The chicken bus has changed my life.

Michael Wilson

October 12, 2009

m-wilson-3The chicken bus has changed my life.

As you read this post, please keep in mind that on my commute home yesterday, I was carrying a bag of 12 eggs in my right hand. 3 of which were already broken.

The “camionetas”, as they are affectionately called by Guatemalans, are a great way to start the day. Each ride on the camioneta is a brand new experience. They speed off as soon as you step your foot off the bus, sometimes soaking you in water. To get to seats at the back of the bus, you often have to pass through a nonexistent gap between two people who are leaning against each other because they are both sitting three to a row and falling off their seat, or sometimes even slide past someone who is standing in that nonexistent space.

Today I got on a bus which clearly had the words “pasajeros 54” painted on a small symbol near the door. I lost track when I counted 85… It wasn’t even the most crowded… The thing about it is, it reminds me of a team building activity where you put everyone in an uncomfortable scenario, and they inherently bond.

Sometimes if you are standing in the aisle, you have to squeeze in front of the lap of the nice (or not nice) lady who barely fits on the tiny edge of the seat near you in order to let the ayudante pass (the attendant who collects your money and gives you change). He also takes your large bags if you have them, and climbs on the roof while the bus is moving to tie them to the top… Did I forget to mention, there is usually either super loud 80’s music, or super fast Spanish pop music blasting from customized.

The thing about it is the whole system is very efficient. They use much less fuel per person than the American system, you get there a lot quicker than you would in America because there are no stoplights what so ever, there are less cars on the road (each bus has mas ó menos 50-100 people) , and of course the speed limits are not enforced. Its also super cheap. I spend Q11.5 (Q8.22=$1) every day commuting 30-45 minutes each way… I would spend at least that on gas at home.

However, Chicken bus is a bad name for them. The reputation they have only applies to half of my commute. To get to Antigua, I spend Q2 to commute from Santo Tomas Milpas Altas, to Santa Lucia Milpas Altas (literally 6 minutes) on a really rickety old American school bus from the 80s (clearly always in mint condition). Yesterday the license plate said North Carolina… I then get off the bus, walk the length of a football field and across a one way interstate highway to the bus stop for Antigua.

I wait 5-10 minutes for the bus, hoping for an actual seat (a window seat is WAY too much to ask…) and usually am disappointed. When the bus arrives, sometimes it is a few years old, sometimes it is brand new, always it is pimped out. The “Antigua-Guate” buses are the most efficient buses in the country. They are subsidized by the government (I think, someone explained this to me in Spanish, so consequently I can only guess what the complicated words meant, but I’m pretty sure that’s what he was trying to say). This means the government subsides the bus owners so they can afford to comply with the government regulations for the interstate highway routes. The buses to Guate (pronounced Whahtay) are nice new American school buses, outfitted with actual metal hand rails, actual reliable engines, and certain reliability standards. I think hotrod sardine can is a much better name for them.

OH, and half of them have been upgraded with “racing” engines so that they can accelerate faster between stops and pick up more fares… in case you were wondering, they definitely don’t comply with emissions standards.

They then cram them with even more people, and go speeding down the mountain, with la gente (the people) being thrown left and right every time the bus goes around a corner. Remember, these are one-way, two lane mountain highways, which they take at twice the legal US speed-limit.

Let me also say that before you get on a bus, you need to make sure all your valuables are either in your front pockets or deep inside your bag, and put your bag on your front like you’re carrying a baby. You then have to try to balance standing up.

To get off the bus, you simply stand up and force your way to the front of the bus before your stop. Sometimes you make it in time, sometimes you cant get there in time and the bus speeds off and you have to get off at the next stop and walk. This has only happened to me once, in Santo Tomas, and it wasn’t that bad but apparently it has happened to volunteers on the Guate bus and they have had to catch a bus going the other direction.

So pretty much, the chicken bus has changed my life.

Michael Wilson