A few years ago, my wife and I took a trip to Guatemala. It was more like a pilgrimage. It was during Holy Week. As an amateur photographer, this trip was my dream come true. I hoped to document the world-famous Easter processions in the colonial city of Antigua, which go on for seven days and nights. Every church sponsors a procession, and there are dozens of churches in Antigua.
Every night, the pious gather to decorate the cobblestone streets with intricate designs made of flower petals. Every day, hundreds of devout penitents, wearing medieval hooded robes, assemble in the streets. Together, they shoulder huge wooden platforms bearing life-size statues depicting the various stages of the Passion of Jesus. Like a giant caterpillar, they shuffle two steps forward, one step back, inching along miles of flower-carpeted streets.
It is kind of like the Pasadena Rose Parade, but upside down. The flower petal decorations are on the street and the floats pass over them. And instead of college marching bands playing John Phillip Sousa, there is a gaggle of amateur musicians playing funeral dirges. Procession after procession. Hour upon hour. Funeral dirges.
For some unknown reason, my wife was quite interested in the music. I couldn’t imagine why, but she actually wondered if we could buy a CD—of funeral dirges. I guess she planned to use it for aerobics. Her Slumdog Millionaire CD was wearing out. And, for that matter, so was she. Over the years, her aerobics had gradually evolved into something a little more like Tai Chi. Slower-paced music might be just what her Zen master ordered.
So, when I saw a street vendor hawking CDs, I went over to hear his spiel. I couldn’t understand all of his Spanish, but I caught the gist.
“Ladies and gentlemen, now you, too, can have your very own collection of the world’s most depressing funeral dirges. For just $19.95 you can endure hour upon hour of the saddest music ever written. This unique collection is not available in stores. Accept no substitutes. Act now, while supplies last.”
So, I sprung for one. He was thrilled. It was his first sale of the day. Maybe his first sale ever. He crossed himself many times. And then, he skipped town.
When we got home, we found out that CD was just a blank disc. There was nothing on it. Nada. Nary a dirge to be heard. Thank God.
Meanwhile, I was ready to take my Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs. Camera in hand, I waded into the crowd of believers that lined the street. It was a truly uplifting experience. I don’t mean just spiritually. I mean physically. In that crush of humanity, my body was literally lifted from the pavement. When I finally returned to Earth, I realized that, while my spirit was being lifted, so was my wallet.
And it didn’t take any nimble-fingered Artful Dodger to do the job. While I was buried in that rugby scrum, even a Budweiser Clydesdale could have picked my pocket. I was lucky the guy didn’t take my pants.
What had begun as a photographer’s dream had become a traveler’s nightmare. There is nothing worse than being in a foreign country trying to get your stolen credit cards replaced in time to pay your hotel bill.
And, of course, the customer service hotline operator had to be in Bangalore, India. That was a problem right from the start. Question one: Name. “Larry Kolczak. K-O-L-C-Z-A-K. No, not C-C. No, not Z-Z. It’s C, as in Charles, Z as in Zebra.” I guess they don’t have a lot of Polish people out his way.
Question two: Home address. “Number 24, Avenida 16 de Septiembre, San Antonio Tlayacapan, Jalisco, Mexico. Hello? Are you still there?”
The good news was that the replacement credit card was going to be delivered by Federal Express. You know, “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.” The bad news was that their motto loses something in the translation. “Overnight” becomes “Mañana.”
And it didn’t help that the hotel where we were staying was named “La Posada.” Half the hotels in Latin America are named “La Posada.” I could picture that FedEx truck inching along, hour upon hour, behind the Easter processions. He probably dropped off my package at whatever “La Posada” he was closest to when he ran out of gas.
Things were getting down to the wire. I began to panic. What if the new credit card didn’t arrive in time? How was I ever going to pay the hotel bill? I needed a Plan B.
And then, it came to me.
“Ladies and gentlemen, now you, too, can have your very own collection of the world’s most depressing funeral dirges. For just $19.95 . . .”