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.