In 1976, to qualify for a new pair of sneaks from the bank lady at the Farm, I believe the quota was that the holes had to exceed 2/3 of the entire shoe. I was almost at that point when I was emergently drafted to Guatemala, presumably for some comic relief.
The scene switches to the Miami airport and Francesco Casini and I are madly dashing off to catch the plane, him with caseless guitar in hand, and me with my two-foot afro, and the soles of my sneakers having come off except for about an inch in the back. I went slapping through the airport, so that by the time we arrived in Guatemala, I was completely barefoot. This would not seem unusual in a country where half the population goes shoeless, but gringos don’t, and I was of great amusement to the locals, like a dog wearing flip flops or something. They named me “el escalero,” (the ladder) since I am pushing six-foot-four, but perhaps “big foot,” would have been more appropriate as I came to realize that there was not a size 14 shoe in the entire country. You do learn some patience and restraint loading two-by-fours in your bare feet. Soon a shoemaker was found that shod the behemoth.
There are several images that stick with me from Guatemala — just a few random snapshots — I can’t really put the whole thing into context.
Firstly, when we were building schools, we were doing typical stateside building practices — measure, cut and nail, but what we never had was a scrap pile. Every bent nail, every six-inch piece of one-by-four, was picked up by the local indígenas, who proceeded to make quite remarkable pieces of furniture from everything that stateside was trash. This has informed me to this date of the beauty of having little, and how much better we might be if a bent nail was of great value. We, the so-called advanced nations, are less advanced because we have no time to straighten bent nails.
Another image is the fiestas we would have whenever there was a wedding or bar mitzvah — well, maybe weddings anyway. The marimba bands would play half the night and you would hit the pillow at 3 a.m. Then at 7 a.m. you would slowly emerge from sleep to hear the band striking up again, and the party would go on another day, or two, or three. When the men got too drunk to stand, and corn liquor there is similar to Tennessee, they were placed out by the road — no cars here — and family would haul them off.
Young men and women danced together, but the older women tended to dance together and the older men asked us young men to dance. I was quite an item on the floor as I remember doing the 60s’ hippie thrash around, and even had shoes by that time. The marimba was a joyful sound, and these folks liked to party; they would put Jimmy Buffett to shame. I don’t mean to belittle the real hardships of the poor, but there is also a Western sentimentality that assumes that life is hell for the downtrodden, and it is a no better sentimentality than the happy native myth.
I remember somehow ending up along the beach by myself near El Salvador. I have no recollection of how I got there, some kind of off the Farm ramble, which I was known to do, but the feel was totally different from the highlands where we worked with the Indian population. This was a Spanish port city and had the feel of danger and decadence. I was in a bar where the patrons were all male, most of them Guatemalan army guys, and there were women that would sell dances for a dime, like the old traditional taxi dancers in New York in the 1940s. The men would buy strips of tickets and the dancers would punch them for each dance. I felt like I was in a Fellini movie — maybe I was.
I also remember hitching a ride in a large cab truck with a bunch of young guys who seemed very tense and revolutionary and had guns. This was before all the violence but gave me a foreboding of things to come.