Most of the french fries served in the US have a firm outer crust. To get that crunch, the potatoes must be fried twice at two different temperatures, or frozen, or both. In Guatemala, the roadside stands selling french fries just have one big pot of hot oil, and no freezers. When they get an order, they toss the sliced raw potatoes into the oil, producing a softer and creamier fry than the American version. This is the level of cultural contrasts I usually reflect on when traveling.
We had already eaten Guatemalan french fries several times, but, ironically, it was at this cafe, on this particular day, that the distinction finally hit me, a day when french fry recipes were by far the least important of the cultural differences we were experiencing.
Life on the Road
My wife and I, along with our three children, ages 2, 4, and 6, were in Guatemala for a week’s vacation. We had rented a car; the two destinations we had settled on were not easily accessible otherwise. We had spent a couple days in the north of the country at Tikal, a city of Mayan ruins, and we were now headed for Semuc Champey, a national park built around a geological oddity in the center of the country. These are both very tourist-centric destinations – we were not looking for trouble.
We had been picking up on the quirks of traveling through Guatemala by car. Distance is not the only, or even necessarily the most important, measure of how long it takes to get somewhere. There are no street signs, so we budgeted extra time for wrong turns. And even finding the right road was no guarantee of an on-time arrival: there were still potholes, camouflaged speedbumps, missing bridges, and stray dogs to run up the clock. Slowly, we had been figuring out the system, but we were soon to learn how much we still had to learn.
We woke the kids up early that morning and hustled out the door. We knew that we had six hours of driving in front of us and wanted to get moving so we’d have some cushion in case something went wrong. We congratulated ourselves on our punctuality as we headed down the highway, out of Santa Elena and into the hinterlands.
One-and-a-half hours in I missed the the first sign that something was awry. I had seen a group of men trying to move a boulder on the road’s shoulder. All through our travels we had seen boulders in the road which had rolled down from the surrounding mountains, so I assumed they were just performing a public service in moving it out of traffic. But there was something odd about the scene. Looking around as we drove by, I saw no ledges or hills for the boulder to have rolled off of. Weird, I thought, but since so much about driving in Guatemala is weird, I let it go.
Five minutes later along an empty stretch of highway, we saw brake lights ahead. We had gotten accustomed to looking for brake lights, as that was often the only warning that we were approaching a speed bump. But it wasn’t a speed bump. The truck that the brake lights belonged to came to a stop. There were two other trucks already parked. Further ahead I could see a group of people milling about.
We pulled up and stopped too. After a minute of waiting, the other drivers were getting out of their trucks and walking around, aimlessly. We were the fourth car in the queue. I got out and walked to the front to do some reconnaissance. There were ten big rocks lined up across the road.
The Revolution Comes with a Side of Poundcake
It slowly dawned on me what was going on. I had always associated this tactic with Bolivia and Peru, but apparently Guatemala liked the idea enough to borrow it. A roadblock had been erected by a group of locals whose goal was to cause enough of a disruption to attract the attention of the government, which was then supposed to capitulate to their demands. Suddenly, and without registering, we were in the front row of a class on Latin American socio-economics.
The highway was a long, straight, two-lane road with gentle hills, surrounded by farmland and forest. Aside from the agrarian revolt, it was similar to a state highway in the middle of Wisconsin. Our family made up five of the 100 people at the roadblock, a sum which included the perpetrators, the victims, and nearby residents who were there to watch. I did not detect any angry or violent undercurrents from any of the parties.
My wife is the one of us who speaks some Spanish, so she asked what was going on. She was directed to the village elder, someone who looked like the Hollywood character who takes you on your spiritual quest. Chief Rolling Boulder verified what we already suspected. Asked when we would be able to proceed, the answer was maybe five minutes, maybe five hours – whenever the government gives them what they want.
Without needing to discuss it, my wife and I recognized that getting upset would only make things much, much worse, so we tried to make the most of the situation. A friendly-looking older woman approached my six-year-old daughter and asked her in Spanish – what’s your name? How old are you? I prodded my daughter to answer. She speaks Spanish with the babysitter at home and I saw no reason not to extract a free language lesson from our current predicament.
Another woman was wandering about, selling pieces of pound cake. In the name of cultural immersion, I bought a piece.
After 15 or 20 minutes there were still only eight total vehicles waiting at the roadblock. This is one desolate highway if there are still only eight of us here, I thought. Then it hit me: Those men we had passed earlier! They weren’t Good Samaritans clearing the road of debris! They were Bad Samaritans putting up another roadblock!
I looked at the map later. If we had turned around at the first almost-roadblock, we still would have had an extremely long day. The roadblockers had one key element working in their favor: to get from any spot in Guatemala to any other spot, there is only one possible route. There are no service roads running parallel to the highway; there are no beltways; there are no business route bypasses. There is just the one road, which, if blockaded, leaves a driver with no options.
The End of the Beginning
After an hour, there was movement in the group near the roadblock. There was no announcement – but drivers started heading back to their cars. The boulders got rolled and we started on our way again. I had caught a mild case of Stockholm Syndrome. Thanks for releasing us, I thought without sarcasm. I almost waved goodbye as we drove past our captors.
Back on the open road and happy to be moving again, I rationalized: we only lost an hour, and we did get some local flavor, so all in all, it wasn’t so bad.
My optimistic naivete was soon to die a painful death.
Take it from the Top, but this Time, Bigger
Five miles later we came to a town and traffic slowed. I still thought everything was fine; it was just like other villages we had passed through. ramshackle markets lined the roadside and stray dogs ran in front of the car.
But the traffic got slower and slower until it finally stopped. This time we had a pretty good idea what was going on. Like everyone else, we pulled over to the side of the road and parked.
Our first roadblock had been, if not in the middle of nowhere, in the suburbs of nowhere. This place, Las Pozas, was a bustling small town. There were lots of trapped vehicles here, most of them trucks.
The town consisted mostly of a single road, the highway, which was lined on one side with market stalls, and on the other with weeds and pigs eating garbage. I concluded quickly that those pigs were not going to go hungry anytime soon – there was garbage everywhere.
A family whose constituents were similar in age to ours was in a moving truck in front of us. My wife talked to that wife and verified that we were at another roadblock. Knowing definitively that we were captives, instead of just suspecting, was slightly more comforting.
Our neighbors had been stuck there since 4am. Their plan had been to make it to Guatemala City, another 300 miles away, by the afternoon. That was no longer in the cards for them. Just like everyone else who was waiting, they were resigned to the situation and showed little sign of annoyance. They repeated to us the rumor that we would get to leave at 5pm. It was 10am. Both my wife and I remained calm, but we knew that keeping the children in good spirits in this ridiculous situation for an entire day was to be a monumental task.
I set out on another reconnaissance mission. It was a quarter-mile to the front. The same beach ball-sized boulders blocked the road as at the last stop.
In a clearing to the side of the road was a flat-bed truck with an old P.A. system mounted on the back. Standing next to it with a microphone was a speaker doing his best Che Guevara imitation. He had a crowd of several hundred people listening to him intently.
The size of the crowd was not necessarily indicative of the quality of his speech. Over the course of the day it seemed that any public conversation attracted an audience. I had watched it happen when my wife was talking to the village elder at stop #1 – by the time their discussion ended they were surrounded by almost the entire population of the roadblock. Any time someone said something audible to the wider world a crowd, hardly perceptibly, would gather around and pay studious attention, with their heads following the conversation back and forth like it was a tennis match.
I listened to the speech for a minute or two, understanding nothing, took a couple pictures while pretending to talk on the phone, and left.
All day long a steady stream of people were walking up and down the street. Amongst the captives, we were the only non-Guatemalans. As I walked, people stared at me until I caught their eye, at which point they looked away. But if I smiled and greeted them in Spanish, they did the same in return. With almost no exceptions, everyone was happy, and even eager, to talk. I am still not sure if it’s because of the general friendliness that all Guatemalans seem to possess, or because everyone was bored out of their minds, but if you want to practice your Spanish, a wildcat roadblock in rural Guatemala is a great place to do it.
Las Pozas looked to have a mostly indigenous population. As I had read was customary in such towns, all of the women wore long skirts with colorful and elaborately embroidered blouses. They were beautiful to look at, and created a spectacular juxtaposition to the piles of garbage on the roadside, framed in the background by men urinating in the bushes.
The bush-toilets were unpleasant, to put it mildly. The road had a gravel and grass shoulder, just beyond which was the drainage ditch where the trash had accumulated. The men would cross the garbage line, then use the first vertical object they came to as a urinal.
I hated taking the kids out for a break – I had to assume that any real estate beyond the moat of garbage had already served as someone else’s receptacle. Exacerbating the problem was that our two younger children did not yet have a healthy fear of infectious disease – they still wanted to touch anything and everything. Trying to get at the problem from the other end, I became reluctant to let the kids eat or drink, though my wife castigated me for it (“you prefer to leave them hungry and dehydrated?”).
We kept the kids entertained by reading books and going for short walks over and over. We had been putting off going to lunch because it was something to look forward to – once we did it, we had nothing else. At 2pm we finally set off to find something to eat besides the granola bars we had brought with us.
We found a quiet stall and ordered our french fries – hold the crispy outer shell. It was a brief, welcome reprieve. With almost an hour killed, we headed back to the car.
Into Each Episode of Civil Unrest Some Rain Must Fall
As the afternoon rolled on, the atmosphere had been subtly changing. The politeness was wearing thin. At first I noticed the whispering. Later, the whispering morphed into giggling, and finally, dispensing with any veneer, laughing and pointing.
On the way back to the car after lunch my wife and I split up. She took our older daughter into a store to buy some cookies while I continued on with our other two children.
I passed four men sitting on and standing around their motorcycles. One of them said something to me in Spanish. I smiled back, waved, and kept walking. A couple seconds later I heard him say in English, “Don’t you walk away when I’m talking to you.”
Now, that would have been an extraordinary thing for him to say even if I had been alone. But I was carrying my two-year-old daughter in a pack on my back and holding my four-year-old son’s hand as he walked next to me. Picking a fight with me at this moment did not require much bravery on his part.
Despite the abruptness of the verbal assault, I was able to think fast enough to see that there was only one way out of this. I turned around and said, “Oh, you speak English.” I think my lack of aggression caught him by surprise. “Umm, yeah,” he stammered, “so, are those your kids?”. I introduced my two children and my son waved when instructed.
I was not doing this because I was interested in befriending this cretin. The situation was, if no longer threatening, unstable, and politeness was the only escape hatch I could see.
30 feet separated us while we were talking. A benefit to my engaging him from such a distance was that our conversation was quite public. Just like my wife’s earlier experience, a crowd began to congregate around us. That was not a chess move on my part – it was dumb luck – but now that there was an audience, and I was being polite, he had to climb down. We had a ridiculous and awkward conversation about the weather in Chicago before saying our goodbyes.
Extra Credit if You Were a Hostage While You Did It
Back at our car, it was now 3pm and we still didn’t know how long we were going to be there. I had concerns about the kids. Given the circumstances, our children had been doing great, but there was a limit. It didn’t help that we now thought it prudent to stay close to the car.
And then, and not for the first or last time that trip, we were rescued by Guatemalan friendliness. Talking with the family in the truck in front of us, we learned that in addition to three daughters, they also had three parrots. My son brought out his toy cars and offered to share them. They gladly accepted. He now had more girls and parrots than he knew what to do with, and was happy.
That was one down. Then our older daughter decided she wanted to do her homework. Really? Right now? I was incredulous, but she made herself comfortable in the car and started practicing her numbers (when we got home, I wanted to put an asterisk on her worksheet before she handed it in, explaining the circumstances in which that homework was completed).
Finally, our younger daughter simply fell asleep, completing the trifecta. By the ridiculously low standards of the day, we were enjoying some welcome good fortune.
The situation outside continued to slowly deteriorate. By 4:30pm our son was back in our car. A group of 8-year-olds had seen our children and were trying to engage them (or provoke them, I’m not sure) through the windows. I had to shoo them away a couple times before they left for good. But I had to wonder, will they be coming back with their older brothers?
The day was wearing on me. The lack of a clear resolution or timetable to get moving and the increasing friction with both the local inhabitants and the other inmates was distressing. I thought and thought, but could not come up with any way to improve the situation.
And then I looked up and saw the wall of people coming from the direction of the roadblock. I refused to believe it was something positive. But still, is it possible? Could this really be the end?
My wife asked a couple of the passers-by. Yes, they were about to remove the boulders. I tried to temper my excitement – so many things could still go wrong. Perhaps what my wife interpreted as “they are about to remove the boulders” was really “they will never remove the boulders”. I thought it best to remain pessimistic.
I heard the trucks start their engines. The word was that the road was only going to be open for 30 minutes, so no one wanted to be unprepared. 15 minutes later we were moving, and then we were through, and it was over.
The Enemy of my Enemy is My Friend
This time I felt no empathy with my captors – as I watched the pile of boulders recede in the rear-view mirror I wanted to call in the air strikes. By most accounts, the indigenous communities of Central and South America have not been treated well by their central governments. But I was not a party to that argument, at least, I hadn’t been until being held at the roadblock. When it comes time to choose teams, if you are going to hold me and my family for seven hours in an open sewer, then I am going to take the other guy’s side.
On a less geo-political level, this adventure was a comeuppance for us. Before leaving on our trips to exotic locations, there is always someone who asks incredulously, “You’re taking your children there? Are you sure?”. We smile condescendingly and assure them it will be fine. But Las Pozas was a reminder that the newspaper headlines, while perhaps sensationalist, aren’t made up.
In the end, our interment at the two roadblocks was probably not much more miserable than being stuck at O’Hare airport during a snowstorm, so I am careful about ratcheting up the drama when I retell the story. For some perspective, right about the time of our trip to Guatemala, a group of Iraqi jihadists decapitated a journalist and posted a video of themselves playing soccer with his head. Our trip was not as bad as that journalist’s. So perhaps it was best that we learned our lesson where the stakes were not so high – and maybe someday, not today, I will thank our captors for reminding us that cultural differences sometimes include more than french fries.