“I don’t look like anyone here,” Soph complained. “Can I wear my traje traditionale again today?” I tried to assure her that it’s okay to sometimes be a racial minority. I told her it might help her better empathize with others when we get back home. Still, I know that I never had that feeling until I was an adult, backpacking in Asia. I felt a little guilty thrusting minority status on my child so early. And I realize how much that last sentence smacks of white privilege. Yup. Sorry.
We went to Guatemala, because I wanted an adventure and our friends were there. And we could.
Soph greeted our four-year-old friend — whom she had never met — by running across her yard, arms out, passionately yelling her name, like a bad romantic comedy. The two played together adorably.
They weren’t scared of long suspension bridges.
Sophie wasn’t scared of the traffic or poisonous spiders or germ-infested water or after-dark walks on narrow jungle paths. She wasn’t scared of anything that scared me. She liked taking tuk-tuk rides and using lots of hand sanitizer. What she was scared of was thunder (it was the rainy season, it thundered every day), extinct volcanos (whenever a cloud drifted over a volcano, she asked me if it might be erupting), and, most of all, not fitting in.
She felt better once I bought her the traditional outfit that most of the Mayan women wore in the village we were visiting.
Her blonde hair still stood out. Villagers kept stroking her cheeks, all of a sudden. Kind clusters of older women giggled at us, snapped Sophie’s photo, and then offered to help re-tie her corte (traditional skirt) that I could never manage to tie correctly. This felt okay to me.
Here’s Sophie visiting a Guatemalan school, trying to fit in.
A gringo friend told me that Rigoberta Menchu (who came from a nearby village) wrote that seeing tourists wearing her people’s clothes felt like a knife to her heart. “A lot feels like a knife to Rigoberta’s heart, you know. That’s just how she writes,” my friend added. “I don’t see a lot of people looking like they feel knives to their hearts, now. They just seem to be amused at us.” They did.
I understand that native peoples, from whom we’ve taken so much, don’t want us to take their cultures too. I don’t dress exactly like villagers I visit. Still, Soph wanted to wear traditional clothes, and wanted it so badly that I couldn’t say no. Another tourist affectionately called Sophie a “gringa princess.”
It wasn’t an untouristed village. One day, when I got sick (I think from washing my face with unclean water, something Sophie never did), I sent Soph off to an “ecofest” downtown, with our friends from Brooklyn. It was a festival encouraging Mayan villagers to use more ecologically efficient ovens, to slow down deforestation. A New Orleans folk duo was performing, because they were my friends’ parents. A retired Waldorf movement teacher from Hawaii shared his juggling sticks with Soph. The confluence of all this randomness must have amused the news photographers as much as it amuses me, because, that day, Soph ended up on the Guatemalan television news. This may be what globalization looks like, at its best.
The Guatemalans we met were amazingly patient with my bad Spanish and amazingly sweet to Sophie. When she fell asleep on a crowded ferry, instead of complaining that she was taking up too much room, more than one person asked if she wanted to rest her feet on their lap. It was a surprisingly child-friendly place to visit.
We went kayaking in a lake-filled volcanic crater, hiking in a butterfly preserve, and touring 300-year-old wooden saints who live in people’s houses. Soph complained that the saints tour was boring, so I let her set our agenda the next day, and she chose tree-climbing, swimming, taking a tuk-tuk into town for icecream, fairy-playing, and then swimming again. It was a pretty good vacation.
And here are our wonderful friends, in front of another house in that compound.
Our worst culture clash came on the last day. It started out pleasantly enough: our friends had invited other kids over for a pool party. Soph was briefly disconcerted that everyone was speaking Spanish or Tzutujil, but she eventually figured out that running around in circles is fun in almost any language. She befriended one Mayan girl, Astrid, who seemed especially eager to be given a tour of the little four-house foreigner’s compound where we were living. “I’m going to show Astrid the pool,” Soph told me, and I, foolishly, said okay. I was busy packing because the van to take us back to the airport was due to arrive in less than an hour. I didn’t stop to think that a Mayan villager might not be fully trained in pool safety. Or, really, that no six-year-olds anywhere should ever be left unsupervised near a pool.
Thank goodness another adult was close by and fished Astrid out of the pool when she fell in. The other adult (a Mayan man) left Astrid with us, and then we faced a challenge: Astrid did not want to take off her soaking wet clothes. Her ideas of proper modesty overrode any effort to get her comfortable after nearly drowning. I offered her Soph’s dry clothes, but she firmly rejected anything that might show her shoulders or knees. She assured me she felt fine, dripping there from her head to her sneakers. I found another Mayan adult woman to help, insisted that Astrid come into our house, pulled the curtains, found some long-sleeved, long-panted clothes of Sophie’s, and then left them alone to handle the modesty problem themselves. Astrid ended up looking incredibly good in Soph’s stuff. I half hope that, if we return to that village in a decade or so, the small stores of seamstresses may be selling versions of Soph’s clothes as “traditional outfits” to the new tourists.
It was a great vacation.