Toast to the Lamb

Guatamala highlands

I had three days to reach Todos Santos in time for the Day of the Dead festivities. I was deep in the Cuchamatan mountains, one of the most isolated and impoverished regions of Guatemala, with a fifteen year-old guide called Juan, a large black dog called Rampo and a baggage-horse called Chapolin, or 'Grasshopper.' This was the end of our third day of walking, and the sun was just starting to sink into the soft green landscape ahead of us in the west. We were approaching a small Mam village, not much more than a clutter of wooden and tin buildings gathered along the side of the road, when we realised that Rampo was no longer with us. Just then we heard a woman screaming furiously. We looked around to see the dog trotting happily down the road with a bloodied lamb dangling from his jaws, and the villagers advancing in a large, excited group towards us.

I had met Juan in the Ixil village of Nebaj. At first he seemed shy, but I'm sure that was just an initial unfamiliarity with talking to strangers, and once that wore off he impressed me enormously with his intelligence and enthusiasm. I told him I wanted to get to Todos Santos and he offered to take me. That was how our little expedition started. He led me from his home village deep into the Cuchamatans, over densely forested hills and up winding mountain tracks, across bleak rock plateaus and down through bright valleys of flowers. He was incredibly knowledgeable about the area, and knew of little outside it. From Juan I learnt the names and properties of dozens of plants and flowers on our path; he taught me which could be used for food, which for medicines and which for poisons. He took me to a Mayan shrine high in the hills, evidently still in use from the offerings of candles and liquor we found; he showed me the places where the guerillas had hidden in the Civil War, and the small bitter leaves they were forced to eat when the army destroyed the crops in their villages below; he explained to me the local legends and folk-lore, such as how the snakes came out at night to make poisonous mushrooms.

The night before, we had eaten in a dark, fog-shrouded village on the very top of the mountain, in a crowded shack with people so poor they didn't even have candles, let alone electric light − for illumination they burnt sticks of resinous ocote wood − yet were generous enough to feed us and allow us a space to sleep. Cooking was done on a smoky wood fire in the middle of the hard dirt floor, around which the entire family sat huddled, the children staring at me as I ate with wide, fire-lit eyes. The highlands of Guatemala are so remote that every half-day's walk brought us not only to a different tribal area but into another language area, and once we were out of Ixil territory (marked by an ancient cactus we passed, deep in the forest), Juan was able to communicate less and less with the people we met, for even Spanish was often unknown to the people in these high mountain areas. Yet he had always managed to cope with each situation we had found ourselves in, and never shown anything but good humour and confidence.

This is why I started worrying, as the occupants of this Mam-speaking village began to gather around our dog and the dead lamb in his teeth, at Juan's sudden loss for words. For the first time he seemed scared, as if this situation might be beyond his control. The fact that Rampo wasn't even his dog − he had appeared from nowhere and followed us from the first day of walking, as Juan fed him the occasional tortilla or piece of cheese − didn't matter. The dog was clearly with us, and we clearly bore responsibility for the lamb it had killed. And Juan seemed suddenly nervous of these people, as if he didn't know them or what they would do. Certain parts of Guatemala have, until recently, been considered highly dangerous; the country is still suffering from the effects of a particularly brutal thirty-year civil war which only finished in 1996, and this, coupled with five hundred additional years of colonial oppression and exploitation, gives many of the indigenous people a good reason to resent outsiders. In fact the village of my destination, Todos Santos, had been the scene of a tourist lynching only a few years before, when a Japanese tour group started taking photographs of local children. I realised suddenly how foreign I was in this place; and, as one Mam woman took the bloody lamb in her arms and began shaking it at me angrily, how incompetent.

Luckily, the situation resolved itself quickly. A Spanish-speaking man pushed to the front of the crowd and addressed me. He seemed more bemused at my presence here than angry, and asked only that I buy the dead lamb from the family who owned it, which I was only too happy to do. I was then faced with the interesting dilemma of what to do with it. Juan swiftly solved this by throwing the body down in front of Rampo, who was clearly ravenous after three days of dry tortillas and ate the entire lamb − starting at the head and not pausing for a break until he had got down to the back legs − in under fifteen minutes, leaving only the wool and the two back hooves, while the assembled village gaped at the sight. And then we walked on down the mountain, Rampo now covered in blood from his muzzle to his ears, anxious to reach Todos Santos before dark.

I got to the town in good time, though I had to leave Juan at the main road and hitch a lift in the back of a pick-up truck; one of the best and most comfortable ways to travel in rural Guatemala. The last I saw of Juan was a small figure waving at the end of the road, night falling in the mountains behind him. He was one of the most remarkable people I had met on my journey through that country, someone who had showed me a side of Guatemalan life that many travellers do not get close to. I knew that he now had another three-day walk ahead of him, alone this time, to get back to Nebaj and his family. Myself, I just had a couple of hours to go until my destination and the fiesta for Day of the Dead, when the lives of the deceased are honoured and celebrated. Later that night I drank my toast to the lamb.