Inevitably, we all reach that moment in our relationship with Guatemala that has to go beyond dating. That moment that tests our meddle, commitment, intentions, our resiliency and our very capacity to overcome. It’s a loss of innocence and of a romanticized notion that a halo of protection exists around those of us that are here to do good.
That moment happened on Friday, June 3 when we stopped at Esso Las Majadas in Guatemala City, behind Las Majadas shopping center as we made a gas and ATM pit stop before heading to Chiquimula and Puerto Barrios to visit family. It’s a self-service station with three main points of entry to two freeways (one leading you to the historic district, then further East; the other leading you to the wealthy Zone 10) and just behind it the two large malls, Tikal Futura and Miraflores, that serve as anthills of consumerism. The police use it as their coffee stop, two security guards with shot-guns stand at each corner of the store, an endless number of attendants buzz around checking oil, pumping gas, flirting with the women drivers. One man by the front pump area writes down license plates of all the cars that come in and out of the gas station. By the gated fence that separates it from a bank, young guys sit on the grass, chow down on their sandwiches laughing while traffic remains at a standstill just beyond the gas station. It is an intersection space, tricksters congregate and things move quickly between breaths.
We pulled up to the rightmost pump with the most space, Brad got out to pump, I put my cellphone in the glove compartment, got my wallet. I then walked in front of the truck and told Brad I was going to the ATM. He nodded and proceeded to pay with his debit card. I looked around and got the lay of the land before crossing. Once inside I began my battle with the ATM machine which continued to refuse my card. I tried a second one and finally it worked. With money in hand I I felt an itch to grab some drinks and snacks for the road so we wouldn’t have to stop too much.
I reached the cashier and she took ages to get my change back. Brad had finished pumping and saw me talking to the cashier. Through the outside of the window he waved at me, I told him everything was fine, but asked him with my fingers indicating cash if he had cash to pay the gas. He didn’t understand me, so he walked into the store and I asked him if he had cash. “Oh yeah, the card worked,” he said right next to me at the cashier’s registrar. That’s strange, I thought, that my card didn’t work. I wanted to get back to the car and just start our trip because it was already 12:30. I got my change. “Let’s go,” I said and we headed out the door quickly.
Once in the car I opened the glove compartment looking for my cellphone to call my cousin and give him a heads up that we were running late. But I couldn’t find my phone, not in the glove compartment, not in the side door, not where we put the drinks. So I figured Brad had hidden it for safety reasons. “Where’s my phone?”
“I dunno, babe, you’re always putting it in different places, why don’t you just leave it in your backpack?” Maybe it was in the backpack. So I turned around to reach for the backseat where all three backpacks with Brad’s MacBook Pro, my MacBook Pro and digital camera were all side by side like small obedient children.
But only one of them was there, which I found odd. I looked around and then asked.
“Did you move the backpacks?” Annoyed he said, “No I didn’t move the backpacks, why would I do that?” And then we both turned to the backseat, looked at one another, looked at the back seat and then yelled, “SHITT!!” It was a moment of sheer panic. We looked around immediately, I checked the camper shell to see if it was broken, nothing, I asked the guy taking the plates down if he’d seen anything, nothing. I asked the guards, they shrugged. I asked the guy selling lottery tickets, nothing, the attendants, nothing. The guys sitting on the grass, nada. Nobody, but nobody had seen a thing.
“Let’s check the cameras!” Brad said. And that’s exactly what we did, we ran towards the convenience store, went behind the cash register and asked the camera guy to rewind the tape to 12:20 and to let us watch it with him. We told him we’d been robbed. He obliged and slowly rewound the tape. Everything was in slow motion. And then we watched the crime unfold. It was both a gift and a curse. We saw our truck pull up to the station from two camera angles, the attendants, the people entering the convenience store, me getting out of the truck, we saw all the action from a third person perspective, the way you imagine you would watch your funeral if you could somehow stage it like a Fellini film. Course it makes you realize why the soul can’t bear to watch its down death because the reality is too stark.
In black and white we watched how around 12:22 PM the thief, a thin, short man with short black hair, a long-sleeved white shirt and dark pants – he looked like a “waiter” Brad said later – walked up to the truck, looked inside, opened up the passenger seat, took two backpacks from the back seat, closed the door, walked across the parking lot, right in front of the guards with the shotguns, the man taking the plate numbers, the three gas attendants and the guy selling lottery tickets. He got into a black or dark green (depending on who you ask) van that already had its door wide open like a big black yawn. Barely able to hold up both laptops because of the weight of each he climbed into the van whose plates could not be identified by the camera. He then drove onto the bumper to bumper traffic and disappeared into the smoggy afternoon. Two minutes later we popped out of the convenience store and got in our truck. And then we got out again, frantically into the world.
I wanted a copy of the footage. Brad wanted to call credit cards. I wanted to call the police, but nobody knew the number until someone said *110. Brad was pale and livid and my hands were shaking as I held the phone. “Guatemala Police Department Unit, how can I help you?”
I was surprised how calm my voice sounded: “Buenas tardes seño, can you please do us the favor of sending someone out to Esso Las Majadas? We’ve been robbed.”