta, funded in part by a percentage from every extranjero's school tuition, but mostly by saintly Canadian Beth, assists twenty truly impoverished Pedronan families. The Mayan girls, who would otherwise be toiling spanking out tortillas or handwashing clothes, sitting on the curb with a basket of manderins, are provided occasional organized excursions, game-filled weekly gatherings and English instruction at Corazón Maya, and helping funds for life's staples: edibles (arroz, frijoles, y maíz) and (as the project's eminent contribution) public education.

The girls are adorable, loving and playful, so much it's easy to forget they're saddled with struggle daily, that every Quetzal their mothers imparted them for snacks represents a portion less of some essential at home. Many of these homes, some of which I've toured, are crude constructions of concrete and corrugated tin roofing; others gap-riddled, walled by vertically-arranged wooden slats. Uneven dirt floors aren't uncommon, sheen hanging cloths or sections of sheet metal for doors separate the family upon family crammed inside one or two small rooms -- littered, spaceless enclosures without the luxury of distinction between bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen -- from the biting, windy winter nights. Mattresses on the floor are fire hazards bumping the chimneyless comal, which chokes the air before every meal, a sheet of plastic hanging around a bucket feet away designating the bathroom. Agua pura, a few dollars every five gallons, is an unaffordable step up the sanitation scale.

A trip out of San Pedro is a world's-away jaunt for the girls; for whom, unaccustomed to travel, the ruthlessly winding road, obstacle-littered roads to the city are the recipe for motion sickness. Whipping around turns approaching 180º, the girls one-by-one began reenacting that unforgettable scene from "Stand By Me", the backseat retches and putrid odors wafting from the plastic bags the girls donned like oversized SARS-masks catalyzing a chain reaction. The girl beside me succumbed, twice belching projectile showers before someone handed her a cute, pink sack big enough for a bakery cookie. For me, the soundtrack of the trip was the crinkling of plastic bags and the soft plop, slosh and slop accompanying every subsequent purging, plus the chorus of laughter erupting every time another girl dropped a freshly-filled vomit-bomb out the window.

By the time we arrived at the zoo, health had been restored. We entered a train of kids and adults toting backpacks and shoulderbags, starving for stomachs recently emptied or yet empty. Sitting down on shaded benches, sirvilletas concealing cylindrical towers of tortillas and plastic containers of cold beef, fish, and chicken materialized beside every girl. With dirty hands we feasted, and I never thought twice snagging hunks of for-who-knows-how-long-unrefigerated-meat to enliven my tortillas (which just happened to be the delicious black bean-filled variety!).

In the manic following hours the girls, fascinated by photography, took advantage of my inability to refuse their smiling faces, effectively keeping my camera out of my hands. Sure, fingerprints smudged the lens by the time I got it back and, because every girl was certain her photo of this or that animal from the exact same angle and with the exact same (lack of) zoom would be award winning, I had at least five identical shots of every exhibit. But the girls were also invaluable accomplices in the difficult quest to shoot cameraphobic Mildred, whose sixth-sense for covert-photo-detection is at full height when I'm fingering the trigger.

After the zoo, once each girl had removed any visible jewelry, we herded the girls into Guate's Constitutional Plaza, zona una's plaza central, where we enjoyed ice cream on the central fountain's steps among the milling vendors, visitors, and petty criminals, soon afterward enveloped in a white mass of marching thousands chanting for peace.

Here I am, in a foreign land, accumulating kids like Ghengis Khan, but without the fun in bed. Though, in the context of modern times, without the child support as well...