Living in a country which already has its own set of apartheid rules to get used to, means it is not always easy to know how to integrate as much as that will ever be possible for a 5ft 9 blond woman with an accent. I have wrestled with this problem for the last 7 years and find my own little ways to belong here in my adopted country.
I live just outside Antigua but fortunately not in a prison-like gated community but a large green sprawling one that has a modicum of security and a friendly atmosphere. My colonia is right next to a typical Central American village with its usual collection of shops, schools, colonial church, pila for washing clothes and gossiping and the usual collection of characters (the habitual drunk, the camp gay guy, the happy crazy bloke, the unfeasibly fat woman, the woman who never smiles etc etc). My children and I are well known in the village and I do as much of my shopping as possible in my community. I feel that this is one of the few ways I can connect on a daily level, otherwise I am just another gringa flying past in her car keeping my distance.
There is a hardware shop where I buy my bits and pieces, screws, nails, cement for repairs etc. from a young man called Wellington. We have joked about what a national hero he is in my country, he always looks slightly puzzled but flattered.
My boys have their haircuts for 10q in our village peluqueria. Don Byron with his slightly dodgy eye has a wild look like the 19th century romantic poet himself, but it doesn´t seem to affect his haircutting abilities and he always finds a little dulce in his pockets for the boys.
I buy most of my fruit and vegetables from Doña Letty who comes down with all her produce on the bus in the morning from the town of Santa Maria much higher up the volcano than us. Tomatoes, potatoes, avocados, limes, leaks, carrots, brocolli, onions, lychees, blackberries, local apples, local greens called acelgas, corn, cauliflower …… on a good day I don´t want for much. Doña Letty is one of those smiling, cackling, toothless women with her chattering daughters and nieces helping her, all dressed in their beautiful typical clothes. All the woman pass my happy baby girl around as I select my weekly produce and between them load it directly into the boot of my car. We chat about the weather, the children and whatever disaster big or small has struck our community lately. If I´m feeling peckish I get an avocado smeared tostado from the young girl with the large bust on display, who sits next door to Doña Letty.
Although we live in the tropics we live at a very high altitude so firewood (leña) for a large part of the year is one of my preoccupations, finding it and making sure it is dry and good quality is a constant here. I am lucky enough to have a park opposite my house for collecting kindling (little twigs for lighting fires) with the boys, who start enthusiastically and then leave the rest to me. In one of the shops in the village I buy my wonderful organic firelighters known round here as ocotes. Ocotes are natural resin infused sticks that you light and stick in the fire to get it going in no time ……..bliss. On very damp rainy season days when dry wood is hard to find these things are my life savers and ridiculously cheap. There is nothing nicer when the hard rains fall to be inside cosy around the fireplace with all the family. My husband, after years of living in the mountains fighting to stop the genocide here (and that is another story), is the best fire lighter I have ever met. Known as Doctor Fuego by me and the boys!
Coming from a country with a national health service, I have never been keen on private medicine so had a hard time adjusting to life in Guatemala where rich white Guatemalans seem to think if they are not paying a fortune their doctor can´t be good. In San Pedro we have a project funded by a church in the US and staffed by local Guatemalans which has a very nice doctor, dentist and lab (for the inevitable endless poo testing that happens here). I have taken all my children there for their various ailments over the last few years and we sit chatting with the locals in the waiting room. They can never believe how Chapin (local word for Guatemalans) my little blond boys are when they start talking. It costs a nominal 18q which is about a tenth of the price you pay anywhere else and I prefer the doctor to any of the other doctors I have visited, he explains everything to me and my children instead of the arrogance I have experienced with expensive city doctors. They wont let me pay them more than anyone else so I pass all my old children´s clothes and toys and unused medicines back to them to distribute in the community.
My last favourite place in the village is the sastre shop. This could roughly translate as the old fashioned word seamstress. It is basically a room with a couple of guys with old fashioned sewing machines. ……….and they can fix anything for 10q. With two little boys they have patched endless pairs of trousers, made cushion covers out of old designer dresses (from another life!), hemmed skirts and trousers and altered old trousers into shorts.
My neighbours in the colonia who I see on a daily basis are all guardienes. That means they are the poor people that live in the gardens of the rich people to keep the rich people safe from the bad poor people. Crazy I know, but this is Guatemala. Doña Natalie next door has 4 beautiful girls and Doña Amanda on the corner has 4 cheeky boys they are always in the street for a smile and a wave as we pass. The boys playing how boys should: climbing trees, playing football and marbles or flying kites depending on the weather and the girls tending the garden helping their mother, and quietly watching the boys antics. Doña Amanda is also our resident babysitter on the few occasions we manage to get out.
Don Carlos has the village pinchazo …… a wonderful word for a great service. The roads around Antigua are not always that great to say the least, especially in the rainy season when they are habitually covered in debris and rocks. Puncturing your tyres is a common occurrence so it is a relief to have Don Carlos right there and my boys love watching him at his work, taking off the tyre and then slowly turning it in a water filled oil drum looking for the bubbles with the hawkeye of a professional. A couple of times I have been left with a flat tyre outside my house and good old Don Carlos has cycled over with all his tools balanced on the crossbar of his bicycle and after 5 minutes and a big smile he has me back on the road so I can get the boys from school or whatever other vitally important domestic task is awaiting me………..
I suppose I could drive to the city and buy all my things in Pricesmart or Walmart or one of those other faceless marts in another cheap and faceless mall all wrapped in plastic. Maybe it would be quicker and more convenient, maybe it would even be cheaper ………. but I don´t think so, and I get something a lot more valuable to take away with me ……. my interaction with my community ………. thank you San Pedro for treating me like your neighbour. Underneath everything we are all the same, just people wanting the best for our family and our community and maybe a little bit of gossip and laughter along the way ……..