Off- Roading in a School Bus

Damn right.

The preferred method of travel in much of Latin America is Blue Bird school bus, at varying levels of decay and gaudy redecoration.  The average quality of roads in the Western Highlands of Guatemala rivals that of Michigan for number of potholes and overall quality/ existence of pavement. Plus mountains. And off-camber switchbacks.  And inhuman grades. Sounds like funtimes to me.

On Saturday, I said goodbye to the gringos at Earthlodge (but not before enjoying a ginormous bowl of homemade granola, fruit, and yogurt) and hitched a ride to the bus station, where I caught the first bus I saw to Chimaltenango.  Perhaps “saw” isn’t the right verb– I heard the ayudante (helper) shouting “Chimal! Chimal! Chimalchimalchimal!” and flagged him down.

This, the first leg of my journey towards San Mateo Ixtatán, was a mere 45 minutes through mostly semiurban areas- thus, no crazy careening around curves at 50 mph, and mostly paved. Unfortunately, I forgot that there is no central bus terminal in Chimaltenango. You have to specify which connection you’re trying to catch in order to get off at the right place, since all the buses leave from different parts of the city. Duh. So I took the bus to the very end, where the connections to Escuintla leave.  Densely, I asked the ayudante where the buses to Huehue leave. He looked at me with incredulity and said “Just go back the way we came, straight back the way we came.” Um… right. There was nothing “straight” about the way we came.

So I started wandering vaguely back in the direction that I thought we had come, hoping to find someone else to ask. The roads all looked pretty much the same to me, and I could feel myself getting more lost in the market-day craziness of vendors crowding the streets.  I pulled over into a corner and dropped my pack, so I could check out the map in my guide book. No map. *&%$@.

Finally, in quasi-desperation, I hailed a tuk-tuk and asked the driver if he knew where the buses to Huehue left from. “Sure, hop on,” he said. Sensing an idiot gringa in his midst, he charged me 5Q for the ride (about 75 cents), thus doubling my bus fare to Chimal.

The next leg was about 3 hours, to a place called Cuatro Caminos (Four Roads), a crossroads for the Interamerican, the road to Huehue, and the road to Santa Cruz del Quiché. This leg was more like what I was expecting. Still paved, but that just allowed the driver to gun it even harder around the switchbacks. I got quite the upper-body workout from holding on to my seat, in an attempt to stay out of the aisle and the lap of the guy next to me.

About ten minutes into the trip, a gentleman selling [something] hopped on. He started his spiel in the standard form: “Ladies and gentlemen, a very good afternoon to you all.” Still unclear what he was selling, he wished everyone health and happiness, telling us that regardless of religion or socioeconomic status, health is always the most important thing one can hope for (hint at what he’s selling?). He told of an interview with American celebrities he saw on the Discovery Channel (I swear, this is what he said). What was the one thing each celebrity wished they had? Health, of course. Health is the most important thing, even the very rich and famous wish they had it.

And health can be yours, when you purchase some of his very fine vitamins! They are worth 80Q ($10-ish), but he will sell them to you for a mere Q40! Look, they include Vitamin E and Vitamin K, both essential for the health of your skin (really?) and eyes (yes, true).

I declined to purchase the vitamins, but my fellow passengers did in surprising numbers.

I did, however, indulge in a “fruit”-flavored helado (ice cream, of no fruit I could identify) and some pollito con tortillas (a tiny leg of chicken and two yellow-corn tortillas). Hit the spot, the spot being very warm and thirsty (thus the ice cream) and then very hungry (thus the pollito).

I still can’t get over the way people just shove trash out the windows of the bus– so I held on to mine until I could find a basurera (trash can).

The last leg to Huehue[tenango] was another 3.5 hours, still paved. I was eager to get to the $10-a-night hotel (with private bathroom and TV!) that I called and reserved the night before. At the bus terminal, I was determined not to take a taxi (having been finagled into one the last time I arrived– since it was after dark and the micros had stopped running). So I waited on the side of the road until I saw an urban bus trundle by, and then ran after it.

I was the only person on said bus. Odd… Humoring me, the driver and ayudante took me to the urban bus terminal at no charge, and then pointed out the bus I should take to the center.

My hotel room was clean enough, and indeed had a private bathroom. Nevermind that the toilet had no seat– it was a toilet, and I would be the only one using it for the evening. WOO HOO! The shower was cold, but much needed after my 7-ish dusty hours on the bus.  I took full advantage of the cable TV, enjoying a “Legalmente Rubia” (Legally Blonde) marathon.

In the morning, I had serious second thoughts about going all the way up to San Mateo. Why the hell did I want to go back there? I had been miserable in my living situation (which included two other gringos that delighted in tormenting me every chance they got, which ended in hysterical tears and threats of castration on several occasions), and had spent a lot of my time doubled over the porcelain throne. Gee, what a great idea, going back there!

I got up my nerve to get out of bed, dress, and throw the last of my things in my pack. My goal was to be on a bus by 8 am, and so far I was on time. Getting back to the terminal was no problem, and I easily found the “office” where I bought a ticket.

The Huehue bus terminal is honestly one of my favorite places in Guatemala. I love sitting and watching all of the people coming and going to their various destinations.  In front of the bus company offices different food vendors set up, all selling pretty much the same thing. They put up their tables (with flowered, plastic-coated table cloths) and set out their plastic stools. On their portable grills they offer chicken, beef, sausages, and (my favorite) chuchitos (little tamale-type things filled with orange sauce and either pork or chicken, wrapped in a leaf I can’t recognize). To drink, you can either have weak, sweet coffee or hot, creamy rice drink spiked with sugar and cinnamon.

This is always a difficult decision for me.

A woman came right up to me (as they do) and asked if I wanted breakfast. She pulled out a plastic stool, and arranged some chicken, beans, rice, and tortillas on a plate. I opted for the rice drink “for there,” and the cafecito “to bring with.” Lacking the tops for her styrofoam cups, the lady poured some coffee into a plastic baggie and knotted the top. She included the cup.

My bus left more or less on time (8:15). The road to San Juan Ixcoy (the first town after the suburbs of Huehue) is paved, but after that the pavement is fairly intermittent.  I counted down the towns: San Juan, San Pedro Soloma (home of the drug runners and coyotes), and finally Santa Eulalia. Oh, Santa Eulalia. The sign that there is only one hour left!

After Santa, we made one last stop at Pett, where people could get off, use the servicios sanitarios (restrooms) and buy some snacks. One poor gentleman missed the ‘last-call”, and after we waited for about a half hour, my fellow passengers voted to leave him to his own devices. Who knows where he ended up?

No more pavement at this point, and the rocking bus made my stomach do serious flip-flops as we got a too-clear view of the valley below. Gulp.

The air started to change as we approached San Mateo. I swear. The smell of burning wood, mist, and mountains. Yes, I realize that mountains don’t have a smell. But I don’t know how else to describe it.

I got some interesting looks when I got off at San Mateo. Like “really? you’re getting off here??” But yes, I did, and made my way to the Foundation’s offices, where a crowd of my former students were using the internet cafe.  After a couple of beats of silence when I walked in, they remembered me! Awww.


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