Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Chicken Bus Fever: Part III Mal Estado

The trip from Huehuetenango to Coban by collective bus shortly took a place among the most miserable bus rides in my memory, which I will describe now: 

 The most painful bus ride was from San Cristobal to Palenque and back, a 17 hour affair involving a million speed bumps that actually injured my neck because the seat had no head rest and I wedged my body in a corner at a bad angle so each speed bump caused my head to snap forward across my shoulder and then slamp back into the window frame, so my neck and head were injured for about 10 days after that trip and I have almost no memory of the tourist sites we visited because the majority of the day was spent with my face buried in the seat in front of me. Many times I actually moaned in pain or screamed in agony. We departed at 5am and returned at 10pm. Insane. It is simply a foolish way to travel because the natural and archaeological sites should be enjoyed for more than 1 hour and the vehicle travel should not exceed 12 hours. If you drive 8 hours to walk in a circle among Mayan ruins and then get back in a van and drive 8 hours back to where you started then you are an idiot. The better way would be to take a big bus to the city of Palenque and sleep there and visit the site and then go back to the hotel and then take a bus back to where you came from. Trying to visit Palenque on the same day you leave Tuxtla or San Cristobal is an insult to the restoration work involved in that site. 

 The most Nauseous I have ever been is between Durango, Mexico and Mazatlan. This is the infamous Spine of the Devil road and so many people were vomiting on the bus that I nearly succumbed as the floor was slick with vomit. There were few speed bumps on that trip so the driver was free to risk life and limb to speed around the turns and nearly collide with every other bus driving to Durango. I was headed to Mazatlan to take the ferry to La Paz and this punishing trip had so many twists and turns and some were so tight the bus had to back up to clear the cliff, and it was necessary to hold on to the seat in front of me with my hands to keep from spilling onto the pools of bile forming on the floor as everyone vomited and the bus filled with reeking stomach acid smell. To make matters worse the evil kidnapping movie "Taken" was on the mounted television, followed by a movie called "Enough" with Jennifer Lopez eventually beheading her abusive husband. I wanted to tear my eyes out and throw them in the nearby river valley to cease watching these awful, villainous movies, but I couldn´t take my hands off the seat or else I would be launched into the river of vomit in the filthy aisle. This is the first bus I have ever fallen out of when I finally got off. My legs could not support my weight after nearly 14 hours of insane abuse. But, I recovered quickly and was on the next ferry to Baja Sur the next day. 

 Greyhound: Leave the driving to us, and the suffering to you. I was once thrown out of an ex-girlfriend´s house in Chicago, Illinois and quickly decided to take a bus to San Francisco rather than sleep on the freezing street. This bus trip was awful for several reasons, mostly the passengers, the white trash attitudes of the impoverished knuckle dragging, mouth-breathing mid-western idiots came to represent all that was evil with America. The whole bus witnessed the psychological abuse of a son at the hands of his mother, if I can assume they were related. Hours and hours of ¨Shut up! Keep your dirty hands to yourself or I´ll whip you!¨ My favorite line was, Ïf you don´t shut up I´m going to put you on the side of the road and have the driver leave you there. Is that what you want?¨ She shouted this as loud as possible.  And the boy would whimper that he didn´t want to be left on the side of the road in the middle of a Nebraska winter night. And the woman would proudly announce her superiority, ¨OK, Then Shut up!¨ I grit my teeth so hard because I wanted to stab an ice pick into my ear drum so I wouldn't have to hear her abuse this child, but there was nothing I could do, nothing anyone could do and we knew it. Intervening would only make things worse and we were all isolated, miserable in our isolation, alone, lost, reminiscing on the mistakes our parents had made or we had made as parents. Most of us probably blamed ourselves for the mistakes that led us to this moment. We sympathized with the boy but it was like a zoo with a sign that said, ¨Don´t feed the animals.¨ You want to feed the animal, and the animal wants food, but the sign says it is wrong. The bus trip went on for two or three miserable days. I lost all track of time and space as I witnessed the emotional destruction of this boy. I considered abandoning the bus but the alternative was the freezing cold Utah night. And when we finally began to descend the Sierra Nevada western slope the damn air suspension failed and the whole bus frame collapsed onto the spinning tires at 60 mph. The bus filled with acrid black rubber smoke, people screamed and prayed aloud, I was actually thankful for death, welcoming some change in the awful monotonous misadventures that plagued me. But we survived, the driver pulled over on a sharp turn that was terribly unsafe and we all clung to a rocky cliff outside the bus because the driver determined it was safer to abandon the ship rather than be inside when a truck collided with us. It took another day to get a replacement bus and when I finally got to San Francisco I realized I didn´t know anyone and had no money and it was bitter cold and honestly I didn't even want to visit San Francisco. Diseased, reeking, rambling Crack junkies had replaced all the pretty free love hippie girls of the ´60s. Awful. 

 Within an hour I knew this horrible bus trip from Huehuetenango would take a place among the elite hellish bus trips of my life. Although I call this series of essays Chicken bus fever, the only chicken buses I rode on were between Xela and hueheu, and also between Guatemala city and antigua. Everything else was a miniature passenger van. It wasn´t only that I was completely wedged by 17 people into the window and the seat back was too close for my long legs and I could not spread my legs out because a damn goat was blocking the aisle, but the only way for us to average 11 mph over 10 hours is to speed at top velocity for 50 meters and then slam the brakes on to reduce speed to 1mph in order to get over the speed bumps and then floor the accelerator back to 60mph for another 100 meters and then wham! screech to a stop in order to climb over another huge speed bump. 60mph....1mph....60mph...1mph. These speed bumps were so frequent and violent that they can´t be ignored and the only way to make any distance is by trying to reach maximum velocity in between the speed bumps, which is a skill the Guatemalan bus drivers have perfected. They will do whatever possible to reach maximum velocity at all times. But inevitably they will be going too fast at one speed bump and this causes the entire van to jump a foot in the air and all the force applied to Oggy´s broken spine, as all the passengers fly up to the roof of the van and then plummet back to their seats along with goats and screams and laughs and snores. It went on and on, each time deeply bruising my spine and my knees and my face and I was totally trapped behind a wall of flesh and fur. 

Then the turns began and never stopped for 9 hours, the twisting, insane hair pin turns. This went on all day long and I was sweating with motion sickness, burping up vile gaseous bile like a poisoned balloon. The van smelled like a Bangkok prison cell as we all lurched back and forth, up and down, like tormented apples in a barrel rolling down a hill. The seat I was on actually was airborne every time we hit a bump. Believe me, if there had been any way to get off the van, any hint of another town, I would have abandoned it. But the few pueblos we passed through would never be able to accommodate me. No one stops in these villages except NGO volunteers and human smugglers. I wasn´t even sure if they could accept money and I wasn´t about to barter my mandolin for a bed. 

The misery wore on and on and several times I thought I would vomit on the person seated in front of me as the sweat dripped down my ass crack. I was so punished and delirious that I missed the crossing for passengers going to Santa Cruz Del Quiche. I think we picked more people up because suddenly the absolute prettiest Mayan girl in the world got on with her family. Her features were so visionary and authentically natural, so devoid of pretense and Cosmopolitan insane photoshop bullshit that I stared at her with unabashed affection. I know, of course, that I am too poisoned by the modern world to relate to one so unadulterated and pure, but her passive expressions and wide eyes, dark hair, curiosity, delighted me. Yes, there is purity in this awful world.  Seeing this diamond of beauty and innocence was the high point of the entire bus trip. I considered sneaking a picture but decided it would be too awkward there among Mayan Indians, me being the only foreigner they might see for months, far out of my element. Taking her picture could only be considered lecherous, possibly a grave insult, so I am left with only a feverish memory until she left as the hot jungle enveloped us all during a long descent. 

 Not long after the crossing road to Santa Cruz Del Quiche, the asphalt stopped and did not reappear for 4 hours. Yes, the road looked more like a river bed and the driver swerved all over the dirt to find the easiest passage. There were at least no speed bumps but there was no possible way to travel faster than 5 mph because were were on a mud slide area awash in boulders and dried mud, dirt, dust, rocks, loose gravel, tree branches, herds of goats and other obstacles. So we crept along this desolate river bed, down, up, around, back, bumping over every rock and tree branch. I looked out the window at a high mountain that looked like it could fall apart at any minute and the rock slide would kill us all. It was definitely with God´s blessing that we crossed some dangerous passages without incident. It is purely a matter of faith and luck that has some buses arriving safely and others being buried beneath a ton of dirt and rock. There was absolutely nothing to block the rock slide and no heavy equipment could make it this far into the jungle for weeks. The road was forsaken to the elements, although I saw two men with pick axes attempting to clear some debris. Since the road is 110 miles a legitimate trek would be to do the whole trip on foot with a tent or jungle hammock in 6 or 7 days. That would be far, far more enjoyable than the bus trip.

So, the heat, the cramped conditions, stop and go driving, the dirty undulating pockmarked river bed that was our road, the light rain, the goats screaming, the seat back slamming into my knees...all this almost broke my spirit. everyone else appeared resigned and even content, happy to not be walking, but I am spoiled and ungrateful, I was miserable and hurt. We finally stopped at a small village 5 hours into the trip and I fell out of the bus but did not completely collapse as I had on the trip to Mazatlan. I was too disorientated to identify this town but it may have been Uspantan. I was weary and nauseous but I would survive. I actually stood next to the bus for a few moments because if there was a turn for the worse in my condition then I would ask for my luggage and call it a day. The problem of course was that I didn´t know if there were a hotel to rent, and I would have to wait for 24 hours until the next bus, and it would be completely filled by the time it got here, like this one was, and I would have to stand for the remainder of the trip. And I would have to pay double the fare. The dizzy spell slowly passed and I went to the sanitario to get some privacy on a decaying toilet with no water tank. I will discuss these half-toilets more in depth in another chapter. Then I ran to a pharmacy and asked if there was any morphine or tranquilizer like Heroin. They said no, so I settled for some motion sickness pills and got back on the bus as it lurched out of town and back onto hellish dirt road. At least the goat was gone. 

 I lost track of the altitude but there was a time when the humidity and jungle heat made the inside of the van as hot as an oven with the bodies sticking to each other. But Coban is not terribly hot so I think we climbed back up at some point. I was miserably exhausted, hungry, thirsty, tired from no sleep in the hostel and the early morning departure and the pure abuse of the cramped van and ragged road. I was delirious and the motion sickness pills deepened my exhaustion until I fell into a drugged zombie state, drifting in and out of consciousness as my face slammed into the seat back in front of me and then snapped backward so my spine cracked in arthritic decay. Eventually, the dirt and gravel road became asphalt and the speed bumps returned along with maximum velocity followed by violent braking, maximum velocity, violent braking, all the passengers pitched forward and back, up and down like Syrian refugees in a storm-ravaged life raft. I was too tired to be happy, merely trading one misery for another. We sped rapidly between speed bumps, thrusting my bruised and bleeding knees into the seat back in front of me, flying toward the roof when we hit a speed bump too fast, falling back onto the exposed metal frame of the seat, snapping my neck and head into the window pane. My jaw hung loose like a Mexican bull breathing his last breath before the sword severed his spine, froth built up around the corners of my lips. Just kill me, mother of God, kill me, I whispered, or maybe thought. I was hungry but also sick, the thought of food made me more sick, but I knew I should eat. When had I eaten last? That shitty slice of street pizza 30 hours earlier? Maybe? I had no idea. It is always a blur to arrive in a new town. The trip is so exhausting but there is never time to properly say goodbye or thank anyone or even make sure I have all my bags. One is simply pitched onto the street, bewildered and frightened. And the driver and assistant can only be guaranteed a small profit if you leave something valuable behind so they will take no responsibility for making sure you take everything with you. I stepped off the van at a busy traffic circle in Coban...the van immediately vanished. It was around 4pm, 10 hours after we left Huehuetenango.

Everyone was staring at my bleeding knees and worn out, drugged expression and pith helmet. I could barely pick up my backpack and walked in circles, aimlessly, because I had no clue what I was trying to accomplish. Was I in Mexico? Texas? Labrador? Nicaragua? I had no idea where I was. What day was it? No clue. What time was it? What month? No idea. A lost and distressed traveler is an easy target for thieves so I tried to appear like I was not lost and walked with my bag and mandolin in the same direction as most of the traffic. I looked in my wallet and found some Quetzales, the currency of Guatemala. So I must be in Guatemala? Right? Ok, so, I am exhausted, and have some Guatemalan money and so that means I need to find a hostel. I am still not sure what city this is or what day it is but that is all incidental to my current goal. I banged on some doors and was told insane prices for a room. Perhaps because of my appearance and perhaps because of drug trade inflation. I walked in circles in a busy area of town, surrounded by fried chicken, solar panels, socks, underwear, men selling straw hats and peeled oranges, dead pigs. A boy leading three lactating goats was crying out ¨Milk! Milk!¨and people bought the milk and he would milk the goat tit into a paper cup and the person would walk away with the milk and the goats would go the opposite direction. God, what kind of savage world had I landed in? had these barbarians not heard of Hershey´s Co. or Mars Co.? Finally, a Hospedaje had mercy and showed me a small room on the second floor with no window for $6. I was not given the key, which was strange, and I had to ask the manager to unlock the door whenever I left, but it was ok. I shut the light off and it was pitch black inside the room. Visions of the pretty Mayan girl, the mud slides and the gravel roads, the toilet with no water tank, the van crammed with humanity replayed in front of my eyes as my body sagged into the tortured mattress. I awoke an hour later as a mysterious spider attacked me and sank its fangs into the pale fleshy under side of my right bicep.

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
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Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.