“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild & precious life?”
We arrived in Guatemala by bus from Mexico via Belize, after a long weekend of Salsa dancing our nights away at an annual conference on the beach in Cancun. The first leg of the trip ended in Belize City, where we had to switch buses nearly half asleep and numbed from too many margaritas. I awkwardly dismounted, and once we found our bags began asking around as to where we should catch the Guatemala-bound buses. Everyone I spoke to looked at me like I was speaking Chinese and answered back in some foreign sounding tongue. For a second I thought I must be dreaming. I know how to speak Spanish, and if there was any doubt, I had just spent the weekend in Mexico. In my state of morning brain-fog, I finally caught on that the people were speaking Patois! I felt like a total idiot; Belize was a former British colony after all. Yana and I could not stop laughing at our ignorance but it was an honest mistake, we were surrounded by Spanish speaking countries. Once we began addressing the extremely friendly locals in English things went a lot more smoothly. The plan was to head directly to the turquoise waters of Semuc Champey but the bus routes did not allow for this, so we spent a night in Flores patiently awaiting our ride to the limestone pools in the mountains. The following morning we had only been driving about 2 hours in our rip-off tourist shuttle when the driver pulled over at a gas station and informed us that we would have to wait. After he unwillingly explained in a very vague fashion that some locals were blocking the road, he suggested we either walk through the road block (as they were letting pedestrians by but no vehicles) or turn around and go back to Flores because the blockade could last into the night. We made the rounds at the gas station, asking others for information and decided our driver just wanted to get rid of us and go home since he only had three passengers. We waited for a couple of hours with all of the other stranded travelers, hoping the “tapada” may end at noon as one driver suggested; no such luck. The three of us decided we would rather slowly make our way toward Semuc even if this involved some hiking, instead of watching the television at the gas station all day. We had limited time to see all we wanted to see in Guatemala as it was. As soon as we began to collect our luggage all twelve gringos in another van decided to join us, but minutes after the road opened and everyone hastily jumped back in their vehicles and sped down the highway. We did not make it far, and we came to a screeching halt maybe a mile down the road where there was yet another road block. The drivers let us out again, assuring us it was safe to walk. I was not excited about parading down the road with a pack of foreigners, not that I could pass for a Guatemalan, but I prefer to attract less attention when I travel. Nevertheless, we headed onward with our bags passing all of the freight trucks, cars, and local villagers watching curiously as we neared the “tapada.” We arrived at a chain link fence erected across the road, with a semi-truck parked on a diagonal behind it so that no car would attempt a crossing. Yana and I at the head of the pack of travelers (none of whom spoke Spanish) approached the three men sitting on a log in front of the fence to ask if we could pass. The leaders looked astonished and told us absolutely not. We told them what our drivers had said, they then relayed us their version of the rules. The other gringos ran back to the vans, afraid their ride would leave them behind, but Yana and I couldn’t move. We were so curious at the situation and wanted to know more. We told the man that our driver left us and that we had to pass, but he didn’t budge, so we took our luggage to the side of the road and sat down with the rest of the locals, just waiting and taking in the scene. What we did not realize at the time was that we were now stuck between two road blocks, as the first one had been put back behind us. The locals seemed quite surprised by our presence and the tension in the air was so heavy we struggled to appear at ease in the eyes of our new audience. We hung out there for quite some time, but decided it best to meander back down the road once the head honcho began riling up the crowd in an indigenous language we could not understand. We spent the next ten hours waiting, mostly with some truck drivers we befriended. They caught our attention as they had cleverly strung hammocks under their rigs to escape the sun. We shared beers, ate choco-bananas, listened to Bachata and exchanged stories for hours together. We learned that the Guatemalan government is trying to force its farmers to use Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds, so they are revolting by cutting off the countries main arteries and closing as many main roads as they can. They keep the roads closed until the Government sends out a representative to negotiate terms with them, and only open them if they come to some sort of an agreement. Even though I didn’t want to waste my precious days in Guatemala on the side of the road, I felt a deep sympathy for what these people were going through, a problem most of the farmers of the world can probably relate to at this point in time. Our laughter and chatter was abruptly interrupted when a mob of people came bustling down the road past us dragging a man with a rope tied to his feet. Our new friends explained that the man had waived a gun at the farmers insisting they open the road; they promised he wouldn’t be hurt too badly. After this incident and the sun’s final rays hovering over the dusty road, we decided it wise to return to our tourist van. We had enjoyed a lovely day, and welcomed the spontaneity of the situation as it provided an honest look at the socio-political reality in Guatemala, as well as an opportunity to hang out in a tiny town with locals we would have never otherwise exchanged words with. Once night fell things got scary. The blockade was opened around midnight and what had been a single file line of cars on a two lane highway abruptly turned into a mad rush out the gates and down a dark winding road. It was like nothing I have ever experienced before, cars fighting to pass semi-trucks on blind curves with head-on traffic; everyone was freakishly daring in their maneuvering and attempts to hastily get wherever they were going. The most shocking part was that Yana and I, now in a van stuffed to the brim with locals our driver had picked up for extra cash, could not keep our eyes open. We both kept falling asleep, despite the fact that the crazy driver had us bouncing around like rag dolls in the backseat; even the fear couldn’t keep the heaviness from my eyes. Every so often I would awake and see the driver had just dodged a giant tree trunk that had been strategically placed across the middle of the curving highway; I could not fathom how we had avoided crashing into all of those trees at the speed we were moving. We encountered three more road blocks that night, and spent another 5 hours on the side of the road. At night in the dark, the roadside hangouts were not so enjoyable. A mob like mentality set in and the young men of these villages ran up and down past the stopped cars beating on our windows and yelling as we sat stuck in the hot van. Every “tapada” was different, some were made of cut tree trunks, other villages burned tires; it felt like we were living in an apocalypse. I finally surrendered to sleep once I realized my fear would get me nowhere. I preferred to take my chances in the van in leu of waiting out the night in a chaotic, frenzied village with no transportation. We survived the madness that night although we never made it to Lanquín, we were dropped off at the wee hours of the morning in Cobán, a town about an hour away from our desired destination. Las tapadas, a local farmers fight against their government & Monsanto had been a serious wake up call to those of us attempting to merely pass through the Ceibas of Guatemala. Seeing Monsanto spreading its poison to countries all over the world in addition to the toll its taking on our own land and bodies is a devastating reality. It deeply saddens me that people that have been growing the same corn for years are now being forced to grow from seeds they not only cannot afford but that will ruin their land, their heritage and probably eventually affect their health. On a positive note, I would like to congratulate my dear friend Yanita who was inspired by our time in Guatemala, and will be attending a graduate program at the University of Columbia pursuing a degree in public health. To be able to travel is such a gift. It inspires, expands the mind and points us in directions we would have never previously imagined. May we all learn from the road blocks we face throughout our respective journeys through life, remain open-minded and compassionate, never surrendering to complacency.