From Jet Planes to Chicken Buses
December 25, Guatemala City
Today’s trip to Guatemala started and ended in darkness. In between there were three takeoffs and landings, and a few hours of sitting around in airports. Everything went smoothly, and my luggage arrived on the same plane I did, so I can’t ask for much more than that.
My flight into Guatemala City got in too late to get out of town, so I reserved a room in a little place near the airport (Hostel Hermano Pedro, if anyone wants to know). They met me outside the airport and brought me to the hotel, so that was easy.
Calling this place a hotel is not quite right. Probably the best description would be “guest house” which is quite a bit less formal than a hotel. It may have been a family residence at one time; in fact, I think the couple that owns the place lives in one part. There is sort of a living room area with family pictures on the wall.
It is costing me $22, which is three or four times what I usually spend on lodging, but it is fairly nice, and worth it under the circumstances. Not only do they furnish towels and toilet paper–which is a dead giveaway that it is a classier joint than I am used to–but they serve a Continental breakfast (scrambled eggs and refried beans, no doubt.)
There is cable TV, and at the moment I am watching Letterman. There are quite a few English language channels on cable here, including CNN and the major US networks. There are also a couple odd channels, out of Venezuela, I think. As bad as network television often is, these channels are worse. I’ll describe some of the programs sometime.
Tomorrow I plan to catch a chicken bus up to Panajachel on Lake Atitlan. My plan is to spend the week there relaxing and catching up with friends, then go up to Xela, where my godchildren live, after New Years.
The weather is clear and a perfect 75 degrees. It is great to be back. Now I need to catch up on some sleep.
December 26, Panajachel
Yep, the breakfast was scrambled eggs and refried beans, along with white bread and instant coffee. On the plane someone asked me what Guatemalans typically eat. Tortillas are often eaten in place of bread, but that was pretty much a typical meal. The first time I came to Guatemala, twenty years ago now, I stayed with a family while I studied Spanish. I think we had some variation of that meal three times a day for the whole month I was there. I got sick and tired of it. Fortunately, this morning I was in the mood for it again.
The couple who ran the guest house took me to what is passing for a bus terminal these days in Guatemala City, and dropped me off right by the chicken bus I was looking for, which went directly to Panajachel.
Chicken bus drivers are well known for their attempts to pass anything that has even a slightly slower top speed than they do. It is a real contest, with the outcome often far from certain. I’ve seen a number of battered buses upside down in gullies. Until the first time I saw one of those I figured the bus drivers must be real pros who could fearlessly push the envelope without putting their passengers in any real danger. Now I know better. They are just crazy.
On the way to Pana I got to relive one of my favorite maneuvers. We came up behind a long semi-truck and trailer and the bus driver pulled out to pass as we were going uphill–on a blind corner. (That’s why I don’t like to sit up front. I’d rather not watch.)
Chicken buses pick up and let out passengers just about anywhere along their route. As the driver valiantly tried to pass the semi, a passenger slowly made his way through the crowded bus towards the front door. We managed to pull in front of the semi just as the passenger indicated that he wanted to get out.
To his credit the bus driver tried to eject the passenger without losing much momentum, but even that hesitation allowed the semi to pass us. By the time the dozen or so cars stuck behind the semi also passed us we had nearly come to a full stop and had to chug up the hill in low gear. What a humiliation!
That was the excitement for the trip. We made it to Pana in about three hours and I checked into the place I usually stay here (Villa Lupita’s– $5 a night). I took a stroll through town and almost immediately ran into a few ex-pats I know who live here.
I also ran into a traveler, named Eddie, who I know from when I was here two years ago. He stayed in the room next to mine. The main thing I remember him for was his screaming nightmares. It was pretty scary the first night, and thoroughly annoying thereafter. He is about my age and I thought maybe he had suffered some psychological damage in Viet Nam. But I don’t think that was it. He always apologized for the screaming, but never offered an explanation as to why it was happening.
The other thing I remember about him was the impassioned eulogy he delivered when Hunter Thompson died. I know it was a dark day for all of us, but Eddie seemed to take it particularly hard. The eulogy drifted into a vivid description of the effects of abusing ether, which I think was something he and Hunter had in common (come to think of it, may that had something to do with the nightmares.)
When I ran into him today I learned we are both at the same hotel again, but I don’t think we are next to each other. If he keeps me awake again I may actually carry out some of the nefarious ideas I came up with the last times he kept me awake. Maybe he needs some fresh reasons for nightmares.