El Dia de Todos Santos – Santiago, Guatemala

El Dia de Todos Santos
Santiago, Guatemala

Oh when the Saints
Come crawling in
I’ll kick them in their rotten nuts
Oh how I’d love to be armed with a shotgun
And tell the Saints to kiss my butt

The bus driver was drunk, but I felt good. I was wedged in the back seat of a chicken bus with one arm around a pretty blond who wore sunglasses, Swiss braids and a blue bandana. With my other hand I pressed La Prensa Libre against the seat back in front of us. We giggled over the Spanish translations of Garfield and Igor, waiting for the bus to start.

It was about 930 a.m. on El Dia de Todos Santos, one of the biggest fiestas of the year. To solve the admittedly vexing problem of a drunken driver – not hung over, mind you, but still drunk – the bus company opted to sober him up with strong instant coffee and fruit salad. It stood to reason since the other drivers were likely drunker still.

Belching a cloud of diesel fumes, the bus lurched forward, jostling over the cobblestones. I was leaning against the rear door, which sprung open when the driver ignored the speed bumps at the edge of town. Beginning to fall, I clutched desperately at the seat. My pretty German girl grabbed my wrist and pulled me into her arms. “Christ,” I muttered, watching the joke news flutter out the open door and wrap itself around the trunk of a roadside avocado tree. The rest of the trip, I kept one arm around the girl and held the broken door closed with the other.

Making a five point turn in the middle of a four-lane highway, the bus pulled into a gas station to refuel. I watched the driver puke behind the ramshackle outhouse, the poor bastard.

Back on the road, we crawled through almost impenetrable traffic as we neared Santiago. We were headed for a graveyard to watch the giant kites and enjoy the mayhem. The bus parted the sea of tostada and corn vendors, impromptu beer men, and Mayan kitsch magnates like a buffalo running through tall grass. Just before we began to plow women and children under the bus, the driver thought it a good time to stop. We threw the back door open like people buried alive. Men swung down the ladders like firemen, held the women by the hips as they jumped to the street.

We milled through the throng, clutching purses and wallets, deflecting the entreaties of an endless procession of salesmen, charlatans and would-be friends, pushing our way to the graveyard. Stopping along the way in a private house, we paid a quetzal each to use the filthy bathroom. To flush, you dip a bucket into a 55 gallon drum of water and splash the water into the churning pot.

Though I’m lacquered in sunscreen and wearing shades and a ballcap, the sun is shouting in my face like an angry school teacher. Most of the locals are pretty short; I’m grateful that I can see over the cacophony of undulating black heads. But I can’t move, I’m hungry, sweaty, hot and starting to get pissed off.

But at the side of the road a woman is selling delicious ears of grilled corn. Forgetting my troubles, fighting the current, I float across the street on the sweet smoky scent of burning corn like a cartoon mouse on a trail of limberger. Forking over three quetzales, a greedy smile spread across my face as I accepted the hot ear of a corn, served on a single sheet of husk with a wedge of lime and a pile of sea salt.

Rejoining my friends, I resume climbing toward the graveyard. Perreo, merengue, salsa and John Cougar Mellencamp pound the air like the president’s helicopter. On stage, two nearly naked teenage girls grind their hips beautifully but sing like confused hens. I watch for a while, happily munching my corn.

We’re nearly at the graveyard and start to get swept along in the avalanche of people thundering into a narrow canyon. People press against me from all sides. I can barely move. And suddenly, I can’t move at all. “What the fuck,” I think, flailing my arms like a man in a straight jacket. Then I feel the sickening lightening of my right front pocket. My fucking wallet. I look murderously to the left and right. On either side of me, a thick Mayan guy pins my arm to my side like a captured pigeon. To my surprise, the thief, a squat 50-year old Mayan woman, runs forward past me. I lunge for her but we are already a few yards apart and I can’t penetrate the crowd. Everyone seems to be in on the heist.

“Bernt! Grab her!” I yell to my friend, dropping my corn and thrusting heads out of my path. He gets an armful of her handmade blouse and holds her as she thrashes like a hooked catfish. I fight through the still thickening crowd, face contorted, bald head sweating and dark red. Just before I get to her, she drops my wallet from under a cloth she wears wound around both hands like a muff. Goddamn wallet was a gift from my best friend. Two grimy, barefooted urchins appear from nowhere, dodging around people and between legs, snatch my wallet from the ground and disappear into the surging throng. I know it’s over.

“Give me back my wallet,” I shout at the woman in Spanish.
“No hablo espa�ol, se�or.”
“Bullshit. Give me my wallet you goddamned thief.”
“Por favor, se�or, no hablo espa�ol.” She starts to sob. Fat tears stream down her fat dirty face.
“Go to hell, se�ora.” Unclenching my fists, I push her away in disgust.
“For fuck’s sake, this sucks,” I grumble. Never trust a woman’s tears. Or a dog with its tail between its legs.

So I’m broke. I try to make the best of it. A Canadian water engineer buys me a beer. I share an ice cream with my German girl.

Attempting to Help Fly a Kite
Attempting to Help Fly a Kite
Looking up from the ice cream, I see that we’ve reached the graveyard. A dozen enormous kites hang perilously in the baking white sky. They are circular and thirty feet across, painted construction paper stretched across bamboo frames, patched with newspaper and homemade glue. Each sports a towering pennant at noon, usually the blue white and blue Guatemalan flag, and a long tail of garbage bags tied together like bedsheets to escape this madhouse. Groups of men and teenage boys man the thick kite strings. On the ground are yet bigger kites, 60 feet across, awaiting a stiffer breeze. One advertises the benefits of physical education. Its neighbor promotes Payasos, the national brand of smokes. The grand daddy of them all protests violence against women. Each is a mesmerizing pattern of bright colors that will tumble and swirl in the sky like a kaleidoscope.

From time to time, the strings of two thirty-footers become ensnared and kites crash to earth with surprising speed, a meteor shower of giant gobstoppers. Like friendly ants, boys flit over the rocky hillside, hopping over gravestones, dodging soda stands, to retrieve and mend the kites. They’re airborne again within 15 minutes.

Every grave appears to be freshly dug. Mounds of newly turned earth hide bodies in shallow graves. Driving a spade once, you would crack a collarbone or hip. The Guatemalans are unconcerned. A two-year old girl lays face down on a warm burial mound, happily licking a filthy popsicle she has just flavored with dirt. Her parents point and laugh. Domino’s Pizza men buzz through the graveyard like mosquitoes, dragging their dirty shoes and tired legs over trampled flowers and flattened burial mounds. An ice cream man wheels his cold, heavy cart over graves, halting atop a mound to sell a frozen chocolate banana.

My friends are perched on a green, split-level mausoleum, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes, imitating the locals. We are mostly Germans and Americans, with a gay Irishman and a haughty Canadian thrown in for good measure. We are surprised at how quickly we overcome our idea of respect for the dead and adopt the Guatemalan custom. It’s more fun to drink beer than to cry, especially when they ain’t your relatives.

A bit later, an old woman, her daughter and granddaughter arrive to pay their respects to the husband and two brothers buried in the mausoleum we’re sitting on. They are unphased, even friendly. They hand up bleach bottles filled with water and motion for us to clean off the roof. We do. They affix wreathes of flowers to the front and back of the tomb. Once the roof is clean, they hand up bags of long soft pine needles, which we spread across the roof. Next they send up a bag of red rose petals, which we sprinkle over the pine needles. It looks and smells goddamned beautiful. Once we’ve finished, they smile at us happily. The old man, a sociology professor, died of cancer; the brothers in a motorcycle accident. We have moved to the roof of the neighboring mausoleum, but they insist that we resume drinking on their roof. They smile and clap when we move back. The daughter accepts a beer, which she opens with a giggle and raises to us in a toast.

Two dogs run by, stopping occasionally to tear at a baby diaper they have rooted from the trash. People are pissing everywhere, good naturedly. I am still mad about my wallet. Cracking a new beer, I hunch in the shadow of a looted mausoleum, piss on a fresh grave, and feel that all is forgiven.


I am a reformed Philadelphia lawyer who surrendered his briefcase for a duffelbag last October. I’ve been traveling, picking up Spanish and enjoying life in Central America, though I miss my four brothers, my cat and my squash racquet most terribly.

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