Fun in Guatemala

Guatemala is a beautiful Central American country, the Land of Eternal Spring, a green and temperate home to a score of lakes, dozens of lagoons and no fewer than 37 volcanoes. Three of these are active and not too long after our arrival in the latter part of 1957, Volcan de Fuego blew its top, triggering teeth-rattling earthquakes that lasted for weeks afterwards. 

On the assumption that the carport and the car’s hard top would protect us from a collapsing concrete house, my parents packed us into our 1957 Chevy at night to sleep; while they, in fact, left us in the care of our housekeeper, Lola and traveled to the eruption site to watch the hellish, boiling lava ooze its merry way down the scorched slopes of the mountain.

Passing through Guatemala to or from somewhere, three of my Foreign Service cousins were staying with us, and it got a little stuffy in the Chevy; but to my seven-year-old little self it was all a grand adventure, akin to camping, which I had never done. In the still moments between tremors, we children formed a four-man choir, standing on a small dirt dune in front of the house, entertaining the occasional passerby with our sparkling version of “We Three Kings.” 

Thrilled beyond reason to be a member of a Christmas choir, small though it was, and loving the sound of our voices in harmony, I insisted that we sing the carol over and over and over and over again, prompting my exasperated cousins to “wish we had never taught you that stupid song.”

Without companions and left to my own devices, I frequently meandered catty-corner across the dirt road to sit with an old Guatemalan grandma. Dressed in colorful woven regional clothing, she squatted by a hot comal in the front yard of a ramshackle house, patiently pat-a-caking and grilling mountains of corn tortillas for her family, often passing a fresh warm one over to the nosy, needy little me. 

Directly across the street lived a family with children, yay! and dogs, boo! Fearful of the dogs, but lured by the promise of playmates, I one day allowed myself to be coaxed through their garden gate. In what I remember to be a perfectly coordinated bilateral assault, a German Shepherd and a Boxer leaped up and clamped their jaws around my upper arms, dangling from them with vice grips as I screamed bloody murder. 

In dog years, the pups and I were about the same age and as big dogs go, they were relatively small but the damage to my even smaller seven-year-old-self was utter and everlasting. Decades later, dogs of any size still raise my hackles.

The commotion roused the doña de la casa from her afternoon siesta and she eventually shuffled across the dirt road in her bathrobe and slippers, in her dusty wake a little maid bearing a tray of glass bowls filled with cut lemons and salt. I had achieved some level of calm, but one pop-eyed look at the salt and lemons and I got hysterical all over again. 

By this time, my crazed mother had summoned my dad home from the embassy and my parents formed a two-person phalanx between me and the scary tray of lemons. Mom and Dad soon whisked me off for my first visit to the Guatemala City Hospital where the holes in my armpits were neatly sewn up as I did some more screaming. 

The second visit had to do with beans in my ears, but that’s a story for another day.