We speed along the snaking highway. Cold Guatemalan highlands give way to misty valleys and tropical forest as the bus descends 8,000 feet to the Pacific Coast. I notice the abundant fields of corn, raised in unfeasible angles on the sloping mountains, transform into flat plains coffee and banana plants. The common thread is the hunched indigenous people harvesting these fields by hand. Proud Mayan descendants, once bowed to their god of maize, Yum Kaax, now bent to earn a meager living.
Somewhere between Quetzaltenango and Champerico, my mind starts to wander. The chaotic, techno-color scheme of dangling stuffed animals, intricate traditional huipils, the traditional blouse of the indigenous women, and an array of stickers depicting Bugs Bunny in urban wear or claiming that Jesus is guiding this very bus now entrance me. I am almost reborn in my hope of this fact, since the chauffer installs very little faith. He is a bad Latin cliché of machismo—dark aviator glasses, thick mustache, a dark rolled cigar hanging from his mouth. I watch him in the large mirror hanging above the driver’s seat, his hand, covered in a black leather glove, slams the plastic bejeweled clutch through gears like they might have each personally insulted his manhood. The bus itself is a remnant from my own school days. Once it had emerged proudly form the Blue Bird Body Company in Fort Valley, Georgia of the U.S.A. But that was several decades ago. The once solid, canary yellow school bus, now is decked out in multicolor designs—partly Mayan, partly a bad flashback.
Inside the bus is another story. What was once built to hold about forty school children is now crammed with almost a hundred people! The general rule here is three to a seat, but that doesn’t include any child that can fit on a lap or the floor or any other creative spot that can be found. Then once every nook is filled in the seats, people sardine down the aisles in torture-like standing positions. This day I found myself in a metal-bared seat between a dozing Guatemalan man, whom appears to be fresh from a job that had involved a lot of contact with manure, and to my other side is a rotund woman with one child on her lap and a baby strapped to her back. The chauffer takes every curve with the lack of braking and so with every curve I am compressed into a human accordion, smothered and secured by odorous flesh. You become very used to this process after a fair amount of time on chicken buses. I flew home last Christmas after eleven months in country and on the plane I fell into a grand paranoia from the awkward and ample distance between my flying companions and myself. So now I just close my eyes and embrace the womb-like comfort, ignoring the drool and smell. Having my eyes closed also helps immensely in enduring the constant near-death experiences that pass on a daily basis riding on chicken buses. The idea of machismo permeates south of the border, and nowhere more so then in the driving. Bus chauffeurs are notorious for recklessly barreling down Guatemalan highways and roads. The newspaper is filled with horrific bus accidents daily. Blind passes signaled by the ayudante, the bus assistant, hanging out the door with a shrill whistle. The centerlines become an open passing lane in the constant game of chicken—maybe that’s the origin of the name “chicken” bus.
So why do I take my life into my own hands and still board these mechanical rainbow-colored deathtraps. Well, for the last twenty months, I have been serving as a health volunteer in the Western Highlands of Guatemala, with another seven to go. And the only means of transport at my disposal—actually in my price range—is the chicken bus. So I now wear this as a badge of honor—a bit of smugness when I think of the passing tourists in their luxury buses. They see a world safely behind glass, while my world is real.
My knees pressing into my chest, because I’m sitting above the wheel cage.
The woman squashed against me is uncandidly breast-feeding her infant.
My pants are covered in the regurgitation of this baby.
The bus spurts, gurgles, and then hisses as the antiqued engine gives out.
I’m sitting huddled under the three feet of shade that the bus has spared a hundred passengers in the sweltering midday sun.
I am watching a Mercedes tour bus pass by us. The clueless faces of the tourists absorbed in the latest Grisham, oblivious to anything outside of the air-conditioned palace on wheels.
Okay, that’s actually envy.
This is a piece I wrote while serving as a volunteer in the Peace Corps in Guatemala, 2003-2005.