The Guatemalan Hospitality Bug Bites All

In Guatemala, it is easier to “just drop in” on your friends than it would be in Minneapolis or Melbourne. One reason, I think (write me if you disagree) is that until the end of the previous century telephone calls were something you rarely tried at home. That was when Italy’s telecommunications monopoly brought Gua-temala’s system into the 20th and 21st centuries, in rapid succession.

This meant that if you were lovestruck and wanted to ask Olguita (to choose a common name for girls here) on a date, then there was no good reason to not just drop by her house. Thus, it would be harder for her to give you the local equivalent of “I’d love to, but I’m washing my hair tonight.” Her parents, or elder sister, or whoever was in charge, would expect this anyway.

The early stages of teenage romance in these parts are traditionally played out not over rare telephone lines, but on doorsteps. Even today you see this, although everybody, from 9-year-old kids selling gum, and up, now has cell phones. This commonness of cell phones, which literally outnumber people in Guatemala, could change this, but hardly overnight; at the core of the willingness to entertain unexpected visitors is a passion for hospitality.

It may just be me (since I rise at 3 each morning) but Central Americans strike me as night people. There have been times that I have needed to phone someone at 9 p.m. (at which hour I am brain-dead if not already asleep, so the person I am calling must endure a mix of urgency and incoherence). Whoever I am with always assures me that calling at such a miserable hour is acceptable, even though in the Old Country you could almost be arrested for harassment.

As late as 9 p.m., Olguita may still be in the doorjamb flapping her gob with gossipy abandon at whatever guy is targeting her (provided, of course, that she does lives in an OK neighborhood). Being now married, I do not do such things. But I can call on Olguita’s parents if they are friends of mine, without telling them beforehand. It will be enough to pry past Olguita in the doorway to get in, since in her state of enamor she will “not even know that I exist.”

Personally, I like this informality. Rarely do my Guatemalan friends drop in at my office when I cannot make some time for them. One, a lad named César, often visits after a day of filling bags with sand in the river channel. He is mute, and can make only grunts, so we barely converse even when we try to. But I am as used to him as anyone else.

Once inside someone’s house, you are subjected to layers of hospitality. There is economy of scale, since not all Guatemalans can afford to break out a can of salmon. But if they have one that they won at a raffle, then your name might be on it when you visit. If it is understood that you are spending the night, you will invariably be told, “Mi casa es su casa.”

Another friend of mine, Aleyda, the chief parcel manager at the big post office in downtown Guatemala City, scolds me each time I leave her house after her family puts me up for the night. I am “in trouble” for not spending another night, even though her son refuses to give me the couch, insisting I take his bed instead.

Benjamin Franklin compared guests to fish: by day three, both stink. But here, it seems, the “stinky” thing is leaving before you have put in your three days. Later, your eyeballs will need to be re-greased from watching all that finger wagging.

You might think from all this that I am a great houseguest. But no, this is a Guatemalan thing. In fact, as guests go, I am a bust, since Guatemalan hospitality extends to food, and there is little you can feed to a lactose-intolerant vegetarian with multiple allergies (some of which I fake for everybody’s good). The tactful way to avoid eating something is to bring something yourself and fill up on it because of “doctor’s orders” so that you can plead too much fullness to eat everything put before you.

The longer we are here, the deeper the contagious Guatemalan hospitality bug bores into our personal ethos. Two of my friends in the city, both paisanas, have developed, over the decades, an incurable symbiosis with this bug. Both came here with hospitality on their virtue profiles, so they had a head start.

Phyllis, the headmistress at a colegio in Guatemala always leaves the light on for visiting Quakers or whomever. She even puts up friends of friends, and once picked up someone at the airport for me, then brought him home and showered him with Guatemalan hospitality. Then there is Rita, an elderess at the church. Whereas Phyllis’ hospitality is merely extreme, Rita’s is positively aberrational. If you need to leave at 10 a.m., you must announce at 8 that you are leaving. But at 10 you are only halfway through the obligatory eight-course breakfast. You cannot get to your car without Rita stuffing cookies in your pocket or detouring you to her raspberry bush. How did Phyllis and Rita get this way? Probably from being told, a googleplex times, mi casa es su casa.

Is this a function of Guatemala’s Arab heritage? In the deserts of the Maghreb, hospitality was not so much a virtue as a necessity. You might own an oasis, but you never refused water to a traveler. The Arabized Moors ruled southern Spain for centuries, and the Spaniards in turn brought the mi-casa-es-su-casa catechism to Americas. And now Phyllis, Rita and the rest of us are doing it.

Reader, someone is knocking on the door. Mi casa es su casa.

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