Monday, February 16, 2009

NASCAR has nothing on the Guatemalan "Chicken Buses"

Here is another submission by my guest writer, describing life in Guatemala better than I ever could.

To properly transmit an understanding of this experience I must first define the elements so as you are reading, you can fully appreciate the story:

To and from anywhere is the country of Guatemala, you have the following transportation options:

Walking - Over two weeks of travel in this beautiful country, we saw lots of people walking in the middle of nowhere, many times with a substantial load on their back to an apparent destination.

Bicycle - Pavement, gravel road or path, the bicycle is alive and well.

Car or Pickup - *** Note to US Automakers, you lost the battle in Central America! 90% of the vehicles I saw were Toyota, the other 10% are mostly Asian between Nissan & Mitsubishi. (A brief moment of silence please, I saw less than 5 Volkswagens during our visit). Lastly, of the 90% Toyota figure, 80% of that total were pickups for hauling things or people, or things & people at the same time).

Private Coach - Can you say "TURISTA".

Chicken Bus - Primary means of travel for any distance for 98% of Guatemalans (including cool travelers with personal bi-Iingual guides). I'm sure there was a time when someone first called buses by this name but here is a picture of the chickens ready to go on the top of the "Chicken Bus":

People ride these buses for school, work or traveling to the next city for "market day", selling their goods in an all cash or barter system:

Where do American used Toyotas and School Buses go ? Guatemala

Now add the free market of these travelers to a bus driver (owner) and helper (a sometimes amazing gymnast climbing with heavy loads up on the roof and back into the moving bus), all the while calling out for travelers to ride their bus along the route. When not busy with these tasks the young man is collecting money and tracking new riders so he can collect their money.

Two more things, then we'll be ready for the story. Very few buses are left with their dark yellow exterior. Most are repainted and then given a "name", possibly a pretty girl or girlfriend:

Or if they really go all out, look at the chrome and fancy paint of this unit:

Getting to/from anywhere in Guatemala including the major cities and also the most off track gravel road you will have an option to catch a "Chicken Bus". (I will call it a bus from now on so I don't annoy my readers). Your first order of business is to identify the direction you want to go (which could include a city beyond your planned destination) and then find a group of people waiting on the side of the road or a regular bus stop. Then you watch and listen for approaching buses by the loud diesel engine and/or air horn. As you hear them approach then you look to see the young helper leaning out the folding door shouting their intended destination "XELA, XELA, XELA..." pronounced Shayla, Shayla, Shayla. (Again, think carnival barker). You either move toward the bus or waive your hand as it approaches at high speed to signal your intention to ride their bus. Now each bus is independently owned but there seems to be some understood cost of a bus ride because people get on the bus and sometimes travel many miles until actually transacting their payment.

Now to my NASCAR reference. I will start by stating what I feel is the generally understood philosphy of every bus driver we encountered:

"No bus, coach, commercial truck, private van, pickup, car or any other moving thing shall remain UNPASSED !!"

Every highway, secondary road, construction zone or gravel backroad is also open game for them to pass traffic whether it's an open straight away or approaching blind corner.

Were your scared ? No, not really. Maybe it was the loud music they play from a 4 speaker stereo or the typical religious references scattered throughout the interior or the non-chalant attitude of the other riders which seemed to say "this is normal, no big deal". Again, couple this speed driving with the drivers constant use of the airhorn and their eagle eye for potential clients waiting beside the road. What an experience !

Next theory: (Actually stated by my wife Kathy). Guatemalan bus riders must have velcro in the seat of their pants. We were sliding side to side while holding on to the seat (classic school bus seats by the way) in front of us while our local friends sat quietly, often with a child in their lap with no apparent need to HOLD ON ! We're talking sore forearms and tention headaches from each leg of the trip...

Last thought: The bragging rights for Cummins, Detriot and Catapillar Diesel engines is alive and well in Guatemala. The last bus we road from Xela back to Guatemala City (or Guate if you're a cool traveler or local) was sitting in the line que of the bus terminal. I noticed the driver had a "CAT" logo cap on and assumed he wore it for no apparent reason. Was I surprised when he fired up the bus engine and typical "CAT" sound roared to life "Blap,blap,blap,blap..." Now if you know your commercial diesel engines very well, the CAT diesel is known for one thing and that is pulling power on the hills. Our new friend drove real slow and cool out of town and then once we hit the open road (i.e. two lane road with traffic out of town he started what would be normal for the next 5 1/2 hours: Pass, pass, pass, pass, airhorn, stop for people, pass, pass, pass, airhorn, stop, let some off etc. Then you could see the faint smile of satisfaction on his face as we approached the hills where the CAT would really shine again with the idea, anything ahead of him needed to be passed.

We made record time to Guate according to Andrea and I was all ready with my practiced spanish "Bueno Chofer" when we encountered traffic as we entered the city. Way up ahead we could see a minor accident in our lane and the CAT driver crawled along clear up to the accident over 20 minutes with no attempt to move over a lane. Guatemalans are infected by our same disease called "Rubber Necking" which is slowing down to look at an accident or distraction for no logical reason.

I may not have done this experience justice but I will leave you with one last thought and a picture. I stand 6'0 feet tall and on average was a head taller that our new friends. When a big gringo rides the bus, the space next to him will be the last to fill including everyone else sitting 3 to a seat. I wanted to show the bathrooms we used in Xela before boarding for our long ride. You pay to use them and are handed a handful of tissue or a section of the local newspaper ad's for wiping... The last two elements are the toilet walls were about 4'0 high with no seat attached to the comode and the common Guatemalan practice was employed that you don't flush the paper, you put it in a bin or throw it on the floor in this case.

It's a different country with amazing, spectacular scenary and geniune, friendly people wherever we traveled. They have one really cool thing going for them that the rest of the world could learn from: Everywhere we went, no matter who we encountered, a pleasant greeting was exchanged: Buenos Dias, Buenos tardes or Buenos noches, Good morning, Good afternoon or Good evening. Wouldn't that make your world a better (and more friendly) place ?

Regards, Jim

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