It’s Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Guatemala. Since the rest of the country is on vacation, my school’s spring break is scheduled for the same time. A while back, I had decided that I wanted to spend this this time in Livingston, Guatemala. Livingston is where Guatemala’s black population, the Garífuna, reside. This community intrigues me because it is so homogenous and so isolated from the rest of the country – you can only reach Livingston by a boat. A research project seemed to be brewing there and I wanted to go, check out the place, and maybe lay the groundwork for an extended stay this summer.
I told a co-worker about my intentions and she promised to introduce me to a friend of hers who was from that area. The friend turned out to not be from Livingston, but she had some friends who lived relatively close to it and she reached out to them on my behalf. Some time later, the friend emailed me and said that I was welcome to stay with some friends of hers who lived in Morales, Guatemala and I should give them a call.
I took my time in calling because I hate talking on the phone. I really hate talking on the phone to people I don’t know and I absolutely detest talking on the phone in Spanish. I can’t see the person’s hands or watch their lips so my comprehension is automatically reduced by 40%. Finally, a couple of weeks ago, I called the lady and started spewing nonsense about who I was and why I was calling. She eventually put me out of my misery and said, yes, I know who you are. We’re looking forward to seeing you. I asked if we could switch the conversation over to Facebook Messenger because I can read and write better than I can speak Spanish. She laughingly acquiesced and over the next few days, we figured out the dates and pick up times. I found a bus to take me right to her town and she agreed to meet me there at the designated time.
I didn’t really have a plan when I got on that 3am bus to Guatemala City. My thinking was that I would get to Morales, spend the night with this family, and then head off to Livingston, Rio Dulce, Puerto Barrios, or the coast of Belize and then bounce around the rest of those places for the remainder of my time. I didn’t know a lot about any of those places. I’m a wanderer by nature. I don’t research places. I just appear and hope that it works out. And it always does.
The trip to Morales was somewhat stressful because the lady of the house kept calling to check on me. She would ask me where the bus was, but I was asleep most of the time, so I never knew and I wasn’t confident that I had the words to explain it to her anyway. Finally, we reached Morales and as soon as I got off the bus, a man and his son walked up to me. It was the husband and his son who speaks English. The dad told me that he wanted his son to practice his English with me. The son didn’t share those aspirations. He said, “Welcome,” when he showed me my room, but that was the last word of English I heard from him. He wouldn’t even listen to my English. He just gave me blank stares until I repeated myself in Spanish.
The daughter, however, would speak to me in English. She translated for me often, but she couldn’t be with me always and so I was often left to fend for myself, which was good – I need the practice- but nerve-wracking. The hardest thing was comprehension. I was so disappointed in myself. I thought my Spanish was improving. I watch movies in Spanish all the time, I have been growing my music collection, and I take Spanish classes every week. I assumed that I would understand most of what was being said even if I couldn’t engage. But noooo. That was not the case. The accent was so strong and the words were coming so fast that I either completely missed what was said or there was a 20-second processing delay.
“¿Dormiste bien, Marie?” (Did you sleep well?)
………………………………………………………………………….……………………….¡Si! ¡Dormi bien!
Then there was this business of the name. For reasons still unbeknownst to me, the hostess decided that my name was Marie (pronounced MAH-ri-ay). At first, I thought maybe she misunderstood me on the phone, but no, we’re Facebook friends and my name is listed as Andrea there. Plus, she has a niece named Andrea Maria and she turned to me one day and said, “Marie, look, you guys have similar names. Andrea Marie, meet Andrea Maria.” For whatever reason, she called me Marie and eventually the rest of the family did as well. It took me over a day to process the name they were calling (I had never heard the e pronounced at the end of Marie, even among Spanish speakers.) and then realize that they were referring to me. But, confusing as it was, I loved it. As a child, whenever I was changing schools, I always contemplated telling the school that my name was Marie, but I always forgot and then you can’t change after the fact, so this was a child’s illusion become reality. I wanted to fall out laughing one day, though, when the son walked up to me once and said, “Mari!” and she looked at him with that maternal look that stops rudeness in its tracks and said, “MariE.” I appreciated that she wanted him to be respectful of my name, but as no one calls me by my middle name but her, it really made no difference to me if he made the e sing or not.
In so many ways, staying with them reminded me of childhood. They lived in the country. There was nothing out there but gas stations and farmland. I didn’t grow up in the country, but this love for wide, open spaces is in my blood. Maybe I inherited from my daddy who was born in Como, MS or maybe I read too many Mildred D. Taylor’s books as a child. Either way, I always wanted to go live on a farm for a significant period of time. My dad’s aunt lived in Senatobia, MS and I used to fantasize that, one summer, I would go live with her and she would teach me how to garden. All of these things I was contemplating, as I would sit outside in the morning, watching the world wake up. Eastern Guatemala has a distinct Caribbean feel, but there was something wonderfully American Southern about it.
(Relaxing on the front porch.)
The same was true for the people. The hostess embodied that Southern woman charm that I admire so much. I have dreams of exuding that kind of grace, like one my aunts. My aunt has always been the perfect lady to me. She doesn’t walk; she glides from place to place. So powerful are her strides -she means business in everything that she does – yet she is still in command of her feminine mystique. It’s a dynamic combination and I saw that same flair in my hostess. A slightly different flavor though. She was more like Scarlett’s mom, Ellen, from Gone with the Wind. When she moved, I expected to catch a whiff of lemon verbena in her wake. She ran her house with such elegant grace and an infectious laughter. And her husband was the perfect Gerald O’Hara to her Ellen – the small, yet boisterous and jovial man of the house. The host was an incredible man. So willing to serve and love on people. He was always trying to feed people, literally. One afternoon while the family was having coffee, he fixed himself a ham sandwich and as he was eating, he would periodically raise the sandwich to the lips of his son who was sitting on his left and then to his wife’s nephew who was on his right. Watching him share life with his family made me miss my daddy and reminisce on when I was really young and would sit between his knees, resting my head on his chest as he sat on his aunt’s porch, cackling with his uncles.
I ended up spending my entire vacation with them. As soon as we got to the house, the son showed me to my room. His sister was giving me her room and she had moved downstairs to a guest room. When I protested about kicking her out of her room, the brother waved me off with a flick of the hand and a dismissive look. “This is your room now.” I went downstairs where the dad was preparing dinner for me. When the mother and daughter came home, the parents sat me down and asked me what my plan was for the week. I explained that I didn’t really have a plan and was just going to wander around the country. They offered a counter-proposal. Why didn’t I just spend the week with them? They were also on vacation and I could go around with them and they would make sure that I achieved all of my goals and they kept their promise. I did make it to Livingston on my last day, but only briefly, and I didn’t care. I got so much more than I was looking for. I got to be in a community again and my soul needed that.
(At the mirador that overlooks Los Conchas, the waterfall park.)
I wonder how they perceived me. I’m sure that my pleasure wasn’t as visible as I wished it were. I was in observer mode most of the time, trying to understand the accents and just watch this family be a family, and observer mode makes my facial expressions more severe. When I thought about it, I tried to smile, but I don’t have a resting smiling face so I had to stop because I felt like an idiot. And then, of course, there was the language issue. Speaking in Spanish made me so nervous that I would rush through my words. When I rushed, I didn’t emphasize the right syllables and Spanish is all about the emphases, so I wasn’t understood which made me more nervous and a vicious cycle was born. I loved watching the daughter. She was so charismatic, always making jokes, playing with her cousins, and dancing around. She is one of those people who has never met a stranger. On the ferry back from Livingston, she was joking and laughing with the couple behind us. You would have thought they were old friends. On the way to Livingston, she noticed a family struggling to put the life jacket on their son and she just quickly took it out of their hands and did it herself. Later, when the boy wanted to sit beside his sister, who was on the front row with us, to see the waves better, she lifted him up gently and wedged him between herself and the sister. She was in her element all of the time and it was beautiful to watch. She made me miss my own element. I longed to be more fluent in Spanish so that I could show more of my personality.
(On our way to Livingston)
I had to leave Morales and head back before the weekend because the buses stopped running the second half of the week due to the Holy Week festivities. I was supposed to take a bus from Morales to Guatemala City and then a bus from the city of Xela, but the bus leaving Morales left too late for their taste, so they asked a friend who was driving to the city to drive me to the bus station there. The friend was also given instructions to stop in Quirigua, a small Mayan archaeological site, for a min-field trip on the way home.
All I could think on the way home was, “This is my dream.” I want to be one of those people who can make complete strangers feel at home in their house. Whenever I stop this Lone Ranger business, I’m going to put roots down somewhere and build a home that will be a refuge of joy and peace to all who enter. (If I ever get married, homeboy needs to be on the same page with this because it is so annoying to spend time in someone’s house who is kind and considerate, but his/her partner is sucking the life out of the room with his/her rudeness or indifference.) In the meantime, I need to figure out what is required of me to be that kind of person. Life has taught me that being a great host is a skill for which many people have the heart, but not the gift. Too often, I have been in someone’s home at some function, watching discomfort oozing out of the guests’ skin, thinking, “Ooo CHILE, next time you need to just bring the wine. Entertaining is not in your wheelhouse.” Many are called, but few are chosen. I want to be chosen, so I will figure this out. In the meantime, I will start testing my skills while I’m in Guatemala, but it will have to be small because I only have a studio. But hopefully, by the time I make my way back to the States, I will have gotten it together so I can be a blessing to others the way this family and so many others have been to me.