Working in international development led to innumerable odd encounters with strangers, from fanatic flight attendants to politicians who incessantly taped their fingers on worn-out metal desks. But perhaps nothing stands out quite as much as my time in Guatemala.
In the ridged mountains of Altaverapaz, dust rose up in the hot airs of Senahu, as dengue-ridden mosquitoes landed on our bare hands. I swatted fiercely, insisting our fieldwork team retreat indoors at dusk. I was hungry for more than the scrawny chicken legs we had eaten for three days straight and overcome by a thirst which then left me staggeringly febrile (yes, I drank the village water) in bed.
The lead consultant I worked with was not a cowboy, but still dressed with the signature hat tilted to the left, a folded gingham handkerchief peeking out of his shirt pocket. The handkerchief matched his blue gingham shirt, a mouthful of braces in a dumbfounded smile making him appear much younger than his actual years. Sometimes he played with the crops of the villages, picking coffee beans — their gold — for fun.
At best, our days began at dawn and ended far beyond the promised time of dusk. He often overworked and insulted the team of fieldworkers, threatening to cut their pay. When I confronted him in my febrile state, he declared my mood arose from it being “that time of the month.” (He confided in me later that he also had mood swings when his wife menstruated).
To save time, he insisted we drive at night to our next research site (never a good idea in Guatemala). As we drove through dark, winding roads, he loudly exclaimed that we had reached the sight of the most vehicle hijackings nation-wide. Our always-upbeat lead fieldworker, Amelia, crossed herself and prayed — for all of us — as our engine roared in the quiet of roads. Our cowboy wannabe breathed a loud sigh of relief as we entered the new town, and we followed in turn, Amelia, who finally took her hands from her rapidly-beating heart, exited the car with her half-full mentality back in tact, believing things could only improve from our awful adventures in Senahu.
Oh, but were we wrong.
I entered my small hotel room in search of a long shower, eventually exiting to find Mr. Cowboy Wannabe socializing with no less than two very real, very drunk, wealthy cowboys. The older cowboy caught sight of me and grinned.
“We will take you to our ranch,” he exclaimed, as he spoke of cool blue pools of water and endless feasts.
The younger cowboy, his son-in-law chimed in, swigging from a quarter-full whiskey bottle, and rattled off their agricultural holdings in a minute flat. He confided in me that he believed the future success of Guatemala depended on one single, simple thing: death of the indigenous.
"Es muy facil," — it’s very easy — he continued, winking with a grin.
I got away from them as fast as I could, knowing the power of the wealthy in Guatemala, and pained by the honesty in that young man’s voice. But when I was too hungry to continue staying in my room, I later walked to the single open restaurant, arriving only to find the cowboys and our own cowboy wannabe drunkenly indulging in a plate of fries.
“Sit with us!” they yelled, which is the moment when I saw a gun in the older cowboy’s pocket. “Sit with us!” he commanded to the beat of the music, beginning an hour of harassment and insisting that I have an affair with him.
I was afraid to leave and afraid to stay, but eventually risked the escape, asking the waiter to find a taxi, as I was most afraid to walk alone. I confided the horrible experience in the hotel manager, who suggested only that I not call the police, since they would side with the elite cowboys, and instead lock myself in the hotel room until all were sober again.
I called my mother and scared her; my then-boyfriend who reacted, as always, calm-as-can-be, neutral to the world in an enraging way. I called my now-husband, who suggested I get the hell out of there.
At midnight, our cowboy wannabe showed up at my door begging to be let in. My leaving had sparked a fistfight with the younger cowboy, he said; guns had been drawn and he now he feared for his life. He wept on the landing outside of my room, wearily unfolding the gingham handkerchief so perfectly poised in his pocket until this time.
Eventually he went away, and I went to sleep.
I woke to the sound of roosters beginning a new day, and the familiar thick, hot air. The cowboys’ security guard approached me as I poured coffee in the small kitchen, hot and sweet, the best I had in Guatemala, if not all of my travels abroad.
“So sorry,” he said, hanging his head in shame. Small beads of sweat streamed down his face. I believe they were only that, but they could have been tears. I stared at him, perhaps a little too long, with sorrow, the sour words suggesting the genocide still echoing in my mind. I felt sadness more than fear, as I smiled a small smile and shook my head.
I wondered, how a world can hold such evil, who outsource even their liabilities, and yet hold such fine souls as Amelia, who found — and gave me on that night — power in her prayers.