Donley Watt: “Guatemala, 1990”

It is March, 1990.  Lynn and I are stuck in Comitan, Mexico, but not for long.  We are waiting in a frame house, set back from the Pan American Highway, which runs through the heart of this small city and on down to the border with Guatemala only eighty kilometers to the south.

This house, by appearances, has some years back been converted into a Guatemalan immigration office, one of the few places in southern Mexico to obtain a permit to drive a car into Guatemala.  Today the line is short, for most travelers, especially gringo tourists, now steer clear of that war-ripped country.

We approach the wooden desk which holds stacks of papers and a half-empty box of Santa Clara cigars from Vera Cruz. Their not quite sweet smoke fills the room. An ancient upright typewriter clicks under a uniformed agent’s two stubby index fingers. For long minutes he doesn’t raise his eyes to acknowledge that we are now next in line, waiting. When he finally looks up, it is with a practiced, belligerent aloofness, indifference tinged with disdain.  His face speaks volumes of suspicion.  We hand him passports, the car registration papers.  He flips through the passports, then glances back and forth at our car registration while he two-finger types once again. With a grunt he pulls a form from the typewriter, and the echo of a rubber stamp bounces around the room like a hard rubber ball.

He shoves the permit across the desk.  I ask, “Is Guatemala safe? For us?”

He shrugs. “Solo Dios sabe,” he says, and reaches for a fresh cigar.

Okay. Only God knows, and we are free to go or turn around.  It is less than an hour to the border, driving straight through. Now I shrug. We will drive south.

But we have a detour planned. For locked in the trunk of our car parked out front is a Brother word processor, holding on a disk the beginnings of my novel, The Journey of Hector Rabinal, a story that has reached a point where, before I can complete it I must absorb the conflicts that have ruptured that small, wounded country.  I will travel there, even though the war appears to be never-ending, and in fact will rage on for six more years. Even if Americans may well be looked upon with suspicion or worse.

This novel-in-progress is my first, until now having written only short fiction and a couple of essays. And The Journey of Hector Rabinal will be just that—Hector’s journey. No drugs, no cartels, no smuggling, no political intrigue, no dictator or ruthless generals, no CIA agents (all who played parts in the Guatemalan tragedy). Just the story of a man in his twenties who lives in the remote mountains of Guatemala with his wife and two sons. A man who farms his steep, terraced plot of land, one who is intelligent and self-reliant and loyal, but also terribly conflicted when confronted by forces so much stronger than he is. His fate much the same as another Hector whose life unfolds and ends in Homer’sThe Iliad. Some things never seem to change.

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Two months before, Lynn and I had driven from Tucson down to Oaxaca, determined to stay until I had completed this novel. And by a turn of good luck Lynn had been offered an art show in Oaxaca City during that same time. We rented a small furnished place just north of that city, in San Felipe del Agua, and for a couple of months both thrived on the vibrancy and exoticism that surrounded us.

But Guatemala called, and with a few travelers’ checks and an overly large dose of innocence we took off, driving to San Cristobal de Las Casas in ten hours. We spent three days there, mostly taking in what guide books told us not to miss:  the market with its splendid woven fabrics and women in their stunning huipiles, where Lynn found embroidered blouses and a finely woven straw hat for protection from the high altitude sun. We caught a collectivo out to the village of Chamula with its indigenous swirl of blue rebozos and black and white tunics. We entered their not-quite-Catholic church, its floors covered with pine boughs, its altar holding a half-dozen Tecate cans, their tops sliced away, with sprouts of corn rising heavenward.  Pungent smoke filled the church. Shamans and curanderoshad staked out their territories along the walls and were performing cures with live chickens and bottles of Coca Cola and posh, a home-fermented liquor with mind altering powers.

Our last morning in San Cristobal, after a breakfast as much European as Mexican at La Casa del Pan (dark, crusty pan integral, with baked eggs and cups of cafe con leche chased with unidentifiable glasses of black-as-ink fruit juice), we hurried down the hill, past street sweepers with their brooms of twigs to the cathedral, where, we had been told, a priest could direct us to La Gloria de San Caralampio. This, a Guatemalan refugee camp, just a score or so kilometers on the Mexican side of the border, held a couple of hundred Guatemalans who had fled the mountains when the “brown shirts,” the Guatemalan soldiers, invaded and burned entire villages suspected of insurrection against the CIA-backed government in Guatemala City.

The Cathedral held a pungent sweetness from centuries of incense. The priest, young and earnest, cautious, but visibly angry, in English, but with an accent I couldn’t place, not Mexican at all, gave us directions to La Gloria. “After you stop in Comitan for the car permit,” he said, “you should continue south on the Pan American Highway. After 45 kilometers you will cross a small bridge that spans a ravine. In a hundred meters or so you will see an unmarked dirt road on your left. Turn there. Follow it up the rise. The road ends at La Gloria, mostly houses of scrap boards and sticks. A warehouse made of tin is the largest building there.” His eyes, the blue-green of the cenote at Tulum, sparked while he spoke, and Irish flashed through my mind. The priest shook his head in frustration. “The Guatemalans. Some have been there almost five years. The powerful start the wars, and the poor suffer.” He shook his head. “The church does what it can, but Chiapas is not a rich state, and no one else cares.” We thanked him and left.

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South of Comitan the highway narrowed down. We sped by the last Pemex station and a string of small tiendas and auto mecanico shops and llanta repair pull- offs. On either side the land opened up, the landscape giving way to small farms where men holding tight to plows trudged behind oxen in the fields. Clusters of banana trees held small, green bunches of their fruit. Groves of coffee trees, their leaves glistening in the sun, made me yearn for one more cup of Chiapan coffee.

We passed an occasional house with pots of flowers bright on their porches, the yards swept bare. We swerved around two men on the side of the road, one riding slouched on a burro, the other walking a bicycle beside him.

I kept my eye on the odometer, converting miles to kilometers as best I could, and right on the money we crossed a bridge spanning a ravine that held pools of water. Three women standing knee deep in the stream looked up as we passed. Bright clothes hung from tree branches, drying in the late morning sun.

I slowed and in a few moments spotted the unmarked road and turned left, easing onto the road, more rock than dirt. The car lurched and moaned, and I slowed even more as we climbed up a long incline. The road became not much more than a rocky trail, and went on for four or five kilometers. To the right brush scratched against the car and to the left, far down a steep slope, a field strewn with last season’s corn stubble filled a narrow valley.

Finally, the land rose up one last time and flattened out as a barren plateau. A few twisted, stunted trees here and there clung to crevices in the rock like the last survivors from another age.

Then we caught a glimpse of the first houses of La Gloria, squat squares with walls of dried cane and crooked tree limbs. Flaps of tarpaper or rusted sheets of tin served as doors. The houses stood starkly on the land, the earth around them too rocky to support even a single flower, much less a small garden or orchard.

“Much worse than I expected,” I said, with a shake of my head.

Lynn sighed.

“You okay with this?” I asked. “That opening up ahead. We can turn around there. We don’t have to go.”

But it was too late. A half-dozen kids had found us and now surrounded the car as we eased forward. Out to our right a dozen or more women stood together and watched; colorful jars and pots teetered on the ground beside them. Later we learned that the women had gathered around a shallow drilled water well, each waiting to fill her two jars that would have to last the day. For there was only enough water underground to run the pump for thirty minutes each morning.

As we neared what appeared to be the small, tin warehouse, a group of men approached us. A couple of them held machetes; most of them wore earth-colored pants and shirts and stained straw hats. I felt myself stiffen as I stopped the car. Lynn whispered, “Now what? I hope this is worth it.”

“They’re okay,” I said, as confidently as I could manage, and slid out of the car and greeted them with a wave. They nodded and smiled. We shook hands and they gestured for us to go with them into the warehouse. A skinny boy proudly held open the door. We all stood in the center of a room surrounded by burlap sacks of beans and cotton sacks of rice, FRIJOLES and ARROZ stenciled on them in black, block letters.

The men turned out to be the elders of La Gloria, charged with leading this camp through its years of hardship. We listened to one man, Pasqual, who seemed to be the leader, his voice rising with anger and desperation as he spoke. I missed some of his rapid words, but caught enough to understand, and to nod and respond.

Some of the families had been there four years, living with the grudging acceptance of their Mexican neighbors. They had fled across the border when the soldiers had burned their homes and crops. Now, the men could leave La Gloria only for short periods of time to work when nearby fields were planted or crops harvested.  The Mexican army patrolled the highway below.

Pasqual finally asked what I could do, how could I help them? My words to them, faced with their desperate expressions, seemed so pathetic that I fought an urge to turn and race to the car. But I stayed, and told them why I had come and what I hoped to do. “I will write your story,” I said, “so that others will know what has happened to you and your families. How you live here in this place that is not your home or in your country. Do not lose hope. I wish I could do more, but my promise is to tell your story.”

Even disappointed as they must have been, they were gracious and shook my hand. And we left.

Driving back down the rough road to the highway we were quiet for long minutes. Finally, I said, “I wish we could have done more. We should have brought them some . . . something. I don’t know what.”

Lynn nodded. “I feel the same . . . But there must be more than two hundred of them. What could we have done?”

I shook my head, and back on the highway hurried south with a hopeless, helpless feeling. One that I carried with me for a long time.

We crossed the border and after a three hour drive came upon Huehuetenango, entering the scruffy Guatemalan city just as the dim yellow street lights blinked on, casting a gloomy spell across the dreary streets. The next morning, with new enthusiasm, we drove to Lake Atitlan and stopped for lunch. We sat outside on the grassy lawn of a hotel and stared out across the fog-shrouded lake.

We encountered four army checkpoints, and by the third one, with armed soldiers crouched down behind military jeeps on either side, a feeling of paranoia creeped over us, as if we were there illicitly, on some sort of spy mission. On the papers I signed in Comitan I had listed my occupation as art dealer, not writer, since I had read stories of university professors and journalists disappearing.

But after the delays and the questioning, we made it to Antigua before dark. Relieved, more than a little shaken, and still stiff from the long drive, we meandered down streets for a while, past what remained of the convents and churches never rebuilt from the massive earthquake of more than two centuries before. Now young soldiers with automatic weapons and rifles crouched on the rubble of collapsed walls.

We kept moving, checking out cafes and coffee shops and craft galleries. Everywhere we found notices in English thumbtacked to light poles and taped to doors and windows, warning tourists that it was unsafe to hike into the surrounding mountains, even in groups, for robberies and assaults now happened with increasing frequency.

For the next three days we took short trips out from Antigua, exploring the more traveled roads. Men with oxen farmed the steep terraced hills on either side. The terraces, designed by early indigenous Mayans, were probably centuries old.  We stopped in a couple of villages and wandered the markets. There I attempted to start conversations by asking harmless questions about leather goods for sale or the age of a church on the plaza, but the people I approached kept their distance, their words guarded, their eyes on the ground around us. When they did speak their few words clattered in some deep-seated Mayan language. Guatemala felt beaten down, its people subdued and afraid.

We drove on, soon leaving the hills behind and came upon a high, flat plain, a semi-desert with an abundance of cactus and thorn bushes and hardly a tree. At a small roadside tienda we stopped for Cokes—bottled water had not yet arrived in this country, at least away from the cities. Coming back to the car I saw that a pickup had pulled in next to us, its bed heavy with golden-brown blocks and chunks of something I’d never seen before. Two men sat in the cab. I nodded as I passed them, and the driver touched the stained brim of his hat. So I stopped and took a couple of steps back. In Spanish I said, “Please, can you tell me what this is? In your truck?”

The driver grinned. He told me it was agave, smoked for days behind his house. “We are taking it to Rio Hondo,” he said, where my uncle will use the river water to boil it down. He is a shaman. Very powerful.” He grinned again. “Before long we will have mescal.” He eased out of the truck and drew a knife from a sheath at his belt. I stepped back. “Let me give you a taste.” He moved to the rear of the truck and sliced off a small piece of the agave. He stabbed it with the tip of his knife and held it out to me. Then he stabbed another small chunk of agave and with a slight bow reached it through the car window for Lynn.  The smoky flavor dominated the taste, which was neither sweet nor bitter.  And perhaps it only was my imagination, but I swear I could taste a hint of the mescal to come.

I thanked him, and we talked, now amigos of sorts, and I asked him if he was safe where he lived. He shrugged and wagged his head back and forth. “Where I live here, in this place,” and he swung his arm around to take in the barren landscape, “we have few problems. We have nothing the soldiers want, so we are, how do you say it? Okay. Not like in the north where the rebels hide in the mountains and in the jungle. You must stay away from there.” He glanced around as if to see that we were alone. He shook his head. “Much trouble.”

We shook hands, and the two men disappeared into the tienda. As we drove off, heading back to Antigua, I glanced at Lynn. “Maybe it’s time for us to leave,” I said. “Let’s not push our luck.”  For I carried in my memory what I had come for, perhaps forever.

The next morning we left Antigua early, circling back towards Huehuetenango, hoping to make the Mexican border before dark. We drove through a series of rain showers; the terraced hills holding pools of water in place.

Finally across the border, we headed back towards Comitan, Just at dusk we passed the rocky road that led up to La Gloria de San Caralampio.  With only a quick and painful glance up the shadowed hill we moved on by without slowing, without saying a word.

But I kept my promise. I finished The Journey of Hector Rabinal. First published in English, then soon afterwards the University of the Americas Puebla translated the book into Spanish, El Viaje de Hector Rabinal, and it went out into the world. Not much. Not enough. But all I knew to do; my small gift to the people of La Gloria de San Caralampio and of Guatemala.

Later I would discover that in the year of our journey into Guatemala, 1990, the civil war toll from the past ten years passed 100,000 dead and 40,000 missing, more than 90% of those of Mayan descent. And I wondered how many died and disappeared during our four days there.

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Hector Rabinal and I both had journeyed to La Gloria de San Caralampio—he in my imagination as the principal character in my novel. My journey there came first, of course, preceding the creation of Hector, so that he could live his fictional life. But now, after Hector Rabinal has been with me more than 25 years, I often catch myself entering a dream world, one in which Hector had passed through La Gloria first, before me, and his spirit lingered there the time when we stopped in that desolate camp, and his story seems not fiction at all, but true; invention and fact so blended, that I hardly can sort them out.

For more on Donley Watt, please see our Authors page.