Sunday, July 24, 2016

Chicken Bus Fever Part II: Sierra Madre High

 A Note on History: I've been enviously reading Paul Theroux's The Old Patagonia Express. I'm not envious because he went places I want to go; I'm envious because he fills a page so naturally, is not apologetic of his personality, and does not toss punchlines around casually. But he also includes historical backstory that I'm not accustomed to duplicate. I don't trust 'history'. One person says "Columbus discovered America'. Well, what does that mean? Who cares? I can write Guatemala was once the generic name for all of Central America. So what? I can research the years of founding and wars and earthquakes but these mean very little because I am taking someone else's word for the truth and passing it along as derived truth. I do not know what Cortez saw during his trip, if I can trust Cortex existed at all. I can stand before a plaque claiming Cortez was once on such and such peninsula, but the plaque is not a guarantee. I can guarantee the plaque exists, but not that Cortez was once standing there. See? It's merely words carved in iron. Furthermore, I vigorously doubt that the teaching of history prevents one from repeating it. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn't. I'm even skeptical that it makes one more informed. Maybe a person using common sense and critical thinking is the difference, and the trivia they learned from history books is irrelevant. Maybe research needs to be done on the present, not the past. Consider this passage: "After 1,500 years of Canaanite rule over Palestine, the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea fell under the rule of numerous invaders, including the Philistines, the Israelites, the Phoenicians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Macedonians, the Romans, the Arabs, the Crusaders, and then it was ruled by various Islamic Caliphates from 1291 until the British mandate in 1922."  Really? That's all indisputably true? If so, why does it matter today? I read that passage like I'm reading an ancient magical spell intended to defeat demons. Even if it is true, where are the demons I'm defeating? Since I can't embrace this kind of history-fetish I don't want to pass any history on about what I experienced. See? I suspect the main function of 'history' in modern times is to collect innocent children in a room, for instance, and tell them, "[Insert ethnicity here] murdered your great-great grandparents during [insert war date here], and this is why you must hate [insert ethnicity here]..." or "Back in [insert date from several centuries ago here] a [insert Race here] person defiled the grave of [insert another Race here] and this is why you must always distrust [insert Race here]." That is how I see history being applied today and it does more harm than good.
Maybe conflict is fueled by an overemphasis on the past. Maybe a disputed past is best forgotten because the present is where we live and the future is where we are going. The past is not trivial, but harboring grudges based on the past does no good. Honor and respect are earned on a day to day basis, cultures develop based on current accomplishments, not grudges and revenge.

Finally, better historical summaries have already been written so why am I going to edit them further to pretend I am well informed. My goal is to see and describe what is before my eyes, not justify why it is there and rationalize its existence. Once in a while I'll discuss history, but mostly for comic value or to advance my specific political agenda. End Note.

Quetzaltenango (shortened to Xela or Shay-La) is at an altitude of 7600 ft and the trip from the coastal town of Champerico is only 100 KM, or about 60 miles. Where else in North America are you going to climb 7600 ft from sea level in less than 60 miles? That is a geography question for the quizical. I believe the Sierra Madre Occidental in the Mexican state of Sonora and Chihuahua is the best place to look because the high peak is 10,000 ft and is around 60 miles inland of the Sea of Cortez, but you don't drive to that peak and you do drive to Quetzaltenango. A little research directs me toward island peaks such as Puncak Jaya in Indonesia and Manau Kea on Hawaii, which is barely 40 KM from the sea and is 13,000ft high. I don't want to argue about the specifics, but it's a dramatic change in climate although I was told June is winter in Champerico. 


The winding road to Xela twists through the mountains on wet asphalt and finally through the heavy, low clouds to ensure every time the bus driver chooses to pass a slow-climbing, smoke-belching truck the chances of dying are 50/50. It's painful to sit helpless as the driver downshifts and enters the oncoming lane with absolutely no way of knowing if there is traffic hurtling down the mountain in the opposite direction, but hidden by the thick clouds or a sharp turn. I remembered on the trip down to Champerico there were numerous close brushes with death that required my bus to swerve within inches of the mountain to avoid a bus that was traveling in the oncoming lane as it ascended the mountain. Liberal use of air horns was the preferred method of evasion. The clouds completely hide anything beyond 50 feet and even if the clouds parted for an instant the twists and turns make it impossible to know what is coming. Any driver with a hint of precaution would simply let the vehicle blocking the road pull over, but in Guatemala the slow vehicle will never pull over and no driver has a hint of precaution, especially bus drivers who perform reckless feats every minute despite the fact their brakes and suspension have been serviced by street mechanics using discarded Chinese tools. As a passenger, it is better to surrender your fate to God than watch the horror beyond the windshield. On the driver's side is an active volcano and on the right side is a 4000ft cliff with no guardrail, clouds envelop the road making every turn a blind turn, and vehicles descending the steep grade leave behind a thick wake of burning brake fumes while other vehicles simply burst into flames and sit smoldering in the driving lane. The trip from Champerico didn't take more than 3 hours but I was worn out by the time we cleared the clouds and descended into the high valley of Quetzaltenango.

I disembarked directly in front of my tailor's shop in downtown Xela. I spoke with him about the progress on my wardrobe and was reassured everything was in order. Then I spent a day or two monitoring my health for the next leg of the journey because something I dread is being stuck on a bus in the mountains with no guest houses and shitting my pants or vomiting violently out the window. After a day or two in Xela I was medically self-cleared for the trip to Huehuetenango. I treated myself to a taxi of 6 minutes to the bus station because I did not want to walk through Xela with my luggage but the 2 mile taxi trip cost more than the 3 hour trip to Huehuetenango so I consider it wasted money. There are public collective vans that cost about 20 cents for a ride and considering people get on those buses with pigs and lactating goats I don't think they would mind my mandolin and backpack. Regardless, I got out of the taxi and stepped quickly on a bus bound for Huehuetenango. Buses leave so regularly that I had my pick of window seats. In my experience, a seat directly over the rear axle is the worst because the millions of speed bumps (topes) will break my arthritic spine. In reality there is no comfortable seat on these chicken buses. The seats themselves are not always bolted to the seat frame and can shift or bounce. The luggage racks vibrate, the chicken feathers fly in the wind, goats and small pigs and children run wild and the whole circus is moving at 70mph along congested single lane roads, stopping abruptly to pick up families on the side of the road. Nothing can be done but hold on for life and mentally rehearse your escape plan if the bus rolls over the cliff. I planned on using a nearby pig as a cushion.

It feels like the route to Huehuetenango is mostly ascending but the city is actually 1000 feet lower than Queztaltenango. I think this is because the route actually descends from Xela before climbing up a long hill toward Huehuetenango. I remembered this hill as the bitter defeat when El Conquistador's rear wheel bearing completely disintegrated. Oh, that was a troubled and bitter time so it was with some sadness that I passed the many landmarks where I struggled to keep the van going against all odds watching the gasoline simply stop flowing and I had to bypass the van's fuel tank using my moped's fuel tank and improvised hose and the stress and danger almost broke my spirit. Miserable memories that I don't want to reminisce about.


We rolled into Huehuetenango's busy bus terminal and I immediately started a pattern of finding the closest and cheapest guest room to stash my luggage and then go explore the town. There was a Hospedaje on the bus terminal plaza that was dirt cheap so I rented it. The bed was just a bag of clumped cotton on a cement platform, pretty uncomfortable. I figured it was so temporary that it didn't matter. Then I went to find out when a bus to Coban left and learned one left at 6am in the morning and 2pm, and the trip was 'around 8 hours long'. There seemed to be no way around this length of time because there are few towns between Huehuetenango and Coban. Also, the vehicle was not a full-sized chicken bus, but a shortened bus that looked like this one
8 hours in this thing.

I was resigned to take the early bus and would decide on the way how long I could withstand the abuse. Remember, I wanted to spend no more than 3 hours a day on a bus, maybe 4 hours if there were mechanical problems. Now I was being told that the only option was 8 hours. The route is only 110 miles. I have bicycled more than 110 miles in less than 8 hours. How could it take so long? I would find out. Such is travel...the plan and the route may be two different things.

 The center of Huehuetenango was a few kms away by local bus so after walking in a few circles to stretch my legs and devouring some street pizza and a chocolate milkshake I jumped on a local bus and asked if it were going toward "El Centro or Parque Central" Those two terms are close enough to "downtown". Almost all buses start or end at the center of town and the only question is if it is outbound or inbound at the time it passes you, but it is still a good habit to ask someone where it is going, if indeed you care, and also asking a passenger how much the ride will cost. If you ask the assistant who collects the fare you may get a number double or triple what the actual cost is. If you ask a passenger then they will probably tell you the actual cost and then you can get the change ready before the assistant asks you for it. I was not overcharged that often on buses but taxis are notorious for charging a gringo more than normal since they have no meter and are basically unlicensed and unregulated so one would be wise to negotiate the cost of the trip before you get in.

Huehuetenango was on my radar as alternative cities to live in and I still think if I found a good apartment I could make it work. It is also less frequented by gringos so the prices were lower. Momostenango is another interesting location off the main highways.


 The city center of Hueheutenango does not differ greatly from other Guatemalan highland towns. It is primarily single or double story concrete buildings, either rebuilt from the Spanish Colonial design or rarely as in the case of some churches, the actual original building from the 17th century. Earthquakes and naive architecture are the main cause of destruction to these original buildings so this is why they are a tourist attraction. 

I walked around the city in circles, ignoring the blunt stares and ¨Hey, Greengo!. Helo, my freend!¨ cries. Since I am interested in leather work I stop in every Peleteria that I see to browse their invetory. Sometimes I find good goat leather or interesting accessories and in Huehuetenango I found cheap tin plated belt tips that could function as shirt collar tips. I bought a few because I had not encountered them before and one pair will end up on this Mayan Temple leather shirt if it is ever finished.

The rain soon drove me into a Tex Mex restaurant where I ate a tortilla soup with so much cheese it was like drowning in a fountain of nacho sauce. Then I jumped on another bus bound for the terminal. This is the benefit of finding a bed to rent near the terminal, not only do you not have to walk far with your luggage, but when you explore the city you will always know which bus to take to get you back to your room since all the buses going to the terminal will be marked. The bad side of sleeping near the terminal is that it will probably be the noisiest and dirtiest part of the whole town, the least charming, the most busy, and the rooms will be suitable only for those with an iron spine. My 'room' was not much bigger than an isolation chamber in a jail. The mattress was so miserably lumpy that I made excuses to go walking outside again in the rain. I needed motion sickness pills at the pharmacy and I might as well buy some pain medicine too. That involved a long walk along nearly empty dark streets, which is foolish to do at night. I double checked that the bus to Coban left at 6 am. I went to an internet cafe to make sure the world had not ended. Did I do any research on the next morning´s trip? No. Of course not. It would only complicate my decision. I'm not only suspicious of the past, but indifferent to what others might think I would encounter in the future. I had spoken to a few locals who confirmed that the trip by collective van from Huehuetenango to Coban was possible, but the road was in Mal estado...bad condition. This did give me some pause since for a road to be designated by local Guatemalans as bad means it will barely qualify as a road. And there was no alternative but stay on the bus until it reached Coban. I dreaded this leg of the journey and hoped the motion sickness pills would help.

The bathroom at Hospedaje Huehuetenango was rough. I do wish I had taken some photos of the bathrooms I abused on this trip. That would make an interesting catalogue. The toilet itself was functional but the toilet was located in the hallway, where most people would put a table with some flowers in a vase. The wall was so low that it was only private when no one walked nearby. Fortunately, my room had a window overlooking a river and I had no problem standing on the bed and pissing out of the second story window at night. The toilet surely flushed into that river so I was simply skipping the middleman.

The night was rough because I have renounced getting out of bed before the sun rises. I had to ask the desk man to wake me up around 5:30am to ensure I got to the van before it left and the fact I had no alarm or watch kept me wondering what time it was. The clouds rolled in with apocalyptic gloom so I could not even look out the window to estimate what time it was. The mattress was so miserable and there were roaches and spiders crawling on me and dogs barking out the window all night so I was almost relieved when I heard the desk man knock on my door to tell me it was time to move on. I had packed before I lay down so I merely put my clothes back on, pissed out the window, and dropped my key off at the desk on the way out.

The terminal was mere feet away and the early morning terminal assistants who help travelers find their correct bus amid the madness actually steered me in the wrong direction at first, leading me to a location where no van to Coban would ever leave from. But they corrected themselves after doing some research and led me to the correct van, small, equipped with bench seats, which was empty so I took a seat. I had a deep dread of this trip, expecting it to be truly hellish, so I ate nothing from the street vendors, the tamale saleswomen, the diced papaya lady, the cheese farmer. I had some potable water and kept my mandolin and snack bag next to me on the van while my backpack was stashed on the top of the van in a cargo cage exposed to the weather. Luckily, I have a rain cover for my backpack.

The cost was 60 Quetzales, or about $8. Minutes before we were due to depart the van was still empty and I thought I would be fortunate to have the van to myself, but this was foolish fantasy. A Guatemalan van or bus will never leave with one passenger because gas is too expensive. About 5 minutes before 6am ten people arrived and immediately filled the van up. Then 4 more crammed themselves in the remaining seats and we left with 11 passengers into the glowing orange eastern horizon. I realized then I had forgotten to take the motion sickness pills and it was too late and they were stashed in my backpack on top of the van. The driver said we would stop for breakfast at the halfway point in 5 hours so I resigned myself to my fate... Wait, 5 hours? Isn´t the trip only 8 hours? No, the driver said, it is 10 hours as long as there is no rain. If it rains then we may not make it today. Oh, what the fuck? The van was packed. The other passengers fell asleep and if the road had been slightly less decayed or slightly more straight I could have followed their lead but we were all immediately bouncing and leaning and being thrown around like we were in a poorly maintained carnival ride. I saw a family of 3 waiting on the road ahead of us and we slowed down and I thought it was to give them directions, but they all squeezed politely into the van where there was absolutely no room left as there were 14 passengers. Soon, three more people got on and crammed every last inch of air space so the assistant had to hang out of the open door. It started to rain. The seat in front of me had a metal back that my knees banged into painfully. I started to sweat on the evil curves. The rain increased and a goat started to scream, which woke up a sleeping child, who began to cry. I wanted to get off and walk back to town, cancel everything, maybe 10 minutes into the trip, but I bit my tongue and hung my head, sweating, sick, tired, shaking, hungry. I will pick this part of the story up later.



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.