Friday the 13th and the Madman

                           

Friday 13th November, in Antigua Guatemala. A troubled Guatemalan speaks his mind, and trouble erupts at the bar...

My 30 day visa is fast running out, so I have to decide whether to leave the country, or apply for an extension. I decided to stay in Antigua over the weekend, after an official at the tourist office told me that 30 Quetzales and two passport photos would suffice for another 30 day extension, but I would have to apply in Guatemala City. I thought that such a decision would buy enough time for bridges and roads to be repaired and maybe I could still, by Christmas, make it to Colombia via land. Sick of eating at the Chinese restaurant, I decided to eat where the working people eat, in the main market, where dozens of little family restaurants deal out soup and set meals very cheaply. I opted for sopa de verduras, a greasy vegetable soup that doubles as a meat and vegetable soup, because often all the waiter does is fish the chunks of meat out of it, accompanied by a side dish of pumpkin and what appeared to be a cooked yellow apple. The flesh was white and it tasted like a potato; the waitress told me it was called guisquil.While I ate, I watched a Mayan couple placate their crying infant with some Coca Cola.
In the evening I tuned to the Voice of America and heard that Hurricane Mitch has been proclaimed the deadliest in history, the toll could reach 20,000. An extinct volcano in Nicaragua, Cerro Casitas, had a crater lake at its summit that had ruptured during the torrential rains, wiping out three villages on its slopes. Nearby Cerro Negro had started erupting after being dormant for years. The Prensa Libre newspaper devoted several stories to Baloo, saying that he had been diagnosed with arthritis of the spine, incapable of attacking the Bishop and therefore not deserving to be destroyed.
It being Friday night, I went out to Rick's Bar, hoping to see some friends, and found that I knew at least half the people inside from the Spanish school - Jodie, Keith and Jurgen, as well as two Aussies, Chris and Lester, from Sydney. The ubiquitous Bob Marley hummed in our ears as we sipped Gallo beers. Jurgen introduced me to his Guatemalan friend, Juan (not his real name), who started talking to me about the Guatemalan Civil War. He said:
"Rigoberta Menchu suffered nothing compared to what I did." (Rigoberta Menchu is a Guatemalan Nobel Prize winner, and proud Mayan, who witnessed her family's execution during the war). He went on to tell me how he had seen his entire family wiped out, his village bombed by aircraft, and how he had seen his own mother's decapitated body, lying in the ruins of her bombed house. He had been drinking quite heavily, and, as they say, where alcohol flows, tears follow with tales of woe. I was little prepared, however, for what he next said. Tears welled up in his eyes as he told me he had a book, complete with gruesome photographs, of the atrocities committed in his village, and asked if I would care to see it and publicize it anonymously outside of Guatemala. The book in many ways sounded similar to the one which precipitated the murder of Bishop Gerardi. I tried to change the subject, but he glared at me and said:
"You gringos don't understand, you don't care, just like the Americans who backed the government during the offensives" and and broke down and cried.
he normally happy-go-lucky mood of Rick's Cafe was shattered - it was Friday the 13th - his moaning coincided with a pause in the music and everyone was staring at him.
After a minute he regained his composure, and said: "I'm sorry."
"No problema" I said, and gave him a hug.
Closing time was looming, and someone suggested that we check out a party supposed to be happening in the central plaza. Most nights Argentine hippies could be found there doing fire-eating tricks, selling hand made jewellery, playing Dylan on guitar, while sipping liquor bought at the supermarket. Before leaving Rick's, I noticed a well dressed Guatemalan man in his 40's talking to Kerlijne, a Belgian girl who had been at our table. Once the manager announced closing time there was a mass exodus and Kerlijne was left behind. We went to the plaza party but due to the cold night it was a bit of a non-event. We heard about another place, a late night speakeasy, that was actually illegal because alcohol is forbidden to be sold after 1am. We walked back past Rick's, Kerlijne was outside, the Guatemalan man was talking to her. He appeared to be well educated and rich, spoke excellent English and German, wore a thick silver chain and chunky gold rings. Drinking at Rick's is way out of the range but all but the wealthiest of locals, for it costs over a dollar a beer.
Kerlijne looked a little annoyed, and we invited her to join us. The Guatemalan interjected that we would all be risking a US$1000 fine and a spell in jail. He seemed intent on separating her from out group so we ignored his warning and went to the speakeasy anyway. The bar was called Pesca y Iguana Bar, and was annexed to a cheap posada hotel, Bob Marley made us feel right at home. The owner said that as long as the doors were locked at 1am, he wasn't breaking the law, it was a lock-in.
I started talking to Juan again, he had cheered up, and the topic turned to his time as an illegal in the USA. He had paid thousands of dollars to a 'coyote', or guide, to smuggle him over the border to Phoenix. He then had to work for seven months to pay back some chicano standover men who arranged his job and false identification. He ran away from that job and found work in a New Jersey bakery, only to be deported when his boss reported him as an illegal. Juan said the report was made by his boss because he asked for overtime wages the bakery had witheld for several months. Juan told me he was 35, and has five children.
Not long after we had entered the wealthy Guatemalan entered and butted into our little group; the doorman was still letting selected people in. So much for taking his own advice about risking the thousand dollar fine! He immediately set about trying to initiate a romantic conversation with Kerlijne, ignoring her plainly annoyed disposition. I said to him
"Can't you take a hint Señor?" to which he angrily replied:
"I want to talk to Kerlijne, its got nothing to do with you!" He spoke in the tone of a provocateur.
Everyone in our group stared at him, but he didn't bat an eyelid, instead turning and asking Kerlijne if she would like a drink. When she said no, he moved to the bar to get one for himself. He was probably a local, because he struck up a conversation with another man at the bar. I asked Kerlijne to join us in the corner, where he couldn't talk to her, which she did without hesitation. A short while later he came back, and started on Maureen, a pretty, young Canadian girl who was also in our circle of friends. His first words were:
"Your eyes are so lovely, did you know you are very beautiful?"
No marks for originality, they were the same opening lines he tried on Kerlijne. It didn't take much to see that he was getting agitated, very agitated.
From this point on I will refer to him as 'the madman'. When he wasn't looking, I touched Maureen on the elbow and asked her if she would like to join us in the corner, 'shielded' by Lester, Chris and myself, and she slipped away. The madman started talking to Jurgen and Juan, and sat on a bar stool facing them, waiting for either of the two girls to leave the corner. He had them trapped, like lion and its prey.
A minute or two later the waiting must have been too much for the madman. He muttered an aside in Spanish to Jurgen, then something snapped inside his brain. He glared at our group, then his eyes bulged, his voice raised, and he became red in the face. He picked up an empty beer bottle and yelled the ultimate insult in Spanish at Jurgen,
"Eres un hijo de puta!" ( You are the son of a whore!) He was holding the bottle by the neck, ready to smash it over Jurgen's head.
I hissed "Pssst!" at the barman, who summoned a plainclothes bouncer by yelling out a code word. Jurgen stayed seated, and kept his cool. The bouncer, who was a lot smaller than the madman, tried to find out what the all the fuss was about, but the madman tried to push him out of the way. A shouting match ensued, and the bouncer then told the madman to get out. He refused, and there was a short struggle, which the madman looked certain to win, until the bouncer pulled out a pistol. The madman put his hands on his head and immediately left the premises, with the bouncer following closely behind, his gun pushed in the madman's back.
It was the first time in my life that I have seen a gun drawn in anger. Because the music was so loud, and the bar so crowded few people saw the fracas and only Kerlijne, Lester and myself saw the gun, it was all so quick. The disco music and chatter continued unabated. I shudder to think what may have happened if the madman had had a gun too, or if the there had been a group of his friends present. The girls were very shaken by the event, and were worried he would be waiting outside, perhaps with his own gun, or a gang. I said to them:
"Well if we're all going to die, we may as well have a drink!"
They agreed, and I ordered two Pina Coladas. The barman charged me 50 quetzales for them, which is a massive rip-off, but considering how fast the barman called the bouncer, I wasn't in a position to complain. I talked to Kristina and Mette, who hadn't noticed the argument at all. At about 2 am, worried that the police were about to storm the establishment, the manager turned off the music and asked everyone to keep the noise down. It was an impossible wish, the noise kept growing louder after an initial hush. After a few more appeals went unheeded, they closed the bar, turned the lights off, and herded us into the adjacent posada in single file through a side door. The sixty or so guests were kept in the dark there for a good half hour, before being allowed out via the front door of the posada. The police were there all right, and they collared Jurgen as we walked out, and sat him next to the madman. Apparently, the madman had gone to the police to report the after hours trading as well as the matter of the gun, which is illegal in Guatemala (in civilian hands). Our group of concerned friends waited under a streetlight to see if they were going to take Jurgen away, when we looked at him, he gave us the thumbs up signal and didn't seem too worried at all. After half an hour they let him go, and we didn't hang around to see what would happen to the bouncer and the doorman. Jurgen said the barman had instructed him to deny that he ever saw any gun.
I walked Maureen and Jurgen home. Just after leaving Jurgen's guesthouse, a police car slowly and sinisterly cruised past me. A few minutes later I heard a short blast from the police car's siren, and looked back. They had stopped outside Jurgen's guesthouse. I kept walking. Then I heard a car behind, and glanced to around again to see the police car was slowly following me. I knew that I could be arrested for as many as four different reasons:
1. I didn't have ID on me, nor even a photocopy of my passport;
2. I had been a witness to the fight in the bar where the the gun was drawn;
3. I was breaking the curfew imposed over the whole country after Hurricane Mitch, or
4. On suspicion of being drunk and disorderly.
The last two points are enforced entirely at the discretion of the patrolling police, and often depend on how rich you look. I thought I heard the siren again, very briefly. I turned around expecting to see the car almost upon me, but ...
- excerpt from Chapter 6 of An Odd Odyssey, California to Colombia by Bus and Boat, Through Mexico and Central America, Glen David Short, Trafford Publishing.