La Gringa

The heat rising from the pavement was visible as I made my way along the winding road. The smell of kerosene hung like a cloud around my head in the stagnant air. Breathe in, breathe out. One, two, one, two; all of my efforts focused on the common goal of putting one foot down in front of the other as I made my way up a rise. At the top, salvation awaited me in purple shorts and a dingy Comunicaciones fútbol jersey. Don’t stop now. Almost there. The muscles in my calves winced as I begged them for that last little burst of energy. Just a few more steps. One, two, one, two. An outstretched arm. The handoff. And then it was over. Every muscle from my neck to my wrist celebrated as I lowered my arm, freed once again from its cumbersome task. I slowed to a walk as I took in the landscape before me for the first time in my life. A lush grove of trees on the left. A stone wall on the right surrounding a tidy adobe casita. In the distance a purple volcano loomed, surveying its creation. Then from behind, the dull roar of an engine pulled me back. Though not in sight, I knew they came for me. Refuge in the form of a green and white cattle truck. She approached at a canter, then slowed to a trot. Grabbing the rope with one hand, I put my trust in the makeshift ladder soldered to the back end of the truck bed. A hoist with the leg and a pull up and there I sat, legs dangling off the back end of the truck as she carried me to my next endeavor.

 

As with many of her Central American neighbors, Guatemala celebrates her independence on September 15th. There are parades and processions, festivals and fireworks as everyone puts on a patriotic smile. My site, San Luis Jilotepeque, Jalapa, is no different. Children rehearse gymnastics routines and drum lines for weeks ahead of time as mothers and teachers rush to finish elaborate costumes. Vendors arrive early on the morning of the fifteenth in order to secure a spot for their carts on the plaza. There are speeches and performances and the national anthem is sung. It is a day to give thanks for freedoms and opportunities that have been realized, and to cast a hopeful eye toward the future.

 

But there is another, very unique tradition that Guatemalans associate with their independence. And while I cannot tell you how or why it began, I can say that by the time I arrived at my site in 2000, people from my pueblo had been participating for close to 40 years. It is called antorcha, or “torch,” and it is just that, a torch run. To explain it sounds almost humorous: a group of people drive for hours away from their town, only to turn around and run back with a burning torch. But to see it, and moreover, to experience it, gives one quite another perspective.

 

In the days and weeks leading up to the run the murmurings began. “¿Vas a ir a traer la antorcha? (Are you going to bring the torch?)” is what people would ask one another. Having no clue what was meant by that, I listened and hoped that something would click for me. I was safe as such until one day, while waiting for an audience with the mayor, the secretary of the municipality asked if I was going to “bring the torch.”  No longer able to avoid the mysterious topic of the “antorcha,” I asked that he please enlighten me as to what exactly that entailed. The explanation I received was cursory at best, but my interest had been peaked. I turned to the man who made it his business to pass time at the mayor’s office (despite the fact that he never met w/the mayor), figuring that if anyone would know he would. He explained a bit more for me, but still I walked into my meeting with the mayor confused. Inside the mayor’s office we got to the task at hand, discussing one of my projects in a local village. Then, just as I was leaving, it happened again. He asked if I was going to “bring the torch.” Chuckling, I explained to him that that seemed to be the question of the day where I was concerned. Yet again, I plead for some insight, and finally got some direction when he sent me to speak to Don Carlos, the local mechanic. This is it, I thought; if Don Carlos cannot enlighten me, well, I will lay this torch thing to rest.

 

A teenage boy greeted me somewhat apprehensively as I knocked on the door of the garage. Women didn’t usually frequent the premises I surmised. Don Carlos had stepped out they told me, but could they help me? Then it happened. I said the infamous words, told them I wanted some information about the outing, and as if by magic, there eyes softened. “You are going to bring the torch too, señorita?” they asked. There was a burst of conversation amongst the teens and the one man present and I began to wonder if I had opened the wrong can of worms. They told me to come back an hour or so later to speak with Don Carlos, and I left thinking maybe I’d better not go this alone.

 

I returned to my house and found my new site mate there. Having arrived just a month earlier, and still without housing, we were making the best of our roommate assignation. As far as much of the pueblo was concerned, finally my husband had arrived and why had it taken him so long to get there? I quickly shared what information I had with him and begged him to at the very least come with me to speak with Don Carlos.

 

Back at the garage, anticipation replaced apprehension as we were ushered in. The word was out- “la gringa,” as people had begun to identify me, wanted to bring the torch. Don Carlos explained the logistics of the trip. We would leave at 4AM the morning of the 13th, traveling in camionetas to Costa del Sol, El Salvador. There we would have a swim and eat lunch before returning to the capital, San Salvador, for the night. The morning of the 14th, we would rise in San Salvador, light the torch and run it back to our pueblo where the mayor would accept it. It sounded harmless, fun even. I discussed the idea with Brad, my site mate, who seemed interested. Then came the inevitable “exception.” A woman, said Don Carlos, had never actually completed the run. In fact, the woman that did go along each year, the wife and mother of two of the male participants, rode in a separate vehicle altogether, along with a few of the “old-timers” who came along for some good-spirited fun though not to run. The camionetas, he explained, could get a little rowdy thanks to the antics of adolescent males, but I did not have to worry; I would be perfectly safe if I wanted to go. We thanked him and said we’d have an answer for him the next day. Though a tad apprehensive, the challenge and the intrigue of it all got the better of me, and I decided I wanted to make the trip. Mindful however, of how that might be perceived by people in town, I knew I could only do it if Brad was up for it as well. With a mix of giddy anticipation and plain old nervousness I made my way to the garage the next morning to tell Don Carlos we were in.

“Buenos días, Señorita,” came a voice from the darkness. It was the old man who rose before dawn each day to sweep the plaza. “Buenos días, Señor,” I responded. A damp chill hung in the morning air as I made my way to the park and what I imagined would be a warm bus. I rounded the corner and to my surprise found but a handful of people huddled somewhere between sleep and consciousness. One by one, people emerged from the shadows, a small crowd beginning to take form. And then they appeared, not one but two camiones, the rumble of their engines slicing through the quiet of the morning. They can’t be for us, I reassured myself. We would be riding in camionetas (buses), not camiones (trucks). How could we possibly travel all that way in an open cattle truck? Reality hit hard as the trucks came to a halt in front of the park. Before I knew it I had been herded into the back end of one of the trucks with a sea of strangers. What have I gotten myself into I thought as we lurched to a start and pulled away from town.

 

Had you told me exactly what I was in for after climbing into that truck, I would have said “thanks, but no thanks,” guaranteed. And maybe they knew that – the mayor, Don Carlos, all of them. Maybe that is why they kept me in a state of ignorant bliss until they had me as a captive audience. That blissful state came to a screeching halt about 10 kilometers outside of town. That’s when the first water balloon hit the person huddled next to me, showering us both. Somehow I had not been made aware of this or many of the other “rituals” that were a part of the trip. I quickly caught on to the “us versus them” rivalry between the trucks and somewhere between filling up, launching, and dodging bags of mud and water, those faces with whom I shared the truck became friends. There was “Bean,” Don Carlos’s son, who, at 12 years of age, was the youngest runner among us, not to mention a first-timer like me. There was “Rambo,” who worked in the capital but returned every year for the antorcha run. There was Noe, the wiry, funny guy who kept both spirits and mischief at a high.  And there were countless others, young and old, fathers and sons, indígenas and mestizos, joined by their pride of place.

 

And so it went. We made our way across Guatemala and into El Salvador, I ate my first of many pupusas, we swam in the ocean, cooked fish soup on the beach and returned to San Salvador by dusk. Though it had certainly been in my head, it was then, as we pulled up alongside a park in the middle of a traffic circle, that I began to contemplate the notion of sleep. As in, where were we to sleep? Well, the answer was right in front of me. Parked in front of me to be more specific. Praying for a starry night I sought out my pillow in the form of a spare steel-belted radial.

 

Morning came early over our little traffic circle. The combination of car horns and exhaust you could cut with a knife drove people to their feet. The day’s task loomed. Run home. Carrying a torch. Don’t let it burn out and never, under any circumstances, must it be lifted onto the truck. A fill-up of kerosene, a flick of a match, a prayer for our well-being, various snapshots, and three “San Luis” cheers later we were off. The drill was simple: get off the truck, take the torch from the runner, run your leg, hand off the torch, get back on the truck. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. And so we went. The adrenaline and excitement of the first three or four turns began to wear off as hunger pangs and hot sun moved in. We pressed on, pausing occasionally at road side stands for water, fruit and the like. Somewhere around 10AM I came face to face with a harsh reality; being the only woman runner was not easy when it came time to use the bathroom. By lunchtime we made the El Salvador/ Guatemala border. We were more than halfway but the hottest part of the day was ahead of us, and we were more tired with each leg. Trotting then seemingly inching along, we made our way through the hottest part of the day, lathering on sunscreen and stealing catnaps between turns. At times it seemed so tempting to bow out of a turn, and some did, but something kept me going. Maybe it was the need to pull my part. Maybe it was the challenge of being the first woman (as well as the first American) to run the race for my town. It was a little of everything I guess.      

  

Late afternoon afforded us a long-overdue rest. Our “fan car” had been in touch with the mayor’s office, who told us we were “ahead of schedule.” Never have I killed a more needed hour. We managed to clean a pleasantly-surprised roadside store owner out of all of his inventory as we ate and drank our way to a sugar rush and a second wind. On the road again, spirits were lifted. We were running through familiar territory now. Each bend brought familiar vistas. The breeze picked up as the sky painted herself pink and purple. Clouds rolled in on the heels of the setting sun as we offered up prayers, first private, and then aloud, begging the pending storm to spare us. Such would not be the case. The sky was alive with lightening flashes when, just outside our neighboring town, 15 kilometers from home, the sky opened up. Many had had enough and scurried for cover under the one tarp we had on the truck. Tensions were high and tongues were quick as each of us wondered to ourselves, “will anyone be there to welcome us?”

 

And just when we felt we had no more to give it happened. Flashing blue lights. The town police had driven out to the furthest village and were there to escort us home. The rain was relentless but we kept on, and a spectacular thing happened. People cheered us from there porches and their windows. Barefoot children ran alongside us. It was as if it were a perfectly sunny day. Clapping and cheers pulled us on as we passed through each village. By now it was automatic. Jump down. Grab the torch. Run. Hand it off. Scurry back onto the truck. Soon came the cars from town, curious supporters driving out to see “how much further” and usher us home.

 

We crested the hill at the entrance of town and made our way to the church at the top of the main street. People cheered from inside stores and houses. Then, as quickly as I had been herded into the truck a day earlier I was herded out into the rain. “Two lines!” someone barked and we obeyed. I was somewhere near the back of the line on the left when I first heard it. “La gringa!” I looked around, confused amid the shuffle. “La gringa!” There it was again. Before I knew what was happening there came a push from behind. “La gringa! La gringa!” Then a hand grabbed mine, leading me to the front of the line. “La gringa! La gringa! La gringa!” It was all I heard. Before I knew it I found myself at the front of one line, torch in hand, next to Don Carlos, who headed the other line and carried the Guatemalan flag. On his command we started- slowly, deliberately making our way down the hill into town. One, two, one, two, each step slower than the next so as not to miss a single smile, a single cheer. The street was flooded, every muscle in my arm cramped, kerosene soaked my hand. Up the main street we moved in perfect unison. I drank in the faces; some smiling warmly, others staring in disbelief that “la gringa” had made the trip. Past the park and around the bend we went, pushing our way through the crowd that had formed. Another runner motioned for the torch and I handed it off to him. No sooner had I lowered my quivering arm when someone passed me a flag. Then there it was, the basketball court, the mayor smiling down from the stage, ready to accept our humble offering. One final lap around the court, floating on the cheers of all those who had braved the elements to welcome us, welcome the torch home.

 

Standing there, in all my grimy wetness, I could not remember when I had ever felt so much a part of something. Looking around at the faces of my companions it seemed impossible that I had known them but a day. Something had grown, between the water balloons that escorted us out and the downpour that carried us home, and it tied me inexplicably to that place and those people.    



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