It’s Sunday afternoon, and Fina and I are walking up the street toward her sister Gloria’s house in Magdalena, the next town over. We decided to get out of the house because we were bored. The street is angled upward and it seems that it disappears into thin air at the top where Gloria’s flowers can be seen bursting through the fence; in reality the street simply falls down a steep hill, but I always like the view of pure sky at the end of the tunnel of continuous concrete housefronts. Fina tells me that when her mother was still alive, all her sisters and brothers would head to this house around 9 every Sunday, have breakfast, lunch, a mid-afternoon snack, and dinner together. Fina says they would stay until 9 or 10 o’ clock at night, just talking and enjoying each other’s company. Since her mother passed away 4 years ago, she still has the feeling that when she walks in the door, she’ll see her there.
Today her sister steps out as we reach out to knock; she tells us that a neighbor is sick and she was going to visit her. Do we want to come? Yes. In the street we now convene with 3 other women; we pass by a 4th in her front doorway and invite her along. She obliges.
We turn and follow a narrow dirt path that runs next to the concrete wall of a house on one side, and small plots of trash and fruit-tree filled land on the other. Coconut shells, chip bags, fallen banana tree…we duck under a sheet hanging on the line to dry and then enter a rather small, dark room, a simple square of cinder block with a roof of corrugated metal. Smoke from the neighbor’s cooking fire occasionally drifts through the gap between the top of the wall and the roof. The sick woman sits up on a bed pushed against the back wall. We file in and take seats on small plastic stools, and begin to talk. We talk about her illness. (Her legs are swollen, so we discuss herbs that are good for that. Try boiled avocado leaves, one woman suggests.) We actually talk about her swollen legs for a really long time, which gives me the opportunity to daze and then realize where I am.
If I ever think that Guatemala is not so different, it might be just because I don’t feel like a visitor anymore. I’m just part of it. But when I step back and look at myself discussing poultices in this tiny room using a foreign language, when I realize that I hadn’t thought it as unusual a few seconds ago– I realize what I’ve gained here is true insight into what life is like in Guatemala. I am not the tourist who pays to take a tour of local villages which advertises the opportunity to “make tortillas with indigenous women! Play with the kids!” I live that.
With this gem of a realization, I wake back up and enter into the conversation again around about the time that they are discussing stoves. I learn that they don’t bake here because it uses SO much gas. Hence the frying of everything, hence the growth of my “llanta” (yeah, they call it a spare tire here too.) And then we go on to discuss all of our weights and our “llantas” and how the “llanta” is the real problem– none of these women mind having “un trasero”… a big behind. After a cup of coffee, they teach me a new vocab word “cachar” which means something along the lines of “to get a boyfriend”… As we depart Fina mentions to the woman’s husband that we’ll bring over some cardboard the next time we buy boxes for the Paca and then he can block the smoke from coming in the house, that stuff causes cancer.
Back down the narrow lane, and as we step out onto the street and turn to our right we are met with that vision of pure sky; an orange sherbet sun is melting into whipped cream clouds and we all stand to appreciate it before heading back home; all feeling a little renewed from the joy of each other’s company on this not-so-boring Sunday.