Her first child came into the world when she was 15; she went on to give birth to 13 children (although only 7 lived) and was abandoned by her husband 14 years ago for somebody in a neighboring village. She probably isn’t much older than I, though she looks it: in her eyes swim the universal wisdom and sorrows of the Mater Dolorosa.
She’s a small, round woman—a little over four feet tall and almost as wide—dressed from head to toe in the intricate and colorful outfit that is her people’s (the K’iche Mayas) traditional attire, or traje. Her nose is formed from three doughy balls, and it adorns her chubby face like a knobbly plum thumbed into a loaf of brown bread. I glimpse a gold tooth when she smiles.
She exudes maternal charm. Cinnamon and church incense come off her in waves. She’s gregarious, probably hardworking, likes to do dreadful country-style machine patchwork, and is untrained but adequate with an embroidery needle…
She’s also ruthless as an iron spike, and this human ball of ethnic textiles stripped me of a hundred dollars within two hours of my arrival.
The really stupid thing about it is that I bought stuff I didn’t want.
I paused near her stall to look at the street signs and figure out which corner of the plaza I was in, and she popped up in front of me like an imp, pleading with me to look at her stall of second-hand huipiles. To be polite I scanned the display, but saw nothing that I liked.
Well, almost nothing. My gaze lingered half-a-second too long on a mustard colored hupil—a color that has since gone out of style as the women in this area favor black or dark blue backgrounds, these days, and a pink-red-violet scheme for decoration. But she caught that split second of hesitation, and fetched the huipil down with a long stick.
She started up with a continuous and hypnotic spiel: “Buy it buy it good price six hundred handmade my own work buy something five hundred for you is beautiful I’ll give it for four hundred good price is silk is silk is handwoven how much how much you want to pay so soft is silk handmade a good price how much you want three-fifty for you good price my own work is silk is silk…”
I scrutinised it…not only was it old, it was damaged. There were rips in the weaving, large inky stains, and some of the embroidery had come loose. On his own visit to Chichi, Kris had discovered the secret spot where all the second-hand huipil dealers hid; he’d even drawn me a map. From any of them, a slightly faded but still perfectly good, wearable, undamaged huipil was 150-180 Quetzales. Why was I even talking to this woman?
I tried to fight back. “But this is garbage! It’s useless! It can’t be fixed, can’t be worn, can’t be made into something else. You’re selling something that you would otherwise throw away! One-fifty for it. I’ll give you one-fifty. It’s garbage!”
When she replied she seemed not to have heard. “It’s silk, seda, feel how soft, it’s good, a good price, three-fifty, take it for three-fifty, help me out, to feed the children, they don’t make these anymore, you won’t find them, it’s old, an antique! Three-fifty, what do you want to pay for it? Three-fifty…”
“I want to see the rest of the market, first. Tomorrow. I can come and look at it again tomorrow.”
Her face clouded over like a thunderstorm. “No. I won’t be here tomorrow. Now. Buy it from me now.”
And, dammit, I did. Somehow we agreed on 300Q, three times what the thing was probably worth (if stains and a hole didn’t make it worthless, I suspect they did), and I paid her. “You’re a thief,” I told her, smiling, after I’d paid her. She laughed in delight, her gold tooth winking. “Your mother’s a thief,” I told her teenaged son.
He laughed and asked me where I was from. We had a little chat about Australia and kangaroos. I lit a fag. I was calming down. “It’s only money,” I told myself.
Then I looked down to find the demonic little Maya woman busily wrapping a traditional skirt, a corte, around me. Her stubby arms could barely reach around me, so she was practically embracing me. I laughed at the sight of her face on level with my chest, and moved my arm to go around her back (and protect my cigarette). She took this for a real hug, and squeezed me back.
“Oh, you look so nice! Doesn’t she look nice?” she bubbled.
Her son agreed enthusiastically, chiming in, “Sí, se ve linda.” I’ll bet. His mother’s son.
A foot taller than everyone else (even the men) in this Maya town, I looked ridiculous. And I had no desire to be one of those self-satisfied gringas—wrong build, wrong color, wrong everything—decked out in someone else’s full national costume.
“It will go with your huipil!” she cried, as though the idea had just occurred to her. I groaned.
“No, I don’t want the corte…”
Unlike the bright huipiles, the cortes of Chichi are rather dark and muddy…they remind me too much of ikats from Indonesia (which I never liked). The only splash of color are two wide stripes—one vertical, one horizontal—that K’iche’ women embroider onto the mass-produced tube of fabric, to add more color. Because every article of clothing has to feature a rainbow of colors…preferably clashing or in discord.
“It’s not traje without the corte! You have a beautiful huipil, you have to wear it with the corte! It’s brand new. I made it myself! See?” She waves a bag of embroidery thread and a half-stitched corte at me (I am an embroiderer…her hasty work does not impress). “You will look beautiful! Five hundred.” She folds the skirt up, and stuffs it into my shopping bag with the huipil. Oh. God.
“Señora, please, I don’t…what? No! Five hundred! That’s criminal!”
“Okay, three-fifty! It’s worth more, it’s brand new, extra long, but three-fifty for you. Take it take it, help me, my dear, I have to feed my children. My first sale of the day. Buen precio! Buen precio…”
A fool and her money are soon parted. But I am a bigger fool than most…
“I like your dolor very much,” she tells me, after tucking my money for the huipil and the corte away. She wiggles her fingers in front of her face, wrinkles her nose.
“Dolor?” I was puzzled. In Spanish, dolor means ‘pain’. I thought she was referring to what she’d just put me through.
“K’ok‘,” she says to her son, wiggling her fingers again.
Her son explained, “My mother doesn’t speak Spanish well. In K’iche’, k’ok’ means a good, a nice smell. She likes your perfume.”
‘Olor’, then. She gives me an engaging smile. “You can spare some of that dolor for me?”
Does this woman never stop? If I stand here any longer, she’ll strip me naked! “Well,” I thought to myself, “there’s really just a centimeter of perfume left in that bottle…” May as well jettison a bit of weight, to make room for my new, unwanted traje.
Go on, give her everything, get it over with… “Yes, you can have it, but it’s getting dark and I’m not coming all the way back here tonight to bring it to you. The boy can walk me to the hostel if you want it.”
“Oh, it’s okay, bring it when you come to the market tomorrow,” she says brightly, then falters when she sees the look on my face.
Why doesn’t this surprise me more? “Ah. You will be here tomorrow. Because you’re a liar AS WELL as a thief. You’re a witch.”
She grins mischievously. Already she’s sized me up, knows that she has been forgiven in advance because I like cheeky women. “Will you bring it?” she asks, patting my hand.
*sigh* “I will bring it.”
I still can’t say why I let her cow me so. Too polite? Intimidated? Guilty?
I can’t say that I resent her for it, either. Them’s the Rules. Buying and selling is a blood sport at any sprawling street market, and unless you know how to play the game you will get diddled silly. In the end, there is no one to blame but my own sorry self. Caveat emptor!
Welcome to Chichicastenango.