Since The Taste of Ashes was published, I’ve been asked about the time I spent in Guatemala – a two- week trip in the summer of 2004. It was a pivotal journey that brought some of the ideas I was exploring into clear focus for the first time. I wrote about it for Northword Magazine that fall, and, as I was out hiking in the Babine Mountains on Sunday, I remembered the way in connections were made for me between places as apparently disparate as Guatemala and Tatlatui in BC’s north. Making connections is really what writing is all about for me – connections between ideas, emotions, people, culture and landscape. Here’s that article:
Night Rain in Nebaj
After that they came to the Dark House, a house with darkness alone inside it. – from Popol Vuh
We are sweating up to a pass high in the Tatlatui Mountain Range in northwestern BC, a wilderness park accessible only by floatplane. My pack is heavy, and we’ve had three days of hard slogging. It is new country for us and there’s been no trail for most of the way.
Bushwhacking through thick brush on the lower slopes, often in the rain, makes us irritable. But once we hit the alpine tundra, the sun comes out and we shake off the gloom to delight in the cries of a nesting horned lark and the sight of eight caribou crossing a snowfield. As we climb, the vegetation dwindles to delicate flowers on shattered shale. In the narrow pass, the peaks on either side are bare of everything but scattered lichens.
There’s a kind of hiking euphoria that comes at this point: the pivot where you can no longer look back to see how far you’ve come, where you can see only what lies ahead. You forget that from up high, route finding is often delusional. We can see the cabin we’re aiming for at the head of Kitchener Lake, but we can’t see the scrub willow and stunted fir waiting to entangle our feet and catch our packs. We can’t see the nearly vertical drops where we will be glad of the undergrowth for handholds. From up here the pale green swamps look like inviting meadows. When a golden eagle flies right above our heads, we grin like fools.
And then memories of Guatemala bubble up. Only two weeks earlier, doing research for a novel, I was in other mountains, la Cordillera de los Cuchumatanes in the north of Quiché. I was with a small group in a van driving through the municipality of Nebaj to the tiny village of Acul, the road twisting between steep hillsides. On one side the pasture, grazed to the roots by el patrón’s cattle, was scattered with huge stones, their surfaces pitted like grotesque skulls. On the other side, corn plots rose almost vertically between deep tree-filled ravines. These were the mythical hills I had read about. The hills where the guerillas lived and ran their campaigns against a succession of brutal Guatemalan governments. The hills where villagers fled the army massacres to live on the run, some of them for years, some of them children carrying babies, told by their mothers to run, run, even as the soldiers tore off their beautifully embroidered huipils so they could rape them.
As I sit in the top of the pass in Tatlatui, sweat cooling on my back, these stories spike through the elation found in the company of good friends and rare alpine poppies. They surface because of my fatigue, the weight of my pack, and the uncertainty of the route ahead. This is nothing, I think, to what the villagers felt as they abandoned their homes to live in the hills without food or shelter. Imagine hearing a helicopter and having to run, now, stumbling and sliding down the slope into the trees below, dodging bullets and grenades. My tired body opens me up and narrows the distance between our worlds. But nothing that happens to us in these remote BC mountains, in spite of our sense of wilderness adventure, can fully bridge the gap.
Even the evening the grizzly lumbers up out of the draw to walk within spitting distance of our tents, our fear is different. The surge of adrenaline is a momentary rush that fades as we watch the bear cross the great alpine basin, rise as a silhouette on the horizon, and disappear. He might frighten you, but he usually has other things on his mind. He certainly is not going to be upset if you organize the local farmers into a cooperative to better market their corn. He won’t phone and threaten to rape your sister. He will not lock you into the church with your entire village and burn it down. If you’re smart, you won’t block his passage. If you do, he may kill you. But he will not riddle your life with unanswerable philosophical questions: Is it wrong to remain silent when speaking will bring you unimaginable pain? Do you pull the trigger on your innocent neighbour or take the bullet along with him?
My Canadian stomach is ill prepared for such questions. When I see the shriveled lemming impaled on a splintered branch collected in that same alpine basin for firewood, I am disturbed by the shrike’s methods. When I spot the golden eagle in his aerie, I pity the marmot whose skull I pick up, the bones crushed sideways. I wonder if it was dropped as it struggled in the eagle’s talons or was crushed as a grizzly clawed its burrow to shreds. But I know it wasn’t tortured by a local patrol sent out to round up anyone poking her nose in where it doesn’t belong.
That night, listening to the rain on our tent, I remember the evening we drove into Nebaj. As we passed a low white building, doors red in the headlights, the voice of our driver came out of the sleepy darkness. During la violencia, he said in Spanish, that was the torture center. At that moment, the testimony lifted off the pages of the international reports. I heard boots kicking up water as struggling bodies were dragged out of dark vans. I saw the light slicing onto the street as the red door opened, and felt the despair as it closed again. Would we have heard the screams as we hurried by, clinging to the shadows?
Later, I lay in bed, still vibrating from the long hours on the road. The night sounds of Nebaj – tires in puddles, footsteps on the street, voices cut off when a door closed – came through the rain and in between the bars of my open window. As I drifted into an uneasy sleep, they travelled along the small bones of my inner ear, translated into disturbing dreams.
The next morning, the rain held off as our small group found its way to a meeting with the Movimiento de Desarraigados del Norte de Quiché. Four men explained the group’s painstaking and complex work seeking redress for the genocide and displacement suffered by the largely Mayan rural population during Guatemala’s long civil war. Afterwards, a young woman pulled us into a ground-floor room in the city hall building to see an exhibit illustrating the work of an associated organization, Fundacion de Antropologia Forense de Guatemala. The walls were covered with photographs of human bones. A sign beside a picture of a skull explained the damage typical of machete chops. Another showed the fragments left by a bullet.
Outside, the rain started again, a downpour that sent people running for cover, dodging the water spouts gushing off the roofs onto the cobblestone streets. Inside I struggled to understand the stained and pitted hieroglyphics. A rope, looped around neck bones embedded in dirt, intact long after the flesh held hunched in pain and fear by the articulated vertebrae was gone. Leg bones drawn up close to tangled ribs. Fetal bones, a starfish cluster of ivory in a pelvic girdle. But it was not the wounds or the binding ropes or even the bones themselves that undid me; it was the clothing. A shirt held the huddled shape of a decomposed body. The polyester threads in a mother’s shawl formed a shroud for her baby’s tiny skeleton. A child’s shinbones protruded from red running shoes flattened by the weight of the dirt and stones that had been piled on top of them. I could almost hear the small bones of the feet inside, rattling like dice.
The exhumations are like a game of pickup sticks. They are a delicate exercise to dismantle the tangled bones in secret graves so families can identify the dead and know how they died. So they can mourn in public and rebury the fragments with ceremonies that reclaim their dignity. The exhumations also preserve the evidence necessary to prove the cases of genocide being brought against the Guatemalan generals. They put a lie in the mouths of those who say the army fought only combatants. Combatants don’t hop into battle, their arms and legs bound. Combatants don’t run to the attack, their infants tied in shawls on their backs. At least 200,000 people were killed –silenced – during Guatemala’s civil war, but their bones are speaking out.
The young woman who took us to Acul pointed to a small river, one I could have easily crossed in my sturdy hiking boots. That was where they threw her father’s body after they killed him, she said. She led us up the path to the cemetery to see a stone monument erected in the memory of the villagers massacred there at 3:00 am on April 21, 1981. Villagers fingered as friends of the guerillas by some poor tortured wretch. Her father’s body was never found. Now she risked her own life by working with the Movement of Displaced People.
There is a paradox here. The gap between Canada and Guatemala is perhaps an illusion, an illusion as thin as the aluminum skin of the old Beaver floatplane that brings us into Tatlatui. But like that skin, it has just enough substance to hold its engine and passengers in the correct aerodynamic shape, just enough so we can skim the jagged peaks unharmed. Our pilot navigates with the topographic map in one hand, the other on the throttle. When ice chokes the carburetor, we are afraid, but our fear is very different from that of those villagers in Acul.
The day I flew home from Guatemala, the Supreme Court granted Efrain Rios Montt, one of the generals charged in the genocide trials, the right to run for president. The day after we make the difficult descent to Kitchener Lake, his blue-fisted Frente Republicano Guatemalteco party busses 5000 supporters into the center of Guatemala City to terrorize the people protesting the court’s decision and the journalists covering the protests. The people who organized our trip to Acul are themselves in danger.
Guatemalans understand in their bones what it is to be hunted in a way that most Canadians can only guess at. In Guatemala those who feel their interests are threatened stand ready to slit the skin of any social and political vision that honours individuals, indigenous cultures, or the most basic of human rights. They stand ready to sell their glue to street children, to drug the textile worker so she can keep up the pace for her 12-hour shift and rape her when she takes a bathroom break, to murder the banana worker negotiating a living wage. Things may not be as different here as we’d like to think. The difference may be an illusion, one many Canadians find unsatisfactory, or, even worse, banal. But it is an illusion worth fighting for. It is one many Guatemalans die for.
On our last night in Tatlatui, the mosquitoes tap on the netting of our tent like animated raindrops. It is 9:30, still light enough to read this far north. It’s about the same time of night the 75-year-old Bishop Gerardi left his sister’s house to drive to his San Sebastian Church residence in the center of Guatemala City. It would have been dark when he pulled into the garage. He would not have seen the men waiting for him until it was too late.
I read about his murder when it happened in 1998. He was killed two days after releasing the Recovery of Historical Memory Project report, Nunca Mas. The report details the horrors of the civil war including testimony from the tortured and the torturers. It lists the hundreds of massacres, village by village, year by year. It was an attempt to begin a truth and reconciliation process like the one in South Africa. His murder was a deliberate attempt to stop that process. Nuncas Mas means never again, and at the time, Gerardi’s death seemed like just another heart-breaking irony in the long misery of Guatemala’s history. But lying in my tent on the shores of Tatlatui Lake, I feel his loss in my tired bones. I feel it very differently than I did when I first arrived in Guatemala. Walking through the capital’s gritty streets on our way to meet with the committee keeping the investigation of his murder active, I was more interested in the street life: the platters of colourful fruit, the quick knives, the juicers, the shoe shiners, the buses spewing diesel fumes. Outside San Sebastian Church, small schoolboys in white gym gear played games on the paved courtyard.
It wasn’t until I saw the shrine – the flowers and the rosary dangling from Gerardi’s photograph – that I realized the door of our meeting room opened into the garage into which he drove that night. Where his killers caved in his head with a block of concrete. The polished tiles were the ones the housekeeper had mopped clean of his blood.
One of the women spoke of her admiration for his courage and determination. In the early 1980s, he was the bishop of Quiché. The Guatemalan army was terrorizing and killing his parishioners. He travelled to Rome to report on the atrocities. When he returned, he was refused entry and left in the hands of the El Salvadorian army, then involved in its own civil war. That was the night he thought he was going to die, one of the women told us. He did not expect to be murdered two years after the peace accords were signed.
The paradoxes in Guatemala – the cruelty and the courage, the corruption and integrity – are many, and they provide a proving ground for thousands of missionaries and aid workers from North America and Europe. In Nebaj, the torture center now houses an international children’s organization. Committed accompanists protect members of the Committee for the Displaced as they help prepare testimony for the genocide charges against Rios Montt.
Here in the north, I struggle against complacency as we move past an equinox that goes unnoticed in Guatemala. The hours of darkness grow in the mountains of Tatlatui. There is snow on the ground; the marmots and grizzlies are deep in their dens and the golden eagles have flown. Somewhere in between the memory of two mountain ranges, I am trying to write a story that will speak across the gap. A story to travel across the bridge formed by the small bones of the inner ear, the bones that carry the voices of the world deep inside us. I listen along these bones, vibrating in the darkness.