Monday, August 6th, 2007
By Erica Etelson
Las Cabañas sounds like a rustic seaside resort with thatched roof shacks dotting the beach. It isn’t. A remote Guatemalan military base whose facilities include a mass grave filled with the corpses of torture victims, Las Cabañas is a place tourists and Guatemalans alike do well to avoid. Yet, there we were, two pale, sweaty gringos traipsing through the jungle, stopping every now and then to ask frightened campesinos, “¿Donde está el base del ejército?” (“Where’s the military base?”).
David and I had been studying Spanish in Quetzaltenango when we heard that Jennifer Harbury was camped out at Las Cabañas. Harbury is an American lawyer married to a disappeared leftist guerrilla leader. Harbury was informed that her husband, among others, had been killed and buried at Las Cabañas, and she was camped out in front of the base in commemoration of the dead. With her were a handful of Guatemalan students and human rights activists and, at some point, supposedly, Bianca Jagger. When the military engineered a hostile rally against Harbury and her supporters, Harbury put out a call for international support, and off we went.
David and I were 25 and 28 and eager to do something brave and meaningful, something our parents would disapprove of immensely, before it was too late. Our decision to join Harbury was made on auto-pilot, as though someone had said to us, “Hey, want to do something potentially life threatening?” and we said, “You bet.” Why go to all the bother of getting more information (such as where exactly the base was) or telling anyone where we were going (since we weren’t entirely sure)? We nearly stumbled over ourselves racing for the bus station.
We rode for five hours, our knees pressed up against the wooden seat in front of us, in a decrepit old Bluebird school bus adorned with sparkly “Jesus es Amor” stickers and black Playboy bunny head silhouettes. Three or four hours into the trip, the man sitting behind us suddenly leaned forward and began speaking to us in perfect English. Where were we going, he wanted to know. How long had we been in Guatemala? Where were we from? What did we think of Guatemala? The man was polite and friendly, and we smiled and nodded and gave vague answers to his questions.
When the man got off the bus, I informed David that, based on my vast experience in international espionage, I had concluded that the man was a CIA agent instructed to follow and possibly kill us.
“Don’t be paranoid,” David advised. “How would he even know what we’re up to?”
“I don’t know—they have their ways. He was probably eavesdropping on us the whole time.”
“Well, he’s gone now,” David said.
“Yeah, so he can go alert the death squads.”
“We’re U.S. citizens. Calm down.”
I reached into my money belt and ran my fingers across the warped edges of my passport. Within moments, my brain had stashed the memory of our interaction with the man in a remote, rear lobe, and the spell that had been cast on us in Quetzaltenango gently re-laced itself around me.
Half an hour later, we drove past an enormous green military-style boot on a platform made of giant letters that formed the words “Las Cabañas.” It looked like something you would find in a second rate amusement park, The Old Woman in the Shoe ride for toddlers. Though we knew better than to mock the Guatemalan army, we couldn’t help snickering at the sight of the cartoonish boot.
A few minutes later, we disembarked in the small village of La Montañita, which consisted of a few muddy streets lined with small, pastel-colored stucco homes and tiny, dark storefronts selling lukewarm soft drinks and tamales. As though our height, our paleness, our clothing, our backpacks and our abysmal Spanish weren’t already enough to make us look as though we had just dropped in from Mars, we immediately won the trust of the locals by asking everyone in sight where the military base was. Most people pretended they couldn’t understand us. Finally, a shrunken old man pointed out toward the corn fields surrounding the village, turning away before we could ask for clarification.
We headed for what looked like the outskirts of town and came upon a dirt path with tire tracks. “This must be it,” I said mechanically, as though in a trance.
The road was windy, and we couldn’t see far in any direction through the dense jungle foliage and tall rows of corn. Behind me, I could hear David slapping gnats and mosquitoes against his face and arms approximately every four seconds. The air was soupy, and before long we were wilting under the weight of our backpacks.
As we traveled deeper into the forest, my thoughts returned to the man on the bus. I was certain David and I had mentioned Jennifer Harbury before the man had struck up a conversation with us. He probably had a tape recorder in his pocket. How could we have been so careless?
The road widened into a clearing. “I think we’re here,” I murmured, my heart fluttering wildly. It was eerily quiet, the air heavy and still. We heard a rustling sound from up ahead.
“What’s that?” David whispered.
“I don’t know. I thought they’d all be here. Where the hell is everyone?” I could feel goose bumps taking shape along the frontal lobe of my brain.
A pig emerged from the bushes, her snout low to the ground, rooting around in the mud.
“Shit, it’s just a pig,” I said.
The pig wandered over to us and investigated our hiking boots. David reached out to try to pet her.
“Are you crazy?” I stopped him. “Do you have any idea how dirty pigs are? This pig has probably been rolling around in giardia-infested pig dung all day.”
David straightened up and looked at me strangely. His face broke into the stunned expression of one who is on the verge of being successfully deprogrammed from a cult, at that pivotal moment when clarity hatches itself free from delusion’s hard shell. The spell was nearly broken.
A mile or so later, we came across a small farm. A man in green plastic boots and a Baltimore Orioles baseball cap straightened up when he first saw us, then returned to his digging.
“Buenas tardes, señor. ¿Donde está Las Cabañas, el base del ejército?” I asked, trying to sound casual.
The man stood again to evaluate us. His face was deeply lined, and he wore an expression of resignation, as though having to answer my surprising question was just another of the many difficult challenges life presented him.
He nodded in the direction we had been walking. “Por acá,” he said.
“¿Por acá?” David pointed up the road.
The man looked him up and down and nodded.
“What’s por acá?” I mused. “Is that like por aqui or is there a difference?”
“What’s por aqui?” David asked. “Is that like por alla, over there, or does it mean ‘here’?”
“No, here is just aqui,” I said. “So por aqui means like, over here or over there, something like that.”
“Well, which is it?”
“Well, what difference does it make? It’s up that way. We’re headed the right way, he’s saying. I think. ¿Por alla? ¿Por acá?” I asked the man.
“Sí,” said the man patiently, leaning on his pitchfork.
“Gracias, señor, muchas gracias,” said David.
I felt reassured standing on the edge of the sunny field talking to the man. Here was a farmer tilling his land on an ordinary day. This wasn’t a setting in which bad things seemed likely to happen. Surely, this man wasn’t one of the campesinos who told of hearing screams in the night.
We continued up the road, moving from the bright, sunny clearing back into the clammy thickness of the jungle. When backpacking in the states, we often belted Broadway show tunes to scare off the bears. Out of habit and boredom, I launched into a rendition of “If I Were a Rich Man.” David joined in.
Shimmying our shoulders like Tevya, we rounded a bend in the road and were suddenly several yards away from a makeshift stand manned by four soldiers. The soldiers sat and stood behind the stand, their hands resting casually on machine guns lying in swiveling cradles. There was no trace of hostility, surprise or even mild bemusement on their faces.
We froze for what felt like a week but was probably only a few seconds. Then, we strolled over to the machine gun stand.
“You do the talking,” David muttered, for my Spanish was better than his and, while I generally forced him to practice instead of relying on me, this situation was one that seemed to call for maximum clarity.
“Buenas tardes,” I began.
“Buenas tardes.” One of the soldiers nodded coolly. A blade of grass hung from between his lips. The contraction of his jaw muscles as they worked the blade of grass up and down was the only movement on his expressionless face.
“¿Esto es el base del ejército?” I thought I’d warm up with something of a rhetorical question.
“Sí, well, um… ¿Donde está la Norte Americana?”
“Sí. Se fue.”
“She left? Sí. Um… ¿cuando?”
“¿Ayer?” Yesterday? I was incredulous—here we had come all this way, and Harbury had already broken camp.
“Ask him if she’s coming back,” David said.
“¿Sabe si ella va a regresar?” I asked, as though the man were a fellow activist anxious to assist me in my human rights mission.
By now, a small crowd of soldiers had stopped playing soccer in the field behind the entrance and gathered behind the stand to watch. They stood panting, their faces blank. The field was deeply rutted and littered with dozens of quite possibly six-foot long mounds.
“Okay, well, vamos a salir ahora,” I said sheepishly. It was high time to go.
“Sí,” he nodded, indicating that this was, in the brief time he’d known me, one of my better ideas.
We turned away and began walking back into the forest, the cool, expressionless stares and unambiguously unfriendly machine guns aimed at our backs. David began whistling “If I Were a Rich Man” softly.
We stopped at a stream a mile away from the base. The pig was there, cooling herself in the murky water. I sat on a fallen trunk and let my feet dangle into the stream. A little while later, a truck full of soldiers drove by us toward the base. They looked out at us impassively from the back of the truck. We stared back, mirroring their hollow expressions.