We rented a car and set out on a tour of several departamentos, or states. This proved to be a harrowing couple of weeks on the mayhem of Guatemalan highways, where two-way traffic lanes are more hint than suggestion and stray dogs along the road make it twice as difficult to swerve out of the path of oncoming speed demons passing someone else in their own lane.
At one point, a uniformed officer stood along the highway, waving frantically for us to pull over. My friend just screamed right on by, insisting that if we stopped, we’d just have to answer a lot of questions and pay some fee or other. Luckily, no one chased after us.
We went to a couple of tourist towns, then headed north to Totonicapan, where she lived as a Peace Corp volunteer. As we left the tourist areas, the villages began to look more run down. The people were grimmer, tougher, and more wary; the ever-present dogs scrawnier and more skittish and desperate.
I have travelled quite a bit, including more than a dozen trips throughout Mexico, where I have seen plenty of poverty. Guatemala struck me as much worse.
In Totonicapan, we visited a family that I still think of often, all these years later. My friend said we’d been invited to their house for supper and to spend the night, so we drove out of town into the countryside. We arrived at a small farm, probably a couple of acres. There were four buildings — a new looking house, a barn/shed for the animals, a one room concrete house, and a hut. We headed straight for the hut.
Inside, my friend greeted a very old woman — the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a “crone.” She was hunched over and cackling with dry strands of hair sticking out from a ragged scarf. She stirred a big black pot of something while she chatted with my friend. I know a little Spanish and exchanged a few words with her, but mostly I was taking in my surroundings while my friend talked with her.
A small wooden table stood in the middle of the unlighted room, and mewling kittens scampered about on the dirt floor. A tattered blanket beyond the cast-iron stove apparently led to another room. There were no windows, and the only light came through the open doorway. The room was extremely smoky from the wood-fire in the stove. From the ceiling hung enormous stalagtites of carbon, big black jagged spears formed from years of wood smoke. I could hardly take my eyes off the things.
This was the grandmother’s home.
Soon, the daughter, Felipa, came in with her two young boys, greeting my friend enthusiastically. It very quickly became clear that my friend was like a rock star to them. They gazed at her with absolute adoration and pride. Felipa was probably around thirty and her sons were five or six. I learned that her husband had left a year or two earlier to find work in the States as an illegal alien and he had recently written to say that he had met someone else and wasn’t returning home.
We ate a hearty meal of boiled chicken and corn tamales that seemed to weigh about a pound apiece. The grandma had come up with a dim light somewhere that made it just barely possible to get a vague idea of what was on the plate. She richly enjoyed her meal, smacking her lips and cackling at the funny stories my friend was telling. She did not chuckle; she cackled. She had a good laugh at my expense when I said something wrong in Spanish. When she had sucked every morsel off a chicken bone, she tossed it into the dirt where the kittens scrambled to grab a share.
After we finished eating, I was getting a little worried that we were going to be sleeping somewhere in the stalagtite darkness, but the daughter suddenly led us out of the hut and across the grass to the inexplicably pleasant house they had on their property. This is where my friend and I slept that night, in comfortable beds in a room with regular lights and a bathroom beyond the door. When I asked why the family didn’t live there, I got a confusing explanation having to do with a son in the city, his investment in the house and some sketchy plans to rent it out.
In the morning, we walked over to see Felipa and her two adorable little boys, Carlos and Juan. They lived in the single-room concrete building with a dirt floor. My Spanish was pretty good at the boys’level and I found myself looking at their school work and chatting with them while the other women caught up on the gossip. Grandma was outside, fixing the palapa roof on the barn, hauling huge bundles of dried corn stalks into the yard, feeding the cows and pigs, and generally behaving like an Oregon lumberjack.
Juan and Carlos were soon snuggling up with me and asking me a lot of questions and showing off their drawings and numbers. They had pointy little teeth, which their mother explained had been caused by some sort of faulty fluoride put in their water. She talked openly about her absent husband, during which the older boy, Carlos, grew silent and grim. He clearly understood what his father had done.
Before leaving, my friend and I left a bundle of money in the “rental house.” I was madly in love with Juan and Carlos by then and naturally worried about whether those kitchen kittens ever got enough to eat, but there was nothing to do but climb back into the car and head back out to the insane asylum they call a highway.
Years later, I heard from my friend that Felipa had left Juan and Carlos with her sister and gone north herself, finding work in the Los Angeles area. After a few years, she had apparently earned enough to return to Toto and buy a house for herself and the boys. I can’t help wondering how little Carlos must have felt when his mother left him as well. I hope it was worth it.
(Note: The boys in the picture are not Carlos and Juan, but they remind me a lot of them.)