Saturday, January 17, 2009

Never Play Chicken With a Chicken-Bus


Where do I begin? Perhaps the best way to familiarize you with the shear madness that is the Guatemalan public transportation system is to describe an ayudante ("helper" in Spanish). Part baggage handler, part ticket agent, and part Spider Man, ayudantes have possibly the coolest job I've ever seen. Imagine you're waiting for the bus to Quiche (a town on the way to destination city of Xecaguic). You see the brightly-painted, chrome-covered bus come trundling around the corner. As the bus slows down, the auydante is already on the ground hustling the new passengers aboard. As a newcomer to this process, I'll admit I found it scary: the bus never really stops! It merely slows down a little.

The ayudante yells loudly the whole time, "BUS TO QUICHE, BUS TO QUICHE! GET ON, GET ON! GIVE ME YOUR BAGS! HURRY!" If you've got luggage, the ayudante will rip it from you with one hand, and scramble up the ladder with the other, practically vaulting himself and the bag up the side of the still-moving bus. He's be back down for the next bag in less time than it takes to read this sentence. Prospective passengers jog alongside, trying to gain purchase on a handrail and pull themselves aboard. The bus will undoubtedly be stuffed to the gills already, but that won't stop the ayudante – he'll shove people through the front door until it's overflowing, people leaning out the door, hanging onto the rails with one hand. Once he's confident the front of the bus is bloated to capacity, the ayudante zips to the back and opens the emergency exit where, if he needs to, he'll physically stuff any stragglers inside.
Once everyone's on the bus (or at least has a solid hand-hold), the driver guns the engine, and the ayudante vaults back onto the roof rack to secure any loose baggage with rope. Driving in Guatemala is crazy. The condition of the pavement ranges from bad to awful. The drivers are impatient, aggressive and heavy-footed. And the terrain -- the terrain is downright ludicrous: the road-biker in me was salivating from the moment we crossed the border. What gorgeous mountains! What steep grades! What perfect, countless switchbacks! The fact that the ayudante spends most of his time crawling around the outside of the bus or hanging out the door on roads like these suggests two things: ayudantes have excellent grip-strength and short life-spans. Once he's finished, the bus now moving at full-speed, the ayudante comes swinging down the side of the bus like a monkey, reaching for handholds he can't see but knows are there, dropping neatly through the front door where he begins sorting the new passengers and collecting money.
"PUT THE KIDS ON PEOPLE'S LAPS, AND PUT THE BAGS UP ABOVE – I DON'T CARE WHOSE KID IT IS, JUST GET 'EM OUT OF THE AISLE!" he'll shout. Then he'll bust out a wad of cash to make change, and, wading into the throng, yells "OKAY EVERYBODY, TIME TO PAY – FORK IT OVER!"

Guatemala is not a country designed for tall men. Most of the time, chicken-bus rides are miserable for me. My femurs are a solid inch longer than the distance between two rows of seats, so I am unable to sit like a normal person. My options are to sit side-saddle, to curl my legs into a pretzel below the seat, or to double-up like a diver in a tuck – none of which are comfortable when crammed for hours into a bus where people are packed eight-abreast: three sitting in each seat, two standing in the aisle. I prefer to stand. On the bus ride to Xecaguic however, I was granted a rare treat: I was the last person to make it through the front door, and seeing as how the aisle was completely full, the ayudante instructed me to sit on a box at the very front of the bus, just to the right of the driver. It was spectacular. I could stretch my legs! I could see the whole road! And for the first time, I gained a full appreciation for how bat-shit insane chicken-bus drivers are!
God, I hope we were behind schedule (not that chicken-busses run on any sort of perceivable schedule). I hope we were racing someone (or something). I hope the driver's mother was on her deathbed, and we needed to get to our destination as fast as possible so he could say goodbye forever – I just hope we had a reason, any reason at all, for driving like that. What I'm afraid of is that he drives like that all the time. If that's the case, I pray that the gods of vehicular safety never leave that man's side.
We drove like the hounds of hell were nipping at our heels, passing every other vehicle in our path without hesitation, or for that matter, a complete view of whatever was up the road. No matter, sight is secondary to intuition for a chicken-bus driver. This driver knew what he was doing: he knew every curve in the road, which ones tightened up and which ones he could float through. He knew every passing opportunity, accelerating to attack speed before he could see if the lane was clear. He knew his machine well, both its abilities and its limitations.
We passed a small car while it was passing a water truck at the same time, plummeting three-abreast down a narrow ravine, just before the road funneled into a one-lane bridge – make that an occupied one-lane bridge; we threaded the needle between the oncoming traffic and the water truck with watchmaker's precision. While jouncing over a rutted dirt road we passed four cars in one go, among them a police car; our driver was taking a call on his cell phone at the time. We tailgated an ambulance with its lights on, the ayudante leaning out the door yelling "GO GO GO, NOW NOW NOW, YOU'VE GOT IT!!" despite us clearly not "having it". We were constantly dodging goats, children, bicyclists (often carrying two or more people), road damage, tuk-tuks (often carrying eight or more people), landslide rubble, donkeys, vendors (selling ice cream cones, pop-corn balls, nuts, candy, fruit, tamales, etc), dogs, chickens, and lots and lots of topes (speed bumps).
Through all this madness, I found that we were never the ones to adjust our heading for other vehicles; the other drivers always seemed to be the ones who slowed-down, yielded, or moved out of the way. I guess the lesson to learn from driving in Guatemala: never play chicken with a chicken-bus.

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