Friday, February 5, 2010

The man with the machete shook my hand and said "Welcome to Guatemala!"

Someone asked me last night what I did for my birthday last year, and I couldn´t remember.  This year, while unusual, is certainly going to be memorable.

We were up early, partly because our hostel was unsually noisy, and partly because we wanted to get up early in order to catch our bus to the border.  We arrived at the bus station about 45 minutes early, not only because we are now a bit anxious about bus travel after missing a bus we were practically sitting directly in front of, but also because we were hoping there would be some other travelers coming along for the same ride - there is safety and comfort in numbers when you don´t really know what you are doing. 

Sure enough there was a large group of Europeans, but they all boarded another bus, leaving the bus station practically empty.  Darn. But then walked in a vision of salvation in the form of two American farmer girls.  We chatted with them, and not only were they headed to Guatemala but also to the same city as us, Xela. Whew! 

The first part of the bus ride was easy, about 3 1/2 hours on a first class bus driving through gorgeous mountainy countryside.  The first class busses in Mexico always show movies (dubbed in Spanish), but it always a mystery as to whether you will get a comedy, a drama, or even an infomercial.  Yesterday we were treated with "Cheetah Girls 2", which from our perspective at least had some music, making it preferable to Hillary Swank lawyering it up in the courtroom.  (And it was much easier to follow as well.)  We found out that whichever of us gets the window seat looks at the scenery, and whomever gets the aisle seat gets sucked into the movie, so please go to David for a complete analysis of the subtleties of Raven´s performance.

When we reached the border, we were dropped off opposite a generic but governmental-looking building, so we headed over there.  Inside it took us all of three seconds each to get our passports stamped, the official asking only "Va a Guatemala"?  (Are you going to Guatemala?)  Besides the two American girls, we also found there was another girl going with us.  She was asian, and didn´t speak much Spanish or English, but we assume our numbers gave her some comfort.  (Talk about brave!)  We got in a taxi that took us up a hill about 5 kilometers, and were very glad we didn´t try and walk.  (Even I admit that taxis sometimes are useful.  Sometimes.)  For the last 2 kilometers the street was lined with vendors selling everything from clothes to cell phones to stereo equipment.  Surprisingly our taxi drove us right past it all right up to the border, which was also a relief.  Although I´m guessing they weren´t there for the tourists, but perhaps for daytrippers from Guatemala?  Maybe I missed a great deal on a boombox!

Crossing into Guatemala was similarly simple, with the exception of being extorted for money.  We were charged a 10Q "fee", which is about a buck twenty.  We had been warned this might happen (this also happened to me in Vietnam, although there they only charged me the equivalent of a quarter).  There is always the option of asking for an official receipt (which of course they can´t give you), or even the time honored tradition of playing stupid.  But with five of us going through without the protection of any locals also going through, we just marked it up to a loss and paid it.  I´ve decided to believe they are going to use the money for baby formula anyway.

We then proceeded up another very long, very crowded, steep hilly road in search of some kind of bus "station".  We went so far we started to doubt that we were going the right way, and asked a local guy, who very kindly pointed back the direction we had been coming for and said it was about five minutes back.  We sighed, hot and sweaty in the sun with heavy packs on our backs.  Then another man walking by spoke up and said, no, it was another two blocks further from where we were.  Both men were friendly and didn´t seem to have any interest in leading us astray, but the second guy had an air of authority about him we decided to respect, despite the fact he seemed a little drunk.  Drunk or not, the second guy was right, and less than a minute later we saw where we were headed. 

A word about the chicken bus.  Remember when you were a school kid, and you´d wait on the side of the road for the big yellow bus to come pick you up?  Well, one day that bus decided to retire, and got sent down to Guatemala to be, essentially, a greyhound bus.  The drivers here own their own bus though, so it becomes a matter of pride to properly pimp out your ride.  The busses are repainted with flashy script and firewheels and dedications to Jesus.  People along the road just wave the bus down, which sometimes stops, sometimes just slows down enough for someone to jump on or off.  Inside the bus people squeeze on, cramming themselves into any available inch of seat - one family of five was sharing a seat originally meant for two schoolkids.  There is no awareness of personal space, but surprisingly it isn´t as aggressive or rude as it sounds either.  Everyone just accepts that they are going to have six people touching them at all times, especially at the front of the bus with people squeezing on and off as best they can. 

In addition to the passengers were two assistants.  One of them helped people with luggage, which got put up on the roof.  I´m not sure how it was secured, although nothing ever fell off even on some screamingly fast curves, so it must have been adequate.  He usually rode half hanging out the door, and would yell our destination out to people along the roadside in case someone wanted on, although sometimes he would disappear to the roof and stay up there a while, only to reappear in the back door having climbed down the ladder, while the bus was moving of course.  The other assistant collected the fares, and every so often he would squeeze down the aisle getting money from anyone who had boarded since the last time he had collected.  This guy was tall and broad, with his shirt open in the front but tied into a little knot at his belt.  He also must have been an idiot savant, because I have no other explanation of how he could remember who had already paid and who hadn´t.  The driver was going as fast as the curves would let him drive, plus a little more, and people were jumping on and off the bus all along the way.  The luggage guy was paying attention too though, because every so often he would start yelling at a passenger, who would get up and slowly start making their way to the front.  Just as the person would get there, the bus would arrive at the next stop, and the person would get off.  I found this to be rather well organized, so that the bus didn´t ever have to wait for someone to push through.  The guy would get off, three girls would get on, and we were off again. 

The mountain road we were taking was true to cliché and meandered along the edge of a steep cliff.  At one point we slowed as we approached a police car sticking halfway into the road, next to a crane and a bunch of onlookers.  That half of the bus all stood up craning their necks to see out the windows.  We were on the opposite side, but of course I could only imagine it was another chicken bus at the bottom of the ravine that was being hoisted up.  As soon as we passed the cop car though, the bus driver sped up and whisked us away.

The people on the bus were extremely friendly towards us.  An old cowboy with a machete at his side and a big white hat stopped as he passed us to wish us well, shaking our hands and saying "Bienvenidos a Guatemala!"  The asian girl was sitting in the seat in front of us, and when the guy came around asking for money, an old woman sitting next to her did her best to explain what the fare was, and when the girl pulled out American dollars instead of quetzals, the woman spoke at length with the assistant helping him figure out the exchange rate.  Later when she got off the bus she gave David and I this huge toothy grin.

Two hours along, the asian girl got off at Huehuetenango, and a few minutes later the bus stopped and the assistant indicated we needed to change busses to keep going to Xela.  I think the driver had just flagged down another bus heading the other direction.  So we got out, ran across the busy street and got onto another chicken bus.  Oh, and I guess I should say that while the busses were very crowded at times, there were never any actual chickens on board.  Maybe next time. 

Our arrival in Xela was straightforward, and although the hostel we wanted to go to was full, we found a hotel right across the street that had the best hot shower I´ve had since we´ve been traveling.  (Or perhaps I´m just getting less discriminatory, but boy did it feel good!)  The girls, Dee Dee and Debbie, agreed to come out to dinner with us to help celebrate my birthday.  We decided to forgo the stalls and splurge on a restaurant.  Unfortunately the Thai place listed in our guidebook was gone, so instead we settled for a fancy pizza place.  Holy crap was it good.  We had a great evening with the girls, they are organic farmers so like us have done quite a bit of traveling.  People who travel are just interesting!

All in all, definitely a birthday to remember. 

Today we walked around trying to find a long-term place to stay as well as a school to start our spanish lessons.  We found both, although my hands are cramping from all this typing so I´m gonna call it a day.  While so far Xela doesn´t have the charm of some of the other cities we´ve been to, we are very excited about the school we chose and can´t wait to start increasing our language skills.  Another perk is the giant volcano towering over us.  I´m sure we´ve got some hiking in our near future!


  1. Happy belated birthday! Sounds awesome. BTW, I don't need to confirm with David, Raven was flawless and inspirational in "Cheetah Girls 2." Going to see David Baida in the Broadway tour of "In The Heights" tomorrow. It's no Xela, but I'm still excited :)

  2. Tell David I said to break a leg!