was in the Guatemalan highlands, just about 20 years ago to the day. I was stopped at a military roadblock behind a passenger bus way up in the mountains outside Huehuetenango, a thousand feet or so above the cloudline. The sun was low and red, turning the tops of the clouds beneath us a bright, fantastic pink. In the distance all you could see were the tops of two volcanoes, floating like islands in some fiery, impossible sea.
The soldiers had lined the passengers up beside the bus with their hands on their heads, documents clenched in their teeth. There was a problem with one of the passengers, a teenage boy. The soldier frisking him started yelling and then kicked his legs out from under him. The captain came over and picked the kid up by his shirt, shaking him and raising an arm as if to strike. Then, as if satisfied by the way the boy cringed, he pushed him back onto the ground.
I’d been in Guatemala less than a week, but was already well acquainted with the various types of military roadblocks. There was the standard Army, Customs, La Policia Judicial and then there were these guys – La Guardia Hacienda – the worst of the lot. By that time over 100,000 people had been killed in the mountains of Guatemala, and the kid getting roughed up in front of me could’ve just as easily been shot. It happened.
The captain shouted some more and the people began filing back onto the bus, then he and his men turned their attention to me. A couple of the soldiers started going through my van, a 68 VW on its very last legs, while the captain went over my papers. I stood off to the side, watching the clouds below turning more and more fantastic, then quickly fade to grey as the sun went down behind them.
The captain gave me back my papers and told me he and his men needed a ride down the mountain. I told him that was impossible: the brakes in my van were almost totally shot, and with the extra weight it’d be too dangerous. I was trying to be as polite and friendly as possible, but he looked at me as if I’d just insulted his mother: “What do you mean, too dangerous?”
I suddenly realized two things: 1) contradicting him in front of his men had been a grave mistake, and 2) he was very, very drunk.
“Look…” I said, reaching under the front bumper and smearing my hand with brake fluid. I showed him the system I’d jerry-rigged to pour brake fluid into the system while driving: a hose that went from the reservoir to a funnel in the glove compartment. “It’s okay for one person… but not for all of us…”
“There is no emergency brake?”
“No.” I said, “The door is my emergency brake.”
A couple of the soldiers laughed at that and then the captain ordered everybody in. Five soldiers and their guns piled into the back of the van while the captain sat up front with me. I fired up the engine and started heading down the mountain.
As much as I’d like to blame the drunken commandante for everything that happened next, ultimately it was my fault. Everything would’ve probably been alright if I’d just kept it in first gear, but for some reason, whether out of habit, anger, or sheer stupidity, I shifted into second. We were on our way.
As I expected, all the extra weight rendered my once crappy brakes just about useless, and the pedal was on the floor after the first switchback. I started pumping on the brake pedal muttering “Shit!” over and over again, then grabbed the brake fluid, flipped open the glove compartment and started pouring it into the funnel. The road was dropping steadily and soon we were in the clouds, everything turning into white around us. The van was winding out to the top of second gear, thirty miles per hour and gaining, so I yanked out the emergency brake as far as it would go, just to let everyone know how fucked we all were.
We hit the next turn way too fast and the gravity of the situation, literally, became apparent to everyone. I shoved the bottle of brake fluid at the captain, pointed at the funnel and told him to keep pouring. Grabbing on to the gearshift and I kept pumping at the brakes and started assessing everything along the roadside in terms of its stopping power. Depending on what happened in the next minute or so, there were two things we could do: crash into the mountain or go over the side, and if we were going to crash into the mountain we were going to have to do it soon.
Little by little I felt the brakes coming back, but not nearly enough. When the speedometer hit thirty-five I yelled “Hold On!” and slammed it into first. The engine screamed and everyone flew forward, the captain hitting the windshield, hard, with his head. I pulled the wheel to the right and drove us off the road just before the turn, using the bushes and embankment to stop. All things considered, it ended up being a damn fine crash, as good as I could’ve possibly hoped for.
The soldiers scrambled out the back and the captain started yelling at me for trying to kill them. “I told you!” I yelled back, no longer bothering to speak Spanish, “I fucking told you the brakes were no good!” I was yelling louder than I should have, more out of fear than anger, and for the second time in less than a minute I found myself wondering if I was about to die.
My ass got saved by the soldiers, who started saying “Tranquilo… Tranquilo…” over and over again, pulling at the door to let the captain out. They understood the danger we’d been in, and that if I hadn’t crashed going into the curve, we would’ve all flown off the mountain coming out of it. They also understood what I’d meant about using the door handle for an emergency brake and were grateful that I hadn’t.
Two of the soldiers placated the captain while the others pushed the van back onto the road. The right front end was tweaked a bit, with the bumper pushing the wheel well up against the tire. I searched around the mess inside the back for a crowbar. My heart was pumping fiercely and I felt hollow and sick from adrenaline. As I started working on the wheel I heard a truck coming down the mountain. The soldiers flagged him over and they all climbed into the back. One of them asked if I wanted a ride and I said “No: Es Tranquilo…todo es tranquilo. Gracias.”
Listening to the truck disappear down the mountain I started to laugh and cry at the same time. I leaned back against the side of the ditch, staring up at the clouds and blinking in the mist. The crowbar wasn’t working: I’d probably have to take the bumper off entirely and then try again. If that didn’t work, I could try jamming the bumper in there and use it as a crowbar. And if that didn’t work I could try something else.
Suddenly I had all the time in the world.