When I met Ernestina again she had lived in Guatemala City for six years, and now a great divide of time and unshared experience separated us. She was living, in Guatemalan colonial fashion, in a house with five patios, the first occupied by the owner, Doña Elvira, and the rest shared by family members, visiting relatives and friends, servants and permanent hangers-on. Ernestina was the companion of this elderly, powerful widow, whose natural genius was slowly being invaded and consumed by the cancer concealed in great inherited wealth.
Doña Elvira claimed to be a member of the ‘fourteen families’ elite, who could prove their descent from one of the mass murderers sent by Spain to conquer the country, but like so many of her kind she had been ensnared in habits of indolence, spending too much of her day seated in a throne-like chair on a wide balcony over the street. Here she waited for the president – preceded, flanked and followed by his numerous escort – to roar past on his Harley-Davidson. Sooner or later he usually did. Doña Elvira studied the way the president crouched over the handlebars of his machine or sat confidently bolt upright, convinced of being able to pick up valuable hints from these minutiae of behaviour. In the changing membership of his cortège she would identify shifts in political power. It was an activity that epitomized the watchful lethargy of the country. The preoccupation of the City, as ever, was with the possibility of this or any other regime coming to a peaceful or violent end, and with the improvements to be fought for, or, in the case of the privileged ladies with whom Doña Elvira played canasta most evenings, the deprivations to be endured.
This process of looking-on, the torpor, the eternal canasta, the incessant parties organized in celebration of trivial events, the ritual of overeating (Doña Elvira consumed five meals a day), the ever-present sensation of lives drifting towards a bloodbath: all this took its toll in Guatemala. Life expectation among the ruling classes, despite their high standard of living, was relatively short. The nervous and indolent five per cent at the top of the social pyramid were the victims of heart, liver and stomach diseases reaching almost epidemic proportions.