“Señores y señoras, AeroMéxico Flight 621 is now beginning its final descent into Aeropuerto Aurora, international airport of Guatemala City.” The intercom announcement coincided with a flashing sign overhead: Abroche Cinturón.
Halfway down the crowded cabin of the 727, Vicki Andrews obediently fastened her seat belt, raised the shade of her window seat, and peered down. The landscape varied little from any one of a dozen developing nations into which she’d flown over the last few years. Admittedly spectacular scenery, followed inevitably by humanity’s impact on that splendor. In this case Vicki couldn’t tell if the white peaks of the hills and volcanic cones that ringed the highland basin in which Guatemala City squatted were snow or fog.
The plane banked to line up for approach to the airport. Beyond its control tower and terminals, Vicki could see the celebrated Zone 10 of Guatemala City. Sparkling glass towers that were luxury hotels and banks. The gracious, tree-lined Avenida de la Reforma with its nightclubs, American chain restaurants, high-priced boutiques, and foreign embassies. And terraced up hillsides, the mansions, bristling with security, where Guatemala’s wealthy elite escaped the third world. An attractive scene and all that many international arrivals would ever see of the capital. Vicki was not one of them.
The plane tilted its wings as it dropped farther, offering beyond the glittering Zone 10 an excellent panorama of the other Guatemala City, where the overwhelming majority of its inhabitants lived and toiled. A warren of narrow streets. Crumbling adobe facades defaced by political graffiti. A sea of red tiles pockmarked with tin and Duralite roofing. Squeezed into every available opening and crawling up the steep sides of the mountain basin were the shanties of the poor, cobbled together from scrap lumber, tin, and even cardboard.
Far off to Vicki’s right, one of Guatemala’s less-advertised landmarks slashed through the shantytowns --- a deep and wide ravine, originally a conduit for a major river tributary. Now a receptacle of a very different sort, its uneven and discolored surface reached within meters of the rim with what she knew to be thousands of tons of waste. Guatemala City’s municipal dump. Vicki’s destination.
If it was all depressingly familiar, it evoked no memories. So why had she been so reluctant to come here?
Giving up on the scenery, Vicki flipped back to the country info she’d printed off, picking up where she’d left off.
The heart of the Mayan empire, Guatemala fell to Spanish conquest in the 1500s. Centuries of colonial rule led to a highly stratified society with the indigenous Mayan majority relegated to a feudal-style peonage; a rising urban Ladino, or Spanish/Mayan, class; and a largely European ruling elite. . . . By the 1950s, US-owned United Fruit Company was Guatemala’s largest landowner, giving rise to the term banana republic. With coffee and banana plantations dependent on Mayan forced labor, the election of reform candidate Colonel Jacobo Arbenz was greeted with dismay by both the local aristocracy and international business interests. A CIA-sponsored coup ushered in a half century of military regimes, punctuated by populist uprisings and army reprisals. . . .
By the time the 1996 Peace Accords marked a cease-fire of the civil war, more than two hundred thousand civilians had disappeared or been massacred. Though a UN Truth Commission found the Guatemalan army responsible for more than 90 percent of atrocities, the United States has maintained strong business and political ties, lauding Guatemala as one of their strongest allies in the war on socialism. . . .
Lush rain forests, sandy beaches, and a colorful blend of Mayan and Spanish cultures make Guatemala a tropical paradise. However, with social inequities remaining unaddressed and a spiraling crime rate, the US Embassy Watch advises caution for any of its citizens. . . .
Tropical paradise! Vicki began packing up her belongings as the plane landed and taxied to the terminal.
Vicki waited until the aisle was clear before sliding out of her seat and grabbing her purse and duffel bag --- her only luggage. Experience had taught her the value of being able to sling all her belongings over her shoulder and walk away from a plane, a bus, a riot.
The immigration lines were still long by the time Vicki found the one marked Extranjero, “foreigner.” A stamp in her passport, and she moved on to customs, a row of wooden tables set up beyond the baggage claim. Unsmiling guards with automatic rifles hovered near as Vicki’s duffel bag was emptied out, the seams probed with the tip of a penknife. The same penknife dug into her deodorant, leaving chunks of white like dandruff on her clothing.
Again, depressingly familiar.
It was also a routine part of her job, Vicki reminded herself sternly as she stuffed and zipped the duffel bag. So why was she being so sour?
I’m just tired. This last assignment had overrun her calculations by more than two weeks, and she’d barely had time to write up and fax the final report before boarding her plane for Guatemala City.
Shouldering her maltreated belongings, Vicki headed for the Plexiglas wall that separated the baggage claim and customs from a milling crowd waiting for arrivals outside.
A trick of lighting displayed her reflection, and Vicki took in the image she was about to accord her reception party. Rumpled jeans and a T-shirt. Shoulder-length dark brown hair pulled into a tight ponytail. The fine coating of perspiration and dust that was her only makeup. An amber glare blazing behind her lashes. No jewelry of any sort. Where Vicki spent her days, that was a red flag for a mugging.
Not a prepossessing first impression.
The image dissolved, and Vicki dismissed it with a shrug. Travel from one municipal dump to another hardly called for haute couture.
Vicki showed her passport along with her hard-earned customs clearance to a final armed guard and was out the door.
Outside, a metal railing held the crowd back from the Plexiglas, but with every emerging passenger, bodies surged against the barrier, calling out names, many holding up placards.
Vicki found herself instinctively searching the crowd for a familiar face before reeling herself in to read the placards. There would be no one she knew waiting in that welcoming throng.
She had traversed almost the entire gauntlet of reaching hands and pressing bodies when she spotted the one she wanted. A hand-lettered square of cardboard read Casa de Esperanza, “House of Hope.”
Its bearer was as visibly expatriate as Vicki herself, an elderly woman not much shorter than Vicki but stooped and thinned with age to little more than a child’s size. She looked so familiar that Vicki found herself stopping midstep until she realized the woman was a living embodiment of any number of black-and-white historical photos of American missionaries abroad that Vicki had come across in her research. The bun still showing a few threads of its original auburn in the white. The shapeless cotton smock reaching modestly to the tops of dark knee socks. Sturdy walking shoes.
Vicki swallowed a laugh. Was this already a total waste of her time?
Then she caught a shrewd, bright gaze, a smile that held so much understanding, warmth, and youth that Vicki decided to reserve her judgment. Walking forward, she set down her duffel bag, then held out her hand. “Hello, you must be Evelyn McKie, who founded Casa de Esperanza. I’m --- ”
But now it was the missionary whose aged features held startled recognition. “Victoria?”