Friday, December 23, 2011

For Whom the Bell Tours

There is a US American woman here who has made Antigua her business; her name is Elizabeth Bell. She runs a tourism agency, but primarily she sells walking tours and promotes her books on the city. Ron found out about her in our guidebook so we booked a 9:30am tour, giving us time to have breakfast beforehand.

We were to meet at the fountain in the central park, the place where Clara patrols. Of course, she spotted us immediately, but even if she hadn’t, all of her compatriots did shouting out a chorus of Clara, like tribal drums through the jungle. This is their own type of alarm system alerting them when a potential customer is returning. When you first suggest you may potentially buy at some time, though not the present, they tell you their name for future reference. What they need to include is “I will be your stalker for the rest of your time here.”

Elizabeth Bell showed up and assembled the group. She immediately corrected one person who stated she was an American. Elizabeth said that Guatemalans are also Americans, so those who need to should identify themselves as from the U.S. Although I agree with the comment, from the way it was delivered, I soon realized that this 3 hour tour was going to be really long. These tours really make me chuckle sometimes. Usually it is US Americans who start out by introducing themselves to everyone else around. Once they share their name, they want to know your name, country of origin, state if it is the US, what your occupation is, how many siblings you have, if you have any piercings, have your bowel movements been regular since being here. Based on their questioning, you would think we were doing 5 minute dating or deciding who gets the last life raft on the Titanic. Hey people, after this 3 hour tour, I am never going to see you again and no, I don’t want to friend you on Facebook.

Elizabeth moved here when she was fourteen years old and her father’s job took the family here. She has been here since and she is currently fifty-seven years old.

Elizabeth started this jolly holly tour by telling us that anyone caught cutting a tree, Christmas or otherwise from any forest would immediately be put in jail. Deforestation has ruined parts of the country so the laws have gone from fines to imprisonment. She continued with her monologue stating Christmas trees are not a Guatemalan tradition, nativity sets are. Christmas trees are tacky, especially the plastic ones. You won’t find many Christmas trees in the country, but you will see plenty of nativities. As I am staring at her while she speaks, I cannot help but notice the plastic Christmas tree decorated in the park about twenty yards behind her left side. All the stores and businesses with the exception of some restaurants will close early tomorrow, Christmas Eve.

In Guatemala, the major celebration is on the eve, not on the day.  As we hear from Bell, the churches will be jamming tonight, because many people who don’t set foot in church all year will attend Christmas mass. However, there is no midnight mass; 9pm is the latest. After mass, at midnight, the family has its Christmas dinner. After dinner they open presents and fireworks are ubiquitous. We were warned not to plan on getting much sleep for the noise. Christmas day is a relaxed kick back day. Santa Claus doesn’t come either, but the Santas you see around town will deliver presents for a fee. You hire a Santa to deliver a present and all the money the Santas earn go to charitable organizations. They volunteer their Santa time.
Once we were off and walking, the first place was the mayor’s chambers on the main square. There was an election and new people will take office in February. The president is only allowed to run for one term. As each person leaves their post, they take everything with them. The last major shredded all of the documents that accumulated during his administration. Leave no paper trail, seems to be business as usual.

We went to the new and old cathedrals, places where we had been on our own, but was now getting some input that we had not had. The new cathedral is earthquake proof, which the old one was not. This also referred to all of the buildings in the city. None of them are over 2 floors high and this is an earthquake measure. Their walls are extra thick and being so low, they cannot fall over. While in the church someone in the group asked why there was no baby in the crèche. Elizabeth explained that he does not get put in until Christmas mass which is on the eve, not the day. 

Another observation I had made was that there are no signs sticking out from buildings. The only identification of a business is on the front usually over the entrance. Until you get that close, you have no idea where the business happens to be. They have a sign ordinance here forbidding signage. The lack of flashing signs is surprisingly pleasant and attractive. Most of the stores do not have display windows either. Those that do, they are covered by bars with a shelf inside the bars, so they fill it with plants, not merchandise.

One woman on the tour was taking copious notes of everything Elizabeth said. I asked her if she were researching a novel, but she is a journalist with a small town newspaper. She kept stopping Elizabeth asking her to repeat things so they could be notated. From the pages of notes she had, she could have filled the NY Times travel section. Another woman had hurt her foot, so was hobbling around. Ron became her crutch going up and down stairs.
Elizabeth has been involved in a number of civic matters, both in reconstruction of historic buildings and social rights for women, education, and assorted other services. School is free, but books are not. They have to be bought from the beginning, so many children drop out of school after the fourth grade, luckier ones last until sixth grade. Her goal is to support the purchase of books so that more students can graduate high school. University is not free, but low cost, but again all expenses are a burden of the student.

The tour ended at one of the jade museums, where we heard about jade and learned there is a translucent and blue jade. The blue jade is quite lovely.

After the tour, we went to meet Clara in the park to buy the placemats and napkins we had promised to buy. I was not thrilled with the quality, but they were cheap enough not to squabble. After we told Clara our wallets were now closed for repairs, we just chatted. She was telling us that she sells things so her daughter can finish high school and then go on to college. She said once her daughter finishes college, she will quit. I had finished the The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, so we brought it back to her for her daughter who also speaks English. She was thrilled. She may sell or she may keep it, but it is her business that she needs to do what she needs to do.

We had a late lunch so came back to the hotel to gather our things for part 2 of going to the bank for cash. Everything will be closed Christmas day and we leave then for our next port o’ call, which Ron has warned is even lower key than here. Can I handle all of this rest and relaxation without running off to a museum or some other cultural event? With cash in pocket, we went back to the hotel to rest. Later this evening we were on our way out the front door when another guest stopped us to tell us to be careful. She was just robbed a few doors down from the hotel. She is a petit woman, young and alone; her name is Chen. As she was calling her bank, she shared that she was just returning to the hotel when a guy with a gun robbed her of her purse. She tried to just giving him the wallet, but he wanted it all. He had an accomplice on a motor scooter that whisked him away. With that paranoia, we only ventured to the church where little old ladies sell tostadas and tamales in the evenings. We had tamales, went for a beer, and returned to the hotel. We made a point to run into Chen to see if she needed money, but she has wisely left the bulk of her money here. There was no rendition of O Holy Night as the police said she will never recover her things. Merry Christmas, ho, ho, ho!
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