We’ve lived in bars
and danced on tables
hotels trains and ships that sail
we swim with sharks
and fly with aeroplanes out of here
-Cat Power, Lived in Bars
In Uganda, it was called Fugly’s. In Egypt, it was an alley in which no two wooden chairs looked the same. In Colombia, it involved flamenco by candlelight. Every country in which I have lived and worked, no matter the scale of conflict or natural disaster plaguing it, has always been home to that one place where aid workers, backpackers, wanderlusters and gray-haired ex-pats gather to share their nostalgia, pearls of wisdom, love or disdain of being on the road, and conspiracy theories.
In Guatemala, it is called Café No Sé.
Part of the print ad for No Sé lists – with pride – the following as its attributes:
“uncomfortable seats, confused staff, wanted and unwanted pregnancies […], 4.5 dogs, other creatures, deviant behavior […], hearts to break, heartbreakers …”
Nobody goes to Café No Sé for an uneventful, quiet night of reflection – not unless they intend for reflection to lead to brooding and brooding to a sense of either impending doom or overwhelming positivity. The night before Tropical Storm Agatha unleashed its full force on Guatemala, on Hour 24 of incessant rain, I huddled inside Café No Sé, earnestly engaged in an argument over whether, following the eruption of volcanoes from Pacaya to Iceland and occurrence of earthquakes from Haiti to Chile, the end of the world is approaching. One of my friends was arguing that a realignment of the universe is taking place, while the bartender who overheard the 2012-oriented conversation exclaimed “oh honey! The end of the world is coming! Drink heavily, have lots of sex, and tell mama you love her!”
Perhaps shamefully, I did not follow his prescription. I did, however, share my own recipe for tropical storm preparation. It was called an “emergency kit” and it required the right amount of neurotic pre-planning, batteries, a headlamp, candles, and all the canned food a girl can eat. Somehow, my disaster preparedness was less popular than the bartender’s version… until the next morning, when there was not a single candle to be found in the market.
No Sé means “I do not know” in Spanish; a dictum the café’s regulars love to disprove. There is always an expert at something at No Sé, be that Mayan religious rituals, metaphysics and philosophy, or flipping corn tortillas. Curiosity abounds and nothing short of passion is accepted at the door. I recently brushed elbows with a woman who was gesturing wildly, wagging her finger at a man and excoriating: “You need to have passion in life!” Sitting at the counter next to her was a group of older ex-pats, equally loudly expressing the disillusionment that often sadly comes with having spent a life on the road.
It is hard to tell whether what is rubbing up against your leg mid-conversation is a dog tail or a human. It is not uncommon for lone travelers to be sitting at a bar, ready to share their story of how they are walking from Alaska to Argentina with the person sitting next to them. On the night before the storm, I met an American who had arrived to attend a Guatemalan wedding. The volcanic eruption meant he was the only friend of the groom’s who was able to witness the nuptials. He joked that he was hoping No Sé would help find him a wedding date to double the number of guests in attendance. No Sé-goers will wax nostalgic about the meaning of true love and proclaim themselves ‘dreamers’, but until love knocks on their own door, they will often settle for its more ephemeral manifestations. Hence, any night at the café is a collection of lovers, past, present, and future, from the most furtive to the ones wrapped up in the kind of romance they want to shout it from the rooftops.
Unlike the effortlessness of our sheesha alley in Cairo, No Sé tries hard to have the effect it does on its regulars. There is a sense that its charm is very deliberate, from the hipsters it can attract to its mood lighting and tongue-in-cheek art. This does not rob the watering hole of its ability to indeed be charming. And much like the flamenco evenings in Colombia or trivia bar games in Uganda, the nightly gatherings at No Sé, flavored with pop corn and washed down with the local Quetzalteca rum, capture the pulse of something beautiful: the beat of a community, always changing, always passionate, always dreaming.