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Guatemala Chicken Bus

It’s the journey that counts, not the destination.

The Buses of Mexico are of the luxury variety that guarantees a passenger his own reclining seat. They often have a bathroom in the back and the drivers are so enamoured with the novelty of air conditioning that the interior is invariably arctic. I caught onto this fast and carried a blanket with me through these inevitably icy rides. This tactic served me especially well recently when I found myself seated next to a beautiful young Mexican girl – she complained of the cold and so we both shared the blanket, as cosy as can be.

If standards of transportation can be considered a gauge for the progress of a country, Mexico certainly has aspirations to join the modern world. Guatemala on the other hand belongs to another age, perhaps like Mexico was some thirty years ago.

Our bus was parked casually to the side of the roads, a few hundred metres ahead of the immigration cabin. Our bags were hoisted on top and we put all the trust in the guy who tied them on.

“Welcome to the chicken bus!” He told us but I couldn’t get him to explain what he meant.

I was travelling with an Italian called Alesio and a Canadian called Chris. Alesio was well used to travel in these parts and was easy going company. With Chris on the other hand it was like travelling with Mr Bean. He was a Mormon and had transformed the universal white shirt of his faith into a kind of cowboy image; he wore side burns and tied a little handkerchief>around his throat. He carried with him a whip and a machete but he was so thin and delicate that it looked like he’d have trouble getting into the cartons of milk and cocoa powder that he carried with him everywhere. He spoke no Spanish and had latched onto us for help. All through the journey his face drained white through the prolonged suffering. He was very sweet though and was soon off to the jungle to whip bananas out of trees.

It was good to be back in the third world and we spread out comfortable on the empty bus. Within ten minutes though another hundred people climbed on board and the seats designed for tow now had to accommodate three or even four. All pretty standard for these kind of countries but even harder for travellers stand more than six feet tall.

We were visitors in a country where the average height is more like five feet and we spent the next five hours squirming around in our seats in a vain attempt to find a comfortable position. Our knees grazed against the iron bars of the seat in front and each time I moved the Guatemalan mother next to me clutched her children even closer.

I couldn’t imagine myself travelling with kids on a bus like this. There was no way the bus would ever stop for someone to go to the bathroom even if you could fight your way through to the front. But it seems that in countries like this kids understand that life is already hard enough and don’t make it any harder for their parents. Throughout Asia and Latin America it’s rare to hear a child whine or throw a tantrum – it would appear that these are luxury emotions.

A young man doing his best to get old before his time came to sit next to Alesio; his face and neck were flushed red and his eyes wobbled from the effects of cheap local alcohol. Excited smiles were flashed between passengers as they waited to see how the foreigner would handle the encounter. But Alesio’s Spanish is perfect and he’s too laid back to be ruffled by much. Every time the drunk became a little aggressive, Alesio just laughed and returned his gaze with good humour.

We had to change buses three times and hoped that the guys on top were transferring our luggage along with us. I pitied the travellers who don’t have a working knowledge of Spanish – there must be countless stories of backpackers continuing on the same bus while their bags went off on another.

Around us now we heard more often the onomatopoeic clicks of the local languages than Spanish. The people here were shorted and darker than most of the Mexicans. Their cheekbones and brows were more pronounced and their clothing was wildly colourful. It occurred to me that if you set one of them down in the marketplace of Kathmandu they would go unobserved. Historians are always arguing about the ancient immigration routes but it still blows me away that such similarities in features and lifestyle can be found on opposite sides of the planet, always dress in bright colours, followers of a pantheon of local spirits and always poor, manufacturing handicrafts for the tourists.

As we leave the bus I grab my bags and finally understand why it’s called a chicken bus. Next to my guitar someone has stashed a cardboard box out of which sticks the head of a live rooster.

Our last ride was in the back of a pick up truck and we cling to the sides as the driver raced down the final road. The other passengers were three men dressed in clothes that looked like they’d been dyed in the rainbow. They split their sides laughing as we winced every time the driver made a sharp turn.

We arrived at Lake Atilan and it was already too dark to take in the view. The entry point was what we might have expected; the typical street bazaar set up for tourists with Italian restaurants, internet cafes and boutiques of wood carvings. Alesio had come to buy a mountain of the local clothing and would soon be back in Milan to sell it all to the Christmas shoppers. I hope absurdly bright colours are in fashion this year.

We had to walk fifteen minutes or so out of the tourist zone until we found an affordable meal. A dollar and a half got us a pile of rice, guacamole, tortillas, steak and potatoes. We were just tucking in when a local came to sit along side us.

“Aren’t you scared of the hurricane?” She asked us, “It’s in the Gulf of Mexico between Guatemala and the Yucatan!”

Education isn’t much of a priority here. How could we tell her that Lake Atilan is a good 700km away and that Guatemala doesn’t border the Gulf of Mexico?

“People are always asking me where Italy is,” Sighed Alesio, “Even when I tell them that it’s in Europe they still ask me if I came to Mexico by bus.”