A Few Moments

‘So what’s it like?’

How to describe half a continent? How to sum up five months away? 

Let’s start with some small things. 

If Europe is distinguished by its cultural variety, by cheese and wine, cosmopolitan cities, and oodles of old buildings, then Central America is characterised by what its countries share culturally, by beans and rice, hectic dangerous cities, and scattered historical remnants of Spanish colonisation. 

But that doesn’t really help, does it? 

So let’s take a few moments. 

 To my left is a moustachioed middle-aged man wearing a white sombrero. His skin is tanned and leathery, like his boots. To my right is a plump old lady, whose sizable behind is taking up far more than its fair share of the seat. The seat itself is designed for two small North American bottoms; our ride is a recycled US school bus which has seen better days. A rosary attached to the mirror swings violently from side to side as the bus winds its way along a snaking mountain road. Above the mirror stickers of Ché and the Virgin Mary compete for space with posters of semi-naked girls and motorbikes, whilst the list of behavioural rules from the bus’ past life peeps out from behind. ‘Keep head, arms and feet inside the vehicle at all times.’ Useful advice. Despite the bus’ resemblance to a tin of sardines (or, to use a more apt metaphor, a Guatemalan bar on a Sunday), men and women selling slivers of mango and watermelon, packs of bread, peanuts and chewing gum, cold drinks and ice creams, still bump and batter their way through the packed aisle to make a quetzal or two. The man in front of me mops his forehead with a scarf. A boy at the back bangs on the ceiling of the bus to get it to stop, heaves a sack of vegetables out the rear door and slams it shut again. And we’re off. 


The usual bottle of picante – hot sauce – is missing. In its place is a small bowl of a home-made equivalent; diced onion, tomato, coriander, chilli, and probably some lime juice too. We can tell it’s going to be a good meal. In the corner a father, son and grandfather meal out has devolved into a man vs. meat mission; their churrasco – barbecue – boasts all the varieties of red meat Guatemalans care to cook, and looks like enough protein to fuel Godzilla. The TV is on, as always; scenes of horrific traffic accidents, and gurneys of blanket-covered corpses, flicker across the screen. Well, I muse, at least it’s not a telenovela. An inquisitive fly buzzes around the sauce. The waiter brings over our tortillas; swaddled in a patterned tea-towel, and cradled in a woven basket. Moses himself might have agreed that ‘Jesus es el pan de vida’ (Jesus is the bread of life); but all Latinos know that it’s really the humble tortilla that embodies their saviour.


The market has spread like an octopus’ tentacles through the streets of Santa Cruz del Quiché. Knobbly cucumbers are piled next to lumpy tomatoes. Mountains of cheap flip-flops mingle with fake DVDs of the latest gory blockbuster release. Tarpaulin is draped from building to building, throwing the street vendors’ faces into shade. In places, it has drooped so low that everyone has to duck to get by. At the beating heart of this commercial cephalopod is the town plaza, where watermelons are piled high and rows of greasy cabinets of fried chicken lure in passers-by. The church is bedecked in purple flags for Semana Santa and the ubiquitous ice cream vendor wheels his trolley about, ringing a little bell. Families stroll around, colonise benches, chase after toddlers gone astray, sit on the church steps, nibble corn-on-the-cob. Sunday is their only day off. 



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