A Short Story: Reading Time – 10 minutes
Every year, the city of Antigua,Guatemala, holds El Festival Paiz. Dance, theatre and music companies perform on out-door stages with ancient ruins as their backdrop. The musical, Ain’t Misbehavin’, was representing New York City. It had been adapted for the setting and included two more actors. Although it would only be a single performance, I was happy to have some of the best songs to sing, especially since it was a rare opportunity to play Nell Carter’s role; this was obviously a non-traditional production. It would be a mere three days. What could possibly happen in only three days?
We landed in Guatemala City and as we stepped outside, we were smacked in the face with the backhand of humidity. It was like being exposed to radiation as it melted your skin away, layer by layer. Before the first layer was destroyed, however, we were cradled in the air-conditioned van that would transport us to Antigua.
The smell was familiar to me. I had inhaled it before, in another land. “They burn their garbage here. That’s what you’re smelling. It’s bad for the environment, though. Chemicals go into the air and seep into the land.”, said our director. That may have been true, but what I recognized went beyond burnt refuse. It was the scent of coffee beans mixed with earth and smoke. It was an aroma which transported me back to my first visit to the Caribbean. We had been on a long journey from Santiago to Santo Domingo when I had first encountered it. For years I had wished to remember that distinct scent of my mother’s home. That land, her land which produced coffee and tobacco. A land I would never truly know. Here it was, once again, engulfing my senses. I tried to see where it came from, my sight attempted to cut through to the source, but the shiny green leaves of the forest shielded my view.
We would be in Antigua for three days; arrival, performance, departure; but we had been invited to stay a week at a lake house with the director and her friends who ran the festival. It sounded nice to be on a lake in March. New York had been bitterly cold when we left. I was eager to feel the sun warm my skin.
After checking into our five star hotel, compliments of the festival, we were escorted to a Tango performance in a large open-air theatre. Antigua’s elite surrounded us. The passion dripped off the dancers and into the audience. It was captivating to feel a dance concert. I felt like a voyeur, watching as couple after couple made love on that stage.
It had not surprised us to find that the food was similar to that of Mexico. In fact, the food of Puerto Rico, Cuba and Dominican Republic is quite similar with few variants. What we had not realized at the time was that we had been taken to a Mexican restaurant. Frida’s, felt as comfortable as your local pub or in my case, my corner pizzeria. It was welcoming and bubbling with vivacious diners.
It was two in the morning when we trickled out of Frida’s. As I waited outside for the rest of our group, my gaze fell upon a four year old boy. “What are you doing out so late?”, I asked him in Spanish. “Working.”, he replied. “What do you do for work?”, I inquired. “I guard the cars. If someone tries to steal one of my client’s cars, I run into the restaurant and get them.”, said the boy with his broad toothless grin. At that moment, a handsome exotic man strutted out, flipped the boy a large coin and got into his Mercedes. “See?”, squealed the boy, proudly showing me his earnings as his smile grew to capacity. As we drove home, I spotted similar type boys awaiting their coins on every street.
The next morning, several of us poured out of our hotel and into the centre to absorb the local splendor. The main street was peppered with American shops such as Foot Locker, McDonald’s, Mail Boxes Etc, etc. I was grateful for the brilliant person who, long ago, had put a law into place, which forbade any variation from the traditional signs. In fact, I had not noticed McDonald’s until I was in front of it. Signs had to be about 2ft.x4ft. and could not protrude. It maintained the authenticity of the city. There are so many cities around the globe that are beginning to look like an American strip mall. Antigua kept its traditional charm.
Children were everywhere during the day. I began to notice that most were under the age of ten and they were always under the care of a grumpy elderly woman. “Where are the teens and adults?”, I wondered. Wherever we went, we were followed by the happiest children I have ever seen, all with outstretched hands hoping for a coin.
I wanted to take my boots off. Walking in them began to hurt my senses as I concluded that just one of my boots could feed them all for a year. I began to view my possessions as means to feed the hungry. These children were dirty, hungry, poverty-stricken yet beautiful and happy.
The children gleamed with their resplendent smiles. How could such happiness be borne of such poverty? What happens in between the age of ten and sixty? Does living in the shadow of unattainable wealth eventually erase the bliss of their childhood innocence? The elderly scowled up at us with their dagger-like hatred emanating from their eyes, while numerous smiling children bounced around them beaming at us with their warmth. I was entranced by their beauty. I had heard that Guatemala is the top South American country for adoptions. The reason was obvious. Through adoption, the children would have a chance to survive and perhaps that happiness would accompany them into adulthood. In Antigua, it seemed to get lost somewhere along the way.
We returned to our hotel as the heat became too hot to bear. The pool was a great relief; it made me realize how lucky I really was. I was not rich, but I had all I needed and some interesting experiences as well. It was 4pm when the sun drifted away from the pool. The cool mountain breeze was increasing so we too drifted away, inside.
The dress rehearsal managed to work out all the kinks, therefore we considered ourselves prepared for our single performance of that evening. It was a full house of the elite once again. It was beginning to cool down considerably, but the stage lights, the excitement and our choreography succeeded in keeping us warm. When we stopped at the hotel before dinner, however, the coldness had begun to seep into my skin. I threw on my leather coat, and still feeling a chill, I put on my fur hat and matching scarf as well. “Why is it so cold all of a sudden?”, I asked our director as I pulled on my gloves. “Antigua is surrounded by three volcanoes. It gets cold at night when you’re in the mountains.”, she explained. “Isn’t the lake house in the mountains?”, I asked. “Yes, it’s a bit higher up. You’ll love it. I go every year. We have barbecues and we…”. “Is there heat?”, I interrupted. “Well, during the day it’s warm and sunny.”, she said. “But, the lake house…is it heated?”, I insisted. “Well, no…but it’s fine. It doesn’t get that cold.”, she said trying to convince me as I stood there bundled up in fur and leather and still shivering.
Our five star hotel rooms did not have heat but were equipped with a fireplace, which we spent an hour trying to light. It was quite late, and although the reception had assured us that someone was on their way to help, after waiting for over an hour we fell asleep. No one ever came to assist. I woke up at 6am from the pain of arctic chill in my bones. I threw on layer upon layer and topped it off with my coat, hat, scarf and gloves, then went down to breakfast with my suitcase where the cast was meeting.
“OK, so who is going back to NY and who is going with us to the lake?”, asked our director. “I’m going back to NY, where it’s cold but there’s heat. I thought I was dying this morning, it was so cold! I’ve never been so cold! I thought we were by the equator. You should tell people next time. I don’t care if a place is cold. I walk all over NYC in the winter. But, I wasn’t prepared for this. Have a great time at the frozen lake. Maybe you can go ice-skating.”, I joked. “It really isn’t bad at all, you should come.”, she insisted. “Thank you for the invitation. I really do appreciate it. I’ve had a very interesting time but I believe I would be miserable if I have another cold night. I’m sure it’s lovely, but I’m not prepared and I would need to be. Thanks for everything and I’ll see you in the city.”
I got on the van with the others who were returning and as we neared Guatemala City, we unpeeled our multiple layers preparing for the tropical humidity shock once more. The scent from the first evening had dissipated into my memory. I gathered the few coins I had left and dispersed them amongst the beautiful children that greeted me at the airport. They had already learned to look sad when asking for coins.
I was moved by how quickly their innocent faces turned joyous. I wished to take them all with me, to protect them from whatever it is that would eventually permanently remove their smiles from their lips. Then it dawned on me. We may possibly be that element which causes such a drastic change. Our consumerism and greed influences them once they are no longer satisfied with the shimmer of a coin; once they realize how little they have and learn how much they could get; once they see fat tourists and know how they grew so large. Once upon a time, perhaps they remained happy with little food but lots of love; then, that was enough. Now, it is late and we have damaged them forever. Their only salvation comes from the childless mothers who want nothing more than to mend this breach.
I had not expected to feel such a change from such a short trip, but that is what travelling does. It adjusts your thinking. It expands your mind. Going to the lake is an experience that may have expanded my mind even further, but in reality, I knew that not being prepared for the cold would make me miserable, thus making everyone the same. It is not a choice I have ever regretted. I flew to Miami, where I called my event-modelling agent. “Yes, I’ll make it in time.”, I replied. My flight to NY was delayed, but as I only had a carry-on, I ran off the plane and onto the A train, direct to Time’s Square. I arrived a bit late to the event, which was an awards ceremony, but everyone else did as well; therefore my time of arrival went unnoticed. NYC was cold, as it usually can be in March, but Antigua at night had been colder. Yes, I was quite happy to be home and felt fortunate to have a warm bed and more than enough food to suppress my hunger.
Since then, I have known several people who have adopted multiple children from Guatemala. They will always remain in my memories as the happiest children in the world.