Chicken Bus

May 2, 2009
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A feeling of loneliness trembled through my body as I stood on a crowded street in Panajachel, Guatemala with my teacher Rhea. We had just waved adios to our fourteen other Traveling School sisters. The two of us hoped to catch a chicken bus to the hectic city of Xela, in the center of the country. Rhea`s previous experiences on this type of transportation taught her to arrive a bit early so I was relieved when we saw El Paisaje del Flor roaring closer twenty minutes ahead of schedule. We rolled away from the bus stop, lounging in the second row, accompanied by only three other passengers; two women and a young girl. However, as our journey continued, more and more lively locals joined us.
The bus driver was a slim man, different from the pot-bellied drivers we had before. His hair was gelled and styled into a neat comb over. Not once during the chaotic drive did he seem to get flustered, even though we were swerving through narrow city streets packed with pedestrians at top speed. While an easy task for him, my face held a look of sheer terror.The bus driver had two bus buddies riding with him who helped run the route. One was dressed in a blue patterned button-up shirt and worn cowboy boots. He slid easily up and down the aisle collecting everyone`s fare. The other gentleman was older and the smallest of the trio. His lips moved at lightning speed as he shouted the destination of our bus to those we passed.
"¡Centro! ¡Centro! ¡Centro!" He bellowed, his body hanging out of the open door, into the strong wind. His rapid-fire shouts could beat out an auctioneer any day.
While still within the city limits, twenty more passengers joined us. Amidst the men in dark jeans and women in colorful blouses, there were also many teenagers in school uniforms. Four girls stepped up the stairs in evergreen pleated skirts and black, polished flats. Their Polo's were bright white with a large emblem stitched above their hearts. They took the seats behind us and whipped make-up out of their backpacks. By the time they departed, they sported Converse shoes, heavy eyeshadow, and pinned-up hair.
One by one, more passengers climbed on; it did not take long before a woman sat beside me. She wordlessly fit herself into our two-person seat, not ashamed to use her wide hips to nudge my willowy frame over a bit. The smiling woman must have had at least sixty years under her traditional gold and blue hand-crafted belt. It held up bolts of dark wool fabric wrapped tightly around her waist. Tucked into this belt was her intricately-embroidered huipil. Every square inch of her shirt was sewn with red, yellow, brown, green, and orange thread to form a collage of flowers. She appeared delighted when I said, "Què vaya bien," as she stood to leave.
At this same stop, a large group of high school boys entered through the rear emergency exit. All I could see over the heads of the other passengers were their crazy hairstyles. They looked like moving versions of the posters one sees in a beauty salon as they are waiting for the stylist. Center parts, Mohawks, and slicked back ponytails bopped up and down as they took their seats. Most of them wore vividly colored T-shirts with Hollister written down their sides in white. Thin cords shot from their ears trailing down to handheld MP3 players. I wondered how many miles I would have to travel before I could finally escape U.S. consumerism.
A man carrying a briefcase suddenly skipped aboard and broke my train of thought. He stood at the front of the bus waiting for everyone to get settled into the crammed seats. I soon realized that his briefcase did not contain papers and files, rather it was filled with his trademark, one-of-a-kind cocoa cream.
"It can solve all of your daily ailments from cracked hands to tired feet," he announced in a booming Spanish voice across the moving bus. After making a few sales, he stepped off into the heat where I pictured him waiting for the next bus full of potential clients to pitch his magic product to. I contemplated how he ever knows where he is going or how to get home.
The bus groaned as we slowly climbed higher into the mountains. The door opened and a cool gust of wind rustled my hair. A mother and a daughter clambered up the steps and took the available seat in front of us. The daughter`s long, dark braid fell over the back cushion as she sat. The braid whipped back as she twisted around to peek at me. Her almond-shaped eyes were small on her perfectly oval face. When she realized I had caught her spying on me, she pretended to be examining her rough hands instead of the only two gringas on the rickety chicken bus. The top of her hands were dry and scaly. Again, her eyes darted in my direction under a set of large eyebrows that neatly blended into her hairline. Our eyes met and I took the opportunity to smile at her. Behind her chapped lips peeped a set of small, uneven teeth. She turned away again.
Glancing out the window, cloudy with grime, I changed my focus to the mountainous terrain we passed. Deep ravines cut through high plateaus trailing into a village low in the valley. Amongst small boulders was a sign covered in stickers that read,
"Xela 1 Kilometer."
The larger bus buddy made a scramble to collect the last of the fares before passengers had a chance to leave. Instead of scattered huts, creme-colored brick buildings now flashed across the window over Rhea`s lap. At the noisy terminal, the bus squealed to a stop. Once the door opened, everyone slowly and patiently filed out the door, transforming the untamed beast into an empty metal lunch box. Rhea and I took our packs off of our sweaty laps and slung them across our shoulders. We stepped onto the hot city pavement and strode through endless rows of vibrantly colored chicken buses, ready to face our next adventure.





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