Monday, April 22, 2013


North from Chichicastenango is a pleasant green, park-like valley with pine trees and grass and along a winding road I meet my first Civil Patrol, five young men with old Mauser rifles and wearing what I took to be their uniform of green-painted straw hats.  They found me more amusing than suspicious.
     The road went through Santa Cruz and Sacapulas and at both I stopped at an Army base to ask about conditions farther up the road and in both cases I was told that all was muy tranquilo.  In the Capital I had been told by the Government spokesman that in the north of Quiché province the EGP, the Guerrilla Army of the Poor, was active and had fifteen hundred fighters, but the soldiers I met were relaxed and there was not a bit of tension in the air.  At Sacapulas a soldier helpfully pointed out that I was on the wrong road.

The road climbed into the dry country of the Altiplano and the twisting mountain road past Santa Cruz was dusty and bone-jarringly slow, but aside from the rough road it was a pleasant drive, though the only liquid I could obtain in the heat of the long afternoon were warm Pepsi-Colas I bought from little Indian girls who tended roadside stands.

It was evening when I arrived at the square in Nebaj.  I had scarcely turned off the motor when I was set upon by a flock of children wanting to know  if I needed a place to stay, someplace to eat, my shoes shined, or if perhaps I were merely looking for someone to give money to.  I was tired and in no mood for aggressive children, however charming I might have found them under other conditions.

One of them was particularly insistent, a small, round-faced Indian boy with a shoeshine box.  I guessed him to be about thirteen years old.  I tried to ignore him but he tagged along, keeping up a steady stream of questions in Spanish. 
     Then he asked if I spoke English.  Suspecting that no good would come from an honest answer, I replied, quite untruthfully, that I spoke only German.
     The youngster then reached into his coat and drew out a piece of paper and handed it to me. It was written in German, a letter from a journalist recommending the bearer as ein ehrlich Führer, an honest guide.
     This was how I met Gaspár, who would become my friend and honest guide.
Gaspár quickly found a room for me.  It was really more of a cell, a windowless, bare-walled chamber with loose planking on the floor in a fortress-like colonial building, lit by a single small, naked bulb suspended from the ceiling.  There were two cots with straw mattresses.  I spread my sleeping bag on one of the cots in an attempt to prevent whatever might be living in the mattress from getting on me.  This was to prove unsuccessful.  The room cost sixty-five cents a night.
     After arranging for my lodging, I asked Gaspár if he might recommend a good place for supper.  He led me to a low, dark, windowless establishment consisting of a single room lit only by a cooking fire.  It was crowded with people, mostly Indians, orange-lit by the flames, eating and talking in the smoky darkness.  It looked like Hell, but in a homey sort of way.  It is the best food in town, Gaspár assured me.  And it may well have been so, but, alas, I did not find out, for the dense wood smoke of the cooking fire, unrelieved by either window or chimney, stung my eyes and set me coughing.
     Seeing my problem, Gaspár led me to another smoky and ill-lit establishment, though one with a table outside where we ate a fine meal of chicken and rice and were by this time joined by Carlos, a smaller boy whom Gaspár introduced as his cousin.
     Tired from my drive, I retired to my cell, noticing that Gaspár and Carlos were joining me on the other cot.  I suppose being an ehrlich Führer is a full-time job.  I expected to get to sleep quickly.  I did not.  I was sick.  Very sick.  It would seem that the food in the second best restaurant in Nebaj did not agree with me.  I spent most of the night outside, on the cool ground under a magnolia bush.  It was actually quite comfortable and possibly safer than the straw bedding in my room.

Garpár and Carlos were up bright and early.  At least I think so.  I’m a little vague on the details of the next morning.  I think it was sometime during the morning that Carlos was replaced by Philipe, a boy of about Gaspár’s age, whom he introduced as another of his cousins.  The boys ate a hearty breakfast of mush and eggs and black beans and tortillas and coffee and I nursed a bottle of soda water.  Someone tried to sell me some ancient Mayan jade, but my mind wasn’t clear enough to contemplate violating the Antiquities Law so early in the morning.

Nebaj is in the north of Quiché province, and had long been a center of Indian participation in the now communist-led insurrection, and had suffered greatly when the guerrillas proved unable to protect their Indian allies from the Army.  I explained to Gaspár that I wanted to find out about two of the government’s key strategies in its apparently successful fight against the insurrection: the model villages and  civil patrols, the so-called frijoles y fusiles, the “beans and rifles” campaign.

The Indian cultures of Guatemala were never buried under imported European ways.  One reason is that the Spaniards never defeated the Indians of the Altiplano.  Three Spanish expeditions against them failed, but the Indians may have suspected that they were pushing their luck and a settlement was at length negotiated by the Dominicans, one that resulted in substantial Indian autonomy in local matters.  Among other things, this has meant that in remoter areas the principal language is 
not Spanish (or “Castillian” as it is locally called), but one of the twenty-two Indian languages.  In the case of Nebaj this was Ixil, and Gaspár was my interpreter.  I would talk to him in Spanish and he would do whatever had to be done in Ixil.  As I quickly realized that Gaspár was vastly better at driving a bargain than I could ever be, I knew that this was going to be a good arrangement.
     Gaspár took me to model villages and to meet with the civil patrols, and helped me do interviews and get photographs, and in general kept me out of trouble.  One day when I wanted to go farther north, close to an area where the guerrillas were said to be active, I asked Gaspár if it would be safe.  No problem, he said, just don’t wear your “military clothes,” indicating my stylish Banana Republic khaki bush jacket.  Knowing good advice when I heard it, I dressed as civilian as I could and no harm came to me.  Another time he hustled me out of a village market because, he said, bad people were watching me and it wasn’t safe for me to stay there anymore.

It soon became clear to me that Gaspár was much more interesting than model villages or civil patrols.  His parents, he told me, had died in the fighting, and now he and an indeterminate number of cousins lived with an uncle in Nebaj.

Garpár grew on me.  One morning, in Huehuetenango, we had corn flakes for breakfast.  Gaspár put hot milk on them.  I remarked that in el Norte we put cold milk on our corn flakes.  He thought it an odd thing to do and I suppose an Indian from the cool Altiplano would think it odd that anyone would eat a cold breakfast, if given the choice.  Another time, at a street fair, I gave him some money to play table soccer.  He played all evening on one coin, winning every game against the other kids by sheer energy and aggression.

Gaspár’s parents had been killed in the troubles, whether by guerrillas or the Army I didn’t ask.  A proper journalist would have asked, but I was coming to realize that I was not a proper journalist and it didn’t feel right to reduce a friend’s tragedy to a fact.  The worst times had been about five years before, when Gaspár would have been about eight or nine.  There were thousands of orphans in the Altiplano, children like Gaspár and Carlos and Philipe.  They were not cared for by the state or left to wander the street, but were taken in by uncles like Gaspár’s, to live in his house in the town.  Indian families are normally nuclear  --  a mother and father, the younger children and perhaps an elderly parent  --  living on their private plot of land and raising their own food.  But when the troubles came the vast extended network of uncles and cousins became a safety net to love and shelter the Gaspárs and Carloses and Philipes.
     Gaspár would be cared for, but his childhood had not much longer to run.  By his late teens an Indian boy is considered grown up, and expected to marry and become a farmer.  Gaspár would soon become a man, but for him the ties with his family’s life and land had been broken.  He did not live in his father’s house and on his  father’s land.  He did not work in their field or carry with a headstrap the heavy load of firewood for the cooking fire, as do the smallest children in an Indian family, nor carry his share of a great load of produce and walk the many miles with his family to the weekly market, nor could he look forward to they day when his father would divide his land to give him his share to grow his corn and beans, and raise his turkeys, to feed his own wife and children in a world that he would be as much a part of as the mountains or the corn plant.
     Gaspár’s world was now the town, where he shined shoes and acted as an honest guide for visiting foreigners.  He went to school and wanted to travel, which are un-Indianlike activities.  He wanted to come to el Norte with me, and I wished it could be so.
     The Indian world that Gaspár had been born into was comfortable and familiar, and it was sad to think that he had been shut out of it.  But then so have so many other Indians who have lost their home or family in the violence, or simply lost their land because there were too many children to divide it among, and they have to go down to the hot lands around Escuintla to try to find work on the great estates, or go to the city to work among the ladinos, who speak Castillian and have untrustworthy ways.
     But I thought Gaspár would do well in this new world.  He had become a town boy, accustomed to dealing with strangers.  He had learned how to win their confidence and he was scrupulously honest.  His mind was sharp and he was vastly optimistic.  The old ways that he has lost, for all their comfort and certainty, were confining and parochial and, I believe, not long sustainable in our modern world.  Both Indian life and village life were changing into something new and different, and not at all comforting and certain.  This was going to be a great problem for the Indians, into which they would be thrown much against their will.  But I thought Gaspár, torn from his own familiar world, would do well in this new one.  I dearly hoped so.

In the end, I sent the boys home because I wanted to be alone again.  I explained to Gaspár that since they had been with me I had written nothing and all these things that were happening were slipping by me and I wanted to write and writing was a solitary business.  And once the boys were gone my notebook started filling up again with things going on around me that if I didn’t write down would be forgotten.  I travel by myself and, while I can enjoy having a companion for a while, I notice that nothing gets written and I miss all the intense interior mental activity that goes in to writing and comes from being a stranger alone in a strange place.

Several days later, back in Antigua, I ran into the Swiss couple I had met there a week or so earlier.  They had also since been to Nebaj and stayed at the same wretched pension that I had.  Had they met a little round-faced shoeshine boy?  Gaspár?  Oh, yes, they had met him.  Nice young fellow.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Antigua, Atitlán & Chichicastenango

One morning in Antigua, while waiting for the bank to open, I wandered into a shop selling Indian fabrics.  I had no intention of buying anything, but Indian weavings are beautiful and I wanted to learn more about them.  The young clerk, who had been sleeping on a pallet in the back, gave me, his first customer of the day, his undivided attention.  I made the mistake of admiring something.

A beautiful piece, Señor, woven by an Indian woman of his personal acquaintance.  She is famous for her work.  What would I offer for it?

I told him I had no interest in buying.  He persisted.

Twenty Quetzales, I said, picking what I thought to be a ridiculously low price.

He was appalled.  This woman had spent two months on this one piece.  No, no; he could take no less that eighty.

Really, I said, it's worth no more than twenty to me.  I know it's a fine piece, worth much more, but I'm just not interested.  He should save it for a customer who appreciated such fine work.

Oh, no. Since I wanted it so much, he would make me a good price.  I could have it for no more than 75 Quetzales.

I tried to move on, but he persisted.  The materials alone were worth sixty.

No, no.  I'm really not interested.  Thirty, I said, hoping the low offer would show that I was not a serious prospect.

The poor fellow was almost in pain.  The lady, he explained, was a widow, the sole support of three infants.

By this time I really had completely lost interest in the piece, but kept going out of fascination with his sales pitch.

If she receives a centavo less than forty Quetzales her children will go hungry and she will undoubtedly go over to the rebels.

By this time the bank was open and I was getting tired of the game.  I wished him a prosperous day and walked out of his shop.

He followed me down the street and I finally bought it for 32 Quetzales. It's a nice piece. I'm glad he sold it to me.

Later, I was berated by an Indian lady for buying something from one of her competitors.  The matter was not resolved to her satisfaction and she stamped off, wishing me a “mal viaje”.

From Antigua, I drove toward Lake Atitlán, through small towns and beautiful countryside and cornfields.  Everyone seemed industrious, if not excessively prosperous in material things, and there were women in beautiful Indian dress and men with a machete in their belt.  A green and pleasant land.  

On my way to Lake Atitlán, I turned off the Pan American Highway to take what appeared might be a shorter and more interesting road that led through Patzicía and Patzún where I saw young people flying kites.  All Saints, a week past, is a special day for flying kites and a lady at the guest house had told me that Guatemala has a world-famous kite culture.  I knew of Patzicía because I had read in Carmen Pettersen’s Maya of Guatemala that on October 21st, 1944, “when there was some political disturbance in Guatemala City, news mistakenly reached the Indian town of Patzicía that the Indians throughout the country had risen against the ladino.  They immediately attacked and killed all the peaceful ladinos in the town, mostly government officials and store-keepers.  A similar action at Patzún was averted by the timely arrival of troops.”  All the ladinos were hacked to pieces, men, women and children, an indication of the latent hatred of the ladino.  The Indians hereabouts are Cakchiquel and Pettersen wrote that “the Cakchiquel believe that one day the ladinos will leave and Guatemala will belong to the Indians again.”  The Indianist dream: the white man will go away and the old ways will return.  The Army of course responded crushingly to the uprising. Then in 1976, the area was flattened by a huge earthquake, collapsing the heavy brick and adobe walls and the death toll was massive.

But if the Indians have had bad luck thrust upon them, just a few miles down the road at Panajachel I found people who seemed to have gone out of their way to find it, an infestation of blank-eyed Europeans in cheap, loose clothes and scraggly hair, hanging out in a country where you can live on twenty cents a day by panhandling or doing casual labor or who knows what.  A sorry contrast to the Indians who have endured serial misfortunes and still work hard and attend church and send their children to school and struggle to keep home and family intact and on beautiful fall days go out in the fields and fly kites.

On a narrow mountain road I was caught behind a line of trucks.  I was at first irritated, but then when an elephant stuck his head out of the back of the last truck and looked at me and I realized that I was behind a little circus on its way to a small town fiesta, I decided this was a perfectly delightful to be.

By the mile-high lake of Atitlán I had a late lunch at a nice, new restaurant where I was the only customer and the owner complained about how the trouble with the guerrillas had scared all her customers away.  Except the French, she added: “The French, they are afraid of nothing.”  There was, in  fact, an active guerrilla force still in control of the forested slopes of the volcano on the far side of the lake.  Afterward, I walked along the shore and found a tumbled-down structure of carved, black stone, apparently from Indian times, another of those ruins that had probably never been excavated, that you hear about in the jungle and sometimes stumble across yourself when you are out walking.

From Lake Atitlán I drove north toward Chichicastenango.  Once across the Pan American Highway the road became rough and narrow, in a number of places only marginally paved, and it was growing dark and the road began to fill with people walking home and animals which I had been warned would later be sleeping on the road.  The way began to climb with sharp cut-backs and then there were no more people along the road, only jungle and darkness.  I had been warned that I ought not be on the road at night because there were bandits, but then I also knew I was in the area of civil patrols which, to judge by what photographs I had seen of them, appeared to me indistinguishable from bandits.  It was quite dark when I arrived in Chichicastenango.
      It should probably be no surprise, but the locals quite sensibly call Chichicastenango "Chichi" and Huehuetenango is called, of course, "Huehue".
     I found a nice room for $6/night and opened my guidebook to see what the evening might hold and read: “Here, there is absolutely nothing to do at night.”  In confirmation of this, I learned that the hotel was locked and the doors barred at 10 p.m., and after eleven I heard only total silence in the town.  It was good that I had not arrived any later.

The next morning I was out early, before the hotel had set up breakfast  --  in fact, I had to remove the beam that was barring the front door  --  and went to the square and bought some bread to nibble on from the Heart of Jesus bakery.  In Chichicastenango there is a Big Church and a Little Church facing each other across the square and on the porch of each of them, across the entrance to the church, there was a line of burning candles tended by an Indian family and on the porch of the Little Church they had also a largish fire of pine boughs and pine sap smoking in a tin can censer, as it would have been done in the old days when they prayed to Chac and, as when I had seen certain other expressions of Indian piety I wondered who they were really praying to, or if even by asking the question I was demonstrating that I didn’t understand what was going on. 

While the name itself would have been sufficient reason to go to Chichicastenango, when I was in Guatemala City I had been given a reference to a person there who I was told would be alerted that I was coming, so late morning I phoned him and we walked around the town and talked.

I had been introduced to people through the Episcopal Church and later that day I attended Evening Prayer with the small Indian congregation in the town.  There were eighteen people, most of them from three extended families, who met in the front room of a small home.  The service was from the Book of Common Prayer, in Spanish, with the homily and intercessions in Quiché; a moving service as we sang and knelt together on the cement floor and said the familiar words, albeit for me in an unfamiliar form and place.  Afterward, I stopped at the home of my contact for a cold drink.  I tried to sound him out on how things had been three years earlier when the Army had been fighting the guerrillas in the area and he was diffident in his response, though as we were sitting in his parlor he did point to the corner of the room where the previous owner had been killed during la violéncia.

I felt I was getting along well enough in the language until, later that afternoon in the square, the prettiest lady I had seen in all Central America passed by and said something to me in Spanish and smiled and I realized that I had absolutely no idea what she had said. 

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Guatemala City

The next morning after breakfast I fed a leaf to one of the inelegant  --  and for all I know, ancient  --  tortoises plodding about the house, then out for more wandering around the old part of the city.  I went into the Cathedral.  Despite all the bleeding saints, it was an oddly bloodless place.  There were candles lit only before the BVM and Guadalupe, and the wall beside them thick with handwritten prayers and petitions and requests for aid, mostly of a non-specific nature, undoubtedly trusting the Virgin to use her best judgment.  

The park in front of the National Palace was full of people selling things and  shining shoes and fixing food, many of them family groups and many of them Indian.  A little girl, obviously belonging to someone nearby, though I could not tell who, climbed into my lap as I sat on a bench and examined my camera, as she might someone she found in her family’s living room.

There was industriousness everywhere.  A fellow had taken charge of some parking spaces along the street and guided cars in to park, then dusted and washed the car while the owner was gone and, I suppose, kept watch on it during the owner’s absence, all of which were undoubtedly worthwhile services for which I assumed he would receive an appropriate tip.  It was a business that required no investment and, one supposes, paid no taxes and can easily relocate should any problem develop.

That evening, the power went off in the old part of the city, as it often did, though this time it had the happy consequence of silencing three dueling loudspeakers that were playing music near the threshold of pain.  I sat under a restaurant awning enjoying the silence and watched candles appear on the tables of a restaurant across the street and, after a while, patrons wandered out of a darkened cinema, apparently used to this sort of thing.  A little boy came past and asked if I had any extra coins.  He wasn’t begging, just offering to help me with my spare change, so I rewarded him for his nuance.
It was raining by now and the rain was running off the awning, which turned out to have a leak immediately above my table.  My host brought out candles set in beer bottles.  It was all quite romantic, but it was getting late and I thought a walk back home in the rain would also be romantic, so I made my way along dark streets lit by the headlights of cars and arrived back at the guest house just as the power came back on.  It had been out for maybe  two hours.  I asked what caused the power to go out and no one seemed to think it an interesting question.  The rain continued that night, with thunder rolling around the city.  There were some explosions nearby, but they sounded innocent enough and I assumed they were probably for a barrio’s saint’s day, so I ignored them and slept well.  

Walking around the old part of town the next morning I noticed men sleeping in the doorway of cantinas and a mother and daughter stepping over a poor fellow twitching as he lay in the doorway of a nice shop and thought about photographing these things and then realized that they would have to be explained, that pictures don’t speak for themselves, or if they do they only tell half-truths.  The poor man in the doorway was not helped, but neither was he chased away.  In el Norte we would have done one or the other, but down here they do things differently.  And in a photograph we see only one two-hundredth of a second of reality and when offered as witness of a fact, they lack a basic forensic safeguard of truth: a photograph cannot be cross-examined, and those who write the captions do so with anonymous impunity.

In a small park off one of the narrow streets of the old section of the city I found an herbalist putting on an authentic medicine show.
     He had appropriated a dusty patch of ground and laid out several bundles of herbs, bottles, jugs and glasses, together with two large books opened to photographs of Greek ruins.  His presentation consisted of much moving about and mixing of liquids from his various bottles and jugs, and a constant patter.  The high point came when when a foul-looking brown liquid in a glass he was holding turned crystal clear, a demonstration, no doubt, of what his concoction would do in the gullet of a customer.  His audience, apparently aficionados of such stuff, displayed respectful amazement, but no inclination to purchase.   If he explained the significance of the pictures of the Greek ruins, I did not catch it.
     As I walked away from this spectacle I was set upon by a strange little man who told me that he knew all about insanity and had learned his English,   --  which was quite good  --  in the San Diego County Jail.  I had no reason to doubt him on either count.

For a country with a reputation for political oppression I had so far been disappointed in seeing any, so I was encouraged when I saw a large crowd near the Post Office.  Hoping at last to witness a demonstration against jackbooted oppression, I asked a passer-by what was happening.  He said it was a traffic accident.

The streets around the main Post Office in every direction are thick with people offering to buy Dollars.  Family members in the States send Dollars home.  For many years the Guatemalan Quetzal was on par with the Dollar, but there had been some problems and by that time it had slipped to two-and-a-half Quetzales to the Dollar.  But what impressed me wasn’t a weakened currency, but that there was a free market, because two years earlier in Nicaragua, where the Marxist government was enforcing a totally imaginary official rate, a fellow who had known me for several weeks took me into a back room and locked the door to exchange my Dollars, explaining in a low voice that it was six years in prison for private currency trading.  And if he was charging me extra for the drama, I thought it worth it.  I eventually discovered that the fellows soliciting in the street were just runners for someone around the corner with a fat wallet and pocket calculator who is the actual banker.

The Main Post Office was a nice-looking old building with stucco molding around the windows in the shape of perforations on a stamp.  I found the philatelic window and bought one of everything they had in stock and, while I had no actual need for any of them, I was certainly never going to have a better chance to buy old Guatemalan stamps at face value and the whole thing cost less than six Dollars and for that amount I could surely figure out some use for them.
     After I had paid the lady at the window I asked if she would put a postmark in my journal.  I was expecting a simple circular handstamp with the city and date, but instead she applied a fancy special cancel and when I expressed appreciation for that she started going through drawers to find others and by the time she was finished I had twenty-five different fancy cancels on my journal pages.  I was delighted and she had obviously had fun, too. 

In late afternoon I walked into the National Palace.  The place was open and accessible.  There were a few soldier standing guard with what I at first thought were Kalashnikovs, but then realized they were Galils, the Israeli version of the rifle.  While America had been unreliable about selling arms to the Guatemalans to fight the Marxist guerrillas, Guatemala was an early supporter of Israel and the Israelis remember their friends.  There was a photo display explaining recent history: “The National Army took power . . .,” “The Army replaced General A with General B . . .”.  This was the official version of how things worked: no democratic window dressing here.

Later that day, I decided I had absorbed enough atmosphere and ought be doing something constructive, so I started making phone calls to people I had been referred to, but got nothing but busy signals.  Deciding that I had done due diligence for the day, I wandered back out to see what is going on in the city.

I was shaken down by a shoeshine boy.  They can spot me blocks away.  He insisted on shining my shoes and when I finally relented he told me that his father was dead and he had a mother and two infant brothers and needed money to buy school books and tomorrow was his birthday and would I give him $5.  I gave him a Dollar, but he pointed out its inadequacy  I tried to escape to a nearby restaurant, but he followed, petitioningly.  He said he was hungry.  I gave him a Quetzal note.  He grinned and hurried off.

I used restaurants for lounging out of the weather and writing, but ate most of my midday meals on the street, where food was pleasantly cheap, if basic.  Twenty cents for a large slab of cornbread and an adequate meal for not much more and I noticed quite a bit of discarded fruit in the market, so a competent beggar probably need not go hungry in the capital, unsatisfactory as his living conditions might otherwise be.

There were tiny Indian children in the street.  A little girl, hardly three feet tall, carrying a baby in a sling and leading another child, with a third following along behind, fascinated with a strip of curly paper.

Eventually, I began to get through on the telephone and arranged to meet some Church and academic people I had been referred to and a nice lady at the USIA press office said she would also arrange some appointments.  In Nicaragua I had needed to get press credentials, but here everyone seemed to take me at my word.  So I settled down for a few days of doing interviews and impersonating a Foreign Correspondent.  At one point a fellow who was arranging for me to meet a colonel mentioned that I should dress presentably, adding pointedly “not as you are dressed now,” and when I protested that I was wearing the best clothes I had with me he referred me to a haberdasher in the shopping district where I bought a white linen coat and a tasteful necktie, that I might make a good impression on the junta.

But such earnest effort can be kept up only so long and after a few days of filling my notebook with interesting interviews I was ready to get out of town, so I rented a Jeep and headed north on the Pan American Highway, a smooth, four-lane blacktop with volcanoes in the distance and thick forest coming down on steep slopes under a bright blue sky and gates leading back to great estates and campesinos walking along the road and almost no traffic, to the beautiful old colonial town of Antigua with its square-grid streets and colonnaded arcades and bright-painted plaster walls and iron-grilled windows.  It looked so perfect a colonial town it could have been a stage set and I found a very nice place to stay, in an old building that opened around a garden courtyard where parrots squawked about.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Foreign Correspondent

In the summer of 1986, I had just returned from Nicaragua where I had written an earnest and possibly tedious article on the mischief of the Sandinistas, which a nice magazine, possibly against their better editorial judgment, had published and I, with visions of myself as a Foreign Correspondent, was casting about for some new place to write about and my eyes lit upon one of Nicaragua’s politically and geologically unstable neighbors.  I pinned a very large map up on my wall and ordered books and made phone calls and began to bore any friends who made the mistake of asking what I was doing.  I was going to Guatemala.

This was not the first time I had thought of visiting the country.  In the spring of 1983, nearing the end of a stay in the Yucatán, I thought I might visit the ruins at Tikal in the nearby jungles of northern Guatemala.  When I began asking around about how best to get there I was warned off by unrelenting report of violence and bloodshed.  The Guatemalan Army, I was told, were killing a hundred people a week, while the equally blood-thirsty Marxist guerrillas were blowing up buildings and kidnapping people on a daily basis.
    If that was not enough to deter me (and I have no idea why it wasn’t), air service to Tikal had been interrupted and the telephones there were out.  This meant that the two-hundred-mile, as-the-crow-flies air trip trip would become a five-hundred-mile bus trek that might take three or four days through jungle and bush, with a stop-over in Belize  --  which at that time had an unwelcoming reputation  --  and I would probably arrive at Tikal after nightfall to find the ruins abandoned and myself standing alone by the side of the road as my bus disappeared into the darkness and strange sounds began to emerge from the jungle.
    There might someday come a time when I would dismiss that possibility with Chesterton’s quip about what is adventure but inconvenience rightly understood, but I was not there yet and so I decided that perhaps I might see Tikal some other time.

Back home from Nicaragua, I read everything I could find about Guatemala and the picture that emerged was of a beautiful land of volcanos and earthquakes, of jack-booted oppression and free-wheeling death squads, of sullen Indians and lurking rebels and Mayan temples deep in guerrilla-infested jungles.  It sounded like a completely wonderful place.


I continue to be amazed how easy it is to get to these interesting places.  I had a late-night flight from San Francisco with a stop-over in Mexico City and then off again to the south, over the smoking mountain Popocatepetl and looking down I saw numberless little points of smoke from homes where small cooking fires were lit to make breakfast. 
    Then the country below became more rugged, with mountain ridges floating in the morning mist and patches of cloud caught in the arms of mountain valleys.  Then land looking roadless from the air, with deep gorges and river valleys.  My seat mate put down his Book of Mormon and prayed before breakfast while below us I could begin to make out roads and farms and the square grid of villages and low, round hills, and then I turned back to my reading and looked up when I felt our plane beginning its descent into the capital.

Once on the ground I exchange a few Dollars at the airport at what I suspected was not a good rate and took a taxi to the wonderful old colonial guesthouse where I would be staying.  It had only ten rooms and was furnished with antiques and I noticed a large tortoise plodding down the tiled hallway.  When I remarked on it I am told there are several others.  As with many older houses, the plumbing represented an on-going series of compromises: hot water came from a small electric unit perched on top of the shower nozzle and produced a small quantity of very hot water, followed by water of gradually decreasing warmth.  I found having an electrical unit in the shower with me unnerving, but I was sure that if it was a problem that something would have been done about it by then, which I think is a useful attitude for a traveler to have.

I napped briefly and after lunch wandered around the narrow, one-way streets of the old part of the city and by evening was sitting in the park near the National Palace.  There were industrious and impassive Indian women selling street food and postcards and lottery tickets and small things and I examined a wall display of posters with pictures of Jesus and Rambo and jet fighters and the air was thick with the smell of diesel exhaust from lumbering trucks.  A pelote, one of those men poor in a profound, unimaginable sense, walked past in a cloud of foul odor, his trousers hanging down to his knees; a small, feral man like a dog abandoned in the city, someone whom shoppers would step over when they found him lying in a doorway as they were going into a nice store. 
    The sidewalks were broken and many of the storefronts looked old and shabby and even new things looked old, but there were young couples out walking in the evening and the smell of food from sidewalk charcoal braziers, and dirt and litter and life everywhere.  The streets were full of traffic, of people going home for the evening.  I passed an elderly lady begging beside a large pasteboard box where I assumed she would be sleeping that night

Later that night it rained and deep thunder rolled across the city and I could hear heavy drops ringing on a tin roof and in the parlor the guesthouse cat ignored it all, for she, like ourselves, was inside and dry and did not concern herself about those who slept in doorways or under pasteboard boxes.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

We go pig hunting

The next morning Hymondo asked me if I would like to go pig-hunting.  He said that he had seen signs of a wild pig in the forest and was hoping to catch him today.  While I had balked the other day at what I had suspected was going to be the murder of some drowsing reptilian, and possibly staged primarily for my entertainment, a pig-hunt appeared a more seemly proposition and by this time I had no doubt that Hymondo did need to hunt to feed his family.

So I said ‘yes’ and we were off.  Hymondo was wearing only shorts  --  which was the only thing I ever saw him wear  -- and had an old, single-barreled shotgun and a couple of shotgun shells in a little bag that he wore around his neck and he immediately started off with his dog along a path through the high bush that grew behind his homestead and I scrambled along behind.

After about twenty yards we came out of the bush into a field that he was clearing by slash and burn, but while the trees had been slashed down, they had not yet been burned and the felled trees were lying in a jumble across the field, in some places higher than a man.  There was no path to follow and the late morning sun beat straight down on us as we climbed over and through the tangle of cut vegetation.  This was no problem to Hymondo who skipped nimbly from log to log while I climbed and teetered like an out-of-condition lab rat.  Hymondo was waiting for me at the edge of the forest when I eventually arrived, panting.  I suspected he might already be having second thoughts about our project.

Once in the forest we were out of the direct sun, but the humidity made up for any drop in temperature.  There was no path and the tangled vegetation was criss-crossed by fallen trees, making our way at least as obstructed as it had been in the field we just crossed.  And here there was high water everywhere, come up from the river, more water, it seemed, than there was land.

My first thought was that I could walk along fallen tree trunks, but I quickly saw that to keep up with Hymondo, who was skipping from tree to vine with the agility of a monkey  --  an agility that I did not have  --  I would have to go into the black water that I found in some places hip-deep.  

But the water did not bother Hymondo.  In his shorts he was dressed for the jungle more appropriately that the client of any adventure outfitter.  About this time I noticed that his minimalist gear did not include a water bottle and the water I was hip-deep in was most likely not safe to drink.  Not because of any pollution, but from all the deadly natural stuff it had in it, and when I mentioned this he cut a liana that poured out as much fresh, well-filtered water as we could want.

Back on the trail of the pig, Hymondo showed me the places where the pig had been digging.  It was all very interesting, but I felt bad because I though I was holding him back and he really needed the pig.
For his part, I am sure Hymondo didn’t know what to do with me.  He had said the day before that I was the first tourist that he had ever seen and while he may not have known what to expect of me, I was sure that by this time he had figured out that I wasn’t a professional pig-hunter.

Because I knew the pig was important to him, I wanted Hymondo to get on with the hunt and began to think I should tell him to go ahead, that I would get back home on my own.  As I look back on it now I realize it was a profoundly foolish idea and I would in no time at all have wound up inside a boa constrictor, but at the time I was not worried about getting lost, as I usually have a good sense of direction and was fairly sure that I knew where I was.  Though the jungle around us was quite dense, I did not think it was very extensive, but was confined to a point of land between the main course of the Tefé to the east and the smaller stream on which Hymondo’s home was located, which was to the south.  I had a compass and had been watching the sun and had figured out that Hymondo was not leading me deep into the jungle but was searching for the pig in an arc through the forest not that far from his homestead.  Of course if I got turned around and went west there was a thousand miles of blank green space on my map, with some squiggly rivers, but I wasn’t worried about that.  For the moment, though, I just wanted to keep up with Hymondo and not hold him back from getting his pig.

But if my mind felt up to the situation, my body was less so.  I am not fleet-footed under the best of conditions, which these were clearly not.  It was your basic Green Hell, a tropic sauna with everything growing everywhere and water dripping off it, criss-crossed by sloughs of high water of unknown depth.  I crawled over and under and through and tried not to think of what might be lurking in the water.  My legs were losing their strength and my feet were becoming heavy and I realized that I was stumbling through the jungle like those white bumblers whom Tarzan would have to rescue in the old movies.  But I gritted my teeth and vowed that the Jungle would not defeat me.

Now for all the exotic terrors of the jungle  --  the anaconda or the piranha or the fer-de-lance  --  the most likely peril is the pedestrian one of an infection.  In this hot-house climate a cut can go septic very quickly and you must constantly be on guard against cuts and scrapes and punctures.  And a likely author of such wounds is the palm spine, little needles that grow in clumps on palm stalks and are found everywhere, and if you lose your balance and reach out to catch yourself you can come away with a nasty handful of these little needles buried in your flesh.

As I did.

I pushed too hard and lost my balance and fell into a nest of palm spines.  Then I stood up and fell into another.

I called back Hymondo and showed him my hand, now a bloody pincushion.  We sat down on a log and with a needle from my kit he dug out about twenty of them and I put antiseptic on the wounds, but a dozen or so were too deep so we started back for his place.  Being a hunter, Hymondo seemed to be philosophic about the thing: some days you get the pig and some days you don’t, though I felt bad that I was the reason for it.  As he was barefoot, I asked him if he worried about the spines and he showed me the soles of his feet, thick with callouses, and said that the spines didn’t bother him.

Back at his homestead, his wife and I sat on the edge of their platform and she dug out the remaining spines.  I offered her a needle from my kit but she preferred a thorn from a tree that grew at the edge of the clearing and I had no doubt that she knew what she was doing.

I was exhausted from the heat and exertion and sat very quietly as she dug the spines out of my hand.  Ricardo was watching the process and asked if it didn’t hurt.  “Yes,” I answered, as calmly as if I were in shock, “It hurts very much.”

That night after supper there was only the soft glow of the open wick of two small tin oil lamps about the size of a coffee cup.  Ricardo and Hymondo talked and his wife held the baby in her lap and the children lay back and listen and the young girl with large brown eyes rests her chin on the edge of her hammock and watches me.  And I am tired and sit for a while trying to follow what is being said, then lie back in my hammock and quit listening to the conversation and begin to listen to the sounds of the forest and study the fragment of sky between the jungle canopy and the fringe of palm fronds hanging down from the roof of Hymondo’s shelter and wonder at the unfamiliar southern stars.  And then I pull the mosquito netting over my hammock and think sometimes about the children we saw the other day and wondered what would become of them, or of what we did that day, or about the little girl with the large brown eyes watching me from her hammock, but eventually the world around me slides into a dream and I go to sleep in the safety of the jungle.
We went a bit farther up river and had good weather on our trip.  The rains came mostly at night, when we were sheltered, but Ricardo thought that was going to change and it seemed to be in the process of doing so, and so we headed back to Tefé.  The sky was glowering and there was a heavy chop on the water as we crossed the wide expanse to the south of the town, so much so that our boatman asked if I were afraid.  I remembered his question because I was sitting at the bow as we bounced through the rough water and was getting very wet and was blissfully happy and if I were in any sort of peril I was blessedly unaware of it.   And anyway, I had always thought dying in the jungle would be marvelously romantic and my friends back home, unburdened by any actual knowledge of the matter, would make up wonderful stories about it, possibly involving jaguars and headhunters.  But, alas, I did not perish and we reached Tefé that evening.

The next day I settled accounts with Ricardo and in late morning he took me on his motorcycle down to the River to catch the boat back to Manaus, where of course we found that the boat was delayed and when it might arrive was another mystery of the Amazon, but as it certainly would arrive eventually I said good-bye to Ricardo and found a place to sit in the shade and write in my journal and wait for my boat.  It was midday and the shops were closed and the sun sparkled off the black feathers of the vultures festooning the rooftops overlooking the riverfront.

Then there was some activity and someone told me that a boat was coming, but it wasn’t the one I was waiting for.  It was going the wrong way: it was going upriver.  

Then a thought flittered across my mind: why didn’t I continue on upriver?  All I had to do was get on the boat.  I didn’t have any appointments or commitments and it didn’t make any difference whether I got back to Manaus that week or the next.  I opened out my map.  There was still a lot of Amazon left.  By this point I knew how distance translated into time in river travel.  It would be about four days to Benjamin Constant where, if I wanted to take my life into my hands, I could cross the River into Colombia, or stay on the River perhaps two more days into Peru to Iquitos and then fly out of there.  Or stop somewhere along the way, some little place along the River that looked interesting and that I had never known before that it existed.  And even if there were no guest house there, by this time I had no doubt that I could ask people and find a place to stay, and I had my hammock and mosquito net and I had no doubt that I would be just fine.