Dual Entry #3

"There's Always Room For Jello"

I know I make a lot of TV references in my writing.  It's evidence of my fine Midwestern upbringing and love for cable TV.  Even though I'm trying to get away from Madison Avenue Hocus Pocus and trying to live more "in the moment" this year, I HAD to name this entry after the famous snack food slogan.  It's just too perfect.

This past weekend, Gabby and I took a trip to Lake Atitlan with our amigas Caridad and Isabell.  Due to our lack of disposable income and desire to live an authentic Guatemalan life this year, we decided to make the 2 1/2 hour trek in a "Chicken Bus."  (The name comes from the fact that many locals who sell items in the open air markets frequently bring their goods on board with them, including baskets of live chickens).

Gabby says Guatemala is where old U.S. school buses come to die.  I say this is where they come to live out their golden years in style!  While other buses are tolerating their existence in suburban U.S. schools, never changing their drab yellow wardrobe, the chicken buses are doing the automotive equivalent of throwing a wild bachelor party.

You would swear every bus here is owned by the Partridge family or some other 60's family that all sang together on a TV show.  They are painted so brightly that many require UV protection for viewing.  On every street you see and hear them belching their way through town, leaving in their wake a cloud of diesel fumes, coughing people and gringos cringing and looking for the gunman.  They are by far the coolest buses on the planet.  That is... until you have to spend a lot of time on one.

A Chicken Bus

Our trip began harmlessly enough.  With one swift suggestion of "Hey, wouldn't it be fun if we..."  You'd think I'd learn my lesson by now, I mean, that's what got me here in the first place.  Blast that Scott and his grandiose ideas! (Okay, that and God's call, bladdy-blah-blah, but that really doesn't fit well into this story, so let's just move on, shall we?) We heard the first leg of our journey would cost a mere 8 Quetzales (about $1).  But as soon as we arrived at the terminal, Guatemalan ayudantes (bus "flight attendants") were trying to get us to take a first class bus, called "Especial".  It's an old Greyhound on it's last paw.  The cost? 11 Quetzales.  Though still relatively cheap, we wouldn't be deterred!  We wanted to experience true Guatemalan life.  We shunned the gaggle of ayudantes and tracked down a chicken bus bound for our destination.

We found an ayudante willing to give us a ride for 8 Quetzales.  SOLD!  He shuffled us to the back end of the bus.  We all wondered, "Hey, what's going on here?" Then, he opened the back emergency exit door. I KNOW!  When we was a kids, opening the back door of the school bus was a HUGE no-no.  This kinda' thing was grounds for detention or an afternoon spent smelling chalk dust and repeatedly writing the sentence "I will obey school rules and avoid a life of crime" until your hand was free of all blood flow.  But here, we realized it's simply another way to enter and exit the bus.  With a healthy boost ("hey, watch the nalgas, please!), we were all able to climb aboard. 

Once inside, we were slapped in the face with reality.  In Guatemala, there are no restrictions on how many people can legally board a bus, back-of-a-pick-up-truck, car or bicycle.  Unlike oversold airline flights, no one gets "bumped" from a chicken bus.  While the average school bus in the U.S. seats only two kids per seat as stated in the safety manual, the chicken buses go the extra mile.  It is expected that each seat will fit at least three adults.  In the aisle, an extra person is expected to rest his/her hips on the corners of the seats on either side, virtually hovering over the walkway below. 

When we entered our bus, there was just enough room for us to have one cheek resting uncomfortably on a seat.

Gabby's thinking: Wow, who knew one butt cheek had this much grip!
Note How Some Rows Have 7 Adults and 3-4 Kids

So... to illustrate this analogy...the bus is like a stomach.  The people are the food.  In our case, this chicken bus had just begun the journey and it was already packed - like it had just eaten a Super-Sized meal at Mickey D's.  I was in an aisle with my hips on the seats on either side of me.  The tiny Mayan woman in front of me was resting "comfortably" with my left knee planted squarely in the middle of her back.  There were sacks filled with potatoes in the overhead bin.  Bags of weavings and bread rested in women's laps.  One man had a big plastic bucket and a fancy cowboy hat.  There were sacks of vegetables that have not yet been defined by kingdom, phylum, or... uh.... whatever that third thing is.  There was no room left!  When we departed the terminal, we were all wedged in like sardines.

A Well-Decorated Specimen In
"Dry Dock" At The Lake

About ten minutes later, we arrived in a small town.  The bus stopped.  Gabby and I looked at each other as if to say, "What the heck is going on now?"  Then, with horror, we saw three more people et on the bus.  Again... we are the food.  These new people were the JELLO!  There's always room for more!  Like the old joke goes.... "How many people can fit on a chicken bus?  The answer?  ONE MORE!"

At each stop we picked up more and more people.  Kids were in laps.  Babies were on shoulders and on backs.  The little boy next to me crawled underneath the seat for refuge next to a backpack full of rolls.  The concept of "Pre-Boarding" is for woosies!  It was incredible!  None of us could move... and yet... no one was complaining!

Hips touched other hips, shoulders other shoulders, it was like a 1970's family trip in the station wagon gone bad.  Here there's no, "Hey MOM, Scott's on my side of the seat!"  Remember the lines we all used to draw down the middle of the seat? Yeah, GONE.  In fact, at one point, we heard this "thump, thump, thump-thump-thump" on the top of the bus and I was sure that somehow I had be teleported into the movie "Jurassic Park" and a large prehistoric animal was coming to get me, only to realize there was a guy on the roof -- while the bus was moving!  I mean REALLY, WHO IS the head of the D.O.T. around here?  (Notice the acronym here.  This is in honor of all our Dell pals.  They can't survive without them.  But anyhoo...)  This cannot be safe!  He packed his stuff atop the bus and then climbed back down into aforementioned bus while still in motion.

Then, I realized we hadn't paid yet.  What's up, Buttercup?  Only cabs allow that kind of liberty and on this mammoth of a vehicle, we had way more than any clown car could handle.  Then it hits me.  the ayudante up front slowly begins to wedge his way though the crowd.  People contort their bodies into shapes only seen in the advanced yoga competitions to get out of his way so he can collect our fee. 

In the end, I have no clue how many people were actually on the bus.  All I know is that, eventually, I had to stand up in the aisle to make more room (my gringo shoulders took up enough space for a lady and a half).  It wasn't the most comfortable ride, but it was definitely an experience - a baptism into Guatemalan culture.

After a year here, we'll likely get "used to" the chicken buses.  Still, we'll never forget our first experience.  It's a must for anyone who wants to feel a part of Guatemala life.