Gringo charts two journeys, both of which began a decade ago. The first is the sweeping transformation of Latin American politics that started with Hugo Chávez's inauguration as president of Venezuela in 1999. In that same year, an eighteen-year-old Chesa Boudin leaves his middle-class Chicago life which is punctuated by prison visits to his parents, who were incarcerated when he was fourteen months old for their role in a politically motivated bank truck robbery and arrives in Guatemala. He finds a world where disparities of wealth are even more pronounced and where social change is not confined to classroom or dinner-table conversations, but instead takes place in the streets.
While a new generation of progress-ive Latin American leaders rises to power, Boudin crisscrosses twenty-seven countries throughout the Americas. He witnesses the economic crisis in Buenos Aires; works inside Chávez's Miraflores palace in Caracas; watches protestors battling police on September 11, 2001, in Santiago; descends into ancient silver mines in Potosí; and travels steerage on a riverboat along the length of the Amazon. He rarely takes a plane when a fifteen-hour bus ride in the company of unfettered chickens is available.
Including incisive analysis, brilliant reportage, and deep humanity, Boudin's account of this historic period is revelatory. It weaves together the voices of Latin Americans, some rich, most poor, and the endeavors of a young traveler to understand the world around him while coming to terms with his own complicated past. The result is a marvelous mixture of coming-of-age memoir and travelogue.
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The rugged handmade wooden canoe fitted with a powerful outboard motor pushed up against the dirt shore of Lake Petén Itzá where the town's first houses nestled the beach. There was no "Welcome to San Andrés" sign. A handful of chickens clucked around, a few pigs rooted in the dirt, and the sweet smell of burning plastic garbage filled the air. San Andrés, with its rapidly growing population of five thousand, covered the steep hill leading up from the lake and back toward a lush tropical jungle where an ancient civilization had reached its peak some six hundred years ago. Mayan stone cities and temples, long abandoned, were the region's primary attraction for foreigners.
On the journey across the lake from the triple city of Flores-San Benito-Santa Elena, with its few tens of thousands of people, I had sat in the rear of the boat near the loud motor and intense fumes: being the gringo and a first-time visitor, I had no way of knowing better. Riding in the back, I had the additional disadvantage of waiting while the rest of the passengers all Guatemalans disembarked. A group of young men with neatly pressed school uniforms and meticulously gelled straight black hair got out first. Next, an old woman with an impossibly large bag was helped ashore; then a younger woman with an infant at her breast and two smaller ones following behind with sacks balanced on their heads. A couple of men carried machetes and wore muddy knee-high rubber boots workers in the fields or the jungle.
As the people in front of me climbed onto the dirt embankment, I looked down the beach and saw small groups of young women and girls washing clothes by hand and carrying water in plastic tubs. On the other side of the beach, heading away from town toward more trees and unsettled jungle between the villages dotting the lakefront, partially clothed families bathed and splashed in the shallows of the cool water. "Oye gringo!" Hey gringo, time to go. The boatman, no more than twenty with a thin mustache and sneakers well cared for but far past their prime, wanted me off his boat. Sporting new, sturdy boots and a big hiking bag that was strapped, unnecessarily secure, to my back, I jumped out onto the wet ground and started walking up the hill. I passed one-story cinder-block and wood houses on narrow, partially paved streets and footpaths. The sun burned down, scorching everything it touched, and the people I passed stayed in the shadows while children played and ran freely. A few blocks up, climbing steeply, I stumbled on Eco-Escuela. It was a one-room language school built on stilts out over the hill. The back wall was cut away to provide a panoramic view of the lake.
This was to be my new school but I didn't stop there. Instead I continued farther up the hill to the small wooden house of Doña Eugenia, which was where I had arranged to stay for my two-month-long visit. I was to share my new home with Doña Eugenia's only daughter, Delia, and, when he got back from working in the jungle, her quiet, amiable husband, Jesús. Doña Eugenia had short hair and was one of the only married women in town with just one child an oddity in a community where contraception was rarely used. Her daughter was sixteen, with a squat frame and feet more used to flip-flops than shoes. The women were both tiny, coming up no higher than my chest. It would be a week or more before I met Jesús. He had a warm smile, and like most men in town who worked in the fields or the jungle, carried a machete wherever he went. I wasn't the first gringo they had hosted, so my Birkenstocks, headlamp, and wide array of sunscreens came as no surprise.
Dinner on my first night at their house was handmade corn tortillas fried into tostadas and covered with cabbage and grated cheese. While I ate hungrily, I tried out the various getting-to-know-you one-liners I remembered from Spanish class in high school. Soy de Chicago; tengo dieciocho años; me llamo Chesa: C-H-E-S-A. ¿Cómo estás? We struggled to get to know one another, but my Spanish was a severe limitation, often slowing conversation to a total halt. While on my third or fourth tostada Doña Eugenia asked me ¿Qué hacen sus padres? Small talk about what her exchange students' parents did was probably a safe ice-breaking question for most of the gringos Doña Eugenia had hosted in the past. But her question left me with a dilemma.
I've been open and matter-of-fact about my family situation since before I can remember as a kid I just took it for granted that it was as normal as saying my parents were doctors or teachers; eventually, I even preferred my whole class to know at the beginning of the year rather than lying or worrying about who knew what and I didn't see why I should hide it now. But what were the words for jail or adoption in Spanish anyway? "Tengo cuatro padres." That part was easy, but I saw the puzzled look on Doña Eugenia's and Delia's faces.
"¿Cómo así? ¿Son divorciados?" came the inevitable reply. No, they were not divorced. They were...I had to rely on my pocket dictionary for this one...encarcelados. If I thought having parents in prison was going to give me street credibility in San Andrés, the distraught look that passed between my hosts dispelled that misconception immediately. They were worried. I started talking fast, making up the words I didn't know. Bebé, padres, crimen, tres muertos, político, negros, imperialismo, Nueva York.
How could I, with only the most basic Spanish, articulate to my now concerned hosts that in October 1981, when I was just fourteen months old, my biological parents, Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, had left their Manhattan apartment and dropped me off at my Dominican babysitter's house, only to head off into a tragedy? How could I explain that, while I played and fussed as an infant, my parents made a terrible mistake, the worst of their lives? They had waited in a U-Haul in Nyack, New York, as a couple of miles away, members of a radical armed group of black nationalists robbed a Brinks truck of $1.6 million. Tragically bungled, the Brinks robbery left three men dead and an entire community traumatized. By the time my mother and father received a twenty-years-to-life sentence and a seventy-five-years-to-life sentence, respectively, friends of theirs, Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, had taken me into their family and become my other parents. How could I explain to Delia what the political turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s had been about, or how my parents, white Jews, got involved in antiracist and antiwar activism and ultimately armed robbery?
For more than a decade before I was born, all four of my parents had lived on the run from the FBI as members of the militant political group called the Weather Underground; they had a common history. In 1980, after the Underground had fallen apart, Bill and Bernardine surfaced, and voluntarily turned themselves in to the authorities the most serious charges against both of them had been dismissed because of illegal activities, including wiretaps, break-ins, and mail interceptions, initiated by the attorney general and an FBI assistant director. Bernardine was given three years probation for charges stemming from a protest. When I landed in my new household, Bill and Bernardine already had two sons: Zayd and Malik became my older brothers. With the support of my new family, through visits, letters, and phone calls, before I can even remember, I began to build relationships with my other parents from the distance incarceration creates. Somewhere in the gray area between collective family memory and where my own recollections start, I grew accustomed to going through a metal detector and steel gates every time I wanted to give my biological parents a hug.
As I grew up, my four parents' group efforts made feasible the transitions between the mostly white, middle-class, private school day-today and the mostly poor, black, and Latino prison system that was a constant thread in my life. I lived in parallel worlds. My family taught me radical politics from the beginning, but I also learned to prove myself in elite institutions. Brought up with the privileges and opportunities the United States offers some people, and a political line that condemned the very existence of an elite, I lived a contradiction. Life's incongruities were not merely between theory and practice. Much of the left-wing politics took root, despite the exclusive networks and institutions, because prisons can be a great equalizer. The line for the metal detector at Attica Correctional Facility didn't move any faster for me because I attended the same private school where Nobel Prize winners and billionaires sent their kids.
With one hand cuffed to a barely visible abyss of poverty and incarceration, and the other grasped in the confident handshakes of those accustomed to privilege and comfort, I learned to move freely between different universes. Almost miraculously these existences came to complement each other. Each served as a lens through which life could be viewed and understood, a bridge to reach out and connect with people around the planet in the most unlikely places. Metal detectors, languages, planes, and buses have come to serve as portals between my different worlds.
There was no way I could articulate all this with the little Spanish I knew at the time of arrival in San Andrés, and my fifth tostada was getting cold while I fumbled with my dictionary. Even looking up every word I could barely explain to Doña Eugenia and Delia that my parents were kind, generous, well-meaning people, buenas personas, that we loved one another with the complexity of any strong family, mucho amor, that their crime had been politically motivated, crimen político, that despite their incarceration I had grown up in a stable, middle-class family, familia estable. Their tight faces suggested confusion, concern, maybe even fear. I didn't want them to be scared to have me in their home, but the more I tried to explain in broken Spanish and infinitive verbs plucked straight out of the dictionary, the more confused I seemed to make them. I wanted them to see me as a friend, to articulate a self-portrait of a good gringo, an ally, but I wasn't so sure who I was myself.
While I was in Doña Eugenia's kitchen, in January 1999, my classmates were beginning the last semester of senior year of high school. I had finished my credits early and decided I would see how well Mr. Fuentes's intensive Spanish class could serve me during an immersion experience in rural Guatemala. It was my first trip to Latin America and my first-ever journey outside the United States without my family.
In Venezuela, a few hours flying south from San Andrés, Hugo Chávez was being sworn in as president and would soon begin shaking up the region. Later that year, at the Battle in Seattle, a burgeoning global protest movement would target institutions like the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank that propagated neoliberal policies classical liberal economic policies with the goal of transferring control of the economy from the public to the private sector. By the 1990s, neoliberal economic and social policies had become the norm throughout Latin America, though politicians advocating them openly were rarely elected democratically.
On the flight south I had read Stephen Schlesinger's and Stephen Kinzer's Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American Coup in Guatemala, which described the role of the United States government in overthrowing Guatemala's democracy back in 1954. It was one of a number of books my parents had suggested to help me understand the role North American companies and the CIA played in Guatemala's tragic history of poverty and civil war. Che Guevara happened to be living in Guatemala City at the time of the coup; the events the young Argentine witnessed would forever change his life and with it pan-American history.
The CIA-sponsored 1954 Guatemalan coup, justified in the name of fighting communism, was followed closely by brutal military dictatorships and a thirty-six-year-long bloody civil war that ravaged the country. Dictators and death squads left an estimated 200,000 dead, mostly unarmed indigenous civilians, and the country deep within the United States policy fold. But when I flew into Guatemala for the first time I only had the vaguest idea of what a neoliberal policy was, let alone what it would look like on the ground.
From Chicago I had signed up to study at a language school in the sparsely populated northern region of Guatemala called the Petén, and it was through the school that I was assigned to live with Doña Eugenia. My school tuition of $150 a week included four hours of one-on-one classes per day, and a home stay with all my meals included. The school had an inviting, progressive-sounding name, Eco-Escuela. A family friend who had studied there recommended it.
After collecting my new backpack from the baggage claim in Guatemala City's international airport, I wandered over to the airport information desk. A woman in a light green dress suit who was working there spoke more English than I did Spanish. She said that I had two basic choices for getting to the Petén: I could board a one-hour flight for $65 or I could take a twelve-hour bus ride for about $9. In a decision that would foreshadow much of my travel over the next decade I decided that a plane ride was too expensive and straightforward. Nervous though I was, I wanted to get into the mix and travel like a Guatemalan: the bus it was.
A taxi driver charged me $4.30 for a ride to the private coach terminal of a passenger bus company called Fuente del Norte, Fountain of the North. It wasn't until I stepped out of the taxi into the sun and smog of downtown Guatemala City that I realized what I had thought to be perfect low-key travel gear Timberland boots, khaki cargo pants, and oversized photojournalist vest with twenty-three pockets (I counted them, though I could never figure out what the little mesh pouch on top of the left breast pocket was for), along with my stuffed backpack that had more straps and hooks and snaps than could possibly be useful was conspicuous against the dirty gray central city. There were several rows of seats in the open-air waiting area just off the busy street where the cab left me. In one corner a few men in short-sleeve button-down shirts and thick jeans ate fried chicken and drank Gallo beers. One row of seats was occupied by a family of six with bags, parcels, bundles, and boxes of all sizes spread out around them. Several other travelers sat on duffel bags up against the back wall and kids played on the floor. A steady stream of travelers walked in and out of the terminal from the narrow sidewalks. I realized I was stepping, uninvited, into a new world that I understood practically nothing about and I wasn't at all sure that I was welcome. In my mind's eye I regarded myself as a comrade in arms with the downtrodden guatemaltecos I had read about. But how were the dozens of people in the bus station to know that? I had the uncomfortable feeling, standing there in my new gear, that I looked like another rich white tourist dropping into a foreign reality for exotic thrills and narcissistic self-exploration.
I made my way to the ticket office, a dirty Plexiglas cubicle in one corner of the room, and bought a $9 ticket that was handwritten on a recycled paper template. The bus would leave in an hour. I didn't want to wander around the center city, known for street crime, with a bag that could easily be confused for Santa's sack by any of the handful of street kids I saw sitting on the sidewalks. So I found a seat in one of the rows of empty blue chairs and took in my surroundings.
People all over were selling junk food, magazines, pens, watches, hairclips, and sunglasses. A young Mayan girl, a toddler, tried to sell me a newspaper. I started talking to a chubby-cheeked young woman but we didn't get far because my Spanish wasn't up to it. I managed to figure out that she was seventeen and married, which seemed to me, at eighteen, an unfortunate state of affairs. Her husband, a powerfullooking man with black eyes and strong jaw, showed up carrying a large machete. I relaxed after he shared a smile. They were as helpful as my Spanish permitted them to be.
Eventually, with the assistance of the young couple, I figured out that my bus was starting to board. The attendant who took my ticket made me check my big backpack. I worried about it disappearing and resolved to look out the window every time we stopped to make sure it wasn't being offloaded along with someone else's belongings. After boarding, I squeezed down the aisle, maneuvering around large sacks of potatoes and live chickens tied together in a bunch by their legs. Many of the seats were broken and the bus was filthy. There was no bathroom and I regretted not having visited the one in the bus station.
The attendant led me past people standing in the aisle to the one seat that was still empty. I was drenched in sweat and overwhelmed by my surroundings. Only later did it occur to me that I owed my seat to my white skin and my helplessness. The attendant had reserved it for me because I was a gringo. In Latin America, at least, a United States passport and a little confidence open doors to an elite world of perks and preferential treatment. Later I was to feel much more uncomfortable about drawing on this kind of white-skinned privilege, what I came to know as the gringo wild card, but on this occasion I was just glad to sit down.
As we rolled out of Guatemala City, we passed by what seemed an endless landscape of industrial parks and free trade zones. The sprawling boxlike factories were surrounded by fences and barbed wire. I later learned that the number of maquiladoras, industrial sweatshops that import raw materials and equipment on a duty-free basis for assembly and then export to mass consumer markets like the United States, had more than quadrupled from 1994 to 1999. Most of them made textiles and apparel products, but the word maquila came from the portion of grain the miller traditionally charged as a service fee. The millers still took their share in rural corn-growing areas but Guatemala's economy, like that of the region, was in flux. Throughout the previous decades the government had privatized the mail, electricity supply, and telephone companies. The Guatemalan state had long since abandoned its role as an agent of social development, cutting social spending across the spectrum and leaving the country's poor without a safety net. It also opened the economy to foreign, mainly North American, imports while simultaneously implementing policies aimed at consolidating agricultural holdings to maximize cash crop exports that could be used to pay off the foreign debt. Peasant farmers who lost their land converged on cities, providing a cheap, flexible labor pool for newly established industry.
The sweatshops I saw that day, filled with people who a few years earlier would have been planting corn, were one of the faces of neoliberalism that defined the economic landscape I was traveling through. Guatemala, like many countries across the global south at the time, was part of the "Washington Consensus," a partnership with American-based financial institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. These bodies granted loans only on the conditions of fiscal austerity, privatization, and the opening up of local economies to unfettered global trade. This resulted in such dismal economic performance that the 1980s became known as the "lost decade" in Latin America, although economists continue to debate how successful the model was in countries like Chile and El Salvador. In many countries, including those called successes by some, military dictators forced these policies on unwilling populations. In elections Latin Americans have rarely supported politicians who openly advocate neoliberal policies, yet the whole region ended up with them.
Neoliberal reforms may well have attracted foreign direct investments and created jobs in the maquiladoras I saw out of the bus window on that first day in Latin America. But Guatemala's income distribution and human development index were among the worst in the hemisphere. Only the rich minority was in a position to benefit from these policies. The poor were left with no labor protections or social safety nets, and few options besides jobs that didn't pay a living wage. The sweatshops provided jobs, but they didn't look like the kind of place I could imagine working in. They reminded me of prisons.
After we eventually escaped the sprawling outskirts of the capital, the only roadside buildings that interrupted the passing garbage-strewn rural landscape were little roadside tiendas. Each store was painted top to bottom with either Coke or Pepsi advertisements, depending on which of the two soft drink giants had bought the owner paint and agreed to make regular deliveries. Coke and Pepsi products sodas, bottled water, and juices are virtually the only affordable drinks in a country where little if any water from public sources is potable. The acid and the sugar in the soda, together with limited access to dentists, left even young children's teeth rotten, while adults had more metal caps than I had seen anywhere outside rap videos.
As passengers got on and off the bus, different people sat down next to me for an hour or so at a time. Although I couldn't communicate with them verbally, kindness and sympathy were often apparent in their eyes and smiles. Several of them told me cuídate, "be careful," but I couldn't tell what they were warning me about. The word ladrón was whispered on more than one occasion, with particular emphasis. When I finally looked it up in the mini-dictionary I kept in one of my various vest pockets, I was dismayed to learn it meant thief. Of course! As the only foreigner on the bus I was sure to be a target, I realized, panic-stricken. But who were the thieves? And what was I supposed to do to foil them?
I tried to sleep but was unable to doze off. I was anxious and uncomfortable. Maybe, it occurred to me, we gringos have made life too easy for ourselves. The Guatemalans around me seemed to have an amazing capacity for discomfort. While the bus rattled and bounced over terrible roads, kids slept on the dirty floor and women stood or sat for hours in positions so awkward that I couldn't have maintained them for ten minutes. No one else appeared to mind the large bugs that appeared on the insides of the windows and roof as the sun went down. Hygiene and personal space were quickly taking on whole new meanings for me.
As one of the few people with a functional seat, I felt embarrassed and self-conscious about my aching back and the fact that it made me uncomfortable when random kids draped themselves across my legs without so much as a glance in my direction before they fell asleep. Apparently an empty lap looked to them much the way an empty seat looked to me. Occasionally the vehicle jostled to a stop at some indistinguishable spot on the road and a woman, often clutching a baby, would wake the kid on my knees and lead them off the bus. My eyes followed them as they set out along narrow mountain roads or forest paths, until they disappeared in the dark.
The paved road became a bumpy dirt track, and a thick mist descended outside the windows of the bus. I heard birds and bugs in the night but my eyes were useless in the pitch black under cloud cover: night had fallen with the suddenness and finality of a black velvet curtain. At one point a couple of loud bangs pierced the silence of the jungle and the bus stopped suddenly: I snapped to attention with nervous thoughts of gunshots from armed bandits, or guerrilla holdovers from the country's civil war. But the loud reports turned out to be only the engine backfiring. The driver announced a temporary breakdown but assured us that it would just be cinco minutos más as his assistant attacked the engine with a wrench. Twenty minutes later he was back onboard trying to calm the passengers, demanding another momentito. Once we got going again the remainder of the ride was uneventful and I dozed.
I got off in Santa Elena, Petén, around 3 a.m. A five-hundred-yard-long dirt embankment connected the twin cities of Santa Elena and San Benito on the shores of the lake to the island town of Flores, the state capital. My Let's Go guidebook explained that a short walk would take me from Santa Elena's bus station across the land bridge to Flores. But I was frightened of walking anywhere at night, especially with my bags, which, to my relief and surprise, had made it all the way. I jumped in the first taxi I saw and told the driver: "Voy a Flores. Hotel. Barato. Por favor." I had practiced the phrases for the last hour of the ride and they were successful. Just a minute or two later we pulled up in front of a small hostel called La Canoa and the driver pounded on the wooden gate until he woke the young boy on the night shift. I splurged on a room with its own private cold water shower for $5.80 a night. Before going to bed I wrote in my journal and marked down every quetzal I had spent that day 15 on food, 40 on the hotel, and 120 on transportation. I concluded that my first bus trip in Latin America was overall okay. In eleven hours I had covered a little more than one hundred miles.
In San Andrés, Doña Eugenia and Delia made me acutely aware that the solidarity with the poor and downtrodden of the world that prevailed in my own family, and already shaped my political outlook, was not necessarily shared by the poor and downtrodden themselves. During my time in San Andrés, I regularly sought conversation about the tragic history that decades of brutal civil war, unleashed by a United States-supported coup, had visited on the country. But whenever I tried initiating discussion about President Jacobo Arbenz and the role of the CIA in overthrowing him back in 1954, my host family and their friends seemed uninterested. Their silence puzzled me at first: Why weren't they as eager as I to criticize imperialism in general and United States foreign policy in Latin America in particular?
In retrospect I know that the people I spent time with in San Andrés probably didn't feel they had been directly affected by any United States intervention in their country. They knew little of the radical political history and theory that I had been immersed in growing up. Many in the town aspired to a consumer lifestyle like the ones they saw on television. Delia loved to watch Mexican telenovelas, soap operas, and was constantly pestering me to tell her about life in El Norte. What kind of car did my family drive? How much did my camera cost? How many dollars could a babysitter earn in a week? And a maid? Doña Eugenia's primary concern appeared to be ensuring that Delia was a virgencita when she finally married. She gossiped and fussed over what the neighbors said about her and her daughter all day long Doña Eugenia accompanied Delia to the town dance until the last song of the night so there would be no chatter about whether Delia spent too much time dancing with Hector or Luis, or whether her skirt was too short.
My hosts were also surprisingly preoccupied with the material hardships of their daily lives. Doña Eugenia complained regularly about the local mayor's failure to provide running water for their casa. Although San Andrés had a pipe system, it didn't deliver any water during the months I lived there. A truck occasionally brought lake water up to the more remote houses like the one I was staying in, which was a long steep climb up the hill from the lakeshore, past where the paved street ended and the dirt road began. But its rare appearances meant that rainwater was a more reliable source of life's most basic necessity. According to several locals, tax money went to maintaining some local politicians' houses and cars rather than the town's pump.
When I first heard about the mayor's evident dereliction of his duty to keep the faucets running, I got fired up and suggested we should go to the police, organize a protest, gather signatures on a petition, or meet with the international organizations based in nearby Flores. My hosts and their friends were amused by my ignorance of the way things worked. They explained the lack of running water with a shrug of the shoulders and a simple one-word answer: corrupción. And so I quickly abandoned my efforts at rabble-rousing and, like everyone else, got used to manually filling the tank in the yard with rainwater before taking a cold shower or washing my clothes by hand. It didn't take much for me to stop shaving.
I was on my own so I could reinvent myself however I chose, but traveling solo highlights the difference between being lonely and being alone. On the road I'm rarely alone.
My first and best friend in San Andrés, Juan, worked as an assistant to the director of the language school where I studied every day. A short, mustached mestizo as mixed-race Guatemalans call themselves he showed me around during my first days in town speaking Spanish slowly so that I could understand what he was explaining. In the evenings he and his buddies would take me along while they hung around outside one of the town's churches to see which girls looked the cutest as they came out after service. When it came to finding girls Juan was ecumenical: he was as happy to spot chicas outside his mom's iglesia católica as in front of the town's Mormon or evangelical churches; for a small town San Andrés seemed to have a lot of churches: I counted at least fourteen just in the part of town between my house and the school. Although he knew the best places to find local talent, Juan preferred gringas he met through the language school and was determined to be the first man from the town to love his way into a green card.
Often, sitting in a bar simple cement-floored stores that sold beer and little else sipping Gallo beers, or after taking a swim in the lake, we would wind up talking about how he might get entry into the United States. I soon realized how little I knew about obtaining a visa or sneaking into El Norte illegally. It was easy for me to offer a place to stay and help finding a job if he ever made it to the United States, but what he really needed was a way to get there. And he wasn't the only one. Lots of Guatemalans wanted me to help them leave their country for mine. I thought the income the language school provided for the town would help prevent people from migrating, but it seemed the more money people had, and the more access they had to norteños, the keener they were to depart.
The large house across the street from Doña Eugenia's belonged to Juan's aunt, Rosario, who had previously worked as one of Eco-Escuela's administrators. But Rosario didn't live there anymore. She had moved to the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where she worked as an undocumented housekeeper, sending money home to her husband and three kids. The money arrived every month via Western Union, which took a 10 percent cut for the transfer. The amount received was often further reduced by losses on the currency exchange because Western Union accepted Rosario's dollars in Washington but paid her family with local quetzals.
United States trade policy allowed multinational companies to invest their capital in free trade zones throughout Central America with virtually no taxes or tariffs. Meanwhile hardworking migrants like Rosario ended up paying high fees to send their families enough for the basic necessities. Not that this seemed to dissuade anyone. As many as one thousand migrants a week from across Central America set out from Santa Elena, Petén, for the Mexican border, just a four-hour bus ride away on a little used and more important for the migrants little policed road. Guatemala is Central America's gateway to Mexico, which is, in turn, the entry point to the United States. The view from my window in Doña Eugenia's casa across to her neighbor's house made it easy to understand the motivation for this tide of migrants. Thanks to Rosario's support, her family had built a new room on their house, and bought a big screen color television, as well as a bicycle for each person in the family; Doña Eugenia's house hadn't been upgraded in years.
Rosario's family also ate meat at almost every meal, something I envied. Although Doña Eugenia used the income my stay generated to supplement the family's larder, I had the appetite of a small army and there was rarely enough to eat, and almost never any meat. I took to filling up on the one thing that was generally in large supply: handmade corn tortillas. I didn't invent this strategy for quelling hunger; indeed most poor Guatemalans had the same approach. Corn was the one staple that was affordable and regularly available especially in rural areas where almost every family had someone working on a nearby milpa who could provide the raw material without ever going into the cash economy. A milpa is literally a plot of corn but often refers to a field where farmers plant as many as a dozen crops at once beans, squash, corn, chiles, and more. The beans use the corn stalks as climbing frames, and return the favor by fixing nitrogen into the soil, which helps fertilize the corn. In our case, it was Doña Eugenia's aging, stooped father who worked the family milpa. He wore black rubber knee-high boots, without socks, to walk five miles each way to his work.
After a week or so I realized that, aside from monotony, there was a more serious problem with my staving off hunger with endless tortillas. There was a protein shortage in my diet. We ate cereal or mush for breakfast, vegetable soup and rice for lunch, and tostadas or tortillas as the core part of dinner with a head of cabbage thrown in for variety. While cabbage is rich in vitamins and minerals, it is also described on nutritional websites as "ideal for weight loss." The black beans were tasty and nutritious but appeared on the table infrequently. The little meat we had was generally tough and unappetizing. High-quality meat was being produced locally, often on land that had been cleared of jungle using slash-and-burn techniques, with all the attendant environmental problems. But this was too expensive for locals by far and was shipped to Guatemala City or more often to the United States. Only scraps and diseased cows were butchered and sold locally. It was a situation I would run into over and over again throughout Latin America.
After a month at Dona Eugenia's I was becoming increasingly concerned about malnourishment. I was only eighteen, after all, and probably still growing to adult size; yet I could see my body progressively shrinking. Days passed and my stomach ached with hunger. I tried to comfort myself by reflecting that I was at least experiencing a mild version of what many local people were going through, but I felt increasingly miserable about the situation. Of course, I could have supplemented my meals at home by visiting the local restaurants or stores. But I was determined to keep track of every quetzal and not to spend money unless I absolutely had to since my tuition to the school included "room and board." The money I had with me $500 in traveler's checks and $150 in cash stashed in one of the recesses of my hiking bag under the bed had been earned on summer jobs waiting tables, working on an assembly line at a South Chicago factory, and building houses in Vermont, all for close to minimum wage. Consequently my budget was a real factor in determining how long I would be able to travel. But I also wanted to live with my host family and not above them by treating myself to luxuries they couldn't have.
The lack of protein was an abiding problem, but I had other preoccupations too. I had become involved with a local young woman to whom Juan had introduced me. Flor had been the town beauty queen until she got pregnant out of wedlock and was stripped of her crown. By the time I met her she had a chubby fourteen-month-old daughter. It seemed like all the women my age were either married or had children. Flor and I were together for most of the time that I lived in San Andrés, though small-town gossip eventually caused us to part ways. If I close my eyes and concentrate, I can still hear her saying, in her slow, Guatemalan drawl, pueblo pequeño, infierno grande, a small town can be a big hell. Frustratingly, for me at least, our relationship never got much beyond the odd kiss and cuddle. Partly this was a result of a lack of privacy but I also felt some uneasiness about misleading Flor. I knew I was in Guatemala for only a limited time and that the gaping differences between us made the possibility of a long-term relationship unlikely. She knew it too. A good-bye letter she wrote me said, "I believed you would be a good husband for me and for my daughter a good father. But it isn't possible; we live in two different worlds."
Our involvement, while doing wonders for my Spanish language skills, made me aware of the challenges of cross-cultural romances. There is often something inherently exploitive about such relationships as both people project another culture and identity onto the other. Yet cross-cultural relationships present challenges that often ake them more rewarding than the simpler, closer to home variety. Individuals' and families' culturally determined expectations can put unexpected pressures on relationships even years after they begin. When I returned to San Andrés six months after my original visit, Juan told me that the father of Flor's daughter had reentered the picture and she had moved with him to Belize where, reportedly, she was pregnant again.
As time passed I gradually became used to the slow, daily routine in San Andrés. The roosters were far better than any alarm clock when it came to waking early. Once the sun was up I climbed out of bed to brush my teeth in the garden and eat breakfast before heading down the hill toward the language school. I would often come across dead bugs the size of the palm of my hand in the streets that the bright lights in town lured out of the nearby jungle. I had one-on-one classes all morning, studying verb tenses, learning the difference between por and para, or just working on conversation skills. After school I usually managed to squeeze in a few games of Ping-Pong against Juan and the teachers from the school on a homemade table in front of the police station before heading up the hill to lunch with Delia and Doña Eugenia.
After an hour-long post-lunch siesta that most people in town observed I would meet the school's community service coordinator, Don Gabriel, a sinewy fifty-year-old with twenty grandchildren and counting. He ran the school's various projects, from planting trees to maintaining a nature trail. The community service program had been one of the reasons I chose to study at Eco-Escuela. I soon realized, however, that while the work he assigned was designed to help me feel positive about my contribution to the community, it actually achieved little that was useful for the town or its inhabitants. None of the local people I met showed much interest in whether the nature trail we worked on was maintained. While I spent many afternoons picking up garbage, it was impossible to keep up with everyone else who was busy dropping it. There were no garbage cans to encourage them to do anything else the mayor would probably get to that right after he fixed the water system. Eventually I started spending fewer afternoons with Don Gabriel, and struggled to find other ways to engage usefully as an outsider.
If it was one of the days when a heavy, warm rain fell, turning the lake an angry gray and reducing the streets to mud tracks, I would stay home and help Doña Eugenia fill every bucket, pot, and pan in the house with water for later use in washing dishes and taking showers. I took responsibility for my own laundry and after dinner would often insist that Delia let me do the washing up. None of this was easy in a society where machismo was a harsh reality of everyday life. When the boys in the neighborhood saw me in the yard washing my own clothes by hand they thought it was hilarious. I could get away with it only because I was an outsider. When I was out with Juan and the guys they would regularly grab my lats, the upper back just behind my armpit, and tell me they were checking on how much sex I had been having lately. I had no idea what they were talking about until I slowly realized that they thought only of sex in the missionary position where the lats got a good workout. As little as I knew about sex, I felt sorry for the men, and much sorrier for the women who had to put up with them.
After dinner and the dishes it was time to go hang out with the guys on the basketball court in front of the tienda where Flor worked the night shift selling Gallo beer, chewing gum, candy, and chips. Most evenings the streetlights were switched off by 10 p.m. but I would stay out late talking to Flor as she rocked her daughter to sleep in a hammock hung from the walls of the little shack. After we kissed good night, my walk home took me past the one bar in town that was guaranteed to have a small but raucous crowd. The wooden building, with music blaring late into the night, had no name. People referred to it simply as El Bar. This establishment was different from the cantinas, which were more reputable places that sold beer only and closed early. Here hard liquor and sex were available, for a fee. It was open until the roosters began their early morning reveille. I never went in.
Although I had gone to Guatemala to live and study in San Andrés, I caught the backpacker's travel bug almost immediately and used the weekends to explore the area on jungle camping trips and visits to the Mayan ruins at Tikal or Belize's Caribbean coast. My traveling companions on these trips were a couple of gringos who showed up at the language school a few weeks after I started. Max was a tattooed Irish American who grew up in Boston. With him at Eco-Escuela was his friend Sarah, an expert at packing light. There was nothing superfluous in her bag and by washing a few items of clothing at bedtime and letting them air dry overnight, she kept her bag to half the size of mine. They were both students at Prescott College in Arizona and had already completed their National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) training: he in Chilean Patagonia, and she in the Rockies. I was in awe. As the youngest member of the trio I felt a constant need to prove myself, and so ended up concentrating intently on walking faster, climbing higher, and eating more banana pancakes for breakfast than anyone else. I looked up to Max, and over the several trips we took together he was kind enough to teach a few of the basics of international budget travel: keep your money and passport on you at all times; pack only what you can carry comfortably on your back for several miles; and never accept the first price money changers offer at border crossings, because there is always a cheaper way to do it.
After completing their stint at the school, Max and Sarah had to travel up to Cancún to catch a flight home. I had never been to Mexico and was looking for an adventure and a bit of relief from the claustrophobia of the pueblo pequeño. We agreed that I would accompany them and take a week off from school. Once we got to Tabasco province, they would head north to Yucatán and on to Cancún while I would return to Guatemala via Chiapas. So it was that Max, Sarah, and I crossed Lake Petén Itza in a lancha like the one that carried me to the town on my first day. This time I sat farther forward to avoid the fumes, noise, and lines that came with sitting in the rear of the boat. Once we arrived in Santa Elena, we walked to the open space that doubled as market and coach terminal. We wandered through throngs of people, cars, and food stalls. The buses created their own minimarkets for cheap imports from China and locally produced street food. Everywhere there was traffic, a bus stop, a terminal, or a crossing, scores of men, women, and children descended on the buses, almost out of nowhere, to sell magic wallets, erasable pens, handheld fans, sewing kits, pocketknives, hairclips, sunglasses, crucifixes, combination pliers, ratchets, Spider-Man plastic cups, or jumbo sidewalk chalk. A steady flow of food merchants offered rapidly melting ice cream cones, salted nuts, pork rinds, boiled corn on the cob, sodas in plastic bags with straws, fried plantains, chicha, buñuelos, empanadas, granizadas, or any other unnamed local specialty imaginable. Often on long bus rides the only meal options are delivered by a vendor wrapped in yesterday's newspaper. A strong stomach becomes imperative. In Santa Elena's bus station market we bought some avocados and limes, a tomato, and some corn chips. Eventually we boarded a colorfully painted converted school bus headed for the border crossing into Mexico at Bethel. It was safe to assume that many of the other passengers were traveling to Mexico to head farther north, in search of the American Dream.
Somewhere along the dust-choked Guatemalan road between Santa Elena and Bethel was where I confirmed that I preferred traveling around the slow, bone-rattling way: by bus, with ordinary people. The bus we were riding in had been repainted in bright reds and blues. The inside was colorful too; the seats had springs popping out of the upholstery, and the floor was caked with dirt and garbage. Chickens, some tied in bunches and others wandering loose, squawked noisily. Bouncing along a road to a place I had never been, and would likely never go back to, suddenly felt exciting, liberating even. The four-hour ride cost $3.67 and set a nearly inflation-proof standard that would hold true throughout my trips around Latin America: when riding on a "chicken bus" only an inexperienced gringo would pay much more than a dollar an hour.
As we rode into western Petén I noticed on my map that our route, along a small dirt road, bordered the Maya Biosphere Reserve. But throughout the journey, in what was supposed to be protected rain forest and jungle, I saw numerous cows and corn fields or milpas. The farming activity made me skeptical about claims I'd read on the Internet that this was the "largest continuous tract of forest in Latin America outside the Amazon." Black smoke rising in the distance signaled still more territory being razed for pasture. Clearing the land like this might help Guatemala export more beef to raise foreign currency to service its debts, but it also meant the destruction of ancient tropical forest and the attendant release of greenhouse gases and species extinction. It made me sad to see it and I couldn't help but wonder how much of the beef being reared was going to end up on my friends' dinner tables back home in Chicago.
Toward the end of the ride I began talking to the boy sitting next to me. His name was Yoni Alexander and he was wearing threadbare work pants and a button-down shirt that was so big it made him look even younger than his fourteen years. His mom or sister had sewn something resembling a Nike Swoosh onto the front of the baseball hat that was pulled down low, hiding his young face. Yoni explained that he was going to live with his sister's family in Mexico. She was twenty-one and already had six kids. He planned on working with his brother-in-law, who traded cattle on the Mexico-Guatemala border. I realized that Yoni couldn't read and that he had no money at all. It seemed a terribly precarious way to travel, but I was just beginning to discover life on the road in Latin America. I slowly came to understand what Mark Twain meant when he wrote that "travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness." Traveling in Guatemala was intensely uncomfortable, both physically and emotionally, but I learned things from it that school could never teach me: how people actually live outside the United States, the difference between "need" and "want," the value of privacy, the luxury of space, the capacity of the human body to tolerate lack of hygiene and physical discomfort.
We eventually arrived in Bethel on the border with Mexico with Yoni now very much in tow. The rest of the passengers faded into the shadows as soon as we arrived and the four of us had to figure out what to do. We decided to spend the night there and cross to Mexico the next day in a colectivo boat the nautical equivalent of a shared taxi. Yoni was going to hang around until his brother-in-law showed up to collect him. I asked where he was going to sleep and eat since he had no money, and he shrugged and said "con la gente." I admired his chutzpah and, filled with the romance of travel, hoped that someday I might be able to live with the people in the same way. But for the time being I invited Yoni to come with us to a cheap-looking hotel we had spotted. It turned out that the Hotel Fronterizo could only offer us outdoor hammocks, no beds. After the usual haggling over every quetzal, which by this point I had learned to relish, we finally agreed on $4.40 per person for a hammock and a mosquito net. Yoni didn't have any money but the owner agreed that he could sleep on an old mattress on the ground near us for free. For dinner, Max made tasty guacamole using my knife and a plastic bag. Yoni had some old corn tortillas and a juicy, sweet melon with him. Although improvised, the food was delicious and, after a cold shower, we all fell asleep under the stars with the roar of howler monkeys in the woods all around us.
The next morning the chorus of monkeys had been replaced by that of birds. Yoni seemed to be able tell the name of each bird from its call, and he spent a long time trying, unsuccessfully, to get me to recognize the difference between a violaceous trogon and a keel-billed toucan. After buying our tickets for the colectivo from the boat's skipper we said good-bye to Yoni and headed to a house that had a crude sign advertising breakfast. It was inexpensive but tasty: scrambled eggs, black beans, fried sweet plantains, fresh orange juice, and the omnipresent corn tortillas. Then we headed to the immigration office to get our exit stamps. Entering and exiting Guatemala was supposed to be free, but it never was. On each of the ten occasions that I crossed the border during my first stint there I paid a different fee. A one-room wooden shack passed for an immigration office and the taciturn functionary who sat inside it looked like he could use another cup of coffee and a new posting. Staring unblinkingly at us over his poorly trimmed salt-and-pepper mustache, he told us the exit stamp would cost $5 each. His manner made it obvious that he was confident he would prevail in any disagreement: he was oficialisimo after all. The calculation was simple: we were desperate to get out of town and on to the scenic Mayan ruins and hippie camps in southern Mexico near Palenque. My traveling companions had a plane to catch in Cancún, and I had friends of friends to meet in Chiapas who were working in solidarity with the Zapatistas. He was as unyielding as a prison wall. There was no way we were going back to Santa Elena along the same bumpy, dusty road. This was the opposite of the gringo wild card, the downside to being an obvious outsider. We protested feebly, but handed over our quetzals.
Exit visas in hand, we headed down to the Usumacinta River, stretching for some six hundred miles and forming the border with Mexico in much of western Petén. The winding river, whether viewed from the banks or a map, is a natural dividing line that appears almost preordained. The muddy water and its wide course feel timeless, impartial. The river gives the national boundary a legitimacy missing at the arbitrary straight line frontiers negotiated in smoky private clubs and war-room treaties.
The lancha had a brightly painted wooden hull that leaked freely but, driven by a Suzuki outboard motor, moved surprisingly fast through the river's swirling water. Aside from the three of us gringos, the boat carried an Argentine couple, also backpackers, and several local ranch hands in cowboy boots and hats. There were a few other young men on the boat not backpackers who looked like they had been on the road for a while, perhaps from farther south than Guatemala. The boat carried us past military installations built into the banks of the river with sandbags and the biggest guns I had ever seen. Political borders exude a certain tension, and this one was no exception. The barbed wire and heavily armed adolescents in fatigues and helmets served to put us all on edge but when we disembarked at the Corozal border crossing in Mexico, we did not even find an immigration office. At the time this was not an official border crossing just a military checkpoint in a wild frontier zone known for smuggling, trafficking, and lawlessness. In the years that followed, the military border guards would yield power to rapidly growing armed gangs of traffickers and the towns on either side would swell to support extensive smuggling operations. Since my crossing that day in March 1999, the border on this lonely stretch of the Usumacinta River has become one of the most heavily trafficked routes on the long, dangerous underground railroad that Central American migrants follow on their way to El Norte. I continued my trip into Mexico, through Chiapas and back to Guatemala via a different, more commonly used crossing in the south that took me through the Guatemalan highlands and back to the capital city. From there I repeated my original journey to San Andrés for three more weeks of language school before heading home to Chicago.
My own trip back to El Norte by airplane, at the end of my first stay in Guatemala, was, in comparison to the pilgrimage of most Latin American migrants, short and comfortable. But emotionally I found it wrenching. Before boarding the plane I contemplated throwing my ticket away and heading south on my own, going against the flow of northward-bound migrants, to disappear in the subcontinent. I craved adventure; I felt I needed more time to discover both the place and myself. Most of all, I was worried that going back to Chicago would erase what I had already learned, and undo the growth that felt so tangible. Words seemed insufficient for articulating exactly how my time away had changed me language skills, a love for travel, newfound confidence, a more complex worldview, a better ability to be self-critical. Perhaps, even then, I knew that I had changed less than I liked to think I had, and that realization made me hesitant to return home; the thought that I would easily slip back into my old happy but narrow self was troubling.
While I returned to the United States laden with woven Mayan tunics, hand-knit pants, colorful bedspreads, and indigenous wall hangings, many of the Guatemalans on the plane were carrying steaming boxes of Pollo Campero fried chicken apparently unaware that it was freely available north of the border and likely to be confiscated by customs officials in the airport. No matter, the stench of hot fat remained with us until we landed. On touchdown the Guatemalans all applauded. I joined in, despite my sadness at what already felt like a premature departure from Latin America.
I was back in Chicago with a bushy beard and a newfound confidence in speaking Spanish, though I still had a thick gringo accent. When I went to visit my friends, still immersed in their senior year of high school, I dressed in handwoven Mayan pants and a blue and white wide-armed, open-chest embroidered shirt. Just as I had stood out in my photojournalist vest in the Guatemala City bus station, I was glaringly out of place in the school halls filled with clean-shaven boys in Polo shirts and Girbaud jeans. But I was determined not to forget Guatemala, and I felt the need to demonstrate how I had grown close to those I had left behind. I had changed inside and I wanted people to know it. It was perhaps a month after I returned before I got out my old razor.
A picture on my mom's fridge from September 1999 shows me with a freshly shaven face, a clean white shirt from Banana Republic, and a conservative red "jacquard paisley" Brooks Brothers tie. I look just like any other conservative young college freshman. The beard and the indigenous garb had gone, but one of my first stops on arriving at college was to the study abroad office: I wanted to apply for funding to go south again. I was two years ahead of my college's study abroad application deadline but, to my great excitement, I was just in time to apply for a Rotary International Ambassadorial Scholarship, which, in 2001, sent me to Chile. Copyright © 2009 by Chesa Boudin