Sunday, March 19 2006
setting: Quetzaltenango, Guatemala
In the morning Gretchen and I met with our usual Celas Maya gringo student cohort for brunch at a place called Albamar. While everyone else was ordering eggy slime (because most people seem to like that in the morning), I ordered a chicken sandwich. I would have happily ordered something vegetarian, but there were no vegetarian options in the lunch menu, and after an unsuccessful foray into requesting a customized sandwich in Spanish, I went with the chicken sandwich. Everyone always thinks I'm some sort of Jeffrey Dahmer for wanting lunch food at breakfast time, but from my perspective I don't see a huge difference between the consistency of cooked egg and sauteed Laotian teenager brain.
I spent most of the day working on the Celas Maya website. The Celas Maya people wanted me to do something of a redesign and then perhaps implement a fourth language on their site, Italian, for which pages supposedly exist already. But before any of that could be done I had to rework every page, pulling off the repeated blocks of code that should more properly go inside common include files. It's astounding that anyone would try to implement a complex multi-language site using pages after page of straight HTML. Such a design effectively renders redesign impossible, unless, of course, you do what I was doing. The downside of my work was that all it would do was make the site work the same as before, with no visible changes. The actual redesign would have to come later. But the people who had "hired" me to do this, they didn't know anything about issues of maintainability or server-side architecture. Since everything I was doing would be invisible to them, it was as if I was spending all these hours doing nothing at all. At some point I'd actually have to make some visible changes just to prove I'd done something.
I actually felt like I'd made substantial progress by some point in the afternoon, so I met up with Gretchen and we went to the nearby student-friendly café, The Blue Angel, where I ordered a liter bottle of beer. Soon we were joined at our table by one of our fellow students, a guy we hadn't spent much time socializing with. If we had, we would have known there was something wrong with him. For starters, he was Australian, and there's something about lips speaking Australian English that makes it impossible for you to imagine them ever being used to speak any other language. I might have heard him say "Grassyus" at one point, but other than that I don't I'd ever heard him say a single word of Spanish. Unlike our other student friends at Celas Maya, there wasn't a chance he'd be speaking any Spanish once he'd sat down with us. He'd been with us on our tour of the Mayan ruins yesterday and had some peculiar observations to make. One was that he'd placed his hands on a stone altar and had determined from its spiritual energy that "many" animals had been sacrificed on it, as well as two humans. He didn't say "about two" or "as many as two." He seemed to know the exact number: two. But as good as he claimed to be at picking up on the vibes of inanimate objects, he was clearly clueless when it came to picking up on the vibes of people, in this case Gretchen and myself. Because at that very moment there probably weren't two people in all of Xela who could have had their opinion of him more profoundly diminished by such a statement. And he didn't stop with that statement of spiritual self-puffery. He went on to talk about all the great vegetarian food he's had in various places throughout Guatemala, stressing that the best of all had practically no flavor. Clearly his ideals in life were very different from our own.
Gretchen and I walked down to Parque Centroamérica, the political center of Xela, where the weekly Sunday student protest was happening on the steps of the City Palace. All of the protesters wore black hoods and capes (Ku Klux Klan style) to conceal their identities, allowing them completely unfettered free speech. Their protest was part civic activism and part theatre. Their antics, satire, jokes, and skits were punctuated by numerous obscenities and crackling fireworks. A large crowd had gathered to partake of the weekly spectacle, and hooded students circulated throughout, accepting donations and selling xeroxed manifestos for two quetzales each. You can say what you want to about the institution of free speech in the United States and how favorably it may compare to that right in Guatemala, the original banana republic. But in the United States is no analogue of the completely anonymous free speech we were seeing here. These students could say absolutely anything: they could curse in ways that would quickly get them shut down in Central Park, and if they were so inclined they could even advocate the murder of Guatemala's president. While the hoods were a necessary part of their freedom (even some of the tamer things they were saying might get them killed should their identities become known), it also made their freedom complete. Later we were talking to Ronald, the crypto-gay computer center desk guy, and he said that many of these protesters take their fund raising to extremes, threatening local businesses with vandalism if they don't contribute large sums of money. One form of vandalism popular with the student protesters is painting the façades of stores black.
We watched some of the protest from high in a coffee shop's balcony over the Parque and then, as dusk fell, went in search of a place to eat dinner. The first place we tried was Café Q, but as usual they weren't showing any signs of life. Four or five other gringos out in front wondering whether the lights on inside meant anything, and after awhile we had to concluded that they didn't.
We returned to The Blue Angel in hopes of maybe partaking in their movie night, but its atmosphere was now much less pleasant than usual. It smelled strongly of electrical fire and a big table of young Europeans had just shown up and all of them were smoking in that "I'm going to live forever" way typical of people in their early 20s.
So Gretchen and I ended up at Xela's only Indian restaurant, which (based on the two other tables with male-only diners and the world-beat techno music on the stereo) seemed like it might by a crypto-gay hangout. The food was good, although I was pretty sure that the fish I ordered was actually chicken. Gretchen couldn't stop talking about how great it was, though think her expectations had been diminished by day after dreary day of flavorless bean paste.
It turned out that the restaurant's owner/cook had originally been a Catholic priest sent by the church to lead a Guatemalan flock. But he'd fallen in love with one of his flock and she'd had a child and he'd been forced to make a living in lay society. Running an Indian restaurant seemed like an obvious solution to his problem, and it would serve a valuable niche of worldly travelers weary of local cuisine. The former priest's new Guatemalan bride could help out by waiting tables and washing dishes.
Nails and more, on the walk from "home" to school.
Gretchen at brunch this morning at Albamar. That ketchup on the table was a very poor approximation of Heinz 57.
Signs near Albamar.
Gretchen studying at Celas Maya today.
Third world wiring in downtown Xela.
McDonalds as internet café near downtown Xela.
Hooded student protesters on the steps of the city palace.
A view from the place above the park where we drank coffee and watched the student protest.
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