Wedding Bells in Quetzaltenango

December 26, 1993|By ERNEST F. IMHOFF

Usually you don't go to a son's wedding never having met his intended nor her family, not speaking their native tongue nor they yours, never having been anywhere near Central America where they live, not knowing Guatemala except from letters and calls, and not having traveled abroad as a family, much less the Third World.

And usually you don't have such a good time at a wedding.

We're back from an eight-day trip to the Altiplano, or highlands, of Guatemala where our eldest son, Peter, married a lovely woman, Ileana, in her native Quetzaltenango on Thanksgiving Day.

Five of us took a 4 1/2 -hour flight to Guatemala City and a bone-jarring four-hour bus ride to Quetzaltenango. We admired the vertical corn and wheat gardens but also tasted the juices of apprehension. My wife, Hilda, and I are in our middle 50s with the usual middle-aged interior calluses, while our daughter and her husband, with a baby at home in Maine, and our younger son are in their middle or late 20s.

Keep in mind several things about Quetzaltenango, most often called called Xela (pronounced shay-la) for its original Mayan name. It means either surrounded by 10 hills or a reference to 10 major Mayan gods, depending on what you read.

Set within a circle of beautiful hills, Xela is at 7,300 feet. In the current summer season, the temperature goes from the 80s to the 40s and back. It's the second-biggest city in Guatemala, with 80,000 people, but is not a tourist place, so most people don't speak English. Our bus ride was a thousand-curve affair and took us a world away from Guatemala City's polluted urban sprawl.

We would soon get into the routine of traveling here: Drink only bottled water. After using toilet paper, fold it and put it in a nearby basket since water systems can't handle paper. Allow time for bus breakdowns (we had two). Watch your basic Spanish be greeted with warmth. Respect the ability of fast-moving, honking cars to win intersection skirmishes. Watch out for the after-effects of frijoles (tasty mashed beans) but try all the good food.

Our new daughter-in-law and her family, headed by Don Miguel, a shoemaker, and Dona Tere, a shopkeeper, were a delight. Almost as soon as we got off the bus, we were in their home. The hugs with mother, father, three daughters and son were the first of many the next eight days, as were the "mucho gustos" (happy to see you) and Dona Tere's delicious meals.

Folks love to make speeches. So the first day Don Miguel, a fellow who wears dark glasses for a troubled eye, welcomed us formally and, armed with two months of Spanish lessons, I read a speech about how happy we were to be there. Then came the flood of Spanish phrases, many even understood.

The few periods of silence were filled with lots of smiles, the short gaps less daunting than feared.

The most agile mountain goat in the conversational terrain was Peter, a 27-year-old K-12 English teacher at a local school, who is fluent in Spanish. He had gone to Guatemala a few years ago for adventure, had built fireplaces for Habitat for Humanity and had learned Spanish.

A cottage industry in Central America is Spanish schools for foreigners where the pupil-teacher ratio is 1-1 and teachers are rotated regularly for variety. His last teacher was a dark-haired beauty, Ileana Janette Alonzo Sanchez. He moved back to San Francisco twice, then returned to Xela in February this year.

Much of his phone talk was about teaching and the nice people, but the name Ileana kept creeping in, along with: "I won't get married for years." He courted her in her conservative parents' living room. A friendly third party was generally in attendance.

Suddenly, he announced last spring that they planned to marry this Thanksgiving. "That'll give you guys the chance to come, during Hilda's teaching break."


It took most of a few minutes to decide to go to Xela. Interested in helping the less fortunate, Ileana would receive her master's degree in social work at a local university a week before her wedding, and the couple would live in Xela for a year before moving to the United States.

During the wedding week, we walked the town, visited a tropical resort, were stopped on a mountain road by 15 soldiers who carefully checked passports as part of the government's 30-year campaign against anti-government guerrillas fighting human rights abuses, bought a few beautiful textiles, hiked the hills (including climbing the 12,000-foot Santa Maria volcano) and visited Xela's picturesque cemetery where rich families are buried in mausoleums and the indigenous poor people are below ground.

We also became acquainted with matters of the estomago (stomach).

Ileana and Peter were married twice, the first time in a civil service on our Thanksgiving Day in the Alonzo home. The visiting North American party, including two of Peter's college buddies, traveled to the wedding in the back of a pickup truck driven by the bride's brother, Mitchell, who himself planned to be married in two weeks.

Before 40 relatives and friends at the civil ceremony, a cheerful lawyer talked without notes for 45 minutes about the law, life, love and how the couple knew only a little bit of each other but now would learn so much more.

Two days later, bridegroom and father traveled again in the pickup, mother sitting with the driver. In the Church of San Nicolas, Ileana and Peter were married before 175 as the Catholic priest intoned against a background of rap music from a festival outside. A most vigorous eight-man marimba band inspired smooth acrobatic dancing into the night.

We said our warm, almost tearful goodbyes the next afternoon. As we faced an airplane departure time, a broken down bus in the hills over Guatemala City couldn't begin to spoil one of our most wonderful weeks. The bus was fixed in time, and we'll probably be on it again.

Ernest Imhoff is readers' representative for The Baltimore Sun.

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