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Digital Nomad: Honey, they shrunk the world

Maverick Life


Digital Nomad: Honey, they shrunk the world

Jeison Higuita for Unsplash

The world was big a while ago... you wanted to go to a far-off place, you just bought a ticket and boarded a plane. Now the world has shrunk to the size of a small town in Guatemala. At least, for me.

First they took away our freedom, then they tried to crush our spirit. At least, that’s the thought that went through my mind as I put on my mask before stepping out the front door on to the cobbled street that led to La Parada, where my daily dose of “café americano grande, con leche y sin azúcar, por favor” awaited, mere minutes in the future.

“Jeez, this thing stinks,” I thought as I put on my mascarilla. I had the same thought every day. It was time to either wash the limp, smelly, black piece of… what… presumably cloth of some kind, but you never know, perhaps it was some synthetic substance, laced with a compound created for purposes both sinister and compassionate…. or buy another one. Or find the mascarilla I’d lost, the one with a grinning death’s-head on it.

After walking for a bit I forgot the stink of my mask as the sensory input of the street hit me: the feel of the breeze on the uncovered half of my face, the warmth of the sunshine, the sight of Agua volcano peering out from clouds, the sound of a battered Ford pickup with shot suspension, motorbikes, tuk tuks. I can’t tell you how the street smelt because I had my mask on. As for the flavour of the street… that was Latin American. Si Senorita.

I passed the shoeshine man, the one with the star-shaped scar on his forehead, who’d told me a few weeks after the announcement of the State of Calamity that he no longer had money to feed his family – his wife and four children – because there were no tourists in town and no more work.

He looked up at me (he was buffing one of my shoes with a cloth at the time) and tapped his star-shaped scar.

“And I have no money for the medicine I need for my epilepsy.” I’m sorry, I said.

I’m sorry.

Lo siento.

And sorrow is what I felt. Sorrow for the beautiful old colonial town of Antigua, many of the doors that once fronted thriving businesses now padlocked, and every padlock represented broken dreams and destroyed livelihoods. The thousand-padlocked town had become a graveyard for dreams.

Now, I walked past the shoeshine man, vowing, as I did every day, that in the afternoon I would get my shoes shined by him again. But he was never there in the afternoon.

Bought my copy of Prensa Libre, handing over three quetzales, the copper coins worn smooth from usage, to the woman who sold the papers. In the mornings, she always sat on that same wall outside La Merced, the big old (1767) baroque yellow church with its cupolas and flags, its belltowers and effigies of saints, its huge stone crucifix resting atop a granite globe; the precincts of the church now turned into forbidden territory with strips of what looked like crime scene tape. It was the same story across Guatemala, across Latin America and probably across the world. Worshipping with others in a church – a mosque or shul too – had become a crime.

I scoped out the newspaper.

Desnutrición avanza, said the splash headline.

Malnutrition advances.

It was beneath a photo of a mother holding her two-year-old daughter.

At the bottom of the page was one of those graphs that you suddenly see everywhere these days, graphs that measure curves, that compare time with death and disease.

The graph reminded me of the infographics in newspapers at the time of the Bush’s Gulf Wars, infographics that matched the military hardware and software of the US-led “Coalition” with that of their enemy at the time, Iraq.

The infographics, I remember, showed tank-busting planes called Warthogs that fired depleted-uranium armour-piercing shells; cruise missiles that hugged the contours of the Earth; the planes, the ships, the artillery, the weaponry, the munitions, the soldiers… Republican Guard, Scuds and Silkworms, the whole enchilada, lots of brightly coloured curved arrows weighing up battle possibilities.

I was sharing a house with some buddies at the time, and we all chipped in to hire a TV set so we could watch “Desert Storm” – the First Gulf War – live.

Beers and weed and snacks and late night telly, war as entertainment, the early days of reality TV. “Desert Storm” had its own television logo and dramatic soundtrack, and CNN’s war correspondent was named Wolf Blitzer.

However, the graph at the bottom of Prensa Libre showed Guatemala’s latest coronavirus figures, as announced by El Presidente, Alejandro Giammattei – a former surgeon with multiple sclerosis who walks with the aid of crutches – the previous evening:

730 confirmed cases. 612 active.

72 recovering.

17 deaths.

Two deaths by causes other than Covid-19.

I walked across the road to La Parada, wondering what those other causes were.

Bought my large café Americano with milk, walked back to the hotel I called home.

It was an oasis of sanity in a world gone mad. It had a beautiful garden, with wild roses and hibiscus and honeysuckle, a huge avocado tree that shed its fruit on to the roof of the kitchen with bangs like a shotgun going off. The garden was filled with the sound of birdsong during the day, and at night Colombian hip hop, or Peruvian cumbia, or Guatemalan rock… always music, the diet of Latin America.

I’d fallen in with a crowd of Russians who were staying at this hotel.

Well, three Russians to be precise, but you know what they say about three.

There was Irina, a tall and beautiful woman with hazel eyes, beestung lips, blonde (at least for now) hair – she looked like a Nordic princess. She was spontaneous and vivacious, she had an infectious laugh, and the sight of her always brought joy to my heart.

Here are three facts about Irina:

  1. Her father was in the Spetsnaz, the Russian Special Forces.
  2. She had her first kiss at the age of 18. It was on a gondola in Venice’s Grand Canal. The man with whom she shared this blissful moment – the kisser – was the gondolier.
  3. Sad movies made her weep uncontrollably.

Then there was Sasha, also known as Alex. He was one of those short, slight Russians with intense eyes. He had brought his bamboo flute to Guatemala, as well as his sangxian, a three-stringed, fretless Chinese lute.

Sasha believed that Russians had bigger souls than other people, and that Fyodor Dostoyevsky had captured the Russian soul. Sasha loved black men, “because they have fire, and they ignite my fire, and they live in the moment”.

His current boyfriend was a beautiful man with Arabic blood, a professional dancer, a marvellous singer. (He sang some opera for us in the kitchen one night, and he was good. He also danced… we all danced that night, Irina danced with a fish and made a video. She makes videos of many things, and they are often very funny.)

The third Russian was Olga, a former journalist, who was now teaching Italian over the internet.

There were other people at this hotel, guests and staff.

There had been a moment of tension with the staff when we had a fire ceremony on a table, and they rushed into the kitchen with a fire extinguisher. Apparently the fire was close to a gas pipe.

One night we were hanging out, drinking mezcal, shooting the breeze, and someone piped up,“this is like a reality TV show”.

“Si,” I said. “Hermano Grande de Guatemala. Un espetaculo fantastico, con personas extraordinarios….”

“Caspar’s drunk,” laughed Irina. “He always speaks Spanish when he’s drunk.”

Es verdad,” I said. “When I speak Spanish when I’m sober I sound like a half-wit, and when I speak Spanish when I’m drunk I still sound like a half-wit, but it doesn’t matter. You can’t be self-conscious if you want to learn a new language. Or else you can be drunk.”

I’d hang out with the gang later that night, but right now it was time for work.

This entailed sub-editing stories for Daily Maverick. The vast majority of the stories were about the novel coronavirus, and its impact on South Africa. I tried to treat the work as an abstraction… tidy up that grammar, polish that sentence, spell that name correctly.

The stories spoke of immense misery and suffering, of starvation, of desperation, of a democracy turning into a police state.

The police arrested protesting surfers for not exercising during the exercise period, while tens of thousands of hungry people lined up, squashed together like sardines, for food in a queue said to be 4km long. No physical distancing there, nor in the queues for Sassa grants, no social distancing in the tin shacks of the shanty towns, in the rudimentary structures where people lived in the squatter camps. No physical distancing for millions of South Africans, the poor, the hungry, the jobless, their suffering worsened immeasurably by the lockdown.

The government, it seemed, had become drunk – drunk – with the extraordinary powers it had abrogated. Saint Cyril Ramaphosa’s halo was badly tarnished.

I walked to the balcony outside my room, lit up a smoke, and hot tears gushed out of my eyes.

“What a fuckup,” I thought. “What a colossal fuckup.”

I thought of the prescient line that George Orwell wrote in 1948, the year he penned Nineteen Eighty-Four.

“If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.”

Finished my smoke, pulled myself together and walked back into my room, where more stories awaited me. DM/ML


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