The Chicken Bus Adventure

My last week in Xela went by fast, as last weeks do. Monday was spent walking all over over the place with two ladies from Pop Wuj looking for party supplies, we were planning the quarterly birthday party for the kids at the Guardería Daycare Center. We dipped in and out of makeshift booth after makeshift booth, into the small stores called tiendas, and back out again, in and through the booths of the various street vendors.

The Mercado (market) is quite a spectacle, it is near the center of town and is roughly 4 blocks long by 4 blocks wide. It is a cacophony of sounds, smells, and sights – hundreds of vendors selling clothes, plastic stuff, shoes, soaps and shampoo, underwear, cell phones, spices, sombreros, produce of seemingly every kind and color, and much more. A person could virtually buy anything they would ever need in this market, and for many this is their life – they don’t go to the bigger and fancier stores, instead they buy from each other, and sell to each other, while bartering often.

Most of the people here are much shorter in height, and I expect that centuries of malnutrition has something to do with that. So for whatever reason, God has raised up this culture to experience life in closer proximity to the earth, and indeed the overwhelming majority of Guatemaltecos seem much more appreciative of the earth and its bounty. I do not know what the statistics say, but based on my own observations, it is very common for someone here to be 4 feet tall or shorter, especially among women. I am only 6 feet tall and I stayed in the Xela region of 300,000 or more people for a full month, and without exaggeration I cannot recall ever seeing anyone taller than I … except for some of the gringos studying Spanish there. The sidewalks and streets are much narrower, the overhangs and displayed merchandise is much lower, so as you can imagine the circuit through the market while hurriedly trying to keep up with my 2 fellow party planners was a harrowing experience for me. At times I had to bend over at the waist to navigate pathways. And it was comical for the vendors as well, often they would smile and snicker watching me dip and duck my head to avoid knocking something out or even to avoid impaling myself.

Here is a funny story. I looked in several places for plastic bathroom sandals in my size 12, including 2 large department stores. The biggest size I could find anywhere was a 43, which appears to be a U.S. size 11. So finally I asked a sales associate in the shoe department if there was anything IN THE WORLD bigger than size 43, and then I pointed at my feet while saying, “Necesito algo mas grande.” She looked down at my feet and burst out laughing. I laughed too.

Nonetheless, we all know that the true measure of any person is not the length of one’s inseam but the size of one’s love. And in that sense, I encountered many giants in Xela.

Tuesday all 40 of the kids from the Guardería Daycare Center were bussed into town for the party (since the water source in their community was expected to be non-functioning for several days, if not weeks). We found a nice area on the lawn at the local sports complex where we could enjoy a meal together, potatoes in thick gravy with chicken, all folded neatly into a plantain leaf to keep warm. Each one of the kids who had a birthday in the past few months received a gift from the 3 quetzal store (our version of a dollar store). We had purchased 3 large birthday cakes at one of the many bakeries (or panaderías) in town, and smiling faces all around declared that the cakes were a hit. Finally, we strung up 2 large piñatas (one for the older kids, one for the younger) filled with tons of candy and nuts, which the kids took turns whacking. Interestingly, many of the kids took lighthearted whacks at the piñata before eagerly passing the stick to the next person, apparently to preserve the fun for as many others as possible. Finally, when each piñata had had enough, the staff person turned it upside down to shower candy and nuts down on all the kids who had gleefully scampered underneath.

Wednesday I chilled out, and Thursday I went to the weekly dinner that is prepared by students studying Spanish at Pop Wuj, it is a combination dinner and graduation ceremony. To my delight, there just happened to be a professional cook from Australia studying Spanish at Pop Wuj who had spent the last year with his wife in Mexico studying Mexican cooking while writing a cookbook. As a result, we feasted on mole chicken Oaxacan style, followed by a sumptuous desert of blackberry crisp with a sweet cream drizzle on top. After dinner all of the graduating students (including me) gave a brief speech in Spanish, and afterward each graduate received their diplomas, conferring herein all reasonable and expected rights and privileges henceforth and forevermore.

Friday morning I arose early in order to catch my 6:30 AM bus to Antigua, the last leg of which was The Chicken Bus adventure. Linea Dorada is the best, most expensive bus line operating Greyhound-type buses in Guatemala, but even their buses can be non-plush (as I discovered on the way to Xela from Guatemala City). And Linea Dorada has the only non-stop routes, faster and generally safer from point to point than the other bus lines. But alas, Linea Dorada does not go straight from Xela to Antigua, I would have had to go all the way into Guatemala City and back out again to Antigua. So, I took what I thought was the next best bus line, Alamo.

I had asked Alamo earlier in the week if each of their buses had a bathroom, and was told “por supuesto” (of course). Well, of course my bus had no bathroom – thank God I only had time for one cup of coffee in the morning before dashing out the door for the 3 hour ride to Chimaltenango. She was an older bus too, appeared even older than I – which is pretty old in bus years. And that old gal of a bus had a name too, the Pacific Princess. She reminded me of that cantankerous old comic strip character Maxine, not everything worked as well as it used to (or worked at all), but she was still feisty and ornery. While running through the gears on our way out of town, each new shift to a new gear was more than the grinding of a gear, it sounded more like a grinding plus clunking type sound. The bus was nearly fully when we left Xela, but then we started picking up passengers along the way. At the first stop before we had even reached the edge of town, we picked up some hombre who sat in the seat across the aisle from me. He promptly looked heavenward and made the sign of the cross – I took that to be a good sign! At the next stop, again while still on the outskirts of town, we let on the bus several vendors who streamed down the aisle holding buckets of tortillas, bags of donuts, and baskets of snacks, all announcing in Spanish at the same time what they were selling and at what price. Along the way we stopped at least 3 more times for these vendor opportunities. In fact, one time an indigenous girl and the little one tagging behind her got so carried away selling stuff to customers that the bus pulled away and started heading down the highway … they scrambled back to the front of the bus, and when the driver saw them he uttered what could have been a Spanish expletive before stopping the bus again to let them off to begin the long walk back.

One month ago I travelled by bus from Guatemala City to Xela at night, so I was not able to see clearly the devastation of the mudslides Guatemala has suffered this year. But the bus I took to leave Xela was during the day, and thus I got a good look at the devasting mudslides, in places the mud and rock not only covered the two lanes going in one direction, but the mud and rock was piled higher than the top of our bus. It was as if the whole mountain had moved over and took back two lanes of the highway forcing the traffic into a single lane going both directions. And there were even a few places where there was only one lane available, thus we queued up and waited for the oncoming traffic to pass through on the one remaining lane, and then the traffic going our direction was waved through while those headed for Xela had to wait. I expect that tt is going to take months to fully open that 4-lane divided highway.

I had assumed that at the “bus station” in Chimaltenango I would be able to find one or more of the supposedly four shuttle companies that shuttle people to Antigua about 40 minutes away. However, as we descended into town the bus driver’s assistant came to my seat and asked for my luggage tags. At the time I thought, “Wow, this guy is really efficient!” But shortly before the bus came to a stop the guy came back to me again and said something like, “Chimaltenango ahora! (now!).” The bus stopped in the middle of the road, thus stopping all traffic behind us heading into town, him and I jumped off the bus and he quickly opened the luggage compartment under the bus, I pointed to my bags and he grabbed them and tossed them into the street, he then slammed shut the compartment and jumped on the bus and away they went.

Perhaps you have been places where unemployed or homeless people try to help you with your bags. I remember one time exiting the subway at street level in downtown San Francisco only to be greeted by 3-4 people all wanting to help me with my bags (for a fee, of course). Well, when my bags were tossed into the street at Chimaltenango (literally into the street that crossed the road my bus was on), immediately several men grabbed at my bags. I literally yanked two of my bags back out of the grasp of my helpers, who are not really trying to run away with them, but the assumption is that if they carry your bags for a few steps then you will at least give them some money. And if you are not careful, in some instances your bags could walk away … or if you are not watching, some people will open some of the zippered compartments to see what they can quickly pilfer. I grabbed all of my bags while saying emphatically, “no gracias,” and shuffled to the nearest curb.

What now? I was at a crowed street corner in Chimaltenango, and there was nothing that even remotely resembled a bus station nearby. Beside me two muchachas (teenage girls) were selling fruit or something on the sidewalk, so I said to them in Spanish, “Where is the bus that goes to Antigua?” They both excitedly pointed at The Chicken Bus that had just arrived on the other side of the street and that was rapidly filling with people. I thought, “Oh what the heck, here we go!” I scrambled with my bags to the other side of the street, and then The Chicken Bus driver helper saw me coming and made a beeline toward me, and the 3-4 other bag helpers who had just tried to grab my bags saw me coming and they were back in the hunt, they all wanted to take my bags and stick them on top of The Chicken Bus. For local people who ride chicken buses, anything of any size gets put on top of the bus in racks welded to the top. I’ve seen just about anything you can imagine riding on the top of chicken buses … huge baskets of fruit, bicycles, crates of merchandise, car tires, you name it – if it does not fit inside with the wall-to-wall people, it goes on top. However, before coming to Guatemala I was told by friends who had been here to never let my bags out of my sight, and that stuff is too often stolen out of the bags that tourists allow to be put on top of chicken buses. So I clutched all 3 of my bags, and stuffed myself onto The Chicken Bus. (Incidentally, I’m pretty sure that they are called chicken buses because in the rural areas often livestock rides on the chicken buses together with the people).

By the time I got on the bus, all the seats were taken … with 3-4 people squeezed into each bench seat, people are often shoulder to shoulder across the aisle. There were also people packed into what was left of the aisle, standing among the mass of people. I was standing on the steps leading into the bus, the door of the bus was open and we were already going down the road. I had my backpack strapped on my back, and my 2 other bags were in front of me on the bus floor in the only remaining space on the entire bus. Then the bus driver and driver’s helper started yelling at me to get further onto the bus, and that I was not allowed to stand on the steps. I was thinking, “Where the heck do you want me to go?” In fact, I may have uttered that very thing out loud, but fortunately it was in English. Then they started yelling at those standing in the aisle – actually, the standing passengers were kind of sitting on the shoulders of the seated passengers, legs reaching down into whatever cracks that were available – that those standing in the aisle needed to move further down the aisle so that we could get my gringo butt off the steps and onto the bus. So the big squeeze commenced, each of us in the aisle squeezed down the aisle, past young and old alike, past mothers nursing their babies, past babies sucking on breast milk, me trying not to drop one of my bags on any of the wizened gray-haired abuelas (grandmas) at the end of their lives, trying not to drop one of my bags on the Abuelas’ grandbabies who are just getting started on life. At some point I was able to stuff my three bags into the racks above the seats, but the driver was barreling down the narrow curvy road, and at one curve in the road I saw my backpack fly off the rack and bonk a muchacho in the head. Fortunately, it was a teenage boy … he acted only mildly annoyed, and pushed my bag aside.

I was a bit on edge, even more so because the night before I left Xela I had heard about a language student who had been pickpocketed at the market. He foolishly walked around with valuables stuffed into his open jacket pockets, and got caught in a web of bandits who work as a team. Someone dropped something on the floor in front of him as a diversion, and when he stooped over to pick it up, his jacket pockets opened to the world, and from both sides bandits deftly grabbed what was inside (wallet, passport, etc) before disappearing into the labyrinth of vendor booths. So I was on The Chicken Bus feeling a little, shall we say “out of my element,” when suddenly I could feel someone tugging at the zipper of my zippered jacket pocket. Instantly I reached for my pocket and wheeled around while loudly saying, “No!” … only to find myself gazing sheepishly into the eyes of a baby girl.

And then The Chicken Bus driver helper started working his way down the aisle, climbing over people in order to collect the 5 quetzal fee from each rider. Perhaps they should instead pay people to risk life and limb like this. The smart people knew to get their 5 quetzales ready ahead of time, but the dumb gringos (yes, there were a few of us on board) had to apologize to everyone in the immediate vicinity that we bumped while trying to retrieve 5 quetzales from a pocket. Then about the time I started to think, “Okay, we’ve all paid, we can all now remain ‘comfortably’ packed like sardines for the remainder of the journey to Antigua,” about that time the bus driver stopped the bus to let off riders and take on more riders. We made 3 of these stops along the way … each time, people were squeezing out of seats, squeezing down the aisle, and then popping out the door almost like the cork on a bottle of champagne. One time I literally had to ask a woman to lean forward in her seat so that I could step on the seat behind her butt in order to rise up and let people pass who were trying to get off and/or on the bus. One time 3 ladies squeezed by me to get off the bus, but they got stuck going forward and could not get off the bus for all the people in the aisle, and thus those ladies came back past me and bailed out the back of the bus (which I thought was pretty clever).

I joke about it now, for all of us would do well to find ways to laugh about our humanity. At the time while on The Chicken Bus it all seemed so uncomfortable, maddening, even inhuman. But this is the daily reality for many who live in Guatemala, chicken buses are the cheapest form of transportation, and for many the only form of transportation. I am glad that I experienced it.

Believe it or not, I arrived in Antigua safe and sound; the only casualty that I am aware of is the canister of Pringles potato crisps that got crushed in my backpack sending little bits of crisps all over everything inside. Fortunately, The Chicken Bus parked in the chicken bus parking lot at Antigua with all the other chicken buses parked there for a brief siesta. I waited until everyone else had exited the bus before pushing my bags down the aisle, and then I stood on the steps of the bus one last time in order to thank the bus driver for patiently waiting for me to exit … and for patiently waiting for me to get my butt off those steps!

There were more bag helpers at Antigua, but I just kept saying “no gracias” while I ambled past dozens more vendors in booths, and then schlepped my bags up the cobblestone streets of Antigua, which was once the capital of Guatemala as well as one of the most influential and grand cities in all of Central and South America.