A Sewing Machine for Madgalena

We headed West for Magdalena. We knew it would be a rough ride when we had to get three nails taken out of two tires. We pulled into the nearest pinchazo on the Inter-American.  Crouched between towers of new tires we listened to the Olympic games over the radio. One hour later we were back on the road driving into the looming black rain cloud over Xela, our final destination. It was not as North as Chajul, but midway, intended as a mutual effort and crossroads by both Magdalena and us to get her what she needed.

The air grew thinner and cooler as we climbed towards La Cumbre, what we call Alaska here – a place about as cold as any Guatemalan would be comfortable imagining. We slackened our pace. I was driving Bea’s dad’s truck and still hadn’t adjusted to the zero power steering, the broken fuel meter, no bearings, the lights in the dashboard not working, the four cylinders. Frankly, I hadn’t adapted to being in a car after the accident we’d had in Honduras the week before. But at 25 MPH and the hazards on I felt good about cutting through the dense fog one piece of asphalt at a time.

We descended into Totonicapan, less than an hour from Xela and saw an older man sitting among the rocks with his thumb out. I looked at Bea to make sure she was comfortable with us stopping. She nodded. I reversed back to the giant limestone rocks where he had hidden four loads of wood about 60 pounds per load. He had a younger male friend with him, so that when we reversed we realized how much they’d been hauling up and down steep curves. They loaded up the truck and I swear I could hear the truck let out an “ufff”. They sat down on the side of the bed and whistled. We were moving slower than ever now, feeling the extra weight as I made our way up the hill in second gear, mile after mile. We must have driven 10 miles before the older man banged on the side of the truck, the universal sign for his stop. I looked at Bea and we both thought the same thing: That man was going to walk that entire way with those bundles. They offered to pay us for the ride, we thanked them and resumed our climb up the hill.

Bea and I drove through the terrain like two old experienced truckers – staring off into the expansive landscape of jagged mountain rock, rising corn stalks, deep valleys and moist pine to the horizon. The light was fading quickly.

We’d bought Magdalena’s sewing machine the week before after 72-hours of furiously fundraising $400 online, including the cost of transporting the machine westward to Chajul. I had rushed over with a big wad of quetzales, our local currency, in my two pant pockets and my shoes and made my way to Revue Magazine where Terry Biskovich was waiting for us. She ran a used clothing, book and brick-a-brac store in front of the Magazine office. The shop served as a way to raise funds for her animal shelter in La Antigua – the veterinarian for the shelter was our veterinarian. It was a small town for all of us. What was significant was that we were about to create a win-win situation for everybody involved.

I had gotten the idea to ask her if she was willing to donate the Huskylock 905 Swedish sewing machine that had been at the store for months now with a handwritten $550 price tag cut out as a large dog paw print. She thought about it, told me she couldn’t donate it because she’d just rescued a horse, but she would reduce the price. She agreed to sell it for $400. We shook on it, she put the “SOLD” sign on it.

The weekend before we bought it, Jose Osorio, Magdalena’s friend, had stopped by to catch us up on how the coffee cooperative was doing and the update on Magdalena and the other women. They’d met with various nonprofits that were willing to help them export their textiles as long as the women could produce the quantity needed for export. I asked him if that was possible for them. He said “No.” Why? Because they didn’t have the sewing machine to make it happen. How much was a sewing machine, I asked him. “I dunno, maybe $300?” And would it last long at that price? He looked at me puzzled and then shrugged his shoulders. “They’re Chinese machines,” he said. “They get the job done.” That’s when it hit me that we should show the Huskylock 90 machine to Jose and see what he thought of it.  That same day I dragged him across La Antigua.

We crossed the park hurriedly, I took him up the stairs and he hung back to look back at the machine from a distance. He saw the sewing machine and folded his arms around his chest and smiled shyly. “That’s a good sewing machine, why would someone give it up? Does it work?” All good questions, so we plugged the machine and asked the store clerk how often the machine had been used. “It’s been used once and then the owner realized it wasn’t what she wanted so she donated it to us.” Jose looked puzzled. “The signs says $550,” Jose said. I told him not to worry about that, we’d made an agreement among friends. Jose was thinking hard.

“Are you going to buy that machine for them?” Jose said. I don’t have that kind of money, I told him, but I have a small amount of money and we know other people who have small amounts of money. “We’re going to buy that machine for them, together.”  I’d done the same thing with my Tio Nefta’s House, in true “Eat Pray Love” fashion, and fundraised $3700 in less than a month, built my uncle the house and even a table and some furnishings for his two-room home. We could certainly fundraise $400, buy this machine and get it to Magdalena and the group of women who formed The Association of Displaced Maya Ixil Chajulense Women (ADMICH).

We made it into Xela right before dark and as we parked in the hotel the rain started to fall steadily from the sky. We took out the large plastic containers we’d used to put the sewing machine and our bags to protect against the rain. We ran quickly into the hotel, unpacked and waited for Magdalena and Jose to call. Half an hour later they called from the central park in Quetzaltenango and made their way to our hotel room where we’d put the box with the sewing machine on the desk. We dovetailed our trip here with a screening of  “Granito: How to Nail a Dictator” as well as, some testimonies from people of their memories during the armed conflict. Not a minute would be wasted.

When I entered The Revue offices to pay for the machine, Bea, the other intellectual author of our crowdfunded sewing machine for Magdalena idea, stood in the middle of the room like Amelia Earhart, silk scarf tossed across her neck, her motorcycle helmet under her right arm. Her arms firmly on her waist as she waited for me. She was bigger than life and taller than most Guatemalans, including myself.

“Do you have it?” She asked me. Yes, I do, I told her, I have the money. She looked triumphant and it made me smile.

We’d met Magdalena months before when Jose made his usual exploratory rounds in Antigua, trying to find buyers for his organic coffee made in Xix, El Quiche. Jose I’d met through a training I’d done in August 2011 and since then I was his source for contacts and random ideas for his business. On one of this trips Jose brought Magdalena, a young 29-year-old woman with the most ernest smile and wearing the bold colors of her region’s traje against a black background fabric. I sat next to her on the park bench in La Antigua and she told me her story. She and her family, along with many other widowed women, had been displaced from their homes in Chajul during the armed conflict. They’d lived along the northwestern border with Mexico until they were allowed to return, many of them carrying the only things they owned.

Back in Chajul, the lack of employment and opportunities for women forced her and her women friends to be inventive with creating work for themselves and working together to do it. In September 2011 they formed The Association of Displaced Maya Ixil Chajulense Women (ADMICH) which consists of 46, mostly young women under 30 years of age, and the association is led by 7 women from community of Chajul. The president is Magdalena. She wanted to meet me in person, she told me, because Jose had mentioned me. “Es un gusto conocerla.” It’s  pleasure to meet you, I told her, and gave her my blank reporter’s notebook and pen. I told her that I promised to take notes and learn from her if she promised to do the same thing. We had much to learn from each other, our work and from others. The best way to remember was to write things down. She smiled and promised to write more. Even if it’s only numbers, you have to reflect on things you learn, I told her. She agreed.

Magdalena knocked shyly on our hotel door. She and Jose walked into the room after traveling most of the day to meet us. Three buses and five hours later here they were in Xela, right outside our door. Night had set it and the rain had wet her huipil and long black hair she had in a pony tail that fell down her back. She didn’t mind, not the trip, not the rain, she was happy to see us, she said.

We invited them in and I brought the box over from the desk and put it on the bed closest to the door. The box had the sewing machine inside, along with the manuals and dozen spools of string. Magdalena did not take her eyes off it.

Open it, I told her. It’s yours.

I handed her the box and the list of people who had donated to make it possible to purchase the machine. A big smile lit up her face and then she hugged Bea and I, a long warm hug that made me finally relax after our journey. I gave her the car keys and told her to use the ignition key to open the box. Bea filmed the entire nail-biting opening of the box until Magdalena took the machine out and expertly plugged it in. At first,  she was careful, like a mother with her new child, not to drop it and to be gentle with it, but once it was plugged in, it was her machete.

That night we all watched “Granito” together and the next morning, after writing “Thank You” letters, we set out early, even amid protests and blockades along the Inter-American. The rain and fog continued as Jose and Magdalena rode in the back of the truck and we kept the sewing machine in the small front cab, keeping it dry. We gave them our rain coats and drove past accidents, blocked roads, detours, fallen rocks, until we finally arrived at Los Encuentros and had our final lunch together. Afterwards, I handed the machine over to Jose as the rain came down harder and they rushed off to catch la camioneta which was just pulling up. They ran in the rain protecting the machine with some makeshift plastic bags ripped open.

We watched as they made it to the back of the bus and waved back at us. The black smoke from the bus billowed out. Bea and I got back in the truck and headed home.

The Way We Do Things Here

August 15, 2012

They almost lynched a man in my callejon this week. I had just returned from walking the dog, when I turned into our alley and saw a big circle of men surrounding something or someone in the center.  I opened the door and let the dog into the house. This would be no place for dogs. I wasn’t convinced it was a place for most people. I grabbed my cellphone from the table, immediately called the police and said: “There is going to be a lynching in our alley near Iglesia San Francisco, please send someone fast.” I took a deep breath before taking one step further.  Presence, full presence, is what this would require. I had no expectations. I did have this vague feeling of dread because Guatemala is a country where people take the law into their hands and lynchings are a popular way to do that.

As I reached the outside of the circle I asked the neighbor I trusted most to tell me the story. A thief had broken into our neighbor, Alejandro’s, house and Alejandro had caught him red-handed with his computer keyboard under his arm and some audio equipment from his house. There were no signs of a forced entry and worse still was that the thief was the husband of Alejandro’s housekeeper, Monica. She had been a faithful and loyal housekeeper for more than eleven years. The rumor was that she had given her husband the key and over the course of the day Alejandro’s camera and other equipment had been stolen piecemeal from his house. The thief had also broken in while Alejandro’s most prized and beloved possession, a small black terrier, was in the house.

“Whatever you don’t want to do is call the cops,” my neighbor told me. “They won’t do anything.”

By the time I reached the inside of the circle I saw a thin, short man around thirty years of age stripped down to his underwear and in the corner of the callejon against the wall. Surrounding him were the indignant, angry young men, the fathers, the mothers, the wives and then the smaller children clutching to their mother’s legs. It was the paralysis of a still life painting. There was very little motion, except by the younger men yelling obscenities at the man, inching ever closer with each obscenity, and pointing the finger at each other and then at the thief. Alejandro was next to the thief – orbiting him like his own satellite planet.  His face was sweaty and red as he paced incessantly around the thief threatening him and shouting for the key to the house or for Monica, the housekeeper and the thief’s wife. He shoved his cellphone in the thief’s face and the thief cowered away, covering his nakedness by crossing his arms over his chest.

“You’re going to pay for this with your life, you stupid fuck!” Alejandro yelled at him and then swung a punch at the man’s face. His right white-knucked fist landed right below the man’s left eye where the skin began to grow white then red and then began to puff up. The man groaned, turned his face and curled into himself, while retreating quickly from Alejandro. The crowd was quiet for a moment and then “¡Eso! ¡Asi es!” That’s the way to do it, some yelled out. “¡Dale otra” Hit him again! As Alejandro turned to look at the crowd I came out of it and got in between him and the alleged thief. “Get out of the way!” He yelled at me in English. No, I said, you know this is wrong. His face turned red again and his eyes grew into globes.

“You know what’s wrong? That this asshole stole my stuff and I caught him doing it! So move!” I know, I told him, I heard he broke into your house and stole your stuff. That’s wrong and you should be mad because it’s wrong. “¡Entonces quitaté!” So get out of the way!

No, I told him, because doing a wrong doesn’t make another wrong right. This is wrong and we both know that. “¡Quitaté!”

No, besides I’ve already called the police, so I’m going to wait here next to this man until the police arrives. We’re going to use the law, Alejandro, it’s the only thing we have. We were speaking in English to one another. All the men were confused because they didn’t understand. What they did know is that women just didn’t get involved in these matters.

Alejandro saw my face and knew I would not back down. At that point, Brad and Kofy, our German Shepherd, arrived and stood next to me. I was not backing down. Alejandro pulled back trying to contain his anger. I told the thief to get dressed. I saw the police sirens pass and told Brad to get the cops into the alley. Brad left with Kofy and I went to speak to Alejandro.

Look, I told him, you’re right, he did do a wrong against you and his wife also did a  wrong, and anger is the right thing to feel, but hitting a man, lynching him, killing him, will not get you anywhere, you know that. It’ll make you feel good because you’re angry, but nothing more comes out of it.

“What do you want me to do?” Alejandro said inches from my face, his rage making him bigger than life. “Let the asshole go with the cops? The cops will let him go in a few days and then what? They’ll have my stuff and I’ll be the stupid fuck who let him have it. No way in hell!”

I’ve been in your boat, things have been stolen from me, Alejandro, you can keep that man in jail as long as you provide the evidence and ride the fiscal and judge. I can help you, you’ll just need to be patient and take the first step.

“What’s that Miss Know It All?”

It’s making the denuncia, the official police statement.

“No way in hell!”

At that point the police arrived in two Helix trucks and Alejandro said one last thing in my ear: “You haven’t done me any favors, you know, just go home!” As he stormed off three of the police caught up with him outside the door to his house and the other three came over to the corner where the thief had put on his clothes. The man would not say a word, so the crowd yelled out the story at the polic. I followed Alejandro to hear his entire version of the story. Alejandro walked through the sequence of events, unlocking the door, entering his house, seeing the thief with his stuff, catching him and hurling him outside the house. One of the police wrote furiously while the other two just shook their heads. One of them said out loud: “You should just have beaten him to a pulp, that’s what I would have done.”

I turned and glared at him. “You’re the police, even if you think that, keep it to yourself,” I told him.

Who are you, he asked me.

I’m the neighbor who called you. I told the cop to walk Alejandro through the process of making a denuncia and what he could expect. What evidence did he need to provide? How long could they keep the thief behind bars? I got closer to the police writing the report and told him that it was important for Alejandro to be able to keep the things that were stolen with him until they were needed for evidence. I’m not sure he can do that, the policeman said to me. I asked him to call someone above his rank and ask so he wouldn’t get in trouble. He agreed and went off into a corner to call a superior.

Meanwhile the other cops had handcuffed the thief and then shoved him into the back of the truck. His cap had fallen off and all the young men leered at him and called his cap trash. One of them picked it up with a stick. I grabbed it and said “At least try to act mature!” I gave the cap to the man and he took it from me and put it between his legs with his two handcuffed hands.

Alejandro came looking for me and pulled me aside. “Look I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna try, but you gotta take care of my dog while I’m at the police station.”

Absolutely, I told him, pick him up tonight whenever you get done. Alejandro got in the other police truck and they drove down the callejon in a caravan. It was 8 at night.

At 2 AM that night, Alejandro knocked on our door. I had pulled up a sleeping bag and was sleeping outside in our patio with his dog because he would not stop howling for his owner. Little Crocker had fallen asleep inside my sleeping bag and when we heard the knock we both jumped up. I opened the door and saw Alejandro’s very pale, exhausted face. Crocker ran out and bounced into his arms.

How did it go? I asked him.

“It was long, but I did it. The asshole is in jail.”

Good, for how long?

“Until the judge lets him go. I told her I would present my stuff whenever she needed it. Now I want Monica in there with him.”

Do it, use the law to make it happen.

He stared down at the entrance to my house as he petted Crocker with his other hand.

“Hey look, I know I yelled at you. I’m sorry for that. I was mad. I just wanted to say, it was good you were there. So thanks.”

No problem, that’s what neighbors are for.  Let me know if you need any more help with this process.

“It’s gonna take a while you know.”

I told him that this I knew very well. I still had to go to court to press charges against the thieves who stole our own laptops, more than one year ago. Animo, I told him, he was doing the right thing.

He kicked some pebbles by his feet and took in a deep breath.

“I hate this.” He said and walked away.

Dawning Accidents

I hit two cops on a motorcycle with our V6 Toyota Tundra on Monday morning just as the sun rose turning the sky magenta. Kofy, the fearless German Shepherd now always by my side, bolted upright from his usual fetal position in the passenger seat – his ears were two upside cones on amber alert.  He  began a low tone growl and I immediately let down the “limo-tinted” driver window, the kind everyone in Guatemala has, but only the narcos do it to their large piccups (not to be confused with pick-ups). As the window opened completely I saw the wobbling motorcycle trying to get in front of me to pull me over; the second policeman on the back of the bike waved erratically at me like a bird falling from a tree and made for the gun on his ride side. I accelerated. They turned into me just as I was turning into them because at this point I thought they were narcos or crooks trying to mug me – I just didn’t believe that two cops would be pulling me over on the same bike at 6 AM.

Seconds before they tried to get in front of me, they tried to pull me over as I was sitting at a traffic light.  I heard a tap and then a hard  knock on the back of my truck and then on my window.  The common crime here is a thief will tap your window with the butt of his gun and then either break it or hold it to your head through the window until you open it. “I guess it’s my turn,” I thought and reached for my crook lock and handmade police baton which I carried in the back seat. Kofy was ready to pounce.

The pulling over for our extranjero or foreigner plate was common, the pulling up and knocking on my window and then getting in front of my vehicle which is about 20 times the size and weight of the motorcycle that was uncommon and reckless. When my window was completely down and they saw me, the back cop didn’t reach for his gun, but he pointed to the right and yelled at me to pull over. I nodded and said: “Si, voy a parrar a la derecha.” I’ll pull over to the right of the road I said and away from the line of traffic driving head on the lane next to me (eh, reversible lane was active of course).  I pulled over, put the emergency break on, kept the window down and readied both Kofy and my weapon of choice – the crook lock. I waited, patiently, until one of them came to my window.  Both the driver and backseat cop on the bike couldn’t have been older than 25 years old. The driver barely reached the window to the truck when he finally made it over.

“¡Seño, que susto nos dio!” Ma’am., you scared us so! “¡Pensabamos que era un narco y que nos iba pasar llevando!” We thought you were a narco and you were going to run us over. I released the grip on the crook lock right which I held right underneath the steering wheel. I smiled and told them that was funny because I thought the same thing of them. He laughed nervously. In fact, I wasn’t sure if they were really cops, I said to him. Oh, we are, he said to me, and you damaged our official police plates. The cop who rode the back of the motorcycle got off the bike holding his lower spine with the base of his palm and then leaned up against the wall to catch his breath.

I asked him if they were OK, did they need me to drive one of them to the hospital? The officer I was talking to yelled over to the other guy. “¿Estas bien vos? ¿Queres ir al hospital?” Are you OK, do you want to go to the hospital. He wagged his finger back as he grimaced in pain.  I should take him to the hospital, I told him, I can also call my insurance right away. My impulse was to pick up the phone, but I remembered how you should never make sudden moves when cops pull you over. With your permission I’ll take my cellphone out of my glove compartment and call my insurance, I told him.

“¡No, no, no seño! ¡No hago eso!” No, no, ma’am don’t do that! I took a deep breath as Kofy stared down the cop, not a wink escaped Kofy. The cop asked me to get out of the truck and I told him that if I got out my dog was coming with me. He didn’t hear me, so Kofy and I got out and they both backed away when they saw him. “¿Ese su perro muerde?” Does your dog bite? He will if you get anywhere near me, I told him and we held our distance as Kofy growled at them. They huddled together now with us on the other side in front of the truck.

“Mire seño, la estabamos tratando de parrar por mucho tiempo, desde por lo menos un kilometro, no nos vio?” We were trying to stop you for a while, por a long while, didn’t you see us?

I told that it was impossible to see a motorcycle that low to the ground from my tall truck especially with the dark tint and the fact that it was still dark outside and they didn’t have their lights on. I told them that if I had seen them, I would immediately have pulled over. It was not my intention to violate the law in any way. I asked them if they wanted my documents. They said yes and so I went back to the truck to get our truck permit, my license a few other things that I had to explain to them about our out-of-country truck. When I returned, they barely looked at my paperwork. They were both frowning at the fallen, crooked black and yellow metal license plate of their motorcycle and the broken tail light.

“Lo siento mucho de su moto,” I’m really sorry about your bike. I will fix it since it is my fault for not seeing you and driving into you. I also hurt you, so I’m definitely going to call the insurance, make a claim and get your bike fixed. They looked at each other and shook their heads in unison as if they were dealing with a child who had no clue what she was doing. I didn’t. I just wanted to do the right thing.

And then they explained it to me: if we called the insurance, an adjustor would come out (that would probably take an hour), they’d have to file a police report at Gerona, zone 1, all the way across town and we’d have to get the motorcycle towed there, and then the motorcycle would go into the State repair yard for weeks. Not only would it take weeks to fix, but they wouldn’t get another motorcycle to do their job. They wouldn’t work for weeks while they waited for the Ministerio Publico to process their police report, certify it, get a judge to review it and then take a course of action. Then the insurance company would have to negotiate with the MP and agree on a price and where the motorcycle would get fixed and that would probably take another week. Then it would still take more time for that motorcycle to be re-assigned to them because God knows there were other cops waiting in the same boat. They would probably have to pay something for the towing. So what would they be doing during that entire process? Nothing, not working, not earning money, not anything, just waiting.

“Pues por eso seño es que es mejor que  nos de los costos del daño y que alli termine.” That’s why, Ma’am, it’s better if you pay us the cost of the damages and we be done with it. But what about your injuries? Eso no es nada, seño, no se preocupe. That’s nothing, Ma’am, don’t worry. I waited silently as they continued to inspect their motorcycle for other damages. Are you sure this is what you want? I asked them. Yes, most definitely, they both said. I agreed and told them that I would pay them up to Q600 ($78.22) for a bent up license plate and a broken tail-light. They readily agreed. I would give an extra Q100 ($13.03) to help with medicine they needed and I could drive them to the hospital right now and pay for their bills there. Kofy let down his guard, sat and waited by my leg. He was bored with these humans fumbling around. No hospital they said, they were a bunch of crooks there and you came out sicker then you went in.

They looked at me waiting for their money. Oh, I said, I don’t carry that kind of money on me in case I get robbed, you know? We all laughed. Of course none of us did that kind of stupid thing. So I suggested we drive to an ATM and I take out the last of my Q600 from the machine. At this point another Chips back-up had arrived and all he was worried about was the plate. He turned it over and over pensively.  He approved of the damage price I was willing to pay.

We caravanned to the cajero, the ATM machine, I pulled over and Kofy watched my back while I got my money. I paid them, thinking I probably shouldn’t ask for a receipt. The one cop who had been hit was looking very pale and nervous. I have a First-Aid kit in the back of my truck, would you like an aspirin? He nodded and I went back and got the bag. I took out two anti-inflammatory pills and two aspirins. As I was tearing one for him, the other cop said, “Deme uno a mi tambíen porque todavía estoy asustado.” Give me one as well because I’m still a bit shaken up. I didn’t question him.

For the last time as we all stood there, I made the offer again: I am happy to take you to the hospital and do all that needs to be done to do this right.

“Esto es la mejor manera, Seño, no se preocupe ya. Maneja con cuidado.” This is the best way, Ma’am, don’t worry, just drive safely.

I thanked them and told them to have a good day and better rest of week. I called Kofy and we both walked towards the truck. As we pulled away all three of them stayed in the same position as we’d left them, statuesque, as if I’d made the whole thing up.

Our Rainy Twilight

June 22, 2012

When the rains come it’s hard to imagine a time when there was anything but the rain – the mid-afternoon antediluvian waters that carry you into a timeless state of waiting and expectation. Entropy quicken: roads crack, sinkholes open, houses tumble down cliffs, buses collide, and people race to take cover under awnings.  The house shudders under heavy rolling thunder, roofs leak, cobblestone is drowned amid thick currents of brown water, the electricity flickers and then disappears taking us with it into a new darkness that to most people feels like winter. For me, it’s time to find a dark den. In the morning the sun hangs back behind ominous clouds and bursts through pockets of humidity and onto us, the specimens of this petridish.

One full year we’ve been here and in August we head back, this time to Texas, to find a headquarters. It’ll be easier that way. I will be more intentional with my chunks of time in Central America. Time passes quickly here as each raindrop that evaporates in the morning sun. Mi abuelita asked me once “¿Como vas a saber como pasa el tiempo si no tienes hijos?” How will you know how time passes if you don’t have children? I’ll know, I tell her, because I’ll feel it in my heart.

When she was visting a couple of weeks back, I had this distinct feeling this would be her last visit to Guatemala, to see her eldest two children and to see her country. “Hay me recuerdas no venir otra vez cuando este lloviendo.” Remind me not to come again when it’s raining. I smiled wondering how someone forgets that it rains more than half the year in their own country. We drove into the banana plantations to see Tío Nefta and I wondering about their life there and how back then it rained, just like now, but things were so different for them.

I’m remind you, I tell her. She doesn’t hear me as she watches the rain roll off the broad banana tree leaves. Half to herself she says: “Cuando hay sol, solo es el solo, cuando llueve, solo la lluvia.” When there is sun, there is only sun and when there is rain, there is only the rain.

Except for memory, it’s so malleable.

Border Runnings

It is our last run to the border, to La Mesilla, the border with Mexico which is six hours from Guatemala City. Five military checkpoints and countless speed bumps later we are in Comitan checking our email at an Internet cafe and waiting for the requisite hour to pass before Brad and I can get stamped to go back in. We opt for sitting inside this oven with Internet access where we can at least do some work while waiting.  (My bag with my passport and cellphone falls into the toilet at the migration office before we head off to the cafe.) But no amount of tragedy can take away from my full-fledged support of  this border Internet cafe where I have already suggested to the owner that having iced coffees and a hostel would bring the gringos in who are stuck waiting for their papers.  She nods. She is open to it, she has thought about it many times, but the heat is too much to do more. A breeze blows in from over the mountains and sweeps up the dust on the sidewalk as I talk to her.

Each run for the border has its difficulties, this one is about the journey and not the end bureaucratic maze. The checkpoints came early and often – first the municipal police, then the national police, then the ejercito itself, the military, who are the easiest to deal with because they cannot be bothered with the small print. Fact is, it is all about the state of siege in Barillas and I want to be there before things get violent, which is unavoidable. The town has been striking against the new hydroelectric plant for two months now and this week they set fire to vehicles owned by the plant. The Guatemalan government has responded and brought in the troops. The town is not backing down.

We pass the turnoff to Barillas which is unmarked, but the military checkpoint tells me the way to Santa Cruz Barillas is right passed them. We drive on as life on the road because more vibrant. Women sit on the grass in small groups of colorful huipiles and babies in the center of them, men carry large loads of wood or tables twice as large as them strapped around their foreheads, the painted rocks from the 2011 election remain while mile after mile of trash pores along the side of the cliffs thousands of feet below. There is no barrier between your frail body and the fall.

You really have to want to be here.

Everywhere you are reminded that life means a lot less, if much at all. The jetlag sets in early today.  A few days ago I stood on the edge of Tel Aviv and stared across the Mediterranean Sea, ushering in the day for Guatemala. It seemed so far away at that point and so difficult to describe for people.  Standing at the foothills of the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes, I look eastward and think of the Mediterranean so far away and marvel at how different two countries can be.

Wearing my trousers rolled

Predictability – it was a term I associated with boredom, with the unimaginative, the fearful, the ones who clutched to stability like a shawl of mediocrity. It was the haven of those who shunned the arbitrary and the changing nature of all things; the unexpected and unavoidable truth of our existence. It was the ditch we all had to learn crawl into and drink tea at the bottom, comfortably, still making meaning knowing that death, entropy and all things ended or stopped when we least expected. We vowed, I vowed, the vowing happened down there to make every moment count.

In the middle of editing a video, typing an invoice, opening emails, Skype work chats, and uploads my screen goes black suddenly. My mind and body having merged with the machine, I feel someone pulled the plug straight out of my back. I look around disoriented and then dread enters. Thunder rolls its deep baritone so far away in the distance that  I can barely make out the sound before the second screen also goes black.

Somewhere the gods laugh. Sad, pathetic human to expect predictabilty and consistency.

I know better, it’s gone black many times before in the past month as the rainy season makes its early entry to Guatemala. I put my head between my hands and the only thing I see now is the green light of the power conditioner and battery back-up that has regained itself. I hear  the brain, heart and soul of my computer start in the hard drive and I take a deep breath. No relief yet, just the expectancy when you jump one side of a river and hope your foot catches the other side just enough solid ground to make it over. The desktop comes up, but I cannot get into it, the computer freezes again before it goes black again, this time for longer. I do this a few times and each time it becomes more obvious I have stepped into a different part of the river and didn’t quite make it over. Perhaps I even fell in.

I start the restoring process from my back-up, 4 hours the status bar tells me. Minutes before I was moving fast, leapfrogging forward at the speed of light and now I’ve dropped back again into the ether. “Bossman say get your dirt out of his ditch, Luke.” Cool Hand Luke would then look up from deep in the ditch, rest his head on the handle of his shovel and then climb back up out of the ditch he’d dug for 15 hours straight. He’d dig another ditch and pretty soon the Bossman didn’t want that dirt there either. What breaks a person? Can a person be broken? Does bamboo break?

On the roads there are more military, policy and traffic checkpoints at different spots; the sidewalks are uneven so that wheelchairs are a rarity, pedestrian crosswalks are also rare, so people with babies cross impulsively the six-lane Roosevelt Avenue during rush hour; sometimes you wake up to Internet, but many times it’s a one-night stand; on a sunny day the electricity vanishes for hours and the water trickles in the evenings long after the tourists have abandoned the area to its long and slippery slope into rainy season. There’s no point to this piling up, things have to be seen independently in their own reality, microcosmically you look at your feet when you walk so you don’t fall. And if you fall you depend on the ground as the only solid thing that you can push yourself back up from.

On Friday the church bells of San Francisco did not ring at 6:30 AM. The day before I stopped setting my alarm clock and told myself it was OK to expect the bells  to wake you, to always toll for my morning tea. Silly human. My class schedules change every week, there is no clear school calendar, and the parking we once had to park safely is also no longer something I can depend upon. I stop going to class, it’s too complex, the costs are too great for the little knowledge I gain in Guatemala City’s infamously targeted Zone 10.  More and more I yearn for predictability. Do I grow old? Do I wear my trousers rolled? I tell myself it is natural to expect certain things to remain consistent and predictable. A society has to have predictable processes, the atoms depend upon it. I am happy to double roll my pants to cross from one side of the street to the next when it rains and the sewers will not drain and the cobblestone of the streets is missing cobblestone.

It’s a developing country, what do you expect?  

The fact is I expect more. My Guatemalan mother expected more when the 15-hour days at United Fruit was her best hope for a stable life; her family expected more from three plus jobs in La Limonada  where seven of us lived in a two-room shack along the cerro where the world ended. If a sinkhole opened up and swallowed us, nobody would have missed us. We all expected more back then in 1977 when my mother became a coyote, when her family all quit United Fruit, when we charted unknown terrain through Mexico, when we became undocumented labor arms moving with the waves and seasons of labor – chicken plants, tobacco, cotton, fruit picking –  to find a place where we could expect and do more.

I made my way back because I expected more. I expect more. I don’t expect “developing” to be a word akin to resignation to things as they are, to the end that all things will meet. I expect developing to be more “we’re under construction” or these are our first steps, the first bricks, not grains, bricks we all put down to build something, an edifice, a monolith, a social body and state that is less fragmented, less dismembered, less Darwinistic.

Deus ex machina

A helicopter fell to earth yesterday, a straight drop from the sky, a fallen mechanical angel. We watched it crash between two houses and then I ran toward the plume of smoke out of instinct, nothing in my hand, just a response. It was nine in the morning. The quiet of our Sunday was broken by the sound of two overhead helicopters going from South to West, far and then near, away and then closer and closer. We’ve grown accustomed to more helicopters as Guatemala continues its march towards remilitarization, so we took a bite of our pancakes and thought nothing of it. I waited for the sound to fade with the distance. Instead it grew near again, until it was right over our rooftops.

When we opened the door we saw one of the helicopters pointed downwards against the blue western sky, suspended mid-air like a painting. A long breath escaped my mouth as it spun a few times and then dropped – the thread that held it to the sky having been cut suddenly, ever so delicately, by some force unseen. The fall to earth was great as a big crash of wood, adobe, tin all breaking filled the air.

“We have to help now,” I told Brad and ran quickly with a few other neighbors. On first street I turned right and saw the propeller sticking out like a chopstick from the roof. A dark cloud of smoke and dust was rose of the house; water streamed out from underneath the door. It was a matter of moments if the fuel tank from the helicopter had been damaged. We were up against time. Two of us banged on the door and nothing, we heard a scream. I told a neighbor we needed a ladder to break the door down. A white wooden ladder appeared from another neighbor’s house and all of us grabbed it and put all our force behind it. The doors splintered and opened. Other neighbors climbed the rooftop of the house next door and slowly the worker ants set out to get everyone out of the house – the dog, the family, the pilot, the survivors all injured. Brad brought me my camera and I knew what to do. I got out of the way and found a corner to tell the story from.

Time has a way of passing, one moment and then the next, a series of breaths that unwittingly lead you here. Quickly my mind, my heart rushes and fills – a balloon growing both inside and out and filling with some ungrasphable, intangible thing called living. It’s immediate, it’s primal, it’s the pure  instinct and will to live at all costs and to help others do the same.

More on Rosenberg

Indigenous organizations members of Waqib’ Kej and representatives of the peasants’ organizations of CNOC said yesterday that they would not support the demonstrations, neither in favour nor against president Colom. They view Colom and his government as part of the problem, and said that this is a dispute of power between different criminal groups within and outside the government.

Here is some recorded footage from the new conference.

The common political statement can be found here.

CACIF has called for a large demonstration on Sunday, and the government and the UNE party is also preparing a large demonstration on the same day.

MS-Asociación Danesa Centroamérica – Action Aid Dinamarca Comunicación y Propaganda, Comité de Unidad Campesina -CUC- Guatemala

More on Rosenberg

FROM HHrivas
Interview with Guatemalan AP correspondent, Juan Carlos Llorca.


From an anonymous contributor:

“Lamentable, situación, hay política sucia detrás de todo esto,  hay narcotráfico metido, hay lavado de dinero sucio también,   pero sobre todo hay un  ser humano que parece ser que no le dio la gana ser una estadística mas (un muerto mas) y  se puso los pantalones bien puestos, y  saco valores no se de donde ni porque, pero toma la decisión de morir por hacer ver mucho mas evidente y publico los problemas de todos los días en nuestro País.

Yo creo  en la veracidad del Video,  se que hay gente muy pudiente detrás de esto, aunque  la oposición política de este gobierno también es capaz de todo,  no creo que sea montaje te digo y esta por seguro que Rodrigo no  tenia necesidad de dinero (como para morir por dinero), el era un abogado respetado y de primera línea en Guatemala,  abogado de familias de abolengo y  muy adineradas  como la familia por la cual decidió morir por limpiar su nombre. (Kalil Musa y su hija Marjorie Musa),  que es muy verdadero que era una familia  muy adinerada, pero muy honorable y con gran sentido de proyección social.

Es solo que no quiero pensar que si no se sienta un precedente con todo esto,  el mensaje que se manda al crimen organizado, delincuencia común, mafias, etc etc, etc,  seria:   si nuestras autoridad des son asesinos, delincuentes, estafadores y ladrones?   Porque yo No puedo serlo?,  eso es lo más terrible, si no se sienta un precedente.

Una pregunta?  ¿ Que tan honorable,  confiable,  es  el FBI???? No se quizás en EEUU sea lo último en investigaciones criminalísticas, pero en un asunto externo?  No se prestan a negociaciones con autoridades locales??  Muchas preguntas, pero la verdad es indignante ver el video, y simplemente me resisto a creer que alguien que estaba amenazado de muerte y que después lo matan, haya querido dañar a alguien solo por hacer un show.

Pero bueno, dale, es un tema álgido, indignante, y lamentable para nuestro país,  de verda que  hay un puno de gente basura, que nos sigue poniendo de rodillas y con el cuchillo en el cuello.”

What A Web We Weave When We Deceive in Guatemala

There is a moment in the movie Rashomon when the woodcutter, priest, and commoner are at the temple and all you hear is the sound of a crying baby that has been abandoned in a basket.  The commoner takes what was left for the baby, the woodcutter reproaches him for stealing, but the commoner asks him about the woman’s dagger; the woodcutter does not reply and slowly a truth emerges: that the woodcutter is also thief because he stole the knife used in the murder of the samurai. The commoner than states that all men are selfish, and all men are looking out for themselves in the end.  The priest’s faith in humanity is tested and truth becomes a many layered thing. So it has been with my native Guatemala over the years, my faith always tested against an always changing and malleable truth. More recently my faith has been tested in the last few days as yet again there is a complicated web woven when fools do promise to deceive.

It’s a very disturbing set of stories coming out of Guatemala, the video makes it all the more disturbing, but the Twitter arrest a few days ago makes democratic processes all the more laughable.  But first to  a Guatemalan lawyer who was killed on Sunday who made a video before his death alleging that he might be assassinated and that if he was, it would be the work of President Colom.

“If I’ve learned anything about Guatemalan politics over the years,” said Thomas Offit, a colleague from the Guatemala Scholar Network, “is that there are layers and layers of complexity that are difficult to penetrate from outside.  There are almost always multiple plausible explanations for specific events, ranging from personal issues through a variety of political scenarios.  In this case, conservative anti-Colom forces are already in the street seeking to overthrow the regime, or at least demanding he resign, almost as if they had been preparing for the occasion; perhaps to the Guatemalan right, which is pretty good at this sort of thing historically, Rosenberg became a good foil because of his earlier statements on corruption.  What makes this scenario difficult to accept is the content of the video, which couldn’t have been coerced.”

It is true that just because he taped allegations of corruption doesn’t mean he was killed by the people he claims in the video would have done so. There are other possibilities, so many of them: lower level government people who really are living on corruption, or the “poderes ocultos” of the drug world, could be military and/or drug people concerned about Rosenberg’s allegations, could be someone he owed money to.

From another scholar on the network:

“Efectivamente, la situación es mucho más compleja de lo que creemos. Sólo quiero aclarar que no sólo son los ricos y conservadores los que no están de acuerdo con el gobierno de Colón sino también los que tenemos un pensamiento liberal y pertenecemos a la clase media. En mi caso, voté por él porque no podía imaginar tener a un militar nuevamente en el poder. Sin embargo, durante estos meses veo con mucha preocupación la manera en que han manejado los fondos públicos con millonarias transferencias a los programas que maneja Sandra de Colón en Cohesión Social.  Reparten alimentos, juguetes, maquillaje y juguetes.  Están formando una plataforma política, quizás para colocarla como candidata presidencial en las próximas elecciones (tipo Krishner en Argentina). Existen muchos señalamientos de corrupción pero comprobarlos con el sistema igualmente corrupto que tenemos es muy difícil. Ayer transportaron a los alcaldes en aviones privados contratados y el mensaje es que si no apoyan no podrán contar con los fondos de los proyectos de desarrollo en los que ya están comprometidos.  Cada vez que hay problemas empiezan a polarizar a la población, ricos contra pobres y como ustedes saben esto es muy peligroso.  Si una persona tiene una casa ya es considerado rico y si no apoya al gobierno entonces es enemigo no sólo del gobierno sino también de los pobres.  Toda la publicidad de las obras del gobierno aparece bajo el lema “Gobierno de Álvaro Colón” y no “Gobierno de Guatemala” como debería ser.

I also agree with another member on the Guatemala Scholar’s Network that it’s important to note the situation has gone beyond the scope of what the Guatemala can effectively handle to administer justice in this matter. Colom himself has asked for help as written in the Miami Herald from international bodies (FBI, UN) in investigating the Rosenberg murder.  It also reports that CICIG (internat’l committee against impunity) will investigate.  Colom isn’t silent on the accusations against him.

“I agree with Trudeau about the quagmire of accusations/corruption/politics but I’m suspicious of quickly labeling the protests against Colom (there was one yesterday, for example, in Z.1) as conservative.  There’s a strong sentiment of being fed-up with the violence in Guatemala and this is also a failure one of Colom’s central platforms (remember also that his closest opponent was military man Perez Molina –of that cloying campaign song of “mano dura, cabeza y corazon”–and so Colom’s victory was also painted as a victory for “civil” society).  My impression is that civil society is sick of it–not only of people getting shot in the head but of the multiplicity of “possible explanations” for each murder.

I’m interested to see what CICIG will do.  I am critical of that institution because if I’m remembering right they only took on 6 initial cases to investigate and a glaring omission was that of the Salvadoran diplomats.  I’m pretty sure they also skirted the whole milieu of adoption corruption (which could potentially implicate the U.S. embassy).”

The last thing I know will emerge from this is an administered justice from within Guatemala. At the very least, I hope Guatemala morale as low as it is already, will survive.

This is the cilmate I will be driving into four months from now.