Tune In and Enjoy

Metropolitan Cathedral in the center of Guatemala City (photo: Jordan Banks)

Metropolitan Cathedral in the center of Guatemala City (photo: Jordan Banks)

First, find a comfortable bench right in the middle of things, in front of the old National Palace and the Metropolitan Cathedral in the center of Guatemala City. Close your eyes. Don’t look at the rich palette of colors around you. (Maybe it’s best to have dark glasses on, so passers-by don’t think you’re asleep.) Don’t sniff. Don’t breathe in the delicious odors of foods grilling, the delicate whiffs from the vendors’ ice cream carts, or even the occasional black clouds of diesel exhaust from a passing bus. Concentrate this time on the sounds of the city center, more than just vehicles. There are kinds of interesting, sensuous sounds.

Ah yes, there are lots of vehicles indeed, some with a unique rhythm of cylinders firing in ragtime, some chugging smoothly, with an occasional backfire or squeal of speed. Ignore those sounds. There are so many better ones: shuffling feet in sandals, marching feet in boots, staccato sounds from stiletto-heeled ladies, quick pattering from children running after the pigeons. Listen for all the variations in footsteps, businessmen with briefcases stepping briskly, pushcart vendors straining to move their full carts, soft steps from files of nuns shuffling into the cathedral.

The cathedral’s bells break through the city noises, ringing the hours, calling the masses: early morning, midday, evening prayers. Other parish churches must wait until the cathedral bells sound first, then other bells can join in around town in waves radiating from this central square. Some mid-mornings, the cathedral bells toll for a death; some mid-afternoons, they ring joyfully for marriages. The big deep bells came from Spain to the old capital four centuries ago were brought to the New Guatemala after La Antigua’s earthquake destruction. Smaller bells were often cast in Guatemala from the broken pieces of Spanish bells that broke in route or in tumbling from steeples. Hear the silver tones in those bells—of course, lots of silver was included in the alloy, for lots came out of these hills.
Under the arcades, hear the sounds of sizzling foods on the grills, the music from kids’ boomboxes, the soft singing from some of the merchants humming under their breath, the louder cries of voices calling out special prices on tables full of goods. A pleasant murmur comes from women at shop doorways, pase adelante, a welcome to come in. Harsher calls come from the men with cases of dubiously labeled watches or counterfeit cell phones.   Ah yes, those cell phones, ubiquitous on streets around the world, though somehow the Guatemalan voices are usually more musical and tolerable than chatter on most of the world’s streets. Maybe there’s music in the Guatemalan blood that soothes many voices.

Around the corner, the noise of the city is stronger; in the broad expanse of the great square, sounds seem more muted. If you’re fortunate, a marimba band is playing, the happiest music in the world.  Hear all the sensuous sounds surrounding you in this center of the Republic.

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