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Published: January 6th 2008
And how do you like your chicken bus?
Today was foggy enough for me to finally leave Huehuetenango for San Mateo Ixtatan, the mountain town in which I´ll be spending the next eleven months. All morning I prepared myself for this ascent. For breakfast I ate the best piece of dulce de leche cake, had my last double cappuccino and bought the two best bottles of alcohol I could find. Of course, best isn´t saying too much. Because they were out of Johnny Walker red (Julio had probably ordered the last bottle in Huehuetango) and I had to settle for ‘Black prince Whisky´, a flimsy looking bottle lauding its authentic Scottishness but with tiny print on the back admitting it was fabricated in Guatemala city.
With the help of a few friendly Guatemalan men, I managed to lug my 80 lbs of books the two blocks from my hotel to the bus stop. As I waited anxiously, a shriveled woman with barefeet sat down next to me on the curb. ¨Where are you going´ she asked, ´to Panahachel?´ Panahachel, jokingly named Gringotenango by Guatemalans, is the lakeside village where travelers go to drink coconut milk and smoke assorted Guatemalan herbs. No, I proclaimed, I´m going to San Mateo Ixtatan. She began to laugh hysterically. ´Why in the name of Jesus would you do that?´ she asked, as if I had told her that I was going to chop off a couple of my toes. Good question. Luckily, the bus arrived before I had to answer. As I rushed over to the bus helper to beg him to put my colossal suitcases on the top of the bus, she yelled, ´Good luck!´ in a way that assured me I would need it.
People who travel to Guatemala usually retain two images of their trip: the first moment they glimpse Lake Atitlan, and the chicken buses. These buses, most of which really do transport chickens, were originally the yellow buses we all rode to get to elementary school. Once they become so old that the school district declared them unsafe to transport children, they get shipped down to Guatemala where nobody thinks about safety at all. Before someone like yours truly can ride the school bus my parents probably rode as children, they must be Guatemalafied, meaning painted all over with bright colors and tagged with slogans like ´with god everything is love´ and silhouettes of naked women.
Each chicken bus has its ayudante, meaning the helper that collects the money once the bus is in motion, and more impressively, loads the baskets of papayas, goats and Jennifer Gilbert´s mounds of books on the top of the bus. Today, I saw the ayudante (who was about 5ft2 and 120 pounds) drag a closet size sack stuffed with squash onto the roof as if it was full of air instead. The bus driver is equally impressive. A Guatemalan highway is like a neglected hiking trail. Any time a bus doesn´t go over a pot hole, people begin to look at one another in disbelief. And yet somehow, the bus driver manages to pump the old school bus over these jagged roads at 50 mph.
After 5 hours of chicken bus ecstasy, my suitcases and I arrived safely in San Mateo Ixtatan. Sorry friends, for that story, you’ll have to wait until tomorrow. I'll leave you with a preview however: if I stuck out like a really sore thumb in Huehuetenango, here, I stick out more like a nun on a nudist beach. And the sad part is, that metaphor probably isn’t even strong enough.
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