It’s a long story that started early in the day at Margarita’s, batting off mosquitoes and warming up coffee, and eating my daily papaya. Yesterday I fired my Guatemalan driver, the extremely nice man who drove me to La Puya and back. It wasn’t his fault. I just didn’t want to talk, and he wanted to talk all the time. I couldn’t bear to have him chatting to me all the way to Comalapa, so I called in sick, and then took a chicken bus.
I actually really like the bus, and not just because I’m cheap, which I am. I can be completely alone on the bus, and no one will talk to me very much. And I can think, though I can’t write what with the curves and rushes of every Guatemalan road, through the ravines , the tumbling barrancos. Being Sunday, I have to take a few buses, and transfer in Chimaltenango, and sit on a bus in the hot Chimal market not buying ice cream for an hour or more, but in the end I make it to Comalapa to the house of the astonishing, wonderful, brilliant and on-fire Chirix sisters. There are six of them, and I know three pretty well, and Berta best of all. Berta came with a group of Comalapan artists to Peace House in Quiché for seven Saturdays and transformed the walls of our courtyard into a tapestry of testimony and prayer. Emma and Ofelia are feminists, sociologists and anthropologists, and former members of various groups I love including Bishop Gerardi’s Nunca Mas Truth Commission and the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Association.
The sisters, and their friends, are artists, intellectuals, out challenging the foundational structures of oppression in Guatemala: deep hideous historical racism and rampant sexism. Nothing beats eating more papaya in their kitchen as they flap out tortillas, or a long drawn out lunch with a lot of flashing conversation. I have three more readers confirmed for the section of my book on Canadian mining in Guatemala that speaks about resistance built on Mayan cosmology.
And then before I know it we’re off, walking through the dusty winding streets of Comalapa to the other side of town to the house which is serving as rehearsal space. Berta’s theatre troupe Ix Saqil Iq (Woman, Light of the Moon) is preparing a new production after the wide success of their last one, the Tapestry of my Body. Ix Saqil Iq are seven Kaqchiquel women, and this time they are working on The Unravelling of Our Shame, a play they created, critically looking at Mayan concepts of shame and sin, and the power relations between women and men. Sadly, my Kaqchiquel is mostly non-existent, but I can see how this production is going to dig into the heart of Mayan women’s identity. It is going to be controversial, and despised by some.
But eventually somehow I snooze while sitting on a petate (straw woven mat used in traditional Mayan households for sitting or –conveniently – sleeping.) Edwin arrives, and after a while we head out, back across town, chilly now, dodging motorcycles and trucks and dogs, until we get back to Berta’s house. There after using the facilities, I find that my pack, which I had been told to leave in a front entry room, seemed to have been rifled through. First sign, distressingly, bits of my poetry, my scraps of writing tucked into books, is all over the floor. A dog? I think, and I hurriedly slip them back into my notebook. Or a child? Edwin doesn’t say anything, so I tuck everything into the pack. I am confused, embarrassed, I don’t want to cause a fuss, or become the centre of a scene. (Edwin later says he thought it was odd that I had left my stuff scattered around.)
My heart wails when I notice that my Canadian Guard Grizzly is missing. A child, I decide, though no children that I know of live here. Edwin is waiting at the door, so I stand up. That’s when I see, hanging from the edge of a chair, my favourite MEC purple underwear, the ones that so faithfully accompanied me on the Colombian pilgrimage, getting washed in the river, while I was wearing them. In they go to the pack, and out we go to the street. Pattibear is nowhere to be seen! Sniff!
Edwin. Mural artist, still travelling the country leading mural making workshops, living now in Guatemala City, in a desperate neighbourhood, working with youth on the recovery of identity. And on a commission to transform the national university’s curriculum to include indigenous and afrodescendant ways of learning. In his spare time.
Edwin’s niece is turning two, so we cross town to the north, to the remnants of the party. I receive a brick of birthday cake, and bag of candies from the piñata and then a huge plate of food, which I dutifully eat. Edwin’s family is massive and multigenerational, and we talk for hours, and Edwin fills me in later. The scars of the war and the genocide touch every Guatemalan family along with the ordinary human stories of joy and woe. Comalapa was hit especially hard by the 1976 earthquake, the adobe houses crumbed to dust, and thousands died. And then during the genocide, a military base was centred in town, and was the head of operations against the Kaqchiquel. Rosalina Tuyuc, founder of the Guatemalan Widow’s Network, which during the height of the war numbered 40,000 women and was one of the only groups to stick their head above ground, is from Comalapa. Five hundred years ago the artists and writers who survived the Spanish destruction of the Kaqchiquel capital Iximché moved to San Juan Comalapa.
Rain is threatening harder, and we head back to Berta’s. Arriving we find sitting in the front room: Berta, her sister, and her twin nieces. They are filled with sorrow and shame. Your bag, they say. We’re so sorry. Mr. Someone came over, and he was skunk-drunk to the top. We put him in here for a while, and after he left, we saw your bag. Is anything missing? I check more carefully, everything was opened, everything sprinkled about, but nothing seems to be gone. Except Pattibear.
The search is on. And then a twin comes running. Down by the dog den, Pattibear had gone for a little visit on her own. He would have paid, say the sisters, if anything had gone missing. Humph! — he’s supposed to be such a nice man, they say, an evangelico, a Lutheran. Thank God the bear is back, I say, and we all laugh. And I get presents for no reason. We go out, again(!) this time to a neighbourhood feria. It is really raining, and we’ve missed most of the fun, but stop to drink atole and to catch up with old friends. At last we gather our things, and head across town another way to Edwin’s parent’s house. We drink coffee in the old kitchen, and I am given more presents just because, and then I am ushered upstairs to the best room and the best bed. Mayans could have taught old Abraham a thing or two about hospitality. I sleep like a log until the shockingly late hour of 8 o’clock.
The morning I spend learning how to weave with a back strap loom. The afternoon I spend with my beloved Rosenda in the hideous town of Chimaltenango. It rains all day, except for a special time in the afternoon, and the volcanoes appeared in the streams of sunlight on Rosenda’s roof.
Last chicken bus back to the city, in the pouring rain. Home to Margarita. Honduras tomorrow. Now I slip into the totally unknown.