After a spectral 40 hours in Primera Pluslandia, we blink like naked mole rats as we step into the southern sun.
There’s something to be said for traveling on a Mexican luxury bus, but after two days of American romcoms dubbed into Spanish and complimentary meals of pan bimbo and coca cola, my brain feels on the fritz. “I’ll die happy if I never have to eat another baloney sandwich,” I remark, breathing deeply. I get the idea I can smell Guatemala on the other side of the chain link fence: that ancient aroma of wood smoke and wool and homemade tortillas and huipiles. I feel a strange pang in my chest.
After navigating the florescent maze of customs agents we make it to the Guatemalan side. We straggle out onto the edge of a cracked two lane highway strung with shacks. Before we have time to regroup, an old school bus painted with an elaborate green-and-white design roars up, nearly knocking us into a rickety comedor. The bus snorts clouds of black smoke like a diesel Chinese dragon. A ten-year-old kid swinging from the bus’s mirror screamed “Pana! Pana! Pana!”
“Hey, that’s where we want to go!” I yell over my shoulder to my weary friends, who scramble to catch up as I run along the shoulder, my suitcases slamming against my legs.
A cacophony of questions rise in my wake. “What about the Casa de Cambio? We don’t have any Guatemalan money! Isn’t there a bus station?” Right. The money. The kid hanging from the bus shakes his head when I pull out a wad of pesos, and he shakes his head again when I flash a 20 dollar bill. He shouts into the bushes: “Hey Simon!” A shady looking character with gold teeth emerges from his nap spot in the ditch and offers to buy our pesos. Irritated with the delay, the bus driver slams on his horn, which played a brass ensemble that sounded suspiciously like “Ride of the Valkyries”.
After our impromptu roadside banking, we leap aboard and navigate the crowded aisle with our luggage. I squeeze into a brown bench seat with enough legroom for an elementary school child; my knees were level with my chin. My seatmates look built to scale: a tiny Mayan woman holds four children in her lap; an upside down bouquet of live chickens is tied to her waist with a spool of twine. I look across the aisle at my friend Dino, who had been welcomed into a seat that already holds an entire family, including a grandmother and a piglet. A six-year-old girl sells him a handful of greasy gorditas and a cold can of beer. The bus careens into traffic and the driver turns up the volume on a pulsing tropical banda number. The green and gold fringe decorating the windshield shakes in tune with the music and I say a little prayer to the virgin mounted on the dashboard altar. Within moments we are taking the curves on a narrow road that climbs at an alarming rate into verdant cloud forests. I look over at Dino, who is grinning like a dingo. “I love Guatemala!” he shouts over the din.
His comment surprises me. I think about our experience so far: really what’s not to love? Crossing the border was like stepping into a time warp and ending up in the Mexico of 20 years ago. But I’ve never thought of applying the word love to my feelings about Guatemala.
Up until that moment I’d always thought of the country as a dark, sorrowful place. When I was a kid we spent part of every year in Guatemala. We’d rent a place in Panajachel and then travel to outlying towns and villages to buy folk art and clothing for resale in the U.S. I remember riding in the van at night and my dad telling my mom that he thought we were being followed by a death squad. I remember the stony heaviness in people’s faces and an overall aura of suspicion and fear. We never saw a massacre or even a dead body. The death squad that followed us (if it was indeed a death squad) drove off into the night. But even as a small child, I knew something was off. The Guatemala of my childhood was beautiful beyond belief, but there was something dreadfully wrong. I loved Mexico with all my heart, but for Guatemala all I could feel was a kind of bright sadness.
Recently, a harrowing yet amazing episode of This American Life illuminated Guatemala’s terrible history by exploring the 1982 massacre of the entire village of Dos Erres. The story is incredibly heavy, but well worth your time. For me it was a stunning reminder of what was going on in Guatemala during the years I spent the most time there—that the negativity I always associated with the country was not some basic attribute of the Guatemalan people, but rather the heaviness of terrible secrets and unspoken terrors.
The trip with Dino in 2004 was my first visit to Guatemala since the end of the 36 year civil war, and Dino’s exuberant statement, “I love Guatemala!” made me notice that everything felt different–lighter somehow. I know that the legacy of the war is tangled and dark, but I couldn’t help but feel that there was an ineffable change in the air–the sorrowful pall that hung over the entire country seemed to have dissipated to no small extent.
It’s taken a long time for the Guatemalan government to begin to admit to the atrocities of the civil war, and I can only hope that the upcoming trial of former president Rios Montt, who has been charged with genocide, will provide at least a slight balm to the wounds of people who were condemned to silence for so many years. I haven’t been able to return to Guatemala since 2004, but I would love to hear from those of you who are down there or who have made a visit in the past few years. Do you think the country has changed? Are the trials helping or hurting?