Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Day Without a Gringo Pt. 1

It took me a while to warm up to Guatemala.  Antigua, though beautiful, was completely boring.  I met a couple of cool kids there and ate some Korean food but aside from that there really wasn’t much going on.  Too many tourists and too many assholes.  The people are not particularly friendly there, which is no surprise since everywhere you go there is some fucking asshole hippie or christian dipshit getting in your way.  Lago de Atitlán was really great, and I became one with the floor at a “secret” hostel after eating a couple of galletas especiál (more on this later).  But it was in Quetzaltango (or Xelaju/Xela, the town’s indigenous name) that I really fell in love with the place.  There were still plenty of travelers but they were of an entirely different breed:  I stayed in a hotel/hostel ($3 nightly) with an older guy who looked just like Charles Bukowski, if he he was skinny.  I met a Japanese couple (big ups to my man Hiroshi) who were traveling from Alaska to the tip of Argentina entirely by bicycle.  They quit their jobs to do this.  Hiroshi was one of my best pals I made traveling.  We had a few long political conversations entirely in spanish as he didn’t speak much english and I don’t speak any japanese.  Those kids were great.  On his recommendation I plan to check out the northern Mexican city of Chihuahua one of these days.  But anyway.  The people in Xela were great, and the travelers were by and large long term backpackers, not tourists.  Be that as it may, I still wanted to get away from the city for a while, and see if I could have an entire day without seeing another extranjero or speaking any english at all whatsoever (it was about this point that i stopped speaking english to anyone at all, including other americans - a good way to weed out assholes, i found).  I had not done much nature-related shit on this trip as I am not really a nature guy.  It’s not that I don’t love and appreciate it - I just don’t know the first fuckin’ thing about it.  An experienced hiker, I am not.  Despite this, or perhaps because of it, I decided one morning that the thing to do was catch a bus out of town to nearby San Martín Sacatepéquez and check out this lagoon I had heard about.  Supposedly there was a pristine, not-touristed lagoon in the crater of a dormant volcano next to the town.  I had read that the local Mam (one of the 32 or so Mayan ethnolingustic groups in the neighborhood) still used it in religious ceremonies as they had for centuries and that as long as you don’t act like a dick, you are welcome to visit.  So without further consideration, thats what I did.  

The adventure began in the Xela market, where the bus terminal is:

This market is a really awesome place in and of itself.  I liked it a lot more than the famed Chichicastenango, probably for the complete and total lack of other travelers.  It was huge, and I got turned around inside a few times trying to find which side of the market my bus would be leaving from.  In the US and Mexico, buses have these silly things like tickets, designated stops/routes, stations, and departure times.  Buses in Guatemala are unhindered by such trivialities.  There is a kid on each bus whose job it is to yell out the destination and if you don’t hear the one you want, you ask around until you either find it or find someone willing to go there.  The bus I eventually caught wasn’t going to San Martín but I was assured that it could, if I want.  So thats it.  Then you hop on and hang out until the bus is either full (full meaning no one can move and the isle is packed with standing people and sometimes animals) or the driver feels like it’s time to go.  I think this ride was like 50 cents or so.  You can get pretty much anywhere in Guatemala on these buses for less than 20 bucks.  You can get from either border to the middle of the country for like 10 USD.  Did I mention these are all former US school buses?  The drivers/owners hook them up with cool color ways and shiny stuff.  This is the view from my window of the other buses at the terminal:

These refurbed cheese boxes are called chicken buses, and they are called that for a reason.  Folks carry on whatever they need to transport to and from wherever they need to go on these, and that quite often includes live chickens and other livestock.  One thing that is almost never present though?  Gringos.  Most guide books tell you that they are very dangerous and everyone aboard is going to rob you blah blah blah but they also say that about the Mexico City subway system, which is like, the nicest public transit system I have ever laid eyes on.  Whatever.  These buses seem to find a natural home at the bottom of ravines though, and rare is the day that one doesn’t fall off a mountain road somewhere or crash into something.  So, they may not be the absolute safest way to travel (and admittedly are uncomfortable as shit) but it’s how the people of Guatemala get around and if you are interested in seeing how the real lives of real Guatemalans are experienced (and make some cool friends in the process) a chicken bus ride is a great way to do it.  

I get on and the bus is mostly empty which is nice, as I am like 8 feet tall and didn’t really fit on the school bus when I was riding it 16 years ago either. 

I am in the second or third seat and in the seats in front of me are a group of three Quatezaltenagecan youth, two girls who I assume were sisters and one of the girls’ boyfriend.  They were curious about the lanky viajero behind them and asked me where I was going where was I from etc.  One of the girls, (who I absolutely could not age - looked to be like 20 but had a 40 year old woman behind her young face) gave me an orange.  They were all super friendly and laughed a lot but also looked tougher than pretty much anyone you have ever seen before.  The girl who gave me the orange had the sickest fronts, all gold with like her canines open faced.  Made an already serious looking person look like she could make Mr. T run that feather earring, you know?  Anyway, the dude with them wanted to make absolutely sure I knew where to get off to get where I was going, totally helpful.  I really wish I had gotten a picture with my bus friends but was a little nervous about going there with it, as they seriously don’t play when it comes to photography in Guate (a Japanese tourist got stomped out in a town about an hour from there for snapping flicks without permission).  We talked some shit and laughed a lot, mostly at me, and it was great... One of those experiences that makes all the rough shit that goes along with this style of travel so worth it.  I doubt I will ever see those kids again but they made an indelible impression on me, and I’m sure I will never forget it.  At a seemingly random point in the mountain road my man (also grilled out by the way) hollered to the drive to stop and told me this was my spot.  Evidently I didn’t know exactly where to get off after all - not that it matters, I would have just ridden that big green bastard to wherever if I had missed the stop - but I took my new friend’s word for it and after a round of feliz viajes and buena suertes, hopped off.  

In part 2 - San Martin Sacatepéquez and the mountain...


...aly... said...

...another awesome account of your adventures...gracias! The flics of the buses are so tight!!

the xarlacc said...

you are like 8 feet tall my mane. i wouldve tripped out and made fun of you too, were i an indigenous person. bravo my fellow troglodyte.

mcmooatl said...

..agree with aly those buses were fressssshhh, great adventures can't wait to read more!