Waking Up To…
I woke up to rolling green hills and billowy white clouds, cows in the fields, chickens scrambling up the steep incline through corn on the side of the road – all this seen as though in a dream. There were old ladies scuttling down the side of the road with their colorful shawls pulled about their shoulders, a bit wizened but a wry smile of understanding on their faces.
The Guatemalan countryside was clucking about its business as we whizzed by in our enclosed capsule. When we came to the next major town, our bus stopped on its edge at a gas station. We were let off. Jeff led the way. We crossed the major road, headed downhill towards what looked like downtown. The streets were narrow, the buildings appeared higher than in other towns we’d been in, lending a rather dark enclosed feeling to the town center. We felt we were inside the ramparts of an ancient fortified city, instead of a humble Guatemalan rural village.
First Taste of the Enclosed Capsule
We had our first taste of the “microbus,” a kind of mini van that covers popular routes between rural villages, used by the locals to get around their outback. If you are considering one of these for a comfortable vacation with family or friends, I recommend bringing extra help to carry your gear. The record number of passengers, set later in the trip in eastern Guatemala, was twenty seven, including the driver. Usually there were between twelve to sixteen people. Needless to say, you get rather close and personal with your fellow riders, sometimes bodily squished with little to no chance of moving till someone is let off further down the line. Even then, you’re not guaranteed relief.
Say there are five people in the back row, including you. Make that six. One of the ladies has a young child in her lap. The row in front of you has merely four people. One of them motions for the bus to stop, in the middle of the boundless corn. He hops out with his machete and basket and is on his way. You’re presented with salvation – an open seat which you can’t get to because you’re contorted, wedged in, you can’t move.
If someone were kind enough to move up one row, everyone would be a little more comfortable. Therein lies the problem. For the most part, the locals never show any sign of being remotely ill at ease, or bothered by the conditions. They are very stoic about this mode of travel. Besides, they are about a foot and a half shorter than me, not quite the contortionist act for them. I sit back, or dream of sitting back, think strange thoughts as I watch the scenery and try not to wince too much when the van goes over huge speed bumps at full speed. I try to be patient and uncomplaining, like the Guatemalans – the ride will end – eventually.
The countryside was gorgeous. We came to the fabled Chichicastenango on a late grey afternoon. A dramatic church with a large courtyard, walkways and crumbling fountains loomed over the town. Lots of people were milling about. We got off on the far side of the park. Jeff led the way to the public restrooms. We gave 50 centavos to a man in a ticket booth for a few folds of gritty toilet paper. He proffered it up in a sort of supplication; he had a beatific simple grace to the way he performed his duties.
We descended a cement ramp into the dank banos. Buckets of yellow silty water sat in cobweb corners. Onwards we went, across the wide, white parkway beneath the towering grandiose church, (focal point of the town), then down a side street past sparks – showering iron works and small comedors. People were on the move. We felt the town's energy – a central location for commerce and social interaction for the surrounding hill lands.
The bus station was the usual swirl of randomly organized busses and microbuses, vrooming, rustling up passengers. As soon as we stepped into the lot, backpacks on and obviously leaving town, about four or five men came up to us, asking our destination, offering to take our bags, saying, “Come this way, follow me, follow me”. We did not need their help, we soon saw a shiny black micro with “NEBAJ” written across the windshield in silvery white letters, on its way out of the lot. We jogged after it, the driver slowed down, the driver’s assistant slid open the door.
More on the Microbus
Inside was a solid mass of humanity. We should have known better than to try to fit ourselves into it, but the day was getting on, this was a straight shot to our final destination. Passengers inhaled to make room for us, we squashed in, pressed against the mass and the assistant muscled the door shut behind us. We were off.
How bad could it be? We turned to face our fellow passengers, literally face to face and surveyed the scene. Theoretically, there was still one “seat” open – a narrow wedge of space in the middle row which Jeff promptly claimed. That left Jason and I half-standing, half-squatting with the assistant by the door. There was a narrow, no more than a six-inch ledge behind the driver’s seat bench. It was covered in bags and resting legs, but it quickly became apparent we would be sitting there.
The passengers in the first row, a couple of old farmers and a few children, collected their packages and limbs. We squeezed our way, baseball-bleacher-style, into the crowded space. I situated myself behind the driver, my back against the high back of his seat, at an awkward, slightly forward angle. The ledge was carpeted, rather hard and uncomfortable. My legs were bent up in front of me, an inch from the fellow opposite me. He looked fairly old (hard to gauge age since they spend their lives in the sun, working hard, with a basic diet), maybe fifty. He wore plain tan trousers and a green cardigan sweater over a nice plaid shirt and a baseball cap. His face was tanned and wrinkled, he had a bemused, mischievous grin. Jason was also scrunched next to me, he's shorter than I, so he stood for a good portion of the ride.
My ass was getting sore and numb. My legs were painfully cramped from being bent at an acute angle close to my chest. There was no room to stretch, the cramp got worse; I had to make a conscious effort to ignore it. The next issue was that the bench we were sitting on was extremely hot, probably heated from below. I hadn’t noticed the warmth at first, but once I did, it only seemed to get worse. Soon I was sweating, worried about a burnt rear. I placed a fleece from my small pack onto the seat to absorb some of the heat. It helped a little.
Before long we were in a capsule hurtling through the impenetrable dark. Contorted limbs, heated seat. Add – having to pee. My situation was becoming acute. At this point, the two elderly men in the first row decided to talk with Jason and I – a nice diversion. I tried to tell them about Big Sky, Montana, where I live. I pointed to the hat with the Big Sky insignia on it, however, I don't think they understood much.
Our bus pulled into a small town. I got out and strrrreeeeeetched, bending, unbending my legs, getting the kinks out of my hips, strutting around like a drunken ostrich. Everyone was grim by this point. We piled back in, continued on into the night, crested several passes, descending back into murky, dark valleys.
As we left the last pit stop, we began to climb again. Jeff informed us that we would come to another high point, drop into vale, then begin the final climbing approach to Nebaj. “Another hour, hour and a half tops.” I settled in, waiting for the end.
Ailments Reaching Crescendo Proportions
It wasn't long after when all the various ailments reached a sort of silently-shrieking crescendo – my bottom burning and sore from every little jut in the road, my legs so stiff I had to stand up, my back now parallel to the roof. I stretched my long legs to the amusement of the ladies in the back seat. I sat down, on top of my day pack to increase the angle at which my knees were being torqued. Beginning to sense the dreaded "microbus" sickness, I faced backwards, sweating and squirming. It was windy, the roads were curvy – up and down and all around, through the mountains.
I became more nauseous with each passing kilometer. I talked to myself, “Don’t be a fool, Nate. Get it together. Take a few deep breaths. Concentrate, you’re sure to feel better." But I felt icky – like a bad acid trip, I was on the edge. And then, I remembered I had a box of Lucky Charms cereal in my backpack – one of the most beautiful moments of my life. I grabbed the backpack, slowly opened the pack. Never had that leprechaun looked more appealing – sweet, crunchy salvation. Food was all I needed, each morsel gave me more power. Before long, we were pulling into Nebaj (I like to call it Paradise) – the end of the road.