Tuesday, December 27, 2005

I Feel a Long Way From the Hills of San Salvador

It was no Windsor, not even an Acton, but now that we're married and all, we decided we could officially be considered to be passing the Yuletide with family regardless of our location. Being the rational agents we are, the obvious course of action was to while away the three-day weekend sunning ourselves and drinking beer marginally better than that available in Guatemala. A hasty trip to the beach in El Salvador was clearly in order.

It seems like we were following a noble winter tradition and heading South, but we were in fact heading East as much as anything. You can look on a map if you want. I was surprised, too.

Our shoddy sense of continental geography aside, we found our way to Sunzal beach, home to what are rumored to be "gnarly" surf breaks and "a big crazy shaped rock" (additional illustration above, click to see it way big). The place was dead during daylight on Christmas Eve, which is the big family-gathering holiday in Central America, except for the young gentlemen ogling my lovely wife as she sat on the beach in her not-really-that-provocative swimwear. (Which ogling in fact grew all the more concerted when the beach grew more crowded the next day. I grew up in Colorado, and thus may not be the most well versed in beach etiquette, but even at the topless beaches that I have been lucky enough to patronize, it seems that a certain level of tact, if not outright guile, is required in the ogling department; the beaches of El Salvador are free of such boundaries of circumspection.)

Then, at sunset, the fireworks started. (Rest assured, I'm no longer talking about the inter-gender discourse on the beach, but rather literal pyrotechnics.) Really, fireworks have been visible from our balcony in Guatemala City just about every night for the last month -- and not just sparklers and bottle rockets but Greeley Independence Stampede Fourth-of-July Spectacular-caliber fireworks, which apparently anybody who's anybody in Guatemala City buys for their own personal backyard amusement. Or at least those who think their kids have too many fingers do. Sadly, the fireworks on the beach were not up to that level, but they were a constant background presence for hours and hours, both on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. As was the reggaeton smash "Gasolina," which the surf-bum hangout next door played at high volume on constant loop by night, which was in turn not unlike their treatment of Bob Marley's "Legend" by day.

(Alas, it's more entertaining to nitpick about minutiae than to make general sweeping statements like "the beach was beautiful and relaxing, and the water was perfect swimming temperature," but that doesn't make the latter any less true. Really, the beach in El Salvador was fantastic. I hope to return.)

Wrapping up our Salvadoran adventure on our way out of town Monday, we made two stops: The standard Central American market in the nearby port town and the "Mayan Pompeii" of Joya del Cerén, where typical Mayan dwellings have been preserved in volcanic ash. The market was a fun diversion, with the jerry-rigged gear of the local fishermen and the ready availability of sipping coconuts and vodka bottles filled with shark oil, which many claim has curative effects for all manner of household maladies and masculine failures. We bought a coconut; we passed on the Aceite de Tiburon.

The Mayan Pompeii, it turns out, is closed on Mondays.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Of the "hash"

When bidding on which exotic port of call I would be spending this two years, one invaluable resource was "Tales from a Small Planet." Among a bunch of other less valuable stuff, the site offers "Real Post Reports," which provide a refreshing alternative to the stuffy State Department dossiers on each post. The RPP's are a little more candid, and answer questions like "What's morale like at post?" or "What would you ship from home if you could?" or "What kind of social activities are available?" One key was that you could recognize the true pits when the answer to this last question is, "Well, there's always the Hash."

Just about every country that has foreign embassies has a chapter of the Hash House Harriers. This is a group that gets together on weekends to go for a run and then have a beer. They universally refer to themselves as "A drinking club with a running problem." Whether one thinks that little malapropism is hilarious or not is probably a fairly reliable indicator of how much one would appreciate the Hash.

The run is not just a pleasant bit of exercise, but involves a course laid out in advance, marked out Hansel-and-Gretel style with bits of flour left behind and hopefully not licked up by stray dogs. At various spots the trail of flour spots will fork, and one or more forks will be a false trail that one must follow until it runs out to discover it's false. This leads to a lot of standing around and waiting for someone else to figure out which trail is real. It also leads to most people on the course having no idea where they're going until they get there.

Yesterday, in my inaugural run, we ran down into one of the ravines that cuts into the city. It was alternately gorgeous and disgusting. Once down along the stream in the bottom of the ravine, it was hard to believe we were still so close to the crowded city. The walls of the ravine were pure green, with only occasional swathes in the bottom wide enough to support a patch of beans or corn. Of course, the Guatemalans have somewhat lower hygenic standards for waste disposal than those to which most Americans are accustomed. Mostly this meant frequent signs of discarded plastic containers, clothing, toys, tricycles, and so much more. At the frequent criss-crossings of the stream, it involved a higher danger element in slipping into the river due to the certain presence of what one might politely call organic waste. The final straw came as we climbed the tiny steps carved out of rock on the side of the ravine to get back to civilization. The terrain began to flatten out slightly near the top, where one could admire truly gorgeous views across the ravine behind. And it was advisable to look behind, because aparently the lip of a ravine near a city of two million people without regular trash service is too tantalizing a disposal site to resist. Of course, if you just dumped all your trash there, it would pile up and block your view and get smelly, so even the most slow-witted of readers will recognize that the only solution is to light the trash on fire. So, we finished our "run" gingerly stepping through the smoldering ashes of yesterday's tabloids, banana peels, and various dyed plastics that were surely engineered for safe incineration and inhalition, with the flames still roaring on today's trash a few yards away. On the bright side, it was a valuable, up-close look at the lifestyle the vast majority of the people in Guatemala have no alternative but to endure. On the down side, I walked through a burning trash dump.

Once safely back at home, the hash group sings a bunch of goofy songs and while drinking beer, in a format that punishes those who don't participate in the forced making of merry by making them drink more beer, a trade-off I'm willing to bear every time. I've been promised that your typical hash run involves a lot less standing around and near-zero levels of walking through smoldering refuse; we'll see if that's enough incentive to endure the goofy songs next time.

Friday, December 16, 2005

In which I make my triumphant return to the airwaves

What with the runaway success of my publishing career, as evidenced by the fact that you are reading these words, the time seemed right to solidify my push to become a multi-media sensation. As such, I scheduled another appointment on the radio to take my message straight to the people of Guatemala.

Fortunately, this time I didn't have to look up the word for "cranberry sauce," because I was a guest on a show with the thrilling topic of "How to apply for an American visa." For reasons that the market research department is still trying to pin down, there was slightly more public interest in my tips on how to punch your ticket to the land of baseball, apple pie, and plentiful jobs working construction than my tips on how to cook a turkey. This one was a 90-minute call-in show that was almost entirely filled with actual calls from actual Guatemalans, apparently mumbling questions through several handkercheifs while steadfastly refusing to turn their radios down while they were speaking on the air.

Most of the questions did not require the level of sophisticated knowledge of the Immigration and Nationality Act with which we Vice Consul and Third Secretaries are equipped. Really, they didn't even require the level of sophisticated knowledge of immigration policy that you could get by reading a cover story in USA Today. But I guess that's standard for radio, as even on NPR they host distinguished professors of political science to answer questions from the shut-ins and conspiracy theorists who have time to call talk radio in the middle of a work day.

Usually this kind of session would be rife with questions in the vein of, "My parents and two brothers have lived in the US for years, and I'm unemployed so I don't even have to ask for time off to visit them, yet I was denied a visa. Why? It seems totally unfair." Luckily these questions were either screened out or randomly unable to get through to the hosts. So, my fellow Vice Consul and Third Secretary and I mostly fielded questions along the lines of, "I've had a visa for twenty years and it just expired. Do I really have to come wait in line to renew my visa?" (Answer: Yes, Really.) We also got a few questions of the form, "This company said if I pay them $500 they would get me a work visa without an interview. What is the procedure for these kinds of cases?" (Answer: The procedure is you give them $500 and then you never see them again.)

Anyway, I have not yet been able to crack the Gutemalan television industry, which seem to focus less on the opinions of Vice Consul and Third Secretaries and more on the close-ups of dancing girls (again not so different from back home), but it's only a matter of time.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Everywhere with Helicopter

Every once in a while the guy upstairs throws us a bone. (I.e. the Ambassador, who literally is on the third floor of the embassy, whereas the Consular section is on the first floor. Just wound up that way by random chance, I'm sure.)

This time, the Ambassador was going out to inspect our facilities at El Pino and there happened to be an extra seat on the helicopter, and I was lucky enough to go. The first, and perhaps most important, order of business is to note that the word for "helicopter" is "helicoptero," as if it was translated by a junior-high student guessing on a Spanish exam. "El helicopter-o flies-o dentro los cloud-o's."

With that settled, it is my further duty to report that riding in a helicopter is really cool. I know that some small percentage of the devoted readership of this newspaper have surely been in helicopters before, whether circling Niagra Falls for kicks, or under government orders on less pleasant errands. For those who haven't, it's sort of like riding on a chairlift or the Sky Ride at Elitch's, except that every once in a while the Guatemalan gale-force winds push it around and suddenly it feels like you're fishtailing on black ice. We cruised over the city -- I hadn't realized how close we are to a giant barranca, or ravine, one of many that jut into the city.

Where exactly were we going? The El Pino Medfly Program Mass Rearing Facility! It's basically a big factory that makes literally billions of irradiated sterile male fruit flies, which are then dropped off in California, Florida, or along the border between Guatemala and Mexico. Then when your wild female fruit fly is looking for love, she finds it with a male who is now impotent, thanks to our friend Cesium-137, and you have one less litter of fruit fly babies. It's a smelly business, but that's what we does best.

Sunday, December 11, 2005


If that's not one of the funnest place names in the world, I don't know what is. Chichicastenango! Say it out loud -- if you can!

As you might guess, we went there this weekend. The whole idea was to visit what everyone says is one of the best Sunday markets in Guatemala and get our Christmas shopping done. We bought a lot of nice stuff. For ourselves. So if you were really hoping to get a fine hand-woven huipil like those crafted by the indigenous Guatemalans for centuries, or the masks used in the traditional holiday story play at the local church/Mayan temple, or even a turkey, you're out of luck this year.

Anyway, the market was a lot of fun. It was great walking through the peaceful town and the rabbit-warren of stalls in the main square while people were still setting up and the place wasn't overrun with shoppers. By mid-morning the place was a zoo; to some extent fellow gringos, but mostly so many Guatemalans that you could barely push your way through to feel up the roosters to see if they're too scrawny to be worth your time.

The real fun was the night before. First we climbed a nearby hill to the shrine of Pascual Abaj, which is a vaguely (very vaguely) face-shaped rock, flanked by crosses and surrounded by smoldering fires. The spot is one of the best examples of how the native Mayan religions have blended with catholicism -- despite the crosses, some evidence of the ancient art of chicken sacrifice was present. Unfortunately, most of the fires looked to have been untended for some time, so we just had to imagine from the voluminous trash left behind what had transpired before our arrival.

Moving swiftly from the sublime to the ridiculous... we went back to relax after the strenuous twenty-minute hike with a cool beer. We went to a restaurant with a balcony so we could watch the town going by. Before too long we noticed people lining up on the sidewalk. Soon, it was too many people to just be a bus stop. And not much after that, the people in giant cartoon-character costumes started coming through. Apparently as part of their town's annual festival, there is one night of Mickey, Minnie, Cruella DeVille, and thirty other comic-book characters dancing the merengue and salsa. After a few numbers, the crowd broke up, only to reassemble a little while later at the church to salute the people who risked heatstroke by dancing in a giant plastic/fur suit all night. (Just like many a young American visitor to Disneyland, some of the local kids had a hard time resisting the urge to take a whack at the giant puffy entertainers, thus demonstrating the common bonds that unite our two peoples, or at least the universality of eight-year-old boys' violent instincts.) On the drive back today, there was an even tinier town with about twice as many cartoon costumes dancing salsa in a line on the highway. It was never made explicit whether this tradition also dates back to the ancient Mayans or not.

Turkish Delight

The Consular Section christmas party was on Friday -- I guess here in Guatemala, even the US Govvernment doesn't have to call it a "Non-Denominational Holiday Party." Anyway, a fine time was had by all. Especially fine was when I was one of only 15 or 20 people who won a door prize -- in my case, a trinket from the big boss's previous post. It's a Turkish Evil Eye. Actually, the trinket is a charm that keeps the Evil Eye away from you. But, to make it more confusing, it looks like an eye. So I guess it's the Good Eye that keeps an eye on the Evil Eye. But the "Good Eye" just doesn't roll off the tongue, so "Evil Eye" it is.

P.s. Ayca and Ozge: Please don't hate me for mocking the proud and noble traditions of Turkey, a nation I continue to hold in the utmost respect.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Bonus Holla by Request!

Yes, we here at the executive offices of the Guatemala Holla aim to please our loyal reading public, and when the public relations department receives a request, it is quickly forwarded for prompt consideration by the editor-in-cheif. In this case, the people have spoken, and they have demanded an update on the agricultural bounty of our balcony. The staff photographer took a break from taking boring artsy shots and snapped a couple quick photos: As you can, see those who want a delicious thimble of fresh orange juice with their leftover tamales will be well served by our foray into horticulture. Those who prefer something a little more caffeinated with their morning meal may need to take a trip down to the local Cafe Barista. We also had a fleur de lis sighting, but it was quickly buffeted into submission by the gale-force winds of our balcony. The remaining plants are not available for viewing at this time, as they are suffering from exhaustion after surviving an extended drought. Of sorts. The groundskeeping department promises photos will be forthcoming once the plants are feeling a little perkier.

Of Weddings and Hot Tamales

The embassy staff is probably about 70% Guatemalan. The Officers cycle through, and the Guatemalans stick around, providing institutional memory and making the place run. One of the women who works with me got married yesterday, so I ventured off to Mixco to attend the ceremony. Being from Colorado, rather than say, South Boston, I've never had the pleasure of attending a Catholic wedding before. But I take it on the authority of many other guests that the wedding wasn't too different from the Catholic ceremony you'd see in the US, aside from a figure-eight double-rosary thing that bride and groom wore jointly during a chunk of the ceremony and the Our Fathers being en español. It may tell you something about the amount of preaching that was involved that the bride and groom also sat at a table at the front of the church when possible, which was kind of a more official cue for those of us who would generally have no idea when to stand or sit or kneel or whatnot. It's hard enough to pay attention to a sermon and pick up all the cues when it's in your first language.

The only other fun cultural differnce is that the less-developed ornithological sensibilities here still permit the throwing of rice. And being in Guatemala, they also throw dried beans and corn. Also, any time more than five people get together in Guatemala, a guy with an ice-cream cart and a cowbell shows up, a trend that the solemnity of holy matrimony was powerless to deter.

Being in a more typical Guatemalan neighborhood, I thought I'd take advantage -- across the street was a residence with a red balloon on the door and a sign saying "Today Delicious Tamales." Knowing there is nothing like a home-made taste of real local cuisine, I ambled over and paid my $1.85 and picked up four chicken tamales, steaming hot. I got them home, unwrapped one from the entire banana leaf that they use in lieu of a corn husk, and dug in. It turns out that the promised chicken in this tamale was the pointy end of a drumstick. You know, the half that doesn't have any meat on it. I ate the rest and tried another, and while there was more chicken, there were also little bits of chopped up bone mixed in, which was maybe even less desirable than the whole chunk of legbone in the first one. Anyway, there are still two wrapped tamales in the fridge; they'll probably still be there, dear reader, should you ever stop by to visit and want a late-night snack.