For weeks the big blue tent occupied a huge chunk of parking space behind the bus terminal in Antigua Guatemala. And just when I had decided to go, of course the tent was swiftly broken up, loaded into an impressive amount of unlikely vehicles and gone, just like that.
I love the circus. I think the last time I visited one was in Copán a year or maybe two ago. It was tiny, the tent made of Tigo and Claro* leftover vinyls and besides a scruffy dog, two chickens and an even scruffier goat, there were no animals. Because, explained a bubbly and charismatic teenager who turned out to be the star of the show, the circus had a policy against the mistreatment of animals. Lack of resources seemed more likely, but indeed, the dog, goat and two chickens scavenging for popcorn under the bleachers appeared to be happy enough.
I’m probably not the only person in the world who dreamed as a kid to run off with the circus. But few were might have been as prepared as I was. My biggest dream was to work with the tigers and lions but I was realistic enough to realize that that was a job probably not given to an inexperienced nine-year old. So I practiced juggling and tightrope walking instead. I learned quickly (the hard way) that juggling wasn’t my thing and the tightrope, well, that might have worked out if only I had been able to practice on a real steel cable, not a piece of rope attached to a table and the living room couch.
So becoming a clown was about the only option. Now that I could do, I figured. And in my mind I prepared scripts, designed costumes and received a standing applause after the audience fell off their seats crying with laughter. I saw myself travelling the world in a colourful circus wagon, becoming everybody’s friend while keeping my expression reserved, marking that distinguished distance between the happy clown and the sad but wise person behind the mask.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, who’s to say), no circus caravan ever crossed my way and thus I stayed put, for the time being. But that circus itch never went completely away.
About ten or twelve years ago we were having a meeting at my place in Copán Ruinas about some sort of community project when all of a sudden we heard this roar.
“It sounds like a lion,” I said.
“Don’t be crazy, it must be a cow in heat,” a colleague answered.
But it was a lion… That night a circus had set up business in the field across the creek, right next to my house. I found out when I went walking the dogs the next morning. How exciting!
That night I rounded up some kids (never a lack of those and a great excuse to go to the circus) and there we went. Since I was paying for a whole bunch we didn’t take the more expensive seats (white plastic chairs) in the arena, but placed our butts on scarce planks on rackety bleachers. And the show began…
The guy with the python was impressive and also incredibly handsome. The clowns were very vulgar and totally unsuitable for a young audience, but that made them even funnier… The lions… Look, there was “my” lion! They came into the arena without a cage, without a leash or any other attire to refrain them from eating some juicy kids in the front row (and how happy I was to sit high up on the bleachers!). Then there was this round thing, almost like a hamster wheel, that circled up and down. The acrobats went inside first and then started running the wheel on the outside. Every time the wheel went up, they had to duck so they wouldn’t touch the roof. Scary I thought, what if… Because of course there was no safety net.
Even in the small, shabby circuses, things are way harder than they look and I think the artists deserve a tremendous respect. Especially in the small circuses, where the clown is also the acrobat on the tightrope, the musician, the driver, the lion tamer and the one who sells the tickets. And sometimes things do go terribly wrong…
I wasn’t there when it happened, but a few days into the show, one of the acrobats didn’t duck when he hit the roof and he fell all the way down. He was taken to the hospital and while he was recovering the circus stayed put. First for days, then for weeks that slowly turned into months. And I woke up every day to the roar of the lion.
In a small town as Copán Ruinas you can sell only so many tickets, so when everybody not overly evangelical had seen the show, the tickets became cheaper, just to keep the show going on. The show itself also became more routine, the jokes more vulgar, the performances less inspired. I would see Handsome Snake Guy at the market, Grumpy Circus Director at the auto repair shop and the Lovely albeit quite chubby Lady Acrobat at the creek, doing laundry. Little by little the glow, the glitter, the illusion of the circus was fading away. But not for me. The more human I saw them, the more magic they became to me. And that old circus itch was bothering me again, although now I was old enough to see myself travelling in an old beaten-up Ford, not in that colourful cart.
But one day I woke up and the circus was gone.
Just like that, gone, leaving only a yellow patch of grass and some trash behind.
They hadn’t warned me, they vanished into the night the way they had come.
So yet again I missed my chance to run off with the circus.
*Local cell phone companies