danger in the cane field

A bribe to cross?
Panajachel

We finally cleared Mexico and were on our way inside of Guatemala.  Almost immediately after crossing the border the landscape changed drastically.  Suddenly we were inside thick jungle with broad leafy plants, sugar cane fields and the flatter Mexican terrain turned into rolling hills.  It seemed that we were either climbing a jungle hill or driving down the back side of one.  I have noticed that often the international and state borders are along the line of a natural border: rivers are obvious but I have noticed that borders run along mountain and hill ranges and also at the edges of forested, jungle or desert areas.  The next time you cross a border, look around and notice of there is a change in the landscape.

After a while, we seemed to clear the hills near the border and continued driving southeast.  There were areas of thick jungle and then areas where it had been clear-cut for farming (below).  When we hit open areas we were able to see the far off volcanos and get photos of them.  This volcano in the picture below looked like an interesting photo subject and Jeff and I agreed that we would pull over and see if we could find a clearing to take some shots.  I saw a road that led off to the north just across a small stream.  We turned off the road and after one more turn to the left we were in a sugar cane field.

The small dirt road continued for about 75 more meters before making a hard right turn.  We estimated that after the next turn we should have a clear shot of the volcano.  As we came around the bend in the road we noticed a police truck was parked and 3 uniformed policemen had a man in handcuffs and were leading him away from the truck into the sugar cane field.  The man looked very scared and looked to us with pleading eyes almost as if crying out for help.  The policemen looked quite surprised to see us and had a look on their faces as if they had just been caught in the middle of a crime.  They all stood there with looking like kids who had just been caught with their hands in the cookie jar.

For a second or two Jeff and I stared at the men and they stared at us.  I had a bad feeling; the entire situation looked bad.  It looked very dangerous.

Before traveling to Central America I had read all of the State Department warnings, all of the tourist book warnings and also some posts from fellow travelers on the Lonely Planet Travel Boards.  All warned to stay in “touristed” areas, to stay on main roads and not to travel at night.  There was certainly a criminal element, but in some of the countries, Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador, Civil War and guerilla activity was still active in some areas.  One study that I had read estimates that the number of people killed in Guatemala during the Civil War that raged for the last four decades has claimed 250,000 lives.  In many places, the government and police are as dangerous as criminals; some westerners have been killed for being “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

When you travel to other countries, you have to put aside a certain amount of your natural expectations.  Other countries have different cultures, customs, different practices of law, of eating food and of religion.  When you go to another country, you must learn to bend your will to that of the local land.  Perhaps I don’t approve of eating dog, but I’m not going to go and try to save dogs in China.  I might not be for capital punishment, but I’m not going to intervene during a public execution in Saudi Arabia.

And in this case, what can I do?  If they were doing something bad, something dreadful, two American Gringo visitors are more likely to end up with a bullet in the head than not.  Every cell in my body screamed panic and shouted, “get out of here.”  Before I could even react, Jeff shouted, “Get out of here!  Back up!  Go, go!”

I threw the truck into reverse and punched the gas.  I looked through my mirrors and turned back through the curve we had just passed and when we were out of sight of the policemen I made a quick 3 point turn crashing the back of the truck into the crops that bordered the narrow dirt road.  I drove out of there as quickly as I could without wrecking the truck.  I still had my camera out and in my lap and just before we turned back onto the main road, I shot a photo out my driver’s window (below).

We pulled onto the main road and quickly began driving south.  Jeff and I discussed going to the nearest police station to report what we had seen.  But what if the cops there were crooked?  We might again end up with a bullet in our heads.  We discussed what we might have just seen.  Perhaps the man was leading the police to a crime scene?  Perhaps they had just captured him.  That didn’t seem likely as they were leading him into the cane field.

We weren’t sure what to do.  Really, what could we do?  This is not our country; intervening had limited upside potential and on the downside, possibly fatal results.  We assured ourselves that the police would take good care of the man, that he was only being transported.  It made us feel good to tell ourselves this.  We didn’t know if it was true, I don’t think that we wanted to know.

I”ve always been haunted by the look on that man’s face.  I never knew what happened to him.  I felt bad that there was little we could do to assist.  I certainly appreciated that I had protections from police abuse in my own country.

The experience gave me a lot to think about, a lot to contemplate and much to deliberate.  Almost 10 years later and I still think about it…


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A bribe to cross?
Panajachel

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