Of course it isn’t. It lives on in television infomercial hosts, wrestling announcers and multi-level marketing gurus. But I’m talking about the real thing–the carnival barker, the frontier snake oil salesman, the witch hunter. I didn’t think that was something you could see anymore in a public setting: a silver-tongued philanthropic capitalist addressing a preferably credulous public in order to convince them at length and in grand style to buy whatever it is. In Guatemala I was astonished and really very happy to find that tradition thriving. These people are serious storytellers, doing it to survive.
I took a series of chickenbuses to Chichcastenango, a highland maya town on a hilly plateau at about 6,000 feet where they have a big market on Thursdays and Sundays. It was windy and cold and the thin air made it hard to walk uphill. At one end of town, there’s a pastel-colored graveyard on a cliff, at the other, a stark white church built in 1600 on whose steps the local adherents of the maya religion make their offerings of flowers, tobacco and copal.
Five steps into the market I met a lady selling packets of medicine to kill stomach parasites, ringworm and the like. Four pills for four days. She had a collection of specimens–actual stomach parasites preserved in alcohol in baby food jars. She picked them up one at a time as she lectured. “Look at the size of this one,” she’d say. “This demon came out of the belly of a twelve year old girl.”
Chichicastenango, you’ll recall from my earlier ranting about it, is the town where the Popol Vuh was hidden away for 250 years before Friar Ximenez found it in 1701, transcribed it and copied it into Spanish. I went to the museum in Chicago where that copy now resides; they wouldn’t let me see it, but the whole manuscript’s been scanned online anyway. Anyhow. I went to the monastery courtyard where Ximenez would have sat to make the translation. It’s right in the middle of the market, and it was packed with people resting from the ordeal of shopping. A man by the fountain was telling a story to a crowd of a hundred mostly boys, teenagers and young men. The story consisted of a long series of ad-libbed episodes illustrating how the magic elixir of strength he was offering–in clear plastic vacuum bags with straws like those juice packs you drank in junior high–had caused hilarious awesomeness to spring out wherever it fell. He’d puncture a bag of elixir and use it as a visual aid to demonstrate peeing, a pregnant lady giving milk, a guy spitting at a joke, some more peeing, wine being turned to water, water to blood, hooch being drunk, rain. The resourcefulness of it was impressive, despite the lowbrowness perhaps of the humor. And I stood there and listened for 15 minutes, trying to figure out if there was some underlying thread I’d missed or wasn’t picking up, or if this was just how the story went. Everybody was having a good time, anyhow. And when I left, he still hadn’t tried to sell anybody anything.
Now there’s a storyteller.
A bridge in Chichi. Note the depiction of quetzalcoatl above the arch. (That’s El Nubo in the backpack–my intrepid guide.)
On the long bus ride back from Chichi, a twelve year-old kid got on for the leg from Chimaltenango to Jocotenango with a shoebox full of glue sticks–paste glue in a blue lipstick tube, like I used in 2nd grade. He handed two glue sticks out to every person. He clambered to the middle of the bus, gave a three minute lecture on the proper use and benefits of these glue sticks–great for arts and crafts, a great gift for the niños, easy to use, no mess. He named a price. Then he walked back around collecting up most of the sticks he’d handed out and some money from people who wanted to keep theirs. He got off in Joco, replenished his supply from a bigger box guarded by a girl a couple years younger, and climbed back onto the return bus to present his spiel again.
Then there were the “saved” men. Usually with scars or an arm missing from the civil war. Booming preacher voices, a summary of their path from loneliness and sin to oneness with Dios. They are performing a public service, providing a lesson with a clear moral. They ask for donations.