Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Circus is in Town

“They’re selling postcards of the hanging, they’re painting the passports brown. The beauty parlor is filled with sailors, the circus is in town.”
-Bob Dylan, Desolation Row

Fireworks are still going off here in Cunen. I can hear them from my house; they’re the only thing that can drown out the music blaring over the loudspeakers in the middle of town.

The occasion is the Cunen fair which celebrates the patron saint of The Virgin of Candelaria. I honestly don’t know when it officially began or when it will officially end but the feria has been the topic of conversation for some time now. People have been asking if I’ll be around and what I think of Guatemalan ferias. The truth, which of course I don’t tell them, is that I’m not much of a fan at all. For the most part, if you’ve been to one feria, you’ve been to them all. Sure there are slight variations and some towns take it more seriously than others but it’s the same vendors coming to town selling the same stuff, the streets are too crowded to walk down, the bolo (drunks) population raises to a staggeringly high percentage and it’s generally just a difficult time for your eardrums. As I’ve also previously noted, I have an aversion to parades.

On Friday night I went out with some friends to watch the Miss Cunen pageant which ended up one of the stranger experiences I’ve had in this country. I won’t go into details here but the Mayor of Cunen, the lead singer of the band that headlined the event (wearing loose leather pants with his band name written in four different places on them) and drunken attempts at climbing on children’s amusement park rides were all involved throughout the course of the night. Like I said, it was strange. The contest itself was so typical of so many events I’ve been to here that it’s almost routine in its awkwardness, its seemingly unquestioned formality and ceremony. Different singers would come onto the stage and perform for what felt like forever even though no one seemed to want them to continue. The MC would go on long rambling diatribes about anything he felt like talking about to take up time while the girls changed and the next singer came on. No one was in a hurry. There was very little cheering yet it was very, very loud and lasted a very, very long time. That might sound like a strange description but if you’ve ever spent much time in Guatemala, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Saturday was a bit more relaxed than the night before but still a lot of the same. Lots of people out enjoying what the fair had to offer. It hit me on Saturday that perhaps the ferris wheel they put up is the tallest structure some of these people have ever seen. It’s probably over four stories tall, which there isn’t much of between here and Guatemala City. The coronation of Miss Cunen the night before, may well be one of the more elaborate ceremonies many of these people have ever seen. After all, the entire municipal hall was decked out, there were cameras which were providing live feed to TVs around the sides of the hall where everyone was sitting, musical groups came from Guatemala City to be there, etc. It was, if you think about it, quite the production.

Even as I’m missing whatever production is going on right now as I write this, I can say that Sunday night’s production topped them all. Sunday night is the “burning of the bulls.” This entails around 15-20 young men proceeding down the streets with a four foot, rectangular metal frame they carry on their shoulders while they hide their upper bodies in a wooden box at the bottom of the frame. At the front there is a wooden carving of a bull’s head above the lookout window in the wooden box. Oh yeah, they also strap the entire metal frame with fireworks. Almost forgot about that part.

They don’t light the fireworks as they’re proceeding through the streets, luckily, but they do dance and pretend to chase after people who wave red handkerchiefs in front of them. I wandered the route with Will, the other volunteer who lives here in Cunen and eventually we made our way to the town plaza in front of the church where they dance under what is referred to as El Castillo. At about 40 feet tall, the "castle" was, once again, strapped from top to bottom with fireworks. On the front were two stars that I was hoping would eventually spin when they got lit up (only one of them did for some reason), an angel figure about three quarters of the way up and a perpendicular wheel at the top that was obviously going to spin when it got lit up. Once the procession carrying the Virgin of Candelaria passed in front of the castle and entered the church, a line of the whip fireworks (the kind that just make really loud popping noise and nothing else--hugely popular here, by the way) began at the church and moved backwards the way the procession had just come and where the crowd was parted on both sides. I looked around as I plugged my ears to see how many people seemed to actually be enjoying such a thing and saw many more people seemingly perturbed or flat out apathetic than the other way around.

After that, the real show began, albeit slowly. I had hopes of the castle going up in a splendid show of rapid explosions but instead it very methodically progressed upwards from one section to the other. Kids dressed in costumes danced at the base of the castle and pretended to bathe themselves in the showering sparks. Eventually the show reached the apex and roman candle-like flashes shot out of the top before the wheel went up in fiery bursts and finally a shower of sparks shot upwards from the ground below (luckily the kids in costumes weren’t dancing there anymore) creating two yellow, Milky Way-like walls on each side of the divided crowd. No one else there but Will and I knew that less than an hour before, Malcolm Butler made a Super Bowl winning interception on the one yard line.  

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It was a tumultuous start to the 2014 NFL season. People that had never sat through an entire football game knew who Ray and Janay Rice were and everyone had an opinion on what happened in that elevator and who knew about what happened in that elevator. To make matters worse than they already were, the NFL proved more inept at understanding the inner workings of a casino than Fredo Corleone. It spiraled out of control. Roger Goodell looked like one of the most buffoonish, incompetent figures in recent sports history, one of the most popular sports writers on the internet got suspended by ESPN (aka Disney) for openly calling Goodell a liar sparking a new debate altogether, women were rightly even more alienated from the NFL than they already are, and if that wasn’t enough, the entire game the NFL makes its billions of dollars off of is literally destroying the people who play it. Multiple books, a Frontline exposé, new medical research, and lawsuits all show two undeniable truths: the game is killing the people that play it at extraordinary rates and the NFL has actively covered it up for decades.

But then again, at that time no one knew that Malcolm Butler (who the hell is Malcolm freaking Butler?) would make a Super Bowl winning interception at the one yard line.

Sports do the same thing to us that ferias do. They help us forget the things we’d rather not think about. At their best, this can be harnessed as a uniting force more powerful than almost anything we know: the Springboks helped South Africa unite after apartheid; Luz Long, a German long jumper, gave Jesse Owens technical advice before Owens beat him for the gold in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

But at their worst, sports can help us forget about things that perhaps we ought not to forget about. Most of us didn’t need John Oliver to tell us how evil FIFA is (although he does tell it brilliantly), yet we weren’t thinking about how the $11 billion dollars Brazil invested into one month could have been funneled into social programs when that ball dropped so perfectly from Mario Gotze’s chest to his foot for the winning goal over Argentina. You know what I was thinking about? How perfectly that ball dropped from Mario Gotze’s chest to his foot for the winning goal.

Maybe it was the fact that I’m an outsider, but at the feria last night I couldn’t help but be distracted by some of those thoughts. Most obviously, how much did all of this cost? And perhaps more importantly, at what cost?

I would classify Cunen as a slightly above average in terms of the socio-economic standards of Guatemalan towns of its size. It has a few things going for it and has a decent percentage of its population in the town’s middle class. That is not to say that there is not more work to be done here. There are plenty of things to be improved upon, most of them in the outlying rural communities. I went to a meeting today in one of those communities and heard that the feria wasn’t always like this, that apparently the current mayor goes crazy and spends tons of money on it. The context of the conversation implied this was to the detriment of the people living in the rural areas. However, they also admitted how much everyone loved it and honestly, it seems like a huge success. It may not be my favorite time of the year but obviously the feria isn't for me. The kids playing fusball and the girls in the pageant look like they're having the time of their loves. It’s almost midnight and it’s going strong for the third or fourth night in a row, a proud demonstration of the town’s relative prosperity that I just described. There’s been talk since I’ve gotten here about if the mayor will get re elected in October. People are still out dancing, buying things, riding the ferris wheel and getting drunk.

I like to think sometimes in moments of illusion of grandeur that perhaps if my project is really successful some of the farmers will use their increased incomes we help them generate to keep their kids in school for a little longer or have more money for more nutritious food or invent some magical contraption that will lift Guatemala’s poorest residents out of poverty. The truth, or probably at least a little closer to it, is that maybe this guy has always wanted a TV to watch Real Madrid-Barcelona play in his own home. If there’s some left over, he might just head into town and get drunk at the fair.

I hope that doesn’t sound judgmental or cynical; I mean it in the exact opposite sense in fact. Those are all things I enjoy, too. I don’t want to think about the harder stuff, why should I when there’s a fair going on outside?

All of us have splurged on something that we thought would make us happy knowing fully that that happiness would be temporary. It could be as insignificant as supersizing your fries or as big as taking a vacation you can’t really afford. But the rationale is always the same: you can’t put a price tag on happiness. In my experience, I rarely regret these gluttonous decisions provided they’re made within some semblance of reason and lucidity. I wonder how many people around here are going to regret paying for their kids to go on the ferris wheel. I can’t imagine it’s that many.

What it comes down to for me are two questions for which I personally have no answers. The first is how much does it take to no longer care? Does it take a beautiful goal in the 113th minute to forget about the economic disregard of millions of people, or a miracle interception on the one yard line to forget what an atrocious institution the NFL is, or a ride on the ferris wheel to forget about the more urgent needs facing a struggling population?

The second question is perhaps even more troubling: if we’re willing to so easily forget about all that other stuff, how much does it actually matter to us?

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