19th April 2004


When we last spoke I was fresh from listening to Carribean drum music and hurling my limped body from Central Americas longest bridge. From there I bussed north through the vast jungles of the Peten to Flores, the usual jumping off point for exploring the ruins at Tikal.

I thought it wise to fight my laziness and get the early bus to try to beat the unbelieveable heat. I took two gallons of water, bought two more litres there, and still couldn't stay ahead of the dehydration. There was no danger of being lost in the jungle, by the end of the day I would have sweated enough to float my way out.

After a false start the first day I got there a bit later than I'd wanted to. I decided to check out some of the lesser visited ruins first to avoid the tourist crowd. On the success scale I'd give that idea about a 65%, there's only so much you can do to stay out of other people's home videos. Do people really ever watch those things? "Here's Kate standing in front of Temple IV waving at us, and oh wait, look now, here's Kate standing in front of Temple V waving now. Oh, there's a quetzal bird, can you see it? There, in the tree. No, the other tree. Oh, now it flew away, I'll have to rewind it. See? That green spot?" The thought of that is WAY worse than the uncle Bill's legendary Yellowstone slides from the 60's and 70's. But I digress.

Though the temples I'd already seen and climbed were impressive, little can prepare you for the moment you walk into the corner of the Grand Plaza. Here two tremendous temples, burial memorials to father-and-son kings, face each other and are flanked by lesser monuments. Further off to both sides are large complexes thought to have been royal residences. The sheer magnitude of the entire place is overwhelming.

I spent about 5 hours wandering around. I wanted to stay and watch the sunset from the top of one of the temples, but I probably wouldn't have made my bus back. And by 2pm I had nearly melted into no more than a spot on the jungle floor. The bus back had--get this--Air Conditioning, which will be remembered as modern man's true lasting contribution to the history of civilization.

From Tikal I needed to head back south to meet up with Renee in Coban after she dropped her friend off at the airport. I was going to take a backdoor route through the jungle to get there, which would take me the better part of two days but was rumoured to be beautiful and all that stuff. I figured it was worth the look. The trouble is that there is only one bus a day that crosses the route, and that bus leaves from a town two hours away from Flores. When I got to the bus terminal I had no confidence that they would get me there in time, so I just booked a ticket all the way to Guatemala City. Turns out that I probably would have made it. But being the day before Easter it could have been a big gamble.

I met up with Renee in Guate City instead. The next day we were going to try a different backdoor route to Coban. To do that we'd have to pass through Xela, which was ok since we both had errands to do there, but it was Sunday and we knew that it would be difficult to get things done or meet up with anyone or have a night out so I can pay off the bet she won. So we decided to take another detour to a different place that has been on both of our lists for a while, and since we're both on our way out Guatemala, and this place is a bit pricey on one's own, we decided to visit...

"The World's House"

"Guatemala's most magical hotel" says Lonely Planet, and a well deserved title it is. The Casa del Mundo clings to a cliff 20 metres above the water on the north side of Lago Atitlan commanding a stunning view of the lake and volcanoes on the opposite side. Built over an 8-year period by an Alaskan and Guatemalan husband/wife pair the main building and surrounding cottages are designed in a Spanish style--with fountains, open courtyards and rooms that open directly to the outdoors--but built in Alaksan style, out of local stone and heavy timber. When the clouds gather and hug the surrounding mountains, framing the deep, crystal blue waters, it can be difficult for a moment to decide whether you are in Kodiak or Guatemalan Highlands.

The upstairs porch
The bright, cozy rooms with comfortable beds all have large windows with views of the lake. The walls are decorated with traditional tapestries of various Mayan villages in the area. Airy patios are furnished with hammocks and comfortable chairs. There is a wood-fired hot tub available on a day's notice. And, just as one would expect in a hotel of this caliber, the showers have hot water from a tank--with independently adjustable temperature and pressure.

Casa del Mundo can be reached only by boat or on foot, and even the boat ride ends in a walk up a steep flight of steps from the dock. It is a place for travellers, but far enough off the beaten track to avoid becoming a tourist destination. Down-to-earth travellers from all over the world socialize over excellent candlelit meals served communal-style around one long table.

Casa del Mundo is expensive--for Guatemala, at least. Double rooms start at about us$18 with shared bathroom, and go up to us$35 for a king with private bath. So when you come remember to bring your camera, and bring your Visa card. Because while the vista might take your breath away, the front desk won't take your American Express. Actually, they won't take your Visa either, so don't forget to hit the ATM before you get on the boat.

Comfort Foods

Sometimes it's nice to eat something familiar. There were only a few things I asked my parents to bring when I met them in Mexico; nearly all of them were food related. Chief among those was peanut butter. It's difficult to find decent PB here. It's all very thick and salty and inordinately expensive. Mom did well; she picked up a BIG jar of Jiff--the peanut butter that choosy moms choose. Yum.

When I was passing back through Belize the next week I stumbled across another delicacy--real Kraft dinners. I debated between the generic and the genuine article but managed to suppress my cheapskate-ness for a few minutes and walked out of the store with the cheesiest mac and cheese known to man. It was only us$1.15, I guess I don't need to be that much of a tightwad. I was going to save it for a special occasion like an engagement or the birth of a baby, but by early this week I was getting tired of carting around the extra 75 grams it added to my pack. I don't know how many people wandered through the kitchen and asked "Is that REAL macaroni and cheese?" I couldn't eat it all myself anyway, I made a few friends that day.

It was good to have some of those comforts of home this week. Wednesday my trip entered a new chapter. Taca was saving a seat on the flight back to Houston for me but I wasn't even in the right country to use it. Now I'm in a strange sort of purgatory: no definite plan for where I'm headed, not a lot of money, and no easy way out should something go wrong. No pads, no helmet, just me and the things I've learned along the way. Wish me luck.

Chicken Buses

The typical image of a chicken bus,
but this one is far from typical.
I've talked some in previous chapters about transportation here, but I think it's time to deliver a bit of honest truth about the Guatemalan chicken buses. The real experience of them is neither as bad nor quite as fun as legend makes them out to be. These are not simply recycled run-down North American school buses packed to the gills with poultry and swine and passengers resigned to the roof, traveling at breakneck speeds but still taking hours to ply the roads from A to B. Well, ok, they are, but there's so much more.

The buses are not comfortable, but they are beautiful. The refurbishment they get on arrival in Guatemala leaves them with a new treatment of brightly-colored high-gloss paint, a roof rack, plenty of chrome, a few statues of local saints and the blessed Virgin Mary, an air horn with an attractive yet functional chain to trigger it, and often a couple extra rows of seats. The busmen are all quite proud of their machines and spend a lot of time keeping them clean and polished--on the outside anyway. Every bus has a name, although there are really only so many variations on "Regalo de Dios" (gift from God--not sure whether that refers to the driver or the machine) and "Norma" and "Maricelita," so you might end up being on a different "Mi Amor Paty" each day of the week.

A proud owner/operator
The drivers are not what you would call "trained" or "qualified" or even "licensed." There are a lot of curvy mountain roads, blind turns, steep grades and other equally unqualified drivers. The opportunity for death lurks around every corner. At least once a week there is a photo on the cover of the Nuestro Diario--your "blood, porn, and sports" daily paper--of another accident somewhere. There are not a lot of private vehicle accidents here, but they sure augment the body count with chicken buses.

There is no organization to the system but it really is one of the best public transport systems I've seen, at least from the standpoint of being able to get where you want to go. There are many companies and you never really know whose bus you're on, and there is no sort of printed schedule but somehow, between all the destinations, all the stops and all the unpredictability in traffic here, just about every hour there will be a bus headed where you want to go. If you're willing to change a few times, you can leave even sooner. Truly brilliant.

So how does it all work? Obviously you don't go into a nice air-conditioned ticket office and pay your money to a uniformed employee sitting behind a computer that gives you a printed ticket on company monogrammed paper, then wait in a well lit designated area for a bus that will come to a complete stop to exchange passengers and load luggage. That's so first-world. It's much less complicated. If you're starting from some sort of terminal, like the sprawling Terminal Minerva in lovely (collect the dripping sarcasm here) zona 3 in Xela, helpful men will approach you and assist you in finding the bus that will take the longest time to get you to your destination. Once you've located the wrong bus they'll take your bag and put it on the roof. You get on board and wait, on average, 45 minutes and watch, on average, three buses going directly to your destination pass by before your bus leaves.

Now you might be tempted to think that since there are few people on the bus--no more than 2 to a seat--when you leave the terminal that you are in for a comfortable ride. But there is a second way to catch these buses. You can just stand beside the road when the bus comes along and exchange some poorly understood hand signals that will cause the bus to slow down so you can hop on. And your luggage? The ayudante will grab your bag, give you a shove toward the door, run to the back of the bus and hop on the ladder, give a whistle to tell the driver to go, then lug your bag to the roof. You can hear his (no female ayudantes) footsteps on the roof as he runs forward to stow your bag, then back to the rear, down the ladder, through the back door, and up the aisle to his post in the stairwell--all while the bus is moving of course--to start the process all over again. My dream job.

So now we're all on the bus, but still haven't paid. The buses are a two man operation. The driver is supposed to keep the bus on the road, and is singularly responsible for all the quick starts and stops and jerky turns that make this experience such a treat to be relished. I've already told you how the ayudante takes care of the luggage. He also keeps people moving toward the back of the bus (as they tend to collect at the very front and block the aisle, making it difficult to pack more passengers in), and collects money. When the bus gets full, this last task becomes a real treat. He must make his way back the aisle climbing over everyone that is riding single-cheek and those standing in between them to collect a few quetzals from each person. And therein lies the other real beauty of this system. It is ridiculously cheap. A trip from Xela to the lake, about 100km and 2 1/2 hours, costs about Q15 (Q8 to the American dollar today, or 14 to the pound. grrrr.). The same trip on Greyhound would be us$30 or more. I had to pay us$12 for an afternoon on the bus in Mexico; in Guatemala I could cross the entire country 3 or 4 times for that same amount.

It's Good Being Vegetarian

"60 passengers"
Right, maybe sitting down...
Only rarely does one see any type of poultry inside the bus anymore, although it does happen. Occasionally you'll see a basket of chicks being hoisted up to the roof. So maybe that's not why they are called chicken buses. Maybe it's because they seem to operate on the same principle as the poultry industry in the states--"If we can break even with 40 passengers comfortably seated, then I bet we might even turn a profit with 85 people crammed in sardinesque fashion into every available corner of the bus." There is no such thing as a chicken bus that is too full. There is always space for one more. Don't come to Central America if you have personal space issues.

For the record this little quirk of the poultry industry is not exactly the reason why I'm vegetarian. But I am very glad that I was before I came here because I'm certain after I walked past the first carniceria I would have made the change. I know many others that have done exactly that. There are pictures, but they do no justice for they show only the large cuts of meat hanging in their unrefrigerated glory from hooks in the butcher stalls. They do nothing to record the foul yet fairly benign smell of raw death and blood that really puts me off.

Come on, have a (beef) heart
But in all fairness, everything is as clean as it can be and they do a pretty good job of keeping the fruit and veggie stalls seperated from the meat stalls. I'm certain that no more than a day or two before climbing on the hook the animal in question was lazily enjoying being tied to a stake beside the highway. No one (locals anyway) seems to get sick from the food here, and I've always thought that food safety is way over regulated in the name of protecting people that will just find new and more creative ways to sicken themselves. Just ask Julie or Veronica about my "is it green and/or does it smell" food safety criteria.

The good thing is that little goes to waste. You can buy any part of any animal. It's not often that you see things like pigs' feet or heads or chicken necks on sale in the rest of the world. Here those are things I have to reach over when I'm just trying to get to a bag of tortillas after all the tortilleras have closed.

The funniest thing about buying chicken here is finding out where it really comes from. There is the lower-quality locally grown chicken, raised in semi-open-range without the benefit of cages and antibiotics. Then there is the higher-quality chicken raised abroad, sharing scientific diets and communal steroid parties with 30,000 of their closest friends. Care to wager a guess where this chicken comes from? Tyson Foods Corporation, Harrisonburg, Virginia. Small world, eh?

Until next time, vaya por Chicken Bus-

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