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American Diplomacy
Foreign Service Life

January 2003

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With a sure hand, the author, a Foreign Service wife for more than two decades, paints a picture of the settling in process of the family of a diplomat—on this occasion, in Guatemala. Then, as unfortunately sometimes happens, tragedy struck the embassy “family.” Helga Ruge covers that aspect of life abroad with equal perceptiveness.—Ed.

Assignment Guatemala, 1968: An Early Encounter with Terrorism

The shocking news of the assassination of two United States military attaches in Guatemala City reached us—my husband, Foreign Service officer Neil Ruge and myself—just before we took off for our new assignment there. It did not bode well for a normal life in that strife-torn country. Who would be the next target? we wondered, as did everyone else at the embassy. According to information we gained later on, communist guerrillas there had targeted the Americans because our military advisors had been successful in teaching the Guatemalan forces how to contain the guerrillas and render them ineffective. That had apparently caused a backlash against these Americans.

We had come from Munich, Germany, where Neil was the deputy principal officer, via the Foreign Service Institute to study Spanish, and home leave in Los Altos, California. We have never been to that part of the world. It was quite a switch from cool, relatively peaceful Bavaria to a country in the tropics, racked by civil war. Not only did we experience a considerable climate change, but a cultural and political one as well—and a language challenge to boot. We were excited about the challenges ahead nevertheless.

Our basic Spanish came in handy right away after arrival with the hotel personnel, shopping at the local market, and house hunting. The latter proved to be so frustrating that we ended up staying at the hotel apartment for two months. When we were about to close the deal with the first landlady who had promised to add a water tank to the house, water being in short supply during the dry months, she suddenly increased the rent without having made the improvement and, besides, another party had offered her more. There went house number 1. With house number 2 we didn’t fare much better. When the landlord thought he had us hooked, he jacked up the price. Neil decided against it on principle. What a way to do business! I had stopped looking and felt like a fool. I had to start all over again.

The third house, beautifully situated on a hill in a newer suburb, would have been ideal except for one factor which turned me off: it was furnished with hideous cast-off furniture we did not need, and the pila (inner court yard) was crawling with cockroaches, and it cost too much. When I mentioned it to Neil, he wanted to have a look at it anyway. To make a long story short—with the help of a real estate agent who negotiated an acceptable price, the removal of the ugly furniture, and a good fumigation of the pila, we came to terms at last and moved in. We hired a competent maid; the children walked to the school bus stop and our car finally arrived. We became acquainted with Neil’s colleagues at the embassy and the consulate. The children liked their new school, the Collegio Americano, a bilingual private school, and made new friends quickly.

Neil was in charge of the American consulate, which took up a whole city block in a predominantly residential neighborhood alongside a broad boulevard, La Reforma, with a wide grassy median strip. The embassy was located in a separate building in the center of town. It was functional but architecturally undistinguished. Ambassador John Gordon Mein’s residence was a beautiful large villa surrounded by a lush garden in the outskirts of the city. He lived there with his wife and youngest son.

The ambassador was a distinguished looking , white-haired gentleman, fluent in Spanish, and well liked and respected by his staff, as well as the Guatemalan officials. He not only cultivated the high and mighty, but actively sought out mid-level government officials, and the business community. Mrs. Mein had established good relations with charitable organizations. She encouraged embassy wives to participate in clothing drives for the indigens and invited speakers from such organizations to talk to the wives about their needs. I was quite impressed by the work they were doing.

The embassy encompassed a variety of government agencies such as AID and the Peace Corps which worked with and assisted the local population, farmers, and businesses. The Peace Corps director told us about an unusual project that proved very successful. The volunteers taught small farmers how to build a rabbit farm, care for the animals, and turn their meat and fur into marketable commodities. For the volunteers’ effort, bombs were planted in front of the Peace Corps headquarters, not by those they helped, but by the guerrillas, who didn’t like their interference in making people economically and financially independent.

We employed an Indian gardener who worked hard all day for twenty-five cents an hour and had an hour’s commute on the bus to and from his village where he lived with his wife and five children. We gave him breakfast and lunch and increased his wage to thirty-five cents, much to the annoyance of our landlady next door, for whom he worked on alternate days. She accused us of spoiling the labor market. Frequently Lalo would ask me for an advance because the landlady didn’t pay him, claiming she had no change. I always granted his request knowing full well that he lived from hand to mouth. In gratitude he would bring us juicy ears of corn from his small patch of land, but refused any payment; he had his pride.

About a month after our arrival Neil suffered a bad nose bleed for which he had to be hospitalized for a week. It was serious, but fortunately for him, the specialist who treated him was able to stop it.

Neil was a little shaky from this ordeal but just a few days later he received an SOS call from the embassy to rescue an American embassy staff member who had been arrested while helping the victim of a bomb blast downtown. Consuls, of course, are supposed to assist American citizens in trouble abroad, so Neil felt it his duty to clear up an obvious misunderstanding. The embassy equipped him with a two-way radio and Neil had an official car at his disposal. I volunteered to go along because I was concerned about his health. We pulled up at the fortress-like prison on the outskirts of the city just as the sun was disappearing behind the mountains. Five or six armed guards approached us and asked us why we were there. Neil explained the reason and one of them escorted him to the entrance.

I quickly covered up the black box containing the radio with Neil’s dark jacket and locked the door trying to look nonchalant. The remaining guards proceeded to hop onto the hood and trunk of the car, leaning their guns against its sides. They lit cigarettes and talked but left me alone. However, they caused the car to sway or bounce every time they moved, which I found a bit intimidating. My greatest concern was the black box. What if it started to make noises? What would I do?

Fortunately for me it stayed silent the whole time. Since I did not want to turn the light on to look at my watch I could only guess how long Neil was gone. It seemed like an eternity. I was beginning to get really worried about his safety, but just then flood lights brightened the desolate square in front of the prison and first one white shirt, then another appeared at the entrance. Two men walked toward the car, escorted by a guard. It was Neil and his rescued embassy staff person. The guards hopped off the car, grabbed their guns and only then did I dare unlock the car door. The two men got in. Neil did not waste any time turning the lights and the motor on and backing away.

We didn’t get very far before encountering a road block where guards demanded to see our passports. This time, thanks to Neil, the staff member was able to produce his and we were allowed to pass. Once safely home, I began to relax and send a thanksgiving prayer heavenward for a mission successfully executed, even if it cost us great nervous strain.

Soon after we had settled into our new house we received a visit from the local vigilante boss offering us protection. It would cost only $5.00 a month. We had heard that it was the thing to do—so we agreed to the deal, and from that day on we were protected by men we never saw, who rode their bicycles at night whistling to each other. We were wondering why they did that. Was it a warning to potential burglars not to ply their trade on their turf or was it their way of communicating with each other? Perhaps they had a secret code. We got used to the whistling.

What we did not appreciate were noisy fire crackers going off in the wee hours of many a morning, accompanied by loud Mariachi music, the Guatemalan way of celebrating cumpleanos under the window of the birthday person. We chalked it up to “different countries—different customs” and toward the end of our stay almost enjoyed it.

Guatemala City is a conglomerate of modern and Spanish-style buildings. Villas were surrounded by high walls, secured by heavy iron gates. Bright red, pink or purple bougainvillea hedges abounded. Jacaranda trees, other flowering trees I cannot name, dainty orchids, and rubber trees flourished in this climate in the “city of eternal Spring”, as it was called. Although situated in the tropics, the temperature was pleasant due to its 5,000 feet elevation. The downtown was an assortment of nondescript crowded buildings full of stores crammed with goods. The only redeeming feature was the presidential palace, an inspiring Spanish-style edifice surrounded by a formal square. Looking beyond the city, which was strung out on a narrow plateau, were spectacular mountains, dotted by a number of volcanoes, mostly extinct, with one exception: Pacaya, clearly visible from our house, puffed clouds of white smoke at regular intervals, sometimes sending brightly glowing ashes into the night sky. It was a show of nature much more powerful and resplendent than the man-made kind. Our children joined a group of young hikers and climbed Mt. Pacaya close to the crater. It was an experience they will never forget.

The local produce market had a special attraction for me. Here I shopped for the freshest fruit and vegetables grown by the Indian population and bargained for the best prices. I never left without buying a bouquet of roses for fifty cents a dozen. The women looked so colorful in their indigenous, hand-woven costumes. One section with the ceramic pottery had its peculiar charm. A large peace angel bought there still adorns my entrance hall greeting everyone who walks through the door.

Many a weekend, Neil, the inveterate sightseer, drove our family to nearby lakes and Indian villages. We never saw the ruins of Tikal in the Peten. We did not trust the rickety little airplane, the only connection to this archeological site, to get us there and back safely. Now, I believe, there is an overland road leading to the site.

One weekend we ventured into the lowlands with the Pacific beaches as our ultimate destination. The temperature soon changed to truly tropical, humid dimensions. We found a lovely beach with clean black sand and little cabanas that offered shade. The undertow was dangerous; we were warned not to swim. This was disappointing, but we took a short stroll along the edge of the water; this we regretted later because despite the rather brief exposure to the tropical sun, we were badly burned.

As we looked around while driving back we noticed a remarkable difference between the lowland and the mountain population. The former were ladinos, dressed in faded western clothes. They appeared to be poor, living in run-down houses or shacks and working in coffee plantations. The Mayan Indians were mountain people of different tribes, each defined by their individual native dress, some more colorful in pattern and design, most of them simple, comfortable and functional. I could not resist acquiring a few pieces when we were at Lake Atitlan and Chichicastenango . They were made for eternity, a testament to the spinners’ and weavers’ skills.


Helga Ruge was born in Germany where she attended the universities of Berlin and Marburg. She met her future husband, Army Captain Neil Ruge, in 1945; in 1949 they were married at his first Foreign Service post, Palermo, Sicily. Helga became a U. S. citizen in 1950 and accompanied Neil on his diplomatic assignments in northern Africa, Europe, and Central America, as well as in Washington,D.C.

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