I guess I should give a brief overview of what exactly these chicken buses, or camionetas, to use their Guatemalan name, are exactly. After all, I plan on using them as my starting point for understanding Guatemala, and if I can’t get me head around a simple bus, I’m going to have trouble with a whole country.
First things first, they are American, US that is, school buses (It’s a shame that we refer to the US as America, which to me suggests were forgetting a continent and a half, but I digress).
These school buses are deemed ready for Guatemala once they’re just about too dangerous for American school kids, which is after 10 years of service or so. That’s when you know they’re good for south of the Rio Grande. ‘Listo’ as they might say here.
They’re bought at auction somewhere in America and then driven down through Mexico and onto Guatemala or any other Central American country, where they are either scrapped for spare parts, or modified and then sold to one of the many private bus companies that operate here. This amazing documentary shows the whole automobile sex change process from American school bus to Guatemalan camioneta, and is a far better use of your time than reading this blog.
Now when I say modified I don’t feel like I’m expressing myself quite right, or at least it doesn’t sound convincing enough. You see, the bus comes out of the process looking so fabulously, fantastically flamboyant, that to me it seems likes it’s undergone an identity crisis. Yellow was no longer enough. It felt it needed at least 7 different colors, lots of chrome, and some serious attitude. In this respect I see them as the psychedelic drug-fuelled older cousin of its North American counterpart who’s taken too much acid and now has several screws loose (I use the term both figuratively and literally).
It’s not only made to look pretty. Functionality is of key importance too. Functionality here by the way means stripping out all the seats and packing them in again as tightly as possible (a bit like battery-farmed chickens?). Oh, and then just adding a few more because, fuck you.
If you’ve got long legs, you’re going to have problems. If you’re tall, you’re going to have problems. If you’re the average human being who has their 5-a-day and can’t stand the sight of Piers Morgan talking nonsense on primetime TV, you’re probably going to have problems. And don’t get me started on what happens if you have a backpack.
The bus is further tricked out on the inside with lots of religious iconography, maybe a couple of Looney Toons stickers, a GREAT sound system, maybe an 8-ball on the gear shift, and either a Real Madrid sticker or a Barca sticker. An overhead rack is bolted onto the ceiling. This allows you somewhere to put your belongings. More importantly, it enables people to monkey bar their way over the crowd to move around inside a bus carrying 100+ passengers.
The bus is operated by a driver, surprisingly enough, and his ayudante, or assistant. This guy is bat shit crazy. He hangs out of the bus screaming its destination. Guatemala City turns into a shrill, ‘Guate, Guate, Guate, Guateeeeeeee.’ Huehuetenango sounds like, ‘wayway, wayway, wayWAAAAAAY’ and best of all, if you looking to go to Quetzaltenango, just listen out for ‘shela, shela, SHELAAAAAAAA.’ Each ayudante has his own style, and the louder the better.
(A note of warning: Upon seeing you, any ayudante of an Antigua-headed bus, will presume this is the only place a gringo, such as yourself, would possibly want to visit in Guatemala. You occasionally may have to defend yourself from being physically dragged onto said bus.)
The ayudante collects your money and puts your bags on the roof. What’s amazing is that he remembers who’s got what and where they want to get off. Even more amazing is their king-of-the-jungle-style abilities to scramble up the ladder at the back of the bus onto the roof, whilst the damn thing is speeding down a mountain road at 2,000 miles an hour. He will then throw off the relevant bags as it pleases him and the poor passengers will be left picking up their belongings off the tarmac.
Guatemala is country that has overdosed on a bad batch of capitalism, and the fucking deranged bus system should make this abundantly clear to you. All that matters is profit. You want to get off the bus you say? Well fuck you. We’ll push you and shove you and we won’t even stop, such is our haste. You want to get on, do you? Hurry up! Jump on and hang on.
Certain companies push their drivers so hard to fit in that extra journey each day, or that extra passenger onto an already full bus, that buses literally just drive off cliffs. The vehicle simply fails. Quiche is an area in central Guatemala, which is particularly notorious for its dangerous buses, and this will be investigated in further posts.
A first ride on a chicken bus can be quite a shock, that’s for sure. But what are humans if not adaptable?