The friendships that I have formed in Casas Viejas have taken many shapes. I have friends, like Nancy, who laugh at my jokes, friends like Milbia, who I can ask to water my plants when I’m away, and friends like Marena, who know how I like my shucos (no mayo, extra jalapeños). These friends have given me the gift of belonging for which I will forever be indebted. Yet, making friends in Guatemala is nothing like making friends in The United States. Here my friends and I share the mutual understanding that there will always be language and cultural barriers between us. For over a year I have battled with the truth that most of my friendships in site are quite superficial. Not to say that all of my relationships in town are insignificant, quite the contrary, it’s just taken me a year to realize which friendships are genuine and begin to appreciate those that are.
I have been accustomed to being the instigator of most of my friendships as well as bearing the brunt of the work to maintain the relationships. It must be noted, however, that Guatemala is a very family centric culture and, being an outsider, people don’t really know how to involve me in their daily lives. Hanging out with the gringa doesn’t generally make their daily the to-do list (so sad, if only they knew what they were missing out on). Surprisingly though, recently I found out that is not always the case.
I was finishing cleaning my house a couple Sundays ago when my friend Tanya drove up on her bike. Every once in a while she’ll stop by to sell me fresh shrimp but it is rare that I see her more than a couple times a month. I invited her in and we sat at my table and began to chat. She asked me if she looked pale or sickly. She did look a bit fatigued so I asked her if she was ill. Then she told me that she had just spent the past four days, affirming with her fingers as she counted, “Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Yes, four days, sick in bed.” She said her head felt like it was going to explode, her bones ached and she was freezing (mind you it is a “chilly” 95 degrees here) but couldn’t stop sweating. “Oh my, it sounds like you had dengue!” I replied. She told me that she was so sickly and weak that her two daughters, Melissa and Jasmine, cried by her bed and asked her if she was going to die. She said, “I was miserable but all I could think was, ‘it's better that I am sick than one of them.’ Finally, today I started feeling better. I feel heat again, which is a good thing. This is the first time that I felt healthy enough to leave my house.”
It dawned on me that Tanya had just escaped the jaws of death and the first thing she decided to do was visit me. Tanya needed to get out, breathe a breath of fresh air, rejuvenate her spirits and she came to my house to do it. I was flattered. I have always felt like I need my Guatemalan friends more than they need me. This was the first instance in which the roles were reversed. We spent a good portion of the morning catching up and then she vowed to come back later in the week with Melissa and Jasmine. I sent her home with a chocolate bar for the girls.
She kept her promise and a few days later the girls came over. We looked up dresses online together (I was bridesmaid dress shopping) and Jasmine pointed to each dress we looked at and said, “A mi me gusta esto” (I like this one). We swayed in my hammocks. Jasmine played in my baby pila and Melissa flipped through my photo album. It was pleasant to have visitors over who were content just passing time with me. They left after a couple of hours, Melissa toting a photo of my family. She had asked me, “me regala?” (Will you gift it to me?)
While most of my friends are busy with their daily routines, I am especially thankful that Tanya and her daughters think to make me a part of theirs. What gives me even more delight is being able to share my house, my hammocks, my chocolate with them. Unlike many of my friends in town, Tanya comes from the poorest part of Casas Viejas. She lives in a one room house with dirt floors, cooks over a wooden fire and has no refrigerator. Their presence at my house makes my life more pleasant and I am happy to share my space with them to return the favor.
Tayna's daughters, especially Melissa, are the reason why Tawnya and I are friends. I had just arrived in Casas Viejas and hadn't even formally met her daughters (they had just seen me in passing at the Tienda), when they begged their mom to invite me to their birthday party. I gladly attended, took pictures and swung at the pinata with the rest of the kids. Ever since, Melissa runs to me when she sees me around town and gives me the most amazing greetings - hugs and smiles that make me feel like the most important person in the world. Once Tanya told me that Melissa remembered that when I first came to Casas Viejas I told her that I’d be here for two Christmases and that after this past Christmas she cried because she thought that I was leaving. It makes me wonder what I did to deserve such adoration. To be honest, I did nothing. I don't want to believe that they run to me in the street just because I have light skin and blond hair but, I know that is at least part of the reason. The least I can do is try to rightfully earn their fondness. I'm still working on it.
This past Thursday Tanya showed up at my house again, this time she was selling shrimp that her husband had caught. I bought the shrimp and invited her in. She said she had to run an errand and then would come back with Jasmine. One hour later all of us were hanging out again. When noon came I offered to make them lunch and whipped up a dish with the shrimp. It is pleasant to have company over. Company I can be myself around. Effortless company.
When they left, Tanya said they’d be back, next time with milk and bananas to make liquados (milkshakes). I told them I’d supply the chocolate.