This Just Blew My Mind

Not an April Fools thing. Just me flying my geek flag.

When I grow up, I want to be a scientist.

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The Comedor Martita in Todos Santos - 10.31.06

From our hotel balcony we watch the ferris wheels as the sun slowly burns off the morning fog. Our plan is to walk past the jail and descend to the plaza to explore the market and carnival booths that have gathered at the feet of the ferris wheel. But before we start exploring, we stop in at the Comedor Martita for a bit of breakfast.


The door opens into the kitchen, where three women are minding the stove and chatting and cutting up dead chickens. They look up from their work just long enough to nod towards another doorway in the back of the kitchen. We step through to find a grim balcony where a few tables have been set up. We settle into a corner table by the railing.

The balcony overlooks the valley and the town. Immediately below us is a small plot of corn. Around the plot, concrete houses are huddled. From their roofs small spikes of rebar stand at attention, ready to serve as the foundation for the next level of the house when it is time to build again.


Dawn has fully arrived and the clouds are high, just skimming the mountaintops, and so the sky is bright. At times, the sun even breaks through to stew the valley into a sweaty fever.

Still the balcony remains dark, nestlike. The morning light is blocked by drying clothes hanging from the rafters. The balcony is made of dark, hefty planks, and the warm weight of the wood brings a comforting sense of stability.


*****

Seven chicks and a hen skitter about on the balcony floor, searching for scraps. The hen leads them out of the balcony, hopping over a small concrete ledge. The brood slowly files out of the room behind her. All of them except one, the scrawniest, who can’t make the jump no matter how desperately she flaps her nearly featherless wings. She chirps forlornly a few times before returning to search for food under the other tables. There she leaves her pale liquid droppings.

*****

Breakfast arrives: fried chicken, scrambled eggs, black beans, tortillas. The chicken is good, and the eggs are amazing, smoky and rich. We eat in silence while watching the valley, the scrawny chick, and the two cooks who have come out to the balcony to peel vegetables for lunch. They watch us from the corner of their eyes and gossip about us in Mam.

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The Ferris Wheels in Todos Santos - 10.31.06

The jail sits at the end of our street. The jail has two cells, which today are empty, and through the two bar-covered metal doors you can see the two latrines and two rusty beds that await new inmates.

Curiously, the jail has a charming location above the central plaza. A quaint cobblestone road climbs the hill from the plaza to the jail and beyond. The road is quite steep – to the point that in the rain, when the dust on the road turns to mud, it is nearly impossible to walk uphill. Every step towards the jail is undermined by an equivalent slide towards the plaza.

In the rain, then, the inmates are entertained by their neighbors’ Sisyphean struggles. On clear days, the inmates are greeted by a delightful view of the valley, the town center and, these days, the ferris wheels.

Video: They go much faster than this, promise.
video

There are two ferris wheels in town for the Day of the Dead festivities. They look normal enough, but they don’t act like any ferris wheels I know. The ferris wheels I know are designed to provide patrons with a relaxing view of the surrounds. Guatemalan ferris wheels, in contrast, are built for a different purpose: speed.

Three times as fast, that’s my estimate. The ferris wheels in Todos Santos are three times as fast as any I’ve seen in America.

There is a sonic component to these wheels, starting with staccato laughs of nervous anticipation as new riders slowly take their places. Those laughs strengthen into squeals of delight as the fully loaded wheel begins to move in earnest. As the wheel finds its pace, the squeals lower into throaty bawls of concern. At top speed, the wheel is cloaked in the silence of utter despair, which is punctuated only by the hopeless wail of the two or three women who have managed to catch their breath.

Finally, after several minutes, the wheel slows and then stops. And then the wheel starts moving backward. Riders’ screams echo from the hillsides.

I can also report, based on the sworn testimony of survivors, that while riders are held in place by a safety bar, the bar is locked into place by nothing more than a bent, rusty nail.

We do not ride the ferris wheels in Todos Santos. I choose to see this as a sign of my emerging sense of prudence, rather than another notch on my belt of cowardice.

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Marie and Benedice - 11.20.06

Another Guatemala post I've been working on over the last year...

My host family this week includes 2 granddaughters: Marie, age 4, and Benedice, age 5. Technically, the girls live next door, but they always join me when I come for meals at their grandmother's house. Every morning, they sit next to me as I eat my beans and eggs and tortillas. They’ve finished their breakfast long before I'm awake and so they just watch as I eat.

If there’s one thing kids like, it’s being chased, and Marie and Benedice spend a good deal of energy each morning devising ways to get me to off my duff. They whisper secret plans to each other, giggling their fool heads off.

In the end, they always come up with the same plan. The plan is this: Benedice distracts me with a question while Marie circles around to tickle me from behind. That's it. Every morning.

It works every time....

I defend myself like a wounded coyote, leaping from my stool and lunging at my Marie with teeth bared. Ah, but this leaves my back exposed to Benedice, who pounces on me like a mountain lion. There is a melee, and much chasing about the house, the girls doing their best to stay ahead of me but still close enough to feel threatened. I do my best to give a good chase without destroying my knees on the concrete floor.

Then Grandma peeks her head inside and gives us the stink eye. We slink back to the table.

I have a few moments of peace to eat until Grandma steps out of the house again, and the girls start to giggle, and whisper their secrets, and Benedice asks another question.

*****

After breakfast we always pause to read a book, and that book is always Where The Wild Things Are. The girls fight each other for the right to turn the pages.

When the last page arrives, the girls rush outside. I follow slowly behind, conserving my energy for the game of tag ahead.

*****

(Video: Nicole joins our game of tag)
video

You might think I could fairly well dominate a game of tag against a couple of preschoolers, but we're surprisingly evenly matched. For one thing, they know the terrain – the slick spots in the packed earth, the branches that must hurtled. They also fit easily under the lines of wet clothes that are steaming in the morning sun – lines that threaten to decapitate me at every turn. Finally, they are protected by their puppies, Rocky and Paulusa, who snip at my heels whenever I come near to their posts.

We have to dodge all these obstacles as we race through the fenced in yard. We also have to dodge Great Grandma when she shuffles outside to hang clothes on the lines, or to visit the latrine, which sits in the back of the lot in a shrouded by black plastic tarps and sheets of rusty tin.


*****

One morning, I ask my host Grandma about her mother. She responds with a snort, “That bitch? She’s a horrible person. She used to hit me and my sisters, yank on our ears, say all kind of bad things about us. Even now I have to keep the girls away from her so she doesn’t hurt them.”

But Grandma never questions her obligation to care for her mother, and so Great Grandma remains an obstacle as I chase Marie and Benedice. She shuffles slowly through the yard, the eye of our hurricane, sliding her left foot forward 10 inches or so, and then, leaning on a stick, she drags her right foot even.

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The Todos Santos Horse Race - 11.1.06

Looking back on the Todos Santos horse race – by far one of the most notable events during my time in Guatemala – I still waffle between being completely amused by it and extremely saddened.

After more than a year, I’ve finally given up on trying to resolve those two sentiments. With that behind me, I was able to patch up the essay I wrote about that day.

(Check out the video I took of the crazy spectacle.)

video

*****

The night before the race, the riders were gathered for the feast at the Captain’s house....



...Outside the house, friends and family members stumbled about in the dark street, dancing to the beat of marimba music. Everyone involved in the festivities was drunk. I mean drunk. Slippy slappy, soup-sandwich, sing-a-song-sally drunk. Deeeeeeee-runk.

A sizable crowd of mostly-sober spectators formed a ring around the dancers. They watched somberly as the revelers explored the outer reaches of intoxication. The bystanders were as stone-faced as statues; it was impossible to tell what they thought of the two teenage boys who were trying desperately, and unsuccessfully, to locate and then fight each other. Nor was it clear how they viewed the man who relieved himself in the middle of the circle or the mother who toddled about between the fighters and dancers, holding a liter bottle of Gallo.

The mother squawked when a small posse of male relatives entered the circle to pull her away from the music. The crowd parted calmly for her departure, and watched silently as she fell in the street and threw a tantrum, waving a bottle at her captors.

The marimba players were tucked against the side of the house under the thin light of a single bulb. They calmly proceeded through a series of songs that I couldn't distinguish. The rails of a wooden fence protected them from the flailings of the dancers.

Just to their right, Civil Patrol officers guarded the house and the team of riders. They weren’t drunk yet, but they had a bottle of moonshine sitting by their feet, ready to open the moment their shift was over.

*****

The early morning air was tart as we strolled towards the race on a street, which degraded into a track, which dwindled into a path, which wound through back yards, next to chicken coops, and under clotheslines.

The locals we encountered laughed at how lost we were, but kindly pointed the way down into he next gully and the way up the other side.

Against my better judgment, I was wearing the traditional red pants of the Todos Santos men which Nicole has somehow convinced me to buy. Despite my disguise, the locals still deduced that I was a foreigner.



We arrived at the track a half an hour early. Almost no one else was there. Not the riders, not the crowd. Just a handful of race coordinators trying to figure out how to swing the log that would let riders on and off the course. As we waited for the town to arrive I helped a man build a small fence to keep the crowd from walking all over his land.

By 8:05 a dozen or so of the riders were ready to go, and that, apparently, was good enough. Somebody started blowing a whistle, a few of the riders started screaming, the wooden gate was lowered, and 14 exceptionally drunk men hurtled down the road, jackhammering their manhood into the backs of their terrified steeds.



Miraculously, the first sprint down the road didn’t produce any fatalities, but on the run back to the starting log, we witnessed the first fall of the day. A few spectators rushed to help the fallen man, about whom three things were apparent: First, he had escaped without injury. Second, he had never before been on a horse, and would never be on one again. Third, he had absolutely no concept of who he was, or what was going on, or what the hell all the yelling was about, or why he wasn’t being allowed to just lie there and sleep.

My favorite rider was a man who lost his shoe in the tumble. He was clearly the drunkest rider, so for the rest of the day we referred to him as Ol’ Drunky. He needed a team of rescuers to heave him back on his incredibly patient pony. His rescuers parked him near a fence so that he could hold onto it for dear life while an assistant put his shoe back on.


Another favorite was Ol’ No Hands, so named for his insatiable desire to ride without holding on to the rains. He was easy to pick out of the crowd because he shrilled a high-pitched ‘oy!’ every time he reencountered the saddle.

There was also Ol’ Over, a man who somehow found a way - within his first 4 seconds on the course - to bounce FORWARD out of the saddle until he was straddling the neck of his poor horse, who was so embarrassed that she simply stopped running. She stood there in the middle of the course, crimson with shame, until bystanders returned her rider to the saddle.

Ol’ Whippy wasn’t a rider, but he sure helped out by whipping all the horses at the start of their sprint to make sure that they were hustling. The only time I saw him abandon this vital task was when he turned to whip a nearby young man who was selling cotton candy to some children.

Other riders slowly joined the fray, but there were never more than 25 riders on the track at one time. Some quit entirely after the first couple of runs, while others took frequent breaks.



*****

We left the race after two hours. It was no longer a novelty to be surrounded by a sea of drunks. Plus, we had heard that no buses would be running the next day and we wanted to be on our way to San Cristobal.

On our way back to the hotel, we wound thru crowds of drunk boys fighting each other in the streets. Passed out men are everywhere – some collapsed in doorways, others in the street. Some had family members or friends sitting nearby, watching over them.

*****

No chicken buses were coming through town, so we jumped a microbus to Tres Calles and then hitched a ride with a family to Huehuetenango. Along the way, some boys pointed out where a delivery truck had slid off the road and plummeted into the valley. You could see the frame still stuck in the trees.

I asked the boys what had happened and they said the driver simply took the corner too fast. He was killed in the wreck.


*****

The next day, we caught a bus north toward the Mexican border. We rode along the banks of a river in a steep ravine. Above the road, I saw a corn field on an incline of at least 45% judging from the angle of the trees.

*****

For more photos from Todos Santos check out this Flickr set.


MORE DETAILS REGARDING THE RACE

History. When the Spanish arrived in the new world, they brought civilization, genocide, disease, Christianity, and horses. Their horses gave them a distinct strategic advantage over the local armies. The Spanish certainly didn’t want to surrender this advantage, so for 300 years they prohibited the villagers of Todos Santos from having anything to do with the animals. They couldn’t touch them, much less ride them.

Then, 200 years ago, the men of Todos Santos hosted a race to demonstrate that they were willing and able to ride horses. Every year since, during the All Saint’s festival, hundreds of men from the village have demonstrated their bravery and their defiance of outsiders by riding horses.

The Race is Not a Race. The riders aren’t racing per se. They’re just galloping their horses back and forth on a 300-meter stretch of dirt road for 7 hours. It’s like an unending drag race, except there’s not even a clear starting time. Instead, once most of the riders have reached one side of the course, one rider – almost certainly, the drunkest – gives a whoop and takes off in the opposite direction. The others follow… or don’t.

And there are no winners because the race is just a symbolic battle against outside influence, rather than an actual competition.

The Meaning is Not the Meaning. In theory, by partaking in the race the men of Todos Santos are proudly defying colonial influence. But in reality, the race is now just an excuse to get schnookered and impress the neighbors. It’s sort of like what has happened with Christmas in America. For quite some time it was a very reverent event. Now, for many people, it’s just about presents.

Hertz for Horses. They don’t have many horses in the valley, so they rent them. This adds to the us/them symbolism, as each local rider has his own, personal, outsider to master. Here’s what I found interesting: in the rental contract, if the horse dies or is injured while not being raced, the rider is held responsible. Seems right. But get this, if the horse dies DURING the race, the rider is NOT held responsible. The equivalent of this is as follows: I rent a convertible and am held liable for damages to the car while parking and filling up with gas, but not for any damages that occur while participating in a smashup derby. Of course, the price for such a completely stupid contract is incredibly high. Riders often pay 2,000 Quetzales to rent such horses. In comparison, 80% of the Guatemalan population lives on less than 5,600 Quetzales per year.

Oh Captain, My Captain. There are no winners, but that doesn’t stop the locals from forming teams. Each team consists of
• a Captain
• a 2nd Captain
• 2 Lieutenants called – for some reason - the 1st and 2nd monkey
• Anywhere from 5 to 15 plain riders.
The forming of teams seems to be an exercise in social politics. There are captains who are well respected and have a lot of sway locally. Riders rush to join their teams for prestige and schmoozing opportunities. Meanwhile the other, less popular, captains are seeking to improve their social standing by using cash to build a network and accumulate prestige.

It’s the Economy, Stupid. By the time the festival is over, a captain may very well have spent over 15,000 Q to support his team. Again, 80% of Guatemalans live on 5,600 per year. The price is so high that now only the wealthy villagers and those who have relatives in the US have the funds to participate. As a result, the number of riders has plummeted. Previously there were hundreds of riders in each race. This year, there were 54 riders.

Alcohol: The Cause of - and Solution to - All of Life’s Problems. The night before the race, the team gathers at the Captain’s house for a feast where they get drunk. They riders drink because they know that they may well die in the race tomorrow. Of course, the only reason they would ever die is if they got so drunk that they fell out of the saddle and were trampled. (Smacking of forehead.)

The Morning of the Race. At 5am, after a sleepless night, the riders are assigned their horses and off they go with their noble steed to share one last meal with their families. At home they drink more. And then the family helps them get dressed.

The Value of a Man. You might think this is incalculable, but it’s not. During the race, one dead rider = one good year of crops.

Nice Sash. Each rider wears his traditional uniform plus a red sash to symbolize the energy in their blood and a plumbed hat with streamers that symbolizes the quetzal bird.

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