Rules of the Road

Rules of the Road

As in Belize, most ordinary buses in Guatemala are recycled U.S. school buses (all made by the Blue Bird Body Company of Fort Valley, Georgia). These are invariably uncomfortable and rattly, with people crowded three to a seat. (Thank goodness the population around here, like us, is on the short side.) Many of the drivers seem to be maniacs, who have no compunction about passing everything in their path, even when going uphill on blind curves. They make Washington, D.C., drivers look like models of patience.

We’ve developed a few ground rules for bus travel in Guatemala:

  • If you get on a bus and the driver is an older man with white hair, you’re in luck. He’s survived that long in his profession by being careful.
  • A bus with too many religious icons on the dashboard and hanging from the mirror is probably in bad shape. After all, if your brakes are going bad, it’s cheaper to buy another saint medal and invoke divine protection than to get them replaced.
  • Likewise, no religious imagery at all—not a painted Bible verse above the driver’s seat or a picture of Jesus taped to the windshield—is a bad sign. One driver we had recently on such a bus was obviously a nihilistic atheist who figured “what the heck?”
  • Guatemalan buses eventually lead you to adopt a certain fatalism. If your time has come, well, you’ve had a good and interesting life and you can’t complain. With such an attitude, you might even manage to doze on the buses, as all of the locals do. It’s either that or stare obsessively at every precipitous drop on the side of the road or oncoming truck for four hours.
  • In my opinion, every executive of the aforementioned Blue Bird Body Company should be forced to spend a month traveling by public bus through Central America. Then we might see something resembling seat padding and a suspension system.
  • The worst job in Guatemala has to be the bus ayudante (helper). This young man has four main jobs: hanging out of the always open front door and calling the name of the destination to passersby in hopes of jamming a few more passengers on; walking up and down the aisle and over the people sitting there to collect the fare from each passenger (it really helps to be thin); being the driver’s spotter (or third-base coach) when passing on blind curves, which involves hanging out the door to watch traffic and calling “go, go, go, STOP”; and our favorite task, securing passengers’ luggage and market purchases on top of the bus with rope and untying them again when the passenger gets off. This job generally takes place while the bus is moving, preferably at high speed on twisty roads. The ayudante will disappear out the front door, stick a foot in the nearest window to climb on top of the bus, do his rope thing, and then come down the little ladder on the back and in through the back door. Those gunfighters in old Westerns who run along the tops of trains have nothing on these guys.

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