Travel and Shopping–Bronze Winner: A San Francisco Treat

By Craig Wilkins

Rick’s Café (Latin)American

I am a night person. Always have been. I’ve never understood the need for anything to begin early in the day and phrases that purport to educate me in this area like “Early to bed, early to rise…blah, blah, blah” or “The early bird catches the worm” have only served to confuse the issue even more. Other than biology teachers and fishermen (both of whom have their own peculiar psychosis), who, for goodness sake, would want to catch worms? To what purpose? Seems to me that if one waited a bit, one could grab the now-gorged and still sleepy bird itself, thereby assuring oneself a much more hearty meal and squeeze in a few more hours of sleep to boot. Notice that I didn’t say “extra” hours. It, like the concept of “extra” money, is a fallacy. There is no “extra” sleep. There is only sleep. It is not that I find the morning objectionable, per se, just interminably boring, and therefore much better suited to downtime in my book. Once, while traveling through Poland, due to entertainment and sleeping patterns, I went an entire week without seeing the sun. Simply a joy. What can I say? My formative teenage years were the 70’s.

I like the nightlife.

I like to boogie.

So, while it stands to reason that my knowledge about morning activities in the highland city of Xela, Guatemala, entertaining or otherwise, is rather limited, the evenings; however, is quite a different affair. In Xela, the most interesting nightlife begins and ends around El Parque Central. And like the lonesome, wayward travelers in Casablanca were invariably drawn to Rick’s Café American, in Xela, out of all the various cafes and saloons around town, sooner or later, everyone falls into Salon Tecun (pronounced Sa-loon Ta-coon), a juke joint aptly named after the Mayan King who fell to the Spanish in 1524.

Despite, or perhaps because of its cluttered, haphazard array of Spanish colonial tables, neotraditional chairs and postmodern roaches, Salon Tecun is often sparsely populated and quiet during the day, when visibility is at its best. But at night, the tabletop candles and dimmed wall sconces combine with the wafting grayish haze of hand rolled cigarette smoke and the low melodious murmur of voices, allowing Salon Tecun to make a wondrous, almost mythical transformation into Xela’s most engaging and gratifyingly diverse symphony of sounds, colors, people and pleasures. On any given night, ensconced in a softly humming, yellowish glow, one can overhear conversations in Spanish, Portuguese, English, Dutch, German and more, all over a musical setting that ranges from 40’s American Jazz, current Middle Eastern or centuries old Gregorian chants to the most recent rock or salsa from Latin America. It is the place to be and be seen in Xela; a most grand experience for both émigré and native alike. It is charmingly addictive, a tad bit raffish and a whole lotta fun. There was something its roguishly cosmopolitan smoke-filled atmosphere and its simultaneously too gregarious and too secretive patrons that oozed international intrigue. Salon Tecun is kind of a Rick’s Café Latin-American, serving as a sort of hub for various and sundry activities and information; lore that was regularly interesting and almost always worthy of note, if not always technically true. Patrons frequently found themselves offering up the most strange and intimate information about anything they knew and frequently, things they didn’t know.

I’d come to know a good number of people in Xela the 3 months I lived there. We’d often meet at Tecun after work and whether due to the company or the cocktails I prefer to believe it was the company we’d occasionally fall under its tale-spinning spell, recounting yarns both fanciful and factual. Most times, due to time, language, or other obstacles, we’d simply engage in enjoyable conversations long past happy hour, no tales involved; but on more than one occasion, my small circle of liars did find ourselves in extended discourses that lent themselves to theatrical narration. It would typically begin with one brave soul, perhaps inspired by a glut of Gallo, quite possibly the world’s worst swill still allowed to claim the title of beer, segueing into a “true” tale either heard or experienced and off we went. Once done, depending on the quality of the story, an offer will be made to the teller for anything between a smile to a pint; then, the stage would be set for the next person and we’d listen, laugh, learn and lie all over again. Like with all rituals of friendship, this story thing just kinda happened. But that was the beauty of it, really it was a totally unpredictable, spontaneous moment you’d have to be present to catch. There was no instant replay unless you count an evening’s remnants that echoed through our conversations for days, even weeks after; the hearing of which did less to fill you in than to remind you of not only what, but who, you missed and to not do it again. I can’t count how many tales were spun over the 3 months in the mountains, but I can remember many of the best; one of which, I shall share with you here…

Liar, liar…

One particular evening in late July, my liar’s club assembled to spin several rounds of stories, many of which were good for a smile, but not much more. However, not all were unworthy of note. The one I recount for you here was definitely worth every drop of liquid reward Sasha, my Polish-born, German-residing, Guatemalan volunteering fellow traveler destined for America, received. Her tale concerned the outdoor market at San Francisco El Alto and it involved, of all things, an epic center stage performance of a true ham.

Remember, I cannot vouch for the veracity of the story I will leave it to you to make that profoundly unnecessary decision if you so choose. But should you choose, perhaps it would help your deliberations to know that almost everyone that stumbles into Tecun has a some story about an eventful Friday in San Fran. However, I can vouch for San Francisco El Alto itself, a city situated in the mountains encircling Xela, just about an hour or so outside the city. An unassuming, hardworking and consequently exhausted little village 6 days a week, this quiet hamlet, with its narrow, steep cobblestone calles weaving together the different levels of its scattered hillside districts, is transformed on Fridays into the host of the largest outdoor market in the country. This provincial casbah is worth the visit for locals and travelers alike, as Guatematecos from all over the country arrive sometimes as much as a day before to stake ideal locations to sell their wares. Frequently, to get a jump on the competition, traders even begin to hawk their goods before sunrise by candlelight. And in San Francisco, the competition is fierce.

Strolling the chaotic bluffs and coulees of market’s almost indecipherable Mo, Larry and Curly organization, you can purchase in any combination or condition anything you need from anyone, at anytime, some of the most useless items imaginable. Got a need for a single-sleeved designer dress shirt? In key lime green? With polkadots? Got it. Lost your one tooth tortoiseshell comb with the herringbone grip? Yep, got that too. Having trouble finding that two or three-wheeled baby buggy with matching missing wheel walker? Rest easy we have two. A set of 500 forks with the third prong missing on each? Done. A missing-handled cracked coffee cup? In what color, sir? We have several to choose from. A buckleless buckle belt? You betcha. Nose ring for your pinky? No problem. Whicker baskets for your chickens? A bow tie for your pig? No? Then might I interest you in some eyeglass lenses (the right 20/40, the left, 20/100) recently freed from the captivity of their annoying frames? Nail polish for that in-season cow? Perhaps some eyeliner for that coquettish goat? Not a problem señor, I have it here in the back and then some. San Francisco El Alto is where all your missing sock mates can be found.

In a seemingly futile attempt to bring some small semblance of order to this center of mercantile, textile and harangue exchange, throughout the pueblo there are several locations dedicated for traders of particular commodities. Clothing and fabric can be found along the longest of the winding streets; crops and produce in the center shanty; utensils along the edges; various machine, auto and electronic parts lining the street along the way to the livestock area that commands the largest space at the top of a hill. This farcical attempt at rationality from graduates of the Marx Brothers School of Planning is, at best, only loosely acknowledged by the various merchants and even then only at the opening bell. As the sun hurries to its apogee, anxious not to miss a moment of the comical calamity below, merchants are similarly compelled to annex any seemingly available unoccupied space wherever it may spring forth no matter how ridiculously undersized for the job or far removed from the pedestrian crush. For any neophyte, it is just an effort to make it through to the primary uhmm, check that the only bus depot at the bottom of the market without getting utterly and hopelessly lost.

Making it through the market itself unscathed, physically, financially and/or emotionally, is damn near impossible.

This little piggy went to market…

According to Sasha, the highlight of the San Fran experience is the live stock trading no, not as in Wall Street “live” stock trading seen on CNN but as in Guate “livestock” trading seen inside a pigpen. To believe Sasha, this exchange is a hoot! And a honk. And a quack-quack, a gobble-gobble and usually a moo or two. The livestock, ranging from resisting and kicking, to mugged and drugged, are located in an open field at the very top of one of the more prominent hills in San Francisco, where everything from pigs to pachyderms and parrots to pigeons change hands sometimes several times a day. It’s New World speculation, Old McDonald style.

However, the players in this hybrid form of Moo-nopoly are quite emphatic about the “buyer beware” motto, so much so that their inspections of the available merchandise can become aggressively extensive. For example, a simple examination of the teeth, gums, cheeks and tongues of the animals vende can quickly degenerate into a chaotic tag-team wrestling match and, in the time it takes to smack hoof to head, it can morph into a physical struggle of almost epic proportions a lawless mish-mash of pigs and men rolling in the dirt and other things that are deposited on the ground where large groups of animals gather.

It seems that on one fateful Friday, a gentleman caller from the interior appeared in the San Fran market in search of a pig; a hog actually. Now to be sure, he was clearly in the right place, for there was no shortage of pork to choose from, and in time, one porker in particular caught the wily merchant’s eye. Well, truth be told, this ravishing razorback caught just about everyone’s eye, for this was indeed the prodigious patriarch of all that is piggly. Worthy of song, this prince of pork was huge a positively wooly mammoth of hogdom, all proud and pretty in its tight, shinny pink suit. Yes…this was it The pig the one for whom the trader had left his home so long ago in what had, until that very moment, seemed a futile quest, like so much dust in the wind. (Ok, perhaps I shouldn’t read the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy while traveling, but, really, the pig was quite the stuff of legends, I’m told). All that remained was the inspection and negotiation; the kindly merchant quickly and decisively determined that this piece of pork would be his before the day was over. After the initial introductions and inquiries were made to the oinker’s owner, the buyer was still a bit unsure of whether he was indeed engaged in a discussion for a male or female pig. For reasons to which I am not privy, it seems he had little use for a porker of the feminine persuasion. Not willing to take the seller’s assurances that yes, indeed this was not only a hog but the hog, the hog of legends, he demanded to see…well…the underlying facts of the matter. The proprietor reluctantly agreed, but only if the buyer himself could convince the proud and prostrate pig to cooperate. One can only assume the proprietor had some prior and probably hard-earned knowledge of the beast’s disposition that lead him to allow these very delicate negotiations between the buyer and stock to proceed sans his input.

Satisfied with that somewhat dubious response, the buyer happily lowered himself to the tolerably damp ground surrounding the sow/boar (best not to dwell on the origin of said dampness) and proceeded to alternately snort, oink, and wiggle in the most horrific and comedic fashion, all in an effort to get the animal to reveal its secrets. Alas, his concophony of mating coos and grunts were to no avail. The hefty hog remained piggishly priggish. It simply would not budge, not caring in the slightest what the buyer thought of its gender. The deeper he was forced to dig into his pork-bag of tricks, the more the buyer became annoyed until finally, in a classic case of an ill-fated process of logic that even now I would guess he’d like to reassess, the buyer made up his mind to go directly to the source. Taking matters into his own hands so to speak he crawled to one side of the now moist, glistening, hillock of a hamhock and slowly, but incessantly, pushed and squeezed, working his hand beneath the belly of the beast.

As you can imagine, the beast was not pleased.

Loosing a squeal into the air that shattered the otherwise well-rehearsed symphony of sounds on the hill that morning the consonant squawking of the chickens-in-a-basket, the melodically intermittent moo-ing of the long-suffering cows, the rhythmic barking percussion of several scraggly hounds, the harmonic chatter of the traders all of it just ceased, took five, and every member of that adhoc philharmonic turned their eyes toward the wayward musician. The prince, who at that very moment, had risen up just enough for the buyer to get his arm as close as it would ever get to learning the truth and then fop! returned to his throne with all the force of Thor’s hammer and ceased its squeal of discontent, which was immediately replaced by the less striking, but every bit as compelling wail of the buyer, now trapped under the titanic weight of the blissfully unmoving mound of fatty flesh.

The beast was appeased.

However, the buyer was not, and once the shock of being literally held hostage by dinner subsided, he took action. Twisting, turning and yanking, the buyer no longer interested in obtaining the information that was even now oh-so-tantalizing close, so close that he could almost reach out and touch it, if he could move any part of his smushed appendage, which, of course, he couldn’t tried desperately to extricate himself from this most embarrassing predicament. But alas, the prince, both vain and selfish, held his sole, solitary subject fast in place.

Searching for a way, any way, to retrieve his now numb nub, the buyer, contorting both face and body in a ghastly, grotesque fashion, was able to place a foot upon the quivering body of the porgy mammoth and push, an act that did bring about some relief, just not the kind he’d hoped. Seeing this last desperate act of a condemned man, the owner, who had to this point been remarkably unaffected by the misfortune that had befallen his potential customer, let out a whoop of anger and indignation at the prospect of damage to his prized product and headed towards the still vainly struggling buyer with eyes aflame. With a strength said to be demonstrated only by mothers of trapped babies, the old vender heaved and unceremoniously jerked the jerk free, only to begin berating him verbally for the potential damage to his pig. Here this hapless hombre had been left to his own accord to determine the gender of the pig he wanted to purchase, only to be subsequently trapped and humiliated, not to mention most probably defiled, and now the owner, who assiduously refused to help, is giving him a “what for”? Well…this was more than the buyer could take, and in a triple-toe leap worthy of Toyna Harding, he jumped into the air, spun and whipped his droopy, debilitated limb right across the owner’s still yapping mouth with a resounding “smack!” worthy of…well…Tonya Harding. Now, a smack across the face with a lifeless limb is as much a challenge to a rumble as a clunk upside the head with a hard, steel gauntlet, and the momentarily astonished vender signaled his acceptance by an adroit up-and-under maneuver as he avoided the return whip of the limp limb. He deftly countered that miss with a maniacal, greasy-fingered lunge for the buyer’s throat.

Oh, you can bet…it was on after that.

Sasha didn’t wait around to see who won (a shame really). Both men having tumbled to the ground and over the hill, all angry and a-jumble, with dogs, chickens, cows, and traders in tow and we are left to ponder the still undetermined gender of the pig, who remained on its throne in all its piggish bliss, unbought, unbowed, and more importantly, uncooked.

The beast remained pleased.

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