“How many Guatemalans can fit on a bus?” A six-foot-two, blonde-haired guy asked me while we waited in line for the next bus to Guatemala City.
“Um… I don’t know, how many?” I shrugged my backpack-laden shoulders and played along.
“Just one more.”
“That’s cute,” I laughed.
“I’m serious,” he replied and pointed to the knot of people waiting as our bus came to an abrupt halt.
Line etiquette had yet to reach this part of the world and I was instantly shoved to the back as the crowd pressed forward to deposit their bags.
“Vamonos! Vamonos!” The driver and his luggage helper screamed at the top of their lungs and practically pulled us by our shirts to get on the bus.
Impressed with their efficiency, I stuck my head inside, hesitantly, and asked, “Es bus a Guatemala Ciudad?”
“Si, si. Vamonos!” He barked back and hurried me along.
I edged my way onto the already full bus and miraculously found a spot. It was more of a wedge between an indigenous lady with a plastic bag between her legs that made odd chirping sounds at random intervals (later I discovered it was a chicken, A.K.A. dinner), her two twin boys, and a tiny man that made me think of a crumpled-up piece of paper. He was gentlemanly enough to let me squeeze by and plop my bulk up against the glass-less window. Wondering what happened I did a quick search and found no clues to the glass’s whereabouts. This didn’t help alleviate my concern if we got hit with a tropical rainstorm (it has been rumored that it can spit out seven inches of water in five minutes), for I did not possess a raincoat, an umbrella, or even a plastic bag. Wriggling my butt into my slice-of-comfort I marveled at the hordes of people jammed in the center aisle.
Guatemalan buses, on a whole, are known for their unique flare. For example: watching the 1950’s United States yellow school bus (which was probably donated to this third world nation as a gift by a junkyard that wanted to reap the rewards of a large tax write-off) bounce all over the road without shocks nor suspension made you do a quick prayer along with the rest of the passengers to whatever religious icons Juan Jorge, the bus driver, whose name was engraved below ‘Vaya Con Dios’ and ‘Dios Es Mi Guia’ displayed all over his windshield. Directly beneath was a boom box the size of a tiger’s cage blasting inaudible Salsa and Meringue music. Once inside, I discovered that the school bus motif was removed and replaced with a picnic theme. The soft, cushiony seats were now wooden benches with metal legs nailed into the floor of the bus. They were designed to fit three skinny people—at most—on each side subtracting about 75% of the standing room. But that didn’t deter our driver to squeeze in as many fares as possible.
Within seconds of its arrival we were all geared up and zooming down the road. I counted four people hanging out the door as the bus picked up speed and raced to its final destination.
“Boletas, boletas,” a young kid of ten or maybe twelve-years-old stood up on the dashboard and announced forty-five minutes into our journey. From the commotion around me I gathered it was time to pay. My curiosity piqued and I spun my head around to see how in the world he was going to get by when there was barely enough room for a worm to wiggle its way through the collection of limbs, armpits, and hair. I found out the hard way. People parted like the Red Sea, although, with a lot less grace. “Oops…Pardon me,” once again I slammed, accidentally, into my neighbor, when the bus swerved straight into yet another pothole. The mystery of the missing window resolved itself as I heard a crash of glass left behind by our pious bus driver—an offering to the road gods. Deftly repositioning myself, I counted the strange money under an oily head of a field worker who tossed his unwashed body on top of us, clutching tightly onto his machete in one hand and the exact change in the other.
As with all corporations or workplaces, hierarchy plays an important role in the transportation system of Guatemala. The chauffer was king! He ruled his terrain with an iron fist and his humble workers obeyed, because they knew that once he retires they get the throne. In the meantime they learned the trade according to rank. (These were my personal observations, and don’t take it as gospel, but when faced with an eight hour ride of the least comfort I had to find some way to entertain myself.) The ticket seller was the lowest on the totem pole. Age and lack of dexterity worked against him as he bloomed into pubescence. He’s agile enough to dance around the people, but youthful clumsiness didn’t permit him to perform acrobatics that the luggage man, well into his teens, possessed.
“Permisso, permisso…” the dark-skinned baggage-claims-man announced as he took a foothold with his right foot on my seat stepping on my baggy pants, and his left foot jammed between two shoulders of an indigenous couple sitting in front of me. His button-down shirt was opened well past his bellybutton exposing three thick gold chains that landed atop his potbelly. Startled, I jumped back and hit my head against his arm that was holding onto the back of my seat for support while the other arm snaked its way past my face and grabbed the broken window. Inhaling deeply on a cigarette dangling from his mouth he ducked his head neatly through the open window, his body following suit, and disappeared out of sight. This all happened within a microsecond and I was left dumfounded in a haze of cigarette smoke. I stuck my head out to find him and was hit with a gust of wind from the insane speed of our overloaded bus.
The cigarette smoke hit my nostrils before his body came into view. He quickly climbed to the top of the moving bus holding onto metal rods that stuck out of the bus, not from design but from over-usage. Expertly maneuvering his way back down he reentered my window with a gargantuan straw bag. Like a daring soul in a mosh pit, the bag floated through the air, fondled by unknown hands, and arrived to its rightful owner who was poised and ready for a quick exit as the bus came to a slight pause and he jumped off. With no time to lose the screaming driver and his workhorses caused another bout of chaos as they flailed their arms and bodies around so that the remainder of the populace rearranged themselves to accommodate the onslaught of newcomers.
We’ve arrived at another bus station!
I know what you’re going to ask next: how has this phenomena been overlooked by the Guinness World Book of Records committee? I’ll be honest, I have no idea, but the three minutes and forty-nine seconds (I timed it due to the lack of better things to do) stop introduced twenty-three new passengers. Without delay we boogied on down the road at the same remarkable speed.
Not even fifteen minutes after the “Vamonos-vamonos-rapido-rapido” stopover we pulled up in front of a tiny store that lay in the middle of nowhere. Languorously, the bus driver with his loyal employees disembarked the bus without a word to anyone and headed inside for a Pepsi and fried plantains. No one stirred for the twenty-minute layover nor showed any reaction as they continued to stare at the chipping paint of our metal container. They’ve accepted this as commonplace, along with the frenzied rush of being flung on and off the bus while it’s still in motion, packed to the gills like sardines, and no announced bathroom breaks. My hips, legs and feet were dead asleep and cried for mobility. That’s to say nothing of my bladder, but the fear of losing my seat was more painful than my-on-the-verge-of-eruption organ. I searched for a friendly face to reassure me we would be moving once again, but the blonde-haired traveler wasn’t anywhere in sight.
Enviously, I watched the bus driver who calmly sat on the stoop, leaning back on his elbows oblivious to the mesh of discomfort in front of him and laughed boisterously as the storeowner made a joke. I peeked at my clock and was informed that I still had another four hours before my feet could touch ground and stretch out. I preferred being loco-in-motion, sucking on black diesel fumes and smacking my body from one end to the other as we negotiated the long-forgotten, desperately-in-need-of-repair roads than lacking any sort of motion. At least than I know we were approaching our goal.
Marina K. Villatoro is an expat living and traveling in Central America with her family for over 10 years. She blogs all about her family’s adventures and life at TravelExperta.com. With all the miles under their belts, she’s written useful Family Travel Guides for these parts all tested approved by her family!