Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Under The Volcano

Under the Volcano
Guatemala was probably the farthest thing from my mind in 1993 because I had gotten my teaching certificate and started to teach ESL (English as a second language). The theory in educational circles was that if a child comes to the US and is dropped into regular classes they lose a couple of years before they catch up, or drop out completely. It makes sense if you think about it. The old folks in my family told me how they had been pulled out of their community school in the Texas Hill Country and sent to regular school at the age of six speaking only German. Before WWI the German immigrants had their own schools that taught them their history, language, music, and culture from the old country. During WWI when everything German was a curse word the Germans learned they had better fit in completely or pay a heavy price. Even the old cemeteries that did not change their names to something like the George Washington Cemetery were subject to organized vandalism. The message was clear, assimilate or be driven out and destroyed. So if your name was Schmidt you changed it to Smith and closed down your traditional school after generations of educational tradition, abandoned your culture and sent your German speaking children to the English only public schools. The old farmers in my family didn’t recall the experience too fondly and that had been 80 years ago. I had grown weary of working for NASA where the romance had worn off and filing out everything in triplicate and living the life of a soulless bureaucrat in the bowels of a government agency was starting to eat away at me. It had only taken a couple of years but I wanted out bad. I was still in my twenties, just barely, and the idealism of youth had not given way to the practical cynicism of middle age. I had no wife and children to encumber my decisions about losing out on the big pay check and being responsible, practical, and stolid. Truth be told I was a bleeding heart who was going to save the world one child at a time. Even if it took a year or two longer than I imagined it would. I peeled the parchment off the wall at NASA, said goodbye to my boss who had never gone near a space craft, didn’t have the right stuff and never would, and went back to school for a few linguistics classes. After a 6 months transformation into a linguistics wiz kid I took my half assed Spanish and headed out onto the sky scrapper encrusted cow pastures of the Gulf Coast with stars in my eyes…again. I found a job teaching kids fresh off the boat how to speak the kings English. They were 14 or they were 20 or somewhere in between and they had stars in their eyes too. These were really good kids from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Vietnam, Korea, you know, the future. Most people were afraid of it but I had vowed to embrace it and make it my own somehow. Some of the children had parents that were highly educated corporate climbers who had wound up with a posting in Houston, the town that oil and air conditioning built. Some of the kids were refugees from civil war who had spent most of their lives moving from place to place in the jungle trying to not get killed. These kids had never sat in a desk in their lives and had barely progressed beyond the third grade. Things started off really well and we did plays like getting two people to get up in front of the class and drive to the grocery store, buy some milk and some ice cream (welcome to America) climb back in the car and drive home. I used country music to teach grammar and we constructed and deconstructed the English language until they could successfully go to the store and get what they wanted without too much trouble. I had never been a teacher before and I really liked it. They transferred their love for their parental units onto me and I soaked it in, but it made me a lousy teacher. Speaking of parental transference, I had a friend who was 86 years young and who once told me that I wouldn’t fit in well and why. “You know too much and that makes you dangerous…and you don’t put up with any bullshit”. Bless him he has a way with words but all that wisdom of old age did not get me out of the fix that I was in…I was still me. It wasn’t four weeks into the first school year that I pissed of the administrators and a couple of teachers as well. The administrators didn’t fit my conception of educators. They made up rules for the teachers and kids to follow and generally seemed to my mind to get in the way of teaching. I brought my bicycle to class and took the children out into the parking lot and let them take turns riding it around in slow circles. Like the make believe plays of going to the store the idea is to twin the action of doing to the words that go with them. Half of the students had never been on a bike in their lives so I briefly taught them to ride and they learned some verbs. The administrators heard about it and you would have thought that I brought a rattle snake to school and made them handle it while I taught ecology. The walkie talkies came out and they ran around and generally had an enormous cow. I just couldn’t see that I had done the students anything other than a favor and taught them some vocabulary while I was at it. This was how the year went in general and as it progressed I was viewed more and more as a bad seed that had to be brought to heel. I thought they were a bunch of bureaucrats that had never taught a class room full of students in their lives, much less kids that didn’t speak English. I thought they treated the kids poorly and when a teacher got out of line for real and put their hands on a child in anger they didn’t do a damn thing about it. I got along great with almost all of the other teachers with one glaring exception. She was middle aged, anorexic with a lot of emotional baggage that went back a long way. She was kind of attracted to me but I interpreted it as being demeaning like patting me on the head in front of the other teachers and students so I told her to cut the crap and keep her hands to herself. This episode early in the year seemed to tear something lose in her head and she went a little crazy on me, but as my grandfather once said, that was a short put. One thing you have to remember is that teaching is by and large the preserve of women. They will always say over and over again that they wish that more men would teach but this should not be taken at face value. The female teachers and administrators tend to view teaching as their turf and if you enter their sphere of influence in this traditional bastion of female professionalism you are either a coach or a principle. If you are not a coach or a principle then you are in some strange way stepping on their toes. This is their territory and you will only do well if you let them emasculate you. I know this sounds like a terribly sexist and chauvinistic thing to say but if you don’t play a supporting role so to speak then you might be in for big trouble. Combine this psychology with the fragile personality previously spoken of and you might even get the perfect storm. Not only did this poor woman talk bad about me behind my back and try to get me fired, she went to the other teachers in her “sphere of influence” and tried to get them to shun me in the good old fashioned sense. I got the triple whammy, the daily verbal assaults directed at me like comments about me being inappropriately dressed, crazy, ugly, mean, any kind of verbal insult she could think of came my way every single day. She was a veteran teacher with connections so some of the junior teachers who needed her approval to keep their jobs followed the lead and got brownie points by sticking verbal barbs in me at every opportunity. You would think this wouldn’t have much effect but after several months you begin to dread getting out of bed in the morning and showing up at work. You don’t even want to go near the place. She poisoned the well with the administrators who already thought I was a problem and were only too happy to see things her way, despite evidence to the contrary. Her personal problem with me was so bad that she even did things like take books and other personal items from the locked rooms of other teachers and place them in my room hoping to get me fired. I told you she had baggage right? The shine had worn off the school year and when it came to an end I breathed a sigh of relief and took my eight weeks off like the liberation of Paris. I did a lot of nature photography and that summer the woods were full of ticks, I mean FULL of ticks. On certain years as I plied my hobby of nature photography there was not one to be seen while this particular year they were crawling on me and my dog by the dozens every time I went out. Nature photography was my version of Zen or yoga, it was my religion and when I grew up I wanted to be a great nature photographer like Wyman Minzer or some such thing that was unattainable. On three separate occasions that year a tick made its way slowly up my pants undetected to just above my belt line on my left side and attached itself, or bit me as I tried to get it off before it did attach. It was the exact same place each time and each time I had the exact same symptoms. The bite became red and inflamed like a large red dot that was about the size of a half dollar. The pain was intense enough to double me over and I it treated the bite with hydrocortisone. After about 3-4 days it went away and everything seemed fine. Then about two weeks later the bite returned as if by magic only now the red dot was even larger and surrounded by a giant red circle like a bulls eye in darts. The pain was even more intense than before and it stayed even longer the second time, then as before it simply vanished. I had been bitten by everything in nature short of a poisonous snake or a bear, but this series of symptoms that happened three times in one year was beyond all my experience. Years later when I was trying to figure out why I was so sick I looked up Lyme disease and tick borne illness in the medical literature. The earliest reference that I could find (1880) was by a veterinarian in south Texas who described the spirochete of the genus Bergdorfi that was taking a terrible toll on cattle. In other words these same ticks were biting big strapping Long Horns and Brahma Bulls that got sick and dropped dead. I guess it was just one of those heavy tick years in 1880 just like in 1993. In June of that year I took my savings and rented a cabin in northern New Mexico on a river that my grandparents had fished since the 1930’s. It was our favorite family place to vacation and the first time I went I was two years old. My dad went every year until he was 21 and in college. I loaded up the old folks and my dad in my orange 1979 VW van and headed up into the mountains. No sooner had we crossed the state line than word spread of a mysterious illness that had perfectly healthy people dropping dead in their tracks. We were not to be dissuaded from our holiday but as we went the more timid souls were either fleeing the state or talking in hushed tones about the mystery disease that had killed a dozen or more. They seemed intent somehow on blaming it on the Indians. The fish were jumping and the amateurs all fled in haste and fear so we pretty much had the river to ourselves. It was a treat to see my grandparents back on the river they loved so much and the two weeks went by quickly. I woke before the sunrise every morning and headed out to the mouth of the river where it came out of the Box, a deep crevice with sheer sides that rose up a thousand feet or more on either side. The river had a hypnotic effect on me and I fished as an afterthought. The rod and reel were kind of an excuse to be out on the river and among the giant trees that lined the landscape. It was like a land that time had forgotten and where I could forget myself. I didn’t feel well the rest of the summer and reported back to work in the fall of ’93 in a halfhearted manner. I wasn’t looking forward to teaching because I had imagined that it would be the antithesis of the NASA experience but had discovered that the purity of teaching had turned out to be like the bureaucracy and office politics I had tried to escape. The year started out exactly the same and the administrators seemed to be examining my back to try to figure out where the dagger should go. Surely I was imagining it, a persecution complex? The same 3-4 teachers led by that poor disturbed anorexic woman seemed intent on making me miserable. Christmas came and went and I tried to be a better teacher for the students and follow the rules but something was missing in me, the romance was over and it wasn’t coming back anytime real soon. My schedule was changed and I was given more students than anyone else, no teachers aid was in my class like the other teachers had. My text books that I was supposed to get at the beginning of the school year did not show up until the 9th week of class. I was forced to read to my students and to improvise as best I could while I waited for the text books that everyone else had. The administrators and the hostile teachers made fun of me for reading to the students but I couldn’t figure what else I was supposed to do. Was it possible that the larger class, the missing teachers aid, the missing text books, the 15 minutes for lunch and no time for a bathroom breaks were part of a campaign to punish me? I felt that these professionals would not short change the students just to get to me. The verbal attacks that were aimed at harassing me and breaking me down continued and I felt like there was no one that I could appeal to for relief. The disturbed woman became more brazen in her behavior, even pushing students around, knocking the books out of their hands, scratching them until they bled, and striking them in the face. She was a veteran teacher who had friends high up in the school district and she obviously felt invulnerable. It was a strange experience and I contemplated going back to substitute teaching like I had for a year before I started the ESL program. I dreaded getting up in the morning and going to school. The previous year I had made a decision to perfect my Spanish and the best way to learn is the technique called immersion. You put yourself in an environment where nothing but Spanish is spoken and you totally immerse yourself by hearing nothing else. It is a kind of sink or swim technique that forces you to learn a primitive grammar and then to discard that one and adopt a better one, and so on. I moved into what is referred to as a combat zone in Houston. My immediate neighbors were all from Central America, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, most of them had known each other in their home countries and had settled in the inner city. Some had come fleeing civil war while others came for economic opportunity. It consisted of about 20 people in that small area of about 8 houses but they had friends who visited on the weekends. I rented a small decrepit house among them but since I lived alone and they lived 4-5 to a house they considered me lucky. We socialized together and I came to be friends with many of them. I fished on the coast often and brought fresh fish that I shared and bought my fair share of the beer. I ate in their homes and we sat together at the end of the day and watched the sun go down. On the weekends we would go to cantinas together and drink and dance with pretty girls. The neighborhood was dangerous to live in and after dark even groups of people were not safe walking around. I would read the paper and people were shot or stabbed to death by strangers with alarming frequency. A few Anglos lived in the neighborhood and they were artists. They had large compounds that were surrounded with razor wire and they owned large aggressive dogs. I was the only Caucasian who lived outside of razor wire. I had a cocker spaniel. We looked out for each other and generally no one bothered us, save the occasional crack head. At first my Spanish was poor and I only understood part of what was said to me but after a while my ear picked up and I spoke more. I really liked living there after a while because life was very humble and people treated each other like people who live in a small village. There was gossip and affairs, and fights and the ties that bind people together. We were no longer strangers to each other and I tried to be a good neighbor and they were kind to me. I was the only gringo who ever bothered to come down there much less live among them. Life was rather hard and in the end all we had was each other.
The month of March was just around the corner and my neighbor who I liked was planning on traveling to Guatemala to see his family. He was a steady guy who was a hard worker and he was smart. He asked me if I wanted to come with him and drive to Guatemala over the Spring Break. I had three weeks of freedom coming and I could think of no better way to spend it than to drive to Guatemala and stay with the local people and meet his family and friends. Who knows what kinds of adventures I might experience. It was terra incognita, the undiscovered country. Guatemala is referred to as the land of eternal spring. What could possibly go wrong in the land of eternal spring? My friend’s girlfriend had recently given birth and she was making his life difficult and refused to let him share his child. He became depressed that she would not let him see his child and was using the child as a tool to manipulate him. He told me that he could no longer accompany me and that he had to stay and work but we were in luck, his godfather, the head man of his village or neighborhood was in town and he would take me in his car to Guatemala. “He can make sure you get there safe and take you to a hotel”. “I have known him all my life, since I was a little kid”. “His name is Ramulio and he buys cars and appliances here at auctions and flea markets and takes them back to Guatemala to sell”. “It is what he does for a living, people really like the small Toyota trucks and toys and clothes, stuff they don’t make down there”. “He comes up here and buys the consumer goods and then goes back and sells them”. “The cars he buys and takes back, does a little work on them and sells them and he has money to live on for 3-4 months and then he does it again”. I was anxious to change my state of mind because the constant pecking at me had worn me down over time and I was depressed and angry. A change in location might add up to a change in reality. I really love to travel and travel can literally knock you out of your complacency. We go through our lives and settle into a routine that has a comfortable sameness about it. The routine doesn’t challenge us and we wind up going to work traveling the same route, meeting the same people and saying the same platitudes to each other without deviation. The well worn paths of our lives turn into a rut. So like rats in a maze that walk the same path over and over again, we can begin to lose all spontaneity and originality. Life should not be a routine it should be an adventure, but it rarely is anything more than the old saying, same old stuff different day. I agreed to drive with a stranger for 1,200 miles to a country I had never been before and knew next to nothing about. I would be as far from my world as I could get. My friend’s “godfather” was a man of few words. He was a stocky and solid 5’9” tall and he walked with a pronounced limp from a profound injury to his right calf and his left bicep. The left arm was so damaged that it was useless to him. It seemed to hang suspended in air in the same curved position in front of his chest. He wore a brown jacket, blue jeans and boots and his locomotion was such that he moved from left to right as he traveled forward. I helped him secure his load of consumer goods and prepare for the long journey. He had been very busy at the car auction and the flea market. An oversized light blue Chevy suburban was towing a tan Toyota pickup truck. Both vehicles were loaded down with kid’s bicycles, clothes, appliances, and all manner of things to sell and give away to family and friends. He was a gruff Santa Claus of few words and I didn’t ask him any questions. He seemed shy, deferential, and almost fearful of his unfamiliar surroundings, like a fish out of water. Morning came and my neighbor friend bid us farewell and we piled into the car and headed out onto the Houston freeway and headed south towards the Mexican border. He drove like a little old lady on her way to church and I asked him if he wanted me to drive for a while, but he made it clear in his moderately poor English that he was going to do all the driving. I agreed that this was an excellent idea and tried to talk to him a little bit but his mediocre English and my mediocre Spanish made it nearly painful after an hour so I shut up and tried to relax. We seemed bring out the worst in each other, he was very defensive as I tried to build a false camaraderie. He reminded me of a Guatemalan Archie Bunker, he was very jingoistic and dogmatic in his attitude. Everything American was crap and everything Guatemalan was good. I was trying to find common ground with him but I wound up in opposition to most of his attitudes. When he bragged that the women of Guatemala were the most beautiful in the world I found myself telling him the women of my country were better, even though I had never been to Guatemala and seen the people there. He used the term gringo like a curse word and said bad things about my government and I found myself on the opposite side of all his arguments. This man was a hard guy to get to like, especially since he seemed to become more confident and more hostile the closer we came to the Mexican border. He had been quiet and shy because he was afraid of his environment in the United States, but now that we were within an hour of the border he seemed to drive faster and talk more, most of it diatribes about the gringos and the US government. I didn’t like him very much but we were stuck together for a couple of days so I decided to try to make the most of it until I could get to Guatemala and get the hell away from him. I tried to change the subject to less confrontational issues and he told me about his business importing goods. The small pickups were very popular in Central America, so he would take the vehicle to a friend who would repair it somewhat and he would sell it and the other goods and make enough to live on for 3-4 months until which time he planned to turn around and repeat the exercise all over again. We got to the border and drove into a giant fenced in parking lot covered in gravel that was soon filled up with several hundred other nearly identical pilgrims with small cars and Toyota pickup trucks in tow, every one of them filled with all manner of consumer goods that could not be readily purchased in Central America. In the American press the politicians were trumpeting that free trade meant there was a giant sucking sound of American jobs headed across the border. It looked to me like the giant sucking sound was every last second hand Toyota car and truck and Chevy suburban and the contents of every flea market headed south. The lot we parked in was a clearing check point run by the Texas Department of Public Safety (state highway patrol) to verify that none of the cars were stolen. Romulio felt victimized by this process, complaining that it took too long and that they had to pay tax on the goods and that coming the other way no one was treated in this manner. It seemed to me that it was run in a rather high handed manner and that he may have had a point. We were stuck there over night so we slept in the car and ate breakfast the next morning in a private residence, the home of a Hispanic lady who spoke no English and fed you a nice breakfast for about $5. It was kind of homey and quiet sitting there in her kitchen and I felt at peace for the first time in my journey. Trying to speak Spanish all the time when you weren’t used to it kind of wore me out after a few hours and Romulio was lousy company anyway. We cleared the check point in a few hours and left the gravel pen surrounded in razor wire and headed quickly through the Mexican side, and then made for the open road. The coastal area was kind of flat and sparse and it reminded me of the US side, lots of scrub vegetation that made up a flood plain that was only good for a few scraggly cows and absorbing the moisture from the odd hurricane. We stopped and ate dinner at a small diner with a guy headed in the same direction. He was good natured and friendly as I shoveled beans and rice into me as fast as I could. I half considered catching a ride with him instead but I decided to finish what I started. While we were eating several caravans of fellow travelers pulled up and I recognized some familiar faces from the check point. After eating Romulio went over and talked to them for a few minutes, but I held back by the cars, ostensibly to guard them, but I was already road weary and speaking Spanish for nearly two days had worn my meager mental faculties out. When Romulio went to the bathroom before we left one of the four guys he was talking to came over and said hello. “Be careful my friend, that guy (Romulio) is crazy”. He held my gaze after his parting word to deliver the point home and gage my reaction. “I know what you mean, he is kind of nuts”. He shrugged as if he had tried to do what he could and was not happy with the result, but it was out of his hands. Night found us still driving on the flat plains by the coast north of Vera Cruz and the moonlight came out and turned the short scrub vegetation from green to lavender. The moon cast the shadow of the trucks out to the right and I watched as the ghost image glided upon the tops of the vegetation and sandy soil. “Hey, Romulio, how did you get hurt”, referring to his arm and leg. He looked like Captain Hook without the hook. “It was a motorcycle accident”, he said. He clammed up tight so I didn’t ask him anything else. We had been driving all night without rest for nearly two days so about 3 a.m. Romulio pulled the truck off on the side of the road and we tried to sleep. The attempt at sleep in the cab of the truck was a failure for both of us so after nearly an hour we pulled back onto the road and continued on. We made Vera Cruz by noon and I learned how to navigate a four way intersection in Mexico. The four-way stop is not actually a stop, the general rule is that the vehicle that gets there first honks its horn as a warning and guns the motor to pass through before a collision occurs. Because we were towing a car and both vehicles were completely loaded down this method was fraught with peril, we simply could not stop on a dime and the locals were very glad to challenge any car that was close. After a couple of close calls Romulio began to mumble to himself and shortly this conversation resulted in a new strategy. He decided to take the toll road and avoid the city entirely. The toll road was immaculate, straight as an arrow, very expensive at the cost of $8, and hence it was completely deserted. The road surface was so pristine it seemed we might have been the first car to traverse it, and at that price it was entirely possible. Traveling through Mexico we would hit a police road block every 200 miles or so that was a study in creative bargaining. The various caravans of Central Americans were expected to pay a mordita, or ‘little bite”, an unofficial toll that was negotiated with the local constabulary. Police pay was apparently so meager that they were forced to supplement their income with small donations that consisted of less than $10 per car load. However, some of the caravans that perhaps rubbed them the wrong way or were suspicious in their demeanor were forced to make gifts to the police of a substantial part of their load of consumer goods. This was a crap shoot that depended upon the negotiating skills of the drivers. Romulio was very deferential to the Mexican police and very glad to have me donate $5 to the cause of the police happiness fund. We developed a system of good cop bad cop where he would smile profusely and seem as if he had found a long lost family member in the person of the police officer, and I, being the evil gringo, would feint poverty and only proffer a fraction of what Romulio felt like he thought the good officer deserved. It can be hell continually being the evil gringo but I learned to live with it. The younger caravan drivers who had the temerity to dispute the amount of the mordita and didn’t have an evil gringo to fall back on sometimes found themselves delivering over a significant portion of their goods as a gift if they ever wished to see home again. Romulio and I got so good at our routine that the bribes we paid were generally about $2. We drove across the entirety of Mexico with two hours of fitful sleep in the cab of the truck and I was getting kind of giddy from the road. We drove all night and it seemed to help because there were no road blocks in the middle of the night. The interior of Mexico was completely different than the north. The vegetation was now lush and trees and orchards and ranches made up the landscape. Farther south I discerned what seemed to be a process at work that remade the lush landscape of trees and jungle. First the logging operations would come in and clear the jungle for the valuable hardwood. Then the newly cleared land was often converted to orchards of lemon and other cash crops. After the soil was wrung dry the ranches took over and fat expensive cattle wandered back and forth until their time had come. Finally when the soil was denuded of all that it could offer up to man or beast the poor farmers were allowed to move in and one lean farmer armed with only a machete and fire worked the land to scratch out a living, if you can call it that, for himself, his wife, and his numerous children that managed to survive their early childhood. The process seemed to move south toward the remaining jungles that still stood pristine at the farthest tip of the country. Romulio had grown more jingoistic and hostile with each passing mile. I noticed that the banana trees were carefully tended and that the bunches of bananas on the trees were covered in a course net to protect them. “Why are the bananas covered like that’, I asked. “Those are covered to keep them nice and beautiful and in perfect condition for the good for nothing gringos”. This guy hated my guts and he didn’t even know me. One minute he would be talking about the good for nothing Indians in his home country and the next minute he would declare proudly that he was of Indian heritage. He seemed to hate himself as well so I tried not to take it too personally. If I wasn’t paying for a third of the gas and all the morditas I had a feeling he would have dumped my “good for nothing gringo ass” on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. The week before I started my journey to the south the Indians in the south of Mexico had taken up arms, declared war, and taken over three towns in southern Mexico. They had surrounded the local garrisons of Mexican troops and killed those that did not surrender. Then they promptly took all of the land deeds out of the town hall and burned them ceremonially in the square. It seemed that they resented having their lands stolen, the jungles bulldozed and burned, and the thieves planting orchards and running cattle on what remained. They held the towns for a couple of days and then melted back into the jungle. The Mexican army and government were not too happy that their authority had been challenged and that they had been made to look powerless. This was an example that might spread to the other indigenous people in the northwest and other parts of the country that objected to being second class citizens with no rights to their own land. The Mexican army moved into the south and began to shoot rebels and anyone they suspected of being a rebel. Every person of Indian descent was suspect and liable to the ultimate punishment. The Mexican air force began to strafe people traveling on the roads in an effort to prove their impotence and cruelty. Road blocks sprang up in the south like mushrooms after rain and when the local people approached them on horseback their eyes would grow as large as dinner plates in undisguised fear and abject terror. The entire 50,000 military was mobilized and on the hunt primarily for one man. The leader of the uprising was a mysterious figure who, like all the Zapatista rebels, wore a dark ski mask that obscured his features. Subcomandante Marcos, as he was called, was an Anglo looking character who had green eyes, brown hair, and smoked a pipe. He had lived among the Indians and taught them Marxist theory (so it was said) and military tactics. Every man in their army was an equal and all men had given themselves up for dead in their struggle to retain their land. “We are all offerings to the common pit”, they said. The mystery man with green eyes that stared intently from beneath the ski mask with his European features was rumored to be a South American, a European, and even an American. I had seen his photograph and I didn’t consider myself a good likeness of the man, but to foreign eyes, you know what they say, “They all look alike to me”. Romulio had been calling me Subcomandante Marcos in jest for the last 500 miles but now that we were in the south it was no longer that funny. Every road block we had crossed in the south the military and interior ministry police were giving me the hard eye. I know I didn’t really look very much like him, but the locals were in terror of the road blocks, and the farther south we went the closer scrutiny I received. “Hey, Subcommandante Marcos, here is another road block, get your mask out”. “God damn it Romulio stop calling me that or they’ll take us both out in the jungle”. My reasoning seemed to reach him and he didn’t call me that again. This road block was the busiest one yet. There were 4-5 cars stopped in front of us and the interior ministry police and military were all over the place. Romulio started to sweat profusely and squirm around in his seat. Ahead of use people were being taken out of their cars and walked off to the right of the road behind a long brick wall where no one could see what transpired. It was all done under the direction of one man in plain clothes who sported a bushy mustache on a cruel hard face whose eyes were hidden behind mirror sunglasses. He had no outward sign of authority other than a .38 pistol hanging out of the back pocket of his jeans. The man with no eyes nodded at a driver or passenger and the unfortunate was taken away by a uniformed man behind the wall out of sight. These people exuded a different feel than the ones I had seen at road blocks before. The man with no eyes held the power of life and death in his hands. He was a man used to giving orders and having them followed. He was also a man who was used to taking human life. It was there to see in the way he stood and the expressionless look on his face that communicated distain and despite for the people around him. He was the leader of a death squad, you could either fear him or defy him, but he could not be ignored. I made up my mind in about a minute. I opened the door of the suburban and casually walked off to the side of the road and up to the brick wall. “What the hell are you doing”, Romulio said. I ignored him completely. We were still three cars back from the action but the man with no eyes locked his mirrored sunglasses on me before I took a step and didn’t take them off of me. I casually and slowly made my way up to the wall, stretching my legs as I went. I unzipped my jeans like it was the most natural thing to do in the world and let out a healthy stream onto the wall. I relieved myself with pleasure and took my time shaking my tool dry, then casually zipped my jeans back up and slowly walked back to the car. Romulio was covered in sweat and near a state of panic. I had yet to see him sweat even though the temperature was around 90 degrees. “Please get back in the car”. He was in distress and practically begging. There was an interior ministry officer walking up to the car as I settled back into the passenger seat. He walked up to the driver’s side and looked our load over once and began to tell Romulio that he needed something to eat. They decided on five dollars as usual and I pulled three dollars from my wallet like it was my last three bucks. “Oh well, only three dollars, I’m sorry”. “It’s not important I can eat some lunch today”. He waved us through and even before we cleared the check point Romulio had already looked over at me three times as if he wanted to ask me if I was crazy. I glanced once at the man with no eyes as we drew even with him. He didn’t look at me this time, but stared off into the distance as if to let me admire his profile. I was just glad I wasn’t an Indian behind that wall. A few hours farther down the road the jungle grew even more thick and lush and we gradually seemed to be going downhill more. The sun hung lower in the sky and we both grew hungry and decided to stop in the next little town to eat. We slowed as we passed through a small village of about a dozen or more houses and saw what looked like a restaurant with no cars in front of it. It looked closed as we passed by it but we were hungry and turned around to pull into the parking lot. Directly across the street was a small building that served as a slaughter house. The stone building had no windows or doors just openings to the elements and the amount of blood in evidence seemed incredible. Freshly slaughtered large animals hung on hooks and the walls and floors were covered in blood. Impossibly several men were visible through the door way sitting on the floor in the middle of the carnage and gore with their backs to the wall resting after their labors. We both stared in amazement and the men began to laugh at us in a manner less than friendly. The interior of the restaurant was very dark and empty, the owner was eager to serve us but after a few minutes the atmosphere of the town unsettled both of us. I didn’t say anything but everything felt wrong here and when Romulio said we should go I didn’t hesitate. We piled into the suburban and looked across the street again at the macabre scene. The men still sat in the blood covered room beneath the carcasses, laughing at us in an unspoken threat. Romulio was even more shaken than I was. It had been a strange day and the sun was fading fast as we accelerated and headed down hill. Night came quickly and the jungle seemed to close in on us like it hadn’t before. The road had changed drastically to a tight curve that hugged the mountain side as we descended towards the Pacific coast. I looked out over the jungle below me and the moon that hung over it and I felt like I was descending into something beyond my control, somehow if I didn’t turn back now I knew that I would never escape. I am not given to superstition but the sense of terrible destiny come over me and stayed. Immediately after that strange feeling had come over me for several long miles I saw a sight that seemed to be an apparition from the poet Homer. A beautiful woman, and then a mile farther another one and another one, all standing alone on the right side of the road at the edge of the jungle in the dark lit only by coals burning at their feet in a brazier. The women all beckoned to me by raising their right arm from their side up to shoulder height with their open hands facing palm down. They were beckoning for us to stop and take our comfort with them by the side of the road. Their long dark hair hung luxuriantly down and they would pull it over their right shoulder and let it hang down past their waist. I could not believe my eyes and looked over at my companion but he seemed unmoved or perhaps blind. “Did you see that, let’s stop, come on please, what’s the matter with you”. I was the one practically begging now. “Many people stop and are never heard from again, she has friends waiting for you in the dark”. I was willing to take my chances but Romulio was implacable. The death squads, the slaughter house, and the feeling I had had of some awful destiny before me, now this, the sirens of the jungle…it put me in a poor mood to say the least. I held my tongue since Romulio would not stop under any circumstances, and I didn’t want to provoke him. The day had seemed to improve his disposition while it made me feel down. To make things worse now logging trucks were traveling up the mountain road past us on the tight curves. Though we had the inside track next to the mountain, there was no shoulder to give way, just a sheer wall of soil and rocks. The logging trucks were driven by bored men who traveled the same route every night and day and apparently needed some relief from this boredom so they played a little game. The name of the game was see how close you can come to the car traveling the opposite way. We had been driving for three days without sleep and now we found ourselves in a game of chicken with fully loaded logging trucks barreling up the narrow mountain road at break neck speeds. There was no way to evade them as they crossed over the center line to blast us with a shock wave that seemed to echo in our ears and hit us like a physical force. This torture seemed to go on for hours and I was sure we lost the side mirror more than once. We would have pulled over but there was no place to pull over or turn off, so we just endured it. Finally we came to the edge of a great plateau that looked down upon the Pacific coast. Instead of heading to the coast we followed a road that turned left toward the south and the Mexican Guatemalan border. Late at night we stopped at a truck stop to eat an overpriced meal that was the worst food yet. A pretty young woman and an equally pretty young boy worked the truck stop, servicing the lonely drivers as they made their way back and forth across the border. The young woman followed me into the restaurant and smiled at me and tossed her hair. I had been on the road now it seemed like for weeks and I was in the wild wild west where it seemed all the rules were a thing of the past. The idea appealed to me because life on this road seemed short and my disappointment at passing the beautiful sirens had cost me no small amount. Romulio seemed not to care so I finished my meal and went outside where she waited for me. We slowly walked together towards the truck and then I saw the cop again that had been hanging around like some kind of uniformed seagull. He was about 20 years old, a big kid who looked like he couldn’t read or write and even had a hard time getting his brown uniform on correctly. It was ill fitting and he looked like an oversized baby sporting an M-1 rifle. When I had seen him before he was pacing around trying to figure out who to arrest and how he could extort enough money from them to get through the week. Now he was following me and the girl to the truck which was amateurish by itself because all he had to do was wait until we were en flagrante and then he could have walked up on us unnoticed and extorted plenty of money from me. I looked at the girl in a mute apology and gestured to Romulio that it was time to go. Now I was the one in a hurry. For the fourth time in my journey a man who was heading south and had stopped to talk to Romulio walked up to me and said, “Be careful, that guy is crazy”. The road to the border was not something you could really call a road. All the trucks were forced to go about 10 miles per hour to avoid the giant pot holes and keep the ruts from shaking you out of your seat. It felt like riding a jack hammer for 20 miles. I guess the constant truck traffic had destroyed the road and no one had bothered to rebuild it. It was morning by the time we reached the border and we paid a few bribes and made our way in fairly short order. The Guatemalan side of the border was more strict and we were forced to park the trucks and wait around for several hours. The sun was very intense and I was in for a hard lesson about the tropics. I didn’t feel well and so I drank a couple of beers in a cantina and passed out for an hour. The ugly American passed out in the bar, no doubt snoring loudly. Finally we loaded back up and drove through the final check point with the long line of cars. The border guard looked over our cargo and asked if we had anything to declare. Romulio seemed nervous again, “Just one microwave oven and one gringo”. “One microwave and one gringo’, the guard repeated. I bristled and let it piss me off, maybe it was because I felt ill or maybe it was no sleep for three days but I seemed to shake with anger. The guard didn’t say anything but he looked at me kindly as if to say don’t worry about it friend. We hit the open road finally and were making good time when to Guatemalan military officers in green uniforms, border guards actually, pulled us over and checked our cargo against the documents. They didn’t ask for bribes, were very professional and it was obvious they were trying to interdict weapons smuggling. It just took two minutes and we were back on our way. We were chatting to pass the time and Romulio volunteered that he used to work for the Guatemalan Defense Intelligence Agency. I guess I should have been more impressed. “What did you do for them”? “We intercepted communications from the Mexican military”. “They attacked us and took a lot of land from our country”. “Isn’t your country controlled by the military and the intelligence services”, I asked. I was trying to push his buttons. “No more than your country is controlled by the CIA”, he sneered. I took exception to this statement and said that we were a democracy and that his country was a dictatorship. We continued in this vein for a while till we both grew tired of arguing. The highway was punctuated by bridges every few miles. The bridges were generally about 50 yards long and traversed deep ravines. Almost all of them had been blown up by guerillas and had been rebuilt by temporary spans that allowed only one car to pass at a time. The only bridges that had not been blown were the ones with homemade signs that claimed the bridges in the name of the guerillas. Presumably if the authorities took down the signs the rebels came back at night and blew them up. Nightfall was coming soon and we wound up following an army truck as it dropped off two soldiers at each end of the bridges to guard them during the long night. Once again we drove all night and as we neared the capitol, Guatemala City, the sun was still several hours from coming up. Romulio said, “The road here near the capitol is very bad”. ‘I know, the bumps will tear a car suspension up after a while”, I replied. “No, you don’t understand, the road is very bad, the guerillas are very bad here”. I hadn’t seen anything but blown up bridges until now so I took it with a grain of salt. We came to one more blown up bridge no more than five minutes later. The novelty of crossing blown up bridges had changed into a routine. There was one car in line in front of us and two waiting on the far side. Our turn came after the car on the far side crossed in front of us. It was traveling at a high rate of speed which was unusual because the temporary bridge was treacherous and best traversed at about 10-20 MPH. We crossed carefully with the oversized load and then I noticed the Toyota pickup truck waiting on the far side. There were two men in the cab, one man had on a ski mask and the driver did not. Standing up in the bed of the truck were four men, all of them wearing ski masks, and two of them were carrying AK-47 assault rifles with the distinctive banana clips. They made eye contact and it dawned on me that these casual fellows were not waiting to cross the bridge, but instead were waiting for the next car to cross. They gave us the once over and then did a double take. They seemed surprised to see a local traveling with an Anglo. One man in the cab was smiling, probably at the look on our faces, while the heavily armed men in the bed of the truck were not. We crept off the end of the bridge and hesitated to see what they would do, then Romulio had the presence of mind to gun the motor and we sped away. We both had a feeling of euphoria and relief. “Do the guerillas shoot the people”, I asked. “No, they might stop us and ask us to make a gift of the truck it is only the army that kills the people’. I digested this information is silence. We passed through Guatemala City in the dark and it seemed that there were a lot of people in evidence. The intersections became crowded and Romulio began to curse the other drivers in frustration. “These are your people Romulio”, I teased. “My people are shit”. He had had a long trip as well or perhaps his personality change was complete now that he was at home. We stopped in the city center before dawn as the cars and buses surged around us. I ate some food out of the roach wagon and the part I didn’t finish the owner put back in the display. We drove to the outskirts of the city and a woman was standing near the road as cars passed to and fro. She had six children with her who seemed fairly well cared for. The woman seemed very alone and wanted a motorist to stop and pass some time with her. “Ha”, Romulio laughed and pointed at her in amusement. “It looks like her friends have given her children and left her”. He seemed to enjoy her predicament immensely, but I could only wonder how she was going to feed herself and her six children. At long last the truck pulled up to the neighborhood that was Romulio’s. He told me to sleep in the truck and went inside. It was a cinder block structure with iron doors and bars on the windows. I sat in the truck as the first faint light of dawn seemed to begin on the horizon. Just as I was about to doze off the sound of firecrackers filled the air. It seemed that this was the ritual of morning and that like some far away eastern kingdom of old the evil spirits of the night must be driven away by the sound of firecrackers. It seemed to continue for some time and then people began to pass me on their way to work or school, stiff and cold, their hair still wet from a morning bath. It was very cool at night in the mountainous country, but I had sweated through my sleeping bag, getting very little rest. I felt waves of nausea come over me and got out of the car, walked across the dirt road to a vacant lot and threw up a couple of times. Nausea, night sweats, and now this, wonderful. I thought no one had seen me, but when Romulio’s 20 year old daughter emerged from her house on the way to catch a bus to school she greeted me with, “How are you feeling”, stated in a manner totally devoid of interest. Romulio rose late, motioned for me to enter the house, gave me a towel and soap, and showed me to the “shower”. Even though he was the head man in this neighborhood his shower consisted of a large plastic garbage can filled with cold water. The water only came on for several hours a day and so when it did you did the laundry and filled up containers for later use. We got back in the truck and dropped off the microwave at his mother’s house and the bicycles and children’s clothes to family members. I stayed in the car during the whole exercise, feeling awful. He had obviously warmed up to me because when I asked about a hotel he said I should stay with him. He introduced me to his pretty wife and daughter and that night we went out to dine with friends of the family in town. They were very nice people who accepted the stranger in their midst without reservation. I was both ill and tired from the journey so after trying to speak Spanish for the fourth straight day I passed out on their sofa. The ugly American, no doubt snoring with my mouth open.

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