a bus in the guatemalan highlands, 1988

In the market town of Huehuetenango I jammed myself into a gaudily painted Blue Bird school bus crammed three to a seat with Mayan Indians heading to the village of Todos Santos Cuchumatán. This village was well known even outside Guatemala; it was a center of Mayan culture that was particularly strong and defiant of assimilation. A sign of this was that the Todos Santero men had not adopted modern Western dress but still wore their distinctive woven clothing. In most Guatemalan communities, only women and young children still wore the traje.

Todos Santos had been the subject of a famous portrait in the 1960s by Maud Oakes, an artist and mythographer who lived there for over a year and came to love and respect its culture. And, in April 1982, it had been the site of a horrifying massacre in the campaign to eradicate the 20-year old guerilla insurgency. In 1988, the guerrilla war still continued, fought in skirmishes in the remotest parts of the country, but the villages and towns were uneasily quiet.

The bus traveled farther and farther up in to the Cuchumatanes, the highest mountains in Central America. We wound excruciatingly slowly up the ever-narrower roads, until at last we hit a high plateau. It was a strange, flat, colorless, no-man’s land, treeless and featureless, the dead grass tinged with winter frost, the air thick with icy fog. Somewhere along this open plain the bus halted. A small group of men stood by the side of the road. Two of them mounted, but the bus did not move. Instead, the men, who wore no identifying uniforms or badges, went down the aisle looking from side to side at the faces of the passengers. They stopped in front of a seat in which a young man and woman were sitting. No words were exchanged. The man stood up and they walked behind him back out of the bus. For some minutes the three of them stood there, in conversation, as it seemed, and still the bus did not leave. Then one of the men outside must have gestured it on, because it started up all at once, although the young man had not returned to his seat.  I looked back and saw that he was being escorted down the empty road in the middle of that nothingness, that gray, open plain, towards no stopping place I could see. I was staring into a sea of enigmatic faces: no one else turned around at all.

It was a strange atmosphere inside the bus then. When the two men had boarded, there was a split second of dead silence, then loud, high-pitched talking and raucous laughter erupted from the passengers. As the bus took off down the road the young woman (no more than a girl, really) sitting with the man who had been taken gave a short, strangled, but clearly audible sob of fear and pain. For a single moment all the faces froze. Someone made an intense, unsympathetic shushing noise, as if she had woken a child. Then the desperate laughter rose up again, harsh and forced and loud.