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Hamish McKenzie - part-time traveller, Oaxaca, Mexico

Monday, February 21, 2005

Getting over Guatemala

Like any self-respecting third world nation should, Guatemala lives off the US's scraps. That's why many of its 14 million people are dressed in American hand-me-downs: t-shirts from American high schools, complete with signatures from old classmates wishing Chad "all the best, buddy!"; faded Nike sweaters; worn Levis jeans; and more t-shirts, these ones with the picture of an American flag fluttering in freedom's breeze and a hawk soaring in front, "Proud to be an American".

Yep, the American Dream skipped right over this desperately poor country, and so Guatemalans are forced to live the American Reality. Unfortunately, reality doesn't come with air conditioning and reclining seats.

The chief mode of public transport in Guatemala is the chicken bus. In fact, it's a national icon. You can buy postcards with the image of these transformed old US school buses. Well, not so much transformed -- but definitely painted. The buses look as if they've been through an episode of Pimp My Ride, except the renovations stop at the exterior. Inside there are a few personal touches, mainly confined to the posting of stickers saying "Jesus is in my heart" above the driver's seat. Some still have signs on the back that ask "How am I driving?" before offering an American 1-800 number to call for feedback. It's the Guatemalan sense of humour, I guess.

And you gotta have a sense of humour when you're forced to get around on the discards of USofAmerican children. The black-smoke-spewing buses aren't good enough for little middle-Jimmy, but they'll sure as hell do for the diminutive brown people a couple of borders away. And just to prove how suitable they are, the Guatemalans pile into the things as if there weren't another one just coming round the corner. Where two well-preened American kids once would have sat with their school bags and packed lunches in brown paper bags, three full-grown Guatemalans cram in for a bit of bum-space on the chewed foam-stuffed vinyl. Bodies are squashed against windows, legs are strewn across the aisles, and kids are kept with luggage on laps. A mess of people hang from the roof rail wherever they can, and still the driver's assistant leans out the door touting for extra customers: "Guate!Guate!Guateee!" The ritual is so ingrained that you can see young boys leaning out the window of their father's pick-up, emulating their role-models: "Guate!Guate!Guateee!"

At every stop a hopeful vendor will board the bus, patrolling the aisles for a potential sale. Young boys sell sliced oranges in bags; old ladies try to offload armfuls of dried banana; girls walk by with bottles of fizzy, water, and anything else they can sell for a measly 30 cents, if they're lucky. And then there are the professionals, the less common yet equally as desperate salesmen. These chaps, with their crisply ironed shirts and Brian Tamaki hair deliver a practised sales pitch at the front of the bus, demonstrating the superior qualities of their razor blades, hand creams, pens-on-ropes, before working their way down the often fruitless aisle.

At the next stop the vendors disembark, and the bus bumps onward with its rumpled cargo.

"How many people can you fit in a chicken bus?", asks an old Guatemalan joke. Answer: "Always one more".