Not long ago my wife, our adult son and I had the privilege of visiting our daughter who works in Guatemala with an NGO whose purpose is to help kids graduate from high school. Since my wife and I also direct an NGO which we started (www.reconciliamar.org), our personal income is not in the Gatesian, Bezosian or Zuckerbergian range. This meant that we trusted our daughter to make all the travel plans to get us to our varied destinations in Guatemala and Belize on a budget within our means. This, of course, meant that we would go native and travel the way the locals do. Since my wife and I live “south of the border” this really was nothing new to us —– oh, but it most assuredly was.
We traveled in Tuk-tuks, those motorized three-wheeled motorcycles with a shade and one bench seat behind the driver, which are never more than half an inch from rolling over, even when parked. During torrential downpours in which sheets of plastic wrapped around our bodies were our only protection from the elements, we traveled in open river boats which had likely never seen a safety inspection. We traveled between countries during a storm at sea in an open boat whose sole purpose seemed to be that of compressing our vertebrae into baklava flaky pastries. We hitch-hiked through Guatemalan jungles riding in the back of open pickup trucks and we traveled in the local “chicken buses,” those short buses with seats for 24 which actually transport as many people as can be physically compressed into available floor and air space. Of course, to the compressed humanity must be added luggage, merchandise, construction material and anything else needed to make life possible in the remote Guatemalan hinterlands. We did take one first -class passenger bus, which was the only time we broke down and sat stranded many miles into the middle of Guatemala´s nowhere for a few hours.
The most memorable ride, although it is hard to choose among the many, was a mountain road ride in a chicken bus in which we shared the vehicle with approximately 2/3 of Guatemala’s total population. When we climbed aboard, it was standing room only, but since the bus was still capable of forward motion under the power of its own straining and protesting engine, there was still room for more people, many more. Did I say many more? How about many, many more?
My space was on the passenger level floor, one level above the entry level step at the doorway to the bus. I stood with my feet splayed 90 degrees in a Charlie Chaplinesque stance, with one foot on each side of the corner above the step down. The only support to hold myself in that position was to reach outside the open door of the bus and grab the rain gutter with my finger tips, much as if I were making a rope-free ascent of El Capitan. On turns to the right my body was cushioned by the bodies of the other passengers, as we melded together into Nirvana-like oneness. Turns to the left were moments of agony, terror and uncertainty as the only thing keeping me inside the bus was the strength of my fingers clawing into the rain gutter. There were some turns to the left when I was certain those of us standing in the open doorway would be hurled into space much like a stick of special forces commandos jumping en masse from the rear cargo door of a C-130.
The driver’s assistant, the one who took the money from the never-ending stream of people squeezing into the bus, sat in the open window closest to the unclosing door. His legs were outside the bus. He had to keep his hands free to make change for the hordes of paying passengers so he braced his head into the inside curve of the bus’s roof. Butt on window ledge, legs outside, and head nestled into the inside curve of the roof and he was ready for business.
Just when I was sure the bus had finally been overfilled to a point far beyond acceptable overcapacity, it stopped for more people. On climbed a family–mom, dad and children–and a young woman, probably in her early 20s. By this time there was no floor space left and each seat held what appeared to be its own village. The step onto the bus from the road, the one immediately below the 90 degree spread of my feet, became the last surface onto which people could pile. I felt pressure on my thigh and upon looking down saw that the young woman on the step below was hugging my leg, using it as her support rail and hand grab. She had both arms wrapped around my leg. My daughter observed this scenario, and the mirth in her eyes revealed her enjoyment of the spectacle and my unease.
The bus continued on its winding journey through the jungle-covered mountains on a road with more curves than a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model. Like a hungry python, the young woman did not relent in her hugging of my leg. Turns to the right and the arms on my thigh relaxed a bit. All was well as we melded with and became one with the mass of humanity. Turns to the left and the hug on my leg became a tourniquet most assuredly cutting off blood flow as the young woman desperately fought to keep her body inside the bus, while the maw of the open door, like a black hole in space, attempted to inhale us. The young woman hugged my leg in rhythm with the curves in the road–tighten, loosen, tighten, tighten, loosen, loosen, loosen, tighten–creating a Morse code-like blood flow to the oxygen starved cells in my leg. Little did the young woman realize that it was the adrenalin-strengthened fingers in my right hand, clawing like an eaglet trying not to fall from its nest on a windy day, that were keeping her from being projectile vomited from the bus.
The vacation itself was an absolute delight–hiking the jungles of Belize, kayaking jungle rivers in Guatemala, SCUBA diving Belize’s barrier reef, watching a volcano vent itself while we ate dinner at a mountaintop outdoor restaurant–it was truly one of the best times ever with the family. I would do it all again in a heartbeat, even the wild transportation. However, before I go again, I’m going to purchase one of those springy handgrip exercise thingies to strengthen my fingers in preparation for my next Guatemalan bus ride.