Guatemalan currency includes the one quetzal, that appears as either a crumpled green note or a round golden coin that flashes in the sun when new. A Q1 coin (approximately 10p) bears on one side the signature of the Accord of Firm and Lasting Peace, signed in Guatemala City on 29th December 1996 after three decades of bloody civil war and armed conflict. On the other, it shows the bellicose national coat of arms, including the eponymous quetzal bird and two crossed rifles that indicate a readiness for a call to arms. These two faces, the dual threads of peace and conflict, can be traced through the country’s colourful historical tapestry.
We are driving up a long and twisting road in the mid-afternoon. Although we started our day’s work many hours ago, the end is not yet in sight. Gustavo pauses to pick up an old man drifting along, bent and slow in a blue shirt as bright as a kingfisher. The old man hops in the back up the truck with me, and when he opens his mouth to talk, his gold teeth wink.
I catch the word linda. I think he’s paying me a compliment – no, he gestures to the land around us, this is Loma Linda [Lovely Knoll]. Indeed it is: steep hills crowded with vines, and wildflowers rushing from the edges like cataracts. On the steeple of a near mountain a town clings on, like a weathered crucifix.
Through switchbacks we climb out of the last valley, passing a shrine where birds are painted brightly on whitewash. At the top another white building welcomes us to Loma Linda community. Two carved wooden statues stand sentry outside. We pause by a little metal barrier, which a sullen woman pulls clear – after a few seconds’ consideration. I am reminded, forcefully and incongruously, of a visit to Checkpoint Charlie. On a quiet afternoon in a sleepy village, I would have expected gaggles of people hanging around. Here the only loiterer is a minuscule girl with dark eyes.
We have dropped the old hitchhiker off, and the truck idles like a fly beside a little tienda. A short man cuts fat firewood in the street. He grins at me and makes a thick spitting sound, calling at me – Conchita, Conchita. Gross. Gustavo emerges from the tienda with a companion. He jumps in the back of the truck with me, and the woodcutter turns away in disinterest. My new co-passenger greets me warmly, his eyes crinkling. He says he’ll be our guide for the afternoon. I would estimate him to be 40, until he says he lives in the tienda with his wife and grandchild. In contrast to his old wellies and rusted machete, our guide has a soft-spoken, clear voice and a gentlemanly, almost scholarly disposition – one could imagine him more among books and stacks than sugar cane.
I’m here with Gustavo, Julio, and three MSc students. Our objective today is to collect samples of pumice deposits from the 1902 eruption of Santa Maria. This was the second-largest eruption of the 20th century (after Pinatubo in 1991). Further than the main street, beyond the rows of houses, we reach a football pitch bordered to the east by a ravine and to the west by an earth wall. Less than five kilometres north as the quetzal flies, we can see the extraordinary dome complex of Santiaguito hulking in the clouds. Santiaguito began to grow in 1922 with the extrusion of El Caliente [the hot one]. The 1902 eruption that preceded its formation has left its trace, 60 centimetres thick, in the top of the earth wall. We clamber around thick grasses to reach it. The pumice is bubbly, as light as foam, paler entirely than the earth wall, except for the occasional dark lithic clast. Our guide explains that the pumice outcrop has an upper boundary that can be seen further up the road. As for the lower boundary, that could represent the onset of eruption, it can be found at some depth below our feet. To know how deep it extends, we’d have to dig.
Our guide is generous with his time, and as the MSc students sample, he and I share stories about our families. He has five children. One of them, a daughter my age, has my brother’s job (auditor). All the other four are in university, variously studying economics, business, and international relations. How does a man from a tiny rural village in Quetzaltenango afford to send five kids to university?
After we leave the pumice outcrop, he tells us all stories of the 1902 eruption, passed down he says from his grandparents’ generation. The thickness of the pumice was not so great here as out east, where most of it fell. Animals, people died, hit by the blocks and bombs that spewed out of the volcano. In 1902, there were already people living in Loma Linda, but far fewer than today. In some places around here you can see one or two metres’ of pumice deposits. If you dig down, you can find utensils and kitchen tools. These are not ones we use today, but instead they are similar to utensils used by the Mayans. We wonder if they were using them still in 1902, when the pumice fell from the volcano.
He continues. The people after 1902 disappeared, and no-one lived here. Afterwards, other people came to Loma Linda, people who did not know the risks of the volcano. They are unaware of what danger the volcano holds. I ask where the first people went. They’re still here, he smiles sadly. Under the pumice.
A group of teens play on the football pitch. Our guide explains that they help their parents with the coffee harvest in the morning and play football in the evening. The youngest of them is 13 – hard to imagine that at that age you’d already be done with school. Still, there are few more idyllic settings to spend your afternoons.
We leave at 16:30, as our guide has a council meeting to attend. He seems very keen to get there on time – obviously hora chapín* does not apply in Loma Linda. On the truck ride down he explains some of the details to me. The meeting seems surprisingly well-organized for a rural village, and he notes that nothing will be done without the approval of the council elders.
We drop him off at his house and down the road the barrier swings past to let us out. I ride on a high all the way back down to the main highway at Retalhuleu. I’m the only one in the back, so I can see the whole rich colourful world zipping by. The flowers grow in great profusion on the slopes of Loma Linda, and once I see bougainvillea and purple trumpet flowers curling around the ruins of a house, its roof collapsed and its porch long abandoned.
I am fascinated by this man and these stories and this place. Over dinner, back at the bungalow, I ask Gustavo about the meeting. He waves his hand resignedly.
Gustavo: They have many rules in that community. For instance, the young people from Loma Linda not allowed to have boyfriends from other villages.
G: Yes, there are strict rules. That’s the way it is with ex-guerrilla communities. Just like the barrier that they have at the entrance.
I can’t contain my surprise. Really? But it seemed so peaceful – and for instance, our guide was very agreeable.
G: He was probably their leader. Lo que pasa, es que during the war, guerrilleros had to leave their villages and move out further west. Later, once the war was over, the guerrilleros were granted land in which to farm and live. So they came to new places. As for the guide – certain people, they know how to appear agreeable and to get their own way like that. It is how leaders are effective.
I’m dying to know more, but Gustavo is not forthcoming. And yet I don’t want to draw him out – perhaps he is being discreet for good reason. The community of Loma Linda, the people, all seemed so peaceful. But certain details from the day come back to me, swimming up from a lower horizon. It seems that memories of the war are not that deeply buried. You never know, do you? You always have to dig. Always, you’ll find there’s another side to the coin.
*Hora chapín is a charming expression that roughly means “Guatemalan time”, the chapín being a nickname for Guatemalans derived from the sound of a type of flip-flop popular among the indigenous people of the country. Hora chapín is an explanation for the fact that absolutely any schedule you make in Guatemala will be subject to mysterious and inevitable delays. A nine o’clock start means 09:50, midday is at 1 p.m., etc., etc.