Thoughtful Perspectives, Honest Restaurant Reviews. And the Official Home of L.A. Haiku.
Category: Pollywog Blog
Welcome to Pollywog Blog, a collection of thoughts, reflections, ideas, articles, short shorties, poems and other great things for your reading pleasure. You’ll also find honest and concise restaurant reviews. Check back often as it changes all the time. And if you see something you like, feel free to share it on Facebook and Twitter.
It looked like a walking flock of blue and white flags of every size fluttering on the nearby street corner. I had just arrived in Antigua, had breakfast and I was off to explore the city. There must be a person in there somewhere. Eventually I saw a head pop up as he turned around. I actually wasn’t sure if these were Guatemalan flags that he was selling since I couldn’t recall ever seeing one. Or I wondered whether these could be flags for some other purpose. Was an anti-government protest in the making? Was soccer fever in the air? Maybe it was just Guatemalan patriotism so I kept walking and exploring, and I didn’t think much more about it.
As the days went by, I continued seeing these flag vendors occasionally in the streets. So I asked the next vendor that I saw about it but I coudn’t understand exactly what he was trying so say. “Diá de Independencia, diá de independencia.” I struggled to understand. I knew he wasn’t saying “oil can.” I heard “Independencia?” Oh, independence. Was this about seeking independence from what many people here believe to be a corrupt govenment? Could the Guatemalan Independence Day be coming up or was he talking about something else? I really wasn’t sure. So of course, I googled it. And I asked the family that I was living with about it too. Sure enough, I soon realized that the Guatemalan Diá de la Independencia (Independence Day) would be celebrated the upcoming Friday and Saturday, September 14 and 15th. What luck! I couldn’t have timed my arrival in Antigua any better. I had no idea.
There was going to be a two day celebration beginning on Friday and continuing all day on Saturday and into the evening. I then started to hear something about the torch runners but I wasn’t sure what they were talking about. However, during the days leading up to the holiday, I started seeing groups of mostly youngish guys running through the city streets making lots of noise.
I stood and watched one of the groups run by and it seemed to be good-natured fun and a chance to be a little rowdy. Guatemalans seem to like noise. I also found it hard to believe that they were actually running on the cobblestone streets since it can be so difficult to just try and walk on them! The family that I’m living with told me that the running of the torches is part of the celebration but they didn’t seem to like the idea and thought it was somewhat dangerous. They were probably right.
Doing a little Goggle research, as I tend to do when I’m curious, I learned that the torch represents the “the flame of liberty.” “La Antorcha” commemorates the independence from Spain on September 15, 1821 of Guatemala, and several other Central American countries including Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Carrying the torch through the streets represents the night before the historic day when riders at full gallop went through all of these Central American countries carrying the news of independence, proclaimed in Guatemala with the signing of an act by civil and religious authorities. Also on that night, independence hero, Maria Delores Bedoya, ran through the streets of Guatemala caring a lantern as a symbol of hope for the nations liberated. Now, the running of the torch preserves the tradition, and modern day participants seem to have lots of fun carrying the torch, making noise and trying not to set things on fire or sprain their ankles on the cobblestone streets of Antigua.
During the days leading up to the holiday, there were lots of firecrackers going off (more than usual) and there seemed to be a buzz of excitement and anticipation in the air. I noticed flags being hung all over the city’s buildings and they were flown in other places as well. I heard that there would be more torch runners and that there would be parades on Friday night and Saturday during the day and evening.
I had just started the Spanish immersion program a few days earlier on Monday just after I arrived in Antigua. The school invited everyone to a fiesta at the school that upcoming Friday to celebrate Diá de la Independencia. The fiesta was actually very nice. There was a large marimba band playing while local foods and drinks were served. Watching the marimba players was fascinating and the music was great. Marimba bands are extremely popular here in Guatemala.
And once you’ve had a chance to watch and hear one of these bands, you can easily see why. They’re wonderful. There’s something about marimba music that just makes you feel good. The coordination among the many musicians is really impressive to watch and even more impressive was the fact that the songs they play are fairly long yet none of the musicians were reading music-it was all memorized. As part of the celebration, they sang the national anthem which is actually quite long and has numerous stanzas. I enjoyed hearing the many voices as the local students and teachers sang with pride for their country. The speakers talked about the inaccurate reputation of their country and how it actually has many good qualities along with its vast beauty.
The food was interesting and tasty, mostly finger foods with the sauces made from tomatoes, tomatillos, cheese and avocado. They had chicharrónes (fried pork skin) which seems to be a Latin favorite. I passed- I’ve had them before. With some of the foods, I wasn’t completely sure what I was eating but it was all really flavorful. They also served the rice-based cold drink, horchata, that is sweet and tastes of cinnamon or other spices which I found quite refreshing. I ate with one of the teachers and a pleasant middle aged couple who were learning Spanish to help with their missionary work. They apparently go to many countries especially in Latin American and carry the word of Jesús to the indigenous people living there. They uniquely use puppets and costumes to do their work which creates lots of attention and attracts lots of people.
Walking home after school, I continued to feel the energy and mounting excitement all around me. After dinner, I walked to the central park square. The evening parade had already begun and seemed fairly short, comprised mostly of musical bands of school age kids.
There was a big marimba band playing in the corner of the park with colorful spotlights making the area very festive. The music was great but the thumping bass was so loud, I could feel my insides vibrating. I saw a couple of torch runners run by in small groups attracting lots of attention and some cheers. I also saw some motorcycle riders getting ready to carry there torches on their motorcycles through the city’s streets.
I found myself somewhat on edge as I anticipated the loud deafening boom of the next firecracker that I was sure would go off any second. It did and I jumped-of course! And then there was another. And then another.
The following morning, I got up early to make sure that I had a good spot on the parade route. The parade started at the central park punctually at 8 AM. It was an amazing assortment of marching bands, a firetruck, dancers, people in masks and on stilts, people wearing traditional Guatemalan clothing and of course baton twirlers.
I loved watching the parade but I also enjoyed watching the crowd along with the colorful street vendors selling everything from parasols-it was sunny that day-multi-colored cotton candy, inflatable and other types of toys, balloons, bubble blowers and many types of sweet and savory food treats.
The parade lasted for four hours. Yep, four hours! I stayed the entire time since I didn’t want to miss anything. As things seemed to wind down, I decided to walk to Cerro de la Cruz (Hill of the cross), where a large oversized 1930’s cross sits on a hill directly north and right in the middle of Antigua. On the way, I ended up walking through an interesting neighborhood that reminded me of some of the hilly neighborhoods around Silver Lake or Los Feliz in Los Angeles. I climbed the many steps to get up the hill marveling at the work that must have gone into making them. It was a pretty walk through a very green and heavy wooded area which took roughly 15 minutes.
The climb was well-worth it as the view was incredible! The entire city of Antigua was visible along with dramatic backdrop of the inactive Volcán de Agua in the distance directly south. There were numerous street vendors there as well (of course). While I was up there, I met a nice couple from the U.S. and their Guatemalan daughter. The mom and daughter ended up being students at my school.
By then, it was already getting late in the afternoon and the sky of dark clouds was threatening rain. As I came back down through the city streets, to my surprise, I intercepted the bands again from the parade and some of the dancers.
Apparently, all of the participants in the parade had marched up to the local stadium. And evidently, they were now doing the parade in reverse back to the central park! I found myself direcly on the route of the parade as it was returning. While I watched for a while, I decided to head back down to the park which was packed with people by the time I arrived. Some of the bands were surrounding the park and all of these bands were playing their different songs at the same time.
It was a cacophony of unrecognizable loud musical mush of brass instruments, xylophones and drums. This went on for quite some time. And it was loud.
Eventually, the bands got quieter as some politicians who had gathered on a prefab stage in the park started to speak. The whole crowd sang the national anthem which went on for several minutes given its length. I enjoyed hearing the many voices in surround sound singing the pleasant sounding anthem in unison.
I felt a little self-conscious not joining them but of course I didn’t know the tune or the words. When a female politician began speaking at the podium, the people in attendance started to boo but I had no idea why. In fact, I wasn’t initially sure that they were actually booing.
Nonetheless, it had been a long day and it was starting to lightly rain so I decided to leave. As I was walking away, I asked a couple of local Guatemalan guys why the people were making noise. Apparently, it was booing. The woman was the mayor of Antigua and she evidently had done some things regarding water rights impacting Antigua that had angered a lot of people. (Sounds a bit like California.) As I got further away, I continued to hear the booing of the crowd intercepted by an occasional smack of a firecracker that split the air. And of course, I jumped. The following photos capture more of my amazing day. It was such a great unexpected surprise to have arrived in Antigua just in time to experience the wonderful celebration of the Guatemala’s Diá de la Independencia.
Of course, I am 15 minutes early. “Hola, cómo estás, bienvenidos.” The friendly secretary at Christian Spanish Academy (CSA has no religious affiliation- it used to teach missionaries and has an excellent reputation) greets me by name as if we’ve met before. Well, in a way we have since we’ve been emailing back and forth for months about my attending their Spanish immersion program and living with a Guatemalan family. She has been incredibly courteous and very patient in answering my many questions — including whether she and her co-workers were okay after the Fuego volcanoviolently exploded and erupted last June. Fortunately, they were. However, Antigua was covered in lots of volcanic sand since the volcano is less than 10 miles away. (Many people here have told me that they thought it was raining only to go outside and suddenly realize that it was actually volcanic sand, not water or even ash falling from the sky and covering everything!)
A few minutes later, I am introduced to my teacher or “maestra” who is smiling warmly and greets me in Spanish. She is petite, pretty and professionally dressed in a smart looking uniform bearing the school’s logo. She enunciates so clearly and slowly that I start wondering whether I’ve actually enrolled in adult Spanish kindergarten. Maybe I have. She seems to be a bit like a female version of Mr. Rogers but much younger. As I stumble to greet her in my very broken Spanish, she instantly starts correcting me and I erradically struggle to find the right words but my brain’s auto-correct is “no funcionando” (not working)!” This one’s gonna be fun” she is surely saying to herself en español. I feel a slight irritation begin to percolate inside me as I wonder whether she is going to continue correcting every few words that I’m trying to say. I keep smiling and remind myself that this is why I’m here. Fortunately, her corrections slow down and I find her both pleasant and likable. We’re off to a good start.
We move to our table- a small 2 by 2 foot table with a white board on an easel next to us. The school is very nice.
Numerous tables just like ours are scattered around the first floor in a garden-like setting surrounding a central open courtyard (like many of the buildings in Antigua) sprinkled with a few wooden patio tables and chairs shadowed by large red umbrellas. Many students just like me are facing their teachers busy at work. A low murmer of unrecognizable Spanish sounds fills the area. This is one-on-one instruction. So I find myself facing my teacher at this tiny table. I’m a little uncomfortable and self-conscious, but it eases after a while. We continue talking in Spanish. Refreshingly, she has never heard of Starbucks or “Hamilton.”
I feel her assessing my abilities and level. I come up with a few words and sentences that even impress me. I’m sure she’s not. She’s been doing this for years.
Prior to arriving, I had to take two on-line assessments or tests. One was to assess my learning style. The other was to assess my level of proficiency. For some reason, they were unable to find the second assessment. I tell them that I did it several weeks earlier so they look again. They are placating me. I think to myself that maybe the test never went through – I know our home’s Wifi isn’t terrific. They look skeptical but they smile anyway. I feel like I just told them that my dog ate my homework. They apologize and tell me they can’t find it. I will need to take it again. Damn. Fifty questions. Now. My first day.
So I re-do the assessment as my maestra patiently waits. I’m done and we go over it. I am told that I am in grado (grade) “A.” I’m a beginner- I hope I’m at least an advanced beginner (my term, not theirs). There are 7 grade levels, A through G. I feel a little embarrassed but I’m not sure why. But grade “A” turns out to be a good thing. It’s meant to lay a solid foundation for what’s to come later. Solid is a good word for it as I have come to find out – it can be very hard.
School started for me on Monday, September 10th after arriving in Antigua the previous Friday. Going to school again feels a bit like a second childhood. And you can see why. I get up, shower, get dressed and make my bed. I go downstairs for breakfast at 7:30 a.m. After eating a good breakfast, I walk to school- it takes about 10 minutes. I carefully cross the streets after looking in all directions. I attend school for 4 hours, 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. We get a 15 minute break (recess-my word, not theirs) at 10:00 a.m. After school, I walk home. (I don’t stop at “Rudolph’s drug store” on the way home – only a few people reading this will understand what that means). I change my clothes and then I hear my name being called that lunch is ready. Lunch is at 1 p.m. I come down stairs and have a nutritious hot lunch. After lunch, I go out and play. (Usually a walk to the mercado (market) or el parque central (the central park square, look around and often strike up conversations in Spanish). Then I come home and do my homework. Do you see what I mean? Melrose Avenue elementary school all over again. But as you will see, that’s where the comparison ends.
Walking to school is very enjoyable and always different! I realize I have actually developed my own version of “Penny Lane.”
I walk by the bank and say good morning to the armed guards standing outside. (I don’t see the banker with a motorcar.) Their friendly smiles strongly contradict the fact that they are both holding extremely lethal-looking rifles in their hands.
Then I say good morning to the guy who works in the corner store- he sells an unusual assortment of things such as computers, stereo equipment, stoves, televisions, washing machines and motorcycles! I pass a tiny panaderia (bakery)which tempts me but I resist. Then I pass a couple of barber shops, one of which is named “Hunx” and another called “Elegante VEGAS Barber-Shop” with a sign trying to copy the famous “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign (Both are closed this early so the barber isn’t showing photographs of every head he’s had the pleasure to have known.)
I proceed to pass my favorite coffee store, “Guatejava” (cute play on words) across the street. And I pass the Antigua gym. I turn up the street and walk by a pharmacy, a school, and a lavanderia (laundry). Sometimes I drop off my laundry at a different lavanderia near the school. I pay Q45, or less than $6. My laundry is ready by the time school is over and comes back neatly folded and tied with ribbon!
I also pass a a tiny butcher shop.
The butcher is busy cutting some part of an animal as very large irregular portions of unrecognizable reddish-brown meat hang unrefrigerated over the front counter. Who knows how long they’ve been there. One morning, a whole beef carcass was hanging in the back of the little shop as the butcher was busy cutting it into manageable-sized pieces. I’m not even sure how he was able to fit the whole thing into such a small space. I cringe slightly and decide against taking a photo. Now I regret it.
As I walk, I keep checking behind me to see if the nearby volcanos are visible (since it has been cloudy) and whether Fuego is erupting as it does fairly often. I pass a fancy pastry shop appropriately named “Ganache.”
Further down the street, I greet a friendly woman with a big smile named Glinda who is making homemade tortillas over a hot griddle near the front of a small restaurant. She has attractive Mayan features and she is wearing the traditional floral woven clothing. (She’s the only Glinda I know besides the good witch of the north.) One morning, after passing her and smiling a few times, I just walked in and introduced myself telling her that I was a student at the school up the street. Now we say hello every morning and sometimes we chat a bit.
I proceed to pass a veterinary clinic, a fresh juice shop, another pharmacy, some cool ruins of una vieja iglesia (an old church- there are a number of these types of ruins around Antigua along with some beautiful churches) and another bank (still no banker, motorcar or children laughing at him).
Up ahead, there’s a larger panaderia across the street which is just down the street from my school. I resist going in knowing that I will probably go there during the morning break. And then I enter the school saying hola to everyone at the front desk.
School for me starts at 8:30 a.m. I decided against starting at 8 a.m. because it brought back haunting memories of all those 8 a.m. chemistry, biochemistry, physics and other horrendous classes that I took in college as a zoology major. School ends at 12:30 p.m. I walk home usually by a different route. I enjoy seeing everyone out and about – tourists, school students, street venders and locals. I periodically stop in a shop and look around or converse a little, or take some photos even though by this time I have hundreds.
So how is school? As I am just competing my fourth week, the short answer is-there are some days that are fine, but then there are those other days which are very demanding and challenging. Without complaining, which I’m not, and in the spirit of honest blogging and journaling, I feel it is important to capture my reality. And for me, at times, school is going well but there are those times that it is hard, frustrating and very challenging indeed.
My teacher reminds me “Spanish is not easy.” She’s right! And at the same time, somehow I’m enjoying the process, I like the challenge and I look forward to school each day. But there are those days that I question what in the world was I thinking. Like today. I was overwhelmed, discouraged and lost. My teacher assured me that everyone has difficulty with conjugating reflexive (reflexivo) verbs (verbos). It was difficult enough dealing with present (presente), past (preterite or pretérito) and future (futuro) verbs. So after days like this, I take a walk, catch my breath, have a little something sweet to eat and take time to regroup. I’m determined. I know that once I sit down with this stuff, it will start to come together. So far it has.
After my first two weeks, I started to question whether my teacher was the right fit for me. Although she was very bright and nice, she seemed to be looking up a few too many things on Google translate. One day, she had given me homework that was a word search puzzle. It was a waste of my time and taught me nothing. We talked about it and she agreed it probably wasn’t a good idea- I think she thought it would be fun for me to have something different to try. (The other homework she had given me was worthwhile.) Also, I felt as if we were proceeding a little too slowly. But I had nothing to compare it to.
As it turns out, right around the time I had these questions, she was absent one day after she unfortunately burned herself while cooking at home. I was given a different teacher until my regular teacher returned. It didn’t take long for me to realize that this new teacher was a much better fit for me so I asked the school to change and they gladly accommodated my request. (They make these changes all the time.) My new teacher is wonderful. She is very professional and extremely bright. At the same time, she is very pleasant and fun, has a great sense of humor and has made our sessions very tolerable and enjoyable. She even rides a motorcycle to school! (Motorcycles are very popular here in Antigua- they’re relatively inexpensive, use little gas and are easy to park.) We get along great. She’s so happy and bubbly all the time that I hope that some of it will rub off on me. She also talks about the local McDonalds a lot especially because she has young children.
(This has to be the nicest McDonalds on the planet. It has a beautiful garden patio with a central flowing fountain. Also, the food is supposed to be much better than in the U.S. – much fresher and local. The food does look better although I haven’t tried it.) My teacher knows when I’m having a tough day and she tries to encourage me. Fortunately, she’s very nice and extremely patient. And we enjoy some good laughs together.
I get homework every night including the weekends. I have been making flashcards for the hundreds of new vocabulary words and verbs I need to learn. (Can you believe that I sit and make flashcards?) We spend the time in our sessions having detailed conversations, doing written and oral exercises, reading short stories and answering questions about them, taking down dictation and learning massive numbers of new words and verbs along with their seemingly endless tenses and conjugations. And I found out that need to pass a 2 to 3 hour written and oral exam to make it to the next grade level. This clearly puts some skin in the game and set my nerves a bit on edge. This is obviously a no-nonsense program. I admit that I didn’t exactly know what I was getting myself into when I enrolled. But I knew it wouldn’t be easy. Again, I’m not complaining- I’m really not.
I’ve made some friends with other students but the students here are very transitory. Some are starting while others are leaving. Some come for just a week, while others like me are here for several months or longer. Most students seem to be beginners but there are a few more advanced students or those who have been here for a longer time. I enjoy meeting other students from all over the country and other parts of the world. We share our experiences about school and about living in Guatemala. And yes, most of the time, I admit we speak in English as our brains need a break, at least for a few minutes.
On a few occasions, my teacher and I leave the school and go on a “field trip” (my term) to places like a nearby church, the public library and we plan to go to the local open mercado. We only speak in Spanish and of course, there are lots of new vocabulary words that arise during our field trips that, of course, result in many more flashcards. These outings are very enjoyable and fun. And it’s nice to get out of the school setting for a while.
There’s a phrase in Antigua that everyone here seems to say: “poco a poco” or little by little. When I meet people and tell them –in Spanish– that I’m studying and that it’s difficult, they almost always say this to me. The family that I’m living with continually remind me of this- especially when I share with them — in Spanish–the challenges that I’m experiencing in school. No me gusta los verbos (I don’t like the verbs). Poco a poco they keep telling me.
At times it’s great. At times I’m discouraged. At times I’m overwhelmed. And at times, my brain is on overload and it feels like there’s no more room on my hard drive. And at times, I’m thrilled when I actually remember the Spanish work for something — like today– the word “peach” is “durazno.” Thank goodness for flashcards! And most of the time, I’m really glad to be doing this.
So there you have it. Each day, I go from Penny Lane to Pretérito. They both have something in common- they both involve things in the past. I’m looking forward to the day that my current struggles in Spanish are also a thing of the past. And to help make that happen, I’ve got to get back to my tarea (homework). Poco a poco.
Wandering through the cobblestone streets of Antigua is an amazing kaleiescope of sights and sounds that soothe, stimulate, entice and assault all my senses. The delightful smell of bread baking makes my mouth water which is then suddenly thwarted by the pungent stench of car exhaust.
Around the corner, the thick oily smell of frying tortillas envelops me like a heavy old blanket, as the odor intertwines with the mouth-watering aroma of fresh homemade chocolate from the Choco Museo. This delight is then alarmingly erased by the synthetically sweet smell of a cleaning solution that seems to be widely used here. And then suddenly without warning, a firecracker blast causes me to jump a bit off the ground.
As I quickly cross the street while cars, motorcycles with multiple riders, and Tuk-tuks come at me from all directions, my nostrils sting from the nasty sharp odor of gasoline as a revving deafening motorcycle races in front of me. The smell gets worse as it mixes with the odor of musty burning brakes from an old rusted car which bounces in front of me like a bobble head doll.
Half a block later, my eyes sting from a wood oven’s smoke which then gets woven with the unmistakably delightful fragrance of baking cookies, Of course, I go right into the charming little panaderia and buy myself a little something sweet and delicious, usually a pastry with chocolate that I don’t wait to eat. I easily strike up a conversation in Spanish with the pretty shop owner. She seems happy to speak with me but I sense she’s disappointed that I only bought one thing. I leave a few minutes later.
Once outside, I look around some more. And then I pause. And breathe. This is Antigua, charming, lovely, tranquilly chaotic, periodically frenetic, muti-faceted, and at times, magical. My astonishing walk continues.
I stroll into a tiny shop where indigenous women tirelessly weave vibrantly colorful and intricate fabric. I immediately recognize the pattern which is later confirmed as being from the village of San Antonio Aguas Calientes which is not far from Antigua (I had done volunteer work at this village while working with Nueva Generacion, a wonderful organization headed by Cindy Schneider which provides scholarships to poor school children, builds homes and helps in so many other ways).
I am readily greeted with a warm smile and welcoming words in Spanish. I meet an old women whose face is careworn, deeply lined and I can see she is missing a few teeth as she gives me a wide jack-o-lantern smile. Her adult daughter smiles too and says “bienvenidos” (welcome). She has learned the ancient skill of weaving from her mother and proudly shows me gorgeous things to buy. I want one of everything. They are both from the the village and I tell them about the volunteer work I’ve done twice before. We chat away as they kindly ignore how poorly my Spanish must sound to them. They both never stop smiling nor do I. They like that I am a student at a nearby Spanish immersion school. And we talk some more. When I leave, they make me promise to come back another day.
As I look around outside, the clouds have cleared just enough to see Fuego volcano sputtering another small eruption as gray smoke rises into the sky.
This happens a few times an hour but the skies are often filled with huge billowy clouds making it difficult to see at times. This is actually the same volcano that violently exploded and erupted on June 3, 2018 killing and injuring nearly 200 people and many more are still missing.
I’ve been taking daily long walks to orient myself. Everyday is an adventure and I never know what I’m going to find. I’m never disappointed.
The Spanish tiled buildings are all painted in a limited palette of different shades of blue, yellow, gold, terra-cotta and white which gives the streets a uniformity making it difficult for me to remember where certain places are located. (There are strict building codes that only allow specific paint colors to be used.) The small city that refuses to call itself a town or even a pueblo is a chessboard of 8 to 10 perfectly square blocks in each direction surrounding a lovely central park square with a flowing muti-tiered fountain in the middle. I let myself get lost on purpose.
The cobblestone streets are quaintly charming but they make walking a bit of an obstacle course as do the uneven sidewalks, some of which are very narrow. As I’m trying to watch my step, I also need to be wary of numerous decorative wrought iron adorned window sills that jut out of many of the buildings, sometimes at mouth or forehead level. I take time to talk to shop owners and I visit many — bookstores, bakeries, the cleaners, souvenir shops, candy stores, a cookie shop — everywhere.
I speak to the the vendors in the local market which is so huge and maze-like that I’ve gotten lost in it. I strike up conversations with the street vendors selling their woven goods and trinkets in the central park square. Everyone I’ve spoken to seems very friendly and eager to converse – we only speak in Spanish. I admit that I often don’t understand everything that is said but it’s usually enough to get by. Once I tell these people that I’m studying Spanish at a nearby school, they often try to help me to pronounce difficult words correctly or put things in the proper verb tense –which is needed very often. Anyone who has studied Spanish will understand the challenges of the past, present and future verb tenses among other things in this seemingly complicated language.
While there are apparently air emission limitations, you wouldn’t know it from the dark bluish exhaust and toxic fumes coming from many of the vehicles. The black smoke that belches out of the Chicken Buses is certainly cringe-worthy. Horn honking is illegal and the drivers seems cooperative with each other.
There are no traffic lights anywhere in the city. There are stop signs which apparently only really mean “yield.” There are lots of stray dogs running around the streets who don’t seem to bother anyone. And the Guatemalans are (unfortunately) very fond of firecrackers. I hear them daily. They are used for all types of celebrations and almost anything can be a celebration –church services, weddings, birthdays, New Year’s, Christmas, and any other day of the week for no particular reason. I really dislike them but I’m trying to get used to them since they are clearly not going away. The family I’m living with burst out laughing every time I jump. “No me gusta los cohetes” (I don’t like the firecrackers) I tell them en Español. They just laugh.
I arrived on Friday, September 7th just before Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year which was the following Sunday. When I was here to do volunteer work last January, I met a very nice Jewish Guatemalan guy. He kindly invited me to join him for Rosh Hashana services at Temple Adat Israel in Guatemala City. I figured why not? The congregation is fairly small. There were about 35 or 40 people there and services only took about 40 minutes (note to self to tell our rabbi at home). I knew a couple of people there from when I had been there last January. They don’t have a rabbi so the services were led by two impressive 20-somethings, one of whom had an amazing voice.
The whole service was in Spanish and Hebrew – no English so I was a bit more lost at services than usual. However, many of the prayers and songs were still the same as the ones from home so I didn’t feel quite as much of an outsider. Everyone was very nice and welcoming. Afterwards, we all had dinner together around a large U-shaped table. I actually felt as if I had gone to someone’s home for dinner. In a way, I had since the congregation meets in a converted home. Look at me going to services in a foreign country– who knew?
The street vendors, while mostly nice, can be very persistent. Like very persistent! And a little annoying. I immediately tell them “no gracias, no necessito nada” (No thanks, I don’t need anything). They often respond, “It doesn’t cost nothing for just looking.”
They all must have learned this phrase in street vendor school. (I imagine them getting together each night after work and comparing notes.) If you’ve been to Guatemala, you’ve no doubt heard some version of this phrase. They also tell me “business is business” and they have the “best price” just for me. I can keep saying no and they come up with other things or reasons to buy. “Para su esposa?” (for your wife?) “No tengo esposa.” (I don’t have a wife.) “Su novia?” (Your girlfriend?).” No tengo novia.” (I don’t have girlfriend). Then I get a funny look and they often switch to English while I persist in broken Spanish. “For your friend?” I’m tempted to say I don’t have any friends but that would be pathetic. “My friends don’t need anything.” “Your enemy?” (Then I laugh) and it stops. Thankfully!
But sometimes it doesn’t. Ugh! If I tell them “maybe later,” they kindly say okay, nice to meet you, they ask me my name and they tell me theirs. That’s a big mistake. It can be days later and if I happen to be in the central park square, I suddenly hear my name being called. That’s right, it’s them. And it all starts over again!
As I was walking around my first weekend here, I happened to notice what looked like another outdoor market in the distance so my curiosity pulled my feet in that direction as it often does. Soon I found myself in the middle of a huge outdoor bustling mercado filled with vendors selling fruit, vegetables, flowers and lots of other items – and then it hit me — there were no tourists! (By the way, I don’t consider myself a tourist.) I felt like I had entered a sacred Guatemalan space free from outsiders (I’m also trying not to consider myself to be an outsider. I mean, after all, I’ve been here two weeks!). Despite my love of taking photographs, I didn’t dare take a photo of this other-worldly place. I was sure the people didn’t want their photos taken and more importantly,
I wanted to be completely present to embrace this wonderful and unique experience rather than focusing (excuse the pun) on the best possible photo opportunities. The vendors were obviously very poor. The women were beautifully dressed, wearing their traditional outfits of vibrant colorful floral woven skirts and blouses. Kids were running around and playing despite the crowd, while some were being breast-fed. It was one of the most amazing and spiritual cultural experiences that I can remember during any of my travels. It literally took my breath away!
During another walk, I noticed a fire truck coming slowly down the street. I realized that it was a funeral procession. A casket was riding on top of the hook and ladder truck with a gathering of uniformed firefighters and other people walking slowly behind the truck. I stopped what I was doing and stood still on the sidewalk out of respect as I watched it go by. The sadness was palpable.
Firefighters (bomberos) in Antigua are volunteers and they are often seen in the streets with collection cans asking for donations to fund their work. I’m happy to contribute.
So here I am, all settled in. It’s been two weeks. I feel right at home. I have my place at the dining room table and I get 3 homemade meals a day except Sundays. My name sometimes gets called out at meal time to come and eat just like when I was a kid. We eat together most of the time and we only speak in Spanish. There is another student here from a different school and three other visitors staying at the modest house who are all very nice. These visitors were originally from Guatemala and the Dominican Republic and they hardly speak a word of English despite the fact that they’ve lived in New York for over 20 years. I admit I’m lost most of the time during the conversations but I try to just listen and speak when I can. I nod a lot and say uh-huhs quite a bit pretending that I know what’s going on. No one at the table is fooled.
The food is made by the “cooker” who is the energetic feisty petite housekeeper whom I met upon my arrival. The food has been has delicious. Breakfast can be eggs maybe 2 or 3 times a week along with frijoles (mashed black beans), plantains, and fresh fruit.
Other mornings, I get pancakes which are light, delicious and decorated with bananas and strawberries, waffles or corn flakes and fresh strawberries or papaya, or both. Lunch is the main meal of the day although the portions are not huge. They often have small amounts of chicken or beef together with lots of vegetables, rice, beans, potatoes and fresh homemade corn tortillas. Hearty soups are often served which is common in Guatemala. Dinner is much lighter – sometimes pasta, hearty soup, rice salad, vegetables and potatoes. Some of the vegetables are not familiar to me, nor are the cuts of meat, but I eat them anyway. Today, I was told that the vegetable was a type of cactus (no thorns) and delcious. The carrots can be 3 to 4 inches in diameter! And there are vegetables that seem related to the squash family. Dessert has been served about once or twice a week which has consisted of a refreshing slice of fresh pineapple (which is amazingly sweet and not acidic) or cooked plaintains. Maybe I need to introduce them to the idea of chocolate desserts and that dessert can and should be served a little more often! There has been so much going on. I can’t wait to share more of my adventures.
So I’m living in Guatemala! The nutshell version so far – it’s been great!
So many feelings came up during my last few days before I left. Of course, it was sad saying adios to my partner, family and good friends. Not surprisingly, I had a few butterflies like the one’s you get before starting a new school. And in some ways I was going off to a new school, not to mention to live in a foreign country. I bought some new clothes, a few tee shirts, socks, some waterproof hiking boots and a lightweight rain jacket. And I had buzzed my hair just I did when I was a kid – then it was called a “butch,” remember? (Little did I know that a butch haircut would have such a different meaning all these years later as do the words “gay” and “queer.” I still miss the sweet candy-like smell of butch wax and the piece ofBazooka bubble gum that Daisy, my barber, would slip into my breast pocket.)
My departing days seemed to take on a bit of a ominous feeling as well. While I was excited about leaving, people seemed worried about me. They were asking me where I wanted to go for my last meal before I left civilization. Were there any favorite foods I wanted to eat, fun things I wanted to do or places I wanted to visit before I left? Why Guatemala? Isn’t it dangerous there? Isn’t the government corrupt? Why do you want to learn Spanish? If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. I began to ask myself just what had I gotten myself into? Was I missing something? But then I caught myself. No, I was fine. I was determined. I couldn’t wait. Why not Guatemala? If you’ve been here, you’d know why. And why do I want to learn Spanish. My best answer: Just because. And off I went.
I had a flawless arrival in Antigua (not Antigua in the Caribbean). I somehow breezed through customs. A really nice guy drove me from the airport directly to the house where I had arranged to stay with a Guatemalan family. We had a nice conversation despite my very broken Spanish. Arriving at the house, with my luggage and guitar in hand, I felt a little like Maria Von Trapp being greeted by the housekeeper who clearly runs the place and I was shown to my room. The modest house is quite nice, Spanish style with white walls and dark brown woods. The property is entered through a dead bolted front wooden gate which opens into a long driveway and courtyard with a short walk to the front door of the house. Several cars were parked in the driveway.
The two-story house has a smallish living room, formal dining room, family room and 3 bedrooms downstairs and 3 upstairs. There is a small charming atrium inside the house and a separate beautiful garden with a fountain. There is also a roof top deck patio with nice views of the hills and nearby volcanos. Fortunately there is wifi which works most of the time except during thunderstorms when it tends to go off and on. Many of the ceilings are beams of dark wood holding back terra cotta tiles.
I’m in my bedroom temporarily since the mom is out of town and there currently are other guests occupying the other bedrooms. This room is decent size, and I have my own bathroom. The bedroom has a small skylight which is nice during the day but the flashes of lightning that come through at night into the otherwise pitch-black room can be a bit unsettling. Since it’s the rainy season, we’ve had thunderstorms every day late in the afternoon and often at night. The rain is torrential at times which I’m actually enjoying. The house has a corrugated steel and tile roof so the percussion from the rain gets pretty loud. However, I’ve been enjoying watching the storms from the roof deck which is partially covered and has a great view of the nearby volcano.
The house is in a great location. It is near the area where the Chicken Buses depart and arrive (more on that later) and it is down the street from the huge outdoor and partially covered mercado. There is a decent gym around the corner (that I’m thinking about joining) and a supermercado about a block away that seems to have everything and it’s all very inexpensive. Towels for $2.99?
The house is heavy adorned with Catholic religious artifacts and artwork including a large stitchery rendering of the Last Supper hanging in the dining room, crosses, statues of Jesus and other saints, biblical phrases on the walls, bibles and other items. My room alone has 3 crosses, one large, one small and one that lights up, several rosary beads including one on the wall, a bust of Jesus above my bed, several angelic pictures of the Virgin Mary on the wall and taped to the lamp on my nightstand, several bibles and other religious books. I find all of these items strangely comforting. There’s no need for a mezzuzah – I’m definitely covered! However, there is no place to put my clothes except for a small portable clothes rack – the drawers and cabinets are filled with the clothes and belongings of the family members. Of course, I’m in their home! So I’m partially living out of my suitcase- which I really don’t mind considering how happy I am to be here.
The members of the family are hard-working and middle-class. It is headed by a widow in her early sixties who has 4 children, 3 of whom are twenty and thirty somethings and still live here. One is married with 2 young kids, a girl age 5 and boy, age 11, so they live in an adjacent smaller house on the same property. The mother, the son-in-law and the 2 kids left for vacation the same day I arrived. I briefly met the mother who seems lovely. I also met the 11 year old boy who was playing video games in the small family room right outside my bedroom. He seemed nice and very mature for his age. His gelled-hair was combed perfectly as many of the younger Guatemalan guys seem to wear. They will be back later today at which time I will apparently move upstairs. And yes, there is the housekeeper/cook who has been with the family for around 12 years. She is very pleasant, competent, full of tenacity and has a very strong voice for being so petite. And they (we?) have a beagle. We became fast friends the first day I was here. He might be the mellowest dog I’ve ever met- yet his tail doesn’t stop wagging every time he sees me. He even barks in Spanish! (Don’t ask me how I know this.)
My small bathroom is more than adequate although we’re not supposed to drink the water so I use bottled water to brush my teeth. And I found a strange thing in the shower. At first, I thought they had gone to a lot of trouble to install an electric massaging shower head. But it also worried me because of the electric wires connecting to it and the way it looked. I quickly figured out that this was a water heating shower head. Yikes! Of course, I googled it. I mean you’re not supposed to mix electricity and water, right?
Apparently these shower heads are very popular in Guatemala and probably other places in the world. I have to run the water fairly slowly to get a warm shower- any faster and the water gets cool quickly. I guess because of the safety issues, this type of shower head was actually discussed during my school’s orientation on my first day there (more on this later). We were cautioned not to touch it with the water running. No kidding! And the shower drain has to be opened and closed after each use to prevent little brown bugs, (and maybe other things) from crawling into the shower. I already have a couple of them in my shower- I guess the smaller ones can get through the drain. We don’t bother each other. And I haven’t asked if they bite- it’s probably better that I don’t know.
My room has a small television and the shows are all in Spanish (of course!). I was thrilled the first night to find the movie, Toy Story en español (in Spanish) especially since I thought it would be easier to understand because it was for kids, right? Wrong. The dialogue was very fast and the cartoon voices made it harder to understand. It was still fun watching it – who doesn’t love Toy Story? There are a number of familiar shows that are all dubbed in with Spanish. It’s funny to see familiar actors or personalities speaking in Spanish and hearing voices that are not their own. Although I’m actually impressed at how well the voice-overs are done along with the attention to detail. Of course, the lips don’t quite match.
So at this point, I’m all settled in at my new home. Actually, it didn’t take me very long – just a few days. I’ve started my Spanish lessons and I’ve been exploring the town. And I was lucky enough to be here for the Guatemalan Dia de Independencia, their independence day, September 15th. More on my adventures next time.
It’s getting closer. My nerves are steady but emotions running a little on the high side. My WTF beard continues to grow. My psych practice is closed – temporarily.
The travel nurse at Kaiser assured me that my vaccination for Typhoid fever is still effective from the shot I had before going to Guatemala about 2 years ago. And of course, I’m equipped with Malarone to prevent malaria in case I’m going to “mosquito infested areas.” The nurse was emphatic — I need to start taking the medication a day before entering areas where ravenous mosquitos congregate and to continue taking the medication, even after I’ve left the area, until the all the Malarone is gone!
The nurse supplied me with 16 pages (yes, count them) of medical information, instructions and precautions for Guatemala. I’m to use insect repellant containing DEET (highly toxic!). There are guidelines on when I should call for help. I’m to wear protective clothing and to even consider bed nets to avoid mosquito bites which carry Dengue, Zika, and other lovely things, and what symptoms to look out for. I have details on the Guatemala-specific medications I’ll be taking and their potential side effects.
Not surprisingly, there’s a whole section on “travelers diarrhea.” As such, I’ve been given an almost mandatory prescription for Azithromycin, a heavy duty antibiotic, in case things get especially bad with cramps, and worse (TMI?), otherwise I’m to be well-equipped with Imodium. I was even given a detailed map outlining the areas where malaria is present. On this handy map, Antigua, my home base, appears to be just 1/32 of an inch from where mosquito precautions are required. Of course, I hope that none of these insatiable mosquitos living in the adjacent areas are planning any trips to Antigua for free Vegas-style buffets!
I can imagine these smug mosquitos’ having a chat:
“Hey Mack, how’s it going?
“Hi Miles, pretty good but man am I stuffed! I just ate”
“Really, where did you go?”
“I ate at the Huxley Griffith”
“Wow, how was it?”
“Delicious! Man, that place really must like dark chocolate. Boy was it tasty”
“Cool, I’ve been meaning to try it.”
“What part did you try?”
“I think I was near the neck but I hear the ankle is also tasty.”
“Hmm, I’ll have to try it. I’ll go there now.” Buzz you later.
Enough of that.
I’ll be arriving during Guatemala’s rainy season which runs May through October. In fact, since it’s close to the equator, Guatemala really only has two seasons: wet and dry. A majority of the rain is supposed to fall in September (average 9 inches) and October (average 5 inches). November also tends to be wet but by December, it’s supposed to dry up. I’ve heard it can be torrential at times. Plus October is peak hurricane season. That could be interesting.
So the other day, I ventured out to REIto find some (hopefully inexpensive) water-proof shoes and a lightweight rain jacket. Both were on sale so I bought them. Maybe I’m overdoing it. Maybe all I need are those one-dollar ponchos that come so neatly wrapped in tiny rectangular packages. So I ordered a supply of those too from Amazon. It’s cheap insurance. Did you know that you can return anything at REI for up to one year, even if you’ve worn them!? Like shoes?? Who knew?
I’ve been checking the iPhone weather app a few times a week.
It seems to be stuck on only one setting – rain and thunderstorms every day until further notice with daytime temps in the mid-70s and nighttime temps in the high 50s. Not too bad.
I’ve also checked the U.S. State Department website to find the latest travel advisories for Guatemala. It’s not the safest place on the planet. (As if L.A. is??) I probably shouldn’t have checked. It felt like the time I was googling my incessant cough, cold and achy symptoms and concluded that I had some horrendous disease with just months or days to live. Yes, the Guatemalan government is corrupt. (I feel like the pot calling the kettle black.) And yes there are certain areas to avoid. For example, from my previous trips, I knew that once you fly into Guatemala City, for the most part, you don’t hang around and probably don’t come back until it’s time to go back to the airport.
Guatemala is currently at Travel Advisory Level 2 (“Exercise increased caution” due to crime) as of July 27, 2018. There are four levels. It was actually worse when I was there last January when it was at Level 3, “Reconsider travel.” Of course, I had no idea then although we knew to be very careful. The machine gun armed guards at some of the restaurants and places we visited gave it away. Some areas of Guatemala are still at a Level 3. Guatemala is divided into 22 geographic entities called Departments. Antigua is in the Sacatepéquez department which is currently at a Level 2. I’ll check out the situation more once I get there.
I’m told that the devastating and deadly eruption of the Fuego Volcano has settled down.
We had actually seen Fuego having much smaller eruptions both times we were in Guatemala. I’ve got some great photos!
During the eruption last January, Antigua was inundated with volcanic ash since it’s only 9 miles away. So, I’ve ordered a supply of breathing masks (N95 rated for volcanic ash) just in case. Yes, I brought them last January as well since I knew that Fuego had been huffing and puffing for a while and threatening to go off.
At the U.S. Embassy’s suggestion, I’ve enrolled in “STEP” (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program). That way, the U.S. Embassy is aware of my travel in Guatemala in case of an emergency, natural disaster, civil unrest, or family emergency. The embassy can also help family and friends get in touch with me in an emergency. I’ve also been receiving periodic updates on the safety concerns in Guatemala as they have come up. So far I’ve received two, both concerning some civil unrest in Guatemala City.
We happen to live near the Guatemala Consulate so I went there the other day. I had a nice chat with one the officers there. He assured me that tourist areas are safe but there are clearly areas to avoid. So I will.
Since stealing ATM card information seems to be a national pastime in Guatemala, I’ve opened a separate bank account specific to my trip to Guatemala with its own ATM card. That way, I can keep a small amount of money in the account and if my card gets hacked, my other accounts won’t be compromised.
Am I worried. Not really. Am I still going? Yes. Remember, I was at the Silver Lake Trader Joe’s an hour before the tragic shooting. L.A. has its issues as do most places.
I never would have imagined that this sabbatical would have taken so much planning and preparation to pull this off. There are so many moving parts. Oh yes, I even bought a travel guitar at my favorite guitar store, McCabe’s. Now, it’s time to pack.
It has got to be around a year ago that I decided that I was going to live in Guatemala, study Spanish, maybe do some volunteer work, and do a few other things like writing, playing my guitar, and hiking volcanos. I have never lived anywhere other than California, let alone another country. There were numerous reasons fueling this decision in me. That’s a story that currently has unfinished chapters. I plan to be gone 3 1/2 months.
So my sabbatical (isn’t that a great, important sounding name for it?) starts September 1, 2018 — and I’m leaving for Guatemala on September 6th. I admit that I do have a round trip ticket and plan to be back in late December. I am in the process of closing my psych practice – effective August 31st-subject to reopening at a later date. This has not been an easy process on so many levels. And it’s been very emotional.
So much to do. I’m only slightly overwhelmed as long as I don’t think about it. I’m excited, nervous, anticipatory, anxious, calm, scared, brave, worried, courageous, sad, happy. A pupu platter of feelings and emotions which I’ve eaten myself so it’s all laying heavily in the pit of my stomach like a gluttonous mass of fried Asian appetizers. Feels great going down, but then it lays there like a block of concrete!
The immersion language school in Antigua that I’ve enrolled in just sent me an updated confirmation. It’s getting more real. I’ll be living with a Guatemalan family but I won’t find out anything about them until a few days before I arrive. What will they be like? Will they like me? Will I need to hide that I’m Jewish (my mishasgas, not theirs) – or that I’m in a same-sex relationship (another closet to crawl back into?). I’ve got to turn off my projector that’s running overtime.
I have no idea what I’m getting myself into. I am told I will eat the same meals that the family eats, presumably with them. Actually I hope we do. They’ll provide three meals a day, except on Sundays. I’ll do my own laundry. I’ll have my own room, and my own bathroom (an extra charge). They’re supposed to have Wifi (an extra charge). I have no specific dietary restrictions. But since they’ve asked, I’ve requested non-fried healthyish food. Lots of fresh veggies and fruits (and hoping they know to wash them in filtered water!) I prefer mostly chicken and fish. Will they think I’m high maintenance? (Do people in Guatemala even use the term “high maintenance?”) I imagine they must be thinking, Oh, he must be from California. He probably only eats kale and quinoa, and everything has to be organic, locally sourced, sustainable, free range, gluten free and non-GMO. Does everything need to be served on small plates?
I just took an assessment test to help the school determine what type of learner I am. I have no idea how that went or what that even means. I hope I still know how to learn. The next task is a Spanish placement test to see what level I’m at. I initially tried the intermediate test (I guess I was overly optimistic) but I found I was mostly guessing. So they sent me the beginner’s test. I hope I’m at least an “advanced beginner” (my term, not theirs). We’ll see what happens. Más tarde.
faint lines traverse the hiking trail
perpendicular to the path
they appear unevenly
straight and narrow
indistinct and soft and lighter than surrounding earth
unobservant gods in higher realms
don’t notice or stoop to see
a nature searcher
used to watching for birds and animals in the bush
and insects on the trodden track
blinks in disbelief
Is this phenomenon real
or am I just imagining?
Did some hiker
drag a small-fingered branch across the footpath
at irregular intervals?
For what purpose?
the seeker sees tiny ants
not as big even as the small black colonizers
occasionally on the counter at home
and not as many as those roiling around
a small morsel
these few move in fixed path to and fro
making their intention to get across
visible but barely so
Is it water from the stream on the right or
better seeds on the left?
Why so many different roads?
Why not take the highway laid out by other ants four feet further?
And how many ants does it take to change the color of the trail
if only one shade lighter than the rest of the dirt?
Do they kick up miniscule dust
that settles on the grains of sand and makes marks?
And how long do they have to do it to make the line visible?
What hardly noticeable evidence do we leave
on our community journeys?
With lines of poetry?
What marks, however faint—
what kicked up particles of dust—
enough stuff to startle a keen observer
who might seek an explanation
ask a question
while the rest of the universe
much further away and higher up
passes by without noticing?
Tiny slivers of my fingernails dropped in miniature new moon crescents onto some books lying on the floor as I clipped away. In fact, I was sitting on a stack or two of books. Meticulously snipping my nails shorter on the left and longer on the right, and pretending to be the great guitar player that I knew I wasn’t and probably would never be, I observed my buddy come in, look around with astonishment and sheepishly ask “Uh Rick, don’t you think it’s a problem?”
“What?” I said with as much boredom in my voice as I could muster.
“You know — I think you’re in denial, don’t you?” Bob persisted.
“No,” I snapped like a dry twig — “don’t judge a book by it’s cover,” realizing the pun but deciding this was the wrong time to call attention to it. Desperately trying to change the subject, I quickly interjected, “I’m almost done. Let’s get out of here – want to go to Rudolph’s for a hot fudge sundae?”
“Sure, let’s do it,” Bob conceded with resignation. Phew, I thought with my chest thumping like a timpani drum and relieved to have avoided the topic once again. I was a tiny fruit bat narrowly escaping the razor-sharp talons of a famished hawk. Rushing to myPrius, we trotted across the sidewalk that resembled a lovely polka dot quilt from hundreds of tiny lavender blossoms that had fallen from the enormous jacaranda tree.
Bob is simply mistaken – I definitely don’t have a problem and while I’m clearly not in denial, it did happen again tonight which freaked me out a bit. I promised myself that I had only gone in to look. That’s what I always tell myself but this time I meant it. Relieved, I had almost made it out of the store without one. I had glanced at a few but somehow—fortunately — I managed to put them down. Looking around, minding my own business, about to flee through the nearby exit and feeling confident, something suddenly caught my eye. Hmm, I thought, What’s this?Okay, I’ll just pick it up and look at it but I definitely won’t buy it.
Savoring it meticulously, my curiosity compelled me to flip it over to make a full inspection. Inhaling every minuscule detail, I felt myself drawn in, like swampy rainforest quicksand. Then I heard a women’s voice on the overhead speaker–“the store will be closing in five minutes. Please bring your final purchases to the register.” Great, I can’t stay– I need to leave. There’s no time to buy anything, I kept telling myself, repeating it over and over like a needle stuck on a broken 78 record. Using my left hand, I struggled to pry open the vice-like grip of my right hand until it released the would-be treasure. I then sped for the nearest door to escape, like an adrenaline intoxicated gazelle with a determined lion in pursuit.
Then, as if an enormous rubber band snapped me back with the gravitational pull of a gigantic electromagnet on steroids, it was suddenly clenched in my fist again. Let go, I struggled and scolded myself, put it down. Put it down already. You don’t need it. You have too many. Enough already! But then, that convincing soft soothing voice in my brain kicked in. “Ah Ricky, go ahead and get it. You want it. You need it. You can afford it. And most importantly, you deserve it. You absolutely deserve it.”
No, don’t get it!, I pleaded with myself. The little angel and devil on top of my head were duking it out just like those incessant black and whiteBugs Bunnycartoons I watched as a kid. “Don’t do it. Don’t do it. You’ll regret it.”
“It’s fine. Ah, come on, do it. You need it. You deserve it. And it deserves you. You’ll regret it if you don’t.”
Suddenly the final announcement came, the woman now whining with obvious irritation in her voice, “The store is now closed and the staff wants to go home.” Uh oh- I was suddenly hit with an avalanche of embarrassment, realizing that the announcement was obvoiusly targeted specifically at me. My eyes opened wider than a deer in the headlights of a mack truck. I grabbed it and rushed over to the cashier hoping with every part of my being that she would reprimand me for being last and telling me to get out of the store and never come back!
I hurriedly said to her, “can you put this back for me? – I know it’s too late to buy anything.” Placing it down on the table and about to sprint for the door, she reassured me, “no worries” with a smile more fake than saccharine. “We actually have a few minutes – let me ring it up.” I reluctantly handed it to her, and quickly shoved my chip impregnated credit card into the hungry card reader praying for the card to be declined. Trigger a fraud alert or set off an alarm, I eagerly prayed to a god I didn’t actually believe in – until now. Instead, it blinked “approved.” Shit, I thought. I need to get out of here.
The annoyed cashier handed it to me in a tell-tale hyper-obvious mint green plastic bag with the store’s name prominently displayed on it, more conspicuous than the hot pink “Girls Girls Girls” neon signs on Sunset Boulevard. Terrified that it would out me to the world, I anxiously whispered “don’t you have a brown unmarked paper bag?” I urged her as she noticed the desperation in my shaky voice. I was practically begging.
“No, I’m sorry we don’t,” she said with the same irritation that had emanated from the loud speaker. I quickly shoved it under my shirt, accentuating my blimp-sized belly that grossly expanded from all the crap I ate during the holidays. Scanning the scene in all directions, and hoping to avoid the nosey surveillance camera, I slinked out the back door like a mangy skunk avoiding a lurking coyote, praying to the same god that I didn’t believe in (just in case) that no one would see me. I rushed to get inside my car and quickly slammed the door.
Sitting in the car and catching my breath, I started to wonder, what’s the problem. I did nothing wrong. Then, with a tsunami of buyer’s remorse, I instantly decided, I will return it tomorrow- I will keep the receipt. But then panic engulfed me, like the static electricity generated by the Tesla coil at the Griffith Observatory.
Would they believe me? Would they believe that it wasn’t used? Those employees are smart as whips — they know all about guys like me, I exclaimed to myself as I felt the skin-tearing sting of my own self-flaggelation tattooing its wounds into the keloid scars from my wounded past. They know exactly what people like me are all about, I thought, disgusted with myself. I pressed the Waze app on my iPhone, found the quickest way home, and I hit the accelerator.
Going about twice the legal speed limit, I was moving along at quite a clip when suddenly, I noticed those ominous red lights glaring in my rearview mirror piercing my eyeballs like fiery hot lasers. Oh shit, I thought as my intestines clamped down like they were caught in the claws of a mammoth lobster. And the bag was sitting right there next to me, a shady passenger about to betray me and divulge my secret. I felt my venomous shame wash over me like sewer sludge.
Sweat began to percolate and drip down my frowning forehead, stinging my eyes with its acid-saltiness. Should I tell the officer I have an immediate urge to use the restroom?Maybe he would just let me go with a stern warning. No luck. “Your drivers license, registration and proof of insurance” he said like he was pressing charges for a capital offense.
“Did I do something wrong, officer?” I said with the fakest sincerest voice I could manage to squeak out.
“You were doing 65 in a 35 residential zone.”
“Are you sure it wasn’t someone else that you’re mistaking me for?” I paused in disbelief that I had actually just said that!
He rolled his eyes and motioned for me to hand over the papers. I leaned over way more than necessary to reach for my glove box, hoping to hide the indisputable green bag which I knew would become “Exhibit A.” Grabbing my registration and insurance verification, I heard the officer say “what’s in the bag?” I gulped loud enough to confess the overwhelming guilt I was desperately trying to hide. I wondered whether I should try to distract him by telling him that his nose hairs needed trimming. When I showed it to him, he rolled his eyes, clearly conveying, “oh man — here we go — what a loser,” and then said with the threatening voice of an executioner, “I’ll be right back. You better not move.”
As I anxiously waited, my thoughts were bouncing around as if they were riding the loop de loops of the roller coaster inside my head. Suddenly, the word “unmanageability” attacked my mind after apparently staring me down for some time. I had heard that word before – and it always seemed oddly connected to the word “denial” which I clearly knew I was not in. The officer returned quicker than I anticipated. I desperately tried to look disinterested as he demanded, “sign here.” I looked at the ticket expecting it to say “Go directly to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200.” He handed me the contents of my glove box. But those words “unmanageability and denial” were still chasing me like a swarm of killer bees.
The warning signs were all there – as much as I tried to deny, rationalize, bargain- the conclusion shouting, screaming at me was that I am addicted, yes ADDICTED — to buying books. No, I can’t be. There must be some mistake,” I pleaded to myself. They’re so, uh, healthy. The rationalization wouldn’t stop like the nasty rash from a bad bout of poison ivy. Even to me I was unconvincing. I could picture myself sitting in a circle of chairs, like those 12-Step meetings I had seen in the movies. I facetiously quipped to myself, “hey, maybe there’s a 12-Step meeting called ‘BAA’ – Book-buying Addicts Anonymous. Step One – We admitted we were powerless over buying books,— that our lives had become unmanageable. Step Two – Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” Wait a minute – am I insane?Could my life actually have become unmanageable?Could I actually be in denial? Where did all this start? How could this have happened? How did things get this bad? What am I going to tell my friends, my kids, my colleagues? So off to Google I went like Indiana Jones on a searching expedition, looking for hidden answers.
My initial excavation revealed that there’s actually a Japanese word for the literary affliction of people who buy more books than they can actually read – the word is “tsundoku.” It seems that book hoarding is fairly common and certainly well-documented. And it also seems that bookworms like me tend to be fairly proud of what they have accomplished as their shelves fill to capacity. Yes, I was proud of all my books and convinced that everyone who came to my apartment was in awe of how smart I must be. So there it is — you see, I don’t have a problem after all. I was floating in a dead sea of relief like a buoyant brick.
But reading on, my stomach sickened as I stumbled on something known as “bibliomania” which is the obsessive collection and acquiring of books. Could I actually be a bibliomaniac? I panicked and was on the verge of an anxiety attack. And I started to feel faint. Breathe, I need to breathe.
As I pursued the underside of every stone imaginable, among the slimy algae covered words, I read that “denial” is actually powerful defense mechanism. Really? I considered it for a micro-second and then, my Doubting Thomas (as my mother called me), fortunately lit up my brain with the stark brightness of a flashbulb and I quickly dismissed it. No way.Can’t be – it’s just psychobabble. My friends and I always tell each other that we’re in denial about one thing or another — just like Bob told me.
However, reading further, I read in disbelief that a person in denial refuses to except reality or fact, acting as if the painful event, thought or feeling does not exist (gulp). In other words, the individual recognizes or is conscious of the existence of the truth or fact, but consciously refuses to except it as such (gulp gulp). I have known and certainly heard of people who continually drink too much alcohol despite its negative consequences yet deny that they have a drinking problem. I pictured the world of addiction spinning on the axis of denial like a lopsided wobbly old globe. But book buying? Ah, come on. I could hear my insides reassuring me that I should not believe everything I read on the Internet. But then, I stumbled on the fact that even Mark Twain, yes, Mark Twain, one of greatest authors ever- I have every one of his books (of course!) apparently quipped, “denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” Oh, why wasn’t there a “Denial” character in the movie “Inside Out“? Did they purposely leave him out? Hey Pixar, I love you guys but is anybody home? Did you forget something? How was I supposed to figure this out? Where is “Buzz Lightyear to the rescue” when I desperately need him?
But then I was reminded that Dr. Seuss, one of my favorite authors (yes, I have every book – of course!) said “Fill your house with stacks of books, in all the crannies and in all the nooks.” There you go. If it’s good enough for Dr. Seuss, it’s good enough for me. I immediately shut off my computer, and I even unplugged it, as I was absolutely convinced that I did not have a problem, nor was I in denial (or the Nile). And that was that!
But something was still nagging at me because during my exploration, my miner’s headlamp had illuminated something I tried to avoid – that addiction is often associated with a history of trauma. With my curiosity prevailing as it often did (which sometimes got me into trouble), and determined to make sure and prove once and for all that I was not addicted, I decided to delve into my history with books to see if I could have overlooked something. So down memory lane I went. Bewildered, the yellow brick road was slopped with mud and much bumpier than I remembered. It was riddled with enormous pot holes and detours. It caught me off guard.
As it turned out, books and I had a rough start and actually, as it turns out, a traumatic past. It started with those stupid “Dick and Jane” beginning readers that I was unfortunately forced to read somewhere around the first grade. I didn’t like them or the icky girly illustrations. Besides the main characters, Dick and Jane, I remember Sally and of course, Spot the dog. And yes, I could and did see Spot run. But the dialogue was ridiculous and boring. “Look Jane. Look, look. See Dick. See, see. Oh, see. See Dick. See it Go. “Look” said Dick. “See it go. See it go up” (Yes, these are actual quotes). I didn’t want to read this stuff. Where were the exciting stories about dinosaurs like tyrannosaurus rex and pterodactyls, or even pirates, cowboys and Indians or super heroes? And so I didn’t do so well with reading – or just about anything else in school. In reality, I was lost but didn’t really know it at the time.
My reading was excruciatingly slow – a snail was a race car in comparison as I trudged through the thick muddy path of each arduous sentence after another. As I somehow progressed into the next grades, I continually found myself in the lowest reading group. Time and time again, I found myself in Group 3. I knew it – everyone knew it – and I felt like a loser, stupid, defective – it pervaded my soul. I was lost and didn’t know where to turn. And it didn’t seem as if anyone cared about why I was in the lowest reading group — it just was how it was. My teachers tattled to my parents, “Ricky has the ability, he just doesn’t apply himself.”
So instead of my parents trying to figure out what the disconnect was since I clearly was capable, they yelled at me repeatedly and told me, “you need to buckle down—and stop talking in class.” Whatever the fuck that meant. I was lost, overwhelmed, anxious, exhausted — I was patrolling the house every night to make sure my parents hadn’t set the house on fire after I caught them nodding off while smoking on the couch or in bed night after night (in the days before smoke detectors) – why didn’t they get that? Anyway, enough of the pity party that I just threw for myself and invited you to. Thanks for coming. After all this time, the ache is still there, like the stinger left dangling in your arm with its stringy intestines still attached after a wayward kamikaze honey bee mistook you for a real threat.
My frustration about school grew like rat infested ivy. I was desperately trying everything I could to distract myself from the reality that I was hopelessly defective and in disrepair with parts missing and out of stock. To numb out, I became an incessant TV watcher. I knew the TV Guide by heart. Suddenly, I had the answer. It was easy. It was brilliant. I decided, with conviction, that I simply hated reading. Yes, I hated reading! I could feel my young undeveloped brain convincing my amygdala which was already swollen and oozing with shame more toxic than a baby rattlesnake’s venom. “I hate reading and it hates me” became my mantra. Why do something I hate to do? So I didn’t. And that was the end of it.
It was around that time that my grandmother was visiting from Chicago. One day, she serendipitously happened to ask me if I liked to read. What timing! I promptly apprised her that I hated reading, expecting her to marvel at the stellar reasoning that had brought me to this important conclusion. Instead, I immediately sensed her harsh judgment which I realized was working overtime. Her disappointment tore into me like shrapnel from a Jewish granade. Hopefully she hadn’t figured out what a fuck up I knew I was. After all, one of her own kids was a renowned surgeon and the other was a brilliant Juilliard grad. Now, try to compete with that! I wanted to slink down into the cracks of our tile floor as I melted quicker than the wicked witch of the west.
So fast forward maybe about 20 years. Somehow, I found myself loving to browse in bookstores. The books were fascinating and every topic – well almost every topic — was interesting except murder mysteries and sci-fi which were clearly not my thing. I began to buy books. Lots of books. I mean, lots of books. And I intended to read every one of them. They began to pile up on my nightstand, they stuffed my bookshelves, my dresser, my desk, my bathtub and almost everywhere else. Just the same, I reveled in the fact that people seeing my avalanche of books would have no choice but to conclude me to be of superior intellect and of course, very well read. And that was the point. Sort of. Yes, I knew I was compensating for my shaky educational foundation, and probably a few other things, but hey, it worked – at least some of the time.
While my busy life got in the way of my reading plans, I continually convinced myself that I would definitely find time to read my books, each of which I couldn’t wait to experience. Yes, really! And I continued to buy them and they continued to fill my shelves and stack up even higher on my nightstand. They began to overflow the counters of my dresser and desk, my living room furniture and even my dining room table. A few books were getting read. And I kept buying more and more — and more —and the collection grew- as my apartment got smaller and smaller. Some piles were beginning to touch the ceiling. Maybe I could open my own library, I told myself with the confidence of — well, maybe it wasn’t confidence, but it was convincing nonetheless.
Running out of space, I realized that I needed to slow down so I put a moratorium on buying books. I felt proud of myself when I could go a day or two, or even three without buying a book, but then I would find myself sneaking into a bookstore where I would spot another book that I simply had to have. I was great at convincing myself all the reasons that I needed it as I expertly rationalized and bargained my way into more written treasures. Then, Amazon Prime came along and it became my new best friend. Now, in just two days, my lovely new bound acquisitions would arrive without me having to go anywhere.
You can probably see that by this time, I had actually become quite the expert at book buying. I could go into just about any bookstore and within two minutes, or sometimes less, I would find a book that I absolutely couldn’t live without and couldn’t wait to read. Gazing at the book’s cover, my imagination ran wild, like a mustang caught in the loop of a cowboy’s lasso. I became mesmerized, as if ensnared in the trance of a circus hypnotist, his pendulum swinging back and forth before my eyes, enveloping me in the astonishing fantasy and adventure that I knew I was about to embark on, get lost and escape into. I had to have it. And I had to have it now.
I would decide then and there that no matter what I was reading at the time, I would drop it and dive right into my newest book as soon as I got home. However, by the time I arrived at my apartment, my left prefrontal cortex would kick in allowing me to become more rational and agree with myself that I would at least finish the book that I had been reading and then begin my new book. The others could wait. But in the meantime, I began to notice that I had dozens of books laying around with book marks in various places inside them where I had left off while opting to read my newest acquisition.
Besides Bob thinking I was in denial, he also thinks I have OCD — obsessive compulsive something or another. He’s wrong again. Doesn’t everyone want their new books to be perfect? I mean, the covers and pages need to look like they just came off the printing press. No creases, tears or marks. Before every purchase, I look through every copy of the book I’m about to adopt (that sounds much better than buy) and find the one that is flawless — or sometimes, but rarely, the least flawed. Or I will simply go to another bookstore to find the perfect one. And when I read my books, I am meticulous not to bend the cover or mess up the pages, unless it’s a text book or something for my profession – and then it’s yellow highlighter city. Of course, I never, or almost never go back and review the yellow markings which by that point have more yellow on the pages than the plastic tape surrounding a crime scene.
As the years have gone by, I eventually found that I could hardly get in my apartment because my books were everywhere, floor to ceiling. One day, I couldn’t get to my bedroom – or the kitchen – or the bathroom. In fact I could hardly get through the front door. Standing on the porch trying to figure out a way in, I heard some noise behind me. Glancing back over my shoulder, I began to see many familiar faces of numerous friends and family members who had apparently been trailing me. Wait, what day is it? Is this a surprise party? Then, Bob approached me slowly and said “Rick, we need to talk to you a minute – is that okay?”
“About what” I snapped quicker than a Victor mouse trap snagging a mangy rodent.
“We think you know,” Bob continued sounding like a mortician. I had never heard him sound like this before.
“What do you mean? as I attempted my best worst impression of being oblivious. I looked with astonishment at the number of people who had gathered, trying to avoid eye contact at all costs.” No one was fooled.
So, as I was sitting in the small circle of chairs, I heard myself say in unison with the others, “We admitted we were powerless over buying books — that our lives had become unmanageable. Came to believe that a power greater than our selves could restore us to sanity.” As I felt the cold hardness of the metal chair against my back, I realized maybe they were right — that I had been treading water in the Nile. Perhaps, some day, I’ll write a book all about it. The only thing is, I won’t be able to buy it.
This poem was originally written by Steve Karbelnig on December 24, 1995. It has been slightly revised and updated and published here with his permission (All Rights Reserved). We at the Cafe hope you enjoy it and feel free to share it with others.
The Night Before Hanukkah
’Twas the night before Hanukkah And all through the land, The latkes were ready To be fried in the pan.
The menorah had candles, The dreidels were near Would Hanukkah come late Or early this year?
The goyishe children Were in bed thinking ways, of having a Christmas That lasted eight days.
They couldn’t stand fruit cake Or egg nog instead, It was dark chocolate coins Dancing inside their heads.
My partner in pajamas I slept while he read And of course, all our pets Were asleep on our bed.
When out on our pool deck, There arose such a clatter, I sprang from my blanket What could be the matter?
To the sliding glass window, I flew like a flash, Opening up all the blinds Stubbed my toe with a bash.
And what to my wondering Eyes should appear, But a turquoise blue Prius Had parked very near.
It was shiny and sparkled As bright as a star With an Equality sticker Right there on the car.
With a little old driver, Cheeks redder than cherries, I knew in an instant, It was Hanukkah Harry!
His helpers came quickly, Kippas holding tight, He called them by name, And it took all his might.
Now Hershel and Moishe, Irving and Saul, There was Max and ol’ Jacob, He included them all.
They avoided the rooftop, What a shlep, oy so high! With a sack full of goodies, Tons of dreidels, oh my!
Such a noise they were making, I started to frown, We were trying to sleep, Couldn’t they just keep it down?
He wore a black coat, His beard darker than slate, And oy, for a Jew, He was up very late.
His eyes how they twinkled, A bit like an elf, His kippah was crooked, As I laughed to myself.
It was Hanukkah Harry, What a mensch, what a guy. And so many gifts, Where on Earth did he buy?
It could have been Target, Or Amazon Prime, With two-day delivery Would have taken no time.
He spoke not a word, But went straight to his work, He gave out the presents, And then turned with a jerk.
Oy my back he exclaimed, As he lit the menorah, And saw Irving and Moishe, Were dancing the Hora.
Then he left in his Prius, To his pals made a kvetch, Saul was dawdling as always, Max was having a stretch.
On his radio he heard as he thought with dismay, The words in a song, “Make the yule-tide Gay”
With the gifts to deposit And resolving his doubt, He had been in the closet And it was time to come out.
So I heard him call out Without even a pause, That his partner in life, Was of course, Santa Claus.
How wonderful I thought, With a smile on my face, This only could make The world a much better place.
And I heard him exclaim, As he drove off away, You must never buy retail Oh and yes, by the way-
Remember that everyone Is as cute as an elf And it’s always important To just be yourself.
Have the Happiest Hanukkah, With good health through the year. And next year, if it’s Kosher, I’ll use a sleigh and reindeer.
Manchester by the Sea is a story that revolves around unimaginable tragedy, devastating grief and hope for possible healing. Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler who receives a call that his brother Joe has died (not unexpectedly) and goes back to his hometown to help out. Besides handling Joe’s affairs, an issue arises as to the guardianship of Joe’s 16-year-old son (Lee’s nephew), Patrick, played by Lucas Hedges and whether Lee is willing or able to take on this responsibility.
As the story unfolds, we learn that Lee has previously experienced a horrendous tragedy along with his wife, Randy, played by Michelle Williams. It is here that Affleck reveals his outstanding talent for his credible portrayal of a man who is attempting to move himself forward despite his nearly paralyzing grief and self-blame. Williams gives a predictably excellent performance and even though her appearance in the movie is relatively short, her presence is felt throughout the movie especially after the tragedy experienced by both Lee and Randy is revealed. Hedges also gives an excellent performance and the remaining actors do a very good job as well.
In light of this background, the dialogue continues with the ongoing interactions between Lee and his nephew, and the challenges they both face given the circumstances in which they find themselves. While the interchange is at times funny and even sarcastic, the use of humor is merely a defense mechanism as the movie tries to divert its viewers from the very difficult events and themes that have arisen and loom in the characters.
The tragedy’s severe impact on Lee has no doubt changed him forever. He becomes a loner, shut down and isolated. However, Lee’s interactions with his nephew fosters the viewer with hope, yet who is left wondering whether this could be an opportunity for Lee to be able to find meaning in his life once again. Unfortunately, Lee’s devastation and loss are so vast, one cannot help but question whether he ever will be able to actually move forward at all.
The movie, written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, while very well done and beautifully filmed, has a chronology that can be a bit difficult to follow at times. But overall, it is an excellent film and well worth seeing. It is one of those films that stays with you for days afterwards, pondering its themes and reliving its highly memorable yet disturbing moments while holding onto the hope that people like Lee who have had they worlds turned upside down and badly shaken, can somehow find their way back to a life that has meaning, love and renewal.