The Road to Escuintla

From Sweet Waist of America: Journeys Around Guatemala, p. 142:

On the way from Antigua to Escuintla, along an unmade road of surpassing beauty, I gave a lift to a schoolteacher on her way home. For something to say, I mentioned that I had interviewed General Rios Montt.

“A terrible man,” she said shaking her head vehemently.

“Why do you say so?” I asked.

“When he was president,” she said, “he ordered all the teachers in the department of Escuintla to attend a meeting with him in a cinema in the city. There were five hundred of us.” She was almost choking with rage at the recollection of it. “Do you know what he did?”

“No,” I said.

“He told one of the teachers to put out his cigarette.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing.

“Is that any way to speak to professionals?”

“No,” I said, feigning shock.

“Then he said that the teachers were not doing their work properly. He called us lazy. Is that any way to speak to professionals?”

If they are lazy, I thought.

“No,” I said. “It isn’t.”

There was a pause in the conversation as I drove over some ruts in the road. The teacher was still raging at the recollection of the humiliation.

“But some people say,” I resumed, “that when Rios Montt came to power things got much better. They say there was less killing.”

“Oh yes,” she said. “Before Rios Montt we used to see trucks go by with bodies when we stood by the road waiting for a lift. Then, after his coup – no more.”

I looked at her as I drove. It was a dangerous thing to do but I wanted to see whether she was serious. She was, and so I concluded that the episode with the cigarette weighed more with her than the disappearance of trucks laden with bodies. It was a curious scale of values, and one that helps explain the appearance of the trucks in the first place.

16 thoughts on “The Road to Escuintla

  1. Jonathan Levy

    Sometimes I wish Dalrymple had spent some time travelling in the middle east. I wonder what insights of his we’re missing.

  2. Rachel

    Yes, Jonathan, I’ve often thought that too.
    I live in Israel so have an extra interest in this.

    Never knew about this Guatamala book. I wish that they would just republish this and the Further Shores of Marx. I recently ordered the Further Shores of Marx from a 2nd hand bookshop online. Not only was it a bit rare to find but it got lost in the post. 🙁

  3. Jonathan Levy

    Yes Clinton, I’ve read that article – I consider it one of his best, along with “Barbarians at the Gates of Paris”. I had forgotten that he spent some time in Afghanistan. But even so, most of his commentary is either on Islam itself, or on Muslim immigrants in Europe, and most of those people came from Morocco/Algiers or Pakistan/India. This is a bit outside the area I was thinking of. He also discusses the culture they bring with them, but not, for example, the political institutions they left behind.

    I’d like to plonk him down in Tehran with a series of bus tickets bringing him all the way to Cairo, and nothing else except for a few notebooks and pencils. Not sure he’d thank me for the experience, though 🙂

  4. Jonathan Levy

    That happened to me with ‘Sweet Waist of America’. They sent it but it never arrived.
    ‘Further Shores of Marx’ is also published as ‘Utopias Elsewhere’ – have you tried looking for it under that name?

    I live in Jerusalem 🙂 I’ve always thought it would be both fascinating and terrifying to read what he might have to say after a 3-week visit here. For example, what would he think about the stickers of Gilad Shalit which can be seen everywhere?

  5. Rachel Meidan

    I can’t believe you’re in Jerusalem. I thought I was the only one in Israel who regualarly read this blog. I live in Ramat-Gan, near Tel-Aviv and Bene Brak.
    Yes, I ‘ed also like to plonk him Teheran as well and have him do the trip.
    The weird sudden difference between orthodox Bene Brak and the secular neighbourhoods 2 minutes walk away would interest him.
    Also the Gilad Shalit stickers you talk about.
    He likes obscure places doesn’t he – I think getting him to go through a more obscure Arab country like Syria would also be interesting.

  6. Andy JS

    Interesting since I happen to be in the middle of reading this book at the moment.

    Are most people who read this blog from America?

    I’m live near Birmingham in England which is where Anthony Daniels both went to university and pracised medicine for a long time.

  7. Clinton

    Hi, guys. Yes, Jonathan, I see your point. I cannot remember any reference in his writing to a visit to Israel, the Palestinian territories, Syria, Jordan, etc. Steve, can you? Surprising if true that he hasn’t been there, considering the breadth of his travel and the extraordinarily provocative nature of that region. I can assure you that, say, 20 years ago he would have taken you up on that offer, but I doubt he enjoys those arduous journeys anymore.

    Andy, we really don’t know the breakdown of our readership by country, but I certainly wish we did. Steve and I are American (he in New York, I in Dallas) for whatever that’s worth.

  8. Jonathan Levy

    Haha! I thought I was the only one too.

    As long as he walked through brei brak, and didn’t try driving through it by accident on a Saturday, I guess that would be ok 🙂

    Tell me, have you read ‘Coups and Cocaine’? There’s a wonderful dinner scene there (unless I’ve gotten my books mixed up) which ought to leave every Israeli scratching his head in amazement.

  9. Jonathan Levy

    I wonder, do you think he enjoyed his journeys? To me he always seemed to be trying to get away from something. Though I suppose there’s no reason that would prevent him from enjoying them. But in my mind the pleasure of the journey was never his main motive, and even curiosity took second place to something else.

    As for the breakdown of the readership, I imagine you should be able to get decent statistics from the readers’ IP addresses. There are so many blogs nowadays that it might be possible to find such a tool online. Of course, I’ve never done it myself, so I don’t really know if it’s easy or difficult.

  10. Rachel Meidan

    To Jonathan,
    No, I haven’t read “Coups and Cocaine”. I’ll have a look out for that.

    I’ve only bought and read most of his presently published books and when I tried to buy the out of print one “Further Shores of Marx” it got lost in the post.

    It is interesting what you said about him seeming to be trying to get away from something in his journeys. I always had that feeling too… and that’s just from reading only the in print books and travel articles I found thanks to this blog.

    I’m in the middle of his latest one now that I bought online from the UK “The New Vichy Syndrome.” I don’t like it as much as his last ones like “Life At the Bottom” and Second Opinion” b/c he’s started with this new style where he has long footnotes at the bottom of each page and it ruins the flow. He also repeats a lot of things he’s written before. Still, it is good, I don’t regret buying it and maybe it will get better as I go along.

    I wonder – does TD himself ever have a peek at this blog…maybe even just out of curiousity?
    I know this is an independant blog and not endorsed by him or connected to him but I just wonder if he ever had a look.

  11. Laban

    Two of you ordered second hand Dalrymple books and they didn’t arrive. Did you get any compensation or money back ?

    Otherwise I’d think there was possibly some kind of scam. A lot of people like Dalrymple’s stuff and his out of print books must present possibilities.

  12. Flossie

    I’ve ordered 8 or 10 of his books from almost as many booksellers via and never had any go astray. They can be hard to find, however, and some of the older books can be a bit pricey.


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