If you’re like me, and you’re lucky enough to be able to travel, you might also be lucky enough to have moments, all-of-a-sudden-type moments, when the place you are visiting seems suddenly to accept you, to decide to take you in. My first such moment in Guatemala was on the climactic day of the week-long festival of Central American Independence held every year in Xela. Lacey and I had shoved our way to the middle of the fair itself, to the center of the sprawling, seam-bursting carnival that perched at the edge of town like one of the lopsided, colorful, tenuously overstuffed parcels that so many women here carry on their heads. We were weary from a festival party the night before, from the packed bus we had taken out to the edge of the fairgrounds, from the mile-long walk and shove through endless stalls and capacity-eclipsing crowds, from the sun that for once was not giving way to afternoon clouds. But at my insitence we were in line for the Round Up: a huge cylinder with walls of honeycombed metal in which you would stand, spinning faster and faster and then rising and tilting, the centrifugal force of the Round Up holding you back against the honeycomb so that at one end of its rotation you looked down at the crowds below and at the other end up at the sky.
Never mind that the Round Up’s ancient engine was operated by a bored-looking fourteen-year-old boy; the line was crackling with nervous excitement, and the smiles that accompanied this excitement made us dozens of silent new friends before we even got on. But when we finally got on, when we finally got on, and when the Round Up began to rotate, and when it lifted us up, and tilted, and leaned us back, and I saw the endless throngs below us, and the perfect cone of the volcano framed behind the giant ferris wheel, and the clouds billowing around it and shining against the blue, and then the throngs again, and then the blue and the cone, and when I closed my eyes and opened them, and grinned at the kids across from me, and felt myself relax, completely, against the metal of the Round Up and the grins and shouts of its young riders and the press of people below and everywhere and the sky again and the clouds and the volcano and the town of Xela not too far away, I let go, and suddenly I had arrived, more completely than I ever could have by plane or bus or any other means; and when the Round Up stopped, and I got off, the grin still widening my jaw, and reflecting those of my fellow Round Up riders, I knew I was in Xela.
A few weeks later, walking home by myself, I stopped for the first time at the tiny, door-in-the-wall tortilla shop that Lacey and I had had our eye on. Through the doorway we regularly saw a smiling woman cooking tortillas all day on a wide, dented metal pan. The tortilleria is also the entrance to her home, a dirt passageway about four feet wide. Her Guatemalan-style corn tortillas, thicker than our US version, cost about six cents apiece. On this, my first visit, I bought eight tortillas, after which the woman smiled and struck up a conversation:
“Where are you from?”
“The United States — Philadelphia, close to New York.”
She smiled again. “What are you doing in Xela?”
“I’m teaching. English and Art.”
“Ah, good, good. And how long are you in Xela for?”
“Four months.” I grinned, proud of my new, functioning Spanish, and especially of the length of my visit. “Until December.”
“Very good.” She smiled once more.
There was a tiny pause.
I grinned and lifted my bag of tortillas, trying to indicate that I would be her new regular. “And will you be here until December?”
Her final smile, generous and without irony, was somehow heartbreaking. “I will be here for the rest of my life.”
It was a week or two later that I joined the machine. I was on my bike and about to follow my fellow volunteers back down the mountain for lunch after a tiring morning of teaching at La Candalaria. I wasn’t scheduled to work construction. But something different was happening at the school-building project today, something irresistible: the laid-back group of workers who I had begun to get to know had quadrupled in size, quintupled in speed, and in fact become something altogether different: a machine. I straddled my bike and watched for a moment, incredulous, as old men rapidly shoveled dirt into wheelbarrows from a pile, rolled the wheelbarrows to other, slightly younger men who shoveled the dirt into an enormous ancient mixer, fed with rocks and buckets of water by still other men, while on the other end four more shoveled the wet concrete mix into buckets which were then heaved up a rough, steep scaffold to men waiting at one level, then another, then finally to the emerging second floor, where still more men hauled the buckets up and emptied them into wheelbarrows, rolled by others along boards laid across the rebar before they were dumped out for still others to pack down into crannies and smooth out with long boards. I hadn’t even realized the new school would have a second floor! But the machine was intent: there was no time for self-reflection, no time for dry contemplation. The cement had to go down wet. With single-minded intensity men shoveled, pushed wheelbarrows, passed buckets up full, threw them back empty, poured, wheelbarrowed, dumped, returned, smoothed, repeated. I watched only for a moment, until my fellow volunteers disappeared down the hill and I turned back to the foreman. “Can I help?”
Weeks after Independence Day, another festival: the ascension of the Virgen Rosario, Xela’s patron saint. Trolling for dinner around the Central Park where the festival was held, Lacey and I found ourselves among more carnival-style rides, these for small children. With amazement we realized that most of the rides were hand-operated, including the ten-seat ferris wheel, and we were still exclaiming over it when a whirly contraption next to us started up.
As I turned to watch the ride a vaguely familiar face caught my eye, a girl about seven or eight years old, in a red dress, sitting by herself and staring in at the center of the ride instead of out at her parents like the other children. I wondered if she was scared, if her family was even with her. Suddenly she turned. It was one of my students! I smiled, and was suddenly the glowing recipient of the most enormous grin the fair had certainly seen, and a wave that almost propelled her out of her seat. The ride started up and she slid away, but a moment later the red dress reappeared, along with a fresh grin and a wave almost more enthusiastic than the first. For at least a dozen revolutions we traded jaw-splitting grins and waves, until finally Lacey and I were pushed off into the crowd, with the moment still there, hanging, glorious and perfect as the shiny cars in the whirlygig and the Virgen Rosario hovering in the glowing white church.
And a week later: it was early afternoon, and I had time to spare before my bus pulled up. The Xela bus station is not like any bus station I’ve ever seen before: there are no signs or loudspeakers or terminal buildings, just an enormous tangle of old, wildly repainted schoolbuses cutting each other off as they pull in and out of a wide street, lots of people yelling, and a chaotic and colorful market stretching half a kilometer in one direction. I wandered into the market and bought an umbrella for a little over a dollar, looked for a cheap radio that Lacey and I could hook up to our iPods, wondered if I was missing my bus. Ahead of me I saw a couple shoeshine boys, one in his late teens and one, literally, a boy, no more than 10 years old. I had wanted to try my first shoeshine before my travels, and had also wanted to be able to pay one of the younger boys for it; suddenly here was my opportunity. So when the younger shoeshine boy called out to me as I walked past I asked him how much: three quetzales, or about thirty-five cents. I nodded, lifting my right foot a little uncertainly to the wood block he offered, and he started to shine my shoes.
It’s hard to remember exactly what went through my head during that shoeshine, but it was a lot. The boy was working hard, cleaning, buffing, polishing, shining, buffing, polishing again, shining. He tapped my foot when it was time to switch. I tried to focus on the market around me, to lose myself in its sensory maelstrom, but my eyes kept coming back to the boy working at my feet. It was a school day; even the kids I taught, most of whom lived in one-room houses made of sheet metal, were still in class. I glanced away again, watched the man next to me read the paper while his shoes were shined, watched him pay the same price for his shoeshine that I had been offered, three quetzales, before he walked away.
The boy had given me the right price. I looked back down. He tapped my foot again without looking up, and I switched. It was always hard to know if you were getting the right price, but this boy had offered it without hesitation. The strangest, most awful part was that I had noticed it, that my first instinct had been relief. Thirty-five cents for a shoeshine from a boy who should be in school. He could have been one of my students. He tapped my foot once more and I switched, watched him buff my left boot a final time, his hands slapping a blackened towel expertly across the toe. He finished and looked up, without rising. I reached into my pocket for a five quetzal note.
With my teacher’s instinct I reached down and put a hand on his shoulder. “Today, five quetzales. Ok?” I handed him the note and walked away. When I glanced back several steps later he was still holding the five quetzal note, staring at me, his face registering a quiet kind of confusion.
Longaniza is a common sausage here, made with pork, cilantro, and several other spices and vegetables. It’s delicious. But the other night when I went into the butcher’s shop up the street that Lacey and I had begun to frequent, I didn’t see the longaniza hanging in its usual place. The butcher was in front of the counter chatting with a man and a woman who stood there. He moved behind the counter as I entered.
“Are there no longanizas today?”
I must have looked worried, because he nodded and grinned. “Yes, yes, there are. How many do you want?”
“Three for ten, right?”
He nodded again.
As he went back to the refrigerator to get the sausage, the man next to me spoke up.
“You like longaniza?”
I nodded, smiling. “I really like longaniza.”
“You know, the best way to cook it is with onions and garlic. And then get some beans, and tortillas . . . it’s really good that way.”
“Yeah, I think that’s how I’m going to make it.” I nodded and we shared a grin now.
The butcher had bagged my sausage and handed it to me. I handed him my ten quetzales and turned to go. The man next to me murmured again: “Yeah, with onions and garlic. That’s the best way.”
Lacey has pointed out that the smallest jokes become inexplicably funnier when shared across cultures. So I turned, and with immaculate delivery, said: “yeah, thanks, now I’m really hungry.” I walked out to peals of laughter.
The longer we’re here (and the more my Spanish improves), the more interactions I’m having every day with local people, culture, and customs. These interactions are overwhelmingly positive for me; the people here are incredibly friendly, and sharing a hello and a smile with a stranger on the street happens at least several times a day. Here I’ve tried to choose a few very small moments of different kinds, moments that have stayed with me for one reason or another. I do hope to do another post like this in the future, and if it was interesting to write only about smiles and positive interactions, I could fill pages!