Buen provecho! That is, enjoy your meal. Or, more literally, take good advantage of it. So goes the pre-chowing down salutation in Guatemala. Additionally, more often than not, when a person finishes at the table he gathers his utensils and while rising utters muchas gracias to no one in particular. But those still partaking of the meal, if they are on cue, respond with the aforementioned buen provecho. I learnt this Guatemalan ritual before any other. How ironical then that for the first two months of my stay in the country some years ago I did anything but take good advantage of the food I ate!
This period coincided with the course of Spanish language tuition I undertook in the Western Highlands town of Xela, aka Quetzaltenango, during which I resided with a local family. Well did I know from previous travels that one of the delights of voyaging around the world consisted of sampling the variety of local cuisines. Everything I had eaten in foreign lands might not have struck the palate favourably, so to speak, but many things had and continued to do so.
I had read that Guatemala’s food did not comprise anything to write home about especially. I knew that for me it would largely be restricted to the ubiquitous Central American staples of tortillas and beans once I ventured north into the Petén jungle. Until then I guessed I would be served many different things at the table, typical Guatemalan victuals and less typical.
I liked my Xela family – a widowed woman and her three daughters – from the start. On the afternoon I first entered the house the woman made a point of inquiring if there was anything in particular I enjoyed eating. No doubt I mentioned a few items though I believe I made it clear, as well as I could given my limited Spanish, that I would be prepared to tackle whatever she served.
The variety surprised. From time to time I was presented fruit and pasta, both of which I appreciated. The ritual tortillas and beans were okay. Novelties such as mosh and tamales were harder for me to digest but I happily partook of them nonetheless. The story was somewhat different with fried plátanos. I could not rightly understand how anyone could abuse a piece of fruit in that fashion. My dear hostess, always a user of oil, went overboard with its use whenever she fried items. One fried plátano I could more or less handle. A plateful, however, were hard going, made just fractionally less onerous by the possibility of submerging them beneath the vast quantities of cream they usually came served with.
After a couple of weeks in Xela I am sure my family regarded me as some sort of culinary marvel. In stark contrast, they assured me, to some of the foreign students who had resided with them in the past. I received large portions and second helpings as a matter of course. Alas, I did not have the heart to disillusion them.
About six weeks into my stay with the family I began feeling less than wonderful in the stomach. Some days I suffered from an abject lack of appetite. Other days, the main symptoms consisted of diarrhoea, flatulence, and bloatedness so pronounced I would have floated on any pool of water, fresh or salty.
I took my leave of the family shortly after the problems first made themselves manifest, hopeful a return to a less oil saturated diet would do the trick. But the damage had been done. On visiting a doctor in the old colonial capital of Antigua, I discovered not only that parasites had invaded my system but also that I had shed six or more kilograms in weight – a tenth of my normal body weight – in two months.
Still on medication, I made the journey into the jungle for the first time, eager to find out how tortillas and beans (the standard daily fare of the internally displaced refugee group I was about to join) for breakfast, lunch, and dinner would sit. Perhaps I would soon be able to take advantage of the meals after all.