I have now been in Guatemala almost 11 months. It is amazing to me that the time has gone by so quickly. I have accustomed to life in Panajachel: to roosters at 3am and dogs without owners roaming the street. I am no longer surprised by the bam-bam-POP of firecrackers outside of my window. At the same time, I often forget to appreciate the sheer beauty of fog on the mountain tops or the green lush hills.
Yesterday, I rode in a camioneta for the first time in several months. Know to most tourists as the “chicken bus,” this is the most common form of public transportation across Guatemala. Aside from the occasional ride from a friend, I usually opt for the allegedly hassle-free microbus: a private shuttle which picks you up at your home and drops you at your destination. This description leaves out the inevitable 1 hour to pick everyone up from their destination and drop everyone off accordingly.
While a ride in a camioneta is guaranteed to be uncomfortable, crowded, and often a near-death experience, I have missed the joy of watching Guatemalans interact in this rowdy festive mode of transport.
Yesterday, driving out of Panajachel, overlooking the lakes and mountains in the distance, I found a new appreciation for the joy of the camioneta.
A few things you should appreciate about the chicken bus:
- The music. Usually somewhere between bachata, rancheras, and reggaeton, the only thing guaranteed about the music is that it is not quiet. Loud and colorful like the outside of the bus and the corte of the women inside, the camioneta sounds like a high-speed disco careening around the corners at 80 miles an hour.
- The “direct” bus to anywhere, will stop everywhere. Sometimes, this is a nuisance. Sometimes this is a great opportunity to enjoy the scenery of the country. In small pueblos, school children pile on and off the bus. Farmers carry their day’s labor on their heads and a machete in one hand. Local girls giggle and wave as the bus drives by.
- The crammed seats. Remember those school buses we sat on as children? They are still the same size. Except in Guatemala, the locals will squeeze 3-4 people on one seat. You will inevitably end up enveloped in body order, Guatemalan fabrics, and the gaze of a child who thinks you are the most fascinating thing on earth.
- The ayudantes. I never cease to be amazed by the young boy who easily climbs the back of the bus to tie down goods on the roof or close an open door. These boys move without fear, hanging on to the rear ladder, swinging into the main door while the bus continues at full speed. The ayudante will eventually move up and down the crowded bus asking for your bus fare. ”Jovenes! Jovenes!” I love that everyone is “joven” on a chicken bus.
- The near-death moments. Chicken buses move fast. I mean really fast. Like 80 miles an hour around a corner which warrants a speed limit of probably 25. The speed itself is not as threatening as the steep blind corners and switchbacks camioneta drivers take as if they were cruising down a 2-lane highway. The result is a mixture between adrenaline and rocking yourself to sleep, usually ending in the later as you are snuggled between two plump indigenous ladies in a cocoon of chicken bus contentment.
The ride in the camioneta is part of the daily life of so many Guatemalans. Despite all the ups and downs, it remains a social, communal form of transit. Every now and then, it is worth the ride just to appreciate the joy of the local communities to the sounds of bachata music blaring on the radio.