THE PENCIL MAN by Patty Simon


We saw him alone in the convent.
We saw him again in the market.c We met him walking from the shrineá and after only a few moments of conversation, I noticed little children coming up from nowhere as if they knew him. They would put their little hands out and ask (with big smiles on their faces), forá not candy or money but PENCILS! He would very nonchalantly reach into his side pocket and pull out all sorts of used but good pencils, pens or markersá writing implements that we take so for granted but necessary if any of these children wanted to enter school on January 6. No pencil – no admittance, it is that simple and because many of their parents could not afford such luxuries, Doug, our new found friend, a teacher from Austin, Texas, wanted to do something about it.
“Why?” I said. He looked like a tourist just like us and even though you see people or situations that you wish you could change or help with, you usually just keep walking. Well, the obvious reason was that ironically he teaches ‘English as a Second Language – ESL’ to Spanish speaking immigrants and middle schoolers in Austin and he understands the importance of education – even if it means just learning enough English or Math to sell in the famous market in Chichicastenango to tourists who come to buy all the beautiful handmade fabrics, masks and stonework.
But another reason we found much more interesting. As we stood and chatted, we discovered that Doug was celebrating his 13th Christmas in Chichi and he started coming here with his grandparents when he was younger. He has become very knowledgable on all the folk art and has inherited a collection of ‘Santos’ – antigue, carved and painted wooden status of various saints. Doug soon accompanied us on our buying sprees and taught us the difference between art done for the “tourist trade” and real “antique” art.
We shopped with Doug, ate Christmas Eve dinner with Doug and talked about Texas history with Doug. Since I originally came from Texas I was very interested to talk about Texas History but somehow managed to skip it in school because we kept moving every few years due to oil company reorganizations. Doug’s ancestors were one of the first 300 to settle near Galveston with Stephen F. Austin after the famous Alamo battle.
Because of our mutual Texas upbringing, Doug said he was very happy to meet us and soon became a “friend of our family”. On Christmas Eve, Doug knocked on our door and said we must follow him to see something so special to Guatemalaá a ‘Posada’. After we finally found 5 pairs of shoes sprawled all over our room, we got to the plaza and went up and down the streets with Doug looking for the procession. He told us we would hear it before we saw it since drums and flutes were involved. We almost gave up when Alex, Katie and Ben were becoming very scared of dodging the flying firecrackers in the streets. But then, we saw it. A local family with the children and grandparents carrying a wooden shrine of the Virgin Mary and Joseph decorated with silver tinsel and fake poinsettas. Everyone’s faces were dimly lit by the glowing candles in their hands. I asked Doug where they were going and he told me they were re-enacting the night that Mary and Joseph went from inn to inn looking for a place to stay and only finding a stable to give birth to Jesus on Christmas Eve. As the family stopped at the corner, we politely asked if we could take a picture of them. They smiled and immediately insisted we follow them and invited us “into” their home where we found a Christmas tree all lit up. They served us homemade tamales with a very ‘sweet’ hot fruit wassail drink that Doug had said was traditional to Guatemala. He helped us along some polite conversation, a few jokes and our question about whether or not a little red statue of Santa meant that Guatemalan children also “believe”! With Doug, we were able to enter into another level of travelá connecting as a friend and even as a part of a family! We thanked our hosts, shook hands with the men and hugged the women and went “home” to the Mayan Inn to wait for Santa Claus.
We have met many interesting fellow travelers, each having their own story of what brings them to Guatemala from all over the world. But Doug was an example of someone who connects with the culture on a familial level. He connects in many ways we were soon to discover. He stays at a local family-owned small hotel where they insisted he join them to share their evening meals with them. He has befriended 2 young men who showed a lot of artistic talent. When we met Doug he had a set of Prismacolor pencils and watercolor brushes he wanted to give them and told us that in his last visit he even showed them how to use ‘perspective’ to render the churches in the plaza for an art show he encouraged them to enter. They invited us into their “studio” and their uncle’s sandal making room and ended up giving us a pair of homemade sandals to take with us. Doug is also a good photographer and has captured the richness of the culture through the beautiful faces of the people he befriends. His photography can be seen in shows in Texas.
On our last day together, Doug had come from the Chichi cemetery, a very colorful place to go, where he was visiting a group of local orphan children who make it their home. He said that next Christmas he was going to bring them each a towelá something they had seen him use to wipe his camera lense. They had felt its softness and wished for one of their own. Doug will make that small wish come true.
On meeting Doug, the Pencil Man, we began our visit to Chichicastenango as observers and ended our stay as friends to many Guatemalansá we left not shaking hands but hugging and kissing everyone goodbye! Thanks, Doug!