Flashback Friday: Guatemala Part 1

I was more than halfway done with my first Guatemalan beer (I’m particular about beer brands, but the brand of that particular beer eludes me, perhaps because of the traumatic border-crossing experience I was subjected to before I reached Guatemala, but that’s another story) when a white car pulled up in front of the restaurant–Jade, a Chinese restaurant–where I was waiting. I was seated facing the door, and there weren’t any other cars parked in the slots, so the car was impossible to miss.

Sensing that this car was the one sent to pick me up, I quickly finished what remained of my beer, stood up, grabbed my backpack, and waved my thank-you to one of the waitresses. A woman stepped out of the passenger side and entered the restaurant, looking around. She was pretty, about my height, with bobbed brown hair. As I was the only patron, she looked at me inquiringly, smiled, and asked, “Mark?”

“Si,” I replied and took a step toward her, extending my hand. She took it, shook it warmly.

“Jennifer.”

“Mucho gusto,” I said. “Nice to meet you.”

She led me to the car, whose trunk was already popped open and waiting. A guy with jet-black dark hair, bushy eyebrows, and a dusky complexion was holding the trunk lid aloft. “Carlos,” he said, smiling, offering his other hand. I shook it and dumped my bag into the compartment.

In no time we were on our way, putting as many miles as we could between the border town–that, just an hour ago, I crossed on foot from Tapachula, Chiapas, Mexico–and Quetzaltenango (or Xela, for short), Guatemala, our destination.

So this was Guatemala.

Visible vegetation, green and jungle-like, on either side of the narrow and winding road that we were traversing on was a welcome sight. I was already used to the concrete jungle of Mexico City, where I was currently living at that time before I visited Guatemala, so this was a breath of fresh air—literally. We drove with the windows down, and I could immediately tell that the air I was breathing was a lot cleaner than the smog-filled air of the Mexico City. In the city it doesn’t take long after I step out of the apartment for my allergies to act up; here, though, it was a different story—it seemed as though my sinuses were cleared up.

In my limited Spanish, Jennifer and I made some small talk, with Carlos content on putting in a word or two but mostly focusing on his driving. About an hour into the drive we stopped by a roadside stall that sold pollo rostizado or roast chicken; apparently Carlos was famished. He asked me if I was hungry, said no but thanks anyway, and he proceeded to pick at his roast chicken and tortillas in the front passenger seat while Jennifer took over the driving.

We made another stop, which was a pleasant surprise for me—at a tattoo parlor. We met Jennifer’s teen daughter Andrea, at the shop, and she proudly showed off her freshly inked tattoo to her mom. It was Jennifer’s turn to get a matching tattoo, and we waited in the shop as I chatted up one of the tattoo artists, the husband of the artist currently working on Jennifer. I was pleasantly surprised that the guy—heavily inked, of course—spoke very good English, and he introduced himself as a former English teacher before finally deciding on switching up careers and becoming a tattoo artist full-time. Carlos went to a nearby corner store and got me a big can of beer, a local brand—Cerveza Gallo—which was pretty amazing. (I would try other Guatemalan beer brands but would stick to Gallo for the remainder of my stay.)

Finally Jennifer’s tattoo was done, and we all piled into the car—with Andrea and her friend joining me in the back seat—for the long drive home to Xela. By this time it was already dark.

(To be continued . . .)

This Morning’s Special, from Hong Kong

We were all tired and hungry as we sat down for a late lunch in one of the restaurants near our hotel. I don’t exactly remember WHY we were all tired and hungry, because the flight time from Manila to Hong Kong only takes an hour and a half give or take, but yes, we were starving. I guess you can forgive me for forgetting a lot of details about a trip that happened sixteen years ago, but hunger is a state that I have a problem forgetting.

A middle-aged woman that I assumed was the proprietor approached our table–which was the only occupied table at that time–and handed us the menus. It was a small restaurant, more of a diner, and because she didn’t have to attend to other customers, the woman graciously focused all her attention on us. Which was a good thing because she never spoke a lick of English, and none of us spoke any Cantonese.

I was with my three siblings, my parents, an aunt, and a cousin. This was my first overseas trip, and was my siblings’ and cousin’s first as well. (My father had already explored Southeast Asia at that time, and had also been to Australia and Japan with my mom; while my aunt had already visited the United States and Taiwan, if I’m not mistaken.) That it was Hong Kong was not a surprise; for many Filipinos, Hong Kong is a good choice if you want to pop your overseas-trip cherry: it’s close enough, and although relatively more expensive than, say, a trip to Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur or Jakarta, Filipinos’ love for Chinese food (dim sum, in particular) more than makes up for the country’s reputation as one of the most expensive cities in the world.

And delicious Chinese food was precisely on our mind as we sat there and tried our best to “communicate” with the proprietor. It was pretty straightforward: we each had a menu, and we promptly pointed to a photograph of our dish (and drink) of choice, and that was that. After taking our orders, the woman collected the menus, poured all of us some piping-hot tea (which my dad, I remember, enjoyed immensely–he wouldn’t drink anything else during the day but tea; at night he’d have his usual beer), and she hied off to the kitchen.

I guess the tea was indeed pretty good–for my dad to have ingested copious amounts of it during our short vacation. My father is addicted to coffee, not tea, and for as long as I can remember he’s always had a mug of coffee beside him while he watched TV or made reports at home during the weekends, back when he was still working. (He’s STILL addicted to coffee; I once brought him several jars of instant Mexican coffee, and he proceeded to drink it like water until he was forced to take a break on account of hyperacidity.) And so my dad happily sipped his tea, in that Hong Kong diner, while the rest of us waited for the food to arrive.

I don’t recall if I happily sipped my tea as well (I’ve only been recently a tea guy, and unlike my dad, I never drink coffee), but I do remember the strange feeling of finally being in a foreign country. I remember, in particular, glancing out the window of the restaurant and taking in the new sights–amid the giddy conversations shared among my siblings and parents and aunt and cousin–of people going about their lives and doing their regular, everyday stuff, but the difference was, these people (well, most of them anyway) were Hongkongers!

Could I possibly, I thought at that time, land a job here? I’ve heard that lots of overseas Filipino workers called Hong Kong their home. Surely I could try my luck too? I was twenty years old at that time, naive and full of life and impressionable, having left college a few months before, with a vague idea of wanting to be a writer but with nothing substantial or anything set in stone yet. (I’d land a writing job a few months later, still the best writing job I’ve ever had, right after I turned twenty-one–but that’s another story.)

Finally the food arrived, and the giddy table conversation and my own daydreaming would have to wait. The woman–and a man, I’m assuming the cook–served us, ALL of us, steaming plates of sweet-and-sour pork and rice.

There was a problem, though.

None of us ordered sweet-and-sour pork.

Too tired and hungry to argue with her (thinking about it now, though, how in God’s name could we have argued anyway? Through sign language?), we decided to dig in.

I wasn’t sure (and honestly, until now, I’m still not sure) if that’s how they really prepare sweet-and-sour pork in Hong Kong, because it was way TOO saucy and not really sweet, and–worse–vinegary sour. In fact, my brother, Miles, proceeded to wipe each piece of pork with his napkin to get rid of the sauce. Only after wiping each piece dry would he then proceed to pop it into his mouth and eat it with a spoonful of rice (the portion of rice, that is, that wasn’t still drenched in the sour sauce). I don’t remember now about the others, but I personally thought that this was a brilliant idea–my little brother, when we were younger, was, and STILL IS, a fountain of brilliant ideas–and I followed suit: I got busy wiping down the pork.

Needless to say, we never went back to that diner again–even if it was close to our hotel. Even if we’d regularly pass it by, tired and hungry, after a long day’s sightseeing.

***

We went back, though–again and again and again–to this other greasy spoon (with emphasis on GREASY) where we ate our morning breakfasts. It was not close to the hotel we were staying at–heck, it wasn’t even INSIDE the hotel we were staying at, and I thought at the very least it should have been–but because the free breakfast coupons bade us venture further, we did. Every day. And because we didn’t have a good meal the day before, I was looking forward to that morning’s special.

Which turned out to be greasy ham and eggs (lots and lots of eggs), bread, and watery coffee (no delicious tea for my dad, what a shame). So, every morning, we partook of the same fare. And ever time, for some reason (maybe because they WERE GREASY?), my parents and my aunt never finished their sunny-side-ups. But because I felt that it was my duty to make sure that nothing would go to waste, I took it upon myself to finish all the fried eggs that were untouched. The entire trip, I remember, I’d eaten an unhealthy amount of eggs for breakfast. (I recently had to be treated for high cholesterol here in Mexico City, and I’m pretty sure it’s still because of all those eggs I ate in Hong Kong sixteen years ago).

I’ve been to a few other countries through the years after that trip, and had tried some pretty amazing breakfast food, but until now I still can’t forget the Hong Kong breakfasts of ham, bread, watery coffee, and–of course–lots and lots of greasy fried eggs. And it didn’t help that the diner’s unique logo was indelibly seared in my mind, even until now–a squiggly orange figure of a human being with its legs spread wide apart.

(A few years ago, my cousin Iya went back to Hong Kong with her friends, and she encountered a branch of that diner. She excitedly sent me a photo of that orange logo through Facebook Messenger, and immediately [for good or bad] memories came flooding back to me. And it’s not that hard to imagine eggs, anyway, when you see a human figure with legs spread wide apart)

***

Like every holiday trip, you take the good with the bad. It’s normal. So for every disappointing welcome meal and breakfast, you get to try the authentic dim sum that Hong Kong is famous for (we did, and it was heavenly). For those times that you’re late for the tour (and in our case, ALL THE TIME, which prompted our guide to always utter a snide comment of “Big Filipino family always late” whenever we’d walk down the bus aisle), you get to take in the beautiful sights and sounds of Hong Kong’s tourist spots. For every time you get scammed and swindled (like the time my dad and aunt were grifted into buying overpriced digital cameras by a sweet-talking salesman), you genuinely get good buys–it’s impossible not to while night-shopping in Mong Kok market under bright neon lights and among other excited shoppers and street performers. For every boring (and forced) forays through a jade factory and jewelry store (something to be expected when you’re on a budget tour), there’s the free time you have for yourself to actually explore the place, no matter how short. (And for me it was, believe it or not, exploring the profusion of 7/11 shops that littered the Hong Kong streets; although convenience stores were already common in Manila at that time, we didn’t even have a single convenience store in our small town in Cebu. That was the first time I’ve ever seen a 7/11 on every street corner.)

I’ve taken quite a few solo trips on my own after that first overseas trip, and although traveling alone has its charms, for me traveling with family is still the best. You never forget the place, you never forget the food, you never forget the buys (on that Hong Kong trip, in particular, I got myself a JVC digital camera with 5 megapixels and my first portable MP3 player with 128 MB of storage, LOL), but somehow an overseas trip is more unforgettable (even a budget one) when you’re with loved ones.

Yes, even if the ham and eggs are a little too greasy and the coffee is watery. When you get tired of the free breakfasts, that’s what the cup noodles in the 7/11s are for.