Last Friday I went with Lissette to the hairdresser, honestly kind of dreading it, knowing that I would be waiting at least 4 hours for her to get her hair done. It ended up as the most interesting cultural exchanges that I’ve had in a long time.
Lissettte has been going to the same Dominican hair salon for the last 25 years. When we entered, she saw Marcos, a hairdresser that she hadn’t seen in 15 years. She introduced me to him – a short, stocky guy with a big smile and a very effeminate manner. He is gay, not just gay but Supergay. As Lissette introduces me she mentions that he was from Guatemala.
After introductions, I sat down while Lissette had her hair washed and dyed. At a certain point, while her hair was setting, she called me over to join in their discussion.
Marcos knows Central America and Mexico well (for reasons I will soon reveal). He travels to Guatemala several times a year because he takes care of 3 kids back home, the children of a sister who was murdered by a boyfriend. He tells us that $250 a month takes care of food and private education for the kids and that he’d saved enough to buy himself a nice house 30 minutes from Antigua. Like all people back in Guatemala, his relatives consider him “rich” although by most standards he is not. “They look at me, with a job, a bit of money sometimes to travel, a tv, air conditioning, and they think I’m rich. I learned a few years ago that anything I take back with me I’ll be leaving behind because my relatives will ask me for it”. He tells me that he’s learned to buy cheap Chinese knockoffs and to sand off the “Made in China” label. He laughs at his own joke.
In between all his stories Marcos dances and laughs and I think he’s one of the most animated people I’ve ever met. He tells Lissette about his boyfriends, about a South African guy with the biggest penis he’s ever seen. There are 5 other women in the room and as I look around to gage their reactions I see they’re all smiling at his stories and theatrics.
At a certain point Lissette is having her hair put in rollers by his assistant and I’m left alone with Marcos. I ask him how he ended up in Montreal. That’s when he tells me that he had arrived as a refugee. When he was 19 (he is now 42) he had decided to leave Guatemala and had made his way up through Mexico and crossed the US border as an illegal. He stayed in Los Angeles, where he had some family, but didn’t like it. He moved on, coming further up north, and stayed in Boston for a while. One day he took the bus up to Plattsburgh, got out at the McDonalds, and walked to the Canadian border where he was taken in as a refugee. He knew nothing of Canada or Quebec and didn’t know that they spoke French here, the only thing he knew is that Canada didn’t turn away refugee applicants.
I thought it was an amazing story.
It took him about 7 years to get his Canadian citizenship and the first thing he did when he got it was to travel to Paris. He’s always had “a romance” with all things French. He makes a face when I ask him if he ever goes to the US. He tells me he doesn’t like the US, that as a Latino he doesn’t feel acceptance there; “A coloured person is never fully accepted in the US”. I almost tell him that I sometimes feel the same as an Anglophone in Quebec but catch myself. Poor, coloured, gay, didn’t speak the language - Marcos had everything going against him. It just made me realize how inconsequential any of our problems are. Do people have to go through what Marcos has gone through to be as satisfied with life as he is? Because that’s what struck me about Marcos: he was just a vivacious, happy guy.
In talking to him, there’s only two things that seem to upset Marcos. One is Latinos ashamed of their language and culture. He tells me of a cousin, 20 years old, who seemed to “forget” his Spanish after 2 years in Los Angeles. He knows Latin people here in Montreal who speak French at home and who’s kids don’t speak a word of Spanish. Marcos also believes in living in the here and now. He told me a story of a friend of his who counted the calories of everything he ate, didn’t drink, always worked out. He lived for the future. The guy died in a car crash. At 42, Marcos knows a lot of people our age who’ve died. His is motto is live now, you don’t know when you’re going to die.
By this time Lissette’s hair is done, we’re the last customers left in the salon. As we leave Marcos writes his telephone number on a piece of paper “I’d really like you both to visit me in Guatemala. You can stay at my house and I’ll show you my country”. He tells us about a nearby volcano that locals climb, about the colonial city of Antigua and the ruins of Tikal. He tells us that we won’t have to pay anything, that he’d love to show us around. His generosity is sincere and we were suddenly excited. What better way to discover a country than with a local? It could be an unforgettable experience.
A dreaded visit to the hairdresser ended up as an interesting encounter and a likely trip. All going well we hope to go to Guatemala in the next year. It just goes to show that sometimes the unexpected can arise from the most mundane events in our lives.
Travel Guide on Guatemala
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