Working backwards, I can remember my father's preparations for the trip. I can hear him repeating awkwardly after overly loud voices on the cassette player. Surely it was standard stuff:
"¿Dondé esta el mercado?"
"La cuenta, por favor."
My bedroom was above the kitchen and there was a vent between the two rooms that allowed the woodstove heat to rise up through. I often went to sleep to the sound of my father singing at the sink, but the Spanish–on–tape was different. I must have gone down to investigate because I can see him washing dishes in felt bootliners, long underwear showing through the frays in his grease–streaked dungarees. I see him concentrating on his tape. In the memory, he does not turn around. He doesn't know that I am there imagining, as he is, another world.
As my father and I approached the Salvadoran immigration station I began rehearsing my own Spanish words, bringing vocabulary forward in my mind. Slang words were the most important: puchica, va, que paja. Slang was the next best thing to knowing somebody's cousin. I didn't expect to know any of the right cousins that day.
Judgment from "The Delegate"
"¿El Delegado?" I asked an armed man in uniform.
He gestured with the gun.
I turned to face a group of men in combat boots and bulletproof vests who stared back at me. I took a deep breath and charged forward, wondering bleakly whether my father was picking up the low hissing sound one of them was making at me.
"Estoy buscando El Delegado," I announced to the group. The man who stepped forward had a thick mustache and his eyes glittered at me with what I hoped was just amusement.
"¿En que puedo servirle?" the official asked in a voice that suggested he did not serve anyone for free.
"Señor," I began, glancing at our armed–and–armored audience. I touched my almost–blonde hair. Then I let loose the story in one much–interrupted garble of unconjugated Spanish. My family. Of the U.S.—where in the U.S.?—Nueva York. They sit on the bus. There is exit stamp from Guatemala and no entrance to El Salvador—same place, same immigration, one stamp and not the other—when I go for a trip to Tikal—Yes, pretty ruins. I like Central America very much—I am a teacher—today I take my family to show Guatemala—For truth? I be illegal in the country? I must to spend Christmas in handcuffs?
I smiled up at El Delegado, and he beamed before his subordinates, drawing out the show with great flourishes. My father, eager to please, smiled and nodded and grinned as if he too understood the joke. Which, of course, was me.
At last El Delegado finished toying with us and pointed out the cashier's office where we paid a ten–dollar fine. With receipt in hand, my father and I set off on foot for Guatemala (the tricycle rickshaws go downhill only), waving goodbye to El Delegado's posse as they shouted their good wishes for our travels.
A walk to Guatemala
After our little dance with El Delegado, the urgency of our project fizzled out. No doubt, the bus had left or would leave soon, but my father and I strolled across the bridge and then stopped to look over the rail. Below us, slow brown water flowed. The air was warm and smelled like urine baking on the concrete, like overripe fruit, like dust and diesel, like pupusas frying in the distance under some blue plastic tarp roof by one of the two immigration stations. There were children playing in the river. From the looks of it they were supposed to be sifting sand from stones through screens but had abandoned their work, like their clothing, on the rocky shore. Their voices chimed upward, mixed with the sounds of water splashing.
On that bridge over the Rio Paz, the place that my little–girl finger once covered came alive, my father's Kodak slides turned 3–D, green and vivid and ripe–smelling all around us. Even the Spanish language tape words had turned silvery and sensible. Suddenly, hitchhiking to Guatemala City sounded fun. We'd ride in the back of a pickup truck, our faces to the wind, just my dad and me. We could do anything.
Eventually, my father and I would hike up the hill to the Guatemalan border station. I would kick rocks and my father would whistle. We would cross into Guatemala, my passport properly stamped, and a Christmas miracle would be awaiting us with KING QUALITY BUS emblazoned across its side and my mother standing in its open doorway, one foot on the ground and one on the step.
Later that night, my mother would hear the Christmas Eve service in a yellow church, which was close enough, and see santeros paraded through the street. Then Guatemala would set her straight with an all–night, tooth–rattling firework extravaganza.
But in that moment, resting above the Rio Paz, I was leading my father in his own footsteps, bridging a farm in New York and a country too tiny to see clearly on a globe, my father's past and my present, like a not–so–little girl connecting dots. But it was really the stillness that mattered, not the disastrous history or the potential disasters ahead, not where we were from or where we were going, but where we were, right at that moment.
Molly Beer currently lives in Morelia, Mexico, where she is a freelance writer and correspondent for Glimpse.org. Her writing, including her book Singing Out (Oxford, 2010) and recent or forthcoming work in Guernica, Copper Nickel, The Truth About the Fact, Calyx, Room Magazine, and High Country News, focuses on the intersections of politics, place, and the personal. She also blogs about the culture of family at www.loveinmexico.wordpress.com.
The Burning of the Devil in Guatemala by Luke Maguire Armstrong
A Journey Through the Land of the Maya in Guatemala by Michael Shapiro
Guatemala's Running of the Horses by Michael Shapiro
Breaking Frontiers by Maliha Masood
Other Mexico and Central America travel stories from the archives
Books from the Author: