Saturday, July 29, 2006

We Are About to Begin Our Final Descent

If you thought that we could sink no lower after joining the ranks of SUV owners, think again.

There are certain hardships involved with living far away from one's family, in a strange culture, in a city with a crime rate so high that it makes Detroit look like Dekatur. But when one's cheif complaint about his living situation is that the apartment is so big he can't keep up with sweeping the floors, one can't help but start counting the days until he fully embodies the charicature of the pampered ex-patriate sipping cocktails and complaining about how hard it is to find good help.

To ease the terrible burden of sweeping our own gargantuan apartment (or more accurately, the burden of walking around with blackened feet because we haven't bothered to sweep the layer of settled diesel particulate and volcanic ash off our floor in a week (and further to avoid looking at the grime on our feet and thinking about how that stuff winds up on our floor because it's so prevalent in the air we breathe every day)), we hired a maid. Sylvia comes by once a week, and we pay her a ridiculously small amount to spend a whole day cleaning our kitchens and watering our plants, doing laundry and breathing the toxic fumes of the solvents used to clean a whole bottle of purple nail polish (not mine) off the bathroom floor. And yet if you told the Guatemalan families who live above and below us what we pay Sylvia, they would either pity us for getting suckered into such a terrible deal, or scorn us for driving up wages for the whole neighborhood. Or both. Not unlike the SUV, we wound up hiring Sylvia because one of our colleagues who had formerly employed her was departing. He recommended her highly and we almost felt responsible for what would happen to her without income every Tuesday, and there was that quarter inch of soot lining every flat surface in our apartment, so you can see we really had no choice.

I think we were the only couple in the entire Embassy that didn't have a maid yet. Some families with small children have a full-time nanny plus a maid and maybe a gardener, as well. In fact, fairly often someone either from the embassy or the outside world would want to come by to do some maintenance on the apartment, and ask when someone would be around to let them in. We would reply that we both work, and can't take time off to come hang out and wait for the cable guy, to which they would explain, "You don't have to be there, the maid can let us in." When we revealed that we didn't have a maid, we would get a look of confusion, and then the service provider would just give up, which is why we've been "borrowing" wireless internet from the neighbors for longer than I should probably admit in this public forum.

Now we've had a one-day-a-week maid for several weeks. It does feel like we're living someone else's life. At first, it grated on our American sense of rugged individualism and our distrust of snobbery and noblesse oblige and the Coastal Liberal Elites Who Are Tearing Our Country Away from the Heartland Values that Made Us Great. But it is effing awesome to come home on Tuesdays and have the house spotless and the laundry folded and the dishes done. And to spend all those hours that could have been wasted on sweeping instead on composing a thousand-word blog entry about not sweeping, or other such productive pursuits.

It is, at times, a little weird to find all of the pants, both male and female, mixed in one stack on the Lovely Katherine's side of the closet; or that rather than our fluffy neutral-colored bath towels, the bathroom has been restocked with ratty rainbow-colored beach towels and a golf towel that says "Fox Hill Country Club;" or that we're still not sure where she decided the measuring cups are stored, so your correspondent just figures a coffee mug must be about one cup and wings it at least until we hire a cook. But do not misconstrue such notes as greivances. At least in your correspondent's mind, he has not yet crossed the at-least-internally-important line between hiring help and complaining about it -- I figure we have to maintain some milestones for the second year of our descent.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Another boring church

The facade of the church in San Andres Xecul, a small town outside of Quetzaltenango. Fortunately there wasn't direct sunlight on it or our eyes might have been permanently damaged.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

A Superhero for Our Times

Enemies of fried food beware -- Super Pollo is packing a machete! Once he works out the opposable thumb, you're in real trouble!

Thursday, July 06, 2006

On the Road Again

We enjoyed a cleverly constructed almost-four-day weekend a few days ago. Friday, June 30 was Army Day or War Day or Tank Day or something. On Thursday, the American People needed me in Sololá, near Lake Atitlán, a couple hours away from Guatemala City. So, I went and conducted the business I had at the Sololá jail (which, like most modern prisons, is practically indistinguishable from a country club) on Thursday morning and then took the afternoon off.

Equipped, as we were, with our new and insufficiently tested mini-SUV, we declared, "Screw the rain and the mudslides." The Highlands were calling our names. We checked to make sure none of the roads we were planning to travel were closed at the particular moment, and after a stroll through Sololá, continued West to Quetzaltenango.

Quetzaltenango, also known as Xela, is Guatemala's second city. It's a fair sight nicer than Guatemala City, with an actual Indian restaurant and an attractive downtown. We enjoyed a quick meal and then headed for Zunil, a small town that's supposed to have a pretty church and their own version of the local idol Maximón. As we passed through Almolonga, another tiny town on the way, we spied ferris wheels over the rooftops, and screeched to a halt to check it out. It must have been the town's annual fair, as the streets were packed with midway games and amusement park rides. We saw a dance performance featuring costumed characters, a performance by Guatemala's most famous modern marimba band, and the candle- and neon-lit church. We also played a quick couple games of Lotería, a bingo game for players of all education levels that uses pictures instead of letters and numbers on the grid. The Lovely Katherine, being a master of all bingo-related games, promptly won the second game. She was awarded a prize of five drinking glasses decorated with a daffodil pattern. She denied that she had attempted to throw the game, and passed on her prize to a young volunteer who had aided her in avoiding some obvious strategic blunders when her victory drew near.

The next day we enjoyed a luxurious breakfast in an almost American-quality coffee shop, and then plotted a course through Huehuetenango for Todos Santos Cuchumatan. Todos Santos is on the far side of a precipitous climb up the mountainside from Huehue, and then a dirt road back down the other side. It is a tiny town in a gorgeous valley, and draws a modest but disproportionate number of tourists because the men as well as the women still dress in their traditional colorful garb. The place couldn't have been more picturesque, nor the residents more tired of having their picture taken. One highlight was a dinner in a tiny comedor, where we ate fried chicken and were joined at the dinner table by one of the main course's survivors.

The weekend had been a smashing success, and wasn't over yet. We went back south along the highway and then turned east to climb another pretty mountain ridge and arrive in Momostenango, which we selected because they supposedly make the finest blankets in Guatemala, and it's a funny place name, to boot. We pulled into Momostenango at about 3:00 on Saturday. At about 3:15, we decided to spend another evening in Xela, and then back to Guatemala the next day, figuring that having a fantastic time at two of our three intended destinations would have to be enough for one trip.

[Photo department note: Due to the new camera, the photo department is taking more pictures than ever, and spending more time than ever trying to edit them. These photos were grabbed for the purpose of illustration, actually carefully selected photos coming soon.]

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

In which we surrender

The Lovely Katherine and your correspondent have a long-running disagreement as to whether we live in "the suburbs" or not. In a political sense, we live well within the boundaries of Guatemala City. In an aesthetic sense, there's not much in terms of street-level retail, pedestrian infrastructure, or other markers of true urban living in our neighborhood. In a criminal sense, some not-too-distant neighbors were recently followed into their garage by armed goons and tied up while their jewelry and electronics were stolen, which seems pretty urban to me. (Note to worried relatives: we live in an apartment building with security features that would make such a robbery attempt much more difficult, and thus extraordinarily rare.) In the end, it doesn't matter whether we classify as "suburban" or not, and I keep up the semantic fight just because my inner urban hipster is screaming about the implications of living in the suburbs: that we're old and have had all our rough edges sanded off.

But it's impossible to fight the facts any more. Katherine works at a school a few miles north of the city proper (but decidedly not suburban), and the last bit of her daily commute is on a dirt road that gets pretty treacherous during the rainy season. We also do a fair amount of bumping around the precipitous, unmarked speed bumps and domestic-appliance-sized potholes of Guatemala's highways and small towns. Which is all rationalization, powerless to stop the pure cold facts of our yuppie-dom:

We bought an SUV.

It's a small SUV, but an SUV nonetheless. A departing embassy employee was trying to unload his Kia Sportage before moving back to DC. The car does not meet US emissions standards (and also has windows tinted well past what seems reasonable, but I'm not sure if they would be technically street-legal in the US or not), so keeping it wasn't an option for him, and he was in a mood to sell. I don't suffer any illusions that a Kia Sportage is a particularly manly SUV (especially if you pronounce it in the French manner - "sport-AAAHJ"), it just seemed like a smart purchase in terms of safety. Of course, I'm sure that's just what you would hear from my SUV owning brethren, cruising the highways of America in their Expeditions and Yukons and Hummers.