In the second of our series of ‘snapshots’, in which Spanish and Latin American writers conjure an image which defines their home country for them, Eduardo Halfon writes about the roads of Guatemala.
The roads of Guatemala have always been its best and worst theatre. Beautiful dirt roads leading to a vast green nowhere. Old gravel roads winding up active volcanoes, around rivers and lakes, through screaming jungles. Long, eternal roads whose ends dip into two great oceans. City roads that are barely paved, barely straight and barely navigable.
A few years ago, after spending some time in Spain, I finally moved back to Guatemala and was struck when friends and family members gave me the same piece of advice. Don’t honk your horn at another car, don’t overtake another car, don’t dare raise your headlights at another car. Why? On several occasions I forgot this advice and was then able to confirm its gloomy wisdom. Once I was chased fiercely for ten or fifteen minutes, until my pursuer either got tired or grew bored. Still another time, and without me ever knowing why, an elderly woman drove for a few blocks right next to my car, screaming and insulting me with the most lavish vocabulary I’d ever heard. Another time a man pulled up beside me at a red light and proceeded to show me, smiling all the while, his handgun.
I can’t forget the nausea I felt at being chased down; or the fear that gripped me, not so much because of the man’s handgun, but because of that ominous grin through the thin dark glass; or the extreme sense of impotence I experienced while being hysterically and incomprehensibly yelled at by an elderly woman – or perhaps not so incomprehensible. Perhaps that is what happens to a people who have lived among violence, among so many types of violence, for so long. Total violence. Historical violence. Political violence. Racial violence. Drug violence. Gang violence. Ruthless violence. Senseless and unpunished violence. The most beautiful country with the ugliest people. This is what ultimately happens to those living in this constant climate of dread. I suppose that, in the end, one has to either become part of it – as perpetrator, as enabler, as victim – or leave. I left.
I now live in Nebraska. But even from here, driving these flat roads, it seems that the sad meandering roads of my country are neverending. Recently, I learned about a group in Guatemala called ‘La Asociación de Viudas de Pilotos’, or ‘The Association of Widows of Drivers’. In one of their many territorial disputes, the local Guatemalan gangs have been waging a public transportation war for control over the various bus routes. Gang members demand from each bus driver a daily circulation tax – one-hundred quetzales, less than fifteen dollars – in exchange for their lives. The Association of Widows of Drivers currently has 250 members. That is, 250 women whose husbands have been murdered in the last few years while simply driving other fellow Guatemalans to their workplaces, to their towns, to their homes.
Photograph © Infrogmation