It was our first international trip together, and Andrew noticed that I was getting stared at something serious. I’d forgotten about the international Stare-At-Ama game, and it was a rude awakening.
“Is it because we’re together, bae?” I asked him. The widespread gawking at being an interracial couple in today’s American South was familiar territory now, like a second skin.
“Nope,” he replied. “Here, I’m just another white man. They don’t even notice me.”
And he was right. They never did, because he was just another pale backpacker to them. So, from town to town, Drew witnessed the world view me alone as a spectacle, from villages to malls to tourist hostels. And we speculated the reason.
GreenGo’s hostel, stationed at a 10 minute walk from the entrance of Semuc Champey, was decorated like an in-process Dr. Seuss book crawling out of the jungle. It gave me a headache (if you go to Semuc, stay at Retiro/Mirador instead!).
But the property restaurant gave me somewhat of a haven, because food. It was staffed with local Mayan women in colorful, handwoven skirts and lace tops. They too stared at me, eyes twinkling, mouths admitting only whispers and giggles as they washed and cut fruit.
I was annoyed at this point, my inner pimp hand quivering in anticipation of a smackdown.
Drew and I walked into the entrance of Semuc on our first evening, and were greeted by a cloud of local little girls. After they saw we weren’t going to buy a thing, one of them approached me and pointed an accusing little finger – “¡Garifuna!” She was so excited, you’d think that she’d discovered me.
I giggled, and told her that I was not Garifuna, the African descendants settled on the Caribbean coasts of Belize & Guatemala, but American. After some chatting, I asked my inquisitive little friends to weigh in on the Staring Game.
“Why are they doing this?” To which they replied –
“It’s probably your hair…can we touch it?!”
I. AM. A. SUCKER. FOR. KIDS. So I bent over at the waist for them, and explained that the hair wasn’t exactly mine, but that it was pelo majico (because children everywhere love magic). They gasped…and then smiled big, eyes a’twinkling.
But, what Black women can do with hair really is magic, and my Senegalese twists were no exception.
The cashier for the GreenGo’s restaurant was also Mayan, but dressed more like the tourists – shorts and a tank top, lip gloss and eyeliner. She was also the bravest, as she alone took orders and money from every customer, who represented every culture but her own.
On our final morning at GreenGo’s, I stopped her for a final clue into the big mystery of “Why TF is Guatemala Laughing at Me”.
“Es tú pelo,” she said simply.
My hair, y’all. My damn hair. Senegalese twists. The little girls were right.
“The women love it!” She went on. “We have never seen this before. They like it…I like it.”
“So it’s NOT because I’m Black?”
“Oh no! There are plenty of Black people, but none have ever had hair like this. We love your hair.”
Note to self: I’d become expectant of the story of racial sideshow-ism, when here in this new place it was never an issue. Thus, I postulate that back in America, predisposition to assume sideshow-ism isn’t always accurate, nor is it healthy. I already know this to be true, but reminders are good.
Back to Semuc Champey we went, and after hours of climbing and looking and talking and descending, we were exhausted before even touching the water.
We walked towards a group of smiling and awestruck Mayan women looking straight at us. Drew and I looked at each other and he whispered “Give’m a show!” before peeling off to the bathroom. So I sat on the edge of the walkway near them, and began flipping the shit out of my hair as I waited. Shakes and braids and twists and buns and flips…I would have made Willow Smith so proud.
And the women promptly approached me, like a moth to a flame – “Can we touch your hair?!”
They played. They asked questions. They giggled, and so did I. Only one of them spoke Spanish, so she translated every word into their native tongue of Quextal.
In the midst of the exchange, three effeminate Latin young men with rainbow bracelets asked me for a picture. There was swinging hair that just wasn’t there, more giggling, and air pesos. I felt like Beyoncé.
But now, my twists were sticking to my sweaty shoulders. My lazy buns wouldn’t cooperate. They women giggled again, and Inez seized the opportunity to jump up and slice away loose plastic strands that dangled from a nearby tree.
“Are these for me to braid your hair?!” I asked her. And she responded “No, these are for you!” And she placed them over my crown in a crude and gentle attempt to wrangle in my wayward locs.
And we laughed at the hilarity of it all. And the laughter translated well. I took the plastic strands and asked for a volunteer to be my client. The winner was Angelina, who blushed the entire time that I braided those yellow strands into a wisp of her bang.
At this point, Drew had returned to find me laughing among the Mayan women, executing a new side hustle. Their laughter was contagious.
Before saying goodbye, I volunteered to take the plastic out of her hair, but she refused.
After I’d walked away, a little boy who had been with the women came running behind me.”Come back, she wants you to take it out!” So I turned on my heel to free her from a job that I’d never accept back home.
But there had been a misunderstanding – she did want to keep her braid. Instead, another woman, a mother, had seen the remnants of my work and swiftly snatched the pigtails from her toddler’s hair.
The mother wanted 4 cornrows for her daughter’s little head. I looked at this baby’s head, the insufficient brush, the lack of a rat-tail comb, and the fact that I can flat twist all day (never cornrow), and told her No at least four times. But the overachiever I am, I sat down to try any ways.
Nope. Baby wasn’t having it. She started wailing, cries echoing to the ancient high topped trees above. I apologized over and over to the wee girl, who was losing it as her mother tried to sling her by the arm into place.
“Nawl. If the baby doesn’t want it, I won’t do it.” (Yes, Self – make this a decision of infantile compassion, not tools or confidence or desire. Just blame it on the baby.)
I rejoined my Love, poolside of the blue green collection of lagoons that is Semuc Champey. Before we left, we gave Oshun a papaya. We offered our gratitude and our prayers, for ourselves and our unit. And, I thanked Oshun that my own corner of self-adornment could bring joy and novelty to a culture of women, opening up a chest full of laughter as gifts for people I never knew existed.
PS – If you see all of the Guatemalan women wearing twists in 5 years, please blame it on me 🙂
3 thoughts on “Me, the Sideshow in Guatemala”
Just FYI Quextal is not a Mayan language. A quetzal is the Guatemalan form of currency, and most likely the indigenous women you encountered speak Q’eqchi’…. other than that I am glad you enjoyed Alta Verapaz!
Awww! Love this! I love how the kids loved to touch my twists in Guatemala. It’s cute. Great read, Ama.
LikeLiked by 1 person