The bus ungracefully bumbles its way along a long unpaved road. Its full load of passengers jiggles and jostle more to the tune of the bumps on the gravel path than that of the reggaeton blasting from the stereo. We are packed four to each side’s bench seat (where a decade ago two American children sat) with two or three standing on either side of where the center-sitters’ hips meet. Although there are many hypotheses as to why these modes of transportation are called, “chicken busses,” the one that theorizes that it’s because passengers are packed like poultry in a coop, at the present moment, seems most suiting.
I lean forward and fold my arms across the back of the seat in front of me and as I do so, I feel the lungs of my neighbors expand as the absence of my shoulders, suddenly pulled out from the horizontally stacked backbone of wall to wall bodies, relieves some of the pressure and gives way for some well-needed wiggles.
Using my folded arms as a cushion, I rest my forehead against the back of the seat in front of me and quickly fall back into a perforated sleep of exhaustion. I don’t usually sleep on busses but for some reason find this case of sleepiness, which is shared by all the other tired souls that fill this space, contagious
The bus breaks over a particularly large crack in the road and as the wheels clunk down, a majority of the heads all stir awake from slumber for just a single brief moment before they find their chins again bobbing towards their chests.
My head too turns up. But a fleeting image of that which I saw last behind my closed eyes and on the stage of my subconscious startles me awake. It was a vision of a baby’s face; eyes rolled back under closed lids, black charred skin flaking black and grey, facial features bloated out of grotesque proportion.
I look around the bus. It’s a flood of reds, greens, pinks, yellows and blues; the striking and beautiful colors of the traditional “traje” (suit/costume) of the indigenous Mayans that people these highlands.
I close my eyes again and find that the child’s face has branded the blackness with its image. The vision, scarred into my memory, silently stares back at me.
My mind suddenly races. Where would I ever get such an image? Have I seen it before? On the television while lunching at a local comedor? In a movie? Or book? I search my memory, but can find no source for the vision so three-dimensional that it couldn’t possibly fit into any picture I’ve seen in a movie or magazine.
“Just a dream,” I tell myself. And I fall asleep again.
The bus bumbles on. Passengers with swaddled children or sacks of corn get on and off. It’s market day and delicately wrapped baskets are carefully heaved on and off the roof of the bus, which both above and inside packs tighter and tighter as we arrive closer to our destination.
A pig squeals from somewhere up front and I am rustled awake from a sleep I never realized I’d entered. I don’t lift my head but I turn my face and look into the isle; and there I see a masked man; his features heavy and so defined it seems to me they must be hollow, as if only bones give shape to the black hood that hides his face. He’s holding a rifle. And although his eyes are hidden by the mask, I know he’s starring at me.
I close my eyes as fast as they blinked open and calm my racing heart with a intuitive meditation that I drop into out of both instinct and routine. It’s a prayer that I make regularly, not for my health and not for my safety, but that, “if this be the day I die, may I do so with grace, compassion and consciousness.” I don’t want to, but I open my eyes again.
And the man is gone.
The bus comes to a final jolting halt, the doors open and people begin to flood out of both ends of the bus. One of my travel mates, previously lost in the sea of seated people, climbs her way to my seat and wakes me from my startled state; “We’re here!”
In the evening I crawl into bed and my thoughts are finally granted the freedom to wander and wonder about the visions of the burnt child and masked man I’d seen on the bus. One voice inside dismisses them as dreams. Another smiles and says, “you’re crazy” (which I’m perfectly fine with being). Another voice is silent, but wants desperately to cry for a reason I’m not yet allowed to know. And then there is another voice. One that claims she is of Reason. And she says this:
“Guatemala’s 36-year civil war officially “stopped” nine years ago. The Peace Accords were perhaps signed, but the war continues for little has changed and nothing has been erased from the memories and hearts of the people who surround you and the land which grounds you. The terror, brutality, torture and rampant murdering and massacres (of which many would call genocide) that left over 200,000 people dead, over 1,000,000 displaced and countless others “disappeared” touched the lives (with a knife) of every single person in this town and on that bus. You are furious. You are furious because of the fact that the Guatemalan military has been recognized as responsible for the majority of these murders. You are enraged that in 1954, your very own country, The United States, started this civil war when the CIA orchestrated, trained and equipped an invasion from Honduras led by two exiled Guatemalan military officers who ousted the democratically nominated President Juan Jose Arevalo, who (how dare he!) tried to re-distribute unused lands “owned” by the American United Fruit company that had wrongfully and violently been seized from the indigenous Mayans in the first place. In the hills that your bus climbed through today lie mass graves, some without a single cross to mark the sites of massacres where the military, with American-made and paid arms, buried entire villages of civilians into a brutal history that went without mention in the American press aside from a few headlines to the sound of the, “Peaceful Liberation of Guatemala” (from communism!), which rings *deafeningly* in your ear at the same tone of China’s “Peaceful Liberation of Tibet” (1.2 million murdered) and America’s current, “Peaceful Liberation of Iraq” (25,000 *and counting* civilians reported killed by military intervention in Iraq). You are disgusted. You are furious. You are devastated. You are horrified. You are raw. And you didn’t even see it. Your mother was not raped in it. Your brother was not tortured by it. Your sister did not flee to Mexico from it. Your father was not “disappeared” in it. Your child was not orphaned by it. But every person in this town was cut and numbed by it. And did you really think you could travel untouched by it? When the scars of the war have not even yet scabbed, but still actively bleed from the souls of those (living and dead) that surround you?”
My travel mate drops into the room and I confess to her my visions, frustrations, furiousity and fears. She confesses her own, shares with me a heavy sigh, and notes how suiting the name of the town we’re in is; “Todos Santos”…
(The US’s malicious involvement in Guatemala is by no means conspiracy theory. It’s all a quite well documented hisory that even ex-President Clinton finally eventually admitted was a “mistake” (but this “apology” of sorts saw so little press, I can’t find a direct quote online). For more information, an excellent movie documentary is, When The Mountains Tremble or pick up a copy of Unfinished Conquest: The Guatemalan Tragedy by Victor Perera or, I Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala which finally brought international attention to the plight of Guaemala’s indigenous population and won Menchu the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1992. Although the “mistake” is never mentioned in any of our history books, it’s considered enough as common-known-fact to be documented even in the Lonely Planet Guatemala guidebook.)