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2003.11 =>

[OCTOBER 2003.]

roughing it

In the rural department of Rabinal everyone seems to carry a machete, including the bus drivers, which is a trifle alarming at first. On the road to the Quixal power station you pass teenage Poqomchi Maya boys venturing with their knifes into the greenery; on the drive back, as the light fails and the fog rolls in, our tire pops. We put on a spare, which promptly pops too, so we put the first tire back on and hope for the best. The Maya kids find this very funny; Giovani the taxi driver, who speaks both Poqomchi and Spanish, tells me they were laughing at how little air we were driving on.

Climbing the Cerro Cayup hill to the ruins of a fortified Achí Maya city, I immediately take a wrong turn, but some six-year-olds on horses set me right. Beside the trail I run into a toothless old campesino using his machete to cut firewood. A thick bundle of sticks is tied to his back. I say "Buenos días" to him and his dog; he smiles gummily and wishes me a good journey. Coming down, I pass an entire machete-wielding family with a horse and three mongrel dogs, the last of which immediately bound up and try their best to bark ferociously. The mother imposes discipline by striking the flat of her knife against the dirt. "¡Malcriados!" she shouts at the dogs, meaning "badly raised," but you get that in Spanish it's a much better epithet.

My hotel in Rabinal is right across from an evangelical church. They have a full choir accompanied by drums, bass, keyboard, and electric guitar, and play late into the night; I can't make out the words through the door, but I've heard enough happy-Jesus music on the local radio to get the idea. The sad thing is that the band is pretty tight, better than plenty I've heard.


sweet waist of earth

Unexpectedly, Guatemalan public transit rules. Granted, the buses are all relics from U.S. elementary schools, with those same windows that you can only raise or lower by pressing those tabs that always get stuck, and they pack three or four to a seat and spew diesel every which way and occasionally go off a cliff; but they're cheap and friendly, will pick you up and drop you off anywhere on the road, blast a) Mexican ranchera songs with cheap MIDI accompaniment, b) "Eye of the Tiger," or c) the theme from "Ghostbusters," and what they lack in punctuality they make up in frequency. Since no one has a car, it seems like every third or fourth vehicle on the highway is a bus. Everyone is genial and happy to direct me to the right connections; the State Department warns that second-class buses are havens for "criminals," but in fact most of the passengers are Mayan moms with their families. (Guatemala City is an exception; the other day a city bus hosted a firefight that killed seven people.) Naturally I stick out in my seat like Where's Waldo?, but the looks I get are friendly and curious more than anything. On the afternoon route from Los Encuentros to Chimaltenango, where the seats were so packed that I had to balance on a stool in the aisle, my neighbors laughed and said, "Not like America, no?" Women get on and sell hot chiles rellenos; I help pass them back to whoever wants them, and pass the money forward. Children especially find my presence hilarious.

Spoken Maya is a soft, shushing language. Not having a letter for the sh sound, the Spaniards transliterated it as x, hence the seeming unpronounceability of Guatemalan place names. You can tell how people feel about the dam I'm researching by how they say it; engineers, businessmen and the like say "Chixoy," with a hard x, while the local Maya Achí and human-rights gringos say "Chee-shoy." And I am no one to mock the linguistic foibles of others, considering how I've been mangling the tongue of Cervantes around here, but someone at the Internet café made the mistake of translating chino from a dictionary. MANY WRITING SYSTEMS, reads the sign: HEBREW, JAPANESE, CHINAMAN.

Guatemala seems to be a hot spot for Israeli tourists. Their governments have been chummy at least since 1979, when Jimmy Carter decided that the Guatemalan army was abusing its copters and rifles and wouldn't get any more. (This had no effect on covert aid from the CIA.) Israel, itself being an international pariah of long standing, was happy to make up the shortfall, and the most common military rifle still seems to be the Galil. Among the elite classes, Jimmy Carter (or "Jimmy Castro") is a dirty word. "We were much better off before all this human rights business," is one common sentiment. Another is, "The mistake the Spaniards made, that the English didn't, is that they didn't kill all the fucking Indians."


can't give it away on la 7a avenida

Last year, someone who shall remain nameless pulled me aside and started rhapsodizing about the people of Guatemala. "There's something in their eyes, something magical..." etc. Dreck, I thought at the time, and I'm a little embarrassed now to discover echoes of the same reaction in myself. Of course romanticizing the population is a terrible liberal/tourist thing to do, but there is a bit of an otherwordly air about the indígenas. I think it's the clothes. They're truly beautiful—they constitute the main artistic achievement of the culture as it stands—but what's so odd to Northern eyes is that the aesthetic experience isn't separated from daily life. The patterns symbolize one's village and one's culture and are sold to tourists and so forth, but it's also the dress you wear around town and the cloth you wrap vegetables in to take to market. Our notion of high art, sequestered as it is, seems a little sterile by contrast.

Best roadside graffiti so far: "FAVOR DE NO VOTAR BASURA." This is a pun on favor de no botar basura (please don't throw trash), and while it's open to debate which trash the author doesn't want voted into office come November 9th, one suspects it refers to General Ríos Montt, the former dictator who took power in a 1982 coup, presided over the deaths of about 200,000 people, and is now running as a legitimate candidate, his smiling avuncular face plastered all over roadside billboards and hired trucks that drive around town blasting marimba music. He's a distant third in the polls, and most of the other eleven candidates have promised to unite against him in the event of a runoff, but everyone's worried about electoral fraud. A lot of the highlanders are illiterate and can be coerced any way you please, and there's a history of mysterious power outages during vote counts. (The electricity company is more or less owned by a cadre of generals.) Once power is restored, some official will solemnly place the blame on a fallen tree branch.


antigua guatemala loves you

Clever me, hacking a way to post from Guatemala but not a way to correct mistakes, like the italics wandering as bold as you please over the bottom half of this page. Ah well, que será.

Matt sent me the news, by email, about Elliot Smith´s suicide. Spanish hotmail offered me an article about how the universe will go out, leaving nothing but cold stars and black holes (agujeros negros). Around midday today I was starting to feel despondent and foreign and unable to penetrate the surrounding world, but then I did manage a Spanish telephone conversation with the leader of a human rights group in the town of Rabinal. Hanging around with Don Hernán had convinced me that I was still a blithering idiot with the language, but it turns out that compared to other Guatemalans, he just slurs his words like nobody's business. The folks at the vegetarian restaurants, too, are used to gringos and enunciate.


mientras naviga disfrute café gratis

The title "Don" is still very common in Latin America, but I had always thought of it as a quaint archaism until I met Don Hernán. Of course he didn't introduce himself to me with that title, but if ever I have met a Don, it is this man. He's a Guatemalan businessman who has made his fortune selling Nissan parts and now occupies a tenth-floor condo in a plush marble-and-gilt high-rise in one of the fashionable southern neighborhoods of town. My bedroom is like a penthouse. The floor-to-ceiling windows offer views of city and hills that seem designed specifically for the purpose of seduction, and to hear Don Hernán gaily recount his exploits, he has not been slow to put them to that use.

Breakfasts are eggs and a cylindrical mash of fried black beans that, when it first appeared on my plate, bore a shocking resemblance to a horse turd, but was actually quite tasty. There is free coffee here at the Internet café, though most of the customers don't seem interested, perhaps because they are all ten and playing a network motorcycle game. So far Guatemala City rules, though staying in a condo certainly improves my opinion. All the travel guides were preparing me for the mouth of Hell, but while this place is flat and choked with bus fumes, it's also colorful as hell. I hesitate to use the word "vibrant," because then I start sounding like the New York Times travel supplement, but I approve.

Also, it's weird to be tall. I look around and realize that I am the tallest person in the Parque Central.

Interview with a human rights organization this afternoon, then on to Antigua. Mostly I'm thrilled not to have had intestinal misadventures yet. Don Hernán recommends psyllium, but that's for prostate problems.

[domingo 19 oct 2003 :: countdown]

Had pretrip jitters last night, so spent a couple of hours playing with Perl—a pursuit guaranteed to soothe anxiety, for the damn language is so counterintuitive and punctuation-dependent that one's left brain is forced to execute a coup d'etat and take over proceedings. At any rate, I now have a rudimentary web interface that will allow me to post from Guatemala when I hit the Internet cafés. I know, there's no reason to reinvent Blogger, but the geek badges are faded and need polishing.

—bed liner
—razor, toothbrush, contact lens crap
—medicine (malaria, antibiotic, antidiarrheal, antidepressant, common cold)
—mosquito repellent
—notebook, pens
—underwear (3)
—socks (3)
—spare pants
—shirts (3, ascending levels of formality)
—electronic dictionary
Lonely Planet Guatemala, The Rough Guide to Guatemala
Cuentos Españoles, a Bantam dual-language book, ©1960
El Señor Presidente, Miguel Ángel Asturias

For my final day of decadent Americanness I plan to read the paper at length, go see Intolerable Cruelty, eat some incredibly calorific dinner to shore up against weight loss from four weeks of tortillas and beans. See y'all soon.


sage words

Alert reader sez:

RE Oct. 7 - I should be pedantic and say that the word is typically romanized "gambatte" - the only time the 'n' character is written as 'm' is before one of the ba bi bu be bo's

If I ever knew this, I had forgotten; but next time I run across a or a it won't catch me napping!

My father's Guatemalan graduate student writes:

In the towns the people are friendly, but it takes time to gain their confidence. Also remember, you must make it clear that you represent yourself and not Bush or his unilateral decisions.



que sufres como yo he sufrido

Was in danger of succumbing to a cold yesterday, but I've gone at it with zinc and echinacea and Emergen-C and I'm feeling tolerable now. If the Deep Space Nine DVDs get here from Netflix I will feel even better. I am a piranha; I am a hooker with a heart of gold; I am the $100,000 bill that was never in general circulation.

Pedro Almodóvar DVD roundup:

Entre Tinieblas/Dark Babits (1983): Heroin-trafficking nightclub singers, lesbian nuns on smack and LSD, a tiger in the convent! It's very funny in many parts, and poignant in others, but the whole package is just—strange. He's still circling here.

Mujeres al Borde de un Ataque de Nervios/Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988): Laughed my ass off, frightened the cat. One day I hope to be so lucky as to ride the Mambo Taxi.

¡Átame!/Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990): Funny too, though less farcical in many ways than I was expecting. The movie within the movie can't be beat, though.

Carne Trémula/Live Flesh (1997): Somewhere in this seven-year gap (the films from which haven't come out on DVD yet), Pedro got serious and started putting "Un Film de Almodóvar" at the start of the opening credits and so forth. This is where the production values start getting a lot better, either because he has more money or because cameras were just shitty in the eighties. In a lot of ways, this is ¡Átame! redone more seriously. Riveting, though I'll admit the end disappointed me a little—in stories like these I always wind up rooting for the cuckold.

Todo Sobre Mi Madre/All About My Mother (1999): I think this is where he perfects the funny/sad/weird mix. The plot has also tightened to the point that, like Kieslowski's movies, it carries a strange universality—it's an allegory for something indescribable that we all recognize, even if we're not transvestites. The "Streetcar Named Desire" parallels throw more depth lighting on it all.

Hable Con Ella/Talk to Her (2002): See above. Maybe even better.


i too have happy ideas

Eat your bagel,
Read your Hegel,
It's the morning song!

Women are capable of education, but they are not made for activities which demand a universal faculty such as the more advanced sciences, philosophy, and certain forms of artistic production. Women may have happy ideas, taste, and elegance, but they cannot attain to the ideal. The difference between men and women is like that between animals and plants. Men correspond to animals, while women correspond to plants because their development is more placid and the principle that underlies it is the rather vague unity of feeling. When women hold the helm of government, the state is at once in jeopardy, because women regulate their actions not by the demands of universality but by arbitrary inclinations and opinions. Women are educated—who knows how?—as it were by breathing in ideas rather than by acquiring knowledge. The status of manhood, on the other hand, is attained only by the stress of thought and much technical exertion.

Philosophy of Right, addition to paragraph 166.

And somehow people still have this idea that philosophy is a rigorous discipline.

Cat jumps on the counter, sees the cone-filter coffee pot working away: my God! What manner of dangerous, spherical animal is that?


i owe my soul to the company store

How it works around here: Powell's announces hiring for holiday positions at the cash register—these positions last a couple of weeks, mind you—and something like 300 people show up. There are men in Armani suits hoping for this job.

The INDE (Guatemala's national electricity company, which built the dam) has got itself quite a site these days, with a fancy Flash intro and all. Mire usted. (But none of their email addresses work.)


cannery row

Another thing I can't get over: how New York zip codes are all binary.

And what is your deal, Mark Brazaitis, winning the Iowa Short Fiction Award with stories from Guatemala? That Peace Corps, it's a doozy.


brothers in arms

Twelve hungry government clerks will begin a salicylic acid fare at Dr. H. W. Wiley's official café at the Bureau of Chemistry tomorrow [Oct. 13, 1903]. Salicylic acid is one of the poisons to be eaten three times a day by the squad of men selected because of their strength. The effects on their systems will be noted and the doctor hopes to be able to prove the harmfulness of the preservative, when he will issue an order which will exclude food containing it from the American table.

These days they use it for acne.


udolfo latino

Nobody seems to want the job of Palestinian prime minister. I bet I could do that. I wonder if they're checking resumes on monster.com.

The first book they're promoting as part of this new Guatemalan literacy program is The Canterville Ghost, by Oscar Wilde—on sale for eight quetzals, or one dollar. Next up are three Poe stories and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It's a veritable Gothic renaissance! Maybe next year Guatemala will be ready for ironic Gothicism, and everyone will read La abadía de Northanger.


prophylaxis attracts us

Today I start taking my oral typhoid vaccine. Lauren asks, "How are you planning to catch oral typhoid?" Baby, you don't know till you've been.


week in review

Nick Lowe's The Impossible Bird is one of the loveliest, saddest records I've ever run across.

Life of Pi: Survival on the high seas—awesome; philosophy of animal behaviour—cool; philosophy of religion—not so much. These pat, Po-Mo-Lite tricks need to stop. But this book is sort of like the movie Castaway in that the shortcomings of the framing narrative don't keep you from enjoying the adventure in the middle. And yes, the tiger rules.

28 Days Later...: I think most of the budget for this went to paying nobody to be in England during the shooting. And that jerky editing—is it artsy, or just confusing? All the same, they carried it off darn well. It's been a long time since a movie genuinely scared me; I know I had dreams about this last night, and I'm glad I can't remember them.

Cute girl wearing headphones in the supermarket: "Hi there! I don't need to observe any societal norms, because I'm a cute girl wearing headphones in the supermarket!" Damn it!

Then I went ahead and bought the fish-flavored cat treats instead of the chicken-flavored ones, because I figured that way my cat would have less karma on her head.


jadwiga jadwiga

Nick Cave's novel is back in print. Yup, he wrote one.

I first heard about Krzysztof Penderecki because Radiohead (mostly Jonny) have been name-dropping him for years in interviews; wandered into the record store the other day and came out with his Te Deum and Lacrimosa on vinyl for $6; who was I to say no? As it turns out, I was no one to say no. He mines the same melancholy/Catholic/Polish vein as Zbigniew Preisner (the dude who scored Kieslowski's movies), but his orchestration goes much farther afield. There are tone clusters, microtones, screeching-insect tremolos, percussion that sounds like metal objects being chucked across the room, and suchlike Kronos-esque avant-tricks; but he wrests something glorious from it. And frightening. This goes on the list of bad records to listen to alone at night, unless you've been very good about taking your meds. The occasion for Te Deum was John Paul II's accession to the papacy, and the piece was dedicated to him; but I don't know whether the pontiff appreciated it.


the sorceror's apprentice

This week's New Yorker, in reviewing the early novels of Saul Bellow, offers an opinion that may end up being the requiem for Song of Roland:

We tend to think of young artists as a wild and crazy bunch, but often they are the opposite—depressed, grouchy people who sit around wondering why all those older artists are getting the grants and the contracts. Their work bespeaks their mood. They imitate their elders, and not admiringly, but grudgingly, in the spirit of "I can do it, too." In fact, they can't do it, because they don't really believe in it, but neither can they do what they're meant to do, because the moment of courage has not yet come. And so, for a while, they produce tight, hard things.


"Dangling Man" is a respectful tribute to its models—Dostoyevsky and Rilke, plus Sartre, I believe—and at points it is handsomely written. But looked at today, through the lens of "Augie," it is amazingly constrained—stingy, even. The dialogue is often inert, the pace hypnotically even. There are no memorable characters. If I didn't know the book was by Bellow, I would never guess it.

So who decided to publish that one? I don't think my book is as boring as Dangling Man seems to be—but then, I doubt I'll ever write The Adventures of Augie March, either. I suppose in lieu of that, one keeps beating down doors.


a long-expected consummation

Just sittin around waitin for the killer robot from the future to take over California—

But everyone oughta know that we at Byzantine Records do it the businesslike way, just like the big bad multimedia conglomerates; viz., we release our albums on Tuesdays. Don't delay, boys and girls, order a copy today of The Mozart Club for yourselves! And for everyone you love and hate! They make fine stocking stuffers for Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, Thanksgiving, All Hallows' Eve, El Día de los Muertos, the winter solstice, and/or the end of Daylight Savings Time. Ganbatte!



I too am off to bear witness to Grant and Valerie's wedding. We salute them.

Bid her awake; for Hymen is awake,

Without a Newtonian yardstick, when is a body ever at rest? No rest for the wicked, no rest in this life.


montgolfier's flights of fancy

Would you like to buy Stephen Hawking's wheelchair-accessible hot air balloon? He's looking to get rid of it.


at the stud-farm

Spoke by phone yesterday with a grad student at Berkeley who wrote an environmental report on the Chixoy dam for the International Rivers Network. She kindly offered to copy and send to me multifarious documents (including anthropological reports in French, which I cannot read, but onward!), and also gave me the names of some places to visit, people to talk to. Apparently the offices of INDE (Guatemala's electricity company) are right out of Gilliam's Brazil: enormous rooms, functionaries scurrying everywhere, indoor waterfalls and trees.

The Golden Ass, well, kicks ass, especially in the Robert Graves translation: fluid English that goes down smooth. As one of the reviewers points out, there's transformation into a donkey, sex, illicit sex, illicit donkey sex, plus the mysteries of the goddess Isis; it's the original picaresque, and you can see its influence everywhere in the great tradition of Western silliness, from Fielding to Cervantes. Probably Chaucer too, at least in parts. T.E. Lawrence is supposed to have carried it, in the original Latin, throughout Arabia in his saddlebags.

They all sat down to table together, but the priests had eaten only a few mouthfuls of the first course before they jumped up, crowded around their guest's couch, pushed him down on his back, pulled off his clothes and made such loathsome suggestions that I could stand it no longer. I tried to shout: "Help, help! Rape! Rape! Arrest these he-whores!" But all that came out was "He-whore, he-whore," in fine ringing tones that would have done credit to any ass alive.

There's also a great interpolation of the Eros and Psyche myth, as sort of a bonus.


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