Saturday, July 4, 2020


Moab, UT

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    Leaving Guatemala, Part 3: Sudden departure came with painful goodbyes

    Peace Corps volunteer hustles to pack up

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    Upon learning the timeline for our evacuation had been shifted forward by 24 hours, I quit packing and left my room to find Mama Chana, the 76-year-old grandmother I had lived with for most of my time in Guatemala.

    Nat Smith and Mama Chana
    Mama Chana with her tenant, author Nathaniel Smith. Courtesy photos

    Our consolidation point was a hotel in Xela, Guatemala’s second-largest city that was about two hours away by bus. Fortunately, two of Mama Chana’s sons ran the local bus company, so transportation wasn’t a worry. Saying goodbye to Mama Chana was, however.

    I hustled upstairs to the courtyard separating the kitchen from the rest of the house. Dulce, the teenage maid who was the third and only other resident of the house, stirred something atop the wood-fire stove in the kitchen. She told me Mama Chana had made her weekly trip to Xela and would return later in the afternoon. Surprise crossed her face when she noticed how poorly I received such innocuous news. I left to resume my frantic packing, hoping Mama Chana would return soon.

    Vinicio and the author play defense during a basketball game.

    Most of Mama Chana’s seven children lived in Xela, but they visited frequently. Weekends, holidays, or special occasions transformed the household into a bustling hub of activity. An extended multi-generational family, hired help, and one often overwhelmed Peace Corps volunteer under one roof — now it was eerily silent.

    Walking through the quiet house, I thought of the lively energy there during feria months earlier. Every town in Guatemala has an annual feria, the date based on the town’s patron saint. Over the course of a few days, feria brought a rickety Ferris wheel and other rides, carnival games, food stalls, fireworks, parades, and a stoppage of most work for the better part of a week.

    My town has a unique feria tradition. Men donned wooden masks and numerous layers of sweatshirts and ponchos then proceeded to hit each other with whips as they danced around the town square. I was not inclined to participate.

    One of the many colorful repurposed school buses that constitute a large portion of Guatemala’s public transportation.
    Photo by Nathaniel Smith

    Every evening, a stage in the town square brought people to dance to marimba music deep into the night. One night, Dulce asked me to dance. Happy for an excuse to quit lurking on the sidelines, I accepted. After one song, she went off with a boy closer to her own age, leaving me wondering if I had been used to stir up some jealousy. The next morning at breakfast with the whole family, someone announced they had seen me dancing with the maid. I stammered something about it being nice while Dulce became focused on washing the dishes.

    The family is well known around the small town. When I mentioned I lived with Mama Chana, people often asked if that was difficult, given that she didn’t speak Spanish. It was true Mama Chana preferred speaking her native language, K’iche, one of the many Mayan tongues still commonly used in Guatemala. However, I’m not sure where the rumor started because she was fluent in Spanish, as well. I always imagined if she ran into someone she didn’t want to talk to, her Spanish might conveniently disappear.

    I spent two hours each week taking K’iche classes, with impressing Mama Chana as a primary motivator. I hadn’t progressed past greetings, farm animals, and counting to 10, but it felt worth it. Whenever I used K’iche to say good afternoon or point out a dog (usually butchering the pronunciation), I was met with enthusiasm and a barrage of new words I couldn’t hope to remember.

    Wistfully, I began taking down the few decorations from the lime green and mustard yellow walls of my room. I reached for a wooden placard in the shape of Guatemala that I was given for Christmas. Xela was written large across it. Pinned below the lettering was a small doll adorned in the multicolored skirt, blouse, and belt that is the traditional clothing of Mayan women.

    When I told Mama Chana my parents would visit for the holidays, she was elated. She insisted they stay at the house rather than one of the town’s two hotels. On Christmas Eve, we stayed up until midnight when we would finally be allowed to eat the tamales. Guatemala’s signature dish, tamales are a slow-cooked mixture of rice, meat, peppers and sauce, which is then wrapped in a banana leaf.

    Before the tamales came the present exchange. Everyone took turns giving a gift to a person whose name they had drawn out of a hat. As it was starting, one of Mama Chana’s daughters approached me with a gift. She instructed me to give it to one of the granddaughters who was studying to be a lawyer. After she unwrapped the elegant scarf that I handed her, she gave me the placard I now removed and stuffed into a suitcase.

    Looking down at my basketball shoes, I decided there wasn’t room for them. I realized I no longer had time to see Vinicio, as originally planned. Vinicio is an the elementary school teacher, cable guy, and, most importantly, captain of our basketball team. While helping with a school garden, Vinicio had noticed me towering over the kids. After introducing himself, his first question was if I played basketball. We played one-on-one the next day and he invited me to join his team. Nearly every weekend for the months since then, I traveled with Vinicio to play in Xela.

    Though we played on outdoor cement courts, the competition was serious. Some towns paid players by the game to increase the chances they would bring home the trophy. Vinicio liked to brag we were a team of friends. Despite being the worst player on our squad, Vinicio was undoubtedly the most passionate. Our post-game meal was usually street tacos or hot dogs and scalding instant coffee. When we beat an especially tough team, Vinicio celebrated by buying a cake. Driving home, Vinicio liked to talk about traveling. He asked me for advice about getting a visa so he could fulfill his dream of going to L.A. and seeing the Clippers play.

    About a week before the evacuation, I went to a going-away party for one of my teammates. Coincidentally, he planned to move with his wife and children to northern Utah. His brother worked as a house painter there, and he hoped to do the same. His 12-year-old son didn’t speak much English, but he already had a Utah Jazz hat.

    For the party, Vinicio took us to a fish restaurant outside of town. A 45-minute drive on a dead-end dirt road took us deep into the forest. We walked down a hill where the trees gave way to a valley with several square ponds. We ate in the shade and watched the relatives of our meal swim circles in the murky water. I told my teammate to reach out when he made it to Utah, never guessing that COVID-19 would keep him in Guatemala and force me back to Moab.

    Mama Chana got home shortly before the van arrived to take me away. Seeing a few droplets roll from her cloudy eyes down her wrinkled cheeks made me cry for the first time.

    Read Part 4 in next week’s edition of The Times-Independent.

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