A mule to La Estrella

Going forward we will be posting more excerpts of Dalrymple’s books, as well as older essays. In the next few weeks this will take the form of several passages from the 1990 book Sweet Waist of America, recounting the seven months he spent in Central America during Guatemala’s brutal civil war. In this excerpt (pps. 186-188), Dalrymple travels into the Guatemalan countryside via foot and mule.
Mike Shawcross had only two or three days to spare, and so we set out to see something of the nearby villages. We had a guide and two mules and a pony, though it was not clear whether these latter made our journey any the easier. Unused to riding, at the end of several hours in the saddle my thighs ached and my buttocks felt like those of a masochist after a good night out. But it was worth the travail a hundred times over, for the steep and muddy mule tracks over which the beasts fastidiously picked their way, at their own pace and no other, passed through scenes of astonishing loveliness, always to the accompaniment of the sound of running water. The dark green coffee bushes on the more accessible slopes were hung with crimson berries. From the sides of ravines grew huge and noble trees, ceibas with hundred foot trunks that suddenly opened up into broad canopies of foliage. All around were wild dahlias, tall as a man standing on another man’s shoulders, bearing mauve flowers; and white trumpet lilies, perfect in form, that seemed to call for the loving work of a Victorian flower painter to capture them on the page of an exquisite volume. Vistas opened up of green mountains against blue sky. I drew my mule up sharply just so that I could drink with my eyes.
And we continued, too, until we reached a mountain meadow of great size and lushness, where horses and cattle grazed. At the far end of the meadow ran a river, of limpid water crushed into foam by rocks. On the banks of the river hosts of brilliant butterflies played in the sun, as if for joy of living. If ever there were an earthly paradise, I thought, this was it. 
Across the river was slung a suspension bridge of wire and wooden slats. Many of the slats were broken or missing, the wire was worn and looked as though it might snap at any moment. When one stepped on to the bridge, it began to oscillate with considerable violence, like a dog shaking off water. To reach our destination, the village of La Estrella (the Star), we had to cross the river, but the animals clearly could not use the bridge and we sent them across what we mistakenly thought was a ford. But the water was deep and the current strong, and within a couple of minutes the terrified animals were struggling for their lives. One of them would neither go forward nor return, and when at last he tried to go up river, it was into deeper water still. His eyes stared wildly, as in a painting by Gericault, and we thought we had lost him, but, with what seemed his very last strength, he managed to drag himself ashore. I watched the drama from the bridge, to the centre of which I had gone to conquer my fear, and so absorbing was the drama that I did not notice until it was over that the bridge swung with almost every breath I took. 
So we did not reach La Estrella, but it happened that we met a few men from there on their way to La Perla. We sat by the riverside and talked to them. Oh yes, they had known disaster: the army had attacked their village, burned their houses, killed scores of people. 
They had gone to live in the mountains until it was safe to return. They were no longer afraid of the army, but before . . . We heard similar stories in other villages. One of them had once consisted of more than 600 households but now there were only 97. It was true that people were still coming down from the mountains, but it would never return to its former size. 
Whenever I heard these stories, what struck me was the great dignity with which they were told. The people were neither self­-pitying, nor asking for pity. Neither were they thirsting for revenge, at least to all outward appearances. Yet they were not apathetic either: there was something about them more positive than that, as though they were in possession of a philosophy that put them above the world of dreadful appearances. Perhaps it was the old Mayan idea that all that happens goes in cycles. At any rate, something must have given them the strength, the desire, to go on living, the ability still to laugh after having witnessed the scenes that their laconic descriptions of events implied. Still they wanted children. And they even took part in village football matches with enthusiasm. I remembered my rage at life when a telephone number I had rung was busy, and was ashamed.
Copyright 1990 Anthony Daniels. Reprinted with permission.

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