Saturday, December 16, 2006

Tactics for Tactic

Joe, one of my esteemed predecessors in the Consular Section, sent a seemingly cryptic e-mail a month or so ago. He had served in the Peace Corps in Guatemala many years prior to joining the Foreign Service and returning here as a Vice Consul and Third Secretary. He is now on his second tour, in Lithuania. He sent an e-mail to my boss in Guatemala, which she forwarded to the entire section, seeking a volunteer to go to the small town where he had lived in his Peace Corps days to drop off a Christmas present for the family he had stayed with. And he noted that if the volunteer should go on the right weekend, they might witness the "Bolas de Fuego, a celebration that involves the locals throwing fireballs at one another. " Many of my colleagues inexplicably shied away from this opportunity for cultural exploration, but your intrepid correspondent stepped up.

Tactic (pronounced "Tahk-teek," not "Tack-tick") is actually a decent-sized town as these things go in Guatemala. Nobody seems to know with any certainty how many people live there, but I would guess something like 12,000 or 15,000 (the only estimate I found on the web says 27,000, but that's got to include a healthy slice of the outlying area). We arrived on Friday afternoon and met our host, Naldo (short for Reginaldo), on the main square, and he directed us a few blocks to the family home. We were welcomed by Doña Rosa, the matriarch of the family who could understand spoken Spanish but could only speak Pokomchí herself (see #49 on this map). We sat in her kitchen, and she served us each a mug of coffee from the pot that seemed to have its own dedicated 50-gallon-drum-cum-cookstove, one of two in the kitchen. A variety of Naldo's brothers and sisters and children came and went, stopping by to chat and breath in the wood smoke and then filter back to the room with the TV (which we were never invited to watch).

The hospitality that the family showed us was literally embarrassing. Most readers are probably familiar with circumstances where one puts forth obligatory protestations over a host's generosity. But this was a case where we actually felt bad about the kindness of this family that probably earns in a month, with four brothers working, what I earn in a week. They emptied out a room with three beds in it so that we could have a room to ourselves -- we protested, but never found out for sure where all those displaced people slept. They served us a delicious chicken dinner, although I would guess that serving meat was a fairly expensive proposition for them. They served us spaghetti and tomato sauce for breakfast the next morning, which was an unusual but tasty. They tricked us into staying for lunch even though we said we were going to leave, serving soup with potatoes, veggies, and a big chunk o' meat. (As an aside, this was the only meal that involved us having to force ourselves to eat really undesirable food in order to avoid causing offense, as the meat was shoe-leather tough and generally not very appetizing. I ate one-and-a-half servings. It could have been a lot worse.) They helped us feel at home by digging out the CD of "English music" that Joe had left them, full of sixties girl-group classics, even though we said we were fine with marimba.

Sitting in the kitchen and chatting was a little odd, because what did we really have to talk about? But we muddled through. The kitchen was constantly filled with fumes from the two oil-drum cookstoves. There wasn't really a door on it -- just a hand-made wooden gate opening onto an open-air entryway where the two dogs ("Escooby" and "Seca" (also known as "Joe's daughter-in-law")), two cats (both apparently named "Negro" by default), chickens and ducks made their homes. The primary entertainment was the constant efforts of the ducklings to sneak through the gate into the kitchen to look for crumbs and enjoy the warmth for some indeterminate amount of time before Doña Rosa would decide "enough" and pick up her duck-chasing stick, shooing them out of the kitchen again while saying "Psssshhhhhhhhhhhhh!" Coffee was served at every moment anyone was sitting in the kitchen -- even the three-year-old girl had a breakfast of white bread dipped in hot coffee -- in part because it is quite often very chilly in Tactic, and also because you have to boil the water anyway so why not throw in some flavor?

We discussed the main event of the evening a bit, and many of our hosts were not really thrilled about going. "I don't usually go -- it scares me," said Naldo. But duty called and we went to see it, and he and young Eber felt equally duty-bound to accompany us. We stood on the main square in the drizzle for a bit. A small crowd was hanging around in little pockets on the square and around its periphery. Peppy live music blasted out of the evangelical church on one side of the square. We admired the mini-version of the Gallo Beer Christmas Tree in the square, and the Lovely Katherine chatted with Eber about school while I chatted with Naldo about his work repairing shoes. Eventually, a fiery glow emerged from one of the side streets, and a bunch of youngsters showed up with a coffee can full of flames. Other youngsters ran to the non-operational fountain in the square and soaked their jeans and gloves in the stagnant water to prepare for battle. One of the kids lit up a canteloupe-sized ball, made of rags wrapped in twine or wire or some such, and soaked in kerosene or similar. He threw it at another of the kids; it hit him and bounced to the ground, at which point a scrum developed around the ball and they all tried to kick it, but it soon flickered and went out in the damp conditions.

At that point I realized that I had somehow projected onto Joe's invitation the assumption that this annual tradition must entail some community pride, some pomp and circumstance, some official speech by the chairman of the planning committee that it was great to be able to celebrate the Bolas de Fuego for another year. Instead, it was more like the American "tradition" of young hooligans throwing eggs at cars on Halloween than it was like a sanctioned town fair. The entire event consisted of teenage boys throwing flaming rags at one another, and at bystanders who for some reason gathered nearby to make targets of themselves. In fact, it was exactly as Joe had described it, nothing more, nothing less.

I quit thinking about that when the young toughs decided that Mr. Gringo-with-an-expensive-camera looked like a particulary good target. We had a couple fireballs tossed in our direction, but then again, so did a lot of people, so maybe we were just paranoid. Whatever the reality of the situation, which the Lovely Katherine described to our other friends as "maybe the first time I have ever been literally weak-kneed with fear," we decided to decamp to Foto Lydia, the portrait studio near the square where one of Naldo's brothers works. This didn't remove us entirely from danger, as the young flamethrowers kept throwing fireballs wherever they saw people, to the point where they even threw a fireball into the door Foto Lydia, but the ubiquitous cinder-block construction provided fireproof cover. The drizzly conditions helped snuff out most of the fireballs before they could do to much damage, and somehow we didn't see anyone sustain any injuries -- which apparently is not the case every year.

The next morning we walked with Naldo and three-year-old (or so) Rubi up to the church on top of one of the hills in town, which afforded nice views for what one could see under the clouds; and then went with Naldo, Eber, and Rubi to the local park and zoo. It's sort of weird that such a small town has a zoo, but it did, with one row of various pheasants and peacocks and such, plus some spider monkeys, crocodiles, and rabbits. We rode the merry-go-round with Eber until we were sick. It was both a shame and a relief to bid an mid-day farewell to the family on Saturday and head on to see the orchid nursery in Cobáan. It was really exhausting making friends with people from a background so different from ours, but a fascinating and much appeciated weekend none-the-less.

Photos coming soon, but maybe not until after we get back from Xmas. And the photo department doesn't think any of the pictures of the bolas de fuego are worthy of publication, but we'll see

Friday, December 15, 2006

Beat the Devil

Being American or from Protestant stock or generally unbothered by religion, I had no idea that there actually is an official start of the Christmas Season. Apparently December 8 is the day of the Immaculate Conception, which leaves only 17 days until Christmas Day. I'm not sure if that's in the Bible or if it was just established by some papal bull or the Knights Templar or whoever makes such decisions, but it seems to imply less of an Immaculate Conception and more of an Immaculate Nearly-Full-Term-Baby-Jesus-Insertion. In any case, as in America, the Christmas trees and the carols playing in the grocery store and such have been going on for a while, but the religious celebrations just started last week. Apparently there are ceremonies of some sort where they cart around Joseph and Mary sculptures in a symbolic search for an inn every night for the next week.

Before all the Christmassing gets started, there's a final blowout, not unlike Mardi Gras, except that after the blowout, no fasting is required. In Guatemala, December 7th is the Quema del Diablo, or Burning of the Devil. The idea is sort of that one removes all the malign spirits from one's house through the symbolic ritual of dumping any trash or other unwanted possessions on the street and setting them ablaze. In many neighborhoods and towns, this tradition is pretty much unchanged, and the local news (immediately preceding my interview, in fact) had a lengthy story about how it really isn't good for anyone's lungs to burn unwanted tires, even if they do provide hours worth of incendiary entertainment.

In the posh neighborhood full of doctors and construction magnates and foreign diplomats, there aren't many tires being burned anymore. Making the holiday somewhat more literal and yet less practical, many now celebrate by purchasing a papier-mâché devil and burning that instead of a pile of garbage. The child labor force of Guatemala must be working serious overtime in November, because on December 7th, all variety of fireworks stands and mock devil outlets suddenly appear, offering diablos from the small and economical to larger-than-life-size. Ideally, the devil is stuffed with firecrackers, piñata-style. At dusk, the devils are burned, and fireworks are set off all over town. We could see fireworks in every direction, going up right behind our building, in the yards our balcony overlooks, and dangerously close to a building up the block. Any José with a few bucks in his pocket can buy the kind of fireworks in Guatemala City that Americans can only get in Wyoming. I'm not sure if the Fourth of July used to have the thrilling 360-degree spectacles of neighbors in every direction shooting off huge fireballs. But I assume we banned these things for a reason, and I hesitate to guess how many Guatemalans lost fingers last Thursday. Our whole neighborhood smelled of burnt gunpowder and whatever other toxic substance they use to make sparks green or orange.

If you've ever wondered what you're missing by not living in Guatemala, you should know that The Lovely Katherine declared Quema del Diablo the best holiday in the world. That might be putting it a little strongly, but it does have a freewheeling spirit that American holidays maybe once had, but no longer do.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Watch This Space

We were on a bit of a dry spell there in terms of events with any reader appeal in Guatemala. But the last week was full to bursting with newsworthy tidbits, often involving pyrotechnic derring-do and ridiculous risks to life and limb. So clear your calendar for some exciting posts to come as soon as the editorial staff gets time to get this edge-of-your-seat stuff ready for publication. Or, at least, as ready for publication as we bother to get anything.

In the meantime, trip out to this picture the staff photographer took of the lights on the balcony above ours.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

King of All Media

It was a little while in coming, but the media titans of Guatemala finally realized that my dashing good looks were being wasted on radio interviews. So I finally got my big break, interviewed for a television piece about how if you want a visa to go see Tia Marta in California for Christmas, you need to schedule an appointment now. (Or more accurately, two weeks ago.) It was short and to the point, and I managed to not sound like any more of an idiot in Spanish than I probably would have in English. I don't know what happened to my collar, it was straight when I looked in the mirror and checked my teeth for spinach just before the interview.

The night they said they were going to air the interview, they didn't, and I was a bit worried that they realized how boring talking about visas is. But they claimed that they wanted to maximize the audience for it so they showed it morning, noon and evening newscasts over the last day. Somehow, they managed to squeeze in three minutes of me into the other 57 minutes where they exclusively discuss murders, disappearances, grisly fires at illegal child-labor fireworks factories, and sports.