Power Law Lady
Sunday, March 26 2006
setting: Hotel Palacio Chico, downtown Antigua, Guatemala
Leaving Guatemala, that's what I was doing today, and not a moment too soon. Gretchen and the woman and our hotel handled most of the details of arranging my shuttle transportation from Antigua to the Guatemala airport, which only cost me $5. Before I left, Gretchen and I had a sit down morning drink (coffee for me, tea for her), bought some bulk coffee for me to take home. Then we walked to the north end of town to meet Gretchen's host family for the coming week. She'll be taking one additional week of Spanish classes here in Antigua. Initially we were a little lost and found ourselves in a seedy part of town, but the actual place, when we found it, wasn't all that bad (and much better to our previous residence in Xela.) It was in the back, far away from the busy street, with access to a courtyard full of plants, birds, a tortoise, and a hare (I kid you not).
I'd put my old computer bag next to a trash can a block or two north of Parque Central on the walk up to the Gretchen's new "home," and I'd kept turning around as we proceeded northward in hopes of seeing it vanish. But it stayed there by that trash can for at least five minutes, at least until we had gone too far for me to watch it any longer. Perhaps thieves considered it a trap in some clever police sting operation. (How else to explain all the "abandoned" backpacks I'd seen scattered throughout the town?) I was pleased, though, to see that the bag had disappeared when we returned more than an hour later. Somebody was probably hoping they were getting a free laptop until they felt how light that bag was.
After a quick pasta-based lunch at Café La Escudilla, we went back to the hotel and waited for the shuttle to come and pick me up. It contained five other gringos when it finally materialized.
The most memorable thing about the ride to the Guatemala City airport was a distinctive mushroom-cloud-shaped plume being ejected from Fuego, one of the three volcanos near Antigua (and also visible from much of Guatemala City).
I'd had to take an earlier shuttle than I would have preferred because a Lent-season procession would be clogging Antigua's streets later in the afternoon. This meant I had hours to kill at the airport. But it wasn't as bad as it could have been; free WiFi was ubiquious there from the ticket counter all the way out to the gates. It's still the third world, of course, and as if to make this clear, the power went out for about 20 minutes. I have no idea whether or not the airport xray machines are on battery backup.
I needed some double-A batteries and a small bottle of vodka for my flight home, but I didn't have quite enough money. So at one duty-free store, the only place with batteries in stock, I ended up buying an overpriced Zippo lighter with a picture of a Mayan pyramid on it so my purchase would be for enough money to allow me to use my credit card. Disappointingly, none of the things I bought: the lighter, the batteries, or the vodka, was actually from Guatemala.
In a recent New Yorker Malcom Gladwell wrote about a "power law distributions," demographic phenomenon in which certain small parts of the population cause a disproportionate amount of societal problems. This distribution can be found among bad cops, alcoholics, the homeless, hardened criminals, and annoying people on an international flight. You know how some people in this world require much more of everything simply in order to exist? On a airplane, for example, such people are the ones for whom the stewards and stewardesses do the bulk of their work. Though such people demand constant attention, they're never satisfied with what they get. If they have kids, they let them run free and undisciplined, hoping some kind stranger will step in and provide free babysitting services. Even when such people are hidden away from view, they continue causing problems. They're the ones who don't flush after taking a massive crap, and even if they do flush, there's never enough water to wash their foul ejecta away.
At the boarding gates in both Guatemala and San Salvador, I'd mostly been concerned about the possibility of being seated beside an enormously fat macho man (of which Central America has its fair share.) What I hadn't anticipated, though, was the danger of being seated near someone who was power-law-annoying. But there she was, seated in front of me on the flight from San Salvador to New York. You could read it just from the body language of the stewards and stewardesses as she was led down the aisle. Once seated in front of me, she immediately put her seat back all the way because, well, that's how far back seats can go. It didn't seem to matter to Power Law Lady that anyone might be behind her. She also lodged numerous complaints that her entire family hadn't been seated together in one section of the plane. Mind you, she had six or seven kids, all of whom were with her.
The woman spoke English with the stewardesses, but to her own family she communicated in Hebrew. I had the feeling that her family might be some flavor of Orthodox Jewish, though Power Law Lady was not wearing a wig (as is normally the custom among married Orthodox women). She couldn't have made the absence of a wig more obvious; she kept obsessively scratching at her scalp with her pudgy little fingers throughout the entire flight, lifting up little flakes of skin.
While Power Law Lady's two or three sons spent most of their time somewhere else in the plane with their father, PLL's two daughters were seated beside her in the seat right in front of me. They were both of a very bad age for international airplane travel. The younger of the two spent most of her waking hours screaming and crying, a behavior her older sister seemed to encourage. Some of the time, though, the older sister was seated beside a young American guy behind me in the exit row. That American guy, he was a real sucker, an old-school friar. He spent much of the flight babysitting that girl: reading to her, tying her shoes, telling her stories, and even offering to give her his hat if she'd obey the stewardess and give up her seat in the exit row during takeoffs and landings (where children aren't allowed for safety reasons). The mother never thanked him for his kindness; it was just one of those things she'd come to expect from the world.
I suppose when your religion orders you to be fruitful and multiply, you come to assume that God will provide. But there is no God, so your selfish DNA replication becomes a tax on every individual in the world through which you travel. Take, for example, the hour or so during which the little daughter kept running back and forth up the aisle and stopping near her mother (and me) to giggle. It might not sound like a big burden, but when it happens monotonously for an hour and you'd really rather be sleeping, and there's no indication that the mother is ever going to do anything to make the behavior end, well, let's just say it was a good thing I had a bottle of vodka with me. I came very close to saying "Every heard of birth control?"
Unfortunately in our society, lots of people are willing to indulge Power Law People when their contingent includes children. But this wasn't true of the two young women in the seats beside me. They seemed to share my opinion of the Power Law Lady, and one of them was even assertive on my behalf, asking Power Law Lady that if she wasn't napping couldn't she please move her seat forward to give me some leg room?
Despite such annoyances, the flight went amazingly quickly. At around midnight I was heading through customs in JFK. I was amused to see a sign posted at one of the customs queues which read that Homeland Security's customs branch is "a world-class law-enforcement agency." I could understand if Albany, New York, or the national police of Costa Rica posted a sign claiming themselves to be "world-class," because in those cases their might be some doubt. But you would think that a national police force for the world's only superpower would be, by definition, "world-class," and that there would be no need to say so. The fact that Homeland Security feels the need to claim this gives me added doubts as to whether they are up to the task. [It doesn't help that if you do a Google search for "world-class" and "homeland-security" you find that the origin of these phrases is in White House propaganda.]
From JFK I caught a gypsy cab to Park Slope, where I fetched the navy blue Honda Civic and drove it home. I was so hungry at Sloatsburg on the New York Thruway that I pulled into the rest stop for something to eat. It was 3am and the only place open was Dunkin' Donuts, but they have bagels these days (at least in the New York area) and that was all I really needed. They also had nearly-undrinkable coffee, but I drank it anyway.
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