EXPERIENCING HURRICANE MITCH

 

        Antigua, Guatemala, Tuesday, 3 November, 1998... 

At long last there were patches of sunshine appearing through the clouds. With sunshine comes optimism, but it was to be short lived. At mid-morning recess, the Spanish school's director, a gregarious man by the name of Juan Carlos assembled the students and asked me to translate his speech. He confirmed what we already knew: roads were cut, disease had broken out and looting has occurred in other parts of Guatemala. All the banks had suspended changing money, in anticipation of a currency crisis. Some teachers were absent he said, because their homes had been destroyed, and a bag was passed around for donations to help them get their houses in order.

In class, Gloria told me another spooky story, in this one she was the witness. Her theatre group was performing the scene in Macbeth where Lady Macbeth invokes evil spirits, when a door flew open and a bat flew in, which promptly dropped dead on the stage! Intrigued by her ghost stories, I wanted to learn more. Gloria recommended I contact a woman by the name of Elizabeth Bell who has lived in Antigua for many years. Bell is an author of books on Antigua's history, and gives lectures in English every Tuesday; but when I found the venue for her speech, a man told me it had been cancelled, due to the tormentas (storms).

Later I saw Jerome and Romain, they asked me to come over to their hotel for a room party, Romain was celebrating his birthday, and was leaving Antigua tomorrow. We bought crisps, rum and soft drinks, and were having a great time. Everyone was getting drunk and singing along to music on the radio. Through his open doorway, I saw three girls check in, they looked a bit tired, and didn't want to join in our free party.

"Why not?" asked Jerome.

"Because we've just spent three days on a truck trying to get here!"

The three girls, two Canadians and one Australian, had a weary tone to their voices, their story was almost terrifying. They had been staying at a small village on the Caribbean coast of Guatemala, the area worst affected by the hurricane. The Army had advance warning that the storm was approaching, and evacuated the entire village just as the winds were starting to get strong. As panic spread, vehicles with spare seats for foreigners became scarce, but they were able to get on the last Army truck that left at midnight, after a door-to-door final appeal to the residents to leave the low-lying village. As the truck slowly made its way to higher ground, they were soaked by the rain all night and all day. They were bogged several times and rivers and streams had changed their courses, presenting tremendous obstacles. On the second night of their journey, they came to a bridge that looked very dangerous. The river was about to swamp it, and there was pile-up of logs and branches clogging it and putting more strain on it than it was ever designed to withstand.

"The driver drove slowly across, and, as we looked out the rear of the truck, we saw it give way and collapse!"

One of the girls let out a soft whimper, "It was horrible, like a movie. We were with a Swiss girl who 'lost it' completely, becoming hysterical, crying that we're all about to die, until one of the soldiers came into the back of the truck and shook her hard and told her as long as we stayed on high ground, we would be all right."

But the worst part of their story was still to come. The next bridge they came to had already been washed away, so there was no way forward and no way back, they had no alternative but to sit by the raging torrent and wait for the waters to recede.

"We heard people crying out for help, they were stranded in trees, and had seen our truck's head-lights. But it was still raining in buckets, and it was night time. Some of the people had tied their children's hands to the upper branches, because they knew that eventually they would tire and fall asleep, and fall into the water. All night we heard screams. The next day we saw a vehicle on the other side of the river, the army asked us to wade across, we had to dump unnecessary items to lighten our packs, the water was still over our heads in some places."

"I gave my camera to one of the soldiers" said one of the Canadian girls. "It was waterlogged anyway."

"When we eventually crossed in front of them, the soldiers said that we must not help the people in the trees or even acknowledge them, or they may panic and try and swim to us, which would spell disaster for everyone, because so many cannot swim and they might drag you and their children under with them. When I said 'but you can't leave them there', the soldiers said 'Why not?' They said that a person can live for a week or more with no food, and there was plenty of water. By then the waters would have receded completely. We could see the bodies of people and animals in the water."

The girls' traumatic experience made us all stop and think about how lucky we were to have been in Antigua during the inundacíon.

I heard on my shortwave through Voice of America that the death toll is now 7,000 and expected to rise further. Worse still, there was another hurricane, Hurricane Newton, forming off the Pacific coast and approaching Antigua from its unprotected eastern slopes. Great!

- excerpt from Chapter 6 of An Odd Odyssey, California to Colombia by Bus and Boat (available in paperback and digital e-book)