Monday, August 29, 2016

Chicken Bus Fever Part IX Coming Full Circle

I promised I would not write anything about Antigua because the town should be experienced. And I will only share one photo of the Ex-Convento.
Tranquility defined

I will design a house for myself and that house may or may not be built but I will have the plans. And part of my research into this dream house is seeing interior open courtyards are designed. There are actually Hacienda or "Spanish Courtyard" blueprints online for free...
too complicated

but if I want to see exactly how the monks lived in 1700 then one needs to walk where they walked. The number of Exconventos I've visited in my quest for the perfect representation of Spanish Colonial Spiritual Retreat Simplicity could fill a book. There was one in Huaqechula...and one in Tochimilco that
Huge Tochimilco Courtyard. Pretty Ridiculously pretty.

 I had completely forgotten about and a few in Leon and an epic Spanish Courtyard in Granada. Epic!
And there are a few Spanish Courtyards in Antigua and one in Quetzaltenango is actually the operating City Hall next door to my old apartment. The apartment complex I live in now has two Spanish courtyards. As a New England lad I had never seen anything other than a doll house construction style. I visited Colombia and went to an Hacienda, basically the house where the masters of the slaves lived, and I gotta say the masters knew how to live. The construction style and ambiance blew me away. 

A younger Oggy at the Spanish Courtyard

The outdoors was in the center of the house? The yard was not out back, but in the middle. The house itself was out back and in front and the yard was in the middle. All of these confirmed that this is the style I will borrow to design my future house. I want it to be built with stone and brick and I want volcanoes in the background and slaves cutting the grass and pleading for mercy when they spill my refreshing Cuba Libre cocktail. So, I visit these exconventos to examine the methods and moods. One especially attractive touch is water spouts that pour water on the interior garden from the roof when it rains. An interior fountain seems unnecessary, but a garden plot would be nice. The cool thing with an interior courtyard is that wherever the sun is during the day, there will be shade since there is also a porch on the interior. Merely move to the shade and you are all set to relax and let the workers cut and press cane for the market!
A working sketch

It's a long term project but is my excuse for visiting these monasteries that represent the era of Spanish colonialism summed up in the quote: "When they came we had the land and they had the bible; when they left we had the bible and they had the land."
Don't blame the monks! They didn't have any land. It was Cortez and Pizarro and Cordoba who stole the land.

Anyway, Antigua has a nice mix of high culture and cheap jello shot hostels. The one charango in all of Guatemala is in Antigua. Nowhere else in the whole country will you find a charango except in the music store on the zocalo in Antigua and it costs too much for me to own. There is a Texan BBQ Rib joint that reminds me that I spent a few years in the Lone Star State in what seems like another life. Guatemalan food is refried beans, boiled goat, potatoes and eggs so a sweet BBQ sauce on a pulled pork sandwich would make a Muslim break his vows after enough time eating beans and corn tortillas.

I'm not going to dwell on my time in Antigua since I've spent quite a bit of time there, even during Semana Santa, and it's charm does not need to be sold. When I sit in the zocalo as purple flowers drift down like a cartoon, I think, "This town was designed for people like a gourmet meal is cooked for food critics." Visually it is appealing, taxis are forbidden from honking to announce they are available to rent, screaming diesel buses and their pulverizing air horns do not go into the center, they close streets whenever they please to accommodate people, vehicles are merely tolerated with few concessions made. All restaurants must obey strict rules with their signage so that you will walk through town and not realize you passed a Wendy's, a Burger King, A Dunkin Donuts and a Subway and a Dominos Pizza. You have to actually walk into the door of these establishments before you know one exists. All the signage blends in perfectly with the wall and you almost wonder why they bother putting up a sign that can't be read, but it works for me because aesthetically Antigua would become like any other prostituted village in New England until it's about as charming as a whore under a bridge with a sign that reads "$5 Handjobs! Tourist Discount!"

I was in no rush to leave Antigua but I also had a suspicion that I should talk to my tailor in Quetzaltenango face to face to ensure everything was going smoothly with my leather pants so I could promptly get back to Mexico where my van was rotting in a parking lot. So, I found the bus station and thought at least one bus would go directly to Quetzaltenango but I was misled because the only bus available was going to Chimaltenango which is on the Pan American Highway and from there I could transfer to another bus to my destination. Fine.

I've been reminded that the correct term for the small vans that I used all around Peten and Chiquimula, and Alta Vera Paz is "Collectivos". No one uses the word "Van" or 'bus' to describe these vehicles. These are collectivo taxis. They look like vans, but anyone can get on and they drive a specific route. So 'collectively' everyone pays for the ride thus they are called collectivos. I don't want to type that word every time I can type the word Van so that's my excuse for not calling them what the locals call them.

I rode the magnificent chicken bus to Chimaltenango and noticed Military police were stationed on the front and back of the bus because there had been a ridiculous series of bus extortions around Antigua. I say ridiculous because it's as low as stealing a homeless man's shoes, to steal the bus fare from the driver of the bus. I don't know the exact details of how each driver gets paid, either from a percentage of the fare or if he actually owns the bus itself and is responsible for the bus and the money he makes from fares all is poured into maintenance. I would love some clarification on this because it's nothing I can speculate on. In the United States a Greyhound bus driver carries no money other than his wallet so extortion would get you nothing. But in Guatemala the only bus lines that sell paper tickets are the luxury lines and they have offices where you pay cash and use the ticket to board the bus. All other buses, Pullman, 2nd class and Collectivos and 3rd class Chicken Bus require the passenger pay in cash (preferably exact change) on the bus when you get on or some time during the trip an assistant will collect your fare based on where you got on and where you are going. Somehow he remembers each person and where they got on so he can't be scammed. This is because the bus and collectivos will pick up anyone from the side of the road so how is someone going to buy a ticket in the middle of nowhere? Everyone pays cash and the attendant or the driver has the actual cash in his pocket since there is no where to keep it. 

Now, thugs were jumping on the bus with machine guns and 9mm handguns and robbing the driver of all the bus fare plus taking money from the passengers. An interesting bit of Guatemalan History is that during the early '80s when Reagan and the murderous lunatic Rios Montt were having a good time killing Mayan farmers, guns were strictly regulated because it would be easier to commit genoice againt unarmed farmers. Reagan was a big fucking hero in the U.S. for defending gun rights but look a little south of the border and you'll find he was one of the biggest gun grabbers in history because it served the purpose of disarming the leftists trying to overthrow the dictatorship. Pretty smart! But when Montt himself was overthrown in '83 and the rebellion weakened the gun regulations diminished until today there are ammunition and firearm stores all over Guatemala, chiefly serving thugs and private security firms who guard pretty much every store. So, when it served their goals, guns were strictly regulated, but when the profit motive was more important guns were unregulated. Yet another chapter in American foreign policy destroying the sovereignty of countries that would later create conditions demanding mass migration, which is then denounced by the ignorant Americans who caused the conditions in the first place.

I knew about this before I left but I am self destructive and don't care about these risks. Go ahead, make my day, put me out of my misery for the $40 in my wallet. Like I care? Well, buses were being robbed daily and it's low and repulsive but kind of wise, if you think about it because the bus is moving and the driver has, let us say, $4 for every passenger...and there are 40 $160 minimum plus whatever they can steal from the passengers...maybe $140 $300 score for jumping on a bus, robbing everyone, and taking off on a motorcycle in the middle of a highway. It's hard to stop as no crimes are solved in Guatemala let alone prevented. Well, this all came to a head when a bus driver wrote a letter  because he had been robbed repeatedly and it was a rough letter to read because he basically said

"The boss is God

I want to leave clear;. I will not give a penny more money it costs me too much, I get up at three in the morning to earn Q50 and sometimes Q100 throughout the day," says a letter that Lopez had written, directed their extortionists.

Q50 is about $7. That's a day's work behind a Guatemalan bus, which means the driving itself will probably kill you without being extorted for your wages every day as extortion for protection from being robbed worse. I guess there is a distinction between extortion and robbery. With robbery, the thug must go to the bus and demand money with threat of death. But with extortion, they manage to convince the driver to willingly bring the money to the thug in order to avoid being robbed or killed. I don't see much difference. The driver was actually losing money on the day because he had to eat also. He was basically working all day in order to have the pleasure of paying his thieves not to rob him, which had him at the end of his ropes. I am not sure he published this letter, or maybe he wrote it to clear his conscience or beg God for help. His reward for writing the letter, truthfully, was to be murdered. I read this story in the newspaper at a pizza shop a week after I returned to Quetzaltenango and it was a driver from Guatemala City. So common that this particular story is repeated often. 

"In 2009, fewer civilians were reported killed in the war zone of Iraq than were shot, stabbed, or beaten to death in Guatemala." 

Really ponderous state of affairs and I see that this is a trend that has been going back at least a decade. Bus drivers targeted for murder unless they pay the mafia, who are merely thugs who offer nothing but protection from themselves. As a passenger I think the greatest risk is dying in a horrible accident involving a cliff or a truck of cement blocks. It seemed unlikely that I would be robbed but I guess that's what they all say. So, after maybe 1000 KM going in a big circle around Guatemala on collectivos and buses I was finally being protected by military police as guards on the bus from Antigua to Chimaltenango. 

I wanted to tip the driver as I decided tipping waiters and taxi drivers was no different than tipping these incredible bus drivers to show my appreciation and admiration of their driving skill, and to reward them for not killing us all, but I missed my stop to get off when I looked out the window and saw a bus with "Quetzaltenango" on the destination sign fly by. So I forgot to tip the driver when I jumped off and ran back down the road and jumped on the other bus as it was pulling away, the transfer took about 40 seconds and I found another seat. This bus did not have military protection.

This last chicken bus from Chimaltenango to Quetzaltenango is the bus I took the video of. Hell, I'll include it now because I think the Internet is big enough for a duplicate video. that's the link in case this doesn't work. I have since lost or deleted this video from my computer so it only exists on the internet and I can't download it again and I don't care. It was filmed between Chimaltenango and Quetzaltenango.

The turns and twists of the Pan American highway are like a smooth Kansas railroad grade compared to the hell between Huehuetenango and Coban so this only shows what it shows. It doesn't represent Guatemalan geography at all and it's not crowded either. It's a little above average in terms of comfort. The driver floored the throttle like he was transporting the blood of Christ to a dying Mary for transfusion. All I could do is grip the rail in front of me and wedge my legs against the seat next to me so I would not be thrown into the aisle.

The distance is not substantial and there were no serious delays due to passengers getting on or off or road blocks so we were soon in the high mountains where I have lived for so long I can recognize landmarks and good restaurants and where I watched a dog get hit by a car and where I fixed my moped and where I bought good carnitas tacos. There was no ticker tape parade for Oggy's homecoming. I was back where I had started a few weeks earlier, the trip was over.

My room.

I had my eye on another hostel that turned out to be nice enough, a lot like camping on a roof because it was camping on a roof. I planned to stay there a day or two until my pants project was finished. When I was settled in I walked to the tailor's workshop completely prepared for a few final details to be sorted out before I could take delivery. I had left this tailor with specific details, drawings, print outs, color samples, alternative options and even sample clothes from which to make the pattern. I had called him repeatedly throughout my trip and had been reassured that everything was "a few days" from completion. Everything was "going as planned." When I called him from Santa Elena in Peten I had pushed all my limits with Spanish by trying to explain that I wanted to make a change in the design. I wanted tassels, yes tassels, and I also wanted a braided chest seam. Yes, braided leather called Trensas over the front pockets of the shirt. The tailor had agreed to everything but his tone of voice indicated I had butchered every pronunciation so badly and the connection on the rented telephone was so bad that he had no idea what I was babbling about. Well, so what? It's an experiment. I may sound picky and indecisive but I really didn't care. It occurred to me that tassels would be cool, so I asked him to add them. He said fine. End of story. I would be happy with whatever he had created because it was an experiment. I didn't really care as much as I thought braided seam and tassels would look interesting and I could cut them off later if I didn't like them.

Well, I walked into the tailor ready to see something, anything, any hint of progress. "Que fue? Que paso? Hay Progresso?" The tailor dodged my blunt questions and said, "Tell me about your trip. How was Tikal?" 

This is actually a good ending for my Guatemalan trip essays because as soon as I had reached Quetzaltenango I had left the trip behind. I don't live in Quetzaltenango. I live in Mexico. All my belongings are in Mexico and I had paid rent on a parking space, in Mexico, that was due to expire in about 10 days and I had made this abundantly clear when I ordered the pants, that I had not much time to spare and that is why we had gone through all the work of getting the details on the order straight before I left. See? That's why I paid half the price up front so he could buy the leather and start to work his magic. This leather pants project was a major reason I even returned to Guatemala in the first place once I determined Mexican leather tailors all reside in Leon, far away from Chiapas. Guatemala was closer and the trip to Tikal made sense since I was not going to sit around and watch the tailor sew leather together for two weeks. 

So, now that I was back from the trip I still needed to complete this transaction and continue my trip back to Mexico so my focus was on the transaction and my tailor, who works all day in the shop making leather coats to ship to New York and Los Angeles, shook my hand and asked about Tikal, a place he had never visited. I was a traveler, lucky in the respect that I had found a way to do this sort of crazy trip via short distance collectivo through the mountains and into the jungle and on my return my tailor sincerely wanted to hear about this part of his country that he had never visited. It was natural that we not immediately talk about the pants, something he concentrates on all day. He wanted to talk about something special and new, to hear opinions of things not in the realm of leather clothes. This brought everything back into focus as the role I saw myself in was highlighted. Yes, I was a customer, but to him I was foremost a traveler with recent first-hand accounts of a different part of the country and a story from my perspective. Surely he had met people who had traveled to Tikal, but maybe he had never met an American who was his customer and had also traveled to Tikal and called him from Tikal. 

It was interesting to walk into the workshop with a business frame of mind and have him stop work and forget business and ask me about my trip. He knew I was going on this trip since I had called him from Tikal. And it was natural for him to treat me as a traveler and not a random American customer interested only in leather. So in my butchered Spanish I tried to tell him of my harsh voyage on the collectivos from Huehuetenango to Coban and the interesting river ferry near Sayache and the Tikal ruins and the charming Isla De Flores and the historic castle on Rio Dulce and accidentally ending up in Chiquimula (skipping the part where I shit the bed) and the military police protecting drivers between Antigua and Chimaltenango. This is the heart of travel, exchanging thoughts on journeys through foreign lands, and the tailor gently guided me back to this role. Raphael, the Guatemalan leather tailor gets credit for showing me the light and the true meaning of travel.

Then Raphael told me that no progress had been made on pants nor on the shirt because of some critical detail that I could not translate fast enough. The Hueso Blanco color I wanted was impossible to capture on aniline tanned leather. He had tried and given up until I could advise him. The project had not made any progress. None. No leather had been purchased. No paint colors had been ordered. No patterns made. And the detailed drawing I had left with him a few weeks earlier was missing. Did I want two zippers on the front or three?

Wow. The wind went out of my sails. From my last pants project with a different tailor, I estimated these pants were going to take two weeks minimum to finish, the shirt would take a week. 
"No," he scoffed, "once everything is in order I can make them in two days." 
Two days? 
He insisted.
I stressed again that I could not delay my return to Mexico since my van could easily be seized since the rent would expire. I had to return in 8 days, maximum. I could not stay longer than 8 days. Ocho dias, no mas. I was not being rude, but simply stressing how important it was that I not allow my vehicle rent to lapse and everything get auctioned off on some tawdry reality show where people pick through my underwear and gloat when they find sex toys or gold rings.
Yes, said Raphael. No problem. Easily in 8 days. It could be finished in 2 days if we get all the details straight.

Well, in that case...I want 3 zippers...and let me ask you about tassels and braids....

And so began a month-long saga of getting these leather pants finished that I don't want to write about yet. 

This Guatemalan trip is a trip within a larger trip and that trip was over and I have fulfilled my duty as a traveler to bring you tales from the foreign lands, the tastes and smells, the voices and the faces and customs, the dangers and the pleasures of Guatemala. Any errors or omissions are my own fault and probably intentional to make the story more interesting...since that's also my duty as a travel writer.

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.