It’s late when we get to the border, high in the chill of the Guatemalan cordillera. After two dusty, gear grinding bus rides from the town of Huehuetenango, I’m tired and hungry. So when the border guard gives me a bad rate for the local money I want to change into Mexican pesos, I don’t see much point in arguing. I just want to get over to the other side.
But the bus is behind schedule, if that really means anything, and the border is closed for the night. Still, there’s beans and rice at the small, dimly lit, one-story house which functions as a restaurant. We’re in a sort of no-man’s land between two border check points and it’s the only place there is. The owner, a round, smiling, dark-skinned woman is sympathetic. She tells me I can sleep, no charge, on the concrete porch of the house, and in the morning walk down the hill to the border post only a short distance away on the Mexican side. It opens at six, she tells me cheerily.
So with a few shots of tequila to dull the sharp points of my concrete bed, I go to sleep in the company of fireflies. I wake at daybreak in the company of vultures and donkeys, slowly rousing themselves from their animal dreams. I check the time and as soon as the big hand hits the twelve and the little hand is on the six I struggle out of my grungy sleeping bag and wander groggily down to the Mexican border control. When I arrive I can see that it’s little more than a small hut, and to my surprise there doesn’t seem to be anyone around. In fact, there is no one around. Whatever my host told me, there’s no activity here. I tell myself it’s Tuesday. Maybe that’s the reason, or perhaps I’m the only person anxious and foolish enough to get up this early in the morning.
I knock and call, and finally a border guard appears. He looks sleepy and maybe hung over. It not really a surprise: there doesn’t seem to be a lot to do around here other than drink yourself stupid. I wonder what it must be like to live in this god forsaken frontier post. I wonder if it’s some kind of punishment. But whatever the case, life here doesn’t seem to have had a positive effect on this particular border sentinel. He’s evidently not pleased to see me. He asks me how much money I have, and tells me that there’s a requirement for people entering Mexico. I tell him what I think I need to have, but my luck is out. He asks to see it. I realise then that I’m in trouble. I don’t have what I told him I did. I’ve calculated exactly what I need to get back to Canada, and what’s in my pocket is all I’ve got, not a cent more, nor a peso less. And it’s not enough to get into the country.
It’s probably an attempt to be bribed, but I’m unaccustomed to the game. I take him seriously when he tells me I can’t get the entry stamp without the money. I tell him it’s in the bank in Mexico City, which could easily be the case. But he doesn’t buy my story, he just wants to be bought, or see me suffer for waking him up. It’s a standoff, and we go our own ways. He, no doubt, back to his bed and tequila nightmares, cursing the stupid gringo who doesn’t understand, wondering if this is part of his bad dream. I head back up the hill in the mist and pale morning sun, past the vultures and the donkeys, who, heads to one side, seem to watch me curiously, perhaps wondering if their own dreams are still not over.
Back at my restaurant where I stayed the night, the owner feeds me more beans and rice for breakfast. She’s sympathetic but either doesn’t understand the problem, or my bad Spanish. Either way, I have to pass through the Guatemalan border post once again. I ask to change the Mexican pesos I got the night before back into local currency. The same guard gives me another bad rate, instead of returning the amount I gave him earlier, as I politely ask him to. I get angry. I call him a bandido. It’s appropriate, but perhaps not so diplomatic. It certainly doesn’t get me a better rate, quite the opposite in fact. Honour offended, he tries to attack me, only to be restrained by the other border guards. It may be show, but I’m not taking any chances. He’s smaller than me, but like the rest of the guards he has a gun, and we’re a long way from anywhere.
The ride back to Guatemala City is not pleasant, it’s just as bumpy as the ride out, but this time I have the worry about what to do next. After a short search I find a hotel, at least that’s what it says over the door. In reality it’s more like a prison cell: damp concrete walls, small window, iron bed and giant cockroaches. The difference is that here I pay, as long as I have money, and can move out tomorrow, if I have anywhere to go. But I don’t; it’s the cheapest place I can find and money is now in seriously short supply.
Early the next day I make my way to the Canadian consulate where they tell me they can’t do anything: although I live in Toronto I’m not a Canadian citizen, just a landed immigrant. Sorry. The British are more sympathetic, they offer to repatriate me, to Britain. I decline. Finally the Canadian Consul suggests that I could wire someone in Canada and ask them to send me money.
The only people I can think of who are likely to have money are Pete and Sue. The problem is that when I left their flat on Butte Street in Vancouver the goodbye was rather strained. I suppose it all started with sex in the afternoon, with a woman Sue obviously was not particularly keen on, and Pete probably was, or at least had been before Sue got wind of it. It definitely came to head after the accident, after I drove the car of that same woman it into the back of her boyfriend’s vehicle as we slipped away from a party. The accident wasn’t serious and though I banged my knee it wasn’t particularly painful. But it was good for a little sympathy. And as we decided it was best to say that she had been driving, I was able to stay out of the way and avoid the worst of the trouble. I felt sorry for her, but I never saw her again.
It seemed like a sign; it was time to leave and head South. I said a rather strained goodbye to Pete and Sue, who had also been at the party, and set off down to the border with the guy who was going to give me a ride to San Francisco. Unfortunately, he forgot to mention that although he was Canadian he had been living in the US until fairly recently and had only left when it looked like they might send him to Vietnam. He was a draft dodger as they called it. I had no problem with that, but trying to cross the border with him was not a smart thing to do. He was probably lucky the US border guards only turned him back. They weren’t known for being generous.
When I showed up again at Pete and Sue’s place I didn’t get a particularly warm reception. I got the feeling that they had seen enough of me for a while. I stayed two days and then caught the bus to Portland. A small girl travelling alone cried the whole way.
So now, three months later, stranded in Guatemala City with no money and no friends, Pete and Sue seem to be the logical if somewhat awkward choice. I console myself with the fact that apart from the recent circumstances, they’ve been good friends and anyway, there really isn’t anyone else. I send the telegram and I wait.
I’m on my own except for the roaches, and I can do without their company. I take to lying down at night with my boots on, suddenly switching on the light and stamping on as many of them as I can. But the brown shirted army can afford to sustain a few losses, and always seems willing to come back for more punishment. They always win, and I turn over and go to sleep. In the meantime they busy themselves eating into the paper bag I keep my daily bread in. On the positive side, they don’t seem to like bananas, the other staple of my meager diet, which unfortunately doesn’t seem to agree with me. I get diarrhea. As I don’t have any money for pills, I just suffer, and try to take it out on the cockroaches.
In the mornings I walk down to the market and buy my daily ration of bread and fruit. In the afternoons I hang out wherever it´s cheapest or just wander aimlessly around the city. In the well to do neighbourhood I watch the rich with their cars and their bodyguards armed with automatic weapons. In the city centre I watch the desperately poor indios and their children selling baked corn bread and vegetables on the street. For amusement there´s the independence day military parade featuring a World War II fighter fly-by.
I talk to the few American travelers that have wandered in, and to the inevitable Peace Corps members, who commiserate with my predicament. I wonder which of them work for the CIA. The days pass slowly. I´m hungry. The smell of tortillas and roasted corn is seeping slowly into my skin.
* events of September 1971