Written by Karl during his trip to Guatemala.

“¡Cocales!”

This is my stop. It’s not the first time I’ve been dropped off in thisgod-forsaken village. The only reason it appears on a map, besides the tiendas on each corner, is because it’s at a crossroads. Mazatenango, Atitlan, Guate, and the beach are the four directions it heads. Through my interesting experience last round in this thriving metropolis, I know San Lucas Toliman is on Lake Atitlan. That’s my direction tonight, north. I walk to a tienda on the northeast corner. It’s a make-shift bus stop with crates and boxes for people to sit on while waiting to head north. It’s 7 at night and I’m not sure there will be another bus to San Lucas. If there isn’t, I’m sleeping on the concrete pad in front of this tienda. “¿Adonde va?” I ask a guy standing around. “San Lucas,” he replies. That’s good news. That means there is another bus. I turn to the tienda for the incredible selection. I end up with crakers to help the amoebas I’ve got and cookies that aren’t as dry as the crackers. Supposedly both help with the diarrhea that is characteristic of amoebas. A bag of water completes my dinner which isn’t a bad deal at 4 quetzals. (about 50 cents) I sit and wait while trying to placate my stomach. A bus approaches, and it’s a strange remnant of the school buses in the States. Instead of the solid yellow, it’s painted every color of bright imaginable, and it has a roof rack the length of the school bus fabricated on top with a ladder going up to it on the back end. The only difference between this one and all the other chicken buses is the color designs. The tiendas nearby erupt with people. “¡Patilul, Patilul, Patilul!” men and boys alike start yelling. They must get a cut for the number of people that ride to Patilul that day or something because the same chaos doesn’t occur for San Lucas. A few seconds later the bus is off, and the corner is quiet again. Every once in a while a car flies by at probably 100 miles and hour honking his horn the whole way to let cars going the other direction know he hasn’t even thought about slowing down. A bit later another bus drives by with a boy hanging out the door yelling “¡San Lucas, San Lucas!” This is it. The other guy and I jump up and start running. He heaves a bag onto the already full roof rack and jumps into the back emergency exit. I head to the front, grab hold of the bar and heave myself in as the bus picks up more speed. They don’t waste time picking people up.

There’s a joke in Guatemala that says “How many Guatemalans can fit on a chicken bus?” “Always one more.” This bus has four people to every bench already and people in the aisle. The other guy at the bus stop was probably hanging on to the back ladder. At least he wasn’t smashed in here with an average temp of 115 or so. I slip past a few people standing, and I can tell they are wondering where I think I am going. I get to a point where I can jam my knees into a seat on one side and lean on a seat from the other. This way I can half-sit in the aisle and brace myself at the same time. People will get off in Patilul pretty soon. I’m glad it’s relatively close. The bus starts cruising and passes an 18 wheeler on a blind curve. Halfway past the semi, a car appears. Everyone who drives on these roads knows what to do. The semi pulls as close as possible to the shoulder, and the car does the same to the opposite shoulder. We straddle the yellow line and surprisingly don’t clip rear-view mirrors. 2 cars on a 2 lane road is up for interpretation around here. We pass the semi and continue on our way.

Patilul comes up fast after Cocales. All the better, my feet are both completely asleep. Enough people file off that a few seats are actually open. I squeeze by two Mayan woman that are probably in their 40′s but don’t look a day under 75. It’s a hard life here. I like the window and have become accustomed to the drive because of the medical clinics in the campo. I like the scenery, but it’s pretty dark outside. The bus driver grinds 4th gear so hard that it sounds like he broke a tooth in the transmission. I lean back, but my back is tender. A spider bite or bed bugs or something. The medical team I work with can’t figure it out; it’ll heal eventually. I turn a little so I am leaning more on my side, angled toward the window, but not so much that I can’t still look around the bus. The bus slows to pick up a few more passengers. They are heading into San Lucas with quintals of corn and coffee. Tomorrow is Friday which means it is market day. Maybe they will try to sell their stuff. The bus hits a steep hill and he tries to downshift but only manages to grind the gears more. The bus slows more and he tries second, nothing but grind. I wonder how long the clutch has been going in this thing. He finally slams it into 1st and with a jolt we are moving. The hills are pretty steep and it makes it difficult to get a bus load of people over it. I begin to wonder how often people need to get out and push. We make the hill and keep on going. Now the boy is coming around for payment. ¿Cuanta cuesta? I quick ask the woman next to me. “Cuatro.” The boy stops at my bench with his hand out. Guatemala 1 quetzal bills are rare, but the coins are common. I find four of them and drop them in his hand. He looks at the coins and begrudgingly moves on. The easiest way to avoid the gringo tax is to ask another passenger how much it is and then give exact change. They don’t like it because they don’t get their extra cut, but they know that they can’t do anything about it. I wrap my arm around my small bag sure that I have a hand on every zipper, so that maybe I can catch some sleep. I know people who have lost a passport and 200 dollars in a literal blink of an eye because they weren’t holding their bag right. The price you pay I guess. I doze in and out, waking up when the driver grinds gears. We slow for more speed bumps. At about 10 mph the boy collecting money jumps out of the bus heading at an angle away from the bus. He runs to the roadside tienda, specifically placed at the speed bumps, and yells “¡dos cocas!” He drops the coins on the counter and grabs the two cans of coke from the storekeeper. We are over the speed bump now still at about 10 mph, but the driver is getting impatient. He revs the engine, but the boy already knows. He’s at a full sprint again and catches the bus not without some effort. He jumps in and throws a can to the driver. I look back, but the tienda is long gone. The whole episode took 30 seconds and most people on the bus didn’t even notice anything.

As we continue on, I start people-watching. The faces and expressions are varied and numerous, but different from the usual visage found in the States. Tranquilo they call it here. It’s not that people don’t have their problems, problems here are so much worse than “problems” in the states, but it seems like the people are stronger here. Men constantly think about how they can get more land to support their families. Women think about how their children can have a better chance of survival. But when you ask how they are doing it’s always a sincere “bien.” They just seem happier. Happier about life with less to show for it. The smell of clutch brings me back to reality. We’re on another hill, probably in first gear by now creeping along inch by inch. When buses break down, I wonder if the drivers hitch to the next town with everyone else or if they stay with the bus. I try to stop thinking about the bus and try to make out the volcanoes in the dark distance. Too many clouds and it’s probably too dark anyway. We round a hard curve and I know we are getting close. “Disculpeme, ¿Que hora es?” I ask the same woman. “Ocho y viente.” She replies. Long past dinner at the parroquia. No sense riding the bus all the way into town to turn around and walk back to where we are now. I grab my bag and squeeze by the ladies again. I slowly walk to the front of the bus timing the blocks. The driver notices me, “¿Aqui?” “No,” I reply, “Uno más cuadro por favor.” He slows to the usual 10 mph and I jump from the bus throwing a “Gracias” over my shoulder. I hit the street running. The driver doesn’t miss a beat and has already started accelerating again. He wants to make it home just like the rest of us. With the bus long gone I cross the street and head down the dark alley toward home.