This story took place in the seventies, long before smart phones with cameras or mandatory child seats in cars.
Travelling with a kid had its drawbacks, but it also had a lot of
advantages. The native people loved children; it was their only God given wealth, and they always helped us gladly and reverently stroked Red’s hair in open adulation, which drove him nuts. The country was poor in materials, wealthy in population. Most of the people struggled to get some food into their bellies. The rich landscape contrasted starkly with the naked poverty of the populace. But then the land didn’t belong to the people that worked it with their bare hands and primitive tools.
We drove for most of the day. The air was hot and sticky and the temperature was only bearable because we drove with all the windows down since our 1962 Ford Galaxy didn’t feature any air con. The landscape was a subtropical paradise. Undulating green hills before a backdrop of snow-capped volcanoes below an azure blue sky. Palm trees and immense banana bushes flanked the potholed road. Once in a while, a palm leaf thatched palapa or a lone donkey carrying a mummified rider betrayed the fact that this landscape was inhabited.
When least expected, as in the middle of a blind curve, a bus or a transport truck materialized like a vision from hell, no muffler, no signals nor lights and apparently with no brakes. Only the horn and the gas pedal seemed to work and the drivers delivered their own and their passengers fate into the hands of some patron saint whose icons graced their rearview mirrors and dashboards. The more saints and emblems – the more maniacal the driver.
At nightfall we rolled into a fair sized town where we knew of a trailer park. The sun was setting like a red hot fireball behind the twin volcanoes. Smoke curled lazily over the rooftops and the spicy smell of chilies wafted through evening air.
“It looks like the campground is right on the other side of town, according to this map,” said Carrie. “Well, it never fails,” I sighed, because I loved nothing more than to drive through cobblestoned streets and Latin traffic during rush-hour. Everybody was racing home with their jalopies or motor cycles, dodging pre-war bicycles, donkeys, pedestrians loaded down with burdens, clad in rough sandals or even barefoot and everybody claimed the right of way. I just had to go with the flow and drive like a native – with the horn and the gas pedal. There was no point getting upset. The secret was to become the eye of the storm rather then be caught up in the turbulence. Relax in the midst of utter chaos.
“I’m hungry, Dad!” came the sleepy whine of our five year old from the back of the car, which he had all to himself. We had overlaid the back seat with a fitted piece of plywood and furnished it with Red’s blankets and soft toys. Red, as we fondly called him, because of his fiery hair, a two hundred year throwback to Ireland, we often mused, had been konked out for the better part of the afternoon, which meant that he wouldn’t be going to sleep until ten o’clock or later that night.
“Dad, look! Soldiers!” squealed Red with obvious delight. Red was fascinated with uniforms and guns like any North American five year old. “Bang, bang, pow-pow!” He was leaning out the window excitedly pointing his outstretched arm and finger at the soldiers with a big happy grin on his freckled face.
“Red, get down, don’t do that!” said Carrie exasperated.
The army was everywhere. Soldiers, equipped with semi-automatic guns and dressed to the neck in woolen fatigues. They lounged under makeshift canvas shelters beside major intersection or anywhere along the road and bothered tourists and local traffic alike with searches and an arrogant display of power.
Despite Carrie’s natural annoyance at Red’s obvious pleasure at seeing these kid soldiers, because that’s what they were, teenagers for the most part, she had to admit that Red came in handy at these times..
“Hey muchacho rocho, hey burritto, like gun?” “Si commandante,” yelled Red everytime (I taught him that one) and it never failed. They loved the red head kid and his open admiration. They crowded around the car slapping their thighs and laughing like crazy, poking each other in the sides and in the gut with their riflebutts.
Every time we got stopped by these kids in uniforms, who were mostly checking for dope or weapons, Red grabbed for the rifles, anxious to play GI Joe and the soldiers usually indulged him to our supreme horror. They let him handle the guns, even showed him how to aim with them. The upshot was that we never got searched. Carrie and I sat quietly in our seats grinning and wringing our sweaty hands.
The obvious fact was that the country was ruled by the military, who protected the rights of a few privileged citizens. Certainly more money went into the army than into housing and feeding the populace. It bred resentment, anger and frustration amongst the poor. A deadly brew that could boil over at anytime, the result of which could only be bloodshed, pain and misery with
maybe a glimmer of hope for a better life at the end of it.
“Where the hell are we, Brian?”
“Take it easy, Carrie, we’ll find it eventually.” I retorted tersely. I had little patience left myself.
We were all cranky, hot, bothered, dirty and hungry, most of all myself. It was me that had to drive between the hotheaded native kamikaze drivers, the goats and donkeys and the kids and bundled up old women crossing the streets any time at all.
“Dad, does this campground have a swimming pool?” Red loved swimming pools but then who doesn’t when it’s 40′ C in the shade.
“I don’t know Red, I sure hope so, but it doesn’t say so in the guide.”
“How about a washing machine? That would be a luxury.”
“Luxury is right, Carrie. It would all be great, swimming pool, washing machines, tennis courts and all that but this won’t be the Club Med, just a local trailer park and we’ll be lucky if it has running water, OK.” Why do I always have to be the realist, I thought to myself.
“God I just wish we were home. It’s all so…eh…basic and wild here,” muttered Carrie under her breath.
“Primitive is the word Carrie, right. That’s what you wanted to say. It’s too goddamned primitive here for us spoiled Canadians, right?” I was ignoring the traffic by now, making some real headway, in the right direction I hoped.
“OK Brian, let’s not get into this again. Let’s just find this campamento and get set up for the night. That’s all I really care about right now.”
“Yeah, you’re right Carrie, there is no point arguing the obvious.”
After a few wrong turns we finally found the elusive campground. It was actually quite nice, with grassy spots and shady palm trees, almost like an oasis, and it was empty. We were the only guests which was not surprising because not too may touristos traveled into the heartland like us. We picked a nice spot, right against a wall. ‘Viva la revolucion’ was hastily painted in large white lettering over the red bricks. We settled in, unfolded our tent trailer and set up our outdoor Coleman kitchen, all of which was just routine by now. We made some spaghetti a la chef de camp, Red’s favorite. Contrary to us he hated the local fare because of the hot chilies that were in everything. We washed the dishes by flashlight at the one tap we found. “At least it’s cheap,” I sighed to myself.
After sundown the temperature went down rather rapidly because of the high altitude. Pretty soon we were cozily inside the tent, huddled into
blankets, ready to doze off. All except for Red, who of course had slept most of the day in the back of the car. Carrie humored him with a couple of stories, after which even he called it a day. I passed out almost immediately, after I crawled into the sack.
The morning came quickly. I was woken up by loud reports that sounded suspiciously like gunshots. Of course, it couldn’t be, but I still felt uneasy and couldn’t go back to sleep. The shots or whatever they were continued after a short interval. It sounded like firecrackers going off in sharp succession and all at once.
“What’s that noise, Brian?” asked Carrie, half asleep still.
Rather then wake her up, I assured her that it was nothing.
“I’m going to check it out just to make sure, Carrie. I’ll be back in a minute.”
I looked at my watch. Six o’clock, just daybreak. The sun was just creeping over the horizon and the air was damp and chilly. It sounded like the noise came from behind the eight foot high brick wall against which we were parked. There were a couple of trees growing against the wall, perfect for climbing, plus they also provided some natural cover. I scaled up the one tree and felt a bit ridiculous but just for a moment. I had a quick flashback to my boyhood days, except I wasn’t such an agile climber anymore.
The instant horror, which was before my sleepy eyes, paralyzed me and I almost fell out of the tree. “This must be a nightmare,” was my first reaction. My limbs went stiff and I froze in place. I was confronted with stark reality even if something deep down in me still shouted: “This can’t be true!”
Behind the wall was a large open yard, walled all around. There was no vegetation. Just gravel, sand and dust. Against the far wall were some flat roofed brick buildings and a large iron gate.
Against the left wall were a dozen sturdy eight foot poles about six feet apart. Right at that moment a dozen soldiers were untying a dozen red streaked, limp bodies, which then collapsed onto the dusty ground.
About fifty feet to the right of this surreal scene, almost immediately in front of me, were two dozen soldiers, teens in uniforms, half of them kneeling, the other half standing behind them, all with their rifles at ease, unmoving. To the left and in front of them were two officers, black booted, feet spread apart, hands behind their backs. Dark, mustachioed, unmoving faces, overshadowed by their stiff caps. Against the far wall were about thirty ragged figures, guarded by more heavily armed soldiers. All those dirty, ragged and barefoot figures were gagged and their hands were tied behind their backs. Their feet were linked together by a heavy chain, whose clinking sound at that very moment froze my mind.
Even from a hundred feet away I could see and smell the dull glowing fear of death that emanated from those poor devils.
While the limp cadavers were removed from the posts, another dozen were separated from the chain gang and with the help of rifle butts and
black combat boots were forced against the poles where they were tied. All this happened in relative silence. At that instant the sun just climbed over the far wall and bathed the whole scene with a glowing light the colour of blood.
“What’s happening over there?” came Carrie’s voice from another world. “I’m making some coffee, want some?”
“No thanks, not right now,” I croaked from the tree and hastily climbed down. I was only up there a couple of minutes, a couple of minutes that felt like a million years. They were just getting ready to kill the next dozen and before I hit the ground the quick staccato sliced the silence with the menacing sound of death.
“I gotta go to the bathroom,” I muttered, my face averted. I couldn’t find the bathroom but some shrubbery served the purpose.
I threw up all over, heaving and gagging on nothing. My stomach was empty. I had to get hold of myself. Some cold water and a couple breaths of fresh air helped. I drowned out the next series of shots by closing my ears. We had to get out of here fast.
I gulped down the scalding hot coffee and told Carrie that we had to get going as fast as possible.
“What’s the matter Brian, what was that noise all about?”
Carrie avoided my eyes when she asked this question and I did the same when I answered her.
“They just let off some firecrackers to scare away the birds and gophers. There is this big cornfield over there,” was my limp explanation, but it seemed to suffice since Carrie didn’t press me for further details.
We packed up in silence and only after we were out on the open road again did Carrie break the spell.
“Those were shots we heard weren’t they, Brian? What was happening there?”
“Firing squad,” I answered and I stepped on the gas pedal.
Suddenly, the paradise we were driving through seemed like an antechamber to hell. Red was still peacefully asleep in the back seat.