In this excerpt from Sweet Waist of America (pps. 181-184), Dalrymple takes a rickety aircraft to Finca La Perla, a remote Guatemalan coffee plantation reachable only by air. (Here is an excellent You Tube video of a landing at the airstrip.) Marxist guerillas had singled out the finca for attack, wishing to make it a symbol of oppression, and had shot its owner Don Luis Arenas in front of his workers.
I wanted to go to La Perla to verify or refute those parts of Days of the Jungle that referred to it. If anything would provide me with the golden key to Guatemala, I thought, this investigation would. The light aircraft was waiting at the airport: the other passengers were Mike Shawcross and Don Enrique, the present owner. The pilot was a young man who did not tell me until much later that he crashed the first time he landed at La Perla, broke both his legs and spent several months in hospital. A short time after I departed from the finca, he crashed again, or at least came to the end of the landing strip there without taking off. I remember feeling relief at his air of quiet confidence and technical competence. Another thing he did not tell me until much later was that he had once landed at La Perla to find the guerrillas waiting for him. They burned the aircraft and made off with the workers’ wages he had brought from Guatemala City. For neither of these actions did they earn the gratitude of the people of La Perla, whose wages were already low enough without being made non-existent, and for whom the aircraft was literally a lifeline. This happened in the early eighties.Our first attempt to reach the finca was abortive. Although a radio link to La Perla had told us the weather was fine when we started out, by the time we reached the highlands there was complete cloud cover, and our little craft could fly only very slightly higher than the mountains themselves. Without navigational aids, we had little alternative but to return to the city.The next day we tried again, without Don Enrique, in another small aircraft. I had thought the first one rickety enough, but the second was absurdly decrepit, a thing of rags and patches. There were no seats inside, except the pilot’s. We sat on plastic tanks of aviation fuel: it was like flying in a Molotov cocktail. So overladen with cargo was it (no one bothered about weight) that I sat with my face against the cockpit window, my neck craning horribly. The automatic starter did not work, and the pilot, a different one who struck us as somewhat insouciant about life and death, got out to crank the propeller by hand. We took off and wobbled in the crosswind. ‘Oh Lord,’ I prayed, ‘I didn’t mean it when I said You didn’t exist.’ There’s nothing like flying on a gas tank for taking Pascal’s bet.We climbed slowly. I remembered all those news bulletins about aircraft that crashed five minutes after take-off. Unnoticed by the pilot (the only one of us, of course, with a seat belt) his door opened somewhere over Guatemala City. Mike leaned forward to close it, but the mechanism was faulty, so he held it shut for the rest of the journey.Again we did not reach our destination. We saw the clouds rolling down the mountainsides like theatrical smoke and returned once more, though not until the pilot had made a couple of kamikaze dives through supposed gaps in the cloud.The third day we didn’t even set out, but sat at the airport’s aero club awaiting a radio message from La Perla about fine weather. It never came, but it was interesting enough watching the dark windowed station wagons come and go, delivering and collecting finca owners on their way to and from their fincas. Pilots sat in the clubhouse swapping tall stories. It was here that I heard that Don Enrique owned his own aircraft which he used to fly to his finca in the south, where there was no danger of its destruction by guerrillas; he hired aircraft to go to La Perla.On the fourth day the sky was brilliantly clear and once more we climbed aboard our single-seater Molotov cocktail. Soon we were flying over (or rather through) a magnificent landscape of forested mountains, deep ravines and white water. The mountain peaks were high above us; it was exhilarating to fly in the valleys. How tiny was our aircraft, how small our lives! I thought of the brief but beautiful ball of orange flame we should make against the mountain if the pilot made an error. Would anyone see it? I was surprised that even in the most inaccessible valleys, where there was not so much as a truck, rectangles of forest had been cut down. Was this for the timber (but how could it be transported from so inaccessible a place?), or was it to clear the land for a milpa, a corn field?If the latter, for whom was the corn destined? Guerillas? Refugees from the war? I could not tell.We swung left into another valley and ahead of us was La Perla, the Pearl. It was indeed beautiful. The village clung to the dark green hillsides, a small white church dazzling by contrast. The landing strip ran up a small hill and between flights served as a playground for the children of the finca. On our left as we landed was the coffee processing plant of whitewashed wood, built on pillars of cement. In front of it was a large and perfectly flat concrete yard where the coffee beans, having been separated from the red husk of the berry and soaked in tanks beneath the plant, were laid out to dry, raked by workers into patterns resembling those of the pebble gardens of Kyoto. Above the processing plant was the house in which Don Luis used to live, but now it was the headquarters of La Perla’s garrison of 160 men, with a flagpole flying the sky-blue, white and sky-blue flag of Guatemala, and, a little way beyond, a helicopter landing pad on the top of a hillock. On the other side of the valley, atop another hill, was a small graveyard, and it was here that Luis Arenas was buried in a simple tomb among those of his workers, the inscription giving only his name and dates of existence.Waiting for us at the landing strip was La Perla’s only vehicle, an open and battered jeep that looked and sounded as though it might at any moment disintegrate into a heap of parts. How had it reached La Perla? There were only mule tracks there. The only road went to a distant part of the finca called Santa Delfina, a road which the workers had built by hand in defiance of threats by the guerrillas. The jeep had been flown to La Perla by helicopter, and was therefore a precious vehicle. It drove us the few hundred yards down the muddy track to the processing plant, in the quarters of which we were to live.The rooms were large and airy and wooden shutters opened on to a view of green hills. Below us we could hear the grinding and slurping of coffee bean extraction. We were served lunch by a motherly servant of the family, Dona Caterina: soup, meat and tortillas, accompanied by a pickle of burnt-tasting chillies, to which I soon grew addicted. While talking to Dona Caterina, she let slip that her husband had been murdered by the guerrillas, for reasons that she did not understand. Not long after we arrived she was called to Guatemala City, where Don Enrique’s mother was ill and needed Dona Caterina as a nurse. The woman who replaced her was short, a ladina who spoke no Indian language yet dressed half in the Indian way. She told me that her husband also had been killed by the guerrillas, and her son. The guerrillas burst into their hut one night and shot them. She had no idea why; we were poor people,
she said.Were they military commissioners, I asked? No, she replied. After the killings, she had fled to Nebaj, a day or two through the mountains, and there, gracias a Dios, she had heard an evangelist preach and she had ‘accepted Christ’, as she put it.But why, I asked, had she changed from her ancestral Catholicism?‘Por mucha tristeza,’ she replied. Because of much sadness.When later I recounted this to assorted journalists and solidarity workers, they said it was impossible; the women had mistaken the soldiers for guerrillas, or they were afraid to say it was the army. But when I told them the women were well able to distinguish, and were moreover unafraid to acknowledge the army’s killings in the area, in the course of which whole villages had been destroyed and scores of people murdered, they remained incredulous. No, they insisted, the women were afraid to speak . . .Later, the pilot told me the guerrillas would have known of my presence in La Perla. How he knew, I did not inquire; presumably there were guerrilla orejas (ears) in the village.
Copyright 1990 Anthony Daniels. Reprinted with permission.