In addition, for several days prior to our arrival and continuing throughout Saturday the 10th and Sunday the 11th, American F15s were buzzing the city. The noise was tremendous! We were told the American fighter jets were “clearing” the airspace over the capital in anticipation of the arrival of Air Force One on Sunday evening, March 11th. Qué increible! Can you imagine the heads of state of France, or India, or Argentina being allowed to send in their military aircraft to “clear” the airspace over Washington D.C. in advance of an official visit?
But that's not all. Whole sectors of Guatemala City were completely shut to traffic on March 11th and March 12th for the duration of the official visit. During that time, many Guatemalans who needed to get from their homes to their offices, from their offices to the store, or from the store back to their homes, could not. The roads were shut. Period. In fact, a significant number of people who live and work in Guatemala City decided to simply stay home from work on Monday, March 12th, rather than fight the traffic and congestion around the city. That was undoubtedly great for the productivity of the country.
By some fateful irony, our hotel happened to be situated one block from the Intercontinental Hotel where the American president and delegation ended up staying. Needless to say, the blocks around us were not only shut down, they were teeming with armed men in uniform arrayed along the sidewalks all day Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. They represented various Guatemalan armed services and a contingent of American military personnel as well. We ourselves were free to come and go, but tip-toeing past hundreds of men with sub-machine guns on the sidewalks was not exactly a tourist's dream come true.
However, our adventure was not complete until Sunday evening. We happened to wander into an Italian restaurant right next door to the Intercontinental Hotel at 7 PM on Sunday evening to have some dinner. As the penthouse suites of the three top hotels in the city had all been rented out for the visit, no one actually knew in advance which hotel the president would occupy. It was not until halfway through our dinner that it became clear that the Intercontinental had indeed won the presidential lottery.
We were enjoying some pasta and wine, when again the F15s split the sky. It sounded like they were zooming past at about 150 feet overhead. All of the restaurant clientele rushed out onto the sidewalk and looked up. And there, quite clearly visible in the gathering dusk, was Air Force One gliding into its final landing pattern towards the airport less than a mile away. We all went back inside to complete our meals for a few minutes, and then saw a sudden intensifying of activity out on the street, a sudden gathering of even more military personnel armed to the teeth.
Again, the restaurant clientele rushed out onto the sidewalk. Somebody asked a large, muscle-bound American in shades standing nearby if the president was, in fact, headed towards the Intercontinental Hotel. The dark-suited man confirmed it, and we all stood waiting for the cavalcade to come by.
But no - that was not to be. Instead a total sweep of the street commenced. Tourists, locals, and waiters alike were all shooed back into the restaurant by men one wouldn't want to argue with. We were told to stay put and the doors were shut fast. And so there we were, locked in the Italian restaurant with nothing but our pasta and our wine to console us in our incarceration.
But Guatemalans (and tourists) are nothing, if not resourceful. Somebody slowly opened the door out onto the street while the army of men were all concentrating on the distant corner. We perched on the doorstep, one by one, leaning as far out as possible without actually stepping onto the sidewalk, preparing to watch the proceedings unfold.
Suddenly a car turned the corner and approached us on our dark and empty street. Then another. Then another. Through the silent, armed street the cavalcade began to appear. Excitement grew among the men on the street. And among the pasta-and-wine crowd. And the show began.
We could see crowds of dark-suited men running in advance of the slow-moving line of limos and dark-windowed SUVs. One particularly ominous SUV pulled out ahead of the line and stopped right in front of us with its engine idling. We could not see inside, but by the looks of the equipment arrayed across the top, they were probably receiving and sending madly.
Slowly the cavalcade came towards us and then turned left right in front of us, heading down into the bowels of the parking structure below the Intercontinental. We all knew that somewhere there, amidst the slowly moving wagon train of power and privilege, was the American president. But no one could tell in which vehicle. A few of us snapped a photo or two, hanging our arms and cameras out the door and pointing in the general directions of the cavalcade. It was a moment of high drama like few I have ever witnessed before.
Clearly, I don't get out enough.
The next day, Monday the 12th, President Bush and his entourage were flown out to the countryside of Guatemala to visit a Mayan ruin not too far from the city. There he was entertained for all of about 20 minutes with some dancing or singing or something.
We had actually driven with some friends the previous day, Sunday, out to those same ruins thinking to spend the afternoon there. To our amazement, the ruins and museum were shut. The American president is coming, we are told, and the place is being scoured to secure the site. Our friend and driver, a charming Guatemalan, attempted to convince the guards at the gate to let us in: “These are American tourists. They should be allowed to come in today, even if their president is coming in tomorrow.”
The guards were very gracious, and very amused. But they were also adamant. We were not coming in. Period. Happily, I was able to see Iximché via the footage on CNN the next day that showed President Bush in shirt sleeves being entertained at the site. I didn't get to see Iximché in person, but he saw it for me.
Meanwhile, as we were driving away from Iximché on Sunday afternoon the day before, we saw a gathering of men dressed in indigenous garb at the side of the road attending to some task there. They were preparing to perform an ancient ritual, we were told - a ceremony of cleansing for excising evil spirits. We were told these Mayan shamans would be cleansing Iximché after the foreign president left the place the next day. The idea felt both amusing and startling at the same time, and we thought maybe somebody in our car was pulling our leg. But apparently, neither our friends nor the shamans were kidding.
Several days later in the Guatemalan newspapers, there was the photo. There was the photo of the shamans cleansing Iximché to rid the place of the spurious spirits they said had visited earlier in the week. It was amazing. And, oddly enough, it made me think of the F15s and DVCon.
I wanted to confront those shamans and ask them, “Why do you hate America? Don't you know we have your best interests at heart? Don't you know that our F15s really needed to cleanse your airspace. But you didn't really need to cleanse our evil spirits!”
I'm not sure the shamans would have understood me. Perhaps I could reach them on their cell phones and we could continue the discussion.
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-- Peggy Aycinena, EDACafe.com Contributing Editor.