Transported In Guatemala
One of the ways to see a new country is by bus. It is not always simple, but it gives you plenty of tales to tell. The local bus is sometimes called a "chicken bus", sometimes because chickens are found sharing your trip. I have shared space with bales of copra giving off a rancid smell, but never a pig. The bus has no such problem as "too full". The passage from the door to the front on one such bus was full of boxes, cartons, bags, and vegetables. The driver, unperturbed, climbed up round and over to get in. Ladies heavily pregnant or carrying toddlers and babes squeeze in with everyone else. I did quite a few miles with a young mother who had a large child strapped to her back. Her technique was to lean with the babe almost in my lap, legs dangling over my knees. As the bus slewed around corners the poor child was crushed between the two of us. Slept through the lot, though.
Music is also mandatory -- good and loud music, but tuneful is not necessary. One song had the word "gringo" as part of its lyrics. As the crooner sang this magic word, the whole bus turned and looked at us. One old lady convulsed with laughter. I laughed back. Well, I might as well guess funny as offensive.
The rule of the road is "who dares wins". One fellow traveller, Arlene (of the boat "Moca") told me of a driver playing chicken with a bus. Racing side by side they ignored the truck coming the opposite way. She said, "When the locals dived under the seats and started praying I thought we were in trouble. I just stared wide eyed, as the other bus gave way and we won. Gulp. Since then I avoid buses where they have plaques proclaiming "Jesus drives this bus". Less blind faith and more reliance on driving skills is fine by me."
Many of the buses are gaudily and extensively decorated. Sometimes there are so many plaques and swinging good luck charms that it is hard to see through the windscreen; very distracting. Not as bad though as one trip from Luxor to Port Suez. The driver had a video mounted up above his eyes. It featured a very nubile star. His eyes kept straying to the screen while she pouted and strutted her stuff -- until it took all his attention. The bus, under little guidance, rumbled as it slipped off the road. The driver, awakening to the fact, pulled the wheel hard over and we were back in business again. Until the next steaming scene that is...
But it is not only the bus trips that are fraught. Arlene and I bused into Morales, a forty minute trip each way, and the only way to get money by Visa. We met a guy in the bank, but banks are another story. So when our new friend offered us, along with Dawn (from the boat "Amadon Light"), a lift back in an air-conditioned car, we jumped at it. It was eleven a.m. "I should be a bit longer. But I am going to the commissary so I will see you then". Fine by us. We sauntered through town and I bought some beef steak and ham. Our friend caught up with us and had another errand so he started the car to get the air-conditioning going. So the other two ladies and I sat in and chattered and waited. He came flying up and yelled "Turn the engine off. Can't you hear it squealing?" Well, no, we didn't, and if we did...well it was not unusual for the cars we owned to make odd noises. Our friend was getting very aerated. He was very delayed and it took him a long time to get his money. His passport was out of date. Eventually he collected us and his other two liftees and the five of us set off. It was now one P.M. Two minutes out and bang!: the alternator fell off. That was what was making the noise when we were in the car waiting. The guys were congratulating our driver. "What luck! -- with the alternator falling off right beside a garage" It was fairly soon fixed, and we set off again. Whoomp! The tire went good and flat. "How lucky", cried the guys, "we are right beside a tire shop". The driver's long face was working desperately as he was hanging onto his humour. He did not look lucky. But it was fortunate because he had no tools and the spare was flat. The car was swiftly jacked up, wheel off, and the spare filled with air and slipped on. We were mobile again. It was getting on for two P.M. The next hundred yards brought a thump that reverberated around the car. The tail gate had fallen down. Looking behind me I saw the road full of glass. "Mmmm......... good job we didn't drive though THAT and get another flat". I thought, "Our luck has turned". Stopping at the garage to fill with fuel and air, we saw that the tail gate was bereft of the rear window. It was OUR glass that laid shattered on the road. We girls thought it expedient to disappear and buy cool drinks while the guys gave the bad news. One look at the case of severely slipped humour left us subdued. All the time we had been chattering like jays in the back and now felt it discreet to shut up. We got back nearly four hours late. I never did confess that my frozen meat, after four hours, had defrosted, leaving a decidedly pink looking pool on the floor. It makes you think bus travel is fine.
Bus travel is cheap and it can be fast. We heard of an express to Guatemala City where you buy the ticket in advance and get a seat number. Except when we arrived at the crack of dawn -- well, seven thirty A.M. The bus was a non-event. It had broken down. We had to take the local chicken bus to the cross roads, forty minutes away, then change buses. So two loads were packed into one bus and we stood all the way. Lucky it was jammed so tight. We had no room to lose our balance as the g-forces took over when we lurched around the bends. Even so, we were still picking up and dropping off folks. For those at the back of the bus, getting off was a challenge. At the cross roads our motley group of colourful transients, patiently and orderly, waited for the onward bus. When it arrived, it was the survival of fittest to the get on board. A tiny wizened old lady darted in like a small bird. She snaked and ducked under elbows popped up in front of me to triumphantly grab a seat. She was not going to be left behind; or stand. Keith managed to elbow his way on and secured us a seat at the back, on top of the engine. The seats were sagging and very lumpy. We had four hours of this. But at least we were sitting unlike some stoics who stood most of the way. The trip back took six hours. We never did get an "express" bus and have not heard of anyone else getting one either.
It is not dull on the bus. As you wait at stops and even road works miles out, along come the food and drink vendors. They carry flat baskets on their heads and offer all sorts of goodies. One lady stayed on for a couple of stops. She lowered her basket with bundles of tortillas, sauces and various fillings. Nothing daunted her as she filled tortillas to the customers' requirements - up over and around the other travellers. Sometimes you get the local snake oil peddler who gets on the bus and harangues us for ten minutes from the front of the bus on the virtues of the contents of a small round tin. Even not speaking the language, I can tell it is good stuff. A cure for all ills. At a longer stop you might get the local preacher. He gives a good sermon and then makes a collection. At least I think it is a preacher -- or could be the local party leader. All the while the talk is going on, fried plantains, sliced mango, pink ice cream comets, and bags of peanuts in small grubby hands, pass by -- a constant stream through the bus and then disappearing through the back exit.
Comfortable? Well no. Reliable? Hardly. But a trip on the bus is a colourful cheap and eventful way to meet the folk and see the country.
Printed with permission of Carol Verriour, S.V. Kirsten Jayne
November 9, 2012
© 1997-2012 Phillip Landmeier