From Scarves to Surgery

Trying to meet people when you move abroad (or really anywhere) is like going to a party where you only know the host. You arrive, a little nervous, with just a vague idea of what to expect, scan the faces around you, and start talking to the friendliest-looking person in the room–or the guy who just happens to be to your left. Since moving to Guatemala two-and-a-half weeks ago, this has essentially been my strategy for meeting new people, and while I’m pretty sure it hasn’t produced a BFF, it has added to the colorful cast of characters that inhabit my world. Here’s one new acquaintance:

I met Silvestre two weeks ago, as I sat on a series of stone steps overlooking Lake Atitlan, killing time before I was supposed to meet Shon for lunch. Silvestre is a young, dark-haired street vendor who plies the shores of Panajachel with colorful coin pouches, woven scarves, and key chains. He buys his items in bulk to resell to tourists waiting for motor boats at the docks–or to people like me, who come to the water’s edge to gawk at the three volcanoes that loom large in the distance. His home is Santa Catarina, a small village that clings tenuously to the side of a mountain about 3.2 kilometers from Panajachel.

Despite my damp forehead and the beads of sweat on my upper lip, Silvestre gave me his scarf sales pitch, insistent that among the thick, shimmery, red, blue, and green options, there was surely one that I wanted. In broken Spanish, I explained to him that I lived in Pana now, and that while I really didn’t want a scarf at that moment (a cold bottle of water, perhaps?), I’d seek him out whenever the need for a heavy scarf in the tropics arose. The conversation progressed, with his asking about my work and family and my asking him about his, and before long I couldn’t help but to inquire about the ring finger on his left hand, which was bandaged from the base to the nearly the tip with frayed gauze and tape.

“Do you see these?” he asked, pointing to two raised, scabby-looking warts on the back of the hand with the injured finger. Each was the size of a small pill. “I had a big one on my finger, too, and went to the pharmacy. The pharmacist was my friend and told me that he could cut it off.”

While this might sound strange to anyone used to pharmacists in the U.S. who seemly do little more than fill prescriptions, pharmacists here can be the next best thing to a doctor. Walk in and share the symptoms of whatever ails you, and you’ll often leave with medication that you’d need a prescription for in the U.S. (This isn’t hearsay; I tested it just last week.) Pharmacists are a great alternative to a doctor–that is, except when what you need is a doctor.

“He cut into my finger until you could see the bone and then couldn’t close it back up. I had to go to the hospital and was there for three days, and then my finger got infected. That was three months ago. And now–” he tried to extend the finger, but it remained bent at the tip, “it hurts and doesn’t work the same.”

I cringed at the thought of bone, the shoddy, in-store procedure, the infection, and the likelihood of his finger never returning to normal. “And what did your friend say?”

“That I shouldn’t have let him do it.” Silvestre looked more sad than angry, and I cringed again at the thought of being so mistreated by a friend.

There was a long silence as we both looked out over the water. I really didn’t have anywhere to go (my lunch date with Shon was still awhile off), and it seemed Silvestre didn’t either. After some time, he asked if I had seen much of Guatemala. I said no, and he proceeded to offer his guide services, which appeared to be nascent, since a few of the destinations he gave were not town names but rather “por alla” with a motion of the hand to indicate “over there…” and “over that way…”

He was back in vendor mode, and I was back to deflecting his pitches. “I can take you to see the volcanoes,” he said, as he pointed to the three mountains across the lake. “San Pedro. Atitlan. San Lucas.” Nevermind that the latter is actually Toliman. I gave him a “puede ser,” which is a wonderfully vague “maybe,” jotted down his telephone number, and then left to find Shon.

I see Silvestre often, usually early in the morning, headed to the lake with his goods and his bandaged finger. I haven’t yet bought a scarf or used his guide services, but I still feel like I owe him–if anything, for the friendly, familiar smile that he offers me for free.

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