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.


  1. Interesting travels in a dangerous land. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Davis is ill at the moment, but is being treated at our local University Hospital. He misses writing.