The other day we broke down in Guatemala City — in front of a piñata factory no less.
I helped push the stalled PT Cruiser whose motor had knocked, pinged and spoken of better days. Back then forward, we rolled the car out of traffic and into a parking lot.
Guatemala City is notorious for guns, violence, drugs, blighted neighborhoods and danger lurking around every corner. And there we were in a sketchy little parking lot in the middle of the city at dusk.
But in a stroke of bizarre fortune, we had come to a stop on a corner clustered with piñata shops. Our anxiety eased immediately; we couldn’t help but laugh. Whatever our concerns, we were surrounded by a veritable army of piñatas. All their goofy grins and silly outfits — from Super Mario to Mickey Mouse to a giant can of Gallo beer for the adultos – served as the backdrop of our introduction to Guatemala’s capital.
Indeed Guatemala City has its dangerous side, but it has its joyful side, too.
So we cracked out the camera, snapped some photos in the waning light and ventured inside for a closer look at the production side of things. Under a harsh fluorescent light, a young man – the piñatero – was slicing thousands of little paper hairs on a plump, anthropomorphic chicken-hippo fitted with Mary Jane sandals.
She would fit right in with her dazzling companions dangling outside.
Piñatas are an under-appreciated art. They come to life in multiple stages: first the wire frame is twisted (think mega-long clothing hanger), then the hard paper wrap is molded to make sure the shell is not easily broken, and finally the outfit (or vestido) is attached. As the piñatero explained, each stage takes between 15 and 20 minutes to complete. That these craftsmen crank out their art at high-speed makes their results that much more impressive.
After our conversation, the car came to and we headed to what would become our adopted home in Guatemala City.
So how did we end up here again?
We were the beneficiaries of chain-linked kindness. Audrey’s friend (whom she’d met in the Peace Corps in Estonia) put us in touch with Vicky, a Guatemalan woman he’d met at a conference earlier this year. After a few email exchanges, Vicky insisted we stay with her family and take her bed as she would be out of town. After a few intervening text messages and phone calls with her mother, we were picked up at the bus stop upon our arrival from Antigua and carried away in Vicky’s PT Cruiser.
In addition to taking care of our every concern – transport well across town each morning, afternoon follow-ups to make certain we would arrive home safely, and copious amounts of home-cooked food – they made us feel like part of the family. Virginia, the mom, gave us hugs and kisses each morning and night. Father and son – Adolfo and Adolfo – made sure we were fully engaged with their good humor; we responded in our broken Spanish.
At the end of each day, it felt as if we had returned home.
This whole situation got me thinking how beautifully bizarre and pleasantly surprising life can be.
The car breaks down – which on the surface is a bad thing, particularly in a dangerous city. But we break down at a piñata factory, an ironic set of circumstances if there ever was one.
Furthermore, people we had never met go out of their way to take care of us, abide by (and help us exercise and improve) our suffering Spanish language skills, make sure we are fed and safe, and offer a sincere open invitation to return.
Yes, we continue to hear about daily crime and murder rates in Guatemala City. Guatemalans possess a knack for sharing the gory details of the latest murder from the morning paper.
But from now on, when we hear “Guatemala City” we’ll think of the piñata factory and the Guatemalan family who took us there.