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On the road again Canada and the US Dec 2011-Feb 2012 - Observations, musings and random thoughts jotted down mostly during loooong train and bus trips.


USA | Sunday, 22 January 2012 | Views [897]

Chicken bus in Antigua, Guatemala

Chicken bus in Antigua, Guatemala

Creeping out of Los Angeles Union Station 40 minutes late on the Greyhound bus Amtrak had offloaded us onto, I was immediately reminded just how "sketch" this bus company can be; sitting down in my seat I glanced up to see a ribbon of toilet paper flapping out of the filthy air outlet above my head and probably ten years’ worth of grime stuck to every surface, both hard and soft. The driver turned on the engine and the sudden spurt of air shot the toilet paper and other soiled detritus out of the hole and onto my head. Five and a half hours until a shower and change of clothes.

My skin started to itch as my mind went back to the cleanest, most luxurious buses I have ever travelled on: the first-class buses in Mexico!

But Central America also possesses the most hair-rising bus rides, journeys that reinvigorate you just because you survive them. Right through the region the local buses are old American school buses(universally dubbed 'chicken buses',some still in their original livery, others painted and adorned with garish religious talismans in lieu of regular mechanical maintenance.

I travelled through several countries over the space of three months, always by bus and usually with the locals. I was usually also the only "gringa" on board.

In Guatemala the luggage was stored on the roof, the passengers packed five or six across four seats designed for grade-school-sized bottoms, leaving no aisle. I always tried to grab a window seat so I could watch if my blue pack was offloaded before me, only to disappear into the colourful jostling mass at some crowded market or other.It never happened and I found the Guatemalans I travelled with solicitous with my luggage and polite and patient with my faltering Spanish.

 On routes through known bandit areas I would usually befriend an old woman or a family. Once in the southern part of the country I transferred to a longboat for the journey downriver to Monterrico and spent a couple of hours in the company of two laughing old toothless women and their collection of roosters which they tended like children, stroking them and sitting them on their knees. But they were also ready to grab any chance to earn a peso or two and in the blink of an eye one hapless rooster had his tail feathers plucked out so they could be offered to me with clear instructions on how to turn them into earrings.

It was in Guatemala too, that I experienced the most hair-raising bus trip of my life: careering down the mountain from the famous market town of Chichicastenango to Quetzaltenango (Xela), with squealing brakes, grating gears, clouds of black smoke which entered the open windows on every hairpin bend and a kamikaze driver intent on taking us all with him.

The local passengers sat stoically and inscrutably having no choice but to accept the “In Dio Confiamos" above the Christ with his eyes raised to heaven in front of the driver. Not so the two Dutch students sitting opposite me, whose knuckles were beyond white as they gripped the seat in front of them, absolute terror on their faces, averting their eyes from the sheer drop of hundreds of meters just millimeters from our wheels. Our driver obligingly hung off the edge repeatedly to let ascending buses by. Not a single passenger spoke while the driver and his side-kick laughed and joked together, obviously secure in their faith in divine protection.

I wasn't. Climbing over the bodies in the aisle I made it to the front of the bus and said I wanted to get off. They laughed. I insisted. The bus stopped and the two Dutch girls and I tumbled out with relief. The off-sider feigned surprise and after I said the driver was "loco" their derisive laughter still hung in the air after the bus was out of sight.

"Thank you so much for saving us" one of the girls said, clutching my arm, not so much melodramatic as relieved.

The faces of the locals looking impassively at us as they drove off were burnt into my memory: I fully expected to read the next day that the bus had fallen off the mountain. It hadn't, this time.

So bouncing out of Los Angeles towards the hills and a "McDonald's Stop" in Barstow, brown sky behind us, slightly bluer ahead, I became nostalgic for Central American adventures but was happily on the road again, the unknown always enticing.` 

(c)FMPDH 2012

Tags: greyhound; central american buses; guatemala

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