It was late afternoon when I got back to the Capital, to my room at the guest house with the large tortoises roaming the hall. I noticed that the evening air was filled with the pleasant smell of wood smoke. In a country where the major energy source was firewood, I might expect this in rural areas, but in the Capital as well, just a few blocks from the National Palace?
There were some other Americans at the guesthouse, but I had not much to do with them, as it had always seemed to me that I had come all this distance to see foreigners, not my fellow countrymen whom I could see any time I wanted back home. I am sure this was not a nuanced attitude, but it was what I did in those days. I had picked up, though, from casual remarks that many of them were Peace Corps and that the guesthouse was a common stopping place for them, so I wasn’t surprised one afternoon when I got into a conversation with a fellow on his way back to another posting.
One thing I remember from our conversation is that I asked him if, when he was out in the bush for some long time, he looked forward to getting back home. He said that of course he did, but it was troublesome for Peace Corps people because after two years of huts and jungles they would return to the world of lawns and station wagons and see the people that they knew, who would be very nice about asking where they had been and what they had been doing, and then move on to other matters, as though he had just been on an interesting vacation and not gone almost two years on what was very close to a life-changing adventure, so that even when they were back home they sought out other Peace Corps people who would understand what the experience had meant to them. As with all my stories, this may reflect a particular point in time and I have since met others back from the field and it is my impression that things may be different today.
When I first thought to tell about this trip I assumed it would be a period piece, a bit of time travel back to the bye-gone days of jack-booted juntas and guerrillas in the forest and all that sort of thing that is now behind us. And it should be remembered that this trip took place in the fall of 1986, and the conditions I encountered then may bear little resemblance to whatever a current visitor might find. The long communist insurrection was winding down -- though it was far from over -- and while it was claimed that the death squads had stood down, violence was still common even around the Capital, with lurid details in the morning papers of the bodies discovered overnight. This was not drug gang violence as we might have today, but political, at least in the beginning, though by that time it was suspected that the robberies and ransoms were as much for the money as for the cause.
In my baggage at the guesthouse I found a Dollar bill stuck in the pages of one of the books I had brought with me and I realized that now it looked odd to me. At the beginning of the trip, whenever I heard English being spoken I would move on because I wanted to be where English was not spoken, but now it seemed more pleasant to hear the short, familiar cadences of Anglo-Saxon -- the little words of house and home -- and I realized that my trip was winding down and I had had enough of being away from my own little world of house and home.
In the last few days before I returned home I wrote notes and made phone calls to thank some of the people who had been helpful to me and in general did end-of-trip sort of things. I heard a rumor that something bad had happened in the north of Quiché, where I had been told a group called the Guerrilla Army of the Poor was operating, and when I stopped by the Colonel’s office to thank him for his assistance he handed me an envelope of photographs and said, “Here are your heroic guerrillas”. (I fear I may have played the devil’s advocate with him in an earlier meeting.)
He said the photographs had been taken three days earlier. They showed young soldiers -- they looked to be teenage boys, Indians -- who had been captured by the guerrillas. They had been tortured by burning over large areas of their body before being shot in the head. On the back of one boy had been carved with a knife in large letters, “EGP” -- the Guerrilla Army of the Poor.
I was going through an old file of clippings and correspondence and notes that I had accumulated in preparation for my trip and I found an item from a news magazine with a black and white photograph of bloated bodies along a jungle path, some murder of nameless innocents in a hot country, some effort to teach someone a lesson who would doubtless prove a slow learner, some bloody instruction which when taught would likely return to plague the teacher. I once worried a great deal about justice, but I do less so now, as it seems that anyone who is ever punished for such things will seldom have been the person who actually did it and the murderers themselves, if they survive, will likely retire on a pension and the dead themselves become sock puppets in some later political drama staged for the purposes of others. I have the impression that is what has happened in Guatemala since my visit.
The Cold War is over and when it ended it took the air out of these revolutionary struggles and, urgent as their injustices may yet cry out, the attention of the world has moved on, which has had the effect of bringing a sort of peace.