I wrote this piece to enter in NPR’s fiction writing contest, so a few elements are fictionalized.
In Guatemala, the poinsettias grow as tall as telephone poles. At our rented casita, I spot a mango-sized owl in the garden. I am elated and thumb through the pages of my field guide to identify it. In California, one must rise at 4 A.M. and set out with an experienced birder to see owls.
When I mention the owl to the housekeeper Luisa, her eyes grow as wide and alert as the pygmy owl. Owls are a bad omen, it means someone will die, she says. Or, that you’ll have good luck. For days, I’ve been listening to Luisa’s folk wisdom. If you drop a fork at the dinner table, a man will come to the house. Drop a spoon, you’ll have a female visitor. She says my son’s cowlick means he has an angry temperament. Two cowlicks denotes a ferocious personality. Well, she is right about the boy’s explosive streak.
When my son gets a fever, Luisa insists on wrapping his feet with towels filled with coffee grounds. I’m entirely dubious and send my husband to town for Tylenol. By the time he returns, the fever has fallen.
At night, I sit in the kitchen with Luisa to watch telenovelas. We talk in Spanish about her family, her all too numerous nieces and nephews who ferry tourists to the volcano or to Lake Atitlan. I try to ask her about work conditions at the coffee plantations. We toured a plantation high in the mountains above Antigua. I was horrified to hear that children work alongside their families picking coffee beans during harvest season. I drink coffee like it was water and I’m saturated with guilt to think boys as young as my son have labored for my indulgence. Luisa shrugs, what’s the big deal? She’s not at all interested in a discussion of social injustice.
Fondness of nature and history is what propels my travels, but it’s the people who fascinate me most. I think of Italy with Michelangelo’s masterpieces and the stunning Blue Grotto. And yet, it’s the burly men who smoke while rowing us through the grotto’s narrow, jagged opening and the Italian waiters with their British-accented English who catch me by surprise. At a ristorante, an Italian couple dines with their very young children. It’s almost ten o’clock. In the States, the kids would be tucked into bed, a teenage babysitter keeping vigil. In the Italy I see, every part of life is a family affair. One day while enjoying a fig gelato at a piazza, I watch a teenage boy stop in the cobblestone street and chat with an elderly woman. For fifteen minutes. Generations don’t mix so easily and cheerfully back home.
The day before we depart Guatemala, I ask Luisa what she might like for me to send from the States. Perfume? A designer handbag? The sorts of things I’ve seen stuffed into suitcases at the Guatemala City airport. She asks for a Spanish-language copy of Ekhart Tolle’s The Power of Now. New age self-help for this woman who believes owls are bad omens? She goes to her bedroom and retrieves an English-language version of the book a visitor has left behind. Her feeble English has not allowed her to absorb the enlightenment that the book professes. But she recalls what the visitor had told her about the book’s message of finding happiness in the moment. I promise to send Luisa the book. Memories of Luisa are the best souvenirs of Guatemala I’ll take with me.