The men with double-barreled guns forced their way into the van. One climbed into the front seat, held a gun to the driver’s temple and forced him to speed up, make a sharp turn and crash through a barbed wire fence, leading us into a field. The tires ran on crunchy leaves before we came to a sudden stop. The driver floored the gas, but the van wouldn’t budge. We were stuck.
The Guatemalan air, which just a minute before had smelled of the sugarcane that dominates much of the countryside, lost its sweetness.
We were on our way to Lake Atitlan to relax after a hard week of developing the tourism industry of Nueva Alianza, a village in Guatemala. Part of an alternative spring break, we had spent our time carving out biking trails and swimming holes, meeting a mix of warm and friendly people. We were enamored by the lifestyles we saw and were able to become a part of – people working long and hard days for the greater good of the community. It was refreshing to be a part of this over spring break, rather than the typical college spring-break tradition of building up the liquor industry in Palm Beach, Fla., like most of our peers were busy doing.
But after that week of taxing manual labor, we were ready for a reward. Swelling with a sense of accomplishment, 11 of us piled into our van and set out to with our drivers to take some time to lay out in the sun at Lake Atitlan, the deepest lake in Central America.
We never made it.
We passed through slums tucked in lush greenery, roadside stands, and pick-up trucks with pre-teen boys lounging in the bed. The farther along we went there were more rusted buildings and more women walking up to the van attempting to sell a bag of mangoes to make a buck. Despite it being a poor part of Guatemala – in fact, more than 75 percent of the country lives below the poverty line – it held a charming beauty.
But while closing in on our destination, the drivers of the van showed us the ‘paso mysterioso,’ a stretch of downward-sloping highway that our van was attempting to climb. As the van was defying gravity, a truck sped up next to us. Instead of pre-teen boys lounging in the bed, these were armed men, with guns aimed at the driver and at us. They were shouting, “Close your eyes!”
My spine had never been so stiff. While I had known Mexico has been in the news for attacks against both locals and tourists, I had never expected to find it here. I felt the side door open and harsh sunlight hit my face. I had to be completely still while the men – anywhere from four to seven of them – took our belongings. My dad’s Yankees cap was snatched from my head. My MSU bag with my cameras and wallet I’d just replaced two months prior slid from my lap. My iPod was taken right after that too. I didn’t budge a muscle.
After they had everything of value from me, I wished the men would just leave. But then dry hands grabbed my arm and yanked me out of the van. I tried to convince myself that this was not really happening.
I peeked through a downward gaze so I could orient myself the best I could. I saw dry, yellowish-brown leaves. They sat me down. Bugs were biting at my ankles and buzzing in my ears, but I didn’t dare swat them. I wasn’t even supposed to be there.
This was really happening.
One of the men picked me up by the arm and patted me down, though it felt more disgusting than just a general search. He sat me down again. I quickly took another peek so I could size up my surroundings. One of the guys from my trip was laying face-down, his hands behind his back. There were a few quiet sobs. The men sat someone next to me and then behind me. I felt the same dry hands tie a rope around my wrists. Then a cloth covered my head.
A voice repeated he word “agua” over and over again. One of the men was offering water to us. He grabbed my chin and gave me a few big gulps. Convinced the water was drugged, I let as much as I could dribble out the corner of my mouth.
I started to hear sounds that I couldn’t exactly place. Guns loading? The men announced that they would move us along a fence. My mind was racing: Why were they going to put us in a line? They were sick. They were going to pick us off one by one.
But after they moved me, I heard more strange sounds. It sounded like zippers. They were going through our stuff again while we sat along the fence. The robbers then told us that we were not to move for two hours. Afterward, we had to wait almost another two hours for another van to come pick us up. While most of us remained in Guatemala for the rest of the trip, some went home early. I stayed.
Our cell phones, our cameras, our iPods, even some of our hats are probably being sold as I write this. But all of those are just personal items; I was just thankful to get away with my life. After I got back, though, and away from the immediate fear that gripped my body, I was able to reflect more on my experience.
On the flight home, I missed my precious belongings when the flight attendant asked the passengers to turn off cell phones or when other travelers flipped through the pictures on their digital cameras. ‘I would totally use my electronics if I still had them,’ I thought.
Then it hit me. What was wrong with me? Was I not the same girl who was in awe of Guatemalan people’s simple lifestyles just days before – lifestyles that didn’t include electronics? The thought actually crossed my mind, ‘Maybe those men were right to rob me. Maybe I’m acting like a spoiled American with money.’
While I was crossing country borders, I realized I’d crossed cultural ones too. Right now, the American mindset is all about “going green” and getting rid of the extravagance that uses up too much of our natural resources. But oftentimes, we forget about the little luxuries we do have. Many people in Guatemala don’t even have the choice to have cell phones. I had chosen to immerse myself in a culture where digital cameras and iPods weren’t a part of everyday life. Being caught between cultures brought a sense of guilt over me, despite the fact that I was the one who was robbed at gunpoint.
I could make up any reason for why the men robbed us in the first place. They could’ve thought we were rich, spoiled American kids. On the other hand, since the men were so “friendly” to us by giving us water and shade, they were probably so poor that they had to rob us just to get by.
Adjusting to being back home was a lot harder than I would have expected it to be. Not only did I have to cope with bad weather and bland food, I had to explain to my professors and my friends that I was kidnapped. I told my parents while I was still in Guatemala, and of course, they were afraid and felt helpless that they couldn’t do anything about it. When I finally arrived home, they had a day or two to succumb to the fact that I was OK.
I received the most “poor baby” remarks after the news stories ran a few days later in The State News and national media. Suddenly, the words “kidnapping” and “molestation” were starting to define me rather than the good work I’d done. One reporter was so angered that none of us wanted to talk to her that she wrote a story implying that we made the robbery up, calling us “alleged victims” and reduced the work we’d done from making hiking trails to “digging trenches.”
Now with the great advances in online articles, every Joe Schmo can throw in his two cents and say that we were stupid for going to Latin America in the first place or that we got what we deserved for volunteering in another country before our own. Someone even said that Latin America was a “horrible place filled with horrible people.”
But despite all this, the 11 o
f us have really come together and formed a support system for each other. The comfort we tried to instill in each other during the robbery with gentle reassuring nudges and slight grasping of hands is the same comfort we’re still seeking back home in the U.S. We relied on each other’s strength as we tried to move the van which was stuck on a rock. After our return, we’re still checking in with each other just to make sure we’re all holding up after the media frenzy. We are living the slogan of Nueva Alianza: “La union hace la fuerza.” The union makes the force.
What we still worry about, though, is that the story of our trip threatens to mean more than our trip itself. Beneath all the hype about the robbery, the people of Nueva Alianza are forgotten. Our friends, family and reporters back here in the U.S. are closing their own eyes to our work, which will help that community of warm people build up their tourism, economy and their lives. And that is worth a lot more than just a couple of iPods.