Thursday, August 21, 2003

School busses from hell

We left Lake Atitlan yesterday to make our way to Chichicastenango for the Thursday market day and then we headed back to Antigua today. The only way to get from village to village on the lake is by boat or in the back of a pickup. We always chose a boat. They are about 15 feet, long and are powered by a big 75 or 90 Hp engine. The boat captains try to cram as many people in them as possible to minimize fuel expense, so you have to wait a while at the dock until the boat fills up. I could be up to an hour or so. The driver sits at the rear and generally can’t see where he is going so he takes direction from his cohort at the front. It was a little unnerving.
We had a leisurely breakfast and got a morning ride back to Panahachel to find a "chicken bus" to Chichi. They are called "chicken buses" because of the large amount of chickens in cages that are loaded on the top. The buses are converted old school buses from the United States. Some of them are still painted the same yellow and black that I remember as a kid. They may even still have the name of the school painted on the side of the bus. The rest of the buses are custom painted in a myriad of designs and colors. I even saw one today painted like an American flag.
The buses all seem to have names as well. Like Alice or Lucille. Not Guatemalan names. The better ones are covered in chrome an invariably have lots of the big busted silhouette women, like you see on the mud flaps of 18-wheelers, stuck in a row along the top of the windshield. Whenever these monsters start rolling or change a gear, huge plumes of black smoke come bellowing out the tailpipe. Cindy and I are certain that the operators develop the Guatemalan version of Black Lung after many years of operating these things. It takes a minimum of 2 people to work on a bus. 1 driver and 1 tout. It’s the touts job to solicit riders, to throw your bags on the top of the bus, (you hope and pray that they get securely tied down and don’t bounce off in transit) and to collect money from the riders after the bus is under way. I was constantly amazed at how little the bus would slow to pick up a new rider. You would hear the groan of the brakes, the bus would slow to about 5 miles an hour and like magic, one or two new riders appeared on the bus.
Contrary to the laws of physics, there is always room for one more person on the bus. Cindy and I counted 10 benches on each side with 3 people per bench and at least 2 people standing in the aisle per row. Now that’s 80 people or more in a bus designed with an occupancy of 40 people. Pretty good by my count. I felt fortunate to get the aisle seat next to Cindy for the 2 and a half ride back to Antigua. The seats are the original bench seats that I remember and unfortunately they were designed with little children in mind and not the large proportions of a western adult male. The average Guatemalan fits just fine. Needless to say, my knees were bruised from being jammed into the bench in front of me on the way to Chichi so the aisle sounded like a good way to get some knee room. The downside to this was that most of the trip was spent with only one cheek on the seat as the width of the seats does not accommodate the needs of 3 adults. The drivers all think they are trying to break a land speed record and let’s just say that the best thrill ride at Disney won’t be able to top the experience that I have had in the last two days.

Monday, August 18, 2003

Good help is hard to find

San Marco, Lake Atitlan
We arrived yesterday afternoon having taken in a shuttle from Antigua. We were supposed to take the 7 am chicken bus but it had rained hard all night and was still raining in the morning. The thought of slogging through the rain with our packs on to the bus station and then waiting in the rain for the bus and then sitting for 3 hours on an overcrowded bus was not enough to make us get out of bed. The bus would have cost us about $2 each. The shuttle cost us $10 each. Being lazy is expensive.
Nicholas, our host has spent the last three years building the place that we are staying in. It’s a flowing mix of rooms, kitchens, and self composting toilets. The walls of the buildings are made of garbage filling and then plastered over with stucco. The filling could be plastic, bottles, glass, rubber, and rocks, whatever. It’s a good way to clean up the area and use cheap materials. It’s a really hippy dippy place. Many of the rooms don’t have glass or shutters in the windows. They just have a roll up shade. If there is a window, it is a true piece of art made from stained glass designs, created on the premises. Sometimes it’s a little disconcerting because he will have used pieces of mirror in the center and clear glass around the edges. The mind has a hard time focusing on both your reflection and the outside world at the same time.
The owner is a 30 something German guy. His English is excellent and it is amazing to hear him effortlessly switch from German to English to Spanish and sometimes in the same sentence. One of his workers is a perpetually stoned guy from some Caribbean island. My favorite quote today was from Nicholas after hearing the stoned Johnson pounding away downstairs. “Johnson……..”, he bellowed in his big booming German accent, loud enough to be heard throughout the compound, “I can’t believe that you are still working on that f****g sink!” "Johnson...... Arent you through fixing that wall yet?!!!" "Johnson...... why are you just sitting around?!!!" Lines like that were heard all day. I think Johnson must be quite deaf under all those dreads becasue I have not noticed much of a response from him. This guy is not exactly what I would call skilled labor.
The town itself is ruled by hippies. They live in the lower half of the town and the Guatemalans live in the barrio above. They seemed to have worked out a nice compromise and stay out of each others way. All I can say is that it’s great to have a different option other than Guatemalan food.