WHEN THE ALARM WENT OFF at four in the morning, the world outside was limpid and still.
The backpack, already packed, lay propped against the wall at the far end of the room, a foam mattress pad protruding through it crossways and the boots set beside it with the laces unloosened. Milky prisms of moonlight in slipped through the windblown curtains. Far off, the distant rattling of motorcycles carried with a faint echo over the city.
For a few more seconds—or maybe it was a minute—I contemplated the prospect of going, absorbing stillness of the world outside. And without further ado, I slipped into the boots, threw my pack over my shoulders and went walking down the street, joyful if apprehensive, bound for the highest point in Central America.
I FIRST HEARD OF the Tajumulco Volcano in August, 2018, when I was reporting on the Zapatista movement in southern Mexico. I’d taken a few days off to cross the Guatemalan border in pursuit of another story. But my interviewee, in whose house I was planning on staying, ceased responding to my messages while I was en route to Quetzaltenango, leaving me bereft of a place to stay upon my imminent arrival in the city. After a despairing, increasingly frenetic evening, I wound up at a hostel close to the city’s Parque Central, where the next day I’d meet a group of warm, free-spirited American backpackers. They’d been here getting their yoga teacher certificates for the past several weeks. As the denouement to their course, they told me, they’d be going to climb a mountain named Tajumulco.
Preoccupied as I was over the failure of my journalistic side-trip, I wasn’t immediately struck by the idea of the trip. But I had a lot of empty time over the next day and a half, waiting for the bus that would take me back to Chiapas. As I aimlessly wandered the cities cobblestoned streets, contemplating the worn colonial architecture, reading a novel beneath the trees in a plaza swarmed with pigeons, the thought of climbing it kept returning again and again. It seemed to have a spectral allure. Even the sound of it—Tajumulco—was like a linguistic brushstroke, rolling off the tongue like a grace note. By the time I saw the photos my friends took on the summit several weeks later, I made the unquestioning, perhaps even impulsive, decision to conquer the peak myself.
Financed by another grant, I came back to Quetzaltenango in late March 2019 to cover the same story that’d fallen through seven months earlier, a piece which would be published that summer in an investigative magazine on Latin America. But I’d allotted myself nearly a week in Guatemala this time, as opposed to the three days that would’ve been necessary to complete the story. My goals, after all, weren’t solely journalistic. I’d spent the preceding six moths fantasizing about what it would be like to stand on the cold and lunar summit of the volcano. Now was my chance to get there.
There was one thing, however, that threatened to stymie my shot at getting to the top: the lack of air. I’d scheduled the bulk of my reporting to be done between the first and third of April, unaware that, in order to climb the mountain within the limits of the guiding services schedule, I’d have to do so hardly a day and a half after I’d arrived in the country, giving my lungs no time to acclimate to the rapid change in altitude. I had no idea how my body would react to ascending from sea level to 14,000 feet in the space of two and a half days. The apprehension that accompanied the months of planning was only exacerbated when Internet searches on altitude sickness—carried out with the intention of salving my nerves—yielded a litany of horror stories describing nausea, losses of consciousness, or in the most extreme cases, death.
When I told the guides the night before the climb that I’d arrived in Guatemala only a day before, they smiled uncomfortably and didn’t say much. Pressing them further—I needed to know whether it would be safe for my health to climb on such short bodily notice—they prevaricated, smiling and staying quiet, withholding an unsavory answer behind humorously pursed lips. I finally managed to extract the story of the last person who’d been through circumstances similar to my own.
“How did it go for him?” I asked.
Her face contorted with a smile.
“Not well,” she said.
The question of whether I’d go still remained unanswered at four the next morning, the backpack waiting in the silky moonlight where it slipped through the windows.
But an hour later my decision would be made: I’d be holding the raised metal railing over the bed of a rusty pickup, standing alongside a group of backpackers as we careened towards the bus pavilion through the empty night streets of Xela. Striking up conversations in the back of the truck, hair thrown about by the frigid onrushing wind, I could feel an almost imperceptible smile lighting up my face.
For the first two hours of the morning, we took a chicken bus. Staring out the window of the converted school bus as it heaved through traffic, I watched as the pitch black twilight was replaced by the cold blue dawn, and as the arteries of the city began pumping with life. Asides from the frigid mountain temperature, the scene was little different from what I’d seen elsewhere in Guatemala and Mexico: women and children waiting along the roadside, bundled and shivering from the cold. Taxistas smoking on the hoods of their cars. Young men hawking gum, cigarettes, slices of mango wrapped in cellophane, hand sized bags of water, scrambling between stopped buses in the pale light of day.
We disembarked to have lunch at San Marcos, the mountain city where crowds of women in their kaleidoscopically-colored trajes, or indigenous dresses, stood bathed in the firm, golden morning light. Frijoles, huevos al revuelta, pan, queso, aguacate on a stryofoam plate; the coffee overly rich in sugar. Already at the table, we were cracking jokes about the inevitability of my impending doom via altitude sickness. It’ll become a running joke throughout the trip.
Boarding another chicken bus, we ascended for another two hours into the heights of the highlands. It was a painfully bright spring morning: the blue sky a cold clean slate, torn rags of clouds brushing past the piney mountain peaks.
A note on chicken buses: at hardly a few quetzales a trip, the rickety schoolbuses are one of Central America’s cheapest forms of transport, and therefore the most accessible to the majority of its population. (Their name is derived from the fact that, among all forms of vehicular transport in the region, they’re most commonly known for people to bring their chickens—whose fate is to be slaughtered—aboard).
The cheapness comes with the danger: the buses are horribly overcrowded. Three people crowd to each seat. Once those are filled, they crowd the aisle and grasp the overhead grates where bags are stowed to avoid stumbling as the driver makes his harrowing, high-speed maneuvers. But the danger comes with great entertainment: in a country where traffic safety norms are all but nonexistent in rural areas, chicken bus drivers are notorious for passing two, three, even four vehicles at a time, often at such breakneck speeds that they miss a collision with oncoming traffic only by a matter of seconds. As they accelerate past a succession of vehicles, the common practice is for the teenager who collects fare from the passengers to hang out the door of the bus so that, with his facial expression, he can implore the other drivers to slow down and allow the bus to pass. If they comply, he’ll respond with a comically gleeful face. If not, with a fierce wielding of the middle finger.
After three hours of careening through the potholed, switchbacking roads, having ascended into the cold air of the highlands, we got off alongside a dusty collection of buildings with corrugated iron roofs, the road before it swarmed with emaciated, fly-ridden dogs. Tossing the last of our bags down from the roof, the bus heaved off with a noxious plume of diesel smoke. And like that, we were alone.
We checked our bags, applied sunscreen, lost new layers of clothes. And then we walked. The jagged peak of Tajumulco loomed several thousand feet above us, it’s serrated, terracotta profile refracted as if in high definition through the thin mountain air.
Soon after we would meet up with the porter, a quiet teenager named José whose stoic laconicism, working at the fringes of the group, would pique my curiosity throughout the climb.
We climbed through a serried forest of pine for the first two hours, the sky that kind of deep, pure blue one sees in black-and-white, monochrome photographs. High overhead, wind hushed through the treetops like distant ocean swells, and dust stirred in arabesques where we trailed our boots in the earth.
After the first few hours of walking, we stopped at a mountain meadow overlooking the jungles of Chiapas, Mexico where it lay hidden, to the north and northeast, beneath a thick low cream of clouds. Our breaths were already running short. I felt vaguely dizzy. But I’d been carrying out what little of the hike we’d already done with such deliberate caution, staying at the back of the group while the rest loped ahead, stopping for frequent water breaks, that I maintained a steadiness of pace that I felt the others might not have. The stops along the trail were moments to relish: leaning into hiking poles, looking out over the vast expanses of highland space and listening in silence to the wind in the pines.
After passing around some trail mix and taking a few selfies, having lounged for ten minutes on the pine-needled forest floor, we set off again. After crossing the field overlooking Chiapas, the path snaked up a broad ridgeline where the mountain crumpled into a neck leading towards the peak. The illusion of closeness was powerful: despite its seeming proximity, the peak in actually lay hidden behind a ridgeline, and was still several thousand feet away.
I fell behind. But I didn’t mind. I was, miraculously, breathing at a steady rate, only slightly dizzy. I was walking with one of the two guides, a twenty-something, peripatetic Austrian girl with shaggy blonde hair and piercing blue eyes. We talked. It was pleasant.
A strange inversion in perception occurred as we made our way further up the mountain. It seemed less that we were walking up from the solid and firm stability of the Earth, our feet planted on unmoving ground, and more that were were floating above it all, as if suspended in the sky. In add directions, the Earth stood far below, hidden beneath a nearly contiguous layer of clouds that stretched out to the wide limits of the horizon. It was getting chillier, and the breeze was picking up. But the sun was still shining hard, and I was as happy as could be.
Base camp lay in a spread out grove of twisted, lunar-looking pine trees at the crook of the saddle between the false peak and the summit. From the trees at the far edge of the camp, one could look out and see, far off, where the mountainous green piedmont scalloped downward to meet the Pacific. The afternoon was late when we got there and, as if in sync with our own exhaustion, the failing sunlight fell in a latticework of bronze prisms over the pine-needled floor of the forest.
We laid out a tarp to eat lunch on, shirked our packs, took off our shoes to air out our feet. We ate. Wolfing down a lunch of tomatoes, tortillas, beans, carrots and avocadoes, each of us helped set up the tents before dispersing into the forest around the camp, falling asleep where the branches cast a soft mesh of shade below.
Later that evening, as sundown approached and the air grew frigid, we decided to climb the false summit. It lay to the left of camp, like a supersized mining spoil, and was created more-or-less in the image of its twin, which at over twice the size of the false summit lay directly across the saddle to the right. The evening climb would only require a fraction of the time we’d need for the undertaking at four the next morning—only half an hour to get to the top, at most forty-five minutes.
After an hour of talking at the edge of the camp, we threw on extra layers of clothes and set out to catch the sunset. Walking single file, we passed the treeline demarcating where the slope began angling up towards a burning, pink-stained sky. It was an empty landscape, so naked and windblown that it seemed evocative of an Arctic tundra. Lone rags of clouds, torn from the bodies of cumulonimbus, whipped past us before receding into specks as they flew off into the depths of space. Thin arctic grasses, clinging to lichen-stained boulders, sawed endlessly in the cold and unceasing wind.
Twenty-five minutes later, from atop the false summit, we could see where the sunset cast smoldering hues over the leathery razors of the peaks to the east.
We spent twenty minutes taking group photos, awkwardly triangulating our faces into selfies. We tried to take panoramas, usually without success, and contemplated the light fading out over northern Central America. Then we left. A cloudlayer was slipping in from a higher altitude and blotting out the last shreds of moribund daylight, enclosing us in a claustrophobic, wind-whipped haze of mist.
That night, we listened to stories of Guatemalan mythology while embers from the fire raced upwards into the depths of the night. After a while, we returned, shivering, to our sleeping bags, falling asleep to the sound of the silence of the stars.
IN THE LIGHT FROM OUR headlamps, mist from our breaths uncoiled up towards a sky smeared with stars. It was 3:45. The clouds had dissipated overnight, revealing the glittering canopy of the universe and, shooting through it, the thin green strip of the Milky Way.
We ran one last time through the sparse list of necessities for the last leg up. We’d be traveling light: headlamp, scarf, jugs of water and jackets. We’d each bring a mat and sleeping bag, as we’d be watching the sunrise from the subfreezing summit. After all of us gathered, arriving silently at a consensus, we set off.
The trailed veered up out of the treeline and along the dark, threatening slope of the main peak to the right. Within a few minutes, the slope steepened to such an extent that we lost the poles altogether, instead scrambling up on our hands and feet. Headlamps casting prisms of light before us, we navigated the crumbling rock faces, the steep scree fields in the inky black vault of night. It was tiring work. Soon, we were sweating to the point that, even in the cold, we had to stop and lose layers of clothes. It was good we were doing this under the veil of darkness: had I been able to see the sheer verticality of the mountain face we were climbing my fear of heights would’ve likely crippled me. It was strangely peaceful work: identifying where the trail led for the next twenty feet, or at least until there was a stable shelf or stopping point. Heaving ourselves up the trail, chunks of gravel skidding out from beneath our feet. And then waiting for the others to catch up, contemplating the swallowing black emptiness below.
Far below, the highlands smoldered with the light of rural hamlets, as if glowing from beneath with a flickering, low-wattage light bulb. Like a landscape ravaged by recent wildfire, the feverish orange lights of the world below stood like a mirror image of the galaxies above.
Within an hour of setting out from the camp, after scrambling up the labyrinth of rock, the steep face flattened out into a barren and lunar landscape. Far out to the east, the black sky, very faintly, very slowly, was turning to a deep cool Arctic blue. Hints of sunrise glowed from an unseen horizon. A frigid breeze began flowing past. In the near distance, I saw several figures atop a promontory of rock. Above it all was a lone cross, raised into the emptiness of space.
I had, I realized, made it to the top of the Tajumulco Volcano.
To the south, an archipelago of volcanoes stretched out in a loose parabola towards the simmering eastern horizon. The volcanoes, each standing like a blackened island against the faintly star-pricked sky, were perfectly triangular in form; their names—Agua, Acatenango, Fuego—evocative of a primordial era predating not only Guatemala, but human life, or life itself. To the east, the high mountain plateaus of Quiché, the altiplano, stood limned by the thin blood-red light of the yet unseen sun. The sister peak in Chiapas, Tacaná, lay hidden in Tajumulco’s perfectly geometric shadow to the north. To the south and west, where there were no mountains to obscure the view, was a dizzying expanse of empty blue space. Somewhere, beyond it all, the Pacific.
There was a formlessness to that space, an emptiness as profound and terrifying as a bottomless ocean, refracting a dark bandwidth of cobalt light as the mountains shadow fell out in a triangle and withdrew back as the sun slowly rose. Perhaps I’d seen such a scene through the window of an airplane. But I’d never experienced its full totality before. Unlike when I was behind a pressurized window, I’d never seen the world from this altitude while watching my breath lay out against the wind, feeling the crunch of shale beneath my boots, feeling my nose, ears, and fingers burn with numbness and tasting the minerals tracing faintly in the wind.
The morning twilight was still dark. I made my way across the summit, peeking periodically at the volcanic crater to the right. Far off to the left, burning hues from the sunrise flared and danced, a luminescent fire glowing over the eastern world. Several dozen people stood scattered across the summit, a promontory roughly the size of half a football field. Atop the summit, several men posed with a Guatemalan flag. There were muted conversations of Spanish, celebratory embraces. At one point, someone popped a bottle of champagne. I walked to the far, southern face of the summit, in clear view of the volcanic archipelago stretching out to the south. At an even spot just below the summit, I threw down my mattress pad and unrolled my sleeping bag on it, sitting down, slipping my legs inside, and easing my weight back onto outstretched arms. I took a long swig of water from one of the plastic jugs I’d brought with me. Mist from my breath uncoiling into the frigid wind, I watched in hypnosis as the fanning red light bled out over the universe.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to suggest that that sunrise had been the most beautiful I’d seen in my life. It wasn’t just that I’d climbed to a higher altitude. It was that in so doing, the altitude offered a rare glimpse of the overwhelming depth of the world and a clarity with which to see its totality, the sheer enormity of Earth’s space, all at once.
The total range of land area I could see from that peak probably amount to only a limited fraction of the southwestern mountains of Guatemala, plus a small sliver of Mexico—hardly impressive when regarded on a map. But it felt enormous. It looked enormous. It was the most enormous thing I’d seen in my entire life. I had made it on foot to nearly 14,000 feet, the highest mountain in my entire life. Yet it felt that I’d ascended into a higher plane of being and seeing altogether.
Not long after, another hiker and I wandered up to a paint-smeared rock which, we surmised, was the highest point of the summit. It sat exactly on the edge of the crater, a gaping bowl-shaped cavity itself nearly a thousand feet deep. One by one, we wandered out onto a thin precipice of boulders, which offered the widest unobstructed view of the crater below and the sky beyond. One of us would stay back to get a picture of the other as they contemplated the abyss. And an abyss it was: little that would’ve slowed us on our fall had an unexpected gust decided to throw us to our deaths. After his picture, my friend continued egging me out further onto the boulder where the framing of me in the image would be most dramatic. In the photo, you can’t see how, as someone terrified of heights, I’m shaking with fear, each tentative step taking me closer to the edge of the cliff. The image of that photo remains burned in my memory. In it, my arms are outstretched, and I look out to an emptiness of space and sky little different that the vast blue depths of the ocean.
By the time the rest of the group gathered back at the summit to take the last group photos before shouldering our packs and descending to base camp, a consummating morning light had fallen over the world—clean, prismatic, golden light, pouring westwards in hazy horizontal shafts that slipped through the volcanos like water through rapids.
Soon after, we followed the craters serrated ridgeline where it swung down in a spiral to the east and southeast. Again, I had to swallow my fear: the ridgeline, at times, was little more than a narrow spine of loose rock flanked by thousands of feet of open space on either side. But after a few minutes my fear was replaced with a contemplative bliss. While the rest of the group stretched out ahead of us, I stayed behind with one of the two guides, in no rush to leave the landscape I’d spent months dreaming about. We talked, the two of us: about our lives and futures, about the things that brought us to this place. But in the protracted silences when we didn’t talk, in the absurd immensity of stillness that swallowed these mountains—a stillness broken only by the crunch of shale beneath our boots, by the oceanic, wave-crashing purr of distant winds in the trees below—I began to think.
Both during and after climbing Tajumulco, I’d been struggling as a writer to translate some semblance of meaning out of the trip, one whose recounting would transcend the mere story of the trip itself. I knew I would write about it. But I was fearful of regurgitating yet another recyclable travel piece, the formula for which has become so repetitive that hearing it can be painful. They go something like this: an author, generally a wealthy resident from the First World, goes on an adventure to a Third World country, the final lesson being that, because the poor people they discovered aren’t miserable around the clock, wealthy First Worlders like ourselves need to be more grateful for our wealth.
But it can be misleading, if not outright insulting to assume the sole function of people in these places, by mere virtue of their existence, is to teach wealthier people to be more grateful for their privileges. Places like Guatemala are haunted by dark, bloody, tragic histories—histories in which we, as Americans, have inherited the spoils of the antagonists. These people, after all, aren’t poor because of some cosmic coincidence or historic strike of lightning. They’re poor because of what our countries have historically done to them, and the exploitative imperial relationships we continue facilitating with their governments to the present. In a way, travelers like myself come as oppressors, historical beneficiaries of a transnational inequity which permits us the wealth to travel and climb mountains, which forcing most Guatemalans to stay put, drive mules, and carry up our food as we climb.
On the way up the mountain, the guides had pointed out how many stretches of forest are limited to trees of a stunted height, and how many open fields in fact used to be forests. This wasn’t natural, they said. It was because, not long ago, the mountain would be assaulted on a regular basis with napalm.
Guatemala, once, was the site of one of the bloodiest wars in the Americas. Poor campesinos, following massacres by the government, took to the mountains in guerrilla armies to fight for the dream of Revolution. For months, years, decades, guerrilla warfare raged in these mountains. A succession of hard-right military regimes, each one supported by the United States, grew ever more vicious in its response to the peasant movement. At the nadir of the violence, in the early 1980s, the government of evangelical dictator Efraín Ríoss Montt undertook a scorched earth campaign that entailed wiping out 626 villages in massacres of civilians seen to be supportive of the guerrillas. Over a hundred thousand were slaughtered. The campaign—which specifically targeted indigenous non-combatants and entailed torture, mass execution, and destruction of cultural iconography—was deemed a genocide by the United Nations. After that, the hope for a more just society that came with revolutionary change was stamped out. But the subterranean dream kept smoldering nonetheless. The guerrillas, intractable, kept fighting in mountain strongholds like Tajumulco, incapable of overthrowing the government but equally impossible to be gotten rid of.
To a backpacker like myself, the mountain would have an entirely different meaning than it would for the man I met while reporting the story only a few days later.
Alberto “Tino” Recinos, a man too good-natured for me to address him with the formal Usted as opposed to Tú, was the leader of the organization of indigenous radios I’d come to report on after climbing the mountain. The Guatemalan government refers to these stations as “pirate” radios, having repeatedly sought to criminalize and harass them and shut down their operations. In large part, this is because, beyond committing the sin broadcasting in indigenous languages as well as Spanish, they run political programs steeped in a vernacular of radicalism whose roots date back to era of the war. Tino was an amicable man, predisposed to laughter and quick to smile, each time revealing several dull silver crowns which sat over rotting teeth. He was optimistic about Guatemala’s future. Despite everything, still had a glint of youthful idealism in his eyes. But the life which had brought him to this point had been ripe with violence. Once, not long ago, he’d been an anti-government guerrilla.
Over the three days I spent reporting, he told me stories of how he’d spent years in the mountains of southwest Guatemala, much of it on the one I had just climbed. His father, an indigenous peasant organizer, had been tortured and killed by a government death squad in 1981, his body dumped out of a helicopter and later found slumped in a creek. He believed his mother had perished in one of the massacres in the genocide, in a village in Huehuetenango where over three hundred were murdered by the army. He wouldn’t realize she had survived until fifteen years later, after the war, when he found her in a refugee camp across the Mexican border.
His father murdered, his mother presumed gone, he took to the mountains and, for fourteen years, waged war.
The first year, after joining the URNG, he funneled weapons through Mexico from the United States, making the long drive from Tijuana to Guatemalan border with the trunk of their car loaded with assault rifles and rockets. (“I knew, at that moment, that I know longer hated gringos,” he later told me, referring to the American in Tijuana who gave them weapons. “That there were gringos who were on our side.”) He was assigned soon afterwards to be a guerrilla fighter and, after being sent to Cuba to train, returned to the the Sierra Madre de Chiapas, the same range I’d just backpacked, to overthrow the Guatemalan government.
In 1987, on the flanks of Tajumulco, he helped found the radio station La Voz Popular (“The Popular Voice”), where he learned how to work as a radio operator. Giving voice to indigenous peasants, in war as in peacetime, was a dangerous proposition. Because of the radios location, the volcano suffered relentless attack—bombarded with artillery, strafed with napalm, attacked by the army for years on end.
I thought of the place we had camped, surmising that in all likelihood he frequented this area. I thought of how I dozed off in the soft mesh of bronze afternoon shade there, listening to the hush of the wind. I thought of whirring artillery. I thought of the shadows of blood impressed into the pine-needles, in the same place where twenty years later I would be dozing in the sunlight.
Once, in the cracked concrete headquarters of the radio organization on the outskirts of Quetzaltenango, he showed me footage of the guerrillas taken by a Spanish news crew in the mid-1980s. In the scratchy footage of that era, the static whining in the background, the guerrillas—indigenous men and women unaccustomed to being in front of a camera—talked about why they joined the struggle.
“To make a better future.”
“To avenge my fathers.”
“To protect the campesinos.”
“To fight for a just world.”
“A true fighter,” Tino said in excitement when he recognized one of the women who came up on the screen (although, it’s worth noting, he recognized nearly all of them). She was indigenous, thick-lipped and with rich black hair, her facial expression contemplative and indignant. Her eyes were pensive as she spoke into the camera. They exuded a sort of sad beauty. After a moment, he fell silent.
“She was killed,” he said.
The same mountain that to me was merely a sight to see was the anvil upon which people like Tino, mad, hopeless, quixotic, fought and died to mold a better future for their country, a hope which my own country—through its bloody foreign policy—so viciously worked to deny them.
Following over a decade more of fighting, a peace deal was struck in 1996. In exchange for allowing the guerrilla movement to become a political party and the creation of a UN-backed Truth Commission to investigate war crimes, the oligarchy would be allowed to stay in power. The flames of a vision for a better future, it seemed, had been stamped out.
Just as Tino and I were separated by our vastly different experiences of the mountain, Tajumulco held an entirely different meaning for someone on the trip itself.
Jose was a porter who had brought the supply horse along with us—although, looking no older than thirteen or fourteen, he worked like a horse himself. We met him on the chaparral past the road’s end, and he seemed to have come out of nowhere, as if materializing out of the landscape itself. Alongside the horse, he kept silently to himself far behind the group, quiet, stoic, maintaining a cool distance from everyone else. He had accompanied backpackers on this climb dozens of times before. It was his way, he said, of contributing money to his family. He seemed to hardly rest throughout the trip. Neither the altitude, cold, nor rigors of the climb seemed to bother him. “I’ve done it before,” he’d say nonchalantly. Tugging at the horse’s bridle, or swatting its hind legs with a stick twisted from the brush, he’d continue forward on the trail, resigned to his job, a faint trace of dust unraveling out behind them both.
Their experiences of the mountain were different, but they were deeply intertwined—the kind of life ascribed to José’s generation growing out of the crushed dreams of Tino’s.
Following the peace deal, as ex-guerrillas like Tino slipped into alcohol and depression and people like José were just being born, the injustices that provoked the war collided with the nightmares that it had created. Political inequality and the lack of peasant land rights continued haunting the countryside, while displaced peasants inflating the slums of Guatemala City were terrorized by the violent street gangs, such as MS-13, which grew out of the government sanctioned death squads from the war. But much of the energy to fight those injustices had long since been exhausted. Tino’s generation could afford to fight. Jose’s generation was simply consigned to leaving.
Each year, tens of thousands of Guatemalans throw in the towel to make the thirteen-hundred-mile journey to the United States. Thanks to a cynically constructed global border regime, to a lack of financing, or in many cases to the limited time with which they can escape gang violence alive, the majority of those people are forced to go as indocumentados, as illegal immigrants.
The journey can be nightmarish. Before them lies a labyrinth of militarized checkpoints in which US-trained border patrols, acting more like armies than domestic police forces, accost and abuse the migrants with impunity. In southern Mexico, they travel north by clinging to the roofs of a line of freight trains on which people perish with such grotesque frequency—severed beneath the wheels after falling off, kidnapped or killed by gangs—that they’re referred to, almost mythically, as La Bestia: The Beast. In the North, they become commodities for cartels such as Los Zetas, paramilitary organizations who derive income by demanding outrageous taxes to allow for their safe passage and who, to make an example, have massacred hundreds of migrants when they failed to pay up. Once in the United States, the country most historically responsible for creating the preconditions that forced them to flee, they live in an underworld. Fearful of deportation, many immigrants are hesitant to report sexual abuse, workplace violence and criminally low-wages, accepting them as part of the bargain for staying.
But its easier to understand why they still prefer staying in the US when considered in light of the world left behind. Many Guatemalan slums, like El Salvador and Honduras, live under the grip of gangs whose territorial and economic control is so total that they all but function like militias. Threatened with murder, businesses and taxi-drivers have to pay a “war-tax” to stay in existence, young boys are coerced into joining the gangs, and women are forced into prostitution. Violence permeates the poor neighborhoods. Jobs are scarce. When they do do exist, they pay little and are often humiliating—wiping car windows at red lights for a tip of change they may not get, selling gum or cigarettes on cracked, oil-stained street corners. The state, implicated in narco-trafficking since the waning days of the wars, has limited its main role to garrisoning economic inequality, implementing policies of neoliberal austerity and sending the military to the streets to contain the myriad forms of unrest, from anti-government protest to increased gang violence, those policies cause. Driving out from the Guatemala City airport is, after all, a front-row seat to the violence of inequality: at nearly every store or home with wealth is a pair of tense-faced men in Kevlar vests, one with an Uzi, the other with a shotgun, a corkscrew of barbed-wire threading the wall behind them both. To top it all off, the military forces that massacred campesinos on behalf of US-backed regimes, like the Kaibiles, now patrol the streets of the society in whose destabilization they played a key role.
No wonder so many people opt to go north. The nightmarish society inherited by Jose’s generation grew out of the dreams for a better one that were vanquished during Tino’s.
Though it only struck me afterwards, the three of us were intimately connected by our experiences on Tajumulco. Tino fought on it. Because people like him were unable to realize the vision for which they fought, José was consigned to toil on it. And I, American backpacker, unwitting beneficiary of a transnational inequity that allowed me to travel because people like them couldn’t, had climbed to the peak at dawn to see the haunting, tragic beauty of it all.
EARLIER THAT MORNING at the summit, as I sat watching the light rise over the universe, I heard what sounded like a machine-gun popping off faintly in the distance. I gave it little notice then, and the thought soon disappeared from my mind altogether.
Later that afternoon, as we approached the end of the climb, I learned that it was José who had been making the rattling noise earlier.
It was a celebration, the guide said.
We were traipsing through the dusty chaparral that ringed the lower ramparts of the mountain, the sky a misty diffuse of narcotic grey light. Ochre dust, stirring into plumes where our boots scuffed the dirt, rose up in clouds that inflated and drifted along and enveloped us as we walked. I felt at peace. But the seeming desolation of this final stretch, redolent of a desert wasteland, stood as a counterpoint to the haunting grandeur of the mountain we had just climbed.
She continued her story: José’s family had just received word that his brother made it safely to the United States. The mother had asked José, when he got to the cross erected near the summit, to make a celebratory sacrament. The sounds I had been hearing were firecrackers going off. Here, at the summit of a dormant volcano, the highest point in Central America, at the seeming peak of the visible and known universe, José celebrated having climbed his own mountain.
We lost José for a few moments down below. Crossing the road where we began the hike, we threw down our bags in front of the cracked cement buildings and waited for the others in the group to catch up. Above us, a truckload of what looked to be Kaibiles—the special forces whose ranks had killed Tino’s father, and who continued patrolling the violent, post-war Guatemala—came down on a pickup truck on the mountain road from Tajumulco. Several men in red berets sat nursing automatic weapons in the bed, their gazes stony and vacant, bodies swinging in loose tandem as the truck rocked over a succession of potholes. I briefly caught eye contact with them. Swinging around in a cloud of dust, the vehicle careened around the corner and faded down the mist-shrouded road. And then it was gone.