Thursday, January 13, 2011

Getting attention

I had a realization last weekend how important whistling is here.

For guys in the Guatemalan street, whistling is the easiest, most convenient to get one someone’s attention. Flag down a bus, get a companero’s attention in a busy market, say hey to yer buddy – just fweeeeeeeet and you’re there.

It’s loud, definitely. This is no casual whistle; we’re talking about the piercing sound you hear at baseball games, that guy behind you who’s had four too many beers and showing everyone he can make way more noise than you thought possible. It’s the piercing whistle, the one that makes you wince a little bit if you’re sitting nearby. In Guatemala, I feel like I hear it everywhere.

It’s getting to be part of the way I interact with people. Last weekend I strolled into a plaza and saw the microbus I was looking for, pulling up curbside about 100 feet away – I immediately whistled and the ayudante (bus helper) turned. He came back with a questioning hand flip that looks like “what the f***?” for Americans (but really just means “what’s up?” here in Guate), and I shouted back that I was headed to the bus terminal. He nodded. Bingo - I understood, he understood and next thing I was climbing on the bus.

The best part about that interaction, I realized, was that I understood exactly how to communicate. Cultural context, (or in my case, living in Guatemala) requires that I use a specific language to get on with the people around me. I’ve been here five months and I’m starting to pick up the clues, which is pretty satisfying because people seem to look at you with a lot less curiosity when you can show some local knowledge.

One other thing - the whistle isn’t straight; there’s a pitch jump you have to master. It’s ….. fweeeeeEEEEET!!


  1. So sweet... Love this stuff. Like the finger-thwapping when something is intense and one wants to emphasize it. Or the beckoning with fingers turned down rather than up. Love seeing those traits.

  2. The finger-thwapping is awesome, as is the upside-down "Come here" those ones....I was pretty excited this morning, however, when a couple of municipal cops taught me the gesture for laziness (pereza) - you open your right hand, palm up, and act like something heavy is weighing it down....."hue-VONES, pues!" funny