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Travel Image: Guatemala City
 Photo: Kim Seidl
Travel Image: Guatemala City
 Photo: Esteban Balte
Zona 6, Guatemala City
by Ashley Kircher

I have come to Guatemala to, as I like to put it, “live with the tribes of Mennonite,” which makes my father roll his eyes. This makes Mennonites sound both exotic and dangerous, as though I am an anthropologist who may or may not come home with a bone needle threaded between the bridge of my nose. I have come to Guatemala because I didn’t want to wander through Mayan ruins, Lonely Planet glaringly in hand, looking for the next American I could share a Gallo cerveza with untill it was time to head back to the hostel and a Stephen King book.

Hearing of my desire to actually live in a Guatemalan community and put down some gringa roots, a Mennonite professor friend of my father recommended I try CASAS, Central American Study and Service. Run by Guatemalan Mennonites, I was the first American ever to be affiliated with the program who was not Mennonite. Luckily, though, I passed the test, and found myself one sudden February morning in Guatemala City, staring at my new front door.

In front of it, a man has evidently just finished an epileptic fit, for he is passed out on our front step, a thin slick of blood on the side of his dusty face, his body still roiling and shaking. Maria—my new fourteen-year old hermana who has picked me up at the bus stop, steps over his body without a second thought, asking me if I wore makeup, and how much, and could she see it—like right now?

Inside the darkened house, her blind father sits at the kitchen table, his grey hair greasy and slept-on. His eyes are two milky globes; his fingers work their way around the tabletop in endless, empty patterns. The flies rise and settle with his rhythm, stealing quick licks at the honey I can see slick and dried on the oilcloth from across the room. Beyond him are the two dark maws of bedrooms with the stove in between, and Maria leads me to the one on the left, ignoring her father in her haste to see my makeup—not that she is allowed to wear any.

Soon after, night begins to fall, and a few serious stars push their way through the lights and the smog. They hang, uncrowded, in the purple dusk. Maria’s father, holed up in his room for the night, listens to the Bible on tape. Britney Spears shakes it loud on MTV. (We don’t have running water, and enjoy only sporadic electricity, but it appears that we have excellent cable reception.) Maria attempts to shake it “como la chica mas sexy del mundo”, wearing my lip gloss (which has mysteriously vanished by the time I leave three months later). It is a gorgeous and horrific site. Deciding that 8pm will be my new bedtime, I bid my host-mother Fialiley goodnight. Next door the Baptists are singing to reach the heavens. They have the worst voices I have ever, ever heard, each chorus vibrating through our shared wall with the resounding vigor of joyful tone-deaf toddlers. I pull out my headphones, climb into bed, push play.


My first real morning in Guatemala City, and I have arisen at dawn, refreshed despite the night’s long serenade, pushing aside the thin curtain that hangs in the doorframe and walking out into the yard to shower. The mango tree is heavy with fruit and the dirt yard below is rotten with them full and juicy on the ground. An overripe mango balances where it has fallen on the windshield wiper of a broken-down car. A mango, split, bobs face-down in a bucket of water meant for the turkey, who is being fattened for Maria’s quinceiñera. The air is redolent with mangos, turkey shit, and the sweet stench of burning trash from the dump next door.

The shower stall is cinderblocked off about neck-high, and holds a bucket of water with a cup. It shares a cinderblock wall with the toilet—a normal, American porcelain god with zero privacy. In fact, many were the mornings when I would be bucket-showering, only to hear the careful sounds of my blind host-father settling in for a friendly constitutional.

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