Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Chicken Bus Fever Part I: Pacific Blues

Note: This is the first in a 9 part series of essays about a bus/collectivo trip around Guatemala in the Summer of 2016. The links to all the essays are at the bottom of each essay. Mark Twain once wrote, "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness." I tried to prove him wrong, but the man was wise. You be the judge...

I have some time to kill and that is probably the main motivation for travel writing, also travel reading. The process of remembering details or taking notes as one travels actually corrupts the experience, and the act of reading about travel dilutes future experience. I totally oppose identifying travel photos on the Internet and my reasons are simply that the human brain can barely differentiate between a photo and real life, so seeing enough photos of a Mayan temple is mentally not much different than visiting the site itself, but the experience is completely different. I took a panga boat taxi to a rural peninsula in search of a rarely visited Mayan site in northern Guatemala and stumbled on the overgrown ruins of some kind of Mayan plaza and a plaque that said Hernan Cortez had visited that specific location. There were no trails or guides or admission fees and rain was pelting me and dogs were barking in the low fog. My shoes were squeaking. I was lost. It was an experience. So, someone may look at a photo of Yosemite Valley, which I urge you NOT to do, and think they want to visit Yosemite Valley. But the surprise of seeing Yosemite Valley for the first time, something early pioneers certainly felt, will be slightly ruined by the past experience of seeing the photo. It is like watching a movie trailer that includes every plot point and good joke. I applied to many National Parks Concession services in 1990, and when I received an offer of employment from Yosemite I had no idea where I was going. 1990 was before the Internet and I had never visited California and the employment application was a generic form with no photos and I applied to so many national parks that I could not research them all in library encyclopedias. Thus, I left Fairbanks, Alaska in March 1990 with a backpack and an axe and hitchhiked in the direction of Yosemite Valley with no idea what to expect except a valley of some kind. I arrived at night in the back of a lurching pickup truck driven by some restaurant workers taking a trip to Merced and back. The journey itself is another epic saga I won´t go into right now, but by the time I reached Yosemite in April I was a physical and mental mess, delirious, starving. I could hear water and figured there was a river nearby. I actually camped illegally in the forest because I had run completely out of money at the time and could not afford a real campsite. I woke up the next morning and saw Yosemite Valley and the many cliff Waterfalls in full Spring explosion for the first time, which will drop anyone´s jaw. That experience was only possible because I never researched my destination and never saw a million photos of the valley first. So, aside from one video, I will not include photos of my travels because I must identify where I went and the photos would dilute your experience if you ever follow my footsteps. Also, a writer is supposed to write. However, I am not opposed to taking photos because writing and photography are two different mediums. Taking photos is a slight distraction, but if I'm trying to develop the literary ideas of an experience then the photo will be a distraction to the reader. There is no short cut to experience and I'm not writing this as a surrogate travel experience for the readers. No, the writing is an essay or 'assaying' of the landscape of my own experience the same way a surveyor traces the contours of the hills and maps out boundaries. Photos are photos and essays are essays and the two don't have much to do with one another in my mind but posting photos to the internet tends to diminish the excitement and mystery of the locations that I visited and I don't want to do that. I don't even want to risk doing that so I will post few photos. I read some silly essay by a writer who argues that not taking photos makes him a traveler, while a photographer is a tourist. I think that's a simplistic and vague distinction. Taking photographs doesn't mean you are trying to 'capture' the moment because you don't appreciate it; photography is another art form just like writing doesn't mean you are trying to describe an experience so others don't have to attempt it. The suggestion that reading Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck means you don't have to look at Dorothea Lange's dust bowl photos is as ridiculous as suggesting either Lange or Steinbeck were travelers or tourists in 1933 California. They were journalists employing different mediums and my final thoughts on this subtopic is this: a writer and a photojournalist have a responsibility to their subject; a photo or an essay should communicate truth and not misrepresent. Let this, at least, be the goal.

A wise man once said, ¨Don´t take a map, make a map.¨ This is my map.

My objective in returning to Guatemala was to explore the regions (I'd already lived there, left, returned and then left and now returned again) that I knew would destroy my van if I tried to drive there.
Guatemala has two primary highways that I trust. One highway goes from the western border near Tapachula, through Queztaltenango, to the capital and onward to El Salvador. This road is well paved, often has two lanes so trucks and buses can pass, rarely is closed due to mudslide or goat caravan and has no tolls. This is the Pan American Highway. The other road goes north from Guatemala City to Rio Dulce and although it is only one lane, the pavement is sound and traffic is reasonable. The rest of the country will destroy your vehicle quickly. Guatemala roads eat vehicles. The closest comparison I have experienced in North America is the region near Big Sur, California where the steep mountains uplifted by the sliding Cascadian subduction zone over many millions of years created an area that is too steep for paved roads. One can drive down the coast but there are only one or two options to cross the mountains into the Salinas valley on the east side. Well, that is what all of Guatemala looks like, and since there was no choice in the matter, Guatemalans found a way to cut roads through the steep volcanic slopes. I should add that Guatemala has active volcanoes and an active subduction zone causing frequent earthquakes, heavy rains causing mudslides and an unreliable public works department. So, imagine Big Sur in 1840 except with some retired 40 year old tractors from Panama as your only equipment and the possibility all public works pay-checks will bounce at the end of the week. Add active volcanoes, earthquakes and 2000´ mountain slopes with 70% grades, extreme poverty levels around 50% of the population, NAFTA flooding the farm market with cheap Kansas surplus corn that the locals can not compete with and you have Guatemala. Drive here at your peril.

accounting details

I am personally not afraid to drive anywhere on earth, but my current situation involves cargo including a full size digital piano and a priceless custom guitar. Also, I once foolishly drove from Xela through Santa Cruz Del Quiche in my van and found I needed an anchor, not brakes. I would have preferred to use a winch to lower my van down the hills. It was beyond the limits of my 4 manual drum brakes and manual steering in the van. The ghost of Hernan Cortez really was on my side during that trip and after I survived I vowed to never drive my van off the Pan American highway again. Not in Guatemala, at least.

My point is that in almost a year of living in Guatemala I had not explored the country as I had planned. I was emotionally tied to my van and reluctant to take a trip without it. Well, almost two years later I can demonstrate how my attachment has diminished because I left my van in a Mexican parking lot, took a shuttle bus to Guatemala with a mandolin and one pair of denim cut-off shorts and then decided to travel the country by collectivo bus from pacific coast to Caribbean coast and back while waiting for a tailor to make me a shirt made from sheep leather. This is the trip I want to write about now because after a month the shirt has not been completed and I can´t leave without it and CNN is driving me insane with the war mongering and vile, hateful rhetoric from the propaganda merchants disguised as political analysts. 

The trip did not begin in the coastal town of Champerico but that is where I will begin my story because it was there on the Pacific coast that I decided I would travel to the Caribbean and back by chicken bus or collective or whatever public transportation was available. I had no plans when I first arrived in Xela except discuss my wardrobe with some leather tailors in town. When I realized I had some extra time I figured I would take a long trip to the historic Mayan site of Tikal. Champerico was mildly humid and hot and the huge waves crash into the volcanic sand threatening to drown anyone who thinks they can play in the surf, so I had time to ponder the trip. I knew the tour groups in Quetzaltenango offer a ride directly to Tikal via shuttle bus that takes some 18 hours of hellish driving through Antigua and the capital and Rio Dulce and eventually to the northern archaeological site of Tikal. I suffered through one of these epic bus trips on the way to Palenque in Chiapas and swore I would never do one again. But one can not simply pay $30 for a trip to Tikal and ask the bus to wait for you to rest in a town 4 hours away. No, the bus will let you off and then immediately leave and you will have to pay another $30 to continue the trip the next day. So, the marathon bus trip was eliminated from my plans. A plane voyage is possible since there is an airport in the capital and also near Tikal, but the cost is around $200 each way and a tourist helicopter recently crashed into Lago Atitlan so I was thinking these planes are only dusted off to shuttle suicidal gringos back and forth to the north and the chance of it crashing was 50-50. So, that was out too. The other option was taking a chicken bus to the capital and merely following the route the tour bus would take, but doing so at my own pace, 4 hours a day by bus. But that would force me to skip the city of Coban, which is in the center of the country and not on the Tikal tour bus routes. Laying on the cheap mattress in Champerico, swatting mosquitoes who dove in for blood when the rotating fan allowed them access to my toes for a few second, listening to the marching band practice an Adele melody, I decided I would follow my travel instincts and do the trip exactly as though I were the first person making the trip, the route I chose naturally, not the route chosen for me by a tour guide. I would aim for Huehuetenango (pronounced way-way-tenango) and then aim for Coban and...that was as far as I planned; I was not carrying a watch or a map so what was the point in making further plans? Besides, it was happy hour at the Cevicheria and I was due for some diced fish and a mezcal Margarita.

Champerico is a vacation town although the ocean itself is very dangerous to surfers and swimmers and even pedestrians innocently walking nearby. The slope of the beach is like the side of a bathtub and the waves crash with such force into the sand that the surf washes far up the slope and then sucks anything that is unfortunate enough to be in the tide out to sea, children, chickens, horses, shoes, Oggy´s only shirt, cars...etc. Everything that is in the surf will be sucked toward the Galapagos Islands. There is no resisting the force so the few local boys who risked death by surfing the waves on wooden skimboards did so knowing each ride could be their last, they timed their rides perfectly so the wave wash would propel them up the slope of the beach and they grabbed their skimboard and jumped off and ran to safety before being dragged under the pounding surf. All trust is put in God, thus lifeguards are not provided. Locals have developed concrete pools near the ocean and a person can splash around the pools within sight of the ocean and not risk death. T-shirt salespeople followed the pools and the Cantinas with abundant restaurants on the dirt road parallel the ocean where horseback riding tours are offered on the backs of thin, grey, bearded donkeys and horses. The town itself is dusty and concrete, utilitarian, hot in the afternoon, suitable only for drinking cheap beer in the shade of a noisy cantina. I was the only gringo in town, and the only person in town wearing a Costa Rican pith helmet and prostitute-worthy short shorts scanning the surf for the shirt that had been washed away. The criminals feared me and the police followed me suspiciously. Even the drug dealers avoided me as I was not offered cocaine or pot or mescaline or other drugs that would help me sleep and forget my troubled past. Ceviche was, however, in abundant supply, served with freshly fried corn chips and mezcal and salt. The owner of a cevicheria and I chatted and I ate more ceviche than should be allowed by law. Then back to the hotel for a shower and some mandolin practice as the fan cooled me by evaporating the water off my skin. 

By living in the Chiapas Mountains and sleeping all day for two months, I had lost the mulatto tan that I acquired in Nicaragua and Costa Rica earlier in the Spring so I wanted to avoid too much direct sun. Half an hour was my limit on tropical sunlight. The evenings were nice enough to sit in the park and watch skate boarders and BMX bike riders attempt tricks on the concrete steps of a park building shaped like a ship. There is no need to go far for food as in Guatemala one need only wait for a few minutes before a traveling tamale or granizado salesman will offer you something. Street food is only slightly less sanitary than food from restaurants so the risk of bacteria born sickness is only slightly higher. If you want to avoid food bacteria then stay in Bakersfield or Jacksonville. In Guatemala or Nicaragua the question is not if you will be stricken by food illness; the question will be how badly.

I remained in Champerico for three days before deciding to start the trip north toward Tikal. There is no terminal in Champerico as the buses stop on the main street near the market. There is only one direction to go from Champerico, north to Retalhuleu (pronounced Reu (Ray-ooh)because not even locals can pronounce this word.) I almost stayed a day or two in Reu but I could not find an economy hotel. 'Economy', to me, is $7. Anything more expensive than $7 probably means it has air conditioning, which makes me sick when combined with tropical humidity outside, so I prefer a fan and a shared bathroom, family arguments, paper thin walls, trash reeking in the hallway. The mattress will probably be as cheap and uncomfortable in a $20 room as in a $7 room so there is really no point in spending extra money. It would be fair to expect a gringo to be charged extra money but most hotel rooms will have the maximum allowed charge on the back of the front door and in all my travels I saw that I was paying the generic cost. Of course sales taxes are avoided by simply not providing a receipt, but that is another story.

A note on Chicken Buses:
Here is a video to give you an idea of what it is like to travel on a Guatemalan Chicken bus. The drivers are either the worst or the best in the world depending on your perspective. They simply treat every road like the autobahn speedway, flooring the accelerator to achieve maximum velocity at all times. I consider myself a good driver and drive defensively at all times due to years of having no insurance or license and smuggling drugs and guns...but I like to think I could drive like a maniac if chased by the Mexican Mafia or some other benevolent charity. But I have concluded I simply could not drive like these Guatemalan bus drivers. They push the limits of safety at all times and the newspapers are filled with stories of those drivers and passengers who crossed the line. If I were drunk and suicidal I would still use more caution than these drivers. But since there are hundreds of these insane drivers on the roads every day I think there are not a proportional number of accidents. And one could blame the accidents on other drivers, not the bus drivers, so it is possible these drivers have reached the ultimate limit of speed and safety. But this is not on one´s mind when one is jammed into a Chicken bus as it goes around a steep mountain curve and three people lean into you and crush you against the window. The video was luckily of a trip on the Pan American highway when the bus was not crowded, but this is deceiving because with fewer people crammed in there are fewer walls to press against. On a bus with few people, passengers were actually flying out of their seats and across the bus before I pulled the camera out. I had to brace one foot on the seat next to me and push myself against the wall in order to stay in place. By the time I got my camera the ride had calmed down and we could remain seated but the velocity and precarious nature of these trips should be evident.

Without a doubt, this video shows the best bus conditions I experienced since the worst conditions prevented me from reaching my camera. I was to travel from Champerico to Tikal using these local buses and vans with chickens and goats and Mayan Indians all jammed around me. If there was another gringo traveling in the same manner I missed him because I was the only gringo on these local buses for the next month and you can see why I decided 3 hours a day was a maximum amount of time to spend in this mode of travel. Not only is it exhausting but my plan was not to watch Guatemala fly by at 80mph through a rattling bus window.

I will pause here to get my Mezcal margarita and let you digest this chapter. I was going to write the whole story out and publish it at once but I see this is going to take more than one episode. 

I took a bus from the coast through the lowland Palm plantation country north of Champerico until we reached Reu. I got off, stretched my neck and immediately had another bus assistant yelling for me to transfer to his bus going north to Queztaltenango. I decided that there was no point in delaying the inevitable and swung my backpack and mandolin onto the new bus going, hopefully, to my next destination.

For your convenience, all the chapters of this long travel essay are provided with links below and at the end of each chapter. I don't think they need to be read in any specific order.

Part I: Pacific Blues

Part II: Sierra Madre

Part III: Mal Estado

Part IV: Jungle Love
Part V: North

Part VI: Ruined

Part VI.5 Sweet River
Part VII: Lost and Sick
Part VIII: Capital

Part IX: Coming Full Circle
Creative Commons License
Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.