“How many Guatemalans can fit on a bus?” a
six-foot-two, blonde-haired guy asked me while we waited in line for the next
bus to Guatemala City.
“Um, I don’t know,
how many?” I shrugged my backpack-laden shoulders and played along.
“Just one more.”
“That’s cute,” I
“I’m serious,” he replied
and pointed to the knot of people waiting as our bus came to an abrupt halt.
Line etiquette had
yet to reach this part of the world, I was instantly shoved to the back as
the crowd pressed forward to deposit their bags.
Vamonos!” The driver and his luggage helper screamed at the top of their lungs
and practically pulled us by our shirts to get on the bus. Impressed with
their efficiency, I stuck my head inside, hesitantly, and asked, “Es bus a
“Si, si. Vamonos!”
He barked back and hurried me along.
I edged my way
onto the full bus and miraculously found a spot. It was more of a wedge between an indigenous
lady with a plastic bag between her legs who made odd chirping sounds at
random intervals (later I discovered it was a chicken, a.k.a. dinner), her
twin boys, and a tiny man who made me think of a crumpled-up piece of
paper. He was gentlemanly enough to let
me squeeze by and plop my bulk up against the glass-less window. Wondering what happened, I did a quick search
and found no clues to the glass’s whereabouts.
This didn’t help alleviate my concern if we got hit with a tropical
rainstorm (it has been rumored that it can spit out seven inches of water in
five minutes). I did not possess a raincoat, an umbrella, or even a plastic
bag. Wriggling my butt into my slice-of-comfort, I marveled at the hordes of
people jammed in the center aisle.
Guatemalan buses are known for their unique flare. For example, watching the 1950’s
United States yellow school bus (probably donated to this Third World
nation as a gift by a junkyard that wanted to reap the rewards of a large tax
write-off) bounce all over the road without shocks or suspension, made me pray along with the rest of the passengers to whatever religious icons
Juan Jorge, the bus driver, whose name was engraved below Vaya Con Dios
and Dios Es Mi Guia displayed all over his windshield.
Directly beneath was a boom box the size of a tiger’s cage blasting inaudible
Salsa and Meringue music.
Once inside, I
discovered that the school bus motif was removed and replaced with a picnic
theme. The soft, cushiony seats were now
wooden benches with metal legs nailed into the floor of the bus. They were designed to fit three skinny
people at most, on each side subtracting about 75% of the standing room. But that didn’t deter our driver from accepting as many fares as possible.
Within seconds we were geared up and zooming down the road. I counted four people hanging out the door as
the bus picked up speed and raced to its final destination.
boletas,” a young kid stood up on the
dashboard and announced forty-five minutes into our journey. From the commotion around me, I gathered it
was time to pay. My curiosity piqued, I spun my head around to see how he was going to get by when there was barely enough room for a worm
to wiggle its way through the collection of limbs, armpits and hair. I found
out the hard way. People parted like the
Red Sea, although with a lot less grace.
“Oops, pardon me,” once again I slammed
accidentally, into my neighbor when the bus swerved straight into yet another
pothole. The mystery of the missing
window resolved itself; I heard a crash of glass left behind by our pious bus
driver, an offering to the road gods. Deftly repositioning myself, I counted the
strange money under an oily head of a field worker who tossed his unwashed body
on top of us, clutching tightly onto his machete in one hand and the exact
change in the other.
As with many workplaces, hierarchy plays an important role in the
transportation system of Guatemala. The chauffer is king! He rules his terrain
with an iron fist and his humble workers obey because they know that once he
retires, they get the throne. They learned their trade according to rank. (These are my personal
observations, don’t take them as gospel, but when faced with an 8-hour
ride of the least comfort, I had to find some way to entertain myself.) The ticket seller is the lowest on the totem
pole. Age and lack of dexterity work against him as he blooms into
pubescence. He’s agile enough to dance
around the people, but youthful clumsiness doesn’t permit him to perform
acrobatics that the luggage man, well into his teens, can.
permisso," the dark-skinned baggage-claims-man announced as he took a hold
with his right foot on my seat stepping on my baggy pants, his left foot
jammed between two shoulders of an indigenous couple sitting in front of me.
His button-down shirt was opened well past his bellybutton exposing three thick
gold chains that landed atop his potbelly.
Startled, I jumped back and hit my head against his arm that was holding
onto the back of my seat for support, while the other arm snaked its way past my
face and grabbed the broken window.
Inhaling deeply on a cigarette dangling from his mouth, he ducked his
head neatly through the open window, his body following suit, and disappeared
out of sight. This all happened within a
microsecond. I was left dumfounded in a haze of cigarette smoke. I stuck my head out to find him and was hit
with a gust of wind from the speed of our overloaded bus.
smoke hit my nostrils before his body came into view. He quickly climbed to the top of the moving
bus holding onto metal rods that stuck out of the bus, not from design but from
over-usage. Expertly maneuvering his way back down, he reentered my window with
a gargantuan straw bag. Like a daring
soul in a mosh pit, the bag floated through the air, fondled by unknown hands,
and arrived to its rightful owner, who was poised and ready for a quick exit as
the bus came to a slight pause. He jumped off. With no time to lose, the
screaming driver and his workhorses caused another bout of chaos as they
flailed their arms and bodies around so that the remainder of the populace
rearranged themselves to accommodate the onslaught of newcomers.
We had arrived at
another bus station!
I know what you’re
going to ask next: how has this phenomena been overlooked by the Guinness World
Book of Records committee? I’ll be
honest, I have no idea, but the three minutes and forty-nine seconds (I timed
it) stop introduced twenty-three new
passengers. Without delay we boogied on down the road at the same remarkable
Not even fifteen minutes after the
“Vamonos-vamonos-rapido-rapido” stopover, we pulled up in front of a tiny store
that lay in the middle of nowhere.
Languorously, the bus driver with his loyal employees disembarked without a word and headed inside for a Pepsi and fried plantains.
No one stirred for the twenty-minute layover, nor did anyone show any reaction as they
continued to stare at the chipping paint of our metal container. They
accepted this as commonplace, along with the frenzied rush of being flung on
and off the bus while it was still in motion, packed to the gills like sardines, with no announced bathroom breaks.
hips, legs and feet were asleep, crying for mobility. That’s to say nothing of my bladder, but the
fear of losing my seat was more painful than my-on-the-verge-of-eruption
organ. I searched for a friendly face to
reassure me we would be moving once again. Enviously, I
watched the bus driver who was calmly sitting on the stoop, leaning back on his elbows
oblivious to the mesh of discomfort in front of him. He laughed boisterously as
the storeowner made a joke. I peeked at my watch and noticed I still
had another four hours before my feet could touch ground and stretch out. I preferred being loco-in-motion, sucking on
black diesel fumes, smacking my body from one end to the other, negotiating the long-forgotten, desperately-in-need-of-repair roads than lacking
any sort of motion. At least then I’d know we were approaching our goal.