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The Second Life of American School Buses in Guatemala

It’s on the road that most travel happens.

When you board the festively colored bus, make sure to do so from the rear so you can savor the thrill of hurling yourself through an emergency exit door. Any American visitor will immediately appreciate the utility of the retrofitted school bus. Where else can a family of 5 sit comfortably on a 2 foot long padded bench?

Riding Guatemala’s chicken buses is not a passive experience, but instead, strikingly similar to train rides through India’s oppressively dry northern regions. When you open your eyes, stow away your iPod and shove the Lonely Planet in your backpack for an hour, you encounter the true sabor de Guatemala on a 25 year old, American-made school bus.

Like many developing countries, Guatemala has focused its efforts in recent years on ‘cleaning up’ certain venues to better attract foreign tourists. The result is Antigua, the Spanish colonial city 45 minutes from the capital. With tourist police on every corner and hardly a scrap of Nuestro Diario in the streets, Antigua is truly ‘Guatemala Light’. Mainstream tourists flock to the tiny, valley city to drink in its sanitized streets, study the pure Guatemalan Spanish, and then depart days later with a false satisfaction of having traveled to the developing world.

But the true flavor of Guatemala can be had by strolling towards the Mercado des Artensias in Antigua, early in the morning, at an hour when only the locals need to rise. Like many self-respecting Central American cities, tucked kindly behind the Pollo Campero and local market is the ideal locale to inquire as to a chicken bus for Chimaltenango. No doubt, helpful locals and drivers alike will be delighted to assist you. They are hardworking and eager for your business, but do not hesitate. These men are overwhelmingly honest and their advice should be taken with gratitude.

The chicken bus system is extremely efficient and simultaneously chaotic. It is affordable and widely used by the indigenous population as well as working and middle class Latinos in Guatemala. Daily, thousands of Guatemaltecos rely on these circus-colored school buses to traverse the rainy mountains and sun-parched valleys of the real Guatemala. The buses follow a schedule of necessity: leave when full, stop when needed. There are no formal bus stops, colored lanes, or stale announcements. Solely the repetitive banter of the driver’s assistant to fill your ears as he tackles the tasks of attracting new customers, catapulting heavy baskets of gloriously fresh fruits onto the roof of the bus, collecting money from all passengers, and announcing upcoming destinations.

On the 4 hour adventure to Quetzaltenango from Antigua (via Chimaltenango, or “Chimal” as the Chapins say), it is highly probable you will realize that the sights inside the chicken bus are as fascinating as the scenery. While pricey airline carriers may advertise elaborate libraries of provocative documentaries and laugh-track comedies , your in-seat entertainment system is alive, and often takes the form of the traveling salesman.

On a recent bus trip, a particularly memorable peddler invoked the toes of Barack Obama in his speech about wart cream. In fact, this salesman was also a man of God, who liberally peppered his sales speech with 5 minute diatribes on the reflection of bad deeds on one’s skin. As he continued to talk, the silkiness of his voice attracted more and more interested consumers. By the conclusion of his 30 minute pitch, many passengers were sampling the miracle cream and scrutinizing the myriad of photographs he had collected throughout his travels. The “before” and “after” shots were compelling, and apparently, Barack Obama used to have quite a toenail dilemma.

Inevitably, by hour 3 of the ride, your eyes will ache from the dusty roads and your backside will be numb. This is the moment when one realizes that American school buses are not designed from long distance travel. Combined with the obvious lack of a bathroom facility, this trip is best tackled in the morning with an empty bladder and optimistic outlook.

After a transfer in Chimaltenango and a few more rear-numbing hours (the merciless curves of the mountain roads provide a superb upper-body workout), arrival in Quetzaltenango, mercifully referred to as “Xela” by the locals, is a joyous occasion. The ironic approach of the chicken bus lurching past various modern big box stores that are now populating the outskirts of town should be appreciated as you bump along.

Terminal Minerva, or Xela’s “chicken bus terminal” is no hollow space with padded chairs, lukewarm coffee, and a rapidly changing announcement board. The terminal is simply a gaggle of lanes, smoky with buses recruiting and discharging passengers. Terminal Minerva is also one of Xela’s main marketplaces, and unlike the sanitized Antigua, there is nothing sterilized here. This is a market of glowing papayas, stray dogs, countless types of maize, second-hand clothes, cell phone covers, fly swatters, padded bras and underwear (use your imagination), bootleg DVDs, astoundingly tasty and cheap avocados, and countless other necessities that the residents of Xela procure on a daily basis.

Linger in Xela for a while, grab a warm donut on a Tuesday morning at the Mennonite Bake Shop in Zone 3, and fall in love with the delightful people, pure Spanish language, and puzzling architecture of this Western Highland city. Prepare to never leave. As your love affair evolves, you will understand that most remarkable Guatemalan adventures almost always begin with a chicken bus ride.

Cheryl MacPherson