Travel and Movement

I’ve been thinking lately about the various (physical) ways it is possible to move through the world, and the reasons for doing so.  Over the past month and a bit, I’ve used six main types of transport, each with their own markers of priviledge and stigma.

Bus- By far the most common form of transport in Guatemala.  It’s cheap, faster than walking, and allows you to carry a lot more than if you were on foot.  On the bus, you’re usually crammed 3 to a seat built for 2 school-aged kids.  Your view of the passing landscape is limited to a square of glass, often obscured by your fellow passengers’ heads, some sort of fogging material (plastic), or steam from the collective bodyheat of the bus’s contents (sometimes including, yes, chickens). The landscape passes you by the side, as if it were moving and you were sitting still (compared to moving through a landscape, as when you’re sitting in the front of a car or are traveling on foot). 

Travel by bus is more priviledged than travel by foot, since it costs money, but not as fancy as riding in a car. People riding the buses are usually considered “poor” or “uneducated.”

Airplane– The most isolated and expensive mode of travel, yet simultaneously (with walking) highly priveledged and possibly reflecting some sort of poverty. 

Isolated because you have your own seat and you very rarely talk to the stranger sitting next to you.  They even offer headphones so you can listen to the television rather than carrying on a conversation.  It also produces the biggest carbon footprint (uses the most resources), and signals that you have capital (the bucks to buy a ticket). 

It also has a certain cosmopolitan air to it (er, no pun intended)– generally, airplanes are used to cover large distances and to go to exotic places.  In these cases, ground/ water transport can take days or weeks, so people that use airplanes are too important to spend that kind of time. Then again, you don’t have time to spare, which is certainly a luxury item. 

Airplanes are also used by (migrant) Guatemalans returning to Guate after working in the States. Returning from the States, you have money and status. Unless, of course, you’re being deported. In that case, you’re probably in handcuffs and under the supervision of a US Marshall, and thus highly stigmatized.

Private Car: Carries the most obvious index of priviledge in Guatemala (and in many other places too).  Relatively few people can afford the freakin’ high gas prices ($5/ liter!!), let alone the price of an actual car (average for a new car in Guate is lower than in the states, but still very high when compared to household income). 

I’ve ridden in three private cars in Guate: Last year the foundation I worked for had a pickup truck, and fellow teachers and I drove it to and from Barillas (the city itself held a special air of priveledge for my students).  When my mom came to visit we rented a car, and I even got to drive it (very scary)!  Finally, a friend of a friend picked me up in Xela and gave me a ride to Pana, thus sparing me the need to take either a chicken bus or a tourist shuttle.

The view from a private car is so different than the view from a bus! Sitting in the front seat, you have this panorama of landscape ahead of you, unfolding in a way that lets you take it in, at least superficially, more than the blur passing you sideways through the square of glass on the bus.

Do I really need to go in to the wide, comfy seat you have all to yourself, or the complete control over where you go, when you go there, when you stop, how often you stop? How about the temperature and sound (music) control? Quite de lujo.

Back of a pickup truck: A classic gringo-in-Latin America experience.  Flagging down a pickup (ahem, pikop) is a very common form of transport in the highlands, especially where there aren’t regular buses.  It’s pretty easy: you see a pickup passing, you stick out your arm, it stops and you hop on. You usually pay the driver the same amount you’d pay a bus for whatever distance they take you.

The back of a pickup truck is novel to gringos because it stopped being a common form of transport (except in some rural areas) when my generation was very young– saftey regulations, doncha know?

Similar priviledge and stigma as buses: stigma because you don’t have your own car, but hey! You do have the money to pay the car’s owner.

Tourist Shuttle: Gawd I hate tourist shuttles. But sometimes, they are nice. For instance, getting to and from the airport and Antigua.  A tourist shuttle costs about $10, it’s direct (they’ll even drop you at your hotel) and it’s pretty secure.  A bus, on the other hand, costs 7Q (about $1), but you have to haul your own bags, face possible robbery at the bus station, and have to additionally get to and from the bus stop.  Minus? Well, you’re chilling with a bunch of tourbus bunnies in the meantime.  You get to exchange disturbingly similar “travel stories” with people (“Dude, we got soooo wasted that night!” ” -X- place has the best beaches / cheapest booze / craziest parties” “I’m studying Spanish for a week, and then ‘seeing the sites'”). Amusing for a short while, and then it gets old. Especially when you end up translating “Cuánto cuesta” for someone who doesn’t have traveler’s Spanish, but has been in Central America for months. No, I’m not bitter.

Walking: This is the form of transport I really wanted to talk about.  I’ve been asked numerous times “why do gringos like to walk so much?!”

People I have met in Guatemala have been largely baffled by why gringos would choose to walk, when they can clearly afford to take buses (or even private tourist shuttles). Yes, gringos like to walk places. But only when they’re traveling, you see. Gringos walk for amusement.

While I was hiking from Nebaj to Todos Santos, several kind people pointed out that “A bus goes right by here, and it only costs 2Q.”  Walking in the highlands is something you only do if you can’t afford to take a bus, whereas with gringos it’s something you only do if you can afford the time.

I could say something about how it’s because “we’re” so disconnected from nature that we feel the need to get back in touch with it through superficial recreational activities… but I’m not so sure that’s the case.  Yeah, sure, we’ve distanced ourselves from Mother Earth, and hiking makes us feel warm and fuzzy and “balanced.” But it can’t be that simple.  Is it some pattern of “development” and “progress” rhetoric that says driving = progress, and only once you start to drive for transportation can you walk for recreation? I don’t know…

I’d spend more time talking about this, but I have to go study for my quiz tomorrow (and I’m already over 1000 words on this post).


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