Cats on a Hot Tin Roof

Ka-wa-thump. I startle awake with one thought: a bear has just landed on the roof. My eyes open and I see enough of the room that my brain starts to catch up. I’m not in a cabin in the North American Rockies, I’m in a house in Guatemala. In a city in Guatemala. No bears here. Then what made that incredible thump?

We expatriates have talked about this at breakfast, comparing notes on the various sleep disturbances of the night before. This certainly wasn’t our neighbourhood rooster, given to proactively and repeatedly predicting the dawn anytime after 2:00 a.m. It must be a cat.

My Oxford says a cat is a ‘small, furry, domesticated, carnivorous quadruped’ and to this I would now add, ‘loud, especially when landing on corrugated metal roofs before dawn’. Odd, because I think of cats as agile, delicate jumpers, landing lightly as they traverse improbable vertical distances from a standing start. Maybe cats land more heavily when jumping down. Maybe they just get a kick out of reverberating the entire roof, the ‘three-year-old in rubber boots’ of the animal kingdom.

Or maybe it was a puma, a ‘large American feline’. ‘Large’ certainly seems right in this case. And does Oxford’s artful reference to quechua, the Spanish word for puma, mean to imply a puma affinity for Spanish-speaking regions without precisely saying so? Here everyone, except me, speaks Spanish. Just as I decide that there will be no more feline assaults on our roof and relax enough to go back to sleep, I remember that I have seen no cats during the day. Curious. Maybe it really was a puma.

In 2003 I had come to La Antigua Guatemala, Antigua for short, to study Spanish. Well, I’d studied Spanish in various Canadian cities for four years. I was here to immerse myself in Spanish, albeit for only four weeks. I was here, at 50-something, to do something left undone at 20-something. To learn another language in another country. To live an adventure.

Even in my 20s, Guatemala was never on my list — that mental list we keep of the places we intend to visit. Scotland and Ireland — absolutely. Australia and New Zealand — certainly. Israel and China — maybe. Guatemala — umm, no. I’ve come no closer to Guatemala than buying a multi-coloured wraparound skirt, casually imported by someone to help pay for their trip. But the school has been recommended and the price for private instruction is within reach. Suddenly, everyone I know has something to say about Guatemala.

Former trade commissioners remember picturesque cobblestone streets, colonial architecture, wonderful hotels, terrific restaurants — all on an expense account. You won’t be disappointed.

A family friend who studied here on the cheap 25 years ago remembers getting off the plane in Guatemala City and walking through the airport and into the street, untroubled by any customs or immigration process.

The guidebooks talk about colourful markets, Mayan women in traditional dress, volcano-framed views south and west.

My notes from the school talk about appropriate dress for the ‘city of eternal spring’ and the prospect of being included in the social life of your host family. I have visions of living-room fiestas, brightly dressed people making traditional music with their charming extended families and friendly neighbours. Sort of a ‘Zorro meets Hector Elizondo’ ambiance. Exotic. Colourful. Improbable.

I’ve heard troubling things, too. My mother has been told civil war horror stories by church study groups. A 36-year civil war that ended in the 1990s seems uncomfortably more like current events than history.

My guidebook warns about keeping your distance from indigenous children, especially outside major population centres. Tourists suspected of baby-snatching have been killed. And while the scenic volcanoes make good hiking if you’re fit, even large groups are counselled to take armed guards to protect against attack by bandits.

The Canadian Government’s website says little to the point, being designed apparently more for school research than for helping tourists and business travellers make informed decisions. The USA State Department’s site holds down the other end of the continuum with details on recent political problems and a punchy summary of current dangers: Violent crime, however, is a serious and growing concern due to endemic poverty, an abundance of weapons, a legacy of societal violence, and a dysfunctional judicial system. That seems clear enough.

But wait: there’s more. If the bandits don’t get you, the geology will. Guatemala is a geologically active country. ‘Active’ is one of those funny words. Active 80-year-olds still get out and do things; active 50-year-olds exercise regularly; active 3-year-olds have too damned much energy. But ‘geologically active’ means earthquakes and erupting volcanoes. Oh dear.

All the recommendations and warnings are now beside the point. I’m here, ready or not, smart or not, and sleeping passably well in spite of everything. Well, almost everything. The map is not the territoryAlfred Korzybski said that, and he was right. Not one source-not mother, guidebook, school, State Department nor my own government — said anything about cats on a hot tin roof at 3:00 in the morning.


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8 Responses to Cats on a Hot Tin Roof

  1. Jim Taylor says:

    Isobel, I’m sure you remember that line (by Carl Sandburg?) that goes, “fog creeps in on little cat feet”? It perpetuates the myth that cats are quiet. Our cat thumps more loudly running across the floor inside the house, the lawn outside the house, than our 80-pound Chesapeake Bay Retriever does! Cats are only quiet when they want to be — and I guess they don’t want to be, when they land on a tin roof.

    Jim Taylor

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Yes, Carl Sandburg – and a staple of my high school English classes, along with the Highwayman (riding comma riding comma) and Paradise Lost. We had 3 cats for a while and they were stealthy when they wanted to be, for sure. Never trained to hunt by a mother cat, they still had amazing instincts for catching birds. The dog – a Kerry Blue Retriever – was half attention-deficit disorder, half klutz – no subtlety there at all.

  2. M. Gibson says:

    I presume this article about “cats on the roof” is only the first in a series of articles about Guatemala? It sounds like the first chapter in a good mystery novel! I seem to remember that there were quite a few adventures there – and many worth hearing about.

  3. MC says:

    Love it. Keep writing about your experiences there

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      One of the sad parts of that experience was coming to the end of my teenage optimism about ending poverty – it was everywhere I looked, and yet Guatemala is such a small country, such a small part of the challenge. Not that we shouldn’t do what we can – and we can likely do more than we think – but it would be good for everyone to go see, for themselves.

  4. Susan Wright says:

    Interesting observations Isabel. I do hope you’ll post more stories on the social/cultural aspects of Guatemala as well as your progress in Spanish immersion. Just keep an eye out for those thumping pumas!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      I found that my progress while immersed was OK – not impressive, but acceptable. The problem has been hanging onto the Spanish without a daily need for it back in Ottawa.

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